Friday, August 3, 2007


Part 1: A Writer’s Guide to Writing in Your Journal

The writing assignments listed below are meant to inspire you, not enslave you, and guide you through the process of keeping a journal. I am not interested in reading about what you did and where you went (though you can put those in your journal), rather I’m more interested in reading the things you find memorable, things you see and can’t explain, things you want to know more about, unforgettable images, surprises, what you found when you got lost walking in Rome, a conversation with someone on the street, a work of art you can’t stop thinking about, a line of graffiti in Italian you will translate later, a drawing, an Italian phrase you just learned.

In Part 1, complete eight of the following seventeen assignments in your journal. You may do more for extra credit (or for fun…). The journal assignments are meant to be done on your own time and at your own pace. Some assignments can be completed while we visit various sites or works of art. As we travel around from site to site, I will add more of these writing exercise ideas, so that our writing and reading syllabus remains flexible and fluid.

1. Buy a journal somewhere in Rome. Describe why you bought that journal, where you bought it, and was there anything interesting or unusual about the purchase or the person you bought it from.

2. Reading: Chapter 1 of Bloom’s Literary Guide to Rome.

People have been arriving in Rome for thousands of years. Rome is a city made for visitors (pilgrims). There are grand entrances and gates (such as the Porta del Popolo) designed to bring visitors into the city and inside the walls. Most of us these days will be arriving at the Fiumicino airport or by train at the Stazione Termini. Write down the most memorable images of your arrival in Rome—not the step-by-step progress of your arrival with facts and dates and times, but the most striking details, colors, sounds, objects, etc. For example, the first time I arrived in Rome in 1994, I arrived at the train station and walked out the front entrance and witnessed more noise and chaos than I had ever seen before. I immediately walked back into the train station and gathered myself before going back out and engaging the controlled chaos of Rome.

3. The Ubiquitous Postcard

Postcards are on sale everywhere in Rome and everywhere we will travel in Italy. They are even on sale in the tiniest working convent and sold by nuns who have taken a vow of silence. When we visit a site, buy a postcard of that site or a postcard of something in that site and on the back of the postcard: (1) write the date, (2) describe something you see or hear or smell or touch or describe an emotion that’s not pictured in the postcard, (3) limit yourself to only the space on the back of the postcard. Try to do this exercise twice or three times a week.

4. Reading: Dante in Love, Chapter 1

In the High Middle Ages (early 1300’s), historian Marc Bloch states that there is almost no difference between hallucination and sight and that people’s minds are “almost constantly attentive to all manner of signs, dreams, or hallucinations.” It was during this time that Dante invented modern Italian language. When you’ve spent some time in Italy and Rome, in particular, that explains a lot.

Also, on page 67 of Rubin’s book, she writes, “Lenses of the kind used in eyeglasses were invented in 1300, but they were not turned into eyeglasses until the late fifteenth century because it was thought that appearances—literally, the way things looked—were deceiving. People trusted instead the inner meaning of things. They favored writers who made the most appeal to the mind and least to the eye. Later in Dante in Love, Rubin describes “memory palaces”—again people trusted their own memory over anything else and to them “memory was wisdom.”

During your visit to Rome, record something that seems to you (1) a blending of reality and hallucination and (2) what about Rome would you trust more to your memory than what your own journal writing describes.

5. Reading: Dante in Love, Chapter 2

Harriet Rubin, in Dante in Love, writes that during the High Middle Ages, “Beauty is an imperative and a standard. It wipes away any excuse one has to be content with the ordinary. Beauty can and does change the world.” While in Rome you will see many, many beautiful places, things, works of art, people, buildings. Just when you think one thing sets the standard for beauty something else catches your eye and you develop a new standard for beauty. Keep a record of the things you saw. How many times did the thing at the top of your list change? What, in the end, is the very symbol of beauty during your visit to Rome and/or Italy?

6. Folle Voles'

On page 115 of Dante in Love, Rubin writes, “The Middle Ages were full of ‘folle voles’—‘mad journeys’: knights chasing dragons, crusaders routing infidels, sailors searching for new lands, popes plunging into politics. Patience is for wines and cheeses and siestas. Otherwise Italy does not hold still. All those in Hell are there because of mad voyages.”

What, during your visit to Rome, was your folle vole? It can be real or a dream or a blend of both.

7. Postcard Revisited

Visit the same Roman site or work of art at least three times and do the postcard assignment each time. On the back of the postcard, describe what’s different about each visit.

8. Caravaggio

In Francine Prose’s book, Caravaggio, she states that someone looking at a Caravaggio painting such as The Calling of Saint Matthew (inside San Luigi dei Francesi) doesn’t really need to know anything about art history, Caravaggio or the New Testament. She states that you can look at the painting and see that it captures the precise moment in which a man’s life changes forever.

