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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,”1 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 in which modesty is indissolubly compounded with a restless, sometimes professorial cleverness, each quality pleasantly mitigating the other.

Satyr Square—the Piazza dei Satiri—where Barkan rented an apartment up 103 stairs, will not readily be recalled by the tourist. It is, from his account of it, one of those dingy accidental little squares in old Rome that the narrow one-way streets make it even harder to get out of than to get into. But it is built in the great curve that still marks the shape of Pompey’s Theater, and the towerlike tenement on top of which Barkan perches is at a pivotal point in the half-submerged topography of the ancient city. It is a place in which present-day banality muffles but doesn’t silence deeper resonances. The name itself, blurred by use, may be other than it seems, not the place of satyrs but of the theater, or of the atrium, or simply of satire. This comes to seem apt to a book in which the more goatish appetites are repeatedly frustrated or denied.

Here the “wavering, solitary” Barkan takes up residence and within a day or two glumly foresees that “my sabbatical in Rome meant one year of solitude,” his prospects made all the bleaker by the mirage of academic good-fellowship conjured up by other scholars’ nostalgic anecdotes back home; the letters he writes to friends of friends, “every one of them wise and gregarious, profound and accessible” and just waiting to be his best pal, all go unanswered. “I had exchanged a life without a partnership for a life without even an acquaintanceship.” Yet “sadness in prospect” is something he knows himself deeply schooled in managing. He has had “a lifetime of seeming sexually invisible,” of yearning without acting, of charged friendships with other men which stop short of romantic fulfillment. He has grown adept at chanting the “mantra of evasions and missed opportunities.” Such absences leave space in a life for a rueful connoisseurship of loneliness itself, as it might be of the “memorably bleak and solitary Saturday night” when there is only the stony city itself to talk to.

The solitary has his routines, and his routes. He maps different courses, with different moods and historical associations, from his flat to the library near the Spanish Steps. There is the “Beauty Walk,” and the “Mystery Tour,” and also a brisker bisection of the city, “the first half due north from my front door, the second half precisely northeast, with the pivoting angle of 135 degrees in the midst of dark, arcaded structures and a sooty fountain too ordinary to signal such an important crossroads.” It is central to his scholarly project to “see histories and not just sites” and he tells himself stories about the streets and buildings as he walks. He “reads,” and reads about, the extraordinarily layered city, and for his own purposes. His Rome isn’t everybody’s. He confers with Petrarch, who wrote a great letter about his own walks through Rome in 1341; he looks briefly at Freud’s fantasy of Rome as a “psychical entity…in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one”; he ponders Rilke’s great sonnet on the all-seeing archaic torso, with its final injunction, “You must change your life.” He reads and reproduces in racy translations the “Pasquinades”—lampoons attached in the sixteenth century to the fragment of ancient sculpture dubbed Pasquino, a twisting armless torso and featureless head which, with other fragments, will make for a brilliant chapter in Unearthing the Past.

All of which is to say that he sees Rome with the discipline of a historian. His account of being in the city may be intimately personal, but he is not a rhapsodist of the place. He feels unable to rise to the “repressed ecstasy of contemplation” in which Henry James’s Isabel Archer first wandered the streets of Rome; and he cuts a very different figure, in his geometrical walks, from James himself, who wrote, on first arriving there, of how he had gone “reeling & moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment,” or found himself “lounging & maundering & murmuring” in the Colosseum, the amused spectator of his own marvelment.

There must be something pointed too in Barkan’s refusal even to mention Rome’s greatest depictor, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose eighteenth-century vision of the city’s monuments and antiquities is dramatized by just such marveling figures, dwarfed by the immensity and profusion of the past. Piranesi’s engravings hold archaeology and visionary poetry in a highly personal balance, and their grandiloquence must have led to quite a few disappointments among educated travelers when they got to Rome and saw the scale of the real thing. He must inevitably have been part of Barkan’s Roman vision too; but perhaps Piranesi is too late, too mired in further accretions of history and romance, to be strictly useful in the history of archaeology two centuries earlier.

It is part of the charm of Satyr Square as a self-portrait to involve us in Barkan’s academic and cultural excitements as well as in the peculiar and essentially unobserved private life from which they are in many ways a refuge. That austere top-floor flat is always waiting, an emblem of reduced expectations. There’s a little episode in the early days there that provides an eerie image of emotional emptiness. Among the eclectic furnishings of the flat is a whole shelf of books by Charles Bukowski, which Barkan finds himself reading while he waits for the boxes of his own books, unwisely labeled “Drawings of Michelangelo,” to clear customs. Bukowski’s scabrous records of compulsive and loveless sex speak to something in Barkan’s mood:

A bond of dependency attached the fastidious, correct, unwillingly abstemious man stretched out on his narrow sleeping pallet to the scrofulous, profane abuser who gets laid on every page. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that wish fulfillment entered into it.

