I think about Francesco Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza as I think of so many places: I think about how it serves as a locus, connecting me to these people I have come to love. This is common for me. I experience and re-experience almost all things in relation to a shared history. The story of Sant’Ivo is not by any means a straight line but a circuitous path that leads me to wandering and wondering.
Early in our time there at the American Academy I was walking after dark with the two architecture fellows who would become two of my closest friends there, Thomas Kelley and Catie Newell. We were on our way back from an art opening, and we were walking down the street in the centro. One of them noticed the door to a courtyard was open. I followed as they jaywalked across the street toward the church. (I had already learned a critical lesson of the American Academy: when an architect asks if “you want to see something cool,” you follow them.) We went in what I thought was a pretty normal courtyard. Catie’s camera clicked loudly in the darkness, and Thomas said something about a six pointed star, radial symmetry, spirals…
I can’t remember what he said exactly, but I remember the air was charged, as if something amazing just happened or was about to happen. I remember the soft orange light as if I were seeing it right now. I knew something was happening there, but I didn’t know what. They mentioned that the church was hardly ever open, save for a tiny window on Sunday mornings, and I made a mental note to come back to see it.
One Saturday night months later the historical preservationist Tom Mayes mentioned that he was going to go to Sant’Ivo the following morning, so I asked if I could join him. Tom and his partner, Rod, and I had been on the same flight to Fiumicino Airport, and we rode in the van together to the Academy that first morning. We would regularly sit together at meals and experience the excursions together. There is something I noticed at the AAR a few months in: the meals and excursions are in groups and group dynamics are radically different from one-on-one experiences. After a while, I longed for individual or small group interactions—that intimacy. I followed Tom’s lead through the winding streets of Rome, down the steep steps and hill on Via di Porta San Pancrazio to Via Garibaldi, crossing the Tiber via the Ponte Sisto and left through Piazza Farnese and Campo de Fiori to the lower tip of Piazza Navona and over to Sant’Ivo. It by no means the most direct route, but it was the route that Tom liked, and as a result, it became my preferred route. As I walked, I would remember the stories he told me on the half dozen or so times he and I went together.
One walk was after the Christmas holidays. During my visit home, my two-year-old nephew, Rainer, died in his sleep of an unexplained, unpreventable death. It was hard for me to return to Rome to finish my fellowship. The Sunday after, Tom and I walked across the Ponte Sisto. We were slowly waking up and talking about our projects and how we were doing with our research, and as we crossed Lungotevere dei Tebaldi, he asked about my family. We talked about the difference between grieving over a sudden, unexpected death versus the way we can prepare (a little bit) for a slow death. I told him how when my father died after his long illness, I was there holding his hand along with my Aunt. It was like a great exhalation of relief as my dad stopped his labored breathing. Tom and I turned the corner through the very empty Piazza Farnese when Tom told me the story of his father dying suddenly, so many years ago, when Tom was just a teenager. His cadence shifted. His voice cracked. I slipped my arm around this very tall man as we walked by the merchants preparing their stands in Campo di Fiori. These walks were the way I got to really know Tom.
We went to Sant’Ivo together a few more times before his fellowship ended in March. We would sit quietly like Quakers, waiting until one of us was moved to tell the other a story or ask a question. After he left, it became my routine to be there just as the old priest opened the door a little after nine. The routine would morph a little after the Sunday of the hashtag Due Papi Santi when I went to Sant’Ivo with former Rome Sustainable Food Project intern and all-around-foodie-badass Elise Canup. That morning she suggested that we stop in and get a café at St Eustacio. From then on a frothy cup of sugary espresso became a part of my Sunday morning routine.
During my time in Rome I took a number of people there on different Sundays: my mom, my sister, my kids, friends from the AAR, and friends from back home when they came to visit. I’d feel a kind of pressure to bring out my inner Kim Bowes.[i] I would try to remember dates or point out the radial symmetry or the symbols of the seventeenth century papacy, but I would always fall short. I mentioned this to Catie one day after lunch at the bocce court after she’d mentioned taking her brother to Sant’Ivo. I asked her how she talked about it with people she took there, and ever wise, Catie said that she doesn’t say anything. She just lets the building do all the hard lifting. It’s a good model for introduction: bring them there, and then step out of the way to let the person do the looking.
I knew this, having watched the people as they entered Sant’Ivo. They were always quick with the cameras as I was on my first visit. Then a wonderful thing would happen if they stuck around long enough. Almost everyone would reach up, open mouthed, with their arms and fingers stretched out as if they could actually feel the structure of the dome or its alternately concave or convex walls and trace its contours with their fingers. I would watch this week after week and smile a little, knowing this place isn’t just magical for me.
