An art scholar spends a year in Rome, living on the eponymous square, researching and writing a book, sampling the gastronomic and vinous bounties of the city, feeling lonely, enriching his Italian.
Barkan finished his book, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture, but it’s hard to see how if he cooked and ate and drank and socialized and viewed works of art and listened to Mozart as frequently as these pages record. What a busy man! And what a supremely educated man, as well. Allusions are as thick in his prose as, oh, chunks of tomato (fresh, of course) in a good pasta sauce. Yet nothing seems forced. If he sees aspects of The Merchant of Venice or Don Giovanni in all he is doing at the time, well, that’s because these works are not exterior to him; they form part of his remarkably complex interior. Barkan’s memoir is loosely chronological, but within each segment, he moves freely about in time, sometimes many years, sometimes merely moments. He writes easily about Henry James and Hawthorne, Roman history and architecture and art; he and a new friend can, impetuously, plop down and play a four-hand piece by Schubert; he can hide salmon caviar inside an artichoke; he can expatiate about the concept of ekphrasis (writing about visual objects) and the delicacies of French wine. There are passages about food preparation, about crushes on other men (he admires a friend’s “bulge” in his skimpy Speedo as they share space in an ancient bath), and, always, about art and aesthetics. He joins an eclectic group of wine-tasters, struggles to make his Italian convey what he knows and thinks and feels, and begins to have epiphanies of various sorts—e.g., food and work and music go together.
A book for gourmands and vinologists, for lovers of Shakespeare and Mozart and art and architecture, for those who, like the author, realize that all is metaphor.