View a Caravaggio painting in another location without reading anything about it ahead of time, or better yet, stumble across a Caravaggio by accident and see if you can record what the painting is about. Later, look up the painting in a book and read about its history. See how much you understand about painting and art by seeing.

9. Shopping

There are no express check-out cashiers in the marketplace in the Campo de’ Fiori nor can you scan your own items and avoid a human cashier altogether. You must talk to someone in order to buy something. In addition, where the produce was shipped from is noted on a sign. If something is out of season, you can’t buy it. There are no shipping veggies from Chile or New Zealand. Sometimes you can even buy a potato from the person who planted it. What a concept. Food is not packaged in shrink-wrap on plastic trays. You want half a chicken? The butcher cuts the chicken in half for you. You want to buy one egg and one potato, you can. The fresh mozzarella tastes different at the beginning of the summer than at the end of the summer, because of what the cows are eating. Keep a record of your dealings with the vendors in the Campo or the marketplace in your neighborhood. The Campo is a dynamic place and seems chaotic, but once you’ve lived near it, you can look at almost any photo of the Campo and be able to tell what time the photo was taken.

10. The Pantheon

The Pantheon might be one of the most memorable buildings you will ever encounter in your life because of its “perfect” space, its symbolic meaning, its sloping floor, its entry door, and its oculus. What makes it memorable is not so much the facts and figures of its design, but rather the active nature of what it can provide for those who enter the building. It’s the kind of building that makes you want to see certain images, such as rain falling down a column of sunlight through the oculus, and water flowing along the floor to the little drains in the floor, and yellow flower petals being pushed through the oculus. Each time you visit the Pantheon, it’s a different experience.

Visit the Pantheon when it opens for the first time in the morning (watch them open the massive doors), visit it during the day, and visit just before closing. You make these visits all on the same day or three separate days. Describe the building at these three different times. What is unique about each visit that is distinct from the other times of day?

The Pantheon is defined not only by its interior space, but also by movement. Watch the column of sunlight through the oculus move around the interior or witness rain falling through the oculus. What do you notice about the raindrops as they are framed by the light?

Compare the feeling of the defined interior space of the Pantheon to the structured exterior space of the Piazza Navona and to the theatrical space of the Piazza di Sant’Ignazio. What is the central focus of each space when you first enter the sites?

11. Intentionality

Margaret Visser writes in her essay, “A church is no place to practice aesthetic distance, to erase content and simply appreciate form.” When you visit a site, compare and contrast the “intentionality” of each site. Is it subtle or is it obvious?

12. Shadow and Light

In the summertime, Rome and Italy seems to be defined only by light. In a simple medieval church like Santa Maria in Cosmedin, how is darkness used for effect and for what purpose?

13. Testaccio

The central market at the Piazza Testaccio is a 3,000-year-old tradition. 3,000 years! At Formaggiomania you can select from thousands of different cheeses, many made in small Italian country villages. Like Visser’s description of the church, the marketplace is also a place where you, as visitor, cannot practice aesthetic distance. In this historic market, what draws you in first? How is this market different from others?

14. Exit, no exit

The Via Veneto is about strolling, shopping, being seen and seeing. The Spanish Steps has a formal entrance and an exit, but the journey down or up the stairs is rarely a single, straight walk up or down the stairs, instead there are detours, landings, people sitting on the stairs, view spots, etc. In many ways, the stairs are not built to get from point A to point B. What were your detours? Near the Spanish Steps is the church Santa Maria della Concezione which is defined by a very medieval chamber that has, as it’s theme, the idea of there being no exit. Compare and contrast this church to Via Veneto and Spanish Steps.

15. Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni

(inside San Francesco a Ripa) blends architecture, painting, light and is an example of his concept of bel composto (beautiful whole). Included in that trio of architecture, light, and painting is the viewer. What are you visually drawn to first? Describe the order of things you saw when looking at the sculpture. Later, when we visit Santa Maria della Vittoria, compare Beata Ludovica Albertoni to Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (inside Santa Maria della Vittoria).

16. Silence and Belief

Santi Quattro Coronati is a simple church with a truly exceptional inner cloister. If you are lucky enough to gain access to the cloister, you will enter one of the most beautiful and most serene places in Rome. The nuns who live at this convent have taken a vow of silence (except for the very talkative nun who sits in the cloister and sell postcards). The cloister seems to reach out to you and invites you to memorize every detail, every image, every subtle sound. The cloister also seems to affect or even change how you relate to those around you.

When I first found the cloister ten years ago, I was alone and didn’t know what to expect. I stayed for two hours or longer. I lost track of time. When I came out of the cloister, someone was decorating the chapel in white roses and another person was playing the violin. We were the only three people in the chapel. The experience was very real and surreal at the same time. Though I’m not a Catholic or very religious, I understood the moment to be about understanding faith and belief. The presence of flowers and music and the architecture of the church sort of imposed its message on me. In many ways, the smaller churches with less elaborate architecture than, say, St. Peter’s, impart a stronger message.

