When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do (Gagnam Style)

I love Piazza del Popolo. It’s a truly grand space — at the north end of the “Trident” formed by Via del Corso, Via del Babuino, and Via di Ripetta.

The Nolli map of the "Trident," circa 1692-1756.
The Nolli map of the “Trident,” circa 1692-1756.

The piazza was traditionally the entrance to Rome for those intrepid travelers on the Grand Tour, and was designed in a Neoclassical style in the early 1800’s by the architect Giuseppe Valadier. In the middle of the piazza stands an ancient Egyptian obelisk — one of the oldest and tallest in Rome — which was brought to Rome by Augustus and erected here in the 16th Century (previously it stood in the Circus Maximus). The obelisk is surrounded by marvelous lion statues, spitting water into a fountain.

The ancient obelisk in the heart of Piazza del Popolo
The ancient obelisk in the heart of Piazza del Popolo

Two massive fountain groups stand at either end of the long axis; the Pincio Hill lies behind one of the ends, with its waterfall and trees, inviting you to climb for the view and then stroll in the Borghese gardens.

View of the Pincio from Piazza del Popolo
View of the Pincio from Piazza del Popolo

On the other axis are the city gate, the Porta del Popolo, by which stands the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (with its Caravaggio paintings), across from which are the lovely “twin” churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto. The entire surrounding area was specifically designed by Valadier to be harmonious and to create a visual impact.

The piazza is pedestrianized, and a fun place to hang out. It has two venerable cafes, Canova and Rosati. My father liked Rosati, while I am partial to Canova. There are frequently concerts here, such as a military or school band. Musicians busk here, and sometimes fabulous, unexpected things happen — like when Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler spontaneously played here in 2013.

Military band playing in Piazza del Popolo (alas, not Steven Tyler of Aerosmith)
Military band playing in Piazza del Popolo (alas, not Steven Tyler of Aerosmith)

One of my favorite all-time memories of Rome happened at Piazza del Popolo in 2012.  Laura and I were coming back from MAXXI, one of the city’s modern art museums, and we hopped off the tram and walked through the Porto del Popolo to find an enormous crowd in the piazza. My first thought was this was a protest, but everyone looked way too happy for that. We waded through the crowd, but couldn’t get any further than the obelisk. Was it a concert? If so, it certainly wasn’t the usual crowd for a military or school band performance. There were thousands and thousands of people here, mostly in their teens or twenties.

I glanced at a pleasant looking middle-aged lady with a happy, tail-wagging dog. What was happening? I asked. She had no idea. I turned to the teenager on my other side, and asked him the same question. The kid looked at me and then proceeded, in the most polite (formal) way possible, talking very, very slowly. At first I though he was speaking this way because he knew I was not Italian. But then I realized he was talking to me this way… because he thought I was old.

Gentle sir, the kid began. There is this thing called the Internet, and people can use it to send messages to each other. They get the messages on their computer or phones. People sent out a lot of messages and told each other to all meet here at this time, and everyone showed up.  I realized where he was going… Oh! it’s a flash mob! The kid was momentarily stunned, but then beamed and said excitedly, yes, yes, a flash mob! He clearly was very surprised that I was not a total idiot, considering I was over 30 (confirming that teenagers’ sentiment about 30+ year olds is shared across the world). The woman next to me asked what a flash mob was, but before I could answer, it began. The music started blaring, and thousands of Roman kids began simultaneously singing and dancing to… Gagnam Style.

So, as the saying goes, we did as the Romans were doing. Laura and I joined the chorus (the only words we knew), screaming “Eh, Sexy Lady — Op op op op, oppa Gangnam Style!” and waiving our fists around in a circle while jumping up and down. The kids smiled at us and laughed as they kept dancing because clearly we were not only old, but also crazy. The lady with the dog grinned in a somewhat bewildered way, and the dog kept wagging its tail and watching everyone. Yes, we were two people among an estimated 30 thousand Romans in a giant flash mob, in a magnificent piazza in the heart of this amazing, ancient city.  A bit surreal, unexpected, and totally joyous.

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