GARBATELLA ~ ROMA ~ Power to the People

by Kim Steele

Garbatella Mural (when thought it was named after a loose woman); photograph by Kim Steele

In the world of architecture, when ‘Public Housing ‘ is discussed, the name of Le Corbusier comes to mind most frequently. He promoted the idea in the south of France, specifically Marseille. I have visited those developments, and they still stand up quite well with their pillars, bright colors and aluminum framings. But in Rome, the community of Garbatella, founded in 1920, is a much more comprehensive plan. The idea is based on the English community Garden principal, three building surrounding a common garden.

Welcome to Garbatella! photograph by Kim Steele

When first developed, it was grazing land for sheep. Since the Middle Ages, the territory on which the original nucleus of the Garbatella district stands was affected by the presence of various lay and ecclesiastical owners, among the latter probably the most important was the monastery of Sant’Alessio all’Aventino, since the 12th century owned goods in the districts of Bagnaia, which according to Antonio Nibby would take its name from the baths built by Pope Simmaco around the year 500 between the apse of the basilica of San Paolo and the homonymous cliff.

Innovative Design; photograph by Kim Steele

Palladian inspired balcony; photograph by Kim Steele


























Wikipedia: There is a broad variety of construction here, on the hills above Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, this massive cathedral, infrequently visited due to it’s remoteness from the city center, but well worth the trip. It is served conveniently by the Metro, in the region, Ostiense quarter of Rome. Its population counts nearly 45,000. It lies beyond the walls of Rome, to the south.

After the First World War, Rome experienced a phase of great building development, comparable in some ways to that of the Second World War. There were many residents of Rome who were displaced by the construction of various monuments, including The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, and dei Fori Imperiali. The demolition of the houses for the construction gave the neighborhood the reputation of hosting people and families of ancient Roman times. Socialism was well underway in Italy, promoted by the Communists.

It was with this idea that King Vittorio Emanuele III laid the first stone in Le Corbusier, on February 18, 1920. In the inscription commemorating that day, on the wall in the central square, we read:
For the august hand of His Majesty King Vittorio Emanuele III,
the Autonomous Body for Maritime and Industrial Development
and the Institute of Popular Houses of Rome
with the collaboration of the Labor Cooperatives
to offer quiet and healthy room to the architects of the economic renaissance of the Capital
this aprico district founded today XVIII February MCMXX

There was to be planned a canal running parallel to the Tiber from here, which was never built here. The same port project was a condition of the odonomastic of the nascent area, which is a maritime reference, since most of its streets and squares are named after people and subjects of the naval world.

Fascist (Mussolini built) School; photograph by Kim Steele

Deco Inspired Boarding house; photograph by Kim Steele

Socialism was the precursor to the Mussolini movement of Fascism, which did not take hold until the end of that decade. From a political point of view, Garbatella was, and still is, a historically “red” and working-class area: the partisan resistance found unconditional support here, and votes left to this day. There were many elements of the socialist movement that promoted equality and support for the working class people of Rome. This development was an expression of the concern for this class, in fact, as well as a strong consensus was given to the candidates of the 5 Star Movement in the administrative elections of June 2016.

Within Garbatella, are a theater, schools, church and community housing (single rooms) with a central kitchen for the very poorest of residence. One of the features of this fascinating community is that it is structured and feels very much like a village. There are central walkways, gardens to congregate and open spaces to enjoy the fresh air. The cost for apartments are now rising dramatically. What is most fascinating is the variety of architectural designs. There were numerous competitions for young architects to design groups of buildings. Several architectural movements are represented here in a modern form, Baroque, Palladian, Deco and Nouvelle, and some completely out of the box. Similar to the Baroque are the moldings of medieval flavor, the figures of animals found in the friezes, the extensive use of floral and botanical inspired decorations; however these remain in the context of public housing and, therefore, common materials, instead of precious marbles, stuccos and white lime.

Old School Tapas spot; photograph by Kim Steele

In the public garden (former Serafini vineyard) there is the entrance to the Catacombs of Commodilla, with a small underground basilica dating back to the end of the 4th century.

But it is the whole district, with its arches, its fountains, its buildings and its balconies, to be considered a great and unique monument in its own right. With the advent of fascism, the urban planning of the district underwent a drastic change: the green-built relationship dropped significantly, the idea of ​​the river port was definitively abandoned, and houses more similar to modern condominiums than to previous villas began to be built.

Worth mentioning are the thirteen small villas of Lot 24, also called “model houses”, between via delle Sette Chiese, via De Jacobis and via Borri. The lot was built on the occasion of the XII International Congress of Housing and Regulatory Plans in 1929, and is considered among the most beautiful and interesting.

Rationalism Design apartment building; photograph by Kim Steele

The origin of the name “Garbatella” is still under discussion: according to a widespread hypothesis, the neighborhood would take its name from the the owner of an inn that would have risen on the rocky spur overlooking the basilica of San Paolo (on the left side of today’s Via Ostiense, coming from Porta San Paolo), at the level of the Ostiense Tomb. The area has been for centuries a place of passage for pilgrims along via delle Sette Chiese, connecting the Pauline basilica to the basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le mura (from the 16th century which includes the pilgrimage to visit the seven major churches of Rome). The pilgrimage tradition is still practiced today passes through Garbatella.

Palladian derived Theater; photograph by Kim Steele

Garabatella has played a rich role in films, with the likes of Paolo Pasolini, and other directors, as well as actors shooting and living here. I recommend a trip on your next visit to The Eternal City. with my favorite guide: Francesca Dell’Era, (

Village Feel; photograph by Kim Steele

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