I have the incredible privilege of spending four weeks at the American Academy in Rome as an Affiliate Fellow, representing the IMA. From time to time I hope to post some of my adventures and discoveries here. What a ride!
Sept. 26, 2009
Tomorrow I fly to Philadelphia; later that evening, I leave Philadelphia for Rome, Italy. The plan is for me to work on an interview project (more about that later) at the American Academy. This incredible opportunity is possible because the IMA is an institutional member of the Academy. That means the IMA is entitled to send a staff member for an Affiliate Residency of four weeks each year.
Tonight, after some fairly frantic days of preparation and with one whole suitcase full of voice recorders, cameras and various recharging and power adapting devices, the whole plan feels pretty fantastic and abstract. Someone just asked me where I’ll be at this time tomorrow night. I guess the answer is, “somewhere over the Atlantic.” Yikes! I’ll write again when I get to Rome.
First week in Roma!
I am fascinated to observe the effects that linger here at the Academy from Alice Waters’ project. They call it the Rome Sustainable Food Project and it’s local, organic and seasonal. The dishes are simple and healthy – not rich. People who came to the Academy earlier in September describe an amazing phase of creations made from peppers and tomatoes as local gardens peaked. We seem to be in a radicchio and fennel stage now. Besides these I’ve already seen dishes with beets, onions, all sorts of peppers and tomatoes, those flat Italian green beans, carrots, potatoes, squashes of various types, and romaine. There’s always very good bread. Polenta, deliciously prepared, is a frequent vegetarian alternative when chicken or pork is served. Organic yogurt and honey with fruit is consistent for dessert at lunch, whereas dinner often concludes with an amazing baked confection or granite with cream. One of Alice’s own from Chez Panisse, Mona Talbott, is the executive chef here and the creative force behind all of this, assisted by a talented staff and interns from several prestigious culinary schools. Mona seems to thoroughly enjoy the work. She stands nearby or sits with various diners to get their reactions during meals.
The communal lunches and dinners are amazing for conversation as well as for the food. It’s an unusual and talented group! I really find the people part very exciting. The subjects of mealtime conversations range wildly, from Eero Sarinen (including the IMA’s Miller House!) and modernist architecture, to water issues in a city that still runs its fountains from ancient aqueducts, to a provocative poem by Lucretius on the nature of reality.
My project is starting slowly. I’m revising some of the materials and waiting for approval from the staff here. I’ve been advised to hold off on starting until I get a sense for the unique culture and rhythms of the Academy. That makes sense to me. The Fellows and other artists and scholars here are rightly protective of their time. I hope to conduct interviews with members of the community on their experiences with art, design (architecture, gardens, etc.) and meals. I’d like these to be enjoyable.
Sept. 30, 2009
This morning I went on an orientation tour of the library at the American Academy in Rome. It is a beautiful library, both conceptually and physically. Imagine sitting in small reading rooms next to wide open windows (no screens) that open onto idyllic Italian gardens. Imagine several floors of stacks that go down into a kind of crypt, and also those small, ladder-like circular stairways that lead to upper-level shelving. Imagine an aesthetic of contemporary simplicity and book preservation science in harmony with warm, traditional wooden desks and chairs. The cataloging system is unique to the Academy, neither Dewey nor Library of Congress. The fellows and residents here have wonderfully generous access after they’ve taken the orientation tour.
Over lunch I listened in as experts in Classical, Medieval and Renaissance studies earnestly debated the reasonableness of the term Dark Ages. Is it useful to say that ancient Classical knowledge – about architecture, for example – was forgotten and then revived in the Renaissance? Later, after I had made as much progress as possible on my project, I set out on a long hike from the Academy’s perch on the Gianicolo hill – with a stop at Bramante’s Tempieto – down the stone steps and across the River Tiber to the Pantheon. If you never took a survey of art history course, you might not know that the Tempieto is a miniature Renaissance “classical” style building of elegant proportions designed by the architect Donato Bramante in 1499. The Pantheon, by contrast, is a large Roman temple originally built in 27 BC, then rebuilt around 120 AD. After the lunchtime conversation, it seemed fitting to visit one of the most famous examples of Renaissance architecture and the nearly 1,900-year-old domed structure that inspired its maker.
This evening (Wednesday) most of the Academy community attended a lecture by the organization’s President and CEO, Adele Chatfield-Taylor. It presented the “story” of the American Academy since its founding in 1894, through wars and many other challenges. Several parts of this story were especially affecting: the commitment to cross-disciplinary conversation, the struggles to quell objections from scholars to the inclusion of artists, and the decision to develop the Rome Sustainable Food Project. The last mentioned is a commitment to local, organic and seasonal food inspired by chef and food educator Alice Waters. In so many ways it is helping the Academy achieve it mission to enable creative communication and collaboration. Meals are now a complete delight! That means people want to “eat in” and to linger in long, enjoyable conversations. I’m tempted to start including detailed descriptions of meals in my blog posts! Let me cite the post-lecture dinner as an example. It began with a delicious and aromatic pasta dish with Porcini mushrooms. A couple of us had special servings, made with rice-pasta – the kitchen happily accommodates all special diet needs! The pasta was followed by a delicious radicchio salad, then a course of fantastic broiled cheese. The dessert looked delicious, but I had to let it go.