Rome ‘The Eternal City’ in the 1920s
Described as the Capital of Civilisation, Rome was known as the ‘Eternal City’ because civilization had endured there for thousands of years. As a result the passion to visit Rome had never died and was felt by the modern traveller as much as it was by the citizens of the Roman Empire, the medieval pilgrim or the renaissance artist. Naturally, the attraction of Rome has always been its classical monuments and the Vatican.
In 1914, the rather pompous American journalist Karl Kitchen claimed ‘there is no capital in Europe in which a visitor is robbed, cheated and short-changed as brazenly and repeatedly as he is in the capital of Italy’ and added ‘if seeing Rome by day is disappointing, seeing the capital by night is even more so.’
Despite Kitchen’s negativity – Rome still attracted myriad visitors and did have varied contemporary attractions. Most notable was its array of comfortable and smart hotels that included the Excelsior (that had opened in 1906 on one of the most prestigious streets in Rome – Via Vittoria Veneto), the Grand (Piazza delle Terme and San Bernardo), Hotel de Russie (on Via del Babuino and Piazza del Popolo that owed its name to the fact that it was the preferred hotel of members of Russian royalty), Hotel Flora (opened in 1907 on Via Veneto), Hotel Imperial (Via Vittorio Veneto), Majestic (Via Veneto) and Grand Hotel du Quirinale (on Via Nazionale).
At the time of Kitchen’s report in 1914, he claimed there was no public dancing in any of the cafes or restaurants and cabarets or night-clubs were unknown although there were a few music halls. He also viewed the hotels like the Grand as being 20 years behind any of the leading hotels in New York. ‘Rome’s high life is partially confined to the social entertainment which is given at the hotels or the private homes of the aristocracy. Gilded cafes, night-clubs or attractive rendezvous for the demimonde are unknown in Rome.’
By the 1920s all the hotels had become fashionable rendezvous for social functions and The Roman aristocracy gave illustrious parties in each. The dining facilities became highly sought after and in particular the restaurant in the Quirinale was highly regarded.
There were other numerous restaurants but none more spectacular and prestigious than Ristorante dei Castello de Cesari located at 7 Via Santa Prisca. Described in 1913 as ‘the most pleasant and fantastic restaurant in Rome’ it had extraordinary views of the Aventine, the Palatine and all of Rome. You entered the compound along a path bordered by bushes and hedges arriving at a courtyard, with two sides surrounded by buildings and the other two by trees. Climbing a staircase the large, magnificent dining room was reached with three walls of full windows giving the views, along with an outside terrace for further al fresco dining. There was also another dining room with thick walls and small windows, suitable for winter or rainy weather.
Other popular restaurants included Fagiano (Piazza Colonna), San Carlo (Corso), Canepa (Via Delle Terme), Basilica Ulpia (Piazza Foro Traiano) and sumptuous Casina Valadier. There were also a range of popular and smarter cafes such as the Caffé Nazionale on the Corso, the well-known Caffé Faraglia (Piazza di Venezia), Caffé Biffi, Caffé Greco and Caffé Aragno.
One highly unusual and popular location was the Soda Parlor in the Majestic Hotel – a very smart and elegant rendezvous – containing the soda parlour itself decked in attractive male-oak and a tea room outlined in black Belgian marble where the elite of Rome and foreign society met for light luncheons, afternoon tea, cocktails and after theatre refreshment.
There were of course numerous well-known theatres mainly devoted to operetta and musical comedy, including Teatro Nazionale, Teatro dell’Opera (originally known as the Teatro Costanzi), Teatro Manzoni, Teatro Valle, Teatro Quirino, Teatro Argentina, and the quaint Salone Margherita (founded in 1898 as a Café Chantant).
Even by 1926, and once again from an American perspective, it was thought that most people who arrived in Rome from Paris and other European cities were unaware of what nightlife existed. It was once again clear that tourists flocked to Rome more for its historical aspect than for its pleasure haunts and what nightlife that did exist, was known only by the Italians. However, this was not entirely true as a thriving cabaret scene had evolved since 1920 and most were reasonably well-known and accessible.
