Matera: World’s third oldest city rocks Basilicata in more ways than one

The Sassi (The Stones) was once abandoned less than 40 years ago but now is Matera’s nerve center and site of 25 movies, including “The Passion of the Christ.” Photo by Marina Pascucci

MATERA, Italy — Living in Rome makes it easier to grasp the history of civilization. After all, it’s nearly a 3,000-year-old city. Almost all of mankind came after it. Much of the world today modeled itself off what Rome created, for better or worse. This city came before the birth of Christ for, um, Christ’s sake.

Now imagine a city that’s 6,000 years older than Rome.

Imagine what is now Italy was nothing more than mountains and marshes and fields. Jesus wouldn’t be born for 7,000 years after this city became established.

I am in the middle of that town now.

Calling Matera’s old town old is like calling Jupiter distant. I’m standing on the lone road, two stone lanes so narrow two cars must squeeze by to pass without sideswiping. Looking up I see a hodgepodge of houses. No, call them dwellings. Or how about shelters? They are piled on top of each other as if some giant built a model city on a mountain with pebbles. Some are built right into the rock, perfect for storing food before electricity.

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera's Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The 12th century Cathedral is Matera’s Christmas ornament. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The yellowish-white stone give Matera a uniformity that takes me back to Sunday school and textbook images of the Holy Land, of chickens clucking and dodging oxen in the dirt-strewn road, of bearded carpenters hammering wood in dusty roadside workshops. I keep thinking I’ll see Jesus trudge through town with a cross on his back which is exactly what Matera’s 60,000 inhabitants saw here in 2003 when Mel Gibson filmed “The Passion of the Christ.”

On the watchability meter, I rank the film down there with “Caddy Shack II.” Yeah, OK, Mel. We all know you say the Jews killed Jesus but do we have to see a man get flogged for two hours? Nevertheless, Gibson knew no town on earth could better replicate a time from 2,000 years ago.

That’s because Matera really hasn’t changed much since then.

Matera is the world’s third oldest city, according to Traveller magazine. Only Aleppo, Syria, and Jericho, Palestine, are older. So unless you like your pizza in a war zone, Matera is the place to explore. Matera was first inhabited in the Paleolithic Era which ended about 10,000 B.C. Back then, Matera’s inhabitants were discovering stone tools and how to hunt and gather. It has been continuously inhabited for the last 9,000 years.

However, the neighborhood where I’m standing and where my Marina and I are staying, wasn’t around less than 40 years ago. It was abandoned, an empty shell of a novelty. It was a forced evacuation, long overdue from a time after World War II when this neighborhood was rife with malaria, where people lived with no running water or toilets, where the infant mortality rate was 40 percent. In 1948, justice minister Palmiro Togliatti called this area, known as the Sassi (Italian for “stones”), a “national shame.”

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera has only one road that snakes through the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As I view the chock-a-block stone structures, which come together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle, I also see dozens of tourists climbing the narrow stairs snaking through the hill and walking the street. Call Matera old. But also call it one of the great comeback stories in Europe. The Roman Empire never rose again.

But Matera did.

“The greatness of this city is they survived all the way from Paleolithic time. So there was a vision of the world.”

Speaking is Vincenzo Altieri, 46, a born-and-raised Materana who owns the La Dolce Vita Bed & Breakfast where Marina and I stayed for three nights last weekend. He has seen Matera grow from an impoverished shell of its former self to a cleaned-up historical site to a Hollywood magnet to one of the growing tourist attractions in Italy.

Today, Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Forty years ago, you couldn’t get a plumber to come here.

“We take pictures of the city because every day is different,” Altieri says.

Marina, Roman born and raised, had never been to Matera. Like the rest of us, she’d heard stories. We saw photos. I saw “The Passion of the Christ.” I hated the movie but behind the whips, yelps and blood, the scenery was good.

Matera, at 1,315-foot elevation, is not difficult to reach but takes time. Not wanting to risk driving in snow — although the postcards of Matera dusted in white are mesmerizing — we took a bus. The big, modern pullman took seven hours, south through Campania and Puglia before slicing into Basilicata. It’s Italy’s forgotten region, a land of only 570,000 people squeezed between the beautiful beaches of Puglia, the islands of Campania and rural charm of Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.

Basilicata is where savvy travelers go to avoid the beaten path. Its once fertile forests are now a mosaic of wheat fields, olive groves and grapevines. The Lucanian Apennine mountains cut through the spine of Basilicata, putting Matera to the east almost in their shadow. Basilicata has a history of toughness. When a discussion of unifying the country swirled in the mid-19th century, loyalists to Basilicata’s ruling Bourbons rose up in violent protest against any political change.

That fighting spirit continued in Matera where 30 years ago they took back the abandoned honeycomb landscape and turned it into their homes again. It is in that neighborhood where Marina and I woke on a crisp, clear 45-degree day, the perfect temperature to roam.

Matera has three sections: The two Sassi neighborhoods are the more impoverished Sasso Caveoso in the south and the more spruced-up Sasso Barisano to the north. To the west is the new town where the Sassi’s great unwashed were moved, most by force, in the 1950s and where Altieri grew up though he wasn’t part of the exodus.

To the east of the Sassi is the Parco della Murgia Materana, featuring a huge gorge with a river snaking through it and hiking paths crisscrossing up the side. It’s as rugged as the people and it’s the panorama we’re gazing at as we climb the first stairs behind Altieri’s B&B.

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera gets more than 400,000 visitors a year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We walk down a narrow path overlooking the gorge and come across St. Lucia, an 8th century Benedictine convent. It’s one of 170 churches in Matera. That’s one for every 350 people.

“We have more churches than Rome,” Altieri jokes.

It’s 6 euros to enter St. Lucia along with 12th century San Pietro Barisano and 13th century San Giovanni farther north. I always balk at paying to enter a house of worship but here I marvel at the 12th century frescoes, including a rare breast-feeding Madonna. The walls are blackened from age and the two giant white stone pillars are lit from below. It feels more like a haunted house which somehow fits with the theme of Matera.

