ROME—The eternal city may be one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but after wandering around for a while, everything admittedly starts looking the same. The marble chunks and fallen facades of the Roman ruins all start to blur, and, really, just how many church ceilings can one take in a single day?
When you start to feel masterpiece fatigue, head to the delightfully bizarre district of Coppedè, a quartiere just north of the city center. It’s one of Rome’s best kept secrets and a neighborhood that quite bafflingly rarely makes the standard guidebooks or tours. The tiny neighborhood was constructed by Gino Coppedè, an architect from Florence with an eye for intricate sculpture and offbeat design.
The neighborhood is made up of lavish villas named after fairies. It has spiders jutting out from a central square wrapped around a fountain with spitting frogs. Coppedè started the project in 1913 as an homage to some of the work Antoni Gaudi was creating in Barcelona. It was his attempt to bring a little of the art nouveau scene that was gripping other European cities like Barcelona to the somewhat staid Italian capital. In all, he designed 26 buildings and 17 individual villas that are now among the most enviable of Roman addresses. Properties are hard to find and expensive to rent or buy when they are available, which adds to the elite feel of an area which is inhabited by diplomats (there are several embassies nearby), writers, and noble families who have lived there from the beginning.
Enter the area on foot under the “arcone” or massive arch at the corner of Via Tagliamento and Via Dora in front of the famous Piper Club. The arch, which Coppedè fashioned as a doorway style entrance to his fantasy neighborhood, has an ominous hanging wrought-iron chandelier that sways in the wind. It’s adorned with seahorses and other creatures engraved in the thick metal. The walls and ceiling of the arch are decorated with a fantastical collection of faces and figures that change with the light. A statue of Coppedè himself adorns one wall—a sort of stone selfie of the great architect.
From the arch, head straight ahead towards the frog fountain on the tiny Piazza Mincio in the middle of the street, but take a moment to look to the left to note all of the carved faces and bodies jutting out of the apartment block. Each one has a slightly different expression. The Beatles played at the Piper in 1965 and urban legend has it that the fab five loved the whole area so much, they ran down the street and jumped into the frog fountain at the end of their last set.
The Villino delle Fate lies straight ahead with its polka-dot top floor and half arches that makes it look like it was built in fits and starts. The massive residential building is dedicated to fairies and legends with whimsical mosaics and sculptures adorning the oddly shaped structure. There are images of Florentine writers Dante and Petrarch and an ode to Florence embedded in the facade.
On the right side of the frog fountain is the Palazzo del Ragno or the Spider Palace, adorned with a giant long legged spider sculpture above the main door under the stern looking carving of a man. The upper floors are themed with extravagant engravings and marble work.
The third large building on the frog fountain square doesn’t actually have a name, but if its psychedelic entrance looks familiar, it’s because it has long been a favorite of horror movie makers. Scenes from The Omen were shot here in 1976 and it also appears in the 1976 film The Perfume of the Lady in Black and the 1980 film Inferno.
Most of the rest of the buildings in the area are hidden behind high fences and lush hedges, but it’s easy enough to peak through for a glimpse of the magical architecture. Each one is uniquely designed, incorporating animals, scientific signs and religious artifacts with strong hints of art nouveau, medieval, baroque, gothic and mannerist architecture, often all in one facade.
The neighborhood is a source of Roman pride today, but it wasn’t always that way. When it was nearly completed in 1927, the Romans hated it so much that they shunned Coppedè. Distraught, he took his own life. His son later finished his works from drawings found in his studio.