Sunday, 27 January 2013

"the Paradise, The grave, the city, and the wilderness" (Part 1)

As I was saying, (1) …, that light playing through the Aleatico di Gradoli brings back to mind the fluttering of the bersaglieri plumes as they advanced on the Porta Pia. But, you see, the breach in the wall I remember was already made, the fragmentation of the brick fabric carefully described. Indeed it was no wall at all, but a paint and canvas theatrical flat, demountable and disassemblable for the regular restaging of the seizure of Rome. The date was not 20 September 1870, (… I’m not that old despite appearances), but 4 November 2010, and the place was not the Quirinale but the Circus Maximus. I knew instantly, as a I saw the soldiers having a sly pre-performance cigarette, and the mounted carabinieri resting their horses in the shade of some pines, that the event supported my long- held contention that the appropriation of Rome is a movable feast in space as well as time … I know, I know, but politics and cuisine are profoundly linked. Any sensible reading of the city would have to take a relaxed view of chronology and even of location.

You see … look at the crust of bread on my plate … the fragment can evoke the whole and the forza armata know that the essential elements with which to represent their unopposed victory and undisputed apotheosis are Michelangelo’s porticoed gate and the breach in the wall next to it, an architectural totem and a void, together a sufficiency which dispenses with the inconvenient need to transport a mock-up of the tower of the Porta Pia all over the Italian peninsula.

Coincidentally, and I am pretty certain that it is only a coincidence, one can observe the same editing process in Kennedy’s photographs of the actual site. (2) Now one might charitably suppose that his depiction is a result of Kennedy’s unfamiliarity with the mechanics of his own photographic equipment, rather than his channeling of ‘unsettling modernity’ through his camera lens. But, it being the first year of his membership of the BAAS (3) his photographic excursions were, shall we say, catholic … if the term might be considered appropriate in these specific circumstances. … Eclectic, then, if you prefer … So he documents the site at which papal control of Rome was brought to an end - the wreaths celebrating the twentieth anniversary of ‘la presa’ still adorning the ancient wall as Mrs. Kennedy hurries to take up position for the historical record and, of course, a passerby interrupts the shot. That problem persists, of course, no matter how early one rises, one’s attempt to capture the vedute will be marred by someone or other … And today its more likely bruti stranieri than the scugnizzi of his day. Perhaps I am guilty of prejudice, but one can take consolation that the architecture abides whatever the changes of fortune and fashion. Speaking of consolation, a digestivo perhaps? OK, then maybe some cheese … catch his attention … and a mezzo litro, per piacere …

Anyway, Kennedy captured that most modern ruin, the marker of recent military conflict, as a paradisaical situation which synthesized the Risorgimento. But that celestial realm sought amongst the ruins had been a theme of Roman apologetics since the renaissance if not since the age of Augustus … And this being Rome those ruins need not necessarily be authentic.

The Fontana di Trevi is an authentic site of the city as spectacle, but it requires mass suspension of disbelief to be convinced by its artifice. It was a representation of a profane paradise long before Silvia seduced Marcello in its waters, but the figures that inhabit the ‘other’ aquatic Rome are only one of the alternative realities. (4) What about the frescoed vaults , those frameworks of exuberantly redundant fictive space lit from some other mysterious realm, wrapping round thermal windows and blurring the edge between the city and the sempeternal, bathed in lux perpetua.

Speaking of light, if I don’t speed up my story we’ll soon be sitting full in the sun. The siesta isn’t as consistently observed now in Rome as when I first used to visit – something to do with Anglo-Saxon attitudes rather than the profligacy of the modern ‘traveller’ … why fill your plastic bottle with acqua potabile when un bicchiere di vino at a shady table might be more refreshing and restorative, eh? Anyway, tempus fugit … I never really credited the authenticity of Accattone’s cooling off by diving in the Tiber. (5) One of Pasolini’s visually poetic conceits to indulge in a form of contemporary Caravaggesque … the actuality of poverty is just not that heroic or photogenic. It’s the perennial motif of life and love amongst the ruins. Postwar Rome was full of petrified examples of alienating historicism at the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Foro Italico and, of course, at EUR with its mute and dead-eyed monuments, graves all to the folly of power.

Look at Meier’s museum, (6) all the vivacity of the mortuary slab, albeit to extend the metaphor the monument it contains has been exhumed, reassembled and displayed for the veneration of the popolo romano, like the relics of some archaeological saint, victorious in death … (singing) oh grave where is thy victory … oh death where is they sting …

Necropolitan capricci are never out of place in a city such as Rome … think of the graves beneath the floor of the Forum, the religious fervour that wanted to read the catacombs as cities of the living … As above, so below, eh? Think of the tombs as boundary markers, the Tomb of Eurasyces is the most famous, squeezed up against the outside of the Porta Maggiore … it’s easy to think the tomb stands as some kind of warning to those leaving the city, or perhaps even those entering … yet it predates the gate and its aqueduct, not to mention the line of the wall, by the best part of a century. (7) Death, you see, conspires to form our image of Rome.

