Climbing down the Spanish Steps and walking into the narrow shopping alley Via Dei Condotti, Caffè Greco here opens a window to the past. A coffee bar dating back to two and a half centuries, it is the oldest breathing caffè in the city of Rome (second oldest in Italy after Caffè Florian in Venice). The history associated with the caffè and its prime location in the expat neighborhood draws local and international tourist crowds all year long. Keeper of the architectural heritage of its period, this place played refuge to the artists and intellectuals of the nineteenth century.

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Antico Caffè Greco ©www.anamericaninrome.com

Caffè Greco – an art museum 

Gilt mirror, red upholstery furniture, and stucco- the interior here qualify for a period caffè. Originally styled with Baroque aesthetics, the details certify the authenticity of the setting. With velvet carpeting every room the coffee bar houses one of the city’s nicest bathrooms, spotless in marble affairs. The true historic charm of the place is exhibited by the artworks of over 60 artists hung on the burgundy walls. About 300 frames along with oil paintings and poetry decorate the caffè interior. Sale for one makes place for the next to come. An Italian painter Stellario Baccellieri defines this caffè as a museum, others call it a temple of art. The culture here allows the visitor to grab a corner, makeover the settings, and enjoy his ‘coffee and cornetto.’ This is a place that inhibits a deep sense of belonging for every visitor.

Caffè Greco has an exclusive clientele that includes Byron, Keats, Ibsen, and Casanova. Charles Dicken, Mendelsohn, and Princess Diana all passed through these doors and sipped one of the finest espressos in Rome. The caffè went through historical turmoil and has witnessed wars and revolutions. Standing still is a coffee culture that passed the test of time.

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Red Upholstery Furniture © www.cool-cities.com
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Walls decorated by Artworks © www.cool-cities.com
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Coffee and Cornetto Counter © www.cool-cities.com

What caffè was? What caffè meant?

Opened in 1760, Caffè Greco gained significance during the late eighteenth century when Rome became a pilgrim for intellectuals. A chain of coffee shops became cultural institutions. Drink coffee, make contacts, get acquainted with the world news and party, a lot of activities brought this antique setting to life. Despite the diverse client profile, Caffè Greco roofed like-minded discussions and contrary debates as well. People divided by borders and languages were brought together by shared interests and a common love for coffee. This place also held a mail stop for people like Ludwig Passini and Thorvaldsen, who were to transform the art world in the coming years.

The traditions of the coffee house raised a new typology in the catalog of public space in no time. Back then, Caffè Greco was upstanding as a forum that was open to all, regardless of any administrative or judicial protocol. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas considers these coffee bars significant for the development of democracy. A place where new ideas were formulated to reform social order and opposition to monarchy was freely expressed and accepted. It was the shift from these cosmopolitan coffee bars that led to the formation of many artists’ associations.

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Painting by Ludwig Passini – Artists at Caffè Greco (1856) ©www.arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk

The struggle for Existence

Acknowledging the heritage value of the place, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage declared Caffè Greco as a protected property in 1953. Beginning with the first, this caffè was opened by a Greek owner (hence named Caffè Greco). Over the decades it has witnessed multiple companies and managements co-existing with the ownership terms. In September 2017, with the termination of the existing lease period, the rent was raised by six times. Opposition by the manager gave this dispute a social face. In 2019, ‘the cultural marathon’ was organized as a protestant step, to celebrate and preserve the culture and architectural heritage that the place holds. Music, theatre, and poetry were all part of this battle for the coffee bar’s survival.

Caffè Greco – Today and Tomorrow

With the spark of the Industrial Revolution, Paris replaced Rome and became the new mecca for the art fraternity. Caffè Greco still stands in line with the old school shops holding its glory and significance from the past. Except for the world in and around has changed. The place no longer draws art maestros and literates. Nevertheless, the interior is still intact and artifacts here comprehend the noble stories. Predominantly functioning as a tourist pad, Caffè Greco hosts a welcoming environment for international tourists and natives. The grand piano and the bowtied baristas are magnets for world travelers.

This classic ambiance comes as a high-ticket on the pocket. Espresso by the bar counter is a privilege if delivered by the table. Yet all of this is worth it. The caffè foyer has become a comfortable spot acquired by the tourists round the clock. Though the patronage of the place shifted from intellectuals to wanderers and trippers, the soul of the caffè is still adorned by its ethnic interior. The arched passageways, lightings, and marble tabletops are all reflections of its founding era. The fine setting comforts the modern tourist clientele while the memorabilia, mementos, and the customer trails mark its history.

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Caffè Greco since 1760 ©www.anamericaninrome.com
Muskan Singh
Author

Compulsive speaker and an attentive ear to the other side of the story. She believes in the power of architecture and stars.

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