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People gathered outside of DalVerme after its closure by police (all photos courtesy DalVerme)

ROME — Following the election of Rome’s first female mayor — Virginia Raggi of the populist Five Star Movement, who won a massive 67.2% in the second ballot — the city awaits solutions to the neglect which has led to overgrown parks, rubbish on the streets, large-scale homelessness of the city’s immigrant population, and poor cultural programming. The decline of the city has its roots in attempts by the former mayor, Ignazio Marino, to clean up corruption in public services, a situation which caused mafioso public contractors to renege on their duties. At the same time, the mayor’s procrastination on the appointment of a director of the MACRO, Rome’s contemporary art museum, together with a series of evictions of prominent occupied cultural spaces, has led to a dearth of cultural activity. Marino served two and half years of a four-year term before a no-confidence vote by his party ended his period in office, which had been marred towards the end by an expenses scandal. This led to an eight-month period of rule by an unelected commissioner, putting the city effectively in the hands of the police, who in recent months have increased health, safety, and licensing controls on restaurants and bars. However, they’ve done little to calm the public fears about crime and disorder that center on the district of Pigneto, the current state of which has become symbolic of years of mismanagement at the municipal level.

Pigneto — famed as a backdrop for neorealist cinema — is a working-class and solidly left-wing district of Rome, subject in recent years to gentrification as a fast-growing bar scene and new metro station have led to rent increases. Unfortunately, this has brought many of the disadvantages and few of the perks of gentrification. Residents often complain openly on the Facebook page Il Pigneto non è spacciato (Pigneto is not given up for dead) about drug pushers, noise levels, needles in the streets, and ineffective policing.

Entrance to DalVerme (click to enlarge)

The area is also home to a number of cultural associations, which enjoy tax reductions and other benefits on the understanding that they produce events. This makes Pigneto one of only two districts in Rome (the other being the neighboring San Lorenzo) regularly hosting live alternative music. For eight years this scene centered on the venue DalVerme, which featured acts such as Wolf Eyes, Alvin Curran, Evan Parker, and Ghédalia Tazartès, among many others. It was a go-to place where one could be assured of quality, affable staff and meticulously made cocktails.

In early May, DalVerme was closed by the police, who cited an obscure Fascist-era law — article 100 of TULPS, Italy’s Consolidated Act of Public Safety Laws — and stated that the music venue had become a problem for law and order. DalVerme responded shortly afterwards with an open letter, writing: “This degrading accusation places our association, dedicated to the promotion of social issues, on par with serious illegal acts such as drug trafficking, organised crime, the exploitation of prostitution, subversion and arms trafficking.” The cultural association has since run a rigorous media campaign via social and mainstream media, together with a number of benefit concerts in other spaces (including the social center Exsnia and the record store Blutopia), to raise awareness of its closure and the dangerous precedent this sets. The campaign has attracted international attention and prompted Billy Gould, bassist of US rock band Faith No More, to write a letter to Rome’s chief of police, stating: “In case you are not aware, Dal Verme is very well known around the world, and they have an exceptional reputation in the music industry for promoting independent, eclectic musicians, and they have enjoyed excellent relations with the artists who have performed there, including myself.”

For many residents of Rome, the closure of this space dedicated to alternative expression represents part of a wider, worrying trend of clampdowns on left-leaning occupied spaces and cultural associations. In August 2014, Mayor Marino ordered the closure of the Teatro Valle, which had offered a high-quality program of free theater, arts, and educational events since its occupation in 2011. Teatro Valle, situated in Rome’s historical center, is the city’s oldest functioning theater (opened in 1726) and was occupied on the night of a national referendum in which Italians voted overwhelmingly to make Italy’s water system a bene comune, meaning a common good, managed for and owned by all. Occupiers feared that the theater would be sold off to private interests and, following the precedent set by the water referendum, declared Teatro Valle a common good, managed by a committee upon which anyone could serve. Its closure in 2014 was ordered on the pretext that urgent restoration was needed, yet the ostensibly necessary work remains undone, a point highlighted when former occupiers reentered the building for a few hours on June 11 of this year, before being promptly evicted by the police. The temporary reoccupation, which was never projected to last more than a day, was accompanied by an open letter, which stated: “In the campaign for mayor of Rome, culture has not been a theme for discussion … there is a need for imagination. From the piazzas of France the movements of Europe call upon us to speak out not only on cultural politics, but on the possibility to live and act the city.”

Similarly, occupiers of Cinema America were evicted in late August 2014, after offering a long-term program of free screenings of historical and alternative films in protest at the touted redevelopment of the cinema into apartments. These closures have left a gap in Rome’s artistic life, demonstrating that occupied and alternative spaces are vital to the city’s cultural wellbeing.

Peope silkscreening T-shirts that say #riapriamoildalverme (Reopen DalVerme)

For now, DalVerme — which, despite being alternative, had always operated legally — awaits news of its fate. Article 100 only provides for closure of a venue for a period of 30 days (long enough for the police to investigate alleged criminal wrongdoing), so the group has technically been at liberty to resume programming since June 5, although they have not explicitly been given permission to do so and could once again be closed at any moment. The managers remain unaware of the nature of the allegations against them or what prompted the use of a law usually, though rarely, applied to political dissidents. DalVerme, the residents of Pigneto, and all culturally minded Romans keenly anticipate Mayor Raggi’s first weeks and months in office, hoping that a period of political stability at the municipal level might bring an end to years of cultural decay.

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Mike Watson

Mike Watson is an art theorist, critic, and curator based in Italy who is principally focused on the relation between art and politics. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College and has curated...