Wednesday 11 March 2015

Ciao, Bella...

^The Roman Singularity City in Ceramics, Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Each and every one of us has our own particular version of the city, a selection of relevant moments, an aggregate of specific buildings, street corners, petrol stations, parks, alleyways and supermarkets that have come to define the shape of what we consider that thing whose name might be London, Rome, Concordia or Kanazawa.

^The Roman Singularity Video, a Vulcan Mind Meld of my experiences, design and explorations of the city of Rome

In the context of our minds cities take the form of cerebral Souvenirs, instinctively crafted concoctions of those aspects in a place which are most evocative of our own lived experiences, of those things we feel resonate into a past to which we relate most intimately, and of those things which imply a future that we find inspiring and/or comforting.

We are bodies hurtling through time, with immense gravitation fields that pull fragments and detritus from the cities around us into our own particular orbits, crashing them together to form moons and pulling them apart until they're an indistinguishable cloud of city-like stardust.

Occasionally someone is so disposed as to be particularly fixated on his conception of a city, and in the process of attempting to capture its contours, forms, content and substance over the course of a lifetime, he in fact invents a new town entirely, a delimited and defined version that momentarily transforms the incalculable ocean of reality that is any one place, into something conceivable, comprehensible, a communicable object of pleasure.

^The Roman Singularity City in Ceramics, Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Each version of a city formed in such a fashion increases the allure of a given place to the same degree that a relic invests its church with the personality and power of the saint from whom it was drawn. There is nowhere in the world that has had so many people laying claim to its streets and buildings, nowhere else that has had so many versions of itself so prolifically promulgated as has Rome.

And so she is as no other, a Pantheon of city-sized souvenirs of herself whose numbers have grown so vast that they began a long time ago collapsing into one another, merging with the ebb and flow of her daily existence, folding themselves into the motorway slip-roads, baroque churches, business parks, Roman baths and housing estates in an ongoing event that undermines any notional separation between what is real and what is in our mind, what is a city and what is an idea, what is Rome and what is the Roman Singularity.

^The Roman Singularity City in Ceramics, Photo by Antonio Palmieri

This project is the little souvenir I've had the pleasure of putting together over the past six months as an interested architectural tourist, and which I would like to contribute to the stockpile of those that came before, are being formed right now, and all those to come. A city in ceramics, capriccios, video and stories.

Ciao Bella, ciao bella, ciao, ciao, ciao...

Tuesday 3 March 2015


^Picciriddu's Tower, elevations

"If (as the philosophers maintain) the city is like some large house, and the house is in turn like some small city, cannot the various parts of the house - atria, xysti, dining rooms, porticoes, and so on - be considered miniature buildings?"

Leon Battista Alberti

Over time countries build themselves a city which embodies the nation’s hopes, principles and aspirations, as well as its idiosyncrasies, foibles and delusions. Newly built on virgin land flooded with bright new futures, or the careful rehabilitation of ancient sites to discover a perfect point in an heroic past, even the retroactive invention of a history that never really existed but could nonetheless be newly built, the form a capital takes illustrates both how a people would like to imagine themselves, and how the collective imagination when invested with power can fashion whole worlds.

Over time cities themselves raise buildings which on the one hand serve to contain the machinery of civic bureaucracy, and on the other encapsulate the very nature of the town, the priorities of its citizens and the tastes of its residents. An agora, a civic plaza, a public/private mall, an administrative district, a cultural quarter, a business-park style campus, whichever of these comes to be the representative heart of the metropolis reveals itself as a fragment, from which you can reconstruct the whole conurbation as its inhabitants would ideally have it be.

Over time we accumulate around ourselves objects that either mark a moment In our lives, embodying a significant memory, or which manifest in miniature form qualities we value and strive towards. Living rooms are forums for the enumeration of individual sensibilities, dreams and achievements through the arrangement of domestically significant figurines, busts, posters, books, ceramics and toys, and mantelpieces are parliamentary squares, where domestic mythologies, founding legends, and hopes for the future are constructed in the evocative deployment of familial artefacts.

