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Exploring Subterranean Rome

Exploring Subterranean Rome

The course description for RISD in Rome – a month-long, three-credit Continuing Ed course offered for the first time this summer – invites students to “journey into subterranean spaces and embrace archeological inquiry.” Instructor and urban speleologist Nick DePace BArch 95, a senior critic in RISD’s Landscape Architecture and Interior Architecture departments, plans to guide the class through underground catacombs, quarries, aqueducts and even sewers so they can better comprehend Rome’s organic genesis and its mind-blowingly long history. “Only then can they start to understand the construction of a civilization based on these amazing, mostly invisible works,” says DePace.

Of course, students won’t spend the entire month of July underground. There’s a lot to be learned from city streets and other aboveground structures as well. DePace’s own method for exploring Rome (and any city) is to follow the lead of 1950s-era French Situationists, who endorsed the dérive (drift), a method of wandering through the urban environment and thinking critically about what is learned along the way.

“I’ve tried to move beyond the superficial interpretation of the city by walking and using maps,” DePace says. “Documenting one’s experiences of a planned journey – and traveling through time as you go rather than focusing on one specific period of history – is a great way to learn about a city.”

DePace also plans to walk the Roman road with students from outside the city inward to give them a first-hand perspective on why people initially came together here so many years ago. “The location is important,” he explains. “Geological and hydrological formation created Rome’s seven hills, which offered a safe place to command commerce. That’s why so many tribes moved into the area. From there the narrative builds. Modern roads and transportation systems were built on top of prehistoric paths.”

Students will draw, photograph and write along the way, capturing their own experience of the landscape, which DePace poetically describes as “a tapestry that is constantly erased and rewritten.” They’ll have access to studios and equipment at the centrally located Palazzetto Cenci, home to RISD’s European Honors Program (EHP), and will also take short trips to other cities, including Naples, Rome’s neighbor to the south.

As an Italian-American gourmand who has spent a lot of time in Rome (including a Fulbright year in 2004 and six or seven sessions teaching and then serving as chief critic for RISD’s EHP program), DePace intends to introduce students to some of the city’s lesser-known delicacies. “I don’t want the students to eat pizza every day,” he says with a laugh. “I want them to take risks. Drifting through the city allows you to hit special restaurants that are not in the tourist guides.

“My hope is that this class will be a gateway to Italy and to Europe for students – that it will help them understand how to read cities in general,” DePace adds. “It’s not just for architects but for anyone interested in the built environment. It’s for anyone who believes that the journey is as important as arriving at The Place, The Monument, The Restaurant.”

Simone Solondz

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