By 1923 it was revealed that Rome’s cabarets and night-clubs were growing in number and that many were underground in cellars and vaults and decorated and run by daring futurist artists. Nightlife usually started at midnight in places such as the Bal Tic Tac, Cabaret del Diavolo (Devil’s Cabaret), Bombonieri, Apollo and Bragaglia.
These venues were the favoured haunts of Rome’s avant-garde and a showcase for their work. A wide array of entertainment was offered from theatre, pantomime, dance, poetry readings, along with the usual refreshment of food and drink and the pulsating rhythm of jazz. And yet, despite this thriving Jazz Age scene, the Americans were still sniffy and in 1926, the trade magazine Variety, in a survey of the nocturnal attractions of big cities in American and Europe, declared that ‘nightlife in Rome is nothing to get excited about.’
The first true Jazz Age cabaret in Rome was the Bal Tic Tac in a building next to the nineteenth century Villino Hüffer, in via Milano 24 (on the corner with Via Nazionale) close to the city centre’s Piazza della Repubblica. Created by the futurist artist Giacomo Balla, it opened in 1921 and was considered to be an underground location offering a new experience because to enter you went down a staircase, then a long corridor and then into a large room. The club’s interior décor – painted in bright primary colours – overwhelmed the senses as much as the music and was a triumph of skillful imagination with the staircase in red and yellow and the pillars in red and white.
The theme of the show at Balla’s Bal Tic Tac changed each week with a variety style program so that in 1922 for example the entertainment ranged from Arabian belly dancing to Spanish flamenco and a tea dance to the sound of jazz. The jazz band led by Ugo Filipino claimed they offered something new for Rome with two violins, a banjo, piano and drums and then the addition of a saxophone. Instantly, it became the place to be in Rome and attracted a broad but well-heeled clientele from amongst Rome’s younger more affluent society members attracted to its elegant, fresh ambiance, music and dancing. Significantly, remnants of Balla’s futurist murals have recently been uncovered in the original building that housed the cabaret, which is now being converted into a bank. The success of the Bal Tic Tac was emulated by others and in April 1922 the Cabaret del Diavolo and the Bragaglia opened.
The multi-talented futurist artist Fortunato Depero opened his Cabaret del Diavolo (the Devil’s Cabaret) on 19th April 1922 in the basement of the Hotel Elite in Via Basilicata owned by the poet Gino Gore with directors including the painter Prampolini, the poet Folgore and the writer Toddi. Described as a cabaret on Montmartre lines it was on three floors imitating Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy – Paradise was on the top floor – Perugatory a level below and Hell at the bottom.
The decor in Paradise was light blue with blue furniture, white, red, and blue lighting, and imagery that included stars and angels. In Purgatory the furniture was green, the lighting white and green, and the decoration floral. Finally, in the Inferno the furnishing was black and the lighting red, and the decor featured fire, pitchforks, dancing and battling devils, and serpents.
In each room there were uniquely formed tables and chairs in the shape of flames, hearts, lances, and pyramids and six large paintings. In Paradise the friezes depicted deep blue souls carrying their hearts in their hands and in Pergatory green souls with their hearts in their mouths. Each room also displayed ten wooden marionettes that were dramatically brought to life with the effects of flickering light. In Paradise they were angels ascending on Jacob’s leather, in Purgatory – a paradise on earth and in Hell and the inferno damned souls cooling in the oven.
The Dantesque atmosphere in each room with its paintings, furniture, textiles and props was brought to life by flickering lights in various colours that created a mysterious and sometimes sinister ambiance.
The Diavolo became the most exclusive venue in Rome resembling a dining club rather than a nightclub and functioned more as a restaurant with irregular entertainment. It served as a meeting place for Rome’s intellectual and artistic elite and young literary men and artists held symposiums and gave occasional improvised theatrical performance and musical compositions played by Luigi Russolo and poetry readings by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
Hell became a bar serving diabolical cocktails like Liquid Fire, Beelzebub’s Blood, Red Hot Pokers, Grinding teeth infusion, Brown mud, Critique of Pure Reason and Stygian water. The food menu was a futurist feast that included a Forest Symphony (roast pigeon on a bed of fir tree branches with sliced polenta and kidneys) and Little Snowmen (cooked apples or carrots covered in zabaglione and beaten egg whites with eyes of small dates or cloves). There was also a Futurist Surprise Gateaux and French wines and champagne – a clear indication of the elevated taste of the affluent clientele.
