Frieze frame on a Rome riverbank
As tourists in Rome zigzag from one ancient attraction to the next, they might glimpse the Tiber River. But not many take time to stroll its banks underneath the branches of sycamore trees. This is hardly surprising given that weeds sprout from the travertine embankment walls and the area below street level has a general air of abandonment and neglect.
Other big cities, such as Manchester and Melbourne, have revitalised their riverfronts but in Rome the river is largely forgotten.
Yet one straight stretch — an unusually tidy bit between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini on the Tiber’s western flank — recently became an attraction in its own right. In April acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge unveiled Triumphs and Laments, a 550m-long frieze that charts the city’s victories and defeats through 80 key figures from Roman mythology to contemporary times.
The piece is hailed as Rome’s largest public artwork since the Sistine Chapel was painted in the 15th and 16th centuries. How bold, to draw any sort of parallel between Michelangelo and a modern artist but, then again, it’s not every day you see something like this.
Kentridge fashioned his images, some of which stand 10m, not from paint but the “biological patina” (others might call it smog and pollution) that’s blackened the embankment’s stone over the years. Stencils were applied, the surrounding grime blasted away with high-pressure water jets. The images will stick around until the naturally pale stone is once again stained by the forces of modern city life, a process that could take five years.
Before the official opening, I wander the length of the mural as cyclists whip past at high speed. It’s easy to work out some references. There’s the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the mythological twin founders of Rome who were abandoned to die in the very waters flowing behind me. A figure hangs upside down and it can only be Mussolini, who was publicly strung up in 1945 after being shot dead. Another man sprawls face down — perhaps that’s the filmmaker, writer and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered outside Rome in 1975. One image is simply a black square inscribed with quello che non ricordo ( what I don’t remember).
I ask another spectator what she makes of Kentridge’s monumental mural. She’s a fan but confesses that even she, a Roman, doesn’t discern every reference. But she says, “It’s a pity he focused so much on our tragedies.”
Perhaps the most joyful image in the outdoor gallery is the penultimate one.
A man clutches a voluptuous woman in a strapless dress as they stand in a bathtub with water flowing from an overhead shower. It’s an homage to the iconic scene in Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, where Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni wade into the Trevi Fountain.
When Kentridge finally saw the film in 1979, it reminded him of his 1961 childhood visit to Rome. “I was six and mesmerised by a city and world so utterly different to the suburban Johannesburg I had lived in,” he said. “So when in 2012 I started thinking about images of triumphs and laments, one of the glories of Rome I wanted to celebrate was that image of the Trevi Fountain with Mastroianni and Ekberg, in a moment of wished-for exuberance and freedom, when all seems possible — as it did to that six-year-old. ”
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Insight Vacations. • triumphsandlaments.com • insightvacations.com/luxurygold