We walk north along the one main road, Via Madonna delle Virtu, with its spectacular views of the Sassi to our left and the ravine to our right. We cut left up a tiny staircase leading to the Piazza Duomo. Its 12th century cathedral is Matera’s centerpiece, its Christmas ornament where a 52-meter tower can be seen from every vantage point in the Sassi.

From the spacious surrounding piazza, we can see a panorama of the gorge with its tufa walls and tufts of grass in between. Between groups of tourists, including a wedding party where the couple posed with the church in the background, we could hear the river rapids below.

Continuing our journey, we stay on the narrow path above the mob and could smell garlic and hot olive oil emanating from the small houses, some surrounded by potted plants on tile courtyards. Italian food seems to taste better in the countryside, and our stomachs begin to churn despite the filling breakfast of focaccia with tomatoes.

In the tiny wine bar of Vicolo Cielo, we see how Matera reinvented itself into modern Italy. Despite being built inside a cave, Vicolo Cielo is a hip, casual enoteca/sandwich shop where we sit on a big, overstuffed couch. Across from us, under the white, naturally arched ceiling, sits a shoeshine chair, for no apparent reason.

As Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” plays on the loudspeaker, the young waitress brings me a panino (not “panini,” Americans) of crudo ham, gorgonzola cream, tomatoes and lettuce between thick slices of Basilicata’s famous soft bread.

Cheese plate at Caveoso

Cheese plate at Caveoso

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

La Cantina Bruna is built into a cave as well.

A benefit to modernizing a hovel into a tourist center is Matera’s food options are tremendous. Besides bread, Basilicata is known for its terrific cheeses, including a scrumptious Caprino a Vinacce displayed beautifully at Caveoso, another restaurant built into a cave. At Morgan, one of the first restaurants established in the Sassi in 1997, I had two of the best sausages in my life, taken from Cirigliano, 15 kilometers from Matera. I also took a recommendation for Soul Kitchen, one of Matera’s most elegant restaurants where my unique potato ravioli was filled with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce. Washed down with the local Primitivo house wine served all over town, Matera hits all the gastro points.

You need fuel. The town is bigger than you think and there are so many strange things to see. It’s like a living funhouse with a religious bent. One of Matera’s most bizarre sites is San Pietro Barisano. The church was plundered in the 1960s and ‘70s, leaving the altar empty and some of the surrounding statues without heads. But below the floor is a maze of narrow passageways with 4-foot-high niches in the walls. This is where they placed corpses during draining. The close quarters are too much for the slightly claustrophobic Marina but I inch my way along the walls imagining dead bodies lined up like bowling pins. As I touch a wall, some of the tufa crumbles in my hand.

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Inside the 13th century Matera Cathedral. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As we walk from church to church, I can’t help noting that it’s not a coincidence so many were built in a town that looks like old Bethlehem. You feel as if you’re walking through one giant presepe, the native scenes from the Holy Land you see all over Italy as Christmas nears.

This is why the most beaten path to Matera has been made by the movie industry. Twenty-five movies have been made here, starting with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” In 1979 came the hit “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Later, in 2006 they filmed the Jerusalem scenes in the remake of “The Omen,” my favorite movie of all time. Last year Morgan Freeman pounded the stones here in the filming of “Ben-Hur.”

A statue on a resident's courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A statue on a resident’s courtyard in the Sassi. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But the film that launched the flood of tourists was “The Passion of the Christ.” For three months the crew took over the town. In fact, right next to our B&B, Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, fell during one of his many savage beatings.

“You’re living here so you’re living on the set even if you don’t want to,” Altieri says. “You see Romans. You see camels. You see horses everywhere. You get used to it.”

Ironically, a generation earlier, another movie had a bigger influence on the Altieri family. In the 1950s, most of Matera’s population lived in the Sassi. Today the city has a sample cave in which we saw a room about 50 square meters where 12 people lived. That didn’t include a horse and chickens in one of the rooms. A bed was shoved in the corner under a small loft. An iron pot sat under the bed. That was the toilet. The room had no drainage. No electricity.

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Replica cave home. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This was 1965. It was during this time the government, tired of the black stain Matera put on the Italian landscape, started moving people into the new town.

During this time, the older brother of Altieri’s grandfather went to his first movie. It was “King Kong.” Suddenly, the Meterana saw themselves as the government did: as backward as an oxcart.

“Just by the images he realized, ‘OK, there are skyscrapers, women without moustaches, fancy dresses, cars, boats, airplanes, animals I’ve never seen,’” Altieri says. “There’s a different reality out there.”

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vincenzo Altieri, left, and me. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Altieri grew up in a typical Italian family with 11 other members. If all roads lead to Rome, few led to Basilicata. They were nearly isolated. The government all but forgot them. Then in 1986, the government allowed families forced out of the Sassi to return and fix them up with their own money.

In 1999, Altieri took a two-story building just off the main road. A software engineer at the time, he started to rebuild. He shows me photos of our room at that time and it was a barren pit. It looked like a flood had hit it. But he went to work and later turned it into a thriving B&B with a patio overlooking the sassi.

“This place (Matera) was meant to share,” he says. “There was a wisdom of looking at the world and saying, ‘OK, we can do better even though we have no resources. We will succeed.’”

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A man plays a zampogna, a traditional Basilicata instrument often played around Christmas and around Italy in folk music festivals. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s our last night, and we go to Sunday mass. I’m not religious but living in Italy, mass is a cultural event. Marina goes regularly, and I learn more about her life and my adopted country’s traditions by sitting in church for 45 minutes. It’s was held in San Giovanni, made of gray and white stone, beautiful in its simplicity.

The priest, a short, young man in a brilliant purple robe, talks about how the real sense of life is having time for brothers and sisters and family. He says modern man doesn’t have faith, that he must keep the faith.