At the same time, in April 1922, Anton Giulio Bragaglia, a pioneer in Italian Futurist photography and cinema, opened the extraordinary Bragaglia’s Art House situated in a rediscovered Roman thermal bath house said to have been built during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus. Located under the vast Tittoni Palace near Piazza Barberini between Via degli Avignonesi and the parallel street of Via Rasella. Legend has it that the baths were discovered when a printer attempting to install a new printing machine into his establishment caused the floor to collapse revealing the old Roman structure.
The vast, cavernous spaces were converted into a gallery, art shop, meeting room, bar and buffet and a theatre -Teatro deli Indipendenti – designed by the futurist architect Virgilio Marchi in an elegant style with tasteful colour schemes and decorative elements reminiscent of Art Nouveau. There was also a dancing salon where one could dance over wooden boards to protect the floor mosaics.
A suggestive orchestra and mysterious lighting created ‘the most amazing and bizarre night club in Europe.’ This most original of cabarets was furnished with unique futurist frescoes and draperies that adorned the columns and the walls, which added a modern touch and most of the entertainment focused more on avant-garde performance.
According to Variety visitors were treated to the sensation of wallowing through a maze of futuristic paintings of nude women on cobwebbed walls down some 40 feet below the street into the Roman cave. ‘It is a tortuous walk and to the uninitiated presents a jaunt into a house of horrors.’ It was also observed, rather snidely and dismissively, that the excuse of visiting was to get a good glimpse of the riffraff of Rome.
The Bombonieri was a popular, small cabaret boasting a six-piece jazz band, no cover charge and reasonable prices. It was another underground venue where you decended into a paneled room with small and dainty tables and a small shaded lamps and the lighting effect throughout produced a weird effect. It was a cozy and intimate space with only room for 1-20 dancing couples. It was one of the places that F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented in his visit to Rome in late 1924 and mentioned in his novel Tender is the Night.
The Apollo music hall was located at 183 Via Nazionale, opposite the Banca d’Italia with entry via Teatre Eliseo entrance. The music hall itself was adjacent to the theatre, and comprised a restaurant / ballroom, an Anglo-American bar, and had what was called ‘a funny jazz string band.’ Variety was impressed with the Apollo and said it compared favourably with typical American cabarets with good food and music and good value acts. For example in late 1928 the American dancer Miss Florence, fresh from the Casino de Paris and the Deutsches Theatre of Munich was the star attraction with her brother Marty.
There were numerous other places such as The Grotto of the Augusteum, which was underneath the mausoleum of the Emperor Augustus and was a curious nocturnal rendezvous where young people congregated to drink wine, listen to poets and dance the foxtrot. Other bohemian haunts included Tim Tum Bal, Rule e Calore, the Cozy Cottage, La Falena (The Moth) and the Green Dragon (a tavern run by a Dickensian English lady). The Imperial was a common cabaret, Pina was a modest trattoria frequented by foreign journalists and the Anapadrama in Via Margutta was another popular spot. During the summer season there was an outdoor dancing palace with a marble floor known as the Pincio that looked like a German beer garden.
Throughout the 1920s there were dark clouds brewing when Mussolini was granted control of the government in October 1922. Despite the fact that he proclaimed he wanted a modern, energetic Italy, by the 1930s, the fascist head of police began a purity campaign and shut down bars considered too deviant, a trend symptomatic across Europe.
So You Are Going to Rome by Clara E. Laughlin (1925 & 1928)
A Handbook to Rome and its environs (1929)
The Night Side of Europe by Karl Kitchen
The Architecture Library (El Croquis Editorial), Erik Gunnar Asplund; Travel notebook (1913)
Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome
LA Times 6/5/23
New Theatre Quarterly 65 vol 17 part 1
Jazz Italian Style: From Its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra by Anna Harrell Celenza