Peter Weller, best known for his starring role in the film Robocop, has acted continuously in theatre and film, directed television, and writes for travel magazines. Nominated for an Oscar for best direction of live action short film and recently the star antagonist on last season’s U.S. television series 24, Weller also hosted his own series, Engineering Empires, on the History Channel. At the moment, he is directing and editing the Christmas episode of NBC’s Las Vegas. These varied accomplishments alone would qualify Weller as a ‘renaissance man’, but he also holds a master’s degree in Italian Renaissance art history, is self taught on the history of late Republican-early Empire Ancient Rome, developed and teaches a course, ‘Hollywood and the Roman Empire’ at Syracuse University, and conducts field trips for Syracuse University in Florence. Weller is currently finishing a Ph.D. at UCLA, in the history of fifteenth-century Venetian art, with a minor in Ancient Greek and Roman art. All of this while playing jazz trumpet in a bebop sextet in Los Angeles.
So Peter, what have you been teaching lately?
A few years ago I was teaching ‘Hollywood and the Roman Empire’ at Syracuse in New York. It was really a classics class posing as a film course, but no one is likely to hire me to teach classics (and good for them). Some of the students had the opportunity to go to Italy with me to visit the actual sites of some of the writings and films, from Paestum to Rome. Whenever possible, I will spend a spring in Florence for the Syracuse campus to take students on art and architecture field trips. I hope to do that again soon. However, though I love teaching I am putting it all ‘on hold’ to finish up my Ph.D. at UCLA. I also have to make a buck or two in the movie business to afford this serendipitous adventure.
In some of our e-mail correspondence you mentioned your ambivalent feelings about Florence. What specifically were you referring to?
I don’t believe anyone who has ever lived in Florence for longer than a month hasn’t had terrifically ambivalent feelings about the city. It’s possibly the most evocatively ambivalent city in Italy. There’s a saying abut Florence that Professor Rab Hatfield once quoted to me: ‘Living in the middle of Florence only makes you want to leave it’. It’s a dicey and humid little provincial town, the center of which has little to no sun, relatively bad food (save the four or five exceptional places), it has mosquitoes year round, and the locals can be pretty much antithetical to the ‘warm and friendly’ Italian trope. There are also a mafia of Vespas running around everywhere, and it has tiny sidewalks and hordes of tourists. All in a claustrophobic burg without a major place to sit and relax, except two overpriced piazzas with overpriced and hostile service. Now there’s a lot to see in Florence—after all, it’s where the Renaissance started. And I have to say, I do have great friends in Florence. I prefer to hang out in the Oltrarno—the other side of the river is calmer and more of a ’hood.
Where do you stay when you’re here?
The Hotel Savoy. As a creature of habit and preferring to go where I am ‘king’, the first thing I do when I arrive is check in, say hello to all of my friends who work there; then head to the ristorante Garga with my wife and say hello to Giuliano, Sharon and Andrea. Afterwards, we’ll go see one or two pieces of art we’ve missed, visit old favorites, go bug all the friends and profs and Syracuse at Villa Rosa in Piazza Savonarola, or see new exhibitions.
How did you become interested in art? Did you always know this was what you wanted to study?
My interest started in 1979. I was taken by the hand, by Ali MacGraw, to the largest Picasso exhibit in the world when MoMA was giving the Guernica back to Spain. All five floors of the museum were dedicated to Picasso, including his earliest works, from his teenage years. I spent an entire day just looking at Picasso. After that I was hooked. I studied from Picasso backwards, on my own. But when one gets to the Italian Renaissance, one realizes it isn’t just about art: it’s sociology and poetry and politics and a re-look at classical values—all bound up in the notion of ‘humanism’. The best perk about coming to Florence now, however, is that I don’t have any academic responsibility, no papers to write and present. I can kind of just groove on the town—and remember the ecstasy and horror of living here and busting my butt for one year on a master’s degree.
What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans have about Italians?
That the Italians don’t get anything done. There’s that old joke about the difference between heaven and hell. Heaven is where the English make war, the French make the food the Italians make love and the Swiss organize it all. In Hell, the English make food, the French make war, the Swiss make love and the Italians organize it all.
But the truth is, Italians get more done in a day than most. They’re constantly working. They are also constantly talking, however, throughout all this work; so it appears that nothing is getting done. Actually, they are constantly working and it all gets done. And it is usually done exceptionally well, as Italians take great pride in the hand-eye coordination and execution in labor. The need a little air taken out of their bureaucracy, however.
How has Italy changed you?
I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I have to say that the area of Italy that has affected me most is where I live—on the Amalfi coast. Living there has made me kinder, more patient—a better person.
In what way?
Italy has given me discernment and culture. It has given me a sense of the world that one doesn’t get living only in America: a perspective on time and history, the fallout of which, I hope, is a facility for enjoyment of my time on earth. Italy has given me other venues to pursue passion; it’s a very passionate place. It’s a great place to enjoy the passage of time, which all we can do—other than be of service. ‘Service’ is why I go do ‘penance’ in Florence at Syracuse. But, truth be told, I enjoy returning to Florence now.
What advice would you give students who are going to Italy?
I’d tell them what I tell all my students when they ask me (particularly the males, who always want to know how to get a date with Italian girls): Get your ass out of all those English/Irish sports pubs and go meet folks. Italian girls think most American boys are stupid because they drink too much. The Italian kids will stay out all night; however, as a general rule, they don’t get loaded. When you hear abrasive noise on the street in Florence, unless it’s a football game, it is, sadly, the bleating of drunken American youth. The smart ones get out of the bars. The rest learn zip. They’ll always remember their time here. But by 40 they will wish they’d have paid more attention. However, ‘youth is wasted on the young’.
And your advice for appreciating and getting the most out of being in Italy for the semester?
Travel and learn the language. Learn the language and travel. You’ll make a fool of yourself trying to speak, but learn it! And speak it every day. Otherwise you’ll always be on the outside of a culture. I never learned a language until I was 40. I came to Italy and for eight years, like the ugly American, never learned. Then a French friend of mine embarrassed me into learning French, my first foreign language. But you have to be willing to screw up and make an fool out of yourself. But that’s the fun of life anyway, right? And in Italy, the locals go easy on you.