Comment: Letter from Rome

Article excerpt

Dear H,

I'm in Rome because of an exhibition by Roy Lerner, an American abstract painter whose work I've followed for many years. I'm traveling with the artist, his wife Patty, and their daughter Yvonne, invited partly because of my history of attention to the artist's work, mainly because I'm fluent in Italian. It all started when Morgan Morris, the bright, ambitious American-born half of The Contemporary Arts Society, with whom Lerner is showing in Rome, asked permission to use a catalogue text I'd written for one of his New York exhibitions and I insisted on seeing the translation. An Italian-speaking New York critic enthusiastic about Lerner's art seemed like a useful ally to their effort to introduce the painter to Rome - he has shown a good deal elsewhere in Europe and already figures in some Roman collections, but this is his first exhibition in Italy. It took very little to persuade me to join the festivities, although I suspected it would be a very different kind of trip than my usual sojourns in the city.

It's Roy's second trip to Rome, Patty and Yvonne's first. Since I lived there for several years and have returned many times, I am cast as cicerone more than as accompanying art expert, but the role is irresistible. Driving in from the airport on a milky February morning, on the brink of spring, with the sun trying to break through low clouds, I'm exhilarated, as always, at being back. As always, too, I'm depressed by the encroachment of industry and over-designed apartment houses on what's left of the Roman campagna, but the landscape is so powerful that you can still glimpse traces of what Poussin and Claude Lorrain must have seen when they rode out of the city to draw the countryside along the Tiber: flashes of river, thickets of trees, and sheer cliffs of tufo. But it's all compromised, embedded in shoddy buildings erected in the last two decades or so. "What's that?" Patty asks, startled by a pretentious exercise in skewed geometry and shiny tiles. "That's what happens when 18,000 people are enrolled in the University of Rome's faculty of architecture," I tell her. We spot the "honeycomb" building in EUR, wrapped in scaffolding for restoration, but still recognizable from its role in Fellini's vision of the city. The driver, provided by our hosts, takes a scenic route. We pass the vast sprawl of San Paolo fuori le Mura and enter the walls at Porta San Paolo, skirting the strangely compressed, narrow pyramidal tomb of Caius Cestius. We swing by the ancient racetrack, the Circo Massimo, past the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, and climb the Esquiline Hill, passing the vast, multilayered pile of Santa Maria Maggiore, swinging around the curving steps leading up to its apse. I answer questions, point things out, offer snippets of history. "You're a good guide," the driver says, when I compliment him, in Italian, on his making the trip such an appealing and informative one. 'You know a lot more than I do." "I'm sure I don't," I tell him, "but I'm an art historian with an architect husband, and I lived here for almost four years, so I know about some things." "Si capisce," he replies. Then we turn into Piazza della Repubblica, that vast circle, with its overwrought nineteenth-century fountain, the dull brown brick ruins of Diocletian's Baths on one side and the vast curving arcades of a white neoclassical palazzo on the other. The palazzo is now a hotel - our hotel. "We're staying HERE?" Yvonne asks, incredulous. It's not my part of Rome - I lived in the heart of the historic center, across the street from the Pantheon - but I'll be able to adapt, at least to the elegance and comfort, if not to the neighborhood.

Roy's works are to be installed in the hotel itself. The palazzo chapel, with its elegant curving apse punctuated by flat pilasters, is now part of the lobby, and the exhibition is to be held there. Since it would be impossible to hang on the elaborately articulated walls, the Contemporary Arts Society has engaged an inventive young female architect to devise a freestanding display system: open rectangles made of narrow stainless bars, cross-braced by wires in tension, from which the paintings can be suspended, with up-lights in the bases and projecting lights above. …