All Things Italy February 2023

February 17, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Time Warp and Culture Waves 

Not far from Rome’s colosseum, a skateboard park constructed for a 2022 competition bustles with activity on a winter Sunday afternoon–a striking juxtaposition of sports for the people, present and past.

Hello, friends and fellow Italophiles. And welcome, new subscribers!

Many of you know that I’m writing this month from Italy, while I am a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. I am truly blessed to be working in this idyllic place on the Janiculum Hill, above Trastevere and the Vatican.

A sunset view of the American Academy in Rome, from my apartment
Just before dusk in the courtyard of the American Academy in Rome

Being here, in this position, and working on a project set in the past, certainly has caused me a bit of time warp. I don’t have to pinch myself, to ask what is real and where I am, because every day I have moments that rouse me to the world around me—bustling, chaotic, contemporary Rome. I’m frequently swamped by culture waves. The question: do I float in those waves, or fight them? The swimmer in me says to go with the flow.  

Let me explain. 

My current research project emerges from the book published last year on American women in 19th-century Italy (a brief description of Engaging Italy, just in case you’ve missed that detail in past newsletters and social media posts). I am buried in the nineteenth century. Yet at the Academy, I work in a reading room full of English-speaking Americans.

In the reading room at the American Academy in Rome

Meanwhile, ruins from classical Rome and beautiful architecture from the Renaissance surround me. These take me even deeper into the past and an ancient civilization.  

Ruins of the Villa dei Quintilli on the Appian Way south of Rome

But as I walk down the streets, contemporary culture also calls—in the beautifully decorated shop windows advertising their sconti, or sales, on winter boot, coats, and scarves. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons (well, basically every afternoon), families are in the parks, bundled up, enjoying the sunshine. Teens are a little less bundled, kicking soccer balls or skateboarding with friends.  

And, as I stream the news on Rai 1 or listen to Rai Radio 2, I cannot avoid the horrific realities of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria; the joys of record-breaking LeBron James; the multi-day spectacle known as the Sanremo music festival (the first since Covid shut all down in 2020); and, of course, the Chiefs’ victory in the Super Bowl.   

The culture waves and time warp I feel every day are very, very real. Rather than ask myself, “where am I?” my goal, moment by moment, has been simply to be—and enjoy—where I am.  

Some of these moments are easier to enjoy than others.  

My pictures on social media capture a few of the easier moments.

Afternoon light in the park of the Villa Doria Pamphili, near the American Academy in Rome

These small slices are usually when I am taking a break from my desk work. A reality: desk work consumes most of the day. Meanwhile, rather than bore you with photos of desks, books, and manuscripts, I share here some of the highpoints of the two weeks which have passed since my arrival. 

Meeting Friends while Traveling Alone

Many of my best moments have been shared with old friends as we together do something new.  

First, I reconnected with Wendy Pojmann, author of a fantastic short history of coffee in Italy. Read more about that book here and my quick overview of it here. Wendy is also a history professor at Siena College. Topping those two accomplishments, she’s a creative photographer who just happens to be married to a Roman. Need I add that she spends as much time in Rome as possible? It’s been a delight to have Wendy show me some less-well known spots for food and drink, to introduce me to her parrucchiere, or hair stylist. One of the realities of being away from home for more than a month is finding a salon. Who wants to try a new hair salon without a recommendation??? Certainly not I. 

Wendy Pojmann with our coffee and pastry, above, and my copy of her book, below

Second, I met up with author Anne Boyd Rioux in Sicily. (More on this adventure together next month, which I’ll devote to Sicily.) Several years ago Anne and I connected through our interest in Constance Fenimore Woolson, a nineteenth-century American author who spent the last part of her life in Italy. Among other books and essays, Anne has written a biography of Woolson and edited a collection of Woolson’s short fiction. If you don’t know Woolson’s fiction, and you’re interested in American authors in Italy, you should. Woolson is known as Henry James’s muse. Her fans believe, rightly so, that she outdid James in many, many ways. I mention Woolson in Engaging Italy, but you can see a bit more about her through Anne’s archived blogs and the website of the Woolson Society.  