Matera has kept the faith for 9,000 years. That’s a passion Christ could appreciate.


AS Roma bringing joy to this once doomsday fan as it shocks Champions League

New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has made AS Roma one of the surprise teams in Europe.

New coach Eusebio Di Francesco has made AS Roma one of the surprise teams in Europe.

No cheering in the press box.

It’s what I learned as a young sportswriter. Even before I learned my ABCs and first cliche, I learned the importance of objectivity. You do not cheer for the team you cover. You cheer for your story. You cheer for your accuracy. You cheer for your scoops. And you make damn sure you do it all on deadline. That laptop — or 1929 Royal typewriter as was the case when I began in the mid ‘70s — is the barrier between the team in front of you and your heart.

My Samsung computer has dropped its screen. My heart is in my fingers, the ones typing away about the new team I love. After retiring to Rome nearly four years ago, ending my 40-year career as a sportswriter, my transition from sportswriter to sports fan has hit nearly every fan’s octave, both high and low: Disgust when AS Roma lost to Spezia, a second division outfit from Liguria, in the Italian Cup. Joy when we defeated evil Lazio, 4-1. Embarrassment when I stormed out of a bar before the end of a 6-1 thrashing at Barcelona. Confusion when coach Luciano Spalletti jilted us for Inter Milan after leading us to second place in Serie A last season.

Today, as the season finishes its first trimester, I am experiencing something new. It’s something all fans seek and few sportswriters can fully comprehend until they experience it themselves.


I now understand what drives fans to paint their faces in school colors, wear team jerseys when they’re 50 years old and write angry emails to sportswriters. My AS Roma is, as the cliche goes, surprising everyone but itself. It has turned everyone’s doomsday prediction, including my August blog, into so much shredded newsprint. It has done it all season but after Tuesday night all of Europe now bows its head, as legions of conquered citizens once did to the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. (OK, I just compared my soccer team to the most powerful civilization in man’s history. That’s the beauty I’ve discovered about fandom. One is allowed hyperbole.)

On a frigid Tuesday night in old Olympic Stadium, AS Roma defeated Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan and finished first in Group C of the Champions League. It’s the toughest club competition in the world and maybe the toughest tournament, even more than the World Cup. We finished ahead of Chelsea, an international soccer blueblood, and Atletico Madrid, Champions League runner-up in 2014 and ‘16. This is like my University of Oregon Ducks winning the Pac-12 Conference football title three straight times after they won all of 11 games during my four years in college. The Ducks actually did win the title three times. However, journalism washed away my subjectivity long ago, like a windshield wiper brushing away tears. My hometown college team became just another name in a headline.

This is different. AS Roma has reached my bloodstream. The club was born in 1927 in my Testaccio neighborhood, in a small office down the street from my apartment. It’s now a sports betting parlor but the yellow and red Roma logo remains on the wall, however faded from a century of rain and disappointment, from obscene graffiti left by evil fans of cross-town vermin Lazio.

Abbey Theatre Irish pub, my home away from home in Rome.

Abbey Theatre Irish pub, my home away from home in Rome.

I watched games in that office when I lived in Rome from 2001-03. Today, I am a regular at Abbey Theatre, an Irish pub near Piazza Navona where I have frighteningly found myself on a first-name basis with every waiter and manager. I no longer quote Dante. I quote Mike, the hilarious manager from Dublin who’s as Irish as a pint a Guinness on a hurling pitch. During one of my many spiels about how much I love the Italian people, I asked him what he thought. “The Italians I like,” he said. “It’s the Irish I can’t stand.”

Abbey Theatre has two rooms upstairs reserved for Roma fans, we romanisti, who eat the best pub food outside London and scream at every shot, goal and cagey pass. Each score, each victory, the room explodes like anything I saw in America’s high-tech sports bars. I’ve hugged more Italian strangers than Silvio Berlusconi. I’ve expanded my vocabulary of Romanaccio profanity.

That wasn’t supposed to happen this season. We were all prepared for a fall. From the old man in the Roma scarf on the park bench in my piazza to the local newspapers in my newstand, everyone saw AS Roma plummet. We were going to drop in the Serie A standings like the Italian economy. Spalletti fled from what he thought, not entirely unjustified, was a club that is destined to be a second-tier Italian power. Also fleeing were Mohamed Salah, Roma’s fastest player who left for Liverpool, Antonio Rudiger, likely Roma’s best defender, for Chelsea and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny who became national icon Gianluigi Buffon’s understudy for a season at Juventus before taking the reins next year. Francesco Totti, Roma’s best player in history, retired after 25 years with his hometown club.

Aleksander Kolarov has been a huge addition from Man City.

Aleksander Kolarov has been a huge addition from Man City.

In their place came guys who would only excite their WAGS, (the European acronym for “wives and girlfriends.”) In came midfielder Aleksander Kolarov, a Serbian midfielder from Manchester City; Gregoire Defrel, a forward from Sassuolo; defender Hector Moreno from PSV in Holland and a young Turkish kid named Cengiz Under. Allison Becker, last year’s Brazilian backup, stepped in for Szczesny. Replacing Spalletti came Eusebio Di Francesco, also from Sassuolo, a mid-table Italian club in Emiglia-Romagna which made me smirk every time I heard the name.

Millions of euros went into AC Milan’s lineup. Napoli kept its team intact. Juventus has won six straight titles. We were doomed. At least Abbey’s fish n’ chips were good.

Then something clicked. We started to win. A new defense sparked by Becker and the gritty, tattooed Kolarov only allowed three goals over an 11-game stretch. Only a 3-3 tie to mighty Chelsea, a victory in itself, cracked the great Roman wall. Edin Dzeko, Serie A’s top scorer last year, scored seven goals by October. Depth off the bench has been fabulous. Di Francesco screamed and cajoled, urged and massaged. He never let up on the pedal. Stunningly, Roma has 11 wins, a tie and two losses, good for 34 points and fourth place, five points behind first-place Inter. And Roma has played one less game.