But he senses there was more to it than that:

I lay scanning episode after episode, always wanting more and never satisfied with more, because I was turned on by an emptiness that lay on the other side of extravagant experiences I’d never have.

There Barkan leaves it, in a sentence as eloquent as it is mysterious. To be turned on above all not by the imagined sexual experience, in its unattainable wildness, but by the emptiness which it bespeaks, and fights against, and forever reconfronts: it is a fascinating complex of self-denial and oblique compensation. Bukowski’s life, as depicted in his writing, has pattern but no plot: “he writes as he fucks”—a concept that repels the motivated, analytical, and high-achieving Barkan, but has at the same time a haunting appeal. Solitude, after all, has at best an exiguous plot, lacking those chances for drama brought about by contact and interaction.

Reading Satyr Square I sometimes found myself thinking of the memoirs of another eminent Princeton professor, Edmund White’s My Lives2perhaps the masterpiece of a career devoted to the complex possibilities of telling the truth about oneself. Such a pursuit will itself be a constant negotiation with plot, or at least with the question of what literary form is appropriate to the unruly and half-hidden form of a life. My Lives fragments the longer autobiographical narrative into a series of separate but overlapping portraits or studies, of parents, friends, hustlers, lovers, places—with, running through it all, an account of White’s sex life so candid and detailed as to seem at once scientific, celebratory, and self-lacerating. “Too Much Information,” he imagines a reader protesting; but he convinces you of the need for such candor in the memoirs of a “sex addict,” who has “never failed to act on my erotic impulses.” Had he been given a year’s sabbatical in Italy you feel he would quickly have rivaled the 640 conquests that Don Giovanni clocked up in that country, according to Leporello’s famous catalog.

Of Barkan, just as candid in his way, almost the opposite could be said. He is “the Don Giovanni of platonic love,” a man for whom the sexual comedy is that of things repeatedly not happening. There is a very funny sequence where he finds himself in the vicinity of the Termini rail station, which a friend in Chicago has told him is the place to go if he wants to “see some action” (though “seeing some action,” Barkan says, “always makes me think of World War I soldiers in trenches”). Unsure what to do, but feeling an obscure obligation, as a gay man, to check it out, he moves anxiously across the building:

I summoned my courage to stare at a burly, ruddy-faced house-painter—he was carrying buckets and a ladder; what was I thinking?—and then noticed a frumpy little family trailing single file behind him. A clump of age-indeterminate women, Poles perhaps, their suitcases bound with tape and rope, their faces both frightened and inquisitive, seemed, on the other hand, to be giving me the eye.

After this he makes his progress past the countless “alcoves” in the station’s long side-wall, each containing some more or less alarming or unlikely possibility, figures he finds himself instinctively classifying (“sultan, parachutist, Hegelian; asthmatic, countertenor, endomorph”) while a sense of vulnerability and danger grows. Finally turning into another street, he sees he has miraculously come upon Rome’s finest record shop, at which point the decisions clarify in a flood of relief:

I looked from one side of my vista to the other and contemplated: lumberjack, caregiver, monsignor; Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. At last I had found action at the railroad station.

As Barkan says, when describing the anxieties of adolescence: “But then there was classical music.” He writes wonderfully about music, in a bravura chapter that brings into focus numerous issues in his experience of Italy, its language and people, through a sustained reading of Don Giovanni. But in the larger story, music is eclipsed by another obsession, perhaps even a governing addiction—not for sex, but for food and drink. Writing of what sounds like his deepest friendship, with a man called David, he insists that “the bond that never fails us, the still center where thinking and feeling and longing converge, is food and drink”: “Every milestone in our lives was, or was made, gastronomic.” “You hungry?” a new Roman friend asks him later in the book. “Almost always” is his reply.

Eating and drinking, however, often happen alone, and Barkan knows the economics of the “solitary feast,” the “private food chain”—halving the guinea fowl “so that the dark meat, moistened with stock, wine, and apples, could be carried over into tomorrow night’s dinner, where it would fill one of the little zucche that were starting to appear in the market.” The relish with which such things are evoked, the faintly incredible detail with which, twenty years later, he remembers that the braised fennel was “slightly overdressed in vinegar” but “sat well in an envelope of sweet-and-salty air-dried beef” with “a dusting of parsley around the wrap,” have the intensity of a very private passion.

