"We came to Rome because we would always regret it if we didn't, because every timidity eventually turns into regret. But the enormity of what I don't know about this place never ceases to amaze me. In 1282, the Tuscan monk Ristoro d'Arezzo declared, "It is a dreadful thing for the inhabitants of a house not to know how it is made." Dreadful indeed. What I think he meant was that we ought to understand the earth we live on, its skies, its stones. We ought to understand why we live the lives we live. But I don't even understand the apartment building in which I live. How is linoleum made? Or window glass or porcelain? By what power does water rise to the third floor and pour out of this faucet?"
Coming to Rome was not easy for Doerr and his family, as the twins were only about six months old. It would have been much easier to stay comfortably in Boise, Idaho, but the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts was an offer that was too good to refuse. Can you imagine being paid and housed for a year in Rome so you could work on whatever you wished - your novel, your art, your research?
Doerr does not actually write much on his novel. The wonderful distractions of family and the ancient city are too much to ignore. He walks the streets of the city, looks in the museums and alleys, tastes the food, meets the neighbors. He and his wife visit surround villages. What he tells you makes you want to visit.
- You can lie on benches to look up at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
- To see the Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio you have to put coins in the vending box to turn on the spotlights.
- Giotto added ground lapis lazuli in the blue robes in his frescoes in Assisi.
As interesting as the funeral reporting is, it is the descriptions of Rome and everyday dramas that make this book worth reading. It certainly substitutes well for the novel he has not written. Look for it at your library.
Doerr, Anthony. Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Scribner, 2007. ISBN 9781416540014