I Watched the Light: Photographs of Rome

You don’t need to look for nature here. Nature finds you.


Just before the most productive period of his career, Louis Kahn spent three months in residence at the American Academy in Rome. When asked about that time, he reportedly said, “I watched the light.”

It’s true; the light in Rome is singularly seductive. I was once convinced that the diamond light of May could not be surpassed, but when I returned in winter, I found the short, golden days to be stunningly intense.

Sunrise in winter begins like a switch turning on the city. Days end abruptly, casting a burnt red glow across the branches of the giant stone pines. Even on stormy days, Rome emerges from the diffuse light filtered through the clouds. Ever-changing shadows alter the city surfaces — tufa, brick, stucco, mortar — revealing layers of geologic and human time. From the piazza at the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, near the American Academy, a panorama of the city unfolds. The view from this vantage is never dull: an eternal drama of light, shadow, color, and weather.

Like Kahn, I watched the light. It clarified and sharpened Rome’s details, here, in this city where time is not abstract but a thing you can touch. I watched the light during my walks in Villa Doria Pamphilj park, along the engineered banks of the Tiber River, through the Trastevere and the Testaccio neighborhoods. I watched it inside my studio at the Academy, in the library, the dining room, the pool room, my apartment, the courtyard, the gardens, the neighborhood bar.

You don’t need to look for nature in Rome; nature finds you. Rome is about change and continuity, contrast and harmony. The deep structure of the place is evident all around, in the rocks, the flow of water, the plants, what people have built through the ages. The city is alive and constantly adjusting to the present. Rome is ecological, full of interconnections with environments and organisms of all sorts.

Editors’ Note

Frederick Steiner was a Rome Prize Fellow in Historic Preservation at the American Academy in Rome in 1998. He returned for two months in the winter of 2013-14  as the William A. Bernoudy Architect in Residence.

Frederick Steiner, “I Watched the Light: Photographs of Rome,” Places Journal, January 2015. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150105

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