Juventus has already lost twice. AC Milan didn’t meet the expectations mass cash infusion brings and fired its coach. Roma, seriously, has a shot at its fourth title, called the scudetto, in its history and the first since 2000-01.

Roma's 3-0 rout of Chelsea in Rome woke up the Champions League.

Roma’s 3-0 rout of Chelsea in Rome woke up the Champions League.

In the Champions League it opened with a 0-0 tie against Atletico then Chelsea came to Rome and Roma beat it like a bowl of eggs, 3-0. Roma was on the verge of advancing to the Champions League knockout stage from one of the hardest groups in the tournament. I started wearing my AS Roma watch every day. I’d walk down the street with my AS Roma sweatshirt and hear “FORZA ROMA!” cries from passing cars. I had inner joy I couldn’t get from writing a good story. In sportswriting, you’re only as good as your last byline. As a fan, one win and joy lasts all week.

It’s like love without the phone calls.

On the last night of group competition, I needed a closer look. I put on my reporter’s fedora and went to the stadium. The only AS Roma gear I wore were underwear, a gift from my girlfriend, Marina, a third-generation romanista herself. Roma stood in second place in Group C with eight points, two behind Chelsea which hosted Atletico, sitting third with six. All Roma had to do was beat Qarabag, dead last with two, or hope Atletico doesn’t beat Chelsea, and Roma advances as one of the two top teams regardless if it wins, loses or ties.

The old gray lady that is Olympic Stadium was subdued. Curva Sud was filled with ultras again after an agonizing two-year fan protest but the 35,000 didn’t have its usual cutthroat roar. Maybe it was the 41-degree weather at kickoff. Maybe they’re already spoiled by success and viewed Qarabag, missing four starters due to injury and suspension, as a mere speed bump to the inevitable destination.

As it turns out, Roma shared in the crowd’s lethargy. We’re not sharp. We’re passing out of bounds. We’re skying shots over the goal like football punts. Dzeko is continuing a late slump. I want to scream at the team, “FAI SCHIFO!” (YOU SUCK!). But, as there’s no cheering in the press box, there’s no profanity, either. Qarabag (car-ah-BAHG), the four-time defending Azerbaijani champion, isn’t laying down. It’s obvious it didn’t come to Rome to shop. At halftime, it’s 0-0. In London, Atletico and Chelsea are 0-0.

I’m getting nervous. Last month I watched Italy choke like gagging, rabid dogs in World Cup qualifying. I have no affiliation with this country. I have developed very close ties to this city. Blowing a Champions League knockout berth and the 20 million euros that comes with it would not sit well on a long, freezing post-midnight walk home along the Tiber.

Radja Nainggolan is soul of Roma.

Radja Nainggolan is the soul of Roma.

But in the second half, our relentless pressure finally pays off in the 53rd minute. Radja Nainggolan, our Belgian bulldog of a midfielder, sends a back-heeled feed to Dzeko whose shot is blocked by brilliant goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic. The ball pops in the air and Diego Perotti heads it into an empty net. The woman reporter next to me stands up and cheers. The memo obviously didn’t reach Rome. I limit myself to a quiet, long exhale.

Moments later, Atletico scores to lead 1-0. Roma must win if Atletico does. My nerves return. My foot starts tapping and not because of the cold that has dropped to 38 degrees. But Qarabag can’t muster much of an attack and Chelsea ties it in London. The scores stand. When the bell sounds, Roma had claimed first place over Chelsea due to head to head results. In Rome this is huge. While Roma has advanced to the knockout stage eight of its last 10 Champions League competitions, it has only finished atop its group once, in 2008-09. It means an easier opponent in the knockout stages that will be announced Monday.

Keep in mind Roma has never won a European tournament. It finished runner-up in the 1983-84 European Cup, the predecessor of the Champions League, and runner-up in the 1990-91 UEFA Cup, European soccer’s version of the NIT.

“It’s a result nobody dared hope for when the draw was made,” said Daniele De Rossi, a Rome native who replaced Totti as the club’s face. “I am particularly glad as Roma had some real embarrassments in Europe over the years so this has cleaned up the image in Europe in a way.”

I ventured down to the mixed zone, oft times a futile gesture as few players talk after games. Perotti even walked by without a word. I managed to chat with Nainggolan, a Belgian-Indonesian whose entire body is a tattoo canvas. He wears his hair in a mohawk of different colors, depending on the day. He looks like he eats raw cattle. In a bench-clearing brawl, I’ll take Nainggolan and Kolarov and you can have the rest of Europe.

I asked him about the differences made by Di Francesco. The former Roma player had never coached in the Champions League and his glasses and beard make him look like a waiter.

“Every player on the team knows what he has to do,” Nainggolan said. “When we change, four or five players, three players, the important thing is every player knows he’s important.”

As I was leaving, I saw Di Francesco prance past the mixed zone. He was smiling like the kids who hold players’ hands as they march onto the field. What’s Italian for “I told you so”?

“I’m satisfied because nobody believed we could qualify at all,” he said. “They assumed we’d be eliminated. Now it can all happen. I say why not?”

In the art capital of the world, a small shop in Rome keeps a dying art alive

Paolo Pugelli, in the Bottega Mortet shop, has been an artisan for 48 of his 62 years.

Paolo Pugelli, in the Bottega Mortet shop, has been an artisan for 48 of his 62 years.

Anyone started Christmas shopping yet? I’m done. I’m almost always done by early December. I don’t waste time. I don’t bull rush shopping in one harried night in a mall. I shop all year. Wherever I go around the world I find something for my family in the States. In fact, I bought my first present for this Christmas on Jan. 1. This year my family is getting, in the mail, gifts from Thailand, Laos, Sweden and France as well as Italy.

