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A Month in Rome

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

I went to Rome to get between past and future and to look from one to the other. It would be a pivot on the past and a door to the future. There is an inevitability of the future that is based on the past but I wanted not so much to disrupt fate but to negotiate with it. I am an architect in a kind of phony retirement and that was my cover for going.

After 45 years of professional life I didn’t want to roll over and do something different but to instead look back for something shining to light a path forward. In my career I watched myself develop professionally and move further and further away from the reason I became an architect in the first place. It was at this juncture that I decided I wanted to return to Rome. Is there any city more important in the education of an Architect?

And so Rome would be my pilgrimage - but not a destination, but a place to begin again. Rome was like the pinch point in my hour glass. I would pass up against the tides of its quickly thinning sands, pass back through Rome and return to a place where I would then be not fully reborn but polished a bit like a stone.

My intentions had less of the usual whiff of scholarship but more of a tradesman’s visit, a self guided cook’s tour, to appreciate the work as one architect touring the work of another to create a sense of kinship with the likes of Francesco Borromini, Leon Battista Alberti and others. On what level were their labors like mine? Certainly we had much in common.

At San Carlino, a church Borromini designed in 1643, he packed a baroque lozenge shaped chapel into a frame of street walls. Not unlike my own practice, it had corridors, doors, staircases and windows. Architecture is at its most essential a packing problem. There, any comparison with Borromini ends. I could appreciate his solution as my appreciation went from awe and amazement, then, gratitude and respect and - finally envy, I’m an architect after all.

In Rome, at the Villa Farnesina by Baldassare Peruzzi, (1505) I experienced the unique passage and transition of interior and exterior space. A solution regularly sought by residential architects especially. Porches and loggias on the north and west interlock to weave exterior with interior spaces by forcing a sympathetic adjacency. They also make an interesting isolation of a single chamber which isolates the room like a little pavilion facing the Tiber. It has clearly earned the name “garden palace”. Here at last was a meaningful prototype for a glass house.

While in Rome I decided to go to Mantua to see the Alberti churches. Arriving at the square before San Andrea (1472) I beheld an image held by any architecture student but I discovered and clearly felt that his understanding and his personal expression of structure, weight, space, form and light were the same fundamentals in every architect’s tool belt.

With experiences such as these I gained a little insight into how to make architecture that insisted on excellence. Perhaps I didn’t have to go all the way to Rome but as Robert Venturi said (not inappropriately channeling the Wizard of Oz): “there’s no place like Rome”.

Jeffrey Feingold is a residential architect on Shelter Island, New York.

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