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The Museum Drug Store, Rome, Italy

In the 300-block of the via Portuense in Rome, next to the Blockbuster Video store, is an unprepossessing storefront with a sign designating it the Museum Drug Store. Already quite peculiar (for Italy) for being open 24 hours a day, what you find inside this convenience store is astonishing.

The via Portuense is the old Roman road that led to Portus, one of the ports of Rome. It basically follows the Tiber to the sea, avoiding the river's turns; Portus is on the north side of the Tiber's mouth. In antiquity roads leading from Rome (and other cities) were lined with tombs, because it was generally religiously unacceptable to bury the dead within formal city boundaries.

Later, the area was mined as a source of pozzolana, a species of volcanic ash which was used to make the special hydraulic concrete the Romans used (Rome is built on a giant field of compacted volcanic ash that came from the system of volcanoes now most visible in the Colli Albani, the famous Alban Hills). In more recent times, the district along the road in the vicinity of the city was the site of fairly nasty oil refineries. The refineries are gone, but the neighborhood's still a long way from being gentrified.

For years, as the refineries were torn down and buildings put up in their place to house Rome's swelling population, Roman tombs were found along the road and destroyed. The Museum Drug Store represents an attempt to meld capitalism and archeological sensitivity in one pretty awful setting. So on the site that was to become the Museum Drug Store, when a tomb was found, the area was excavated and a block of ancient tombs perhaps 15-20 meters square was exposed and tidied up.

These tombs were then englobed by the building, which was designed around it. The owners manifestly wanted to make it a chic spot and installed a disco/bar around the tombs (which are in a sunken area and surrounded by railings); the entrance to the convenience store is in the atrium with the entrance to the disco. The tombs were to be both attraction and decoration. When I first saw it (in 1996), the place was air conditioned, neat as a pin, and looked reasonably prosperous. I admit I found it interesting, and it seemed like a via del mezzo to preserve archeological remains and yet recognize the priority of the needs of the living. A recent visit (2005) reveals that the complex has fallen on hard times.

No longer air conditioned, and reeking of stale cigarette smoke (rare in Italy, despite being a nation of inveterate smokers), the defunct disco has been clumsily cordoned off, and some of the space has been devoted to a video game arcade. The didactic plaques set up to explain the site have been vandalized in all the predictable ways. The convenience store is still there, though dirty and poorly run. And the tombs?

Well, they're still there, of course. They haven't been cleaned in a long time. One of the larger tombs, cut from the living rock of the roadside, had a nice mosaic floor which cannot now be made out under a thick layer of dust. Rows of cinerary jars, where Romans disposed of the ashes of their cremated dead, are exposed to view; the point is to show how ancient tombs and columbaria were laid out. What has happened is predictable. The fallen types who now frequent this place make a game of pitching their cigarette butts into the exposed ash urns--wot larks!--and hundreds of them cover the parts of the tombs closest to the railing.

Such a strange site, with its hopeless-but-optimistic blending of diametrically-opposed views of development, doubtless holds some sort of lesson for those interested in the benefits and pathologies of Disneyland. Here you're being exposed to "real" things as a mode of attracting you to spend your money in the establishment, but at the price of destruction and degradation of the real objects. At Disneyland, nothing is real, though a simulacrum of reality is presented as an attraction, and this demeans the visitors; there are of course no big problems with degradation of the physical plant since it has no intrinsic value beyond construction costs.

But despite the presence of the convenience store, why call this place by the English name 'Museum Drug Store'? I have never seen anything to indicate where the name comes from, but if I were a bettin' man, I'd say that someone involved in the development had been to Wall Drug in S. Dakota. Wall Drug--no more a drug store these days than the Museum Drug Store--is certainly an egregiously fake place, but there are perhaps just enough real relics on display to have given the Italian developers the idea. Certainly the Italians have a fascination with the American West and love to tour it.

Update, August 2008: The Museum Drug Store appears to have gone out of business. The strip mall building in which it (and the Blockbuster Video store) was found has been boarded up and the store signs removed or covered up.

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