Compare the cloister of Santi Quattro Coronati with another cloister of your choosing or another religious space that is as confined, gated, or walled. What images stay with you after leaving the space? Why do you think that image is the dominant image?

17. Sculpture and Movement

Canova’s sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte was intended to be viewed by the light of a single candle. Bernini’s sculptures—David, Pluto and Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne—were all designed to show movement as you walk around the sculpture. For example, as you walk around the sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, at one point, Daphne is completely hidden from view by Apollo’s figure. In Bernini’s sculpture it is called “transitory moment,” that is, you as spectator and observer are drawn into the fictitious experience.

How does this “movement” and the lighting of Pauline Bonaparte “tell” a story? At which point do begin to “see” or “read” or “enter” the story? Or, where in the sculpture are you drawn into the story?

Thursday, August 2, 2007


Part 2: Travel Writing

Complete assignment #23 and any three of the other seven remaining assignments. You may do more for extra credit. These assignments must be typed, double spaced and turned in. Computers and printers are available in the computer center at the Rome Center.

You must do all the reading even if you only do four written assignments. The readings for this section are photocopied or available on-line.

18. Read “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton
Available on-line at:

Of all the places Edith Wharton could have chosen as a setting for telling her story, why do you think she chose the Forum? How does the Forum support both the thematic center of the story, the definition of the relationship between the two women in the story, and the revelation of the secret past? Read the story carefully and try to determine where were the two women sitting when they were talking and gazing out over the Forum.

Find a place you like to be and describe the setting about/from there. It can be one specific location or an amalgam, but your place should carry a sense of dramatic capability.

19. Reading: Selection of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems

Think about identification and point-of-view in Bishop’s poems. Now try this exercise: begin a poem with the title “Tourist Info” or “Some Helpful Phrases.” This poem should be aimed at helping someone navigate and understand you, however you decide to interpret that. Think of directions, maps, points on a compass, etiquette, climate, warnings, general care of, etc. Use your guidebook for help.

20. Reading: Chapters 12, 15, 24, 33 of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love
If you haven’t already, study fountains, study ice cream. What is your favorite thing to say in Italian? What is your word? Construct a short personal narrative (1-2 pp) around these ideas.

Also, choose a short article from an Italian newspaper, and scan it for words that jump out at you. Make a “translation” of these words into English, following your eye (the Italian word looks like this English word) and your ear (sounds alike). Don’t worry about literal sense. To do this assignment, in fact, the less Italian you know, the better. When you’re done, you should have a short poem or paragraph.

21. Reading: Anne Carson’s “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide”

“Italian is a beautiful language,/ also very difficult./ So long.” What do you notice about Carson’s style, and how does it compare to Italian language and lifestyle? Write a poem in sections, like Carson, following her premise. Ask the question “Why have you/ come here?” and answer it. Write between 10-15 sections.

22. Reading: Jorie Graham’s “San Sepolcro”; Barbara Hamby’s “Wild Greens”; John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The images in these poems are what strike me, their vibrant replication of the visual through language. So far, what is your favorite piece of art in Rome? Write a poem about it.

23. Reading: Selections from Matsuo Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns, and from Anne Carson’s “The Anthropology of Water”

How are these pieces alike? Would you consider your own trip to Rome a kind of pilgrimage? If so, in what ways? For your assignment, try organizing a few images of Rome into “photographs,” as Carson does, and write short prose pieces with them in mind. How is the reader implicated in these passages? Also, see if you can do as Basho does, and make the leap to haiku at the end of at least one of your prose pieces.

24. Reading: Barbara Hamby’s “Ode to the Lost Luggage Warehouse at the Rome Airport” and Lynne McMahon’s “We Take Our Children to Ireland”

What humorous things have befallen you in Rome? What mix-ups, bad translations, tricky situations? What was the flipside of this amusement? Write a poem or a short-short story about it.

25. Reading: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” and Martha Silano’s “Traveler’s Lament”

Silano uses the construction “I miss. . .” to respond to Bishop’s lines. What do you miss when you’re away? For Silano it’s common, everyday things. “Should we have stayed home and thought of here?” Answer Bishop’s question in whatever way you choose.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Part 3: What to Do With Your Journal After the Class is Over

26. Imagine that you lost your journal with five weeks of writing. What would you try to rewrite first and why? How would do you think your journal entry will change when you rewrite it from memory?

27. As you examine your journal entries, re-read two consecutive days of journal entries. Try to remember what happened between the two entries.

28. Imagine losing all the photos you took while in Rome. What image from your photos remains the most vivid in your mind? Write down a detailed description of that lost photo.

29. What picture do you wish you should have taken, but didn’t?

30. After returning home, what image or thing or experience in Rome do you think about everyday?