As a visitor, when you ride the streets of central Rome for the first time it’s impossible to keep your eyes on the road. The layers of the city run three thousand years deep and demand attention. Soft, pastel earth tone buildings blur into rough, bumpy hundreds of years old gray cobblestone streets that weave around hard-to-believe architectural masterpieces like the Colosseum (72 AD), Piazza Navona (86 AD), the Trevi Fountain (1700s) and the Pantheon (118-28 AD)[1]; these are the literal backbones of Western architectural history, both in their design and remarkable construction.

The interior of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, an independent country in the center of Rome. St Peter’s was built in the Renaissance and Baroque eras (16th Century), designed by Michaelangelo, Bramante, Maderno and Bernini. It replaced the original St Peter’s built in the same spot by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century (late Roman era). The building is absolutely massive, and the interiors overwhelming in their lavish ornamentation with enormous sculptures, marble panels, and gold leaf. The top of the central dome pictured here is nearly 400′ above you. It is a space intended to humble viewers with the vast power of the Catholic Church, which is still the second largest landowner on the planet, controlling 177 Million acres. The world’s largest landowner? Ah, colonialism has been very good to the British Royal Family…they control 6.6 Billion acres around the world! [Mike McCabe]
Then over a bridge across the Tiber River to the Trastevere working-class section of the city, that is now also home to young creatives with a late-night café lifestyle. Near the river in northern Trastevere, a few blocks from the first suburban Roman home, Villa Farnesina built in 1508 by a wealthy banker Agostino Chigi[2], is undeniably the hippest bar in the city: Freni e Frizioni (Breaks and Clutches). The storefront-sized space was originally an early 20th century mechanic’s shop with workbenches, lathes and drill presses where motorcycles, autos and machines of all designs were repaired.

Groovy bar in a hip neighborhood, built in a converted auto workshop: Freni e Frizioni. [Mike McCabe]
The bar/restaurant is legendary for its generous early evening aperitivo[3] spread and its ‘Punk Is Not Dead’[4] vibe. Bartenders are known by name[5], their creative cocktails, and also by their playlists of classic CBGB’s ‘70s / early ‘80s music: Kool Thing by Sonic Youth, The Passenger by Iggy Pop, California Uber Alles by the Dead Kennedys, Pretty Vacant by the Sex Pistols, Nervous Breakdown by Black Flag and Straight to Hell by The Clash, set the tone and push back against the din of rush-hour motorcycles rumbling over the rough cobblestones outside the bar’s front door. The square, not rectangular shaped cobblestones of Trastevere are unique and called ‘sampietrini’ which means ‘little Saint Peters’ named for the area where the stones were first set in the 16th century. The smaller sized stones have sharp edges and throw off a different sound as your tires pass over them. Freni e Frizioni’s general manager Ricardo Rossi has worked hard over the past 15 years to create a successful bar. “Our greatest pride is that we are a high volume bar, always full of people for 15 years and over time we have managed, while maintaining these volumes, to change, to improve something. We have become more international, we have raised the bar for the quality of drinking for quite some time.”

Ancient architecture…in two parts. A fantastic Baroque church in central Rome, showing the square cobblestones common on most roads in the ancient heart of the city. And a Harley-Davidson XL Sportser. [Mike McCabe]
The streets of central Rome are old-world narrow and curve respectfully around the ancient architecture. Rome is slightly larger than New York City but the population of 2.873 million is less than half of the Big Apple. Traffic density reflects the population numbers and the speed of the flow is relatively calm. It’s rare to hear angry, blasting horns. Roman vehicular tastes are shifting noticeable away from gasoline towards micro-sized, EV options. The city is also fast becoming a two-wheel town where this year (2023) motorcycle sales outpaced auto sales. The Italian motorcycle market is hot: September sales were up 17.5% and year to date sales at 286,265 are the best performance among the big 5 countries in Europe, and reflect the best year out of the last 15. The European motorcycle market is growing: The third quarter 2023 was very positive, with the overall market up 32.6%. Beyond standard motorcycles, scooters and step-through motorcycles make up 20-30% of Rome’s total traffic numbers. The most popular bikes in Rome are the Benelli TRK 502 with around 3,715 sold 2023, followed by the BMW R 1250 GS, and Yamaha Tenere 700. It’s best to behave yourself when riding in Rome, Capitale motorcycle police ride agile and quick Ducati Multistrada 1200s and Moto Guzzi V85TTs with speeds that top out at 140 MPH.

