A journey into the “black hole” of Rome

Beyond the walls: Graffiti design for "Freiraum"
Beyond the walls: Graffiti design for "Freiraum" | Photo: daSud

A walk through the Eternal City’s dark side: the mafia’s den, the drug piazzas, and the streets of faded dreams.

On the eastern outskirts of the Italian capital, close by the newest university in the city, Tor Vergata, a mountain like construction of white steel, emerges from the landscape. From a distance, one might mistake it for huge circus tent, and, if using one’s imagination, it can even be seen as reminiscent of a large dinosaur’s skeleton. It is the unfinished roof of the new swimming centre designed by Santiago Calatrava. For many, it is the ultimate symbol of modern Rome, as well as of Italy: an imposing and powerful vision that has remained incomplete and thus embodies all its weaknesses, contradictions and frustrations.

This is what Marco Carta, the journalist of the newspaper “Il Messaggero”, who is guiding us through the “dark” side of the Eternal City, believes. This is the side of Rome that tourists, who throw coins into the Trevi Fountain and flock to the Colosseum, the Piazza di Spagna or St. Peter’s Square, and who eat in the trattorias and stroll around Trastevere, do not see or even suspect exists, and, actually, are not eager to get to know.

The starting point is at the Enzo Ferrari Institute in Cinecitta, where the first day of works for the Restart Festival 2018 has just been completed. It is a creativity festival, which is being hosted at the particular school because it has become an exemplary communal academy that is against the mafia: a social and cultural workspace in a secondary school. What has brought us here is the Goethe-Institut’s “Freiraum” venture, which has ‘nullified’ the distance between Nicosia and Rome by joining the ARTos Cultural and Research Foundation with the daSud organization. This organization proposes a new narrative on the mafia, thus promoting civil and social rights.

When reference is made to the Italian mafia, we tend to first think of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Camorra of Naples or of Calabria’s 'Ndràngheta. However, Rome need not be envious of the Italian south for its syndicates of crime. "DaSud" means "from the South" and the organization was founded in Calabria in 2005. Yet, since 2009, the organization has had its headquarters in Rome, from where it undertakes a variety of activities that include publishing, documentary co-productions, theatrical performances, musical projects, information campaigns and educational workshops.

Cinecitta has not been chosen by chance as the place to run the communal academy. The famous film studio, which was once was the envy of Hollywood, is found in the south-eastern suburbs of Rome. Stretching throughout this rundown region, which is not far from the currently existing movie theme park, is the Roman mafia kingdom. Organized crime in the region has found a way to control politicians, and has also had a hand in constructing nomadic and refugee camps, in recruiting immigrants and nomads to take part in illegal activity, as well as exploiting them for their labour.


The day in Rome when it rained rose petals. That is how a sunny day on the 20th of August 2015 might be remembered for all the wrong reasons, when above the San Giovanni Bosco church, in the Cinecitta region, a helicopter appeared that dropped rose petals over a coffin, which members of the deceased were carrying to the funeral. The ceremony gave a new dimension to the concept of kitsch.  The coffin arrived in a horse driven black carriage with gold detailing. At the church entrance there were posters of the deceased dressed as the Pope. One poster depicted the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica at the bottom, with the following statement “RE DI ROMA” (king of Rome). Another giant poster was dominated by the phrase “You conquered Rome, now you will conquer paradise”. The crowds mourned this ‘great loss’, while a Balkan type band with brass wind instruments persistently played the well-known film score by Nino Rota from Coppola’s legendary film, ‘The Godfather’.

The deceased was the 65 year old mafia chief Vittorio Casamonica, leader of the terrible Casamonica clan, which controls almost everything in the eastern territory of Rome related to extortion, usury, money laundering, prostitution and drug trafficking.  This brazen and exhibitionist display by the mafia at the funeral functioned as a stab in the hearts of conscientious Romans, particularly if one considers how easily the relatives were able to organize something so ostentatious and noisy in the middle of the day.

The Casamonica settled in Rome about five decades ago. They are of Roma origin. They started their activities by caring for and selling horses, only to end up today the criminal despots of the city, continually flaunting their power and wealth in everyday life and at social events.

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. A Greek man, a Belgian woman, a Dutch woman, a Polish woman and an Italian man arrived by the latter’s car in Romanina. Marco explains that the Casamonica’s den is here, as he discreetly shows us the façades of some of the mafia’s houses, which are monuments of bad taste and megalomania. We stop for something to drink at the Roxy Bar on Salvatore Barzilai Street. The bar was recently wrecked and the Romanian owner badly beaten for failing to serve a youngster from the Casamonica family.

In the area, visibly or invisibly, everything moves at its own rhythm. At the main access roads in Romanina, there are ‘guards’/’informants’ at key points, who keep an eye on traffic and inform the necessary people whenever they see any police officers.

