FROM “AN ET IN ROME”
BY TOMMASO PINCIO
Looking at the images of his old works and listening to ET’s old stories, I asked myself what would be of it all, in what direction would his gaze take him, in the direction of which outskirt would he look towards, now that he found himself in Rome. Not that in Rome outskirts did not exist, of course. In fact, a too vast and un geographical literature exists in that subject. Rome is a place that in actual fact claims a fanciful centre that is nevertheless absolute, enough to incarnate the idea of a centre itself.
Roma caput mundi, denying this would be impossible.
As usual, ET would go out early every morning for a run. In the beginning I would ask him where he had been to, which route he had taken. He would run for many kilometres but he would never enter the real outskirts of Rome. He would only come close to them, brush them. At least that was what he would recount. At first I would remain disappointed and thus stopped asking him questions. I thought that in the end ET was not that different to anyone else. Rome, as said by an enemy general who had occupied the city in the last world war, is a place where corruption is easy, and ET seemed to have remained corrupted as many others. Seduced as many by the Roman syndrome, the frail illusion of feeling as if you are at the centre of everything, of an eternal time, he had fallen in love with the studies that the Academy had imposed on him. There is an incredible light, he would say.
It was true, it was indeed an incredible light that would fall only from above and in an unvaried way, scattering the space with a soft and widespread splendour, as no part would ever be more in the shade than another, as if hand brushed with paint. It was an unchanging light, always of the same intensity both with rain or sun, and at whatever time of day, only slightly softened at dusk, but this is only my hypothesis seeing that I would always end up in his study at the same time, after lunch, and only rarely after dinner when it was already dark. A perfect refuge for an artist, besides being an abstract place; ET was thus so enthusiastic that he meditated changing his modus operandi. He pondered using the Roman outskirts without moving from his study, using only satellite visions available on the net. And so he did. After some time, he began painting some quarters located at the margins of the city. He did not know anything about them or their names and social formations. They were merely built up suburbs explored virtually and from above, from an aerial perspective that even birds weren’t able to admire; an extra-terrestrial perspective. From that abstract height, the only certain fact that he had, besides their shape, was their distance from the centre of Rome. The quarters were painted on large sheets, sketching the shadows of the buildings, parklands and streets and then water colouring them.
In ET’s work economy, a similar approach was risky: it could be interpreted as a free indulgence of pleasure that was only pictorial. Observing those paintings at work, where entire pieces of city resembled the aspect of decorative inlays, I repeated to myself how yet again Rome had overcome. It seemed like a stolid job, a banal exercise of colour applied on topography. With time, observing them better and rethinking to myself, I realised that those sheets were in fact failed maps. They meticulously reproduced a real place as seen from above, but regarding the place that they actually occupied in real life, nothing was known. Around the shadows of those quarters was nothing but the white of the sheet, a virgin white that evoked anxiety, as if the rest of the world had been erased, blown away by a catastrophe where an insensitive surgery had only saved those quarters and nothing else. Or perhaps, another more striking hypothesis, they were maps of a future or alternative time, parallel but of a time nevertheless void of our memory, maps that one of our descendants, a novice map maker, would one day represent, with precision, the whole world known to him, his quarter, leaving the rest of the surrounding world in white, the world left forgotten and unknown, similar to what map makers in the past used to do when the mapping of the world was yet to come. In the light of this last hypothesis, it was no longer by chance that the well-known Latin expression of Hic sunt leones was indebted exactly to the ancient Romans, who in their maps would mark the borders of which beyond lined moors that no one knew anything of but the probable presence of ferocious beasts.
The relationship of Rome with the art of map-making is of long standing and one of torment. It is on the one hand possible to say that the evolution of the art of map-making proceeded at the same pace as the representation of Urbe, a problem that presents a not easy solution. A new city rises above and around the overpowering ruins of a dead but not buried city. The urban dichotomy that opposes the centre to the outskirts is translated in Rome in the conflict between ancient and modern, where the first represents the centre and modern represents the offshoot of the outskirts. It is what normally happens in metropolitan dynamics, the outskirts of modernity are neglected, expelled from the centrality of the ancient without a remedy. The issue is centuries-old, not at all recent as one might think. The so-called Forma Urbis , an enormous map, dates back to the third century after Christ, carved in marble with 150 plates and with a total of 13 metres in height and 18 in length; in this first majestic attempt of representation, an orientation was adopted that was passed on for a long time: above, instead of north, was south-east. In those days, this choice had a religious explanation, as in this way, the most important place of worship, the sanctuary of Giove Laziale on Mount Albano, dominated the city.
