The Roman Artists and Creatives Bringing New Life to the Eternal City

In a city where the past can weigh heavily on the present, these young entrepreneurial types see a source of motivation.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

Seeing a frescoed church ceiling from a few inches away is a bizarre experience. To give parishioners in the nave the illusion of looking up into real space, Renaissance painters used a perspective technique called di sotto in sù, resulting in angels and cherubs with stretched out bodies and wonky, bulbous faces and hands. Up close, you can also see the subtle delineations marking each day’s work, tiny seams between batches of plaster.

For the past 18 months, a group of art restorers from the Merlini Storti studio, all of them young women dressed in white lab coats and overalls, have spent every weekday tending to frescoes in San Girolamo dei Croati, a church completed in 1589 in Rome. The ceiling, which they reach using a seven-story metal scaffolding, is the last phase of the project. “For a long time, restoration was a man’s job,” says Arianna Pavoncello, the studio manager of Merlini Storti and the daughter of one of its founders. “But nowadays, in Italy, restoration is quite a female-dominated field.”

In a city with more than 900 churches and a lot of aging art to take care of, the women of Merlini Storti have their work cut out for them. But all that romantically crumbled, perfectly lit history can weigh heavily on the present. Edoardo Pasolini, the founder of the eco-minded clothing and swimwear brand Peninsula, recalled a recent conversation with a friend, an Italian screenwriter who had won multiple Oscars. “He said, ‘It’s extremely difficult to create in Rome, because everything you do is nothing compared to what is already there.’  ” Maybe he has a point. But others see it differently: That constant reminder of the past serves as a source of motivation.

The women of Merlini Storti, Martina Silvestri, Valeria Merlini, Daniela Storti, Chiara Scognamiglio, and Arianna Pavoncello, beneath the church’s ceiling.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

Indeed, rather than fleeing to Milan, London, or New York, many young Roman creatives seem to be sticking around. And more and more foreigners, disillusioned by the frantic pace of other capitals, have come to visit and stayed longer than they ever thought they would. Where some people see a city that’s falling apart and choked with traffic, garbage that’s gone uncollected, and tour groups bused in from the cruise ship port in Civitavecchia, others see an opportunity to find their own way, whether that means making out-there things they might not have the resources to do elsewhere or injecting a bit of 21st-century know-how into an aging family business. Pavoncello, for instance, sensing a missed opportunity, started inviting tour groups into Merlini Storti’s workshop, where they can watch restorers swab years of yellowed ­varnish off of oil paintings the size of Fiat 500s.

“Everything mixes and coexists—the beautiful, the ugly, the good, and the bad. Rome is a city of layers,” says the architect and designer Umberto Mantineo, who sells vintage furniture and his own line of ceramics out of a compact storefront on Via dei Banchi Vecchi. That mixed-up quality can be liberating. “We often associate a city with a trade: Milan for fashion, Florence for art. In Rome, nothing is taken for granted.”

Artistic types have always had a tendency to move into whatever big, empty spaces are available: In New York in the ’70s and ’80s, that meant abandoned warehouses; in Rome today, it’s subdivided palazzi and deconsecrated churches. In 2015, the gallerist Gavin Brown opened his first space outside of the United States in an 8th-century church in Trastevere, a formerly seedy neighborhood across the Tiber from the city center (think Williamsburg circa 2005, but with ­ivy-draped, ­apricot-colored stucco). Brown’s is one of a handful of international galleries that have opened in Rome over the past 15 years or so. ­Gagosian arrived in 2007, and the New York–based Postmasters opened an outpost near the Colosseum last summer. Lorcan O’Neill has been there since 2003, but moved from Trastevere to the center in 2014. Brown describes the impetus to open in the city as a combination of “real estate lust” and the almost mystical pull of history: “­Artists love going to Rome because they can exist in a separate sphere of time with other artists, whether those artists are alive or died 10, 100, or 500 years ago. And you are put into a context in a really profound way.” Giulia Ruberti, a local, runs Brown’s space from her office on the church mezzanine. Instead of just airlifting in some version of the gallery’s New York lineup, she has made sure the programming feels rooted in place. For a recent Laura Owens show, work was hung from the ceiling, leaving the floor open for Ruberti to invite dancers, writers, and musicians to perform and lecture on Fridays and Saturdays. At gallery dinners, Gucci and Fendi employees sit next to young painters and across from lawyers. “It’s like a fritto misto,” she says.

