Testaccio: Then and Now

Rome’s Testaccio Neighborhood is known for its fascinating history and expansive marketplace. ACCENT Rome’s Alice Mangia takes us through the origins of this vibrant neighborhood over the centuries, from its use as a harbor in Ancient Rome to its status now as a destination for exquisite food and community congregation.

In Rome, you can find history around every corner. In some places, it’s ubiquitous: the city is famous for bearing the evidence of its great past. New versus old mix in different architectural styles and narratives and eras overlap, creating the Rome of today. Just think of the Colosseum, the Forum, Trajan’s Markets, or Ara Pacis!

If you move south from the city center and leave behind the Ancient, Baroque, and Renaissance Rome, you’ll find the Testaccio neighbourhood, an example of the city’s thriving and bustling culture.

Sitting on the banks of the Tiber river, Testaccio served as Ancient Rome’s city docks, importing goods from Greece and Spain. Thousands of amphorae, jars used to transport goods, were broken to pieces after the fall of the Roman Empire and systematically piled up. The sheds housing them – testae in Latin- accumulated over the years and formed an artificial hill – Monte Testaccio. The hill, made up of 80 million pots and sheds, now stands 115 feet high, with another 45 feet under the modern street level, protected by an archaeological park that can be entered only under authorization.

The neighborhood had been a busy hub for centuries when in 1888 the city of Rome decided to locate a slaughterhouse (mattatoio) at the site. The construction was enormous and, at the time, very modern. Illuminated with oil lampposts, the area was divided in 4 main buildings. Even the entrance was monumental, topped by the statue of an angel taming a bull.

The mattatoio soon became the hearth of the neighbourhood, bringing workers from the nearby regions. Restaurants, butchers and tanners flourished rapidly. Still today, Testaccio is considered a foodie’s paradise for traditional meat-based preparations such as trippa or coda.

So when in 1975 the mattatoio was shut down, the area fell into disuse. The city had expanded drastically and the slaughterhouse’s operations were moved to the north-east periphery of Rome.

For twenty years, the area was abandoned, and no one really knew what to do with the complex. Only in the 90s did the city of Rome take the lead on the issue, entrusting the Architecture Department of Roma Tre University with the refurbishment of a wing of the mattatoio. Soon, the remaining wings were transformed into spaces for social congregation. As of today, the building hosts the contemporary art exhibition centers MACRO and La Pelanda, as well as the People’s School of Music, and Città dell’Arta Economia, a complex dedicated to organic food, fairs, exhibitions, and music gigs.

Opposite the former mattatoio, the old market got a makeover. A couple of years ago, a covered market completely powered by with solar panels was opened. The traditional stalls are still there alongside the new ones, where a wave of organic, sustainable street food has flourished.

Last summer, Architecture students from the University of Colorado – Boulder visited the area accompanied by two exceptional student guides from Roma Tre University, who showed them around and explained that Testaccio is now considered a positive example of gentrification and a distinctive cultural landmark.

How will this area further transform over the coming years? Only time will tell.

~Alice Mangia, ACCENT Rome

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