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A Week at Rome's American Academy

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© Richard Reckj

Promoting scholarship and offering a creative haven, the Academy is where the ivory tower meets the Eternal City.

The gods may not be wearing Prada, but they are certainly smiling down on Janiculum Hill, where the designer herself is being honored at the American Academy in Rome’s annual McKim Gala. After a long rainy spell, the weather has cleared, the sunset equal to the setting. Perched on the highest spot within Rome’s ancient city walls, Villa Aurelia is the jewel in the academy’s 11-acre, ten-building compound. The 17th-century Baroque palazzo is set on four acres of classical gardens with rows of lemon trees, a grove of umbrella pines and a long entry drive lined with blue and white African daisies.

Three hundred sixty guests mingle in the lemon gardens in the main courtyard, the crowd a fascinating blend of worlds that rarely collide: art and fashion stars alongside archaeologists, historic preservationists, landscape architects and classical studies scholars. There’s Zaha Hadid, the Pritzker prize–winning architect who designed Rome’s new MAXXI museum; Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Italian Vogue; art dealer Larry Gagosian; Carla Fendi; and Sid and Mercedes Bass, who have made the academy one of their philanthropic pet projects.

After dinner in the secluded Secret Garden, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the academy’s president, presents Miuccia Prada with the McKim Medal for her innovative fashion work and her promotion of the visual arts through Fondazione Prada. Past recipients include architect Renzo Piano, writer Umberto Eco and painter Cy Twombly, who designed the gold medal that was then crafted by the Italian jeweler Vhernier. It dangles from a bright scarlet and orange ribbon and clashes with the designer’s fuchsia silk top in a very Prada way. “We would have never thought she’d stay this long,” whispers one of the party organizers at the end of the evening. “But look at her—she’s beaming!”

The medal was named for Charles Follen McKim, the prominent 19th-century architect who wanted America to have its own national school in Rome the way France was represented by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1884 he founded the American School of Architecture, which in 1911 merged with the American School of Classical Studies. They became the American Academy in Rome, a center for independent study in the arts and humanities. Every year, through a national, juried competition, the school awards approximately 30 Rome Prize fellowships in 18 disciplines, including architecture, historic preservation, design, literature, music composition and visual arts. Prizewinners receive a stipend of $13,000 to $26,000 and can stay at the academy for six or 11 months, drawing on all its resources, including its well-connected staff. “They can get you into places you’d never dream you’d be able to gain access to,” says Drew Beattie, a painter and a Harvard lecturer who was a visual arts fellow in 1995 and is currently president of the Society of Fellows.

Throughout the year the fellows are joined by visiting scholars and artists, fulfilling McKim’s dream of a collaborative haven where the community is inspired not only by Rome but also by the daily exchange of ideas. Chatfield-Taylor, who has been the academy’s president since 1988, was once a design arts fellow and describes that experience as the greatest of her life. A historic preservationist by training, she was drawn to Rome by what she calls “a wonderful layering effect.”

“Few cities in the world offer such an opportunity to see that kind of complex evolution,” she explains. “That’s what the fellows are responding to—the richness and depth.” When she took over the academy, it was falling apart and looked as if it might close down. “It was a preservation project writ large,” she says. “We spent twenty years and $35 million renovating ten major buildings and all the gardens. Having benefited from the academy, I knew why it had to be protected.”

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