Anne Boyd Rioux and I at Taormina, Sicily, with Mt. Etna in the background

Note: Anne and I did not talk about Woolson but rather where we are in our journeys as women. Anne is traveling and writing now about her new phase after leaving a long-time position as an American literature professor. You can follow her journey by subscribing to Letters from Anne here

And finally, one of the greatest surprises has been spending time with an American literature scholar, Margarida Cadima, Portuguese by birth and fluent in several languages. Her book on Edith Wharton is under contract, and she’s refining it as she teaches at the American University in Rome. Margarida and I met and spoke briefly at two past conferences. The last two weeks have allowed us to spend more time together. For example, we both wanted to visit an exhibit at the Palazzo Altemps on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle. And so, we did.

Margarida Cadima, at the entrance of “Inventing Life” exhibit of the Palazzo Altemps

On one of my social media posts, I promised to share more about my reaction to that exhibit. Here it is.  

What I loved about the exhibit was that it emphasized “The Artist’s Life.” That’s my phrase, not the exhibit’s. I am intrigued with examining how artists of various types maintain their practices through the years. I recall my visits to Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Oak Park, Illinois, Henry James’s house in Rye, England, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg—very different from one another, certainly—but at each I was fascinated by considering the artist’s (changing) practices over time.  

This exhibit carved the topic of “inventing life” into three points. First, there’s the theme of a place, what Woolf referred to as “a room of one’s own.” She wrote that every woman needed one and that, of course, many women seldom had one.  

But beyond that foundation, the exhibit moved into Woolf’s circle. The second focus, then, was on community. Here’s a quote from the exhibit (an idea taken from Shakespeare’s comedy, Love’s Labours Lost):  

“society is the happiness of life. In other words, being together makes us happy. . . . and that the ideal of a joyful, full life can only be fulfilled through our relationships with others.”
from the “Virginia Woolf & Bloomsbury. Inventing Life” exhibit, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, February 2023

So true! 

The exhibit included many portraits from the Bloomsbury circle, and a few other paintings, with rich color and light. I especially liked the portrait of Leonard Woolf (Virginia’s husband, below), painted by Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister), capturing the dog by his desk. Our creatures of comfort are SO important to our work places. Vanessa’s portrait of author Aldous Huxley, second below, is also quite striking. 

The exhibit’s third part focused on the Omega Workshops, the outward facing productions of the Bloomsbury group. They were a manifestation of the group’s belief that, “living was creating.” I’m quoting from the exhibit panels here again: “Those who live, create: not just works, not just novels, not just paintings, sculptures, or art objects, but a style – a lifestyle, in fact.”

Here’s more of the language of the value of “applied art . . . dominated by the principle of pleasure”: 

How beautiful is it when an everyday object or consumer good can convey a shiver of aesthetic emotion! How beautiful is it when a door is not merely a door but has the sinuous form of a putto or grotesque! And when a Greek key pattern appears on a round table used for eating… It is right and democratic that a useful, necessary object should also be a good that anyone can buy.
from the “Virginia Woolf & Bloomsbury. Inventing Life” exhibit, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, February 2023

The group “sought to provide objects intended for consumption, that were ready to use, but whose singularity and uniqueness would awake an awareness of pleasure in those ‘using’ them. Whatever the object, whether a chair, rug, cushion, stool, or ring, it would re-acquire its entire value of beauty in the utopia of these young artists. Its price was not determined by money: what mattered was the sum and promise of pleasure that it awoke and satisfied.” 

Certainly this language resonates with the language of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, and I’m sure many scholars have written about the genealogies. Without digging into that here, I just want to underscore that although I came to Italy in search of information on a completely different topic, and from a different era, the exhibit’s emphasis on the creative life stimulated me.

The visit initiated a conversation on the topic over the dinner table at the American Academy. To visit exhibits alone or with friends? That was the question. 

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, advises weekly “dates” to indulge the senses in stimulating creativity. Visiting an exhibit can be one of them. According to Cameron, these dates must be alone, so that there are no distractions. There are pros and cons . . . certainly. But Margarida and I were able to get to know each other better through discussing what we saw and our reactions. And we both were stimulated in our work as writers by this time together.

