n the first floor of an ancient Rome palazzo off Piazza Mattei, near its playful turtle fountain, is the Centro Studi Americani, whose roots trace back to the early 20th-centure when a former Harvard history professor named Henry Nelson Gay decided to start a local library to help make American culture more accessible to Italians. Seventeenth-century rooms that once housed Roman aristocracy are now lined with precious if yellowing books, most of them by American authors in English.
When I discovered the library three years ago, I felt like I’d stumbled onto an oasis. You can’t browse the shelves or pick out books by hand but there’s an online database that allows you to check out a book (there are 70,000 or so volumes). I was thrilled.
I began dropping by every afternoon. I’d be ushered to a room with tall wood-framed windows and historical frescoes on the ceiling. This room, chock with books, was the only one I was allowed to work in. All others, I was told, were off limits. It became my office of sorts. But yesterday, when I went by after about a month away, something felt different.
The difference began on the stairs, which are made from stone, now worn down, and form part of a dark stairwell. I noticed a well-known author coming down the stairs as I headed into the library building. She wore sunglasses. We moved to avoid each other and I smiled. I’ve seen her coming and going in and out of the library in the past. She must work in the back, in the rooms where I am not allowed. Even in talking to others I’ve never seen her smile. This time was no different. She looked pained and skirted around me.
Her writing was on my mind as I rang the bell. My mind’s eye scanned passages of her books. I wondered whether seriousness was the key to good writing. Was her pained mood at the heart of reaching the emotional depths she got to and put down so simply and elegantly? Maybe seriousness was a consequence of plunging to those depths. The door buzzed open and the thought passed.
“My” frescoed room was more crowded than usual. Though a late spring breeze blew outside, the room’s wooden windows were shut. Unaware of the stuffiness, people hunched over their computers or studying books. I wanted to open a window but worried about the street noises. Instead, I made like the others and got down to work.
Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the regulars or semi-regulars. They’ve hardly changed. One is man who requests books from the front desk and then copies what he reads in longhand. He has tall and jagged script. Enzo, the owner of the coffee bar across the road, calls him by name but all others address him with traditional Italian protocol, ingegnere or dottore. Each time the man sits down, he takes off his coat (which he wears even when it’s warm), and every time he stands up he puts it on again. He sits down and stands up maybe once each hour. And before he leaves the room, if only to smoke a cigarette, he likes to say good-bye to at least one person, and look this person in the eyes.
Yesterday, he stood up, put on his coat and did something that startled me. He asked me if he could open the window. “Si!” I said.
Suddenly, the breeze brought with it the sounds of the Roman street. To me, it was a cheerful reminder that the world continues despite our mind’s machinations. But I could sense the disturbance in the morgue-like silence.
The window opening provoked a ripple effect. When it banged shut, I went back and secured it open. A half-hour later, another regular shut it, but also failed to secure it. So it banged again. Yet another author, this one with a healthy bibliography behind him, made heavy steps to the window and finally shut it for good. Back again to the stuffiness, the silence, and the seriousness.
Eventually, the copying man stood up and put on his coat to go. This time, I knew, he was leaving for the day, since he brought the book back to the front desk. I watched him longingly scan the room, but finally say good-bye to no one. He left. But a few minutes later he returned, as if he’d suddenly become aware of violating his own tradition. He walked right up to the working author and said, “Arrivederci” in his stumbling voice, even reaching out to shake the author’s hand. It was a tension-breaking moment that made me feel like laughing — and so I did, in silence.
— Centro Studi Americani, open Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Via Michelangelo Caetani, 32, 00186 Rome. Tel. +39.06.6880.1613.