Profile: Hope Wurmfeld's Memory of Rome, 1964

By David Schonauer   Friday May 18, 2018

Hope Wurmfeld
’s love of Rome began 53 years ago.

That’s also when she discovered her love of photography. As she came to discover, the two passions — Rome and photography — are abidingly linked.

In 1964, Wurmfeld moved to Rome after marrying her college boyfriend, who was living there for year on a Fulbright scholarship. She’d taken a leave of absence from grad school and was expecting to spend the year doing research for the McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Art. “But fate,” she says, “had something else in mind.”

Until then, noted CNN last year, Wurmfeld’s life had been focused on painting and art history. But on the Roman black market she bought two Leica cameras, several lenses, and a light meter. “They became my constant companions, whether marketing in Campo dei Fiori, waiting for the #55 bus on Viale Trastevere or walking to St. Eustachio’s after midnight for the best coffee in Rome,” she says.

Wurmfeld would go on to be a noted photographer; her work is included in private and public collections, including that of the Museum of Modern Art, the Bibliotheque Nationale, the New York Public Library, and the Archives of the National Museum of American History. But it all started in Rome.

“I was at the beginning then and everything was new,” she says.

It was while going through her archive of negatives — she was deciding which images to digitize — that Wurmfeld rediscovered the images she’d made with her Leica M3 during that yearlong Roman holiday. “I said, this has to come out, this doesn’t exist anymore,” Wurmfeld said in a video  interview last year, when her photographs of Rome were exhibited at New York University’s  Casa Italiana Zerilli / Marimò.

Stefano Albertini, an NYU professor and the director of Casa Italiana, told CNN that he was immediately struck by the quality of the images. “They almost seem three-dimensional," he said.

They also captured an Italy on the cusp of change, as it evolved from an agricultural country to an industrial one, said Albertini. "They are like a time capsule,” he noted.

“Intuitively I knew that I was witnessing the passing of an era, an historic moment that the modern world would soon overtake,” says Wurmfeld.

The work is now collected in a book, Vintage Italy 1964. But Wurmfeld is not done with Rome.

This month Wurmfeld is returning to Rome as a visiting artist at the American Academy to photograph the contemporary city using the same camera she worked with in 1964.

It isn’t her first trip back, of course. In 1964, she and her new husband lived on the western side of the Tiber in one of the oldest and at that time poorest neighborhoods of the city. Recently she revisited the area.

“I was wandering around in my old neighborhood in Trastevere, looking at the slicked-up version of the entry to my apartment on Via della Luce and thinking, ‘Well, yes – the more it changes, the less it looks like the old neighborhood than ever. No more streaks on the walls from electric wiring, no more barber or metalworking shops, or forno or latteria.”

But at the corner of Via della Luce and Vicolo del Buco, she saw something that caught her eye: a wooden doorway with an overhang of green vines and a sign reading “Trattoria Pizzaria dalla Gino alla Villetta.”

“I walked past and suddenly stopped. Gino alla Villetta – could it be? Might it be Gino from 50 years ago? The boy who got himself into trouble but was always protected by the neighborhood cognoscenti?”

She decided to ask a waiter about Gino – except that she’d never known his last name. “Finally, I decided, indelicately, perhaps, to ask whether Gino was an old man,” she says. The waiter led Wurmfeld inside, where a white-haired man — “not that old really,” she says — was sitting in the back eating a plate of pasta.

“I approached him and asked if he remembered Michele and Speranza, who lived at 55 Via della Luce many years ago. Slowly, a smile, and Gino rose to hug me.”