Tor Bella Monaca

The “Tower of the Beautiful Nun”. The dark underbelly of drugs and violence. This is the Tor Bella Monaca region, which is gaining the worst reputation in Rome. We arrived there around dusk. Most of the streetlights do not work, and this is not accidental. Young boys are starting to appear at certain points and are standing around, apparently doing nothing. This is their job. In this area, most children leave school early to follow the only profession with some “prospects”: that of a ‘guard’/’informant’ or drug dealer.

The whole area has something rough about it that makes you want to stay away. Exactly across the most badly reputed street, right in the lion’s mouth, operate some of the facilities of the Tor Vergata University.

Following the central avenue of Tor Bella Monaca, one is led to the Torre Angela neighbourhood. The apartment blocks are adjacent to a small park-a small drug “bazaar” where the gates are always wide open both at the front and at the back, so that the drug dealers can slip out in the case of a police raid. It never even occurs to the residents to disobey the particular “directive”. The drug addicts prefer to get their dose at a quiet nearby road that looks like a ditch. Marco explains that is what remains of an ancient street.

At TBM, as the locals call it, there are two sanctuaries that grant hope. One is the regional theatre that serves a residential area that houses hundreds of thousands of people. However, according to Marco Carta, most of the viewers come from other regions of Rome, in order to get a taste of the risky, “dark side”. The other “sanctuary” is found through the work of some activists, who are trying to bring light and creativity to the Black Hole. Mario, who is one of them, proudly showed us the front of two apartment blocks that two talented artists covered with commemorative graffiti murals in contemporary designs and with polite messages. Mario was politically active with the far left, while his current activities have come out of a worldview that the struggle for a better world is never futile.

Salaam Palace

In nearby Tor Vergata there is the so called Salaam Palace, a formerly abandoned office complex of the University of Tor Vergata, which today houses more than 1000 immigrants, mainly from Sudan and the Horn of Africa. The glass of the building seems to reflect the failure of European immigration policy. Being in need has forced these people to occupy even the tiniest space and convert that it into a complex of small studios, where they must live in close proximity to one another. Almost everyone is desperate to leave Italy and get to the “Promised Land” of northern Europe.

Having secured asylum or subsidiary protection from the Italian authorities, the cramped Salaam Palace occupants face difficulties in regards to obtaining legal residence and access to health care, while they must also wait patiently to renew their residence permits. All of these circumstances limit their employment prospects and their real integration into Italian society.

The dozens of satellite antennas hanging in a bunch from the building made on impression on me as a desperate attempt to get with the times. Volunteers offering medical and other services kindly indicated to us that it was not the right time for us to take pictures of the interior and thus upset the beleaguered people. Point taken.

La Barbuta

Mehmet Elia is a father of eight children and is a clothes selling street vendor. He immigrated to Italy in 1992 from Sarajevo because of the Bosnian war. 26 years later, he is still waiting to get the Italian citizenship. Due to his Roma background, the Italian government has placed him for the last six years in the infamous nomad camp “La Barbuta”, where he lives with his family together with hundreds of others, in conditions barely fit for humans. Almost every night, toxic fumes from the uncontrolled burning of garbage make the atmosphere suffocating. He confides in us about the discrimination, degradation and marginalisation that he has experienced, as well as the anti-Gypsy sentiment that exists here. He also makes reference to the indifference of a country that is sinking daily within its own contradictions.

The nomad camp “La Barbuta” couldn’t have been placed at a worst location. It is in the middle of nowhere, right below Ciampino Airport’s runway, the secondary international airport of Rome. The choice was not accidental, and came after ten years of intense pressure from citizens who wanted the Roma “as far away as possible”. While the previous camp, Tor de' Cenci‎, also had its own problems, there were at least schools, doctors, public transport and other services to be found in the area, which gave people the feeling of belonging to a wider community. Now, the Roma children that have the opportunity to go to school need 45 minutes daily to get there by bus, and then another 45 minutes to return home.

The ghettoization, the way in which these people can only reach the “outside world” by bus, the military rationale upon which the camp has been built, the ban on cars entering and the permanent police control of the entrance and exit to the camp have all contributed to the oppressive conditions and the great discontent that exists.

The whole area around La Barbuta has been turned into an illegal rubbish dump for toxic and hazardous waste. Fires are almost a daily phenomenon, as mountains of rubbish are burned together with plastic, asbestos and other toxic material that has accumulated. This results in the release of black fumes that create problems for all the residents in the area.

The symbol of defeat

It has been described as “a real masterpiece without a future”. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, Palanuoto was started in 2007 in order to host the 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome. The project was abandoned mid-way because of ever increasing costs, with hundreds of millions being thrown out the window. Although the project formally remained under construction for a few years, it has now been virtually abandoned. Only one of Calatrava’s two roofs are in place, with the second roof’s absence standing out like an open wound.

In 2011, the newspaper “La Repubblica” described the space as “where even a worker’s shadow cannot be seen”. As Marco explained all this to us, we were surprised to see that works were being carried out on the construction site! There were floodlights, trucks and workers ready for action. The mystery was solved though when we learned that this was a film crew and the workers were extras. A documentary was being filmed, which was to focus on contemporary Italy’s “symbol of defeat”.