Yes, I agree that seems extreme, but I find it hard to see the Spanish Steps without thinking of the stahlhelms snatched covertly by Rossellini’s camera marching past in the opening shot of ‘Roma Citta Aperta’ (8) … a mnemonic response immediately succeeded by an habitual anxious scan across the tourists sitting on the steps to make sure none of them has been surreptitiously murdered by gangsters like Terribile in ‘Romanzo Criminale’. (9)

The most skilled of artists can easily integrate that motif of mortality (as I believe Father Mulcahy (10) used to call it) into the cityscape … Think of Piranesi’s piazza on the Aventine and its severed Saracen heads. If any organization relished the clash of civilizations it was the Knights of Malta. We can stroll up there later if you like like. I have a sort of informal permesso due to my work on the black aristocracy. Their gestures of mourning in the face of the Sardinian occupation (as Hare (11) considered it) were always a little too theatrical, the fatalism part of the highly codified forms of behaviour worthy of serious anthropological study … a task perhaps for a researcher from Great Falls, Montana, (12) don’t you agree?

To refer to it as a sham (of which I agree even I have been guilty on occasion) does not necessarily imply a moral condemnation. The military and naval prowess of the knights was long gone before they had their church and piazza redecorated a la mode. But that mode, with a form of false archaeology long predating Eisenman et al. would provide the material for Valadier’s much more prominent work at Piazza del Popolo, all rostral columns and captive slaves ornamenting the slopes of the Pincio. (13) These same representational impulses had already occurred in the Four Rivers fountain. Whatever Kircher’s involvement, Bernini could hold aloft the authentic archaeological fragment of Domitian’s obelisk on a fantastic grotto with its four colossal figures, in various states of animation and repose. Our normal field of vision is dominated by these characters but hovering over is a true portent of the fall of dynasties, a memento mori seemingly lost on the Pamphilij … (14)

So, where was I? Ah, the grave … every innocuous element of the Roman cityscape asserts the abiding presence of death in life. Sant’ Agostino with its broad flight of steps in a rather obscure piazza has was the perfect setting for Freddo’s final revenge and his own assassination in ‘Romanzo Criminale’. Death taints the memory, and appeals to the romantic spirit. Of course, Kennedy kept that Punch cartoon, which perhaps reflected his own marital experiences on the forum – one spouse rapt in historical ferment at some bloody calamity, the other engaged in altogether more prosaic matters. (15)

Ah, grazie … no the darker the better I always think …

Kennedy obviously felt he needed to assimilate as much of the city as possible in situ and also when back in Lancaster. I’d hazard that John Murray were right not to pursue his guidebook – they were leaving that market to Baedeker. (16) The bogus precision of the mill owner and militia man tended to rob the city of its romance, a fact which Kennedy recognized himself when he saw the Punch cartoon … I often wonder whether he came across the Reverend Primmer struggling with his stash of a ‘holy’ palm concealed under his coat on Palm Sunday … Now that would be a photo! (17)

The comical controversialism of the pastor’s mocking of papal Rome would, perhaps, have obviously appealed to the good captain’s pooterish sensibilities … but who cannot be moved by the forum, if only by the sort of puzzlement which descends from half–hearing the amplified routines of the modern day ciceroni. … I know, but I always feel they declaim their various (and seldom entertaining) histories as if their microphones have only the most limited power. Who can be surprised that even visitors from, shall we say, Montana, would be confused by that gaping chasm between the datum level of the modern city and that of the floor of the forum … Of course, many of us know that is only a provisional level as there are many layers below. That gap, that apparent absence of continuity, is a necessary vacuum into which our reveries can be poured.

What beguiles me always, though, is the carved nature of Rome, the product perhaps of its hills and their slopes, made passable and cultivatable, and eventually even habitable by terracing. In turn that affords vertical surfaces, or more generally, series of them for civic adornment and promontories from which the complex low relief of the urban roofscape can be viewed. I suppose if my post-prandial torpor allowed me to leave the osteria it is a phenomenon upon which I could expand further … quite literally, perhaps after the carciofo alla juda …The result of these urban layers, though, in short, is the sort of dense habitation which the protagonists of the compact city can only dream of (sic) … The clearing of those densely layered warrens, with the arrival first of the Sardinian usurpers and then their fascist successors, deprived the city of much vivid authenticity in favour of rather sterile zones enlivened only by the ever-increasing traffic. (18)

I realize what follows might be difficult to accept, but I too, am sceptical about placing too much faith in the claims of urban morphology, that patterns reoccur in some unfathomable and spontaneous manner. Let me tell you one has to stare at Nolli’s map for a very long time to discern the city’s pattern. (19)

But thinking of the seven hills and their topographical summit, those temples on the twin humped Capitoline, one can naturally see (sic) their echoes in the Divine Michelangelo’s palace, but reconfigured and reoriented … The reoccur even in the array of repeated forms created by Piano at the Auditorium; an artificial hill for sure, but with flights of stairs to rival the Ara Coeli; and metal clad, like the bronze armoured roof of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, commanding the city and embodying its sinister power.

