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As Old as Dirt

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Going underground at the American Academy in Rome


I landed in Rome today in a downpour, flown in on Vueling Airlines from Paris by a pilot and co-pilot who looked like they were 15 and 17, respectively. Luckily, my near-death experience was not to be fully actualized until a few minutes later when the taxi driver would take me to the American Academy weaving through traffic at 90 miles an hour, smoking and checking text messages the entire way. Soon, I would tuck and roll out of the vehicle and land smack in front of the massive gates of the school, clinging to my soggy suitcase which is bursting at the seams with art supplies.

Two Italian security guards out of central casting buzz me in and collect my passport, while another Italian man appears, clearly the welcoming committee for the school. He’s there to get me to my room and studio. I’m set up in a small cottage on the academy grounds, and am brought to my studio in the main building — a cavernous space with 40 foot ceilings and at least that in floor length. The first thing I do is place a tiny, shapely carved marble statue on my desk overlooking the enormous windows. I found it at a Paris flea market yesterday and this will be my temporary goddess and muse on this trip. It’s no Michelangelo, but it is lovely company and maybe some sort of magic will rub off on me. I feel like it already has.

The first time I heard about the American Academy was indirectly as I was at the British School in Rome in 1992 for a three week residency doing etching. I was 23 and had heard of the program through my art college in Norway, and to this day I’m not exactly sure how I ended up with a spot there since I was neither British nor part of the London school running the workshop.

The British School was exactly how you would imagine - a grand building on the outskirts of the Borghese Park — the exterior had apparently featured in the 1959 film production of Ben Hur. The British staff and educators were witty but formal, as Brits tend to be. Tea was served in the garden. It had in its library one of the largest collections of Piranesi prints depicting scenes from the Grand Tour. It was almost perfect.

My teacher David was a doe-eyed, Italian-looking English man about 15 years my senior who looked very much like a young Omar Sharif. He spoke Italian badly, enunciating every word with a heavy British accent, not even attempting to sound like a local. He immediately developed an enormous crush on me which would make my life hell for the duration of the stay.

Now, this wouldn’t have been an issue per se, because I had no interest in anything besides working, and certainly not starting some sort of romantic interlude with the married teacher. However, it turns out that my room mate Prudence, another student in the class, was madly in love with him. She had followed him from London to Rome, in hopes of seducing him. I know this because she was helpful enough to yell this at me, crying, on our very first day in our joint room. The roof of the British School had a plateau you could walk up on, and I made the mistake of having a smoke up there with David, looking down and joking about the nightly line-up of cars that met up with prostitutes, male and female, in a dark corner of the park visible from the rooftop. Prudence, having shadowed David upstairs, found us there chatting and laughing and god help me I spent the rest of the residency suspecting she might actually try to poison me with ferric etching acid. Nothing at all happened with this David. He insisted, kindly, on driving me to Orvieto after the program was done, with a quick side trip to some muddy lake which he insisted would make a fine swim. Although nothing untoward ever happened, my white swim suit never recovered. I don't think Prudence did, either,

The second time I heard mention of the American Academy I was here on my honeymoon with my fiancee at 33 years old—another David—and we stayed close by the American Academy on the Janiculum Hill. I say “fiancee” because we never actually got married. We set a date three times, and my nerve-wracked and neurotic love cancelled on me three times after having panic attacks. Finally, I suggested we might just go on the honeymoon and forget the rest of the marriage business for now, which we did, and we had a lovely time. Needless to say I left him shortly thereafter.

I started dating again and met a very attractive guy who perhaps put a bit too much effort into his personal appearance. His name was David. Kind, fun to be around, waxed within an inch of his life, and excited to travel, we planned a trip to Rome, and while we were here I again thought about the school up on the hill and if I’d ever get around to applying for time there. Our trip was great, though not very romantic. I suspected David might be bisexual. Of course, I was wrong. It turned out he was completely 100% gay.