The quotidian nature of life in a country or city is almost always completely at odds with how we as inhabitants would like it to be, and with how we as a city or a nation, would like to view ourselves. It is buildings, monuments, objects and spaces that symbolise those qualities absent from the everyday lives of residents, which are nonetheless valued in their absence above all else, that allow for a continuation, in fact for a continuous reinvigoration of the shared illusion in which we as citizens, and our metropolis, embody those very notions –strength, justice, liberty, faith, beauty, wisdom, excitement- whose realisation is otherwise so conspicuously absent.

Significant objects at home, weighty monuments in avenues, and civic buildings around plazas allow us to keep living through the grinding, dysfunctional banality of city life by providing us with daily, concrete, incontrovertible proof that we are, and our city, is so much more than just the sum of its parts. 

They are fragments of a dream we all wish to keep dreaming. 

^Picciriddu's Tower, animation

“’Well, do you appreciate that there are bound to be as many types of human being as there are of political systems?’ I asked. ‘Or do you imagine that political systems somehow come into being from oak or from rock, rather than from the characters of the communities’ inhabitants?”

Plato’s Republic, Chapter 11, 544d

Begun by a pope as an appropriately giant residence for his family, and designed with a vast convex façade by Bernini, the palazzo Montecitorio was a banquet of stone too big for the stomach of the Ludovisis, and was abandoned, unfinished for thirty years, with its baroque front left as lonely caretaker to a field of future rooms marked in the Roman mud by low walls of rubble and weeds.

Completed as Law Courts to amended designs sprinkled with ornamental flourishes by Fontana, its immense bulk slowly accumulated uses, found its purpose through the incorporation of offices and functions over the proceeding centuries until it housed the Papal State’s judges, the city’s administration, its governor, and the headquarters of police, eventually making it the de facto centre of all administrative, judicial and law enforcement in the city.

In the public mind however it was the central balcony in Bernini’s façade that captured the imagination, with the winning numbers of the national lottery being announced from its balustrades nine times a year, to covetous and adoring crowds, atomised by their individual hopes of a solitary, and spectacular win.

^Picciriddu's Tower, perspective view

"everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same"

The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Upon the assumption of Rome as the capital of a new nation, this baroque shell of bureaucratic departments, with its endless rooms and façade of felicitous association, became a House of Parliament, its piazza-sized semi-circular courtyard filled with the Chamber of Deputies, a temporary accommodation that was soon unfit for its role as the heart of a country with imperial aspirations.

An even bigger palace was built, really a parliament, in the most elegant style of the times by Basile, with interiors resplendent with acres of oak panelling, marble floors and floating glass ceilings, a giant new complex, but one still called the Palazzo Montecittorio, with Bernini’s façade maintained intact, now host to the proclamations of a parliament instead of the spectacles of a papacy. The explicit body-snatching of an architectural form imbued with centuries of political legitimacy by a new sovereign, from its immediate predecessor.

It has been host now for over a hundred years to the contentious ecosystem of Italian politics, its piazza and façade accommodating an endless sequence of demonstrations and counter demonstrations, television interviews and parliamentary walk-outs, its epic bulk crammed into the heart of the ancient city. Montecitorio, with its accumulation of historical significations, a figure of rootedness and burgeoning modernity, rammed up against the remnants of the city’s bustling past, is only one site of active symbolic resonance out of many competing with one another in the city.

^Picciriddu's Tower, perspective view

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”

Anatole Broyard

St Peter’s, the Vittoriano, the Quirinale, the Colosseum, St John the Lateran, palazzo Madama, the Palazzacio, the Campidoglio, the Foro Mussolini, Pantheon, Corviale, there is an abundant surfeit of symbols in Rome. A collection of buildings, monuments and spaces that embody and project the jostling, and often entirely contradictory assemblage of world views, ideas of nationhood, belief, art, politics and history that somehow simultaneously coexist within the physical confines of the Grande Raccordo Anulare.

