Vatican Floors, Coffee Beans, and Penis Pasta

First published on the SVA blog on June 10th, 2016 under the title “Finding the Meanings of Rome”

It may come as a surprise to most but there is a part of visiting the Vatican that no one ever told me to pay attention to. While the crowds of multinationals were staring up at the works of Raphael and Michaelangelo, I was staring at my feet admiring the intricate tile work that runs throughout the museum halls. Strangely, after walking through room upon room, your mind stops processing the paintings. That, and I’m not very patient with slow-paced tourists who stop dead in their tracks at random. Perhaps this is why I had my head down with my eyes on the ground as I weaved to make my way to the Sistine Chapel. It seems, even when I got there, I was still fixated on the tiles rather than the gods above me. The ones in the Chapel particularly resemble Louise Fili’s Instagram posts of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a church I hope to see before my flight home on Sunday. Apparently, St. Valentine’s skull lies there too.

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Our time in Rome has suddenly evaporated with just hours to go before our presentation of our projects tomorrow. While working in a hip cafe of the Eternal City, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve taken up residence here; it’s the same routine I have in Beirut except I’m only here for another 48 hours. Barnum Cafe’s bartender waves goodbye as his shift ends because some of us have become regulars, sitting at the large table surrounded by pencil shavings and tracing paper. In my three consecutive days at this table, I’ve met an American food blogger, an Egyptian who inquired about my Arabic sketches, and, of course, the bartender who dedicated his early-2000 songs to us after we kept bobbing our heads to the lyrics that took us back to high school. Camping out there, the transition from espresso to Prosecco is easy as pie as the place morphs into a pub post 7:30 pm when computers are no longer allowed.

And in the midst of doing all this prep, many of us try to find souvenirs for our peeps back home – ones that aren’t tacky or typical. I’ve opted for chocolate covered coffee beans from Sant’Eustachio II Caffe, sugary fruit gummies from Moriondo e Gariglio, and some leather-bound notebooks. And yes, penis-shaped pasta for my more mature friends.

As Lita Talarico, SVA MFA co-chair, said, “in Paris, everything comes at you but, in Rome, you have to dig a little deeper” alluding to how the city is one of layers where there’s more to discover beyond the burnt orange facades, beyond centro storico. Fourteen days and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Besides the fact that I’ve been doing laundry in my hotel sink, I’m not quite ready to go just yet so that only means one thing: I need to come back.

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Italian Vernacular Typography in Rome with Louise Fili

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Louise speaks with owner of Ristorante Settimo about their signage from the 1960s

“Fare la coda” or the inability to stand in line is not the only thing that Rome and Beirut have in common. Much like my own home city, Rome has a tangible warmth to it and I’m not just talking about the temperature. There is history here that can be seen in the ochre tones of the buildings, heard in the undulations of the language, and even tasted in every scoop of black raspberry gelato. When it comes to design, it’s as if things look the way they’re supposed to without much thought put into it. As our first lecturer, Louise Fili, said, “in Italy, everything is beautifully designed even though no one is a designer.”

She walks us through 35 years worth of her carefully curated collection of signage. Not only is Italy the birthplace of Latin typography, it seems it’s also where every sign has a lineage. Rather than reading a plaque or pocketbook guide, each sign forms a graphic timeline because the style of type used corresponds to a particular historic era. Leave it to graphic designers to learn about history via type, right?

But oddly enough, it works. Not only does Louise tell us about each sign’s historical significance but also how the style of signage can tell you what part of Italy you’re in. It seems that each part – be it Florence, Bolognia, Rome, or Torino – has its own flavor and trademark when it comes to their storefronts.

What I find most interesting is the businesses that the signs represent tend to belong to a family that has been in that business for generations. The symbol becomes representative of part of their legacy, not just indicative of what they’re selling thus becoming a visual landmark in that neighborhood’s collective memory. It reminds you that there’s a story behind every sign and all you have to do to find out more is walk through the doorway underneath it.

First published on SVA’s website.