Welcome to Roma, where the cops are faster than you, riding hot Ducatis and BMWs with tremendous skill on the cobbles. [Mike McCabe]
The wheel was invented in lower Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in the 4th millennium BC but it was the Romans who built a huge, encompassing, and especially durable road network that facilitated transportation. The Roman Empire measured almost 1.7 million square miles and included most of southern Europe. The Romans built the most sophisticated system of roads the ancient world had ever seen, and used it to create reliable connections between its people and government. These roads, many of which are still in use today, were constructed in strategic layers, with a foundation of large stones, then layers of progressively finer gravel, then topped with bricks made from granite or hardened volcanic lava (the cobblestones of Trastevere reflect this same use of materials). Roman engineers adhered to strict standards when designing their highways, creating straight roads with a crowned center to allow for water drainage. The Romans built over 50,000 miles of road by 200 A.D. that were primarily used to enable its military conquest efforts. These roads were often managed in the same way as modern highways are today. Stone mile markers and signs informed travelers of the distance to their destination. Special soldiers oversaw the day to day on the road system and acted as an early version of today’s Roman Capitale motorcycle patrol. Some things never change.

The Colosseum remains a magnificent structure, its concrete mostly intact, with restored areas inside showing it many layers both above and below ground level. Even mock naval battles were staged inside at times, and our word ‘arena’ comes from the Latin word ‘harena’, the fine sand that covered the floor of such ampitheaters. [Mike McCabe]

[1] The most fascinating part of the Pantheon is its giant dome, with its famous hole in the top (The eye of the Pantheon, or oculus). The dome was the largest in the world for 1300 years and to present remains the largest unsupported dome in the world. Its diameter is 43.30 meters (142 ft). [The Romans perfected building with concrete and used it extensively for 700 years, from 300BC to 476AD.  As they ‘cooked’ their slurry with warm seawater and used crushed volcanic rock, their concrete is self-healing and thus much longer-lasting than contemporary concrete – ed.]

[2] Chigi was a banker from Siena known for throwing incredible dinner parties that ended with him asking his quests to throw all the priceless dinnerware out the window into the river as testimony to his wealth. Unknown to his quests, Chigi had nets below the windows to catch the pricy dinnerware.

[3] Apertivo refers to an after-work Roman tradition where bars put out a spread of tasty appetizers for their customers to eat while they are drinking. This early evening meal is one reason why Romans are known to eat their diner late.

[4] “Freni e Frizioni Bar Selection is a Draft Punk project, a beverage research and development company that values innovation and focuses on continuously redefining the product. For us, creative cocktails is synonymous with freedom; we mix and match flavors to create drinks to share with our costumers”.

[5] Riccardo, Manuel, Alessandro, Michele, Christopher, Fabrizio, Alice, Cristian, Silvia and Andrea.

Aperitivo time! That’s dinner to a lot of busy Italians, stopping by their favorite watering hole and paying a modest sum for delicious ‘appetizers’ at 6pm. The best bars are usually considered thus for the quality of their aperitivo. [Mike McCabe]
A 1950s Fiat beer truck used as a display in Trastevere. [Mike McCabe]
Leave the gun. Take the connoli” – good advice from The Godfather. [Mike McCabe]
Punk is Not Dead: a fave tee from Freni e Frizioni, here seen in their CBGB-style bathroom. [Mike McCabe]
A nighttime square in Trastevere, looking at one of the iconic Stone Pines that define the region, and an ancient campanile (bell tower). [Mike McCabe]
At Villa Farnesina, the ceiling mural by Renaissance master Raphael depicts the story of Cupid and Psyche: the seduction of Psyche by Cupid and four great tasks set upon Psyche by Venus on the arches, and the grand wedding banquet – the resolution of the story – on the central panels. [Mike McCabe]
Scooters scooters everywhere! A pair of vintage Vespas provide local color, although a considerable percentage of motorcycles are electric in Rome these days. [Mike McCabe]



Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.


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