The profane performance of Rome as a functioning city could be told solely as an abysmal story of corruption and mismanagement, transport chaos and unplanned development, bureaucratic inertia and teeming decay. It is however precisely the discrepancy, the awesomely unbridgeable gulf, between the day to day failures of the city as an efficient site of normal existence, and the innumerable, vast, proclamatory symbols that anchor every other street in strident evocations of an idea of itself far greater than any actually realised in the fabric of the modern city, that generates the fuel which keeps Rome enveloped in a thousand-year long, ever-accelerating dream of itself.

The day-to-day sclerosis of its overcrowded underground, traffic-clogged motorways, and abandoned bike-shares act simply as an irritant that drives the imagination headlong into the enveloping notion of another Rome. Another, ideal city, the fragments of which can be found wherever you care to look, and which act as archaeological proof for your doubting intellect, as concrete affirmation of the reality that begins to take over through the alluring images in your mind’s eye.

^Picciriddu's Tower, perspective view

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.” 

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Every façade is an evocation of a city as it would be imagined by one period, or one institution, or one church, or one group of people, or even one person. In their proliferation these visions of Rome are like the medieval towers which used to crowd the air in Tuscan towns, jostling with one another to form a parallel skyline of ideas, a forest of how it could be, or perhaps was, or how it actually is when looked at in a particular way.

As a visitor you will almost certainly find yourself climbing one or more of the towers, ascending step by step to the rarefied collection of domes atop Catholic Rome, or rise slowly up to the picturesque ruination of vertiginously piled brick vaults, and broken marble entablatures that crown the imperial idea of the city, or you’ll walk up and up the square Colosseum, extruded up with steps echoing in the travertine stairwell to a lofty platform filled with Mussolini’s favourite buildings, a collection of white horizontals, curved balconies, marble columns and travertine arcades.

To ascend others you will need to knock on doors, ask questions, meet those who hold the keys. Most of them are inaccessible as their owners have long passed away, but talking to a Barista, to a lady at the Post Office, to an office worker in a government ministry or a researcher in the University, you will find yourself warmly invited up to plenty of viewpoints. You’ll be walked up hidden stairs, and whisked up unexpected lifts to see how these elevated Romes each have an acropolis, which is a living room, and a city square, and a capitol, in which all that embodies the sides of the city someone loves the most, have been tenderly arranged atop their own vertiginous plinth. 

If you just can’t stay away, if your first visit to the city just isn’t enough, and you find yourself returning again and again, or as I have found myself -coming to live here for some time- you will not be able to help but begin building your own lofty version of the city. As instinctively as you would furnish an empty apartment in which you intend to spend the rest of your days, you will find yourself collecting material from around Rome, organising it, and assembling it into an edifice of individual experience, your own towering distillation of urban complexity.

^Picciriddu's Tower, animation

When you eventually leave, what you have erected will remain. It will take its place among countless others in the crowded daydream which constitutes the skyline of this city, this capital of dreams that is suspended within the imagination of the world.

Thursday 26 February 2015



His family tree goes as far back as the devotional statuary of domestic atriums in Babylon and Thebes, made of wood with flecks of azurite and gold leaf, figures that would take excursions across the Mediterranean on unsteady boats, to Carthage and Tripoli where they were sold or swapped for clay vessels, full of fermented fish or the colour purple.

At some point a notion coalesced around these forebears. A conceit in which each one of them was an ultimately doomed, but nonetheless worthy attempt in miniature to reflect one aspect of an impossibly pure ideal. It was 'Beauty' that his forebears never managed to encapsulate, but regardless of this failure they were all so very, very beautiful.

The first marble members of his family cast midsummer shadows in the great colonnades at Palmyra, Apamea and Leptis magna, before they were reproduced, like for like, multiplied endlessly, and spread across identical marble forums from Saguntum to Artaxata. They