Meeting up with Margarida, Anne, and Wendy has been a high point of what might otherwise include much more lonely time. But the low points? 

Fighting Fatigue in a Roman Winter

Honestly and in short, physical issues:

Cold buildings. It IS winter, and not so bitter cold here, but Italian buildings are not heated like those in the US. And they’re full of stone and tile. Thankfully, I’ve been in Italy during two other winters, so I packed appropriately.

Fatigue. Yes, walking a long way, up and down hills, and on uneven sidewalks, takes a toll on the body.

Frustration with meagre language skills.  Yes, people speak English. But still . . . .

These lows are few and are far outweighed by the highs. These are certainly problems of privilege. And there’s a remedy for each. Or, at least for the first two! Getting out in a hat and coat for a walk in the midday or early-afternoon sun is essential. It’s often warmer outside than inside.

A sunseeker–with hat, coat, and sturdy shoes–in the park of the Villa Doria Pamphili

Of course, there’s no bad weather, only bad gear, my cycling and hiking friends say. So wearing the right shoes for the long walks is crucial. I’m trying to remember that and to set fashion aside. Even in Italy.

Meanwhile, when away from the chilly desk, I’ve been refreshing my familiarity in Rome, which promises to help with a small group trip coming up in June. Our theme: “Saints, Mystics, and Martyrs.” We’ll spend three days in Rome before heading north to Assisi, La Verna, and Siena. This journey will be a slight revision of one from several years back. (Of course, I believe it will be an improvement on the prior one in many ways.) 

Streaming Video & Reading Books

To pick up again on the Sicily topic: No, I still have not watched Season 2 of The White Lotus. I did take a look at the “free” first episode, set at Taormina. After being appalled by the American tourists in the opening scene, I soon saw that the show is humorously over-the-top dark comedy. I ended up being delighted by the dialogue and characters. By next month’s newsletter, following a week in Sicily, I hope to write a few more lines on my response.   

Church of San Domenica in Taoramina, adjacent to the hotel setting of season two of The White Lotus

Meanwhile, I want to suggest streaming something way less beautiful than scenes in Taormina–for those who don’t mind reading subtitles. Try La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti (The Lying Life of Adults), mostly set in Naples, which released on Netflix in January. It even swept up my husband—perhaps because of our time in Naples last summer. He actually selected the six-episode show, not knowing that I read this Elena Ferrante novel as soon as it came out in 2019 (thanks to Jenn Murvin and Pagination Bookshop for getting me a copy!) I found the novel refreshingly different from the Brilliant Friend series (which I have read but not watched on HBO). I was not, however, wowed by it. The show, however, engaged me.

A new release of Elena Ferrante’s novel, La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti, prompted by the Netflix series release. My 2019 English edition is at home on my bookshelf, so I snapped this shot in a Rome bookstore..

Perhaps it is the narrower focus on coming of age and smaller setting in time and place. Perhaps it is the well-developed characters. Perhaps it was that my husband actually selected it, without knowing anything about Ferrante or that the novel is on our bedroom bookshelf. I think, though, that the show’s unromanticized elements hooked us. The film captures the gritty city (thank you, Kelly Van Patter, for this phrase!) of the not-so-distant past. Raw in emotion, sights, and sounds, it conveys youth and adulthood as one blurs into the other in and around Naples. 

After seeing the show, I definitely am prompted to reread the novel.   

I’ve gone on way too long here. Time to set newsletter writing aside until next month: Sicily! 

I hope you’ll continue to journey along with me and enjoy thinking about “All Things Italy, and a Little Bit More.”

A la prossima (until next time),

Upcoming Events

Speaking of small group trips . . . a few folks have reached out to me about a focused trip on nineteenth-century American expats. I’ve responded neither “no” nor “yes” but, “we’ll see.” If this idea interests you, please let me know.  

When I return to the US in March, I’ll continue a “writing for regeneration” workshop with co-facilitator Dr. Deborah Cox, a licensed therapist. If you are interested in a future workshop on a similar theme, please let me know.

Also, reach out if you’re part of a group interested in a talk on women in Italy or another one of the subjects I’ve written about. Women’s History Month is upon us! 

Etta Madden