Book Review: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
“Just when we think we know our way around, we get lost. Just when we think we know what’s coming next, everything changes.”
Four Seasons in Rome is Anthony Doerr’s travel memoir about his year-long stint in Rome, Italy, working on what would eventually become All the Light We Cannot See. I read All the Light We Cannot See a few years ago, and even though it is long, it is one of my all-time favorites. Doerr won the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he and his wife, along with their two twin sons, moved to Rome for a year. Talk about the opportunity of a lifetime. Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy has talked about this book several times, and it sounded right up my alley. I love Italy; we were there last summer, and it was amazing. And because I loved Doerr’s writing in All the Light We Cannot See, I was excited to read Doerr’s thoughts on spending a year in Rome.
Doerr and his wife, Shauna, pack up from Boise, Idaho and move to Rome in an apartment in Trastevere with their six-month old twins, Owen and Henry. First of all, props to Shauna for agreeing to move to a foreign country with two babies. Four Seasons in Rome follows the Doerr family from the fall of 2004 to the end of summer 2005. Neither Shauna or Anthony know Italian and struggle with daily interactions with grocers, bakers, shop owners, etc. During the days, Anthony goes to his writing studio at the Academy and spends a lot of time reading Pliny the Elder, putting off working on his World War II novel. It was really fun to read his struggles with writing what would eventually become All the Light We Cannot See. He wrestles with finding inspiration to write about World War II in France, when he is surrounded by Rome and all of its history.
During their time in Rome, Pope John Paul II’s health deteriorated and eventually died just after Easter. Two to three million people flocked to Rome to witness his funeral. And just as many people made their way to St. Peter’s Basilica to witness the results of the conclave where the cardinals pick the next pope (Pope Benedict XVI). Can you imagine being in Rome during this historic time? Doerr took his family to the Vatican courtyards to witness a part of history being made. What an incredible memory that their family will have forever.
I think my favorite part of the whole book was when Anthony and Shauna visit Santa Maria del Popolo in the Piazza del Popolo. I went to Italy right after I graduated high school and made sure to visit this church because there was a Caravaggio painting inside. I studied art history my senior year of high school and then went on to minor in it in college, so I will always have a soft spot for Italian art, especially Caravaggio. Anyways, in the Santa Maria del Popolo, Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter is on display. In the church, in order to light the painting, you insert a coin into a box, then the painting is illuminated. I just love the way Doerr describes Caravaggio’s painting, saying:
“For the first time I understand what art critics mean when they say Caravaggio was a master at using white: Peter’s loincloth, centered on the canvas, bright and creased, vaults into the eye. The artist has used maybe twenty strokes of white in a vast landscape of black, but with it he has made an entire universe spring to life.”
This perfectly sums up how I feel about Caravaggio’s paintings. But it also illustrates how incredible it is to walk just about anywhere in Rome and discover true artistic masterpieces, whether it be paintings, sculptures, or architecture. You could be walking by a string of banks and fast-food restaurants, then the next thing you know you've stumbled upon a five-hundred year old church. Doerr spends a lot of time describing how surreal it is to be surrounded by such history, especially compared to his hometown of Boise.
Doerr is one of the most gifted writers of our time, and almost everyone I know has raved about All the Light We Cannot See; it won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2015. The combination of his writing and reading about Italy in Four Seasons in Rome was too perfect. I kept making notes of sentences and phrases he wrote because they were so beautiful. If you have any interest at all in Italy, I highly recommend reading Four Seasons in Rome. I would give my right arm to spend a year in Italy (but maybe not with twin infants), so if anyone wants to pay me to go to Rome for a year, just let me know. I give this 4 stars.
What are some other travel memoirs you enjoy and recommend?