Frieze frame on a Rome river­bank

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

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

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