Too bad. Only 1 ½ miles from my home in Rome I found a place that truly would provide a unique gift. Historical, too. Bottega Mortet is home to a family of artisans who have carried on a tradition that long ago nearly disappeared. In the early 20th century, the area between Piazza Navona and the Tiber River was chock-a-block with little shops specializing in gold and silver art objects. These artists rubbed elbows and dust with carpenters, cobblers and tailors.

Carpenters, cobblers and tailors can still be found all over Rome. Gold and silver artisans? They’ve gone the way of the horse and buggy. But like the one or two horse and buggies that clop through my Testaccio neighborhood to cart tourists around nearby Centro Storico, some gold and silver artisans remain. They’re just not for tourists. They have a market ranging from learned art collectors to the Vatican.

From a marketing standpoint, Bottega Mortet may as well be underground. I found the shop after 30 minutes roaming the narrow roads and twisting alleys north of Piazza Navona. Today the neighborhood is lined with carpet shops, small outdoor cafes and souvenir stores, all anchored by the 18th century Palazzo Sant’Agostino. I had to ask a cafe coffee jockey for directions. He pointed down the street to a large tower that looked torn off a castle somewhere. In the adjacent building I walked through a cutout door no more than 5 ½ feet high into Palazzo Scapucci, built in 1444 for the powerful Frangipani family.

Bottega Mortet is in a quiet, hidden courtyard near Piazza Navona.

Bottega Mortet is in a quiet, hidden courtyard near Piazza Navona.

I found myself in a quiet courtyard with various doors. Not a single one had a sign. A tall man wearing a moustache and a dusty black apron stood outside one door talking on his cell.

“Dove Bottega Mortet?” I asked.

He pointed to his door. I entered and saw sitting on a stool in a dark corner Paolo Pugelli. Wearing a long gray smock, he was looking under a small spotlight at a table filled with little red art objects. Above him was a small loft holding busts of ancient sculptures. Maybe this is where all the heads of headless statues I see in Rome museums end up.

Pugelli is 62 years old and has been a fine metals artist since he was 14. He is the cousin to the Mortet family, of whom Andrea was busy in an adjacent room equally cluttered. Dante Mortet had just left. I walked along an ancient wood floor past stacks of dusty books crammed in a chimney space. An old glass case held a replica soccer World Cup trophy, gold figurines and gold coins.

It’s as far from the high-end art shops along tony, ivy-lined Via Margutta as you can find but they are no less valuable.

Michele Monaco, a collaborator, fine tunes a piece for the family that opened the shop in the early 1950s.

Michele Monaco, a collaborator, fine tunes a piece for the family that opened the shop in the early 1950s.

Bottega Mortet is not a store. Bottega means “workshop” in Italian. It started in the early-1950s, bridging a gap between a dying Italian art and the modern consumer. Michele and Andrea are sons of Aurelio Mortet, who started the business. Another Mortet has a store outside of Rome.

While Michele took little hammers and chisels to little gold objects, I asked Paolo why this charming place is one of a dying breed.

The base used for the pope's hat and ring.

The base used for the pope’s hat and ring.

“It’s true that many things changed in this work,” he said. “Also the taste of people changed. The entire society changed. How could I say, the way of interpreting beauty and art changed. Once upon a time, people wanted a special, particular object and they used to go to artisans. Nowadays people often prefer to buy name-brand objects.”

That means malls, touristy stores along Via del Corso, lobbies of five-star hotels. How boring.

Anyone can come into the shop and look around. However, the shop runs almost entirely on individual commissions. People get an idea of what they want and discuss it with one of the family members. They put their heads together and come up with an idea. The family has a good reputation, at least according to one customer.

Pope Benedict XVI.

When he reigned across the river in Vatican City from 2005-2013, Pope Benedict had a representative come down to the shop about six or seven years ago. They wanted a specially, handmade gold cross.

The gold cross Paolo made for Pope Benedetto XVI.

The gold cross Paolo made for Pope Benedetto XVI.

Paolo took out an old copy of L’Osservatore Romano, The Vatican’s daily newspaper founded in 1861. On the front page is Pope Benedict, the cross swinging conspicuously around his neck. The pope liked it so much, his office invited Paolo to come for a rare private audience with some professors.

“I answered that I thought it wouldn’t be right to go there,” he said. “I’m not a professor. There’s no sense because in your life you must be humble. I was very pleased but I’m already very happy that the pope was wearing my cross. That’s enough.”

For a man who has done his job for 48 of his 62 years, Paolo hasn’t lost any excitement for his craft. He has zest in his voice, a gleam in his eye. I asked him what he liked about his job.

Pope Benedict XVI on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano.

Pope Benedict XVI on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano.

“I always loved design and art,” he said. “I am somebody who is so lucky to have found what I like to do. I think it’s everybody’s dream to have a job with passion. I always say that if you do your job with passion you are very lucky. To become rich, you must steal. Work must be made with passion and this is the richness.”

For anyone wanting a handmade gold, silver or bronze figurine and have an idea you always wanted to bring to fruition, you can contact Bottega Mortet at 39-06-686-1629 or

Apocalypse now: Why Italy flamed out of World Cup qualifying for first time since 1958

Italy's Ciro Immobile lays stunned after Sweden eliminated Italy Monday. Photo NBC News

Italy’s Ciro Immobile lays stunned after Sweden eliminated Italy Monday. Photo NBC News

The Abbey Theatre Irish Pub sits on a corner of one of the narrow, windy streets near Piazza Navona. Rome doesn’t have sports bars, and this is about as close as it comes. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It’s passionate. Monday night, a passionate crowd turned silent. A nation lowered its head in shame. Upstairs in Abbey I watched a German TV station interview Italians on the national history they just witnessed. As two bubbly, blonde babes in Sweden shirts bounced nearby, I heard an Italian in a sharp business suit mumble into the camera “Disastro storico” (Historic disaster). My comprehension of Italian isn’t great but some words stand out when you watch the national sport hit a low not reached in 60 years.

Abisso (Abyss). Apocalisse (Apocalypse). Che cazzo! (What the fuck?).

