To many visitors, One of Testaccio’s most unexpected landmarks is the ex Mattatoio – the old slaughterhouse.
But this hulking, half-abandoned urban relics is exactly why Testaccio exists.
The mattatoio was inaugurated in 1890, replacing the slaughterhouse that was located in Piazza del Popolo. As the population of Rome grew, it simply wasn’t prudent to keep slaughtering animals in the center, so the new larger mattatoio was built in Testaccio – an area that was close to the center of Rome but still thankfully the outskirts.
At its peak, Testaccio’s slaughterhouse was the largest in Europe. It was also one of the most technologically advanced.
Each type of meat butchering was confined to its own specific pavilion. Pork in one building, veal in another, sheep in yet another. The carcasses could be transported on a system of large meat hooks, to avoid unnecessary handling or contamination. There was also a microbiology lab on-site to perform analyses.
The location was strategic not only because it was close to the center of the city, but also because of the river. The Tiber wraps around Testaccio, surrounding it on two sides. Just as the ancient Romans used the river to move goods, so could these more contemporary Romans use the Tiber for transporting livestock in and meat products out.
The only problem? No one lived in the area and the mattatoio needed workers. Hence, Testaccio, with its boxy public housing built around communal courtyards, was born. The workers could live nearby in affordable housing and keep the slaughterhouse running.
Too poor to buy the meat that they handled daily, the slaughterhouse workers were also given part of their wages in-kind. Depending on where they worked, the men were given some of the so-called quinto quarto from the animals they slaughtered.
Quinto quarto refers to the fifth quarter of the animal. In butchering, an animal is quartered. However, the blood, intestines, brain, nerves and other bits left behind make up a full quarter of the animal’s weight. These leftover pieces now form the backbone of the cucina romana.
In fact, Checchino dal 1881, which has been open across the street from the mattatoio for 130 years, claims to have invented the dish coda alla vaccinara – braised oxtail named for the men who worked in the Testaccio slaughterhouse.
The slaughterhouse was decommissioned in 1975 and remained an empty shell for many years. As Testaccio set out on its rush towards gentrification, the mattatoio began to come back to life as well. Most of the old pavilions still stand empty and are closed to the public. However, others are now to a contemporary art space and architecture school.
In the back, where animals were once kept in pens, is the Città dall’altra Economia. The wide open space is a bit of an alternative enclave, complete with a hipster bicycle shop and organic market. It is also regularly used for events ranging from vinyl record sales to food and beer festivals.
I love to wander through the mattatoio because of how much it has meant to this neighborhood. I can’t wait to see even more of the pavillions open as new initiatives move in.