I went there every Sunday the last four months I was in Rome. I would listen to my iPod and make these dumb little drawings. I would find parts in the building that make the muse quicken. I call them “little parts” because Sant’Ivo is one of those things that is so great that I am afraid if I were to look at all of it, my head might explode.[ii] So, I would draw the acanthus leaves in the capitals, the funky assortment of houseplants, the out-of-whack tiles as they reach the edge of the walls. I would take it in slowly. As I drew I would think about all the strange and powerful things at play in my life right now and think how lucky I was to be here in that place at that time. I savored every moment. I don’t know what these drawings will turn into, or if they will lead to anything at all aside from themselves. I do know that they help me feel a connection to that place, this thing that is so much greater than myself. That has always been my hope for the things I make in the studio, that they will somehow be a bridge between me and these magical places and these wonderful people, a conduit that allows me to carry these experiences and this love with me as I go into the world.
An epilogue of sorts:
In the beginning of my last month in Rome, I went to Sant’Ivo for what I thought would be the first of four last Sundays. The door was locked tight. After searching the web in vain, I returned to the Sant’Ivo courtyard later in the week to find a printed notice that the church would be closed July and August. I was devastated that I didn’t get to have a proper goodbye.
Luckily, just a few days later, the Academy liaison, Giulia Barra, emailed me to tell me that my request from earlier in the year to visit the second floor balcony of the church had been granted. I, with Thomas and Catie in tow, rounded the corner, fully caffeinated from frothy espresso at St. Eustacio. I told them not to worry: if I started crying that it would be out of joy and not sadness. Catie explained that it would be alright if I wanted some alone-time in the church. I explained that, despite the crowds, I felt alone every Sunday morning in that little church. This time I wanted to be there with them. After some pleasantries in my horrible Italian with the priest Don Sergio Bonanni, we were escorted into the compound.
After going through a door or two, we found ourselves there on the second floor balcony looking down into the church. We soaked in that view—one we knew we would probably never see again. The light was strong that morning, and it was disorienting but altogether lovely to see this space I came to know so well from an entirely different perspective. It took a moment to reorient myself there on the balcony. There was the pew where I regularly sat, there was the scroll-heavy chair I drew that one day, the breaks in the regular pattern as the tiles neared the walls. We took in the details on the capitals we could only be able to see from that nearness as well as the fissures in the otherwise smooth dome.
Don Sergio then took us down to the ground floor. We walked around the space, alone with the doors closed. It was all ours. Eventually we found our way to a pew where we sat together in the quiet, holding hands, Thomas on my left and Catie on my right. Through the tears, my eyes wandered over the details of the building then to my friends’ faces. I watched them as they looked at Borromini’s church. As I did I felt time slow and stretch out before me as it never had before. I became keenly aware of how long that building had been there, surviving wars, riots, and whatever else it had seen in the last four hundred years. I thought of the three of us together in that particular moment and how that visit was different from the all the ones before.
I remembered how they looked to me that night in the courtyard, how they seemed so new to me, and then how wonderfully familiar their faces seemed now. We were the same people but also somehow radically different because of our time together: our early morning walks, bocce playing, dinner devouring, and our late night dancing. As we left, I noticed that the building itself felt somehow changed, as well, and richer with our shared histories delicately added to its layers.
[i] Dr. Kim D. Bowes was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge of the School of Classical Studies while I was there. She is, without question, the smartest human being I have ever met. She somehow manages to know everything while making you feel like you are also smart, even though, in reality I don’t know much at all. She was a fountain of knowledge, knowledge and information that would slip through my fingers like water.
[ii] These occasions or places are rare. I remember my wedding day and the day of the birth of my two children, I had to take in little parts of the world otherwise if I were to look at all of it, as a whole, it would just be too much for me to handle.
The short answer is that it was a magical place. The American Academy in Rome is a little parcel of heaven plopped down on the tallest hill in Rome. I cannot imagine it having been better or more fruitful. For eleven months, I was provided delicious food, a large studio, and a generous stipend. I was surrounded by some of the smartest, most beautiful people I’ve ever met.
From time to time on this tumblr, I will try to think about the long answers out loud, not out of a desire to illuminate the interweb but as a way for me to unpack this strange, unearthly experience. As a part of this process, it might be helpful to put some of the thoughts into words for my own sanity and sense of clarity.
In my final few weeks there, I was haunted by a reoccurring scene. It is Rutger Hauer’s last scene in Blade Runner. Maybe you remember the story: Hauer plays Roy Batty a human-looking robot known as a replicant. His particular model has a fixed lifespan, and having nearly reached the end of his life, he’s returned to Earth to find his designers to see if he can somehow get more time, more life. Harrison Ford plays a cop who hunts down renegade replicants, and in the stormy final face-off, Hauer defeats him. Roy explains, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time.” It is a beautiful, wrenching scene that has stuck with me since I was a teenager. I remember thinking in Rome, That’s like me. I’ve seen Kim Bowes and Elizabeth Fain-LaBombard make giant prawns into finger puppets to squeak out Dan Hurlin in Trani. I’ve wandered down into the fog filled ravine in Mattera in the early morning hours and watched Catie Newell take pictures of dewy spider-webs. I’ve heard Eric Nathan play Radiohead’s “Karma Police” on the trumpet at three in the morning in an undisclosed location. I’ve spun around awestruck inside the Vatican’s golden Sala Regia with Sheramy Bundrick. The list would continue as long as I would let my mind leaf again and again through the glossy picture-postcards of memory.