I find, with age perhaps, that my gaze is now more often downwards than directed to those ethereal vaults that used to draw my eye. Ground level, and those below - often concealed from view - hold the attention; it’s where those celestial fantasies meet the here and now - and the you and me - with a certain degree of collision. For the Roman that zone is marked by the heavily layered and rusticated bases of the palazzi, the frowning voussoirs above the deeply shaded openings and those expressively defensive openings on their kneeling bases. After this long era when transparency and structural legerdemain has been commonplace such a fascination with this petrified expression might seem perverse, but I hold to the idea that rustication itself speaks of the nature of Rome, that reconfigured memory of a city which robustly forms the present place. (20) Those sedimentary layers are not archaeologically authentic, … few could be fooled by that … but they represent that idea of the past still present, and in so doing bewilder the chronology. Any two-bit hack actor will tell you that age is more convincingly put on than youth and it’s the same with architecture and the city. But even if we know it is false dressing on a much younger body there remains some area of doubt.

At this point Dr. Caponegri reached into his much travelled briefcase and produced a tightly folded piece of writing paper bearing the marque of the Albergo Ashby. It was a diagram with the four words ‘paradise’, ‘grave’, ‘city’ and ‘wilderness’ written across the top and then the titles of several films listed below,with specific scenes identified by a few words below each of the categories. He paused, took the slightest sip of water and whispered

Shelley’s terms provide a form of atopolgical map of Rome, a table of interpretations into which future artists consciously or unconsciously have inserted their own interpretations. Filmmakers, especially because of the retinal simulation of the cinema screen can play with those relationships. Time and space can be treated as an elastic fabric through which narrative is threaded, snagging on stubborn fibres and stretching out to near breaking point. Rome fulfils that condition perfectly with its sedimeted topography. The attraction of Rome to cineastes is surely that physical manifestation of montage technique where extended sequences can be experienced but also where fragmants are juxtaposed to create another reality. One need not worry too much about material outside the frame since what is captured within is so rich , multi-layered, obscurely referential within both the history of the city and since the last century within that of cinema.

Anyway, Fausto – our lunch is over but I hear those two voices again, the roar of the crowd acclaiming the victor and the whisper of his slave reminding him ‘memento mori’ …

I suppose we should attempt to make some good use of the afternoon … but maybe I could persuade you that an amaro would be agreeable after all… *

* Conversational discursions by Dr Gus Caponegri, formerly director of Etruscan Studies at Gauthier College, were transcribed by Fausto Roesler following lunch at the Osteria de Merode, Rome.

1.This was the title chosen for the three volume publication of writings by Colin Rowe. As I Was Saying: Recollections and Miscellaneous Essays Colin Rowe edited by Alexander Caragonne (M.I.T. Press Cambridge Massachusetts 1996).

2. James Douglass Kennedy

3. The British and American Archaeological Society of Rome

4. La Dolce Vita

5. Accatone

6. Museo dell Ara Pacis

7. Coates-Stephens

8. Roma Citta Aperta

9. Romanzo Crimiale

10. Rowe (1978 (1996)) Vol. 3 p. 127-153 Fr. Vincent Mulcahy S.J. was the character used by Colin Rowe in his celebrated reconstruction of a fictional Rome for his contribution to the significant post-modern exhibition Roma Interrotta held at Trajan’s Markets in 1978. The exhibition was held under the patronage of the then mayor of Rome, the art historian Giulio Carlo Argan, and Rowe and his collaborators (including an assistant from Cornell called Vincent Mulcahy) used it as a demonstration of his ‘collage city’ technique. In this instance plausible but fictional fragments were given as much credibility as the actual urbanism mapped in Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 cartographic plates on which the exhibition was based. Rowe took the imagining of a pre-risorgimento Rome to highly convincing conclusion, combining both the contemporary eclecticism of post-modernism with the historical eclecticism of neo-classicicsm.

11. Hare

12. Great Falls, Montana is the location of the fictional University of St. Francis Xavier to which Rowe refers in his Roma Interrotta contribution.

13. Canniffe

14. Obelisks Pampilij

15. Punch cartoon

16. Kennedy/ Murray

17. Primmer

18. Ghetto

19. Nolli

20. See Colin Rowe and Leon Satkowski Italian Architecture of the 16th Century (Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2002) Chapters 4 & 5 pp 74-125

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