A quite similar orientation is observed though in much later maps. That of Antonio Tempesta of 1593, a map that I had studied for completely different reasons while ET was painting his imaginary quarters. And then I realised something. Tempesta’s map restores Rome with a view that could be admired exactly in the point where we were at that time, the American Academy, on top of Gianicolo. From this point, not only does one have the possibility of embracing with one’s gaze the entire city, but of capturing its identifying soul. More or less in the centre, one can glimpse the Campidoglio and behind it, the majestic rotundity of the Colosseum. The river forms a sort of elongated U-shape or, if one prefers, a large bag in which the central quarters are contained, Campo Marzio above all. At the bottom left, Saint Peter’s and the Vatican. From here, proceeding towards south, one can identify Via della Lungara and Trastevere. Everything that resides at the bottom, from this side of the river, has something marginal about it, which thus highlights two things: 1) Rome has never been a city passed by the River Tevere but rather a city facing it 2) Rome is an east-facing city, that is towards sunset, which explains many things regarding the myth of its fall. At the bottom left, in the corner usually left for the artist’s signature, Tempesta draws a high ground from where the city’s walls begin to enclose the whole of Urbe, thus the same map until the port of Ripetta. One can perfectly identify the entrance to Porta San Pancrazio where now, nearby, resides the American Academy. I was thus able to have the following illumination, even if defining it as such would probably be too excessive: in his early runs, ET would not limit himself to a simple in and out. The routes which he spoke to me of (at least until he had continued speaking to me about them), were nearly always encircling ones. He would exit the Academy making his way towards south, following an anti-clockwise movement. He would run down Gianicolo until Viale Trastevere to then cross the river, reaching Circo Massimo and then Appia Antica. From here he would begin turning eastwards towards San Giovanni, Casilino, the bypass and Pigneto. Sometimes he would push his way until Tor Pignattara before pointing north, that is in Nomentano, Salario and Villa Borghese, from where he would be able to arrive at the gates of Piazzale Flaminio, the other well visible gate that can be seen on Tempesta’s map. From this point he could prepare himself to close the circle pointing towards west, running alongside the river until Sisto Bridge, after which he had only to run up through Via Garibaldi and Gianicolo. It is unknown to me whether there was a precise relationship between a similar encircling route of Urbe and the work undertaken by him in his study. To me, there was. On the one hand, ET’s routes traced the anti-clockwise ring drawn by Tempesta and on the other hand, the city walls – that according to Tempesta not only indicated the city’s borders but also the extreme limits of all that could be validly represented – found their echo in the whiteness in which the painted built up urban areas seemed to rise from. These two similarities spoke to me of one identical Roman obsession, that is the enclosing ring as forma urbis, distinctive trait of the city, an obsession that represented itself in the centuries with diverse features which were often unexpected, from the Pantheon’s Forum to Rome’s bag, until the most recent display, the Grande Raccordo Circolare, (Great Circular Interchange) that to the people of Rome was simply known as the Raccordo.
With the sixth sense that pertains to all artists or, perhaps thanks to the fortune that most often assists them, by choosing to betray his own method, giving himself up towards exploring through fieldwork, ET was able to capture a city’s destiny where the relationship between the centre and the outskirts is expressed in an eternal conflict between fullness and emptiness, emptiness that besets fullness, fullness that absorbs emptiness without any real need besides that of affirming an overbearing ideal of fullness. The circumference, like any other perimeter mark, represents a confine and marks the extreme outskirts of an area. ET had understood that this geometrical logic did not apply to Rome and to its suburban reality. The Interchange, although circular, is in its own way a centre or better still, a succession of centres. Driving through the Interchange, the outskirts seem to be an expansion of the city, but as soon as one accesses one of its exits, one discovers that each junction is in its own way a centre, as each junction has generated some form of colony, a built up area in itself with nearly always a blind backstreet with its own laws, disconnected as much away from the city as from the built up areas that have risen around the other junctions. Going from one of these enclaves to another is impossible, at least without leading into the Interchange once again, which is the same as saying that the combination of these enclaves, more than outskirts in the strict sense, are the building industry’s concretion of a road that doesn’t take you anywhere, as if to joke about the boastful saying in which all roads lead to Rome. Perhaps, unconsciously, (but does it really matter?) ET had sensed the vanity that nevertheless presides over the existence of anything in this city. His aerial visions, so far away from their context, so far away from any context, ended up negating what they seemed to be: maps. They were failed maps or failed places but nevertheless mapped, which is in the end the exact same thing. Regardless of the precision in which they had been designed, their pictorial quality gained the upper hand. They were of pure form, pure colour, pure sheets, but in a strange way that I could not understand and which because of this, the apparently uncalled for pureness, which is an end to itself, would translate itself into a warning. Each of them seemed to be a vanitas, one of those still-lives populated with skulls, extinguished candles, hourglasses and other objects placed there to remind us that life is short-lived, condemned to the rotting that I experience every day when overlooking my window, observing the waste thrown down from the tenant on the third floor. Today, an entire loaf has rained onto the road. Pigeons and seagulls feast calmly. No one is about, everything seems distant. It is mid-August, the Feast of the Assumption.
15 August 2013