When in Rome

The acknowledgments pages in books are very proper as records of indebtedness, but they have other, less candid purposes. In part, of course, they are potted, slightly cryptic narratives of the writer’s heroic struggle. The mumble of humility masks the purr of self-satisfaction. Lists of names may be a covert form of boasting, the sheer number of people thanked being proof of the author’s industry in bothering them. And the names themselves, to the knowledgeable reader, may be rich in implication: so he did get to interview the reclusive widow, he got around the embargo on the letters to Mme X.

In scholarly books, the listings of fellowships and visiting professorships, the generously granted leave, the tirelessly helpful libraries and foundations, are testimony too to the author’s cordiality and a shared view of the importance of his work. To the nonacademic reader these pages create an image of enviable solidarity and good fortune. At the outset of Unearthing the Past, his study of the impact of archaeology on the culture of the Renaissance, Leonard Barkan admits that “I have, first of all, been blessed with collaborative support from a worldwide network of art historians,” something the unsupported will see as a pretty formidable advantage. Scholarship appears as a festive joining of hands around the globe, and the story of the book’s writing emerges inevitably as a triumphalist one, of labor reaching its harvest in the sunshine of universal encouragement.

But there must of course be other stories to the writing of scholarly works, stories of more intimate crises and adventures buried more or less determinedly beneath the surface. Scholars have problems like anyone else, as well as those problems peculiar to scholars. Perhaps all that hospitality and help was in part a humane response to the scholar’s loneliness, his evident neediness, as he traveled the world in the grip of his arcane idea. Barkan’s Satyr Square is a candid exploration of his own predicament during a year spent in Rome at the start of his research for Unearthing the Past, and its triumphs are touchingly personal ones.

He arrived in the city in 1987 knowing no one, with no academic affiliations, and with a knowledge of Italian based on, if not limited to, his adolescent mastery of the libretto of Don Giovanni. He was very much alone, and his new book is above all a subtle and witty study of solitude, with its hazards of “gut-wrenching” loneliness on the one hand and its peculiar freedoms, its “rituals” and “blessings” and opportunities for work and fantasy on the other. By the end of the book he has written very little of his archaeological study (which wasn’t to appear until 1999), but he has found a place for himself among an evolving cast of new Roman friends, and in the process explored what he calls “my own archaeology,” the “continuities of my life” that had been “hidden from me.” The result is a book …

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