At some point, the dying of Rutger Hauer’s replicant always tripped up that analogy. Realizing that analogy was entirely too maudlin (I hope to hell I’m not going to die anytime soon), I set out in search of less melodrama. I’ve settled on two. The first one is short, and like all good analogie, involves the last scene in the series finale of Newhart. Now, Newhart was Bob Newhart’s series that ran from 1982 to 1990 where he played the owner of a Vermont bed and breakfast overrun with a wacky cast of characters. In it he’s married to Joanna, played by Mary Frann. It’s also important to know that the decade before, from 1972 to 1978, Newhart starred in The Bob Newhart Show, where he played an awkward New York City therapist, and his wife was played by Suzanne Pleshette. So, the final scene in the later Newhart, after being knocked unconscious in Vermont, Bob wakes up in bed of his very dated 1970s New York apartment and shakes his wife awake, only it’s not Mary Frann but Suzanne Pleshette, saying that he’s had the strangest dream: he was an innkeeper in this tiny Vermont town.
I like that one because it’s short and to the point, and it’s got Bob Newhart, which makes anything a little more surreal. But there is still something lacking in that analogy. Here is where Star Trek: The Next Generation comes in. One episode of T.N.G. from the fifth season, “The Inner Light,” is unlike most shows in the series. There are no interactions with the godlike Q, nor are there any laser battles with the Borg or the Romulans. “The Inner Light” is a singular, stand-alone episode. In it we find the Starship Enterprise with Patrick Stewart’s character Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the bridge. As The Enterprise approaches a satellite of unknown origin, Picard falls to the ground, unconscious. It’s apparent to the other members of his crew that this satellite is somehow the cause, so they are reluctant to disengage or destroy the satellite for fear that it may make the captain’s comatose state somehow worse. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart awakens not in his captain’s uniform but dressed as a laborer on another world; a strange woman calls him by a different name, saying he’s just recovered from a fever and that she is his wife. Picard tries to figure out what happened and asks all the right questions, but the bottom line is that everyone there on this draught-stricken planet recognizes him as an iron weaver named Kamin. Finding no possible way back home, eventually he lives a full life as this man, falls in love, becomes a vital part of his community, and even learns to play the flute. Near the end of the episode, when Kamin is a withered old man, his middle-aged daughter invites him to see the launch of a rocket that contains a probe. He realizes it is the same satellite that he encountered a lifetime ago as Jean Luc Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise. Awestruck, he watches the rocket go up. Suddenly all the people from his life on that doomed planet reappear as their younger selves, and they explain that the satellite was made to insure that their story will live on, that by living this life as Kamin, Captain Picard will be able to carry their stories with him, to share their lessons so that their lives will not be forgotten. Suddenly he awakes again, this time as Captain Picard, on the floor of the Enterprise where he has been unconscious for the twenty minutes or so.
This may be the best way to describe it. I feel a little like that, I was a father, arts-activist, painter, and art teacher at a liberal arts college in Memphis, and the next thing I knew I had been awarded the prestigious Rome Prize, I went through a divorce, I sold the building where I had my studio and lived with my family for nearly a decade, to find myself bathed in Rome’s powdery light at the American Academy. It was an alien land with an entirely different set of parameters and expectations where I had experiences that slowly shifted my fundamental understandings of my life in art. A place where my once broken heart flourished and swelled out of all proportion. A place where I could fall madly in love with so many people in so many different ways for so many different reasons. A place where I grew to know people who would become my greatest heroes.
Unlike Picard who had to rediscover that the Enterprise was his really his home, I know that both places are real. They are both lives I have lived. I will spend the rest of my life unpacking and processing the lessons from my friends in Rome. I will do what I have always done: go to the studio and think of them as I paint. I have no doubt that we will once again sit across the table from each other and talk late into the night. I said it many times there in Rome, at the communal dinners, sometimes with my fourth or fifth glass of wine held high, I am thankful to have lived so well with so many for so long.
The episode of Star Trek didn’t end with Picard waking up, of course. In the final scene we see Captain Picard in his ready room, ruminating upon the day’s events. His first officer comes in, bearing a box, explaining that after careful examination of the probe, they found a relic. Alone in his study, Picard opens the box. Clasped in both fists, he holds the beloved flute from his life as Kamin close to his heart as he walks to the window and slowly begins to play the flute. I am here now, awake in Memphis, surrounded by the love of old friends and family. Yes, the unknown waits in front of me, but in my head and my hands, I am holding all of my dear new friends and keeping their stories close.