So, I’m finally here at the Academy at 50 years old, divorced single mom of one boy. No neurotic fiancees or gay boyfriends or teachers staring at me like they want to throw themselves at me. But indeed all these stories play into my history of being in this place, and the visits that led me to seeking to come here again so many years later. Ironically, I’m here now to study the catacombs of Rome, the layers of history underground which are invisible but continue to affect our lives today. That was my proposal to get in here, so I’ll be spending a lot of time underground.

Before I left, my friend Sarah gave me a grey rock with a circle vein of quartz running through it, saying it was a lucky rock for me as I came back full circle to Rome. How right she was. I’ve placed it right next to my marble Not-David, perfectly-formed goddess statue on my desk here in this massive studio. It’s still raining out and I imagine the rain trying to clean the history-tainted streets outside, but never getting all the stains out. I’m not so interested in all these shallow top layers any more, all these cobblestone roads and piazzas on the surface, places that were the backdrops from my strange, youthful visits. The rain doesn’t bother me, I want to look at at what’s underneath, what lies below the surface of this beautiful city.

And I really hope there are no Davids here. UNDERGROUND

You know what’s funny? Doing the same stupid stuff over and over again. I don’t mean me personally, although arguably a lot of my biggest personal mistakes in life have their root in just that. I mean historically. And not just doing stupid stuff and forgetting what a bad idea it was, but forgetting things altogether. As a person. Or a nation. Or a species.

People forget really quickly. Maybe we can’t help it.

Take the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. Gorgeous building, from the 11th century. Imagine it’s the 1850s you’re a guy sitting in the church and notice the floor is uneven and you look into straightening things out and discover an entirely other church from the 4th century underneath the church. Then you start shoveling some dirt out of the basement and you find a pre-Christian temple and some other buildings under that again.

Or, you go to bury someone—I dunno, maybe a Pope or something—under the floor of St. Peters Cathedral, and you’re like DAMN (although obviously you say this in a nice, Catholic way) because it turns out there’s an entire road and necropolis under there. Throw in the (presumed) bones of St. Peter for good measure. SURPRISE!

Maybe you’re digging around in the outskirts of Rome in the 16th century and discover 4 floors of tunnels holding close to 30,000 bodies from the 1st to the 5th centuries AD? Didn’t see that coming. Maybe you start walking down one of the walkways AND DISAPPEAR FOR THREE DAYS BECAUSE IT’S 15KM MILES LONG. So easy to miss.

This is so prevalent in Rome, there are so many of these stories, it’s insane. Or maybe just very human. In any case, it’s the focus of my project here. I’m trying to make something visual that connects with this issue, and it’s no easy feat--mostly I'm just spending a lot of time seeing these places and hearing the stories. This underground world of layers upon layers of forgotten history which suddenly see the light and a whole lot of people who cannot understand how anyone could have just forgotten about AN ENTIRE BUILDING OR 30,000 DEAD PEOPLE.

To me, this Roman history is such an amazing visual representation of the things we forget all the time, also today. History and learned lessons that we feel are so a part of our makeup that how could we possibly lose track and fall into the same traps. How can we forget such important things, things that seem like they are the foundation of our life, the structures that hold us, protect us, and keep us safe.

It just takes a couple of generations, and maybe looking the other way while stuff is getting covered up, and not paying attention properly. It seems we as humans are very, very good at that.

We need to do better.


Because I’ve scheduled research excursions for tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday, I felt that I could today walking around the city and getting reacquainted. This included visiting my favorite building, the Pantheon.

Last time I was here, there was much hysteria about the McDonalds on the square in front of the building, and I can personally tell you: you can relax, it’s nothing to worry about. One) because if it IS still there, they have completely disguised it to fit the ancient surroundings, and two) even if it WAS still there, who the hell cares? The Pantheon stands there like a fucking mountain and you could have a Walmart in front of it and it would make no difference. How many stores, hotels, or gelaterias have been in that place? The Pantheon will outlive everyone, maybe even civilization itself. I felt this very strongly as I pondered this with my Tiramisu and Nocciola gelato in hand this afternoon, watching the street vendors hawking stupid, cheap trinkets to all the first-time tourists. The history is so powerful that all you need to do is go in, be quiet, and listen. Everything you need to know is in the air, not the massive, important tombs tucked away under slabs of marble. Raphael, Caracci, Emmanuel II, Umberto I, to name a few.

