Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Looking Closer at Rome


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Aug 04, 2023

Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Looking Closer at Rome

The letters S.P.Q.R., shorthand for the Latin S ENATUS P OPULUS Q UE R OMANUS, are ubiquitous throughout Rome. It translates to “The Senate and People of Rome” and has been the de facto logo of this

The letters S.P.Q.R., shorthand for the Latin SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS, are ubiquitous throughout Rome. It translates to “The Senate and People of Rome” and has been the de facto logo of this great city for millennia. In the example above, it’s apparent that an ancient stonemason took loving care while carving the letter “Q,” and I, for one, appreciate this immensely.

My fascination with Rome may have something to do with genetics, as my roots trace back to the Abruzzo mountains east of the city. In Rome, I immediately morph into some silly, romantic vision of myself, a cross between Marcello Mastroianni and Caravaggio. An inflated ego seems fitting, because in Rome, it’s “go big or go home!”

Indeed, there is much to love about the Eternal City: its history, colossal monuments, fossilized antiquity, art, food, culture, and stunning typography! The Mediterranean glow that bathes the city in warm tones of ochre and terracotta enhances everything about it. Cubist pioneer Georges Braque once said, “The light of Paris is silver, while the light of Rome is gold.” For me, this summation offers deep emotional symbolism that surpasses mere atmospherics.

You can’t ignore the grandeur of Rome; it reminds you of its greatness at every turn. The spirit of imperial power that lasted about a thousand years (753 BCE to 476 CE) isn’t going to be matched by American “exceptionalism” that has yet to celebrate its tricentennial. In her book S.P.Q.R., historian and scholar Mary Beard documents a time of grand spectacle, political intrigue, ruthless conquests, artistic innovation, and engineering ingenuity. However, while the overwhelming magnificence of Rome is something to behold, it’s worth the effort to examine the aggregate of small wonders, like a colorful mosaic, a sculpted door knocker, or pattern of brick that contribute richness to this fantastic city’s urban fabric and culture.

This short video of small Roman gems illustrates this point:

Most artists and designers I know are hopelessly curious, making it impossible to ignore the beautiful, mysterious, and inventive things in life that feed creative output.

Some take photos, others write about their discoveries, and many, like me, draw. When sketching, everything on the periphery of my vision becomes foggy as my focus locks on the subject while I savor the moment at a relaxed pace. Years ago, Milton Glaser told me over lunch that “the only time I truly see something is when I’m drawing it.”

For example, the Capitoline Museum’s famous “She Wolf” sculpture with Rome’s mythic founders Romulus and Remus as nursing infants is widely recognized as an icon of the city. The masterful bronze beast with its muscular body and en guarde stance is cast in the Etruscan style of around 700 BCE. In my sketch, I focused on the chubby “bambini” who were not part of the original composition, but added in the 14th century.

In the cloisters at the Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano, the exquisite colonnade that surrounds the garden was an ideal location to sit quietly and marvel at the outstanding architectural design by Jacopo and Pietro Vasselletto. The name of the artisan who carved the columns is lost to history, as were countless others who played a significant part in creating the many public and private buildings.

In certain museums where photography is “proibita,” my journal comes in handy. I once visited the Villa Borghese to see the legendary Baroque sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who seemed to melt marble into flowing forms that defy comprehension. Visitors are limited to 20 minutes to view these works. When guards announced that everyone must exit to allow for the next group, one noticed me frantically trying to finish my sketch and generously permitted me to remain in the gallery to join the next group. For ten blissful minutes, I was left ALONE with the sculptures of David, Apollo, Daphne, Pluto, and Persephone, where the only sound was my pen on paper. At this moment, I experienced a suspension of time.

The antiquity of Rome is the ideal backdrop for dramatic contrast with today’s art. For example, at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, there is a twice-life size marble sculpture of Hercules by Antonio Canova, depicting the Greek demi-god in combat with a foe. It embodies classicism in execution and subject with its strict, academic interpretation of the timeless mythological hero. However, behind this work, the ever-inventive master sculptor Giuseppe Penone created Bocca, a wall piece that, when viewed from a distance, depicts an enormous set of pursed lips. Without examining the structure closely, one would miss that it’s made entirely of thorns from the acacia tree.

Of the many historic monuments in Rome, I am particularly fond of the Tempietto (“little temple”), a masterpiece of high Renaissance architecture Atlas Obscura considers “more sculpture than building.” Thought to mark the spot where the apostle Peter was crucified, this 1510 Donato Bramante design is loved by architects for its rational purity, elegant detailing, and lasting influence. Small is indeed beautiful.

Oddly, I chose to write this essay in August, which is not the month you want to be in Rome. It’s as hot as a pizza oven, and tourists outnumber the Romans who take the month off to vacation in cooler climates. Nevertheless, the wonders of Rome are inexhaustible. These include the many famous tourist destinations that are made into souvenirs, but also precious bits of Roman ingenuity and design that still influence the world today, such as paved roads, concrete, central heating, toilets, and the calendar we use to mark time.

Finally, the density of Rome’s built environment gives the impression of man-made dominance over nature. However, many streets are lined with towering trees, making a strong case for the abundance of Roman greenery. Vast estates left behind by royal landowners became parks and lush gardens like Villa Doria Pamphili and Villa Borghese, providing welcome relief to the urban buzz and offering an entirely different world to discover in the Roman cosmos.

Next month: “The Allure of Abstraction”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 A.I.G.A. medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.

SPQRNext month: “The Allure of Abstraction”