Frogs. Fairies. Gargoyles. Demons and diplomats. Medieval towers and surreal sculptures. Rome’s Coppedè Quartiere is a curious place.
As I walk through its entrance, an enormous arch plastered with scowling stone faces, I find a group of young students sketching their surroundings in the afternoon sun. Their eyes trained to the strange architectural features that make Rome’s “fantasy quarter” so unique.
From the outside, Coppedè looks like some fantastical castle dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkein. Two intricate towers rise on either side of the colossal arched entranceway. A wrought-iron lantern dangles at its centre. Inside, a warren of detail awaits. Touches of Florence and Venice entwined with medieval Rome. Grotesque gargoyles and head-spinning geometric doorways. Art Nouveau opulence to the extreme.
In truth, the Coppedè Quartiere is no more than a block. An architectural anomaly in a city famed for its era-spanning architecture, particularly from antiquity. Squeezed between the Parioli and Trieste districts—a far cry from the tourist-choked streets of Trastevere and the Centro Storico—its bizarre blend of styles makes for an interesting detour in the Eternal City, and the perfect stop when you travel to Rome.
The Coppedè Quartiere takes its name from the man who created it, Gino Coppedè, a Florentine architect with an eye for the unusual. Designed between 1915 and 1927, this quiet spot is the greatest work of a man little known outside of Italy.
“Think of Gaudí in Barcelona. Mendelsohn in Germany. Those architects of that period had that attitude of mixing and adding to older styles, such as Greek and Roman neoclassical,” says Daniele Meledandri, a private tour guide in Rome.
We take a few steps into the neighbourhood to Piazza Mincio. At its centre stands Fontane delle Rane (Fountain of the Frogs), Coppedè’s wonderfully weird centrepiece. A nod to Roman tradition and history, frogs sit around its bowl rim endlessly spitting water back into the fountain.
“Water was always very important in the ancient city of Rome,” says Meledandri. “In every neighbourhood in Rome, for example, Trevi, Trastevere, you have a fountain. Not only to refresh, and give public water but for propaganda.”
Fountains, it turns out, were a great way for the elite—Popes, emperors, and the like—to remind the unwashed masses of their glorious benevolence. Coppedè probably had a more tongue-in-cheek motive for his amphibian choice of model.
The best examples of the architect’s eccentric work sit around Piazza Mincio. The Villino delle Fate (the Fairy House), with its wonderfully over-the-top medieval fixtures and detailed friezes, looks, as its name suggests, as if it has been plucked from the pages of a fairy-tale. It’s also the Where’s Waldo of Italian references: Keep an eye out for Romulus and Remus, the fabled founders of Rome as well as Dante, and the lion of Venice.
To the right, you’ll find Palazzetto del Ragno (The Spider Palace). Distinctly Assyrian with two imposing columns on either side of its entrance, look out for the mansion’s namesake detail: a golden spider lurking above the door below the solemn face of some unknown god. Designed for ambassadors and the super-wealthy, some mansions house embassies, while others, affluent apartments.
The surrounding area is hardly a tourist hotspot. In Trieste and Parioli, things are much more residential and relaxed. Instead of teeming crowds and long lines, it’s neighbourhood wine bars and sprawling parks. Pinsa spots (Roman pizza) and workaday cafes. Local markets and lesser-known museums. It feels like the Rome of Romans present, not past.
And while the area offers an alternative Rome city break, the ancient city isn’t too far away, either. The stately gardens and masterpieces of the Villa Borghese are 20 minutes away on foot, while the Vatican, the Colosseum, and Pantheon are all easily reached on public transport when you want to tour Rome.
After Coppedè, I stop in at Caffetteria Susina, a relaxed neighbourhood wine bar. As the sky begins to darken, tables fill up with the after-work crowd, calling in for a few before heading home. I take my time to wander the wide streets of Trieste into Parioli. Between the elegant apartment blocks, I discover ancient tombs and crumbling monuments; Rome’s iconic stone pines rising over peeling plaster walls.
Historically an upscale residential area, Parioli is starting to shake off its upmarket image, drawing in a younger crowd. The Hoxton, the hip London hotel group, has just launched The Hoxton Rome, its newest hotel, here; its cool bar-cum-coworking space sits somewhere between a Wes Anderson movie and a New York speakeasy. I half expect to see Don Draper sitting in the corner, slinging back an Old Fashioned. Instead, I see a millennial crowd, clacking away on laptops between aperitivi.
Federica Pini, PR & Brand Manager, at The Hoxton Rome, explains how the area is perfect for travellers looking to experience Rome like a local, without missing out on the big-name attractions. “It’s still a very vibrant neighbourhood. There is a sort of shift from something more classical to something more contemporary,” she adds.
At the nearby MACRO, one of Rome’s boldest contemporary art museums, new artistic director Luca Lo Pinto is also doing his bit to draw new blood to the area. Unlike most Italian museums, MACRO is free to enter. Housed in one of Peroni’s old warehouses, its abstract collection of multi-media art offers the perfect contrast to Rome’s many fine art galleries.
Later, I stop at Marziali 1922 in Piazza Caprera for dinner. The place is packed; serving classic Roman food in a modern setting. Cacio e pepe over deep-fried artichoke. Aubergine parmigiana. Octopus cooked with fresh endive. Sat below a canopy of hanging plants, the crowd feels familiar, the atmosphere relaxed. Rome living and breathing; the perfect place to experience the city how it is now.