The great thing about the Pantheon, in that massive space with its perfect dome, is that you look up at the occulus, the open hole in the ceiling that has seen two millenniums worth of rain, sun, and snowfall, and know that every king, queen, leader, and icon of note has stood in that very spot and looked up. But also, everyone who comes to Rome stands there, not just those historic people. It’s very humbling, being a part of that space in whatever capacity.

The American Academy has a bar, in addition to its dining room. You get your coffee there in the morning and you get your drinks before dinner in the evening. The Italian guy behind the counter doesn’t speak much English and has been a bit formal with me since I got here. I’ve been trying to break the ice, not only because I like my coffee, but because I like my pre-dinner cocktail. You need to be friends with the bartender.

The back and side walls of the bar have countless portraits of past fellows, winners of the prestigious Rome Prize for the last 125 years. As a mere visiting artist, not a fellow, I’ve been studying these while having my coffee or Aperol. Ah, to witness that company! To talk to those people! To be a portrait here on these hallowed walls!

Tonight I did notice, on the bar, was also a bunch of turtles. I hadn’t seen them earlier. They comprise a small collection at the end of the bar. I asked the somewhat stern bartender about them. His face lit up as he showed me the turtles. It’s a little turtle collection, he explained, smiling sheepishly. He unpacked all the turtles for me to examine. Some of the turtles had turtles within the turtles. Some turtles were made by children of some of the visitors. Some were carved in stone, some were bejeweled and somewhat kitschy. I gathered that they were his turtles, or at least he had a great affinity for them. As you say, there were turtles all the way down. All had their perfect domes.

I decided then and there that I must find a turtle for the bartender. He and I might not have a portrait on the wall here, but a turtle will have its place, even for a little while. The history is important, but the human stories within the history are important, too. All you need to do is be quiet and listen.


A couple of people have asked me if being in Rome and researching catacombs has been somewhat depressing and the short answer to that is, yes. Yes it is.

Although depressing is not the right word, exactly. And to be fair, the excellent food, wine and coffee have done their share to keep me fortified and not going into an existential tailspin. I’m not exactly slogging my way through doom and gloom here, it’s a pretty cushy existence being fed gorgeous meals twice a day and having unlimited time to create things. Just enjoying this short time to be present.

If I am totally honest, the layers of death have comfort to them. Rome has a way of living side by side with so much history and death — like, literally, bones under your feet in a crypt filled with 30,000 people, or the pelvises hanging from the ceiling formed hapharzadly into a chandelier are so old no-one really cares who the person was and what they did. Bones are like old bricks here. You don’t exactly know where they came from or how they ended up here but you know they served some purpose at some time.

Chunks and fragments of marble panels from another millenium, presumably found around the building site, are cemented into the walls of structures now, gracing the walls like decorative mosaics, their message irrelevant except for those few academics who bother to decipher them. The white shards look like an ice floe breaking apart. This photo is from the courtyard wall of the Academy, and there’s a lot more where this came from.

Basically, all context is gone. The old overgrown ruins are not lived in, the words on the fragments of rock are not read, the bones belong to unknown people who might as well have been made of dirt.

The beauty of Rome is that faced with so many piles and layers of the past — either in the form of buildings or bones — makes you not take yourself so seriously. The crypts are not creepy, they are strangely reassuring. I came out of one of these ancient underground excavations to witness a murmuration of starlings over the church, and I stood there with my mouth agape for quite a while before I thought to grab my phone to record it. For what? To share it, of course, but I might have been better off just putting my phone away and enjoying it for however long it lasted. I’ve never seen a murmuration before and I may never see it again. Tens of thousands of anonymous birds in a display that lasted just a few minutes and then was gone forever.

It’s important to be grateful for these brief moments of beauty. It’s all we really have.

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