A place with millennia of history has experienced fast-paced change in recent times, transforming its identity to the point of negation while the media mainly rehash the clichés.
It’s neither a suburb, nor is it identical with any of Rome’s 15 administrative areas. Yet for many reasons, there is something quite unique about Torpignattara, a district that also deviates from its actual definition as an urban area in the eastern part of the capital. One of these reasons is demographic: About 50,000 people live on over 2 square kilometres, one of Italy’s highest population densities and worthy of an international metropolis like Rome. During its long history, this part of Rome has never been so densely populated. Our earliest evidence stems from the time of the Roman republic and tell us about a rural area in front of the city gates whose wide, green spaces were only interrupted by the villas of nobles and the aqueducts providing Romans with water. Access to these villas was framed by two mighty laurels that gave the area the name ad duas lauros. Apart from their summer residences, nobles and emperors also liked to have their tombs erected in this area, among them, from about 330 AD, the mausoleum Emperor Constantine dedicated to his mother Helena. Since pignatte (amphoras) had been used in the construction of the cupola, the place was given the name Torre delle Pignatte.
From the surroundings of the Helena Mausoleum to Pasolini’s Torpignattara
In the millennia that separate modern-day Torpignattara from imperial times, there was nothing in this otherwise unfarmed Roman landscape but military training camps and – after the decline of Rome – the church’s latifundia. This state of affairs continued until strong population growth in the capital brought the first immigrants from all over Italy to this area. During Fascism, residents were resettled from the historic centre to new residential areas on the outskirts, and after World War II, the rural area experienced an influx of people looking for work, bringing about its urbanisation within a short period of time and without any systematic planning. This often led to illegally constructed buildings without appropriate supply lines, but the area was also commercially busy, serving its many residents as well as a few industrial sites such as Serono, a pharmaceutical company. A story that could be told about many other suburban settlements of that era as well – but the words and film images of prominent director Pier Paolo Pasolini made Torpignattara special: “Step by step, they had left behind the Porta Furba and now found themselves amidst a chaos of small gardens, streets, metal lattices, clusters of miserable huts, open spaces, construction sites, groups of high-rises and ditches – they had almost reached the Borgata degli Angeli between Tor Pignattara and the Quadraro” (Ragazzi di vita, 1955).
The “margins of society” and the spread of prejudice
In the decades that followed, the economic crisis affected industrial and commercial businesses, often forcing them to close or take the path of repurposing, which was difficult for residents and the city alike. The social crisis found its most vulnerable victims primarily in the socially disadvantaged classes who lived in this area: families with only one income, young people looking for work before they had even finished school. But again, it has shared these characteristics with many socially as much as geographically “marginal” areas in recent decades. These days, Torpignattara is distinguished by the fact that the media initially chose it as a symbol of the Roman periphery in the most negative sense of the word, and more recently as a multi-ethnic ghetto that provides an ideal breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. “Torpignabeek” is just the latest derogatory label, comparing the suburb and its residents, a percentage of which hails from abroad, with Molenbeek in Brussels where the perpetrators of the recent attacks in Paris and the Belgian capital lived. For me as a sociologist, the stigma consists of a denial of identity. The identity of a place characterised by a millennia-long history, rapidly turned on its head by the past decades. While this fast transformation did not erase its historical identity, it has enabled the addition of new details to the image of Torpignattara: an area far from the city centre and its services, inhabited by people of lower social status, among them many foreigners of Islamic faith, ergo a suburb with potential dangers. There is no evidence to substantiate that suspected terrorists live here – the residents are in fact Muslims from moderate countries such as Bangladesh –, while actual facts are being denied by widespread public prejudice: the strong involvement in associations – including amongst foreigners –, the way the area deals with its history, including its most recent history (the former Cinema Impero is one example), the challenge of integration in multi-ethnic schools like the Istituto Iqbal Masih.