Ken Carbone: Looking at Rome

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday August 9, 2023

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. Ken is also a long-time subscriber and contributor to DART, which today re-caps his report on a visit to Rome that was recently published in PRINT in slightly different form. 

My fascination with Rome may have something to do with genetics, as my roots trace back to the Abruzzo mountains east of the city. In Rome, I immediately morph into some silly, romantic vision of myself, a cross between Marcello Mastroianni and Caravaggio. An inflated ego seems fitting, because in Rome, it’s “go big or go home!”

You can’t ignore the grandeur of Rome; it reminds you of its greatness at every turn. The spirit of imperial power that lasted about a thousand years (753 BCE to 476 CE) isn’t going to be matched by American “exceptionalism” that has yet to celebrate its tricentennial. In her book S.P.Q.R., historian and scholar Mary Beard documents a time of grand spectacle, political intrigue, ruthless conquests, artistic innovation, and engineering ingenuity. However, while the overwhelming magnificence of Rome is something to behold, it’s worth the effort to examine the aggregate of small wonders, like a colorful mosaic, a sculpted door knocker, or a pattern of brick that contribute richness to this fantastic city’s urban fabric and culture.


Most artists and designers I know are hopelessly curious, making it impossible to ignore the beautiful, mysterious, and inventive things in life that feed creative output. Some take photos, others write about their discoveries, and many, like me, draw.  When sketching, everything on the periphery of my vision becomes foggy as my focus locks on the subject while I savor the moment at a relaxed pace. Years ago, Milton Glaser told me over lunch that “the only time I truly see something is when I’m drawing it.” For example, the Capitoline Museum’s famous “She Wolf” sculpture with Rome’s mythic founders Romulus and Remus (above) as nursing infants is widely recognized as an icon of the city. The masterful bronze beast with its muscular body and en guarde stance is cast in the Etruscan style of around 700 BCE. In my sketch, I focused on the chubby “bambini” who were not part of the original composition, but added in the 14th century.

In certain museums where photography is “proibita,” my journal comes in handy. I once visited the Villa Borghese to see the legendary Baroque sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (above), who seemed to melt marble into flowing forms that defy comprehension. Visitors are limited to 20 minutes to view these works. When guards announced that everyone must exit to allow for the next group, one noticed me frantically trying to finish my sketch and generously permitted me to remain in the gallery to join the next group. For ten blissful minutes, I was left ALONE with the sculptures of David, Apollo, Daphne, Pluto, and Persephone, where the only sound was my pen on paper. At this moment, I experienced a suspension of time.

Of the many historic monuments in Rome, I am particularly fond of the Tempietto (“little temple”, below, left), a masterpiece of high Renaissance architecture Atlas Obscura considers “more sculpture than building.” Thought to mark the spot where the apostle Peter was crucified, this 1510 Donato Bramante design is loved by architects for its rational purity, elegant detailing, and lasting influence. Small is indeed beautiful.

The density of Rome’s built environment gives the impression of man-made dominance over nature. However, many streets are lined with towering trees, making a strong case for the abundance of Roman greenery. Vast estates left behind by royal landowners became parks and lush gardens like Villa Doria Pamphili and Villa Borghese, providing welcome relief to the urban buzz and offering an entirely different world to discover in the Roman cosmos