A portone (lit. big door) is the main door of a building onto a street, and in Italy they tend to never reveal much. Usually, such as in Renaissance buildings, there is a private open-air courtyard once you go through them.
The Umbertino era buildings however (from King Umberto I, meaning late 19th century) tended to be built on the outskirts of expanding cities where space was more plentiful. (They are now usually part of the downtowns of cities which have since expanded even further.) So like the Renaissance palazzi, the portoni of these larger buildings also hide access to a cortile, yet in these cases the portoni act as gates to cortili of staggering proportions.
Step through the portone, passing the portineria (doorman’s kiosk) of the ever-watchful portiere (doorman/concierge), and you are usually greeted with one or more landscaped islands of flowering bushes and trees, fountains, and potted flowers everywhere.
There are also common utility areas such as bike and motorino parking spaces, and of course the pebble paths that lead to the various scale (stairwells) of the apartments. Lounging cats always abound.
Enter a cortile during the evening or weekend when the children are home from school, and you’ll have to look both ways at every step to avoid being run over by tykes on trikes racing around the paths (often with the portiere hollering and chasing them). If you survive the races, you might not survive the errant soccer ball, which incurs the hollering wrath of (mostly 1st and 2nd floor) parents instead, threatening repercussions if a window gets broken. (Se rompi er vetro te rompo a te! Roman for “If you break a window I’ll break you!” Or the all time Roman classic Se te fai male te meno, a categorical “If you hurt yourself I’ll spank you.”)
Look up and you will see how all the apartments have such windows facing the inside of the cortile, out of which flowers as well as laundry is usually hung. (Electricity is expensive in Italy, space inside the flats is limited, and the weather is good, hence…).
Walk into such a cortile at noon on Sunday, and the cumulative and compounded smells of the main weekly family meals being prepared by the mamme and nonne wafting through the air is enough to buckle knees.
This cortile is actually so big that it has a building of its own in the middle of it. This cortile building now holds a nido (lit. nest, meaning nursery school) with a storage space converted into a handy stroller parking area, but it obviously was once a multi-purpose space that included the bucataio (communal – hand-washing – laundry room) and Pediatric medical facility (obviously for the entire neighborhood, not just this building’s residents).
The cortile also proudly displays the various Roman bits mounted on a wall in the ingresso (foyer, entrance) that were likely unearthed whenever construction work or repairs have been done on the grounds.