Lorenzo Caligiuri, Leonardo Palmieri, Sara Caligiuri, and Claudio Caligiuri (from left) at their restaurant, Rocco.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

The curators Tommaso de Benedictis and Arturo Passacantando with posters from past Orange Garden exhibitions.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

The actress Tatiana Galdo and her puppy, Enea.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

Some younger gallerists don’t have a dedicated space at all. The curators Arturo Passacantando and Tommaso de Benedictis run the Orange Garden, a nomadic gallery slash art collective. Since 2015, they have put up shows in an abandoned palazzo decorated with 17th-century frescoes, a dance studio, a youth center, and de Benedictis’s old apartment. They partner with emerging local artists as well as more established international ones, and have upcoming projects in London and Los Angeles. “Our intention was to create a collective that could operate like an art gallery, distancing ourselves from the typical hierarchical structure,” Passacantando says. In a similar vein, the curator Vittoria Bonifati operates a gallery and record label out of Villa Lontana, her family home, using the garage as storage, display space, and recording studio. Her mother, Paola Santarelli, has amassed one of the most stunning private collections of marble in the world, the archives of which Bonifati mines to great effect: Past exhibitions have placed pieces by Mario Merz and Ad Reinhardt in dialogue with Greek sculpture from the first century BC.

Fashion, another industry in which tradition is simultaneously revered and challenged, has carved out its own niche. For some designers, being far away from the militant trendiness of Milan is an advantage. Together with his sister, Caterina Nelli, Michele Am Russo runs Atelier Bomba, a brand started by their mother in 1980. Nelli designs diaphanous silk dresses and richly dyed cashmere pullovers, while Russo focuses on the bespoke side of the business. Although they launched e-commerce in October, the site offers only a small selection—for the really good stuff, you need to visit their shop near Piazza del Popolo.

__From left:__ Edoardo and Pietro Pasolini (from left) in front of the palazzo where they work.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

Umberto Mantineo in his shop, with his spiked ceramic vases.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

Edoardo Pasolini, the Peninsula designer, shares two rooms with his brother Pietro, an artist who splits his time between Rome and Tuscany, where he builds large-scale sculptures in a converted barn. Hanging on the walls in one room are majolica tiles that inspired the prints on Edoardo’s swim trunks; the other is filled with copper panels that Pietro imprinted with the shapes of palm fronds and reeds to form a textured verdigris. Pietro gets the sense that Rome’s place in the international art world is rising again, approaching the status it had in the ’50s and ’60s, when foreigners like Jannis Kounellis and Cy Twombly made it their base.

Two more recent transplants: F. Taylor Colantonio and Tim Moore, an American couple who arrived in 2016. Colantonio is an artist and designer, and Moore is head of studio for another local artist. “We moved here from Boston, where people are much more focused on their office jobs, and have these massive rents to pay, and are already saving money to educate the kids they don’t yet have,” Colantonio says. “Rome is a place where we can be very serious about our work but can also surrender every once in a while to the decadence.”

The British artist Joanne Burke, who primarily focuses on jewelry, turned up in Rome assuming she would stay a year; it’s been almost six. “I still pretend I’m just visiting,” she says. She shares a home and studio with her companion of seven years, Emiliano Maggi, also an artist, whose glazed ceramic sculptures have been shown in galleries in London, Amsterdam, and New Orleans, and who has exhibitions coming up in Buenos Aires and Marseille. Both Burke’s and Maggi’s output draws from mythological iconography, and has a drippy, molten quality, like partially melted wax. Some of Burke’s strikingly romantic pieces can be found on, and she recently collaborated with the art director and set designer Valentina Cameranesi on an installation at Operativa, a contemporary gallery. “Rome is very tradition oriented, which is something that I love, respect, and sometimes want to push away from,” Burke says. “It’s helped me to define what it is I believe in and what I would like to achieve professionally and in life. Rome is great at teaching you things.”

