The group moved from the bar into the sitting room, lit a fire and started talking about how far they had progressed in speaking Italian. Dan H. “I always felt bad about myself because I do not speak another language. When I learned I was awarded the Rome Prize, I was determined to learn to speak Italian. The other day, an old man stopped me on the street and in Italian asked me where the children’s hospital was. I replied, correctly, in Italian.”
Dan continued “The American Academy in Rome is like an American cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. Everything you need or want is right here. You might never learn Italian, if you never leave the Academy.”
This conversation took place at the end of week one of my stay at the American Academy in Rome. I had gone from being completely intimidated to cautiously comfortable among the group at the Academy. About 90% of the people in residence have a Ph.D or are working on their doctoral thesis, the other 7% are well-known artists. I was part of the 3%. I considered myself the odd man out.
The first thing people ask you at the Academy (sometimes before they ask your name): What is your project? After a few misguided attempts, I realized I had to deliver my undertaking in two sentences. “I am here to look at Italian garden devices of 17th and 18th centuries: to see how they move people through space. I believe these spatial manipulations can be used in contemporary meadows”.
The Academy sits to the top of the Janiculum, one of Rome’s many hills. It’s physical position mirrors its physic location. Once inside the gate, you feel you’ve been given the keys to a kingdom. You’ve entered a rarefied sanctuary. You are one of the chosen. Everyone appreciates their good fortune. Mari Yoko Hara, A Rome Fellow in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, who has a two-year gig, told me she wished she could stay at the Academy forever.
You in a beautiful place, you eat communally with food provided by the Rome Sustainable Food Project, an Alice Waters initiative; the Academy arranges walks with scholars, which are organized to places around Rome hard to get into unless you know someone; lectures at least once a week by scholars or artists: in addition, Reynold Reynolds, another Rome Fellow and filmmaker, turned his studio into a movie theatre for a film every Tuesday.
Best of all, the small intimate bar which opens at 8 am and closes at 10 pm. For those with a local pub in their lives, this might not seem important. I was addicted to the place. The walls are decorated with self-portraits of former Rome Prize winners. During the day, drop in for a cappuccino and strike up a conversation with any number of people, including the bartender. Before dinner, a glass of Prosecco was definitely de rigeur; after dinner grappa for sure. This little routine became habit forming fast.
Living the dream is addictive. Time is suspended. You are in your own head space. Everything is taken care of. The only thing to be concerned about is meeting the goals you have set for yourself… and walking up the many steep steps from Trastevere to the top of hill, back to the Academy.
Rome Prize Winers are nominated and receive Fellowships for one to two years. In addition, there are Italian Affiliated Fellows and AAR Scholars in Residence.
I was a visiting artist at the Academy for two weeks.