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People, Places, Stuff

Rome by Way of New Haven

Went to New Haven last week, two hours by train from New York with familiar Connecticut coast stops along the way, from Stamford to Bridgeport. It’s all just as I recall from my days in school there. But New Haven has changed. The year I was there back in the 1970’s a freshman was shot while moving into his college and walking around at night was a fool’s gambit. Now everything looks better, especially along Chapel Street, home to the Yale University Art Gallery which re-opened in expanded quarters last year.

Yale’s collection, the oldest university art museum in the country, is encyclopedic—from glorious mosaic floors taken from the Roman town of Jerash in present-day Jordan to marvelous Cezannes and Gauguins—commodiously arranged in three interconnected buildings. Plus, it’s free, as is the Yale Center for British Art across the street where I sat in on a lecture about English landscapes, part of a stunning exhibition called “Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the 20th Century” (through April 13).

But my real reason for the trip was to see a small show in the gallery at Whitney Humanities Center on Wall Street, Alexander Purves: Roman Sketches. I got to know Alec, who teaches in the Yale School of Architecture, while I lived in Rome; every spring he takes graduate students there for a four-week workshop devoted to sketching monuments in and around the Eternal City, in the belief that hand-drawing remains “a critical mode of investigation and expression,” despite the broadening use of the computer in architectural design. When the group got special permission to sketch at the Villa Madama—a High Renaissance marvel originally designed by Raphael, now used as an Italian government guest house for visiting dignitaries—I tagged along and never forgot it, especially the Elephant Fountain in the garden overlooking Rome.

On display in the New Haven exhibition are renderings from Alec’s sketch books—mostly using ballpoint pen, but some in watercolor—of St. Peter’s, Borromini’s La Sapienza, the Piazza del Popolo and other sites well-known to Rome aficionados. Vastly more evocative than photos, the stuff of a bad case of homesickness for Rome.
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