Perhaps food writing always risks making a fetish out of an act of self-pleasuring; who cares, in the end, if he had the beef or the lamb, or if he had one thing stuffed with some other thing? Might such writing even involve, at times, a desire to boast of some mastered revulsion? To this vegetarian reader, at least, the epicurean recall of a “sublime veal broth with tiny meatballs,” a “warm salad of duck and sweetbreads,” or a “Christmastime tasting of duck versus goose foie gras” was fairly revolting; though even carnivores might blench before a ciccheto of “Veneto lard, a slice of pure fat on bread,” or a Roman Teteun, described as “a densely packed scrapple made of udder.”

Early on, but evoking a later period in his life, Barkan writes about an ex-student with whom his friendship, a matter of irregular meetings and dinners, one night took a deeper turn: “We had introduced a variation in our routine”: “I don’t remember dessert, but I do remember that Chris didn’t leave afterward.” Not remember dessert! Only later in the book, with a richer sense of Barkan’s foodism, will the reader appreciate the enormity of that forgetting; though the affair itself is conveyed, tactfully but expressively, entirely in terms of the “sexy menus” they shared, the “warming and sloppy and unctuous” crispy chicken wonton soup at Sammy’s restaurant, the gobbles, bites, and crunchy mouthfuls at a “favorite French bistro.”

In the Roman year, however, the lovingly remembered food and drink tend not to be metaphors; they take the place of sex. Planning an evening at the Piazza dei Satiri with Giorgio, a married but ambivalent Italian who is the subject of strong feeling, he envisages a “palate-clearing stroll” after the pasta course, and then a return to the flat where “with no further mess or bother, there would be”—not a passionate tangle on the couch, but—“a torta di carciofi, best made earlier in the day and served at room temperature.” When Giorgio obligingly climbs onto the bed (that monkish “sleeping pallet”) and removes his shoes and socks, his host quickly hustles him out of the house for a wine-tasting.

It is a bottle of wine—a “great Brunello”—that is the key to Barkan’s success in Roman society: not high society, but the diverse companionship of a group of wine fanciers. Talking to a young woman in an unpromising-looking wine shop, he finds himself invited to a tasting, and thus to a display of what is clearly a formidably discerning and experienced palate: “I was accustomed to this labile turf, halfway between laboratory and orgy room,” and over successive meetings he duly impresses them, while seeing as well that the tastings are “a story about the people as much as about the wine.”

Relationships develop, the club itself a subject for almost romantic allegiance. (“I’m being unfaithful to Jeffrey,” admits one member, meaning he is two-timing with another group of tasters.) And before long, through the deployment of charms he is too modest to mention, but which one guesses at from the sparkle of his writing, Barkan wins for himself a sustaining network of friends, a social existence distinct from his academic life, and proof of a deeper acceptance into the city. (“In the subsequent years,” as he says in the acknowledgments to Unearthing the Past, he was able to feel through his friendships with “these glorious people” that “like certain very fortunate ancients,…I could declare myself a Roman citizen.”)

Wine-writing is a genre that flirts insistently with self-parody, and Barkan is a witty enough writer to send himself up even as he shows his expertise at the “thesaurus of metaphors” by which palatal experience is described. There’s a swagger to his descriptions: “Costanti starts slowly, with a few spices—cinnamon, maybe nutmeg—in the nose. Then, when it hits the mouth, it’s like cherry trifle with blackberries and orange peel. After that, it goes all tannic, as though your tongue were growing hair” and so on, for a further five lines. Sometime later, “I composed a bumpy little ode to a Tuscan Merlot: ‘Like celestial fat of animals in Coca-Cola,’” an ode that acknowledges it may not sell that Tuscan Merlot to everybody.

So there’s quite a lot about wine. But as everywhere in the book the flashing display of expertise and curiosity coexists with the much tenderer story about loneliness and human contact; so that when at the end of his year a party is given in his honor in Clara’s wine shop, where the fun all began, and he is unexpectedly asked to make a speech “on the theme of everything that has happened in his life since he first entered this space,” the effect is very moving, and delicately handled in the third person:

Unprepared, and looking at all these faces in their varieties of anticipatory enthusiasm, he feels as though he has been turned around and around in some dizzying game of blindman’s buff, or like someone who has knocked on his own door and found himself a different person on the other side.

  1. 1

    Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (Yale University Press, 1999), p. xviii.

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