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Page1of 1 When in Rome
by Wendy Richmond

When I arrived at the American Academy in Rome, I had a brief attack of studio-envy; the artists’ workspaces are expansive, with high ceilings and warm Roman light. But I had deliberately chosen not to have a studio. The purpose of my brief month as a Visiting Artist was to be out and about in the city, observing Rome’s version of the “personal bubble”—the private space that urban dwellers occupy when they are alone in public.

I set out to find the Roman equivalent of the places where I had experienced the personal bubble in New York. I started with the most mundane: the Metro, Rome’s underground subway system. Any station would do; I chose the closest, Piramide, and got on a train headed towards Rebibbia. Right away, the personal bubble was in full display and I felt like I was on the subway in New York or, for that matter, any other city whose subway I had ridden. The subway car was filled mostly with people who were alone, immersed in their iPods and cell phones, books and newspapers, or simply staring into space; they were retreating into their private cocoons.

I had my new camera with me and I was prepared to document the evidence. But each time I tried to shoot, the camera lens became a magnet, pulling the riders’ focus to me, and their inward gaze became decidedly outward. Their bubbles were invaded and disrupted. The very experience I was trying to capture was pierced by my action.

My next outing to track the personal bubble was a visit to the recently renovated Vatican Library. I wanted to find the Roman equivalent of my experience in grand libraries of other cities, where I’ve spent many solitary hours next to fellow readers and writers, all of us immersed in our own individual worlds of thoughts, pictures and words. Gaining entry to the Vatican Library is not easy; it requires a letter of introduction and a considerable amount of time spent waiting at various points inside Vatican City. But once I was in, I came across the quintessential manifestation of the personal bubble.

It was inside the Manuscript Reading Room, where about 40 scholars were packed together at long tables, each studying a huge ancient manuscript propped carefully on a wooden stand. I stood in the doorway (I had not gotten permission to enter this room), watching the scholars as they turned the precious pages. It was as though there was a protective zone around each body and its manuscript. Every individual's absorption guaranteed that no one would trespass into the other’s mental or physical territory.

Cameras were not allowed, so I tried to absorb the scene as best I could, hoping to record this perfect expression of the personal bubble, if only with my eyes. I was practically scanning each person one by one, until my intrusive behavior was noticed, and I was politely shooed away. Once again, my own presence prevented me from getting the evidence.

I left the library frustrated. How was I going to bring home examples of the personal bubble if my attempts at documentation kept disrupting it?

I decided to take a break from my mission, and instead indulge in being a tourist. I was in one of the most treasure-filled cities in the world, and it was time to witness its beauty. So I went to Rome’s churches. In one week, I saw Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, Carravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi, Cavallini’s thirteenth-century mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere...the list goes on. Late one afternoon, after eight hours on my feet and nearly back to the academy, but too tired to face the final hill, I stopped in at the church San Pietro in Montorio to rest. I sat down in a pew, leaned back and closed my eyes. I fell into a dreamy state, and suddenly became aware that someone was in the pew behind me. I felt the presence move closer, perhaps kneeling. Was he (or she) praying? Was he (or she) even aware of me? I realized that I was observing a personal bubble that was probably more intense than any I had ever seen, and my eyes were closed.

I went back to the church the next day. I waited until I was the only person there, and then I took out my camera and photographed the two pews, now empty. The photograph I brought back home was not a literal documentation of the personal bubble that I had witnessed. But perhaps it was more accurate to capture the memory. No one was there to intrude. CA

© 2011 W. Richmond

Editor’s note: Wendy is the author of Art Without Compromise*. Richmond
Wendy Richmond ( is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.