They are all being spoken and printed today from the ports of Sicily to the mountain chalets of the Italian Alps. I’m 61 years old. I was a sportswriter for 40 years and have followed sports since the early 1960s. I don’t recall one nation embarrassing itself on a field of play as Italy did this year in World Cup qualifying.

Its 0-0 draw with Sweden in Milan Monday, after losing 1-0 Friday on the road, sealed a fate unthinkable just last year. Italy, a four-time World Cup champion, has gone from taking Germany to a shootout in the quarterfinals of the European Championships to not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. The last time Italy didn’t make the world’s biggest sporting event, Americans still drove the Edsel, The Beatles were called the Quarrymen and Khrushchev became premier of the Soviet Union.

Italian fans react to Monday's 0-0 draw with Sweden that eliminated Italy. Photo NBC News

Italian fans react to Monday’s 0-0 draw with Sweden that eliminated Italy. Photo NBC News

The U.S. didn’t qualify, either. It couldn’t finish in the top four of a group of six. But half the U.S. sports fans refer to soccer as kickball. In Italy they refer to it as religion.

Monday’s view of Italy’s players crying on the field in front of a yellow-and-blue background of celebrating Swedes, who hadn’t qualified since 2006, represents a flatlining of a sporting culture. Take out the 2016 Europeans and Italy has done less on the world stage than the U.S. After winning the 2006 World Cup, it couldn’t get out of the group stages in 2010 and 2014. It has one win in six games.

“Italy has been teetering on the brink of disaster for some while in various ways,” Paddy Agnew, an Irish soccer journalist who has lived in Italy since 1986, told me Tuesday morning. “Now they’re not teetering on the brink. They’ve fallen in head first.”

The hysterical Italian media is at fever pitch. My La Gazzetta dello Sport, behind the end-of-the-world headline “FINE” (THE END), wrote, “It is one of the darkest pages of our sporting history; a brutal blow beyond the incalculable damage for a country which lives and breathes football. It’s a sporting equivalent of Titanic.”

The Rome-based Corriere dello Sport, teed it up with the headline “EVERYBODY FIRED!” It added, “It’s an intolerable footballing disgrace; an indelible stain. It’s the end. Apocalypse, tragedy, catastrophe. Call it what you want, but our football is in a serious crisis. We’ve been relegated to Serie B of world football.”

Keep in mind it’s harder for European teams to qualify than in CONCACAF where the U.S. usually just needs to show up reasonably sober. In Europe’s UEFA, teams only automatically qualify if they win their six-team group. The eight best second-place teams meet in home-and-home playoffs. Italy had the same group as Spain. It’s no disgrace to finish second to Spain.

But the way Italy stumbled and bumbled its way into a playoff then went impotent against a Swedish team made up with twice as much heart as talent struck deep into the Italian soul. Italy scored only three goals in its last six games, dating back to June.

In Friday’s first game outside Stockholm, Italy had all the energy of 10 guys waiting for a gondola. The announcers had more enthusiasm. Sweden didn’t get off many shots, either, but out-raced Italy for nearly every ball, roughed up the Italians when they didn’t, scored off a deflection early in the second half and held on for a shocking 1-0 win.

Alessandro Florenzi mirrors the feeling of his nation after the game. Photo NBC News

Alessandro Florenzi mirrors the feeling of his nation after the game. Photo NBC News

As Monday’s second game approached, I read the papers and was stunned by Italy’s arrogance, its sense of entitlement. Manager Gian Piero Ventura, a 69-year-old journeyman I’ll barbecue below, wailed about the official letting Sweden get too physical. He joined the players’ chorus saying, “We’ll make the World Cup. We’re Italy.”

Yes, you’re Italy. And now, Italy, you suck.

In Monday’s second game, Italy had a sense of desperation that bordered on panic. It dominated possession 76-24 and Sweden’s lone offense was the occasional counter attack. But Sweden’s defense was disciplined and ruthless and it has a great goalkeeper in Robin Olsen who plays for FC Copenhagen. Italy outshot Sweden, 14-1, but Olsen made seven saves and other shots just missed.

Sweden was heavy  underdog against the four-time World Cup champion. Photo NBC News

Sweden was heavy underdog against the four-time World Cup champion. Photo NBC News

Being a lifelong fan of the underdog on the road, I found myself pulling for little Sweden. But I remain baffled by how a nation where soccer is more important to its people than the Vatican, where 12 million tuned in Monday night, could let it slip into depths not known in this generation.

“There are a number of factors,” Agnew said. “One factor is Ventura.”

Ventura today is the most unpopular Italian since Nero. Rome’s Senate won’t declare Ventura a public enemy but I’m surprised he didn’t get fired after the game before he crossed the touch line. Ventura’s appointment last year baffled the nation. Italy went from 48-year-old Antonio Conte, who led Juventus to three straight Serie A titles and Italy to the Euro quarters, to this frumpy fossil whose list of jobs is longer than Hunter Thompson’s police blotter. He has coached 18 Italian clubs in 26 years. He had been fired six times. His claims to fame are earning team promotions five times and staying on at Torino from 2011-16. The most prestigious club he managed was one season at Napoli. The number of games he’d worked outside Italy was seven.

Gian Piero Ventura walks off the field Friday night.

Gian Piero Ventura walks off the field Friday night.

However, he only cost 1.2 million euros. Conte cost 4 million and after Euros left for Chelsea which he led to last season’s Premiership title. Of his 4 million, Puma paid about half as part of its sponsorship deal and wasn’t going to re-up for just anyone. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) approached Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, but his son is a football agent and the conflict of interest prevented it. So out went Conte with his designer suits, wild enthusiasm and wide-open football; in came Ventura with his long parka, haggard look and rigid ways.

This was like replacing Caravaggio with a house painter.