The artists Joanne Burke and Emiliano Maggi in their studio, with their cat Dagmar.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

The local film scene is thriving as well. Cinecittà, the studio built during Italy’s Fascist era and where Fellini shot 8½, is still up and running, albeit in a limited capacity, after years of financial troubles and a number of devastating fires. Paolo Sorrentino shot HBO’s The Young Pope there on a $45 million budget, but what’s going on in the rest of the industry remains decidedly scrappier. The twin brothers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, who collaborated with Matteo Garrone on the script for Dogman, shot their feature debut, La Terra dell’Abbastanza (Boys Cry), among the public housing projects in Ponte di Nona.

On the audience end of things, there’s a similar improvisational spirit. In 2012, a group of student protesters, most of them from neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, like Tor Sapienza and Colli Aniene, occupied an abandoned movie theater in Trastevere that was set to be demolished and replaced with an apartment building and a parking lot. Remarkably, their protest was successful: Two years later, the Ministry of Cultural ­Heritage recognized it as a building of historical significance. Although they were eventually forced to leave the property, the student collective has since launched Il Cinema in Piazza, an open-air film festival. Last summer, the director Dario Argento, the screenwriter Paul Schrader, ­Garrone, and Sorrentino all showed up to introduce screenings of their films. The group is currently battling red tape to reopen another shuttered theater, the 300-seat Cinema Troisi. “We have fought and won against bureaucracy many times,” says Valerio Carocci, the president and spokesperson of Piccolo Cinema America. “It is our greatest enemy and, at the same time, a weapon that we know how to use in our favor.”

Michele Am Russo at Atelier Bomba.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

F. Taylor Colantonio and Tim Moore (from left) at home.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

Italy’s legendarily slow pace has pluses and minuses. “In New York, you’re running; in Rome I always have the feeling of floating. This city has a stationary quality that I’ve only found here,” says Tatiana Galdo, an actress who studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York and has since returned to her hometown. “Coming back was a big change. I was used to acting in English, which is more direct and less judgmental than Italian,” she says. “There is something very fascinating about eternity, but the absence of dynamism can also be extremely frustrating.”

Simply put, Rome is a village. Any given night of the week, you will most likely find at least half of the people mentioned in this article at a Gavin Brown opening, having an aperitivo in the square outside Caffè Perù, or crowded around a bench in front of the wine bar Il Goccetto. Many of them grew up together, and the creative threads of their lives often intertwine. “Everyone is collaborating all the time, and Taylor and I joke that our life’s greatest accomplishment is appearing in the footnotes and ‘special thanks’ in other people’s projects,” says Tim Moore, who feels like he’s always “getting a last-minute call to be an extra in a friend’s film, edit a short story, lend a hand at a photo shoot, or help produce a site-specific work of art.”

Another one of the places where they tend to gather is Rocco, a small restaurant that opened in 2016 at the edge of the residential Monti neighborhood. Rocco is very much a family affair, co-owned by the chef Leonardo Palmieri and his wife, Sara Caligiuri, the pastry chef and self-described “lady of the house.” Sara’s brothers Claudio and Lorenzo are the sous chef and sommelier, respectively. Named after the ­Caligiuris’ father, it’s a vaulted space filled with drawings, photographs, and the sounds of lighthearted gossip. Every morning, the team sources their ingredients from the farmers’ market, scratching the day’s menu (­slow-cooked ratatouille, perfect little piles of pasta, fresh fish served with nothing more than a few spoonfuls of olive oil and a tangle of spinach) onto a chalkboard on the dining room wall. “Rocco doesn’t care about business; we do things with passion and with no hurry,” Sara says. “Most of our customers are also friends, and they often joke that our restaurant seems like a ‘secret circle’ where everyone knows each other.”

Vittoria Bonifati in the living room at Villa Lontana, with marble pieces from her mother’s collection.

Photograph by Iris Humm.

What everyone seems to agree on is that Rome has an undeniably powerful energy. At night, it can be almost surreal to see the looming dome of the Pantheon or Trajan’s Column, spotlighted like a monologizing Broadway starlet and circled by seagulls who get caught in the glow, white bellies illuminated against the dark sky. Later on you might see those same seagulls back on the ground, tearing apart a bag of garbage. But still. “When you leave a party at five or six in the morning, a little drunk, and you see those timeless monuments by themselves,” says Edoardo Pasolini, “the city speaks to you.”