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Thinking about Thinking in Rome: part two

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! (To read the rest of the posts in this series, click here.)

September 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 cataloguing 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.

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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 Program. 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. Tonight I’ll try to snap some photos!

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October 1, 2009

Today offered an immersion in classical studies. After working with Marty on next steps for my project in the morning, I enjoyed an amazing slow-food lunch of tomato risotto and assorted vegetables before hurrying to a walking tour of Roman imperial sites led by antiquities scholar Corey Brennan. We jumped onto crowded city buses and rode down to the Palazzo Venezia. From there we walked to the Column of Marcus Aurelius. Corey had arranged permission for us to climb to the top (194 steps on a circular staircase just wide enough for human shoulders, only 5 people at a time). For anyone bothered by heights, the view from the top was overwhelming. From there we visited various ruins that articulated the Colosseum of Domitian, including the Piazza Navona, which retains the form of the giant track used for athletic events. Then on to the Pantheon, which I had visited the day before. In the crowd our group became separated. I eventually located 2 fellow tour members and we made our way back up to the Academy as night fell.

I had just enough time to clean up and join the Academy group in hosting a number of fellows from Harvard’s Villa I Tatti outside of Firenze (Florence) for dinner. The I Tatti folks deliberately spread out among the tables so that many of us could meet and talk. The dinner conversation was, as is usual here, fantastically enjoyable: A Hungarian scholar of NeoPlatonism, the director of the American School in Athens (not part of the I Tatti visit), and a filmmaker from the US were my conversation partners. At the end, to my surprise, I met a colleague from a museum at which I used to work. He and three others from I Tatti lingered to talk after the dinner. We enjoyed stories of the great art historian, Bernard Berenson, who gifted Villa I Tatti and his wonderful collections to Harvard. They urged me to visit the Villa during my stay – a train ride of less than three hours from Roma. What a day! I am ready for bed. PS this is a photo of the group converging in the dining room for lunch.

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Filed under: Education, Travel

2 Responses to “Thinking about Thinking in Rome: part two”

  • avatar
    Donna Heimansohn Says:

    Found your blog while looking up something else on IMA website. Just got back from Italy myself so was lured in by your descriptions of Rome (haven’t been there yet) and captivated by food photos. Led me to your other blog about the Ghost Opera, which I just finished watching. Wow! thank you for the video. Hope you are enjoying what must be your last few days in Italy.

  • avatar

    I think Rome is cool! I been there once,there food is

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