If Ventura was any stiffer in his coaching style, he wouldn’t need a trainer. He’d need a mortician. He stuck to a 3-5-2 formation, which utilizes only two strikers and puts a greater emphasis on defense. That left on the bench one Lorenzo Insigne, the rising 26-year-old star for Napoli which is leading Serie A. He didn’t play Insigne until the second half Friday and he never got off the bench Monday.

Daniele De Rossi, one of three players left from that 2006 World Cup team, could be seen screaming at an assistant coach on the bench to put in the kid. “Metti Insigne. Dobbiamo vincere!” (Put in Insigne. We must win!” La Gazzetta reported him saying.

“In technical terms, Ventura is responsible for what happened,” Agnew said. “In overall terms it’s (Carlo) Tavecchio. The buck has to stop with him.”

Yes, Carlo Tavecchio, FIGC’s 74-year-old president and former Lombardy politician who was elected in 2014 after being convicted five times on charges ranging from forgery to abuse of office. They are Italy’s Dumb and Dumber but on aesthetic terms, Tavecchio’s appointment was more offensive. While campaigning for the position, he complained about the influx of too many foreign players in Serie A, particularly from Africa.

He said — and I am not making this up — “In England they select players based on professionalism, whereas we say that old ‘Opti Poba’ (a hypothetical player) is here now, so let’s take him. He was eating bananas before but now he’s starting for Lazio and that’s OK.”

Yet he still got elected. Some say he became a favorite of the power clubs’ presidents who felt they could manipulate him. The racist remark? It’s normale in today’s Italian soccer.

“Not only is that incredibly insensitive and incredibly racist, but if somebody says that, I ask how can you trust that guy to run the edicola (newsstand) on the corner or the public toilet?” Agnew said. “What are you giving him the most important sports federation in the country for?”

I called Agnew for a couple of reasons. I read him for years when I picked up World Soccer magazine while living in Denver before Rome. He also writes a weekly blog for it and contributes to But he has also been The Irish Times’ Rome general correspondent for the last 30 years. The way football is entwined in Italian society, no one is better at comparing Italian football with Italian life.

“The greed, the cynicism, the corruption of the ruling class in Italian football is nothing different from the greed, the dishonesty, the corruption of the ruling class in Italian politics,” he said. “You have an (74)-year-old man running the Italian Football Federation and running it into the ground. You have an 82-year-old tycoon (former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) who’s deciding to fight the country even though he’s been in nothing but scandals and court cases for the last 20 years. Italian football, like football anywhere else, is only ever a mirror reflection of what goes on in the country.”

Every finger in Italy is pointing at the FIGC and not the players. Italy is still a reservoir of talent. Italy’s Under-21 team has reached the semifinals in two of its last three World Cups. Ciro Immobile, Lazio’s 27-year-old wunderkind, leads Serie A with 14 goals in 11 games. Yet he was a mere rumor on the field against Sweden.

When Germany bombed out of the 2000 Euros, it tore down its organization and rebuilt it from the youth program up. The Under-16, Under-18 and Under-21 teams all play in the same system as the national team. When they reach the senior level, there is less adjustment. Today, Germany is the defending World Cup champion and is the 5-1 favorite in Russia along with France.

In Italy there is a major disconnect.

“This is a society does not reward meritocracy,” Agnew said. “People who’ve been running Italian football have run it along feudalistic, cronyistic, self interested lines. They’ve never had an overall plan for the good of Italian football. They don’t care about the good of Italian football. They just like to make money.”

The future begins now. As I’ve typed this, I’ve frequently clicked on to see if Ventura has received, as my college football colleague Dennis Dodd astutely refers to, “the big haircut.” Not yet but it’s as inevitable as bells pealing in St. Peter’s.

Waiting unemployed is Carlos Ancelotti, 58, who won league titles with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Arsenal. Roberto Mancini, 52, has won 12 cups and is coaching in obscurity in Russia. Would Max Allegri, 50, look for a new challenge if he wins a fourth straight title for Juventus? Maybe Conte’s clash with Chelsea’s front office will boil over and he could be lured back.

However, they are all on the five-star price list and the FIGC must change its philosophy or find another sponsor if it wants a name that will draw headlines and not head scratches.

In the meantime, next summer will be strange around here. No huge crowds in Piazza Venezia to watch Italy on the big screen. Pubs crowded with only foreigners. Newspapers filled with stories about the French and Germans and Spanish and English. The only Italian in the papers may be the shoe ads.

Meanwhile, at Abbey Pub, I look forward to seeing Swedish meatballs on the menu.

The Baths of Caracalla: But really, how clean were the Ancient Romans?

Terme di Caracalla (235 AD) hosted 6,000-8,000 Romans a day.

Terme di Caracalla (235 AD) hosted 6,000-8,000 Romans a day.

Today’s kids probably wonder what it was like for me growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s without Internet, cell phones and the Kardashians. After being retired in Rome for nearly four years, I think back further, like 2,000 years.

What was it like in Ancient Rome, without water treatment, toothpaste and showers?

Rome was the most powerful civilization in man’s history, but how clean were Romans when the toilet flush was 1,300 years from its first plunge? Only the real rich had private baths and the tenements didn’t have running water. Did you know Julius Caesar brushed his teeth with urine?

No, that wasn’t why he was stabbed 23 times. Urine is what Romans used for toothpaste. They made soap out of urine. When someone in Ancient Rome said, “I’m pissed off,” it likely meant he just took a bath.

Baths were big in Ancient Rome. They were all over the city. They still are. I once took a bike ride down the Appia Antica, the ancient road to the sea and along which Spartacus’ rebellious slaves were crucified (see Ancient Rome: Failed Labor Strikes). I passed the remains of huge villas with expansive tiled floors where hot tubs once sat.

A rendition of what the complex looked like in the 3rd century AD.

A rendition of what the complex looked like in the 3rd century AD.

I recently toured Rome’s most famous baths, the second largest in Ancient Rome. Terme di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla), less than a mile southeast of Circo Massimo, are only a mile from my apartment. I pass them all the time. On a warm fall day, I took the bus up the street and got off next to the complex.

The Terme di Caracalla looks like a sandstone Legoland after your kid went at it with a 9-iron. Tall yellowish towers are interspersed with jagged walls enclosing massive halls with tiled floors.

About 1,700 years ago this place was the new nerve center of Ancient Rome. It covered 62 acres, measuring 337 x 328 meters. It featured 252 columns, 16 at least 12 meters high. Its main bath building was 214 x 110 meters with 44-meter-high ceilings. It had four cold pools, 12 medium pools and seven hot pools. It had an Olympic-size swimming pool 50 meters by 22 meters enclosed by 20-meter high walls. The whole complex could hold 1,600 people at a time and 6,000-8,000 people used it per day. And it was free.

Started in 212 by Emperor Septimius Severus, it was finished by his son, Caracalla, in about 235 AD. It was called one of the Seven Wonders of Rome. The Terme di Caracalla was one giant spa, the Palm Springs of its day.

To understand the importance of Caracalla to Ancient Rome, you must understand the importance of baths to Ancient Romans. Public baths were where Romans got clean. Even in the countryside, Romans, including slaves, would wash every day and would have a thorough bath on every feast day.

The baths were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and often became the hub of the city. The Romans built one of their most elaborate public baths in England where they introduced a sophisticated water system and an array of different pools. The town’s name?


Where the gym once stood.

Where the gym once stood.

I paid my 8 euros at the modest ticket booth, void of the schlocky souvenir store you usually must walk through in many Rome sites. The summer high season is over, leaving the complex to only a few of us. I found myself in the first room, a giant open rectangular space that represented the gymnasium. Workers were refurbishing tile on the old floor. Romans would wrestle, box or do calisthenics before turning right into an adjacent dressing room.

On the other side of the dressing room was where the Olympic-size pool stood. To its right, side by side by side, were the cold, medium and hot pools. Today, the 20-meter walls still stand but holes exist where the pools once were. Fragments of the floors decorated with ancient Roman figures lean against the walls. Grass covers where beautiful tile once lay. The floors of the bath once were colored marble glass brought from the Orient and ringed with bronze and marble statues.

The walls stood 20 meters.

The walls stood 20 meters.

Coal and wood were burnt underground to heat water from an aqueduct that was in use until the 19th century. Slaves worked in tunnels that stretched for hundreds of meters under the baths. Those tunnels are open to the public but the gate was unfortunately closed when I arrived.

The villas on Appia Antica have better preserved pools but the massiveness of Caracalla is stunning. If you close your eyes and let your mind drift (You get good at that after four years living among ancient ruins), you can imagine the buzz, gossip and flirting that went on here 2,000 years ago. At the time in the 3rd century AD, anarchy began creeping into Rome and cracks started appearing in its once impenetrable empire.

One of the old pools.

One of the old pools.

Terme di Caracalla was in use until 530 before the Goths ransacked Rome and cut off the water supply. Shortly thereafter, with the citizenry unwilling to bathe in standing water used by 6,000 other filthy Romans, the baths were abandoned.

Since then it became a burial ground for pilgrims in the 7th century. An earthquake in 847 destroyed much of the building then in the 12th century it was used as a quarry for construction material and a vineyard and garden in the 14th century. Then in the 16th century the archaeologists poured in it from around the world and continue to this day. Its design inspired New York’s Penn Station and Chicago’s Union Station.

As I wandered the huge grounds, I was impressed with how attentive Romans were to hygiene. I read Ancient Romans went to the baths every day, that women used lanolin from sheep wool for sweet-scented skin. But, like Rome, this story has many layers. My research peeled back the silky, rich appearance of the Roman populace to reveal something else.

Piss. Shit. Rats. Parasites. Oh, and one hungry octopus.

Yes, just as Ancient Rome’s opulence and riches hid Rome’s true violence and poverty, Rome’s baths hid the filth underneath. Rome in the 3rd century had 144 public toilets, not nearly enough for a city population of more than 300,000. The latrines fed into a main sewage system designed more for drainage than water treatment.

While historians have praised Ancient Rome for its elaborate sewer and drainage system and its cleansing of public odor, the ancient toilet was a receptacle for embarrassing, gross disasters. Due to the sulphide and methane found underground, you could be sitting on the commode when the ground underneath your derriere explodes. Rats often crawled up through the toilet. Toilet paper was sometimes a communal sponge on a stick.

And then there was the octopus …

The historical website Ancient Origins wrote about an Iberian merchant in Puzzuoli near Naples where he hooked up his toilet to the public sewer. One time an octopus swam from the sea, through the sewer system and up through the toilet into the man’s home where he feasted on pickled fish in the pantry.

Original artwork still adorns the grounds.

Original artwork still adorns the grounds.

Also, Rome spread filth around its empire. According to the journal Parasitology (Yeah, I know. I need a life.), Romans built public baths in nearly every new land they conquered. What else did they bring with them?


“This latest research on the prevalence of ancient parasites suggests that Roman toilets, sewers and sanitation laws had no clear benefit to public health,” said Piers Mitchell, author of the study. “The widespread nature of both intestinal parasites and ectoparasites such as lice also suggests that Roman public baths surprisingly gave no clear health benefit, either.”

Even Roman food added to the filth. The favorite condiment in Ancient Rome, a fish sauce called “garum,” helped spread parasites as well.

Refurbishing tile in the old gymnasium.

Rome still has public baths. Last year I blogged about AcquaMadre, a bath house in the Jewish Ghetto designed on a smaller scale along the lines of those in Ancient Rome. Three years ago I blogged about a huge thermal pool complex in Viterbo north of Rome. I gave my girlfriend, Marina, a gift card for QC Terme, a beautiful spa in Fiumicino near Rome’s airport.

But that is now. Ancient Rome was then. Now I want to do what I’ve been dying to do since researching this blog.

Take a real long, hot shower.