The Dazzling Street Art of the Ostiense District

testaccio, ostiense, street art, contemporary art, murals

The Ostiense district of Rome is home to some of Europe’s most impressive street art, the result of initiatives to attract attention to a neglected area.

Unlike Rome’s more distinguishable sites, such as the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Forum, or the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, the Ostiense District is not the first destination to spring to the tourist’s mind when devising an itinerary for a Roman getaway. And yet, the quarter, situated to the south of Rome’s historic centre, holds some of the most dazzling street art in all of Europe. Rome’s street art is so famous, there is even an app–appropriately named “Street Art Roma”–to help you navigate all the labyrinthine paths through the open-air galleries of the city, of which there are plenty. 

Art is necessarily self-expression, whether through the conscious process of the artist inserting him/herself into the work or through interference of the subconscious. But conventionally, street art, contrary to the commissioned, paid or otherwise requested work in curated galleries, is just as its name suggests: of the street. It is marginalised, often spontaneous, subversive, an act of rebellion against the dictates of the larger municipality. Its tradition is deeply rooted in political expression and dissatisfaction, and it is executed in defiance of the law, often seen as defacement of public property or vandalism. But what if it were authorised, given the benefit of legality, encouraged? What significance could that have for the broader landscape of Rome? Art adorns every corner of this ancient city, from the friezes of its grand monuments to the small icons and portraits of the Madonna and Child that grace the quoins of its buildings. So why stop centuries back in time? It seems only a natural progression for modern art to continue the legacy and claim its place among the ancient ruins.

All this was coursing through my mind as I walked down the busy Via Ostiense, from which the surrounding area, between Piramide and San Paolo, takes its name. The industrial neighbourhood was home to the working classes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You can still see relics from that era, like the large gasometer west of Via Ostiense, and the numerous warehouses and old factories. The peripheral area fell into neglect later on as more central zones of Rome were prioritised, but it has since undergone quite the transformation, attracting both tourists and local youth for its vibrant nightlife. 

Perhaps one of the most significant and noteworthy investments to promote the area and direct public interest to it was indeed the street art initiative conceived by contemporary art gallery 999Contemporary. Under the auspices of the Department of Culture of the capital, legitimising and commissioning this form of popular artistic expression, the project saw contemporary artists give life to the walls and buildings of Ostiense with over thirty, vibrant, eye-catching murals. The artists include, to name a few, Brazilian street artist Herbert Baglione; Italian artists Sten&Lex, whose work also features in other major cities, such as London, Paris, and New York; graffiti artist Alejandro Hugo Dorda Mevs, known as Axel Void; Agostino Iacurci, Italian artist of international fame; and JB Rock, one of the most famous artists in Rome’s street art scene.

On the walls of underpass on Via Ostiense are murals of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Romantic poet whose life was inextricably bound to Italy, and Antonio Gramsci, Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician. Both are buried in Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico, or Non-Catholic Cemetery, also called the Protestant Cemetery. The cemetery is a stone’s throw from Ostiense, in Testaccio. It is one of Europe’s oldest in continual use, and it contains the graves of a number of internationally celebrated figures.

Intersecting Via Ostiense from the west side is Via del Porto Fluviale, another spot to admire the urban art scene. The murals of artist Iena Cruz are especially captivating for the added reason that they are executed with the sustainable and ecologically-friendly ‘Airlite’ paint, which neutralises the effect of pollution on the buildings.

East of Ostiense is the suburb of Tor Marancia. The neighbourhood was originally a sort of ghetto in which those families uprooted from their homes in Rome’s centre to accommodate Mussolini’s project to create Via della Conciliazione, near the Vatican, were relocated. It too has experienced a lively transformation with another public art initiative undertaken by Big City Life, a project of 999, in collaboration with residents of the neighbourhood’s housing project. International artists used the sides of eleven buildings in Tor Marancia as their canvases, painting impressive murals in bold colours, the striking imagery infusing the monotone space with new life.

The combined efforts of the city, the artists, and the activists who worked to bring Rome’s neglected quarters to the world’s attention have succeeded in doing just that. Once you are there, in the Ostiense District, on Via del Gazometro, on Via del Porto Fluviale, in Tor Marancia, it is virtually impossible to miss the massive, monumental works of art gracing the industrial architecture. And the best part of it all is that, in true equalising and philanthropic fashion, this art is accessible to all those who pass through the quartieri.

The Ostiense District has become a trendy part of town, for other reasons in addition to its dynamic art scene. The area is home to part of the University of Rome III (Roma Tre) campus. The Centrale Montemarini, on Via Ostiense, hosts a grand collection of ancient sculptures. Once a public electricity plant, the building now contains a permanent exhibition of classical art. This too is part of the initiative to transform the district into a hub for culture and the arts. The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is likewise located in the vicinity, south of the Roma Tre campus. It is one of Rome’s four major basilicas, along with Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro, and San Giovanni in Laterano. The Ostiense railways station is a landmark of twentieth-century history, one to see in and of itself. Opened in 1940, it was designed in classic fascist modernist architectural style, with a relief on the façade depicting mythical figures and mosaics on the pavement representing diverse themes linked to the history of ancient Rome.

Ostiense also boasts the world’s biggest Italian supermarket, Eataly. The gastronomic giant has stores in international locations as well, including in the United States, Japan, Brazil, and Germany. This particular store has four floors, eighteen different restaurants, and a plethora of gourmet food products. From the freshly baked focacceand pastries to the artisanal gelato and the colourful fruits and vegetables of the vast produce section, Eataly is a delightful culinary experience, a taste of authentic Italian fare, on a grand scale.

You can get to Ostiense by taking Line B of the Metro from Termini, in the direction of Laurentina. The ride has four stops to Piramide, at which point you can reach Ostiense on foot in less than ten minutes. You can also take the Pisa Central regional train from Termini, which will take you to the Ostiense station. The ride is about ten minutes. 

You can book walking tours to explore the street art of the district. If you are an art lover interested in Italian art’s more classic masterpieces, you can book a VIP tourthat will take you on an intimate exploration of Caravaggio’s work, with stops at the restoration lab and the churches that host the Baroque master’s most famous pieces. You can also experience the art gallery that is the majestic city of Rome itself, with tours of the Vatican and other famous landmarks, by clicking here. There is no shortage of sights to see in the Eternal City.

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