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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Four Weeks: Reflections on the Near and Far

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Roman Streets, Photo by Hong Ji Chen

(Authors Note: This post was originally written on February 9, 2014.)

The old adage “Time plays tricks on your memories” may be overused, but it is nevertheless true. Today marks my one month anniversary in Rome, and the city already feels like a familiar part of life. It is not as though I have lived here for a long time, but fragments of the city begin to remind me of other places I have visited. The glamorous shopping alley of Via del Corso looks like a skinnier Fifth Avenue.  The quiet residential streets of Upper Trastevere resemble affluent Mid-Levels in Hong Kong, while the shantytown of Lower Trastevere feels like the grimy outskirts of Shenzhen or Managua. Piazza Argentina, by studio, may well be Union Square in San Francisco, except with a massive archeological pit/cat sanctuary in the middle. The architectural theorist Colin Rowe may describe Rome as a “Collage City,” but sometimes I think “Collage Urban Memory” is more suitable, albeit less catchy.

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Rome = Urban Collage, Graphic by Author

Memory, besides pointing out similarities between environments, also tends to bring out and exaggerate the differences. This is most evident when comparing American and Italian food cultures. I must admit, grudgingly, that by my second week I was feeling rather fed up with Italian food, especially the omnipresence of hard, crunchy BREAD. Yes, Italian food is healthy, Italian food is fresh, my classmates keep telling me. I agree to a certain extent. I love the abundance of wine, coffee and Nutella in Rome, but I was craving a good Cheeseburger and some decent stir-fry. Going to a nice Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Years in Piazza Vittorio satiated some of my “homefoodsickness”, but not entirely. (For the rest of the semester, henceforth, I will make it my personal mission to 1) find the best burger joint in Rome and 2) perfect chicken and broccoli stir fry at home. Americans take note: McDonald’s is perhaps twice as expensive in Italy than in the States, and it tastes just as artery-clogging and diabetes-inducing.)

For all my petty complaints about the lack of American and Chinese food options in Rome, the city has definitely made up for it in other places. The number of beautiful vantage points in Rome seem to outnumber automobiles in Los Angeles, or skyscrapers in Hong Kong. From atop the Vittoriano, the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, the Castel Sant’Angelo and countless other spots, you can oversee the historic città eterna in all glory – the dome silhouettes, the striking roofscapes, and majestic stone pines in the distance…

But perhaps the most striking quality of the Roman cityscape is not to be found on the ground at all. The skies over Italy, perhaps the most dramatic in the world, engages the city’s multivalent rhythms. On rare sunny days, the Roman sky is colored with a deep cerulean blue, brilliantly framing the sandstone facades and carmine roofs. But for most of the winter, when the skies are overcast and soaked with rain, the brooding clouds create a dramatic chiaroscuro effect. Plays of light and dark dance around the baroque monuments, and lucky rays of light illuminate the travertine ruins.

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Roman Forum I, Instagram by Author

For me and my memories, I will always remember the sky.

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