by Roderick Conway Morris

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La Dolce Vita Revisited

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 27 May 1994
Reporters Associati
Orson Welles on the Via Veneto, 1958



Via Veneto had, by the late 1950s, become not so much a thoroughfare as an ongoing celebrity soap opera. On a good night its couple-of-hundred-yard strip of bars and restaurants attracted more stars and big names - from Audrey Hepburn, Anita Ekberg, Anna Magnani and Gary Cooper, to Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel - per square café table than anywhere else on earth.

Men were men (and not infrequently several sheets to the wind), starlets were as likely to appear with a leopard on a leash as a lapdog, and current and former VIPS such as the exiled King Farouk of Egypt, made spirited attempts to throttle intrusive photographers.

There were public scenes galore, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra offering, so history relates, almost nightly performances at Via Veneto's Excelsior Hotel, as the couple slugged out round after round of their tempestuous marriage - the staff looking on, as powerless to arrest the conflict as the average UN peacekeeping force.

In 'La Dolce Vita,' Fellini immortalized Via Veneto's hyperactive lifestyle, lights and crawling stream of honking traffic - out of which, every so often swooped Vespa-borne, kamikaze paparazzi, flash guns blazing - in such appalled and loving detail that the street itself became a star of the film. Via Veneto was then such a maelstrom of activity that the director had to build a replica of it on a lot at Cinecittà to shoot the scenes set there.

But after the binge of the '50s and '60s a protracted hangover set in. The beautiful people ceased to be beautiful, or moved on elsewhere. The famous watering holes - Café de Paris, Doney, Strega and Rosati - lost their luster and began to close down, some for prolonged periods, others, it seemed, forever.

Eighteen months ago two establishments were shut by the health inspectors. Brief notoriety returned when it emerged that some of Via Veneto's remaining bars had become a favorite place for gray men in gray suits to hand over cash-filled envelopes - the stock-in-trade of Italy's 'Tangentopoli' (Bribecity) scandal. But by last spring the Italian press was gleefully declaring the party over - and Via Veneto well and truly dead.

Last summer Via Veneto's top strip, leading up to the Porta Pinciana gateway in Rome's third-century walls, where show biz's monde entier used to gather, was closed to traffic by the municipality - prompting some cheerful souls to predict that this was all that was needed to transform the once teeming drag into a hushed Memory Lane.

But the Via Veneto Association - a group of hoteliers, restaurateurs and residents dedicated to reviving the street's fortunes - led by Mario Miconi, who started his career as a bellboy at the Excelsior in 1948, and is now its director, living in the hotel (describing himself as the 'Prisoner of the Via Veneto') - thinks otherwise.

'Every other major capital has a closed section of the town for pedestrians - so why not Rome?' said Miconi, as we took a stroll up the middle of the Via Veneto, where the old traffic markings on the tarmac are crossed by new benches, flower beds and slightly surreal, artificial grassy mounds that have erupted here and there, sprouting shrubs, bamboo thickets and even (as in cartoon desert islands) solitary palm trees - all installed with money raised by the association.

'We want to improve the street in all kinds of ways - hold concerts, exhibitions and other events to bring people here and show that it is still alive,' said Miconi. Already, the famous old bars like Café de Paris, Doney and the refurbished Harry's Bar, all previously closed, are functioning again.

Meanwhile, the Swiss jeweler Chopard, attracted by Via Veneto's new image, has opened its first shop in Italy there. Strega, once a celebrated literary hangout, which used to award its own annual book prize, belongs to Wimpy and is being converted from a fast- food outlet into a more stylish rendezvous (though whether today's literati will be able to afford the prices remains to be seen).

'Before the war,' said Miconi, 'Via Veneto was most of all a place for Italian writers and intellectuals. The Americans discovered it when Rome was liberated, General Mark Clark made his headquarters at the Excelsior and the Palazzo Margherita down the street became the U.S. Embassy. That's why the American movie stars started coming here in the '50s.

'In those days people came by ocean liner, with piles of cases and trunks and their dogs, and stayed for weeks. It's not like that anymore - everybody's in such a rush these days, they don't feel they have time to sit around in cafés.

'But now the street's been closed to traffic, the quality of life here's changed for the better. We don't want to try to re-create 'La Dolce Vita' - it was like La Belle Epoque, and you can't repeat eras like those. But we do hope to encourage people to come here, to escape the Roman traffic, and spend a little time talking and relaxing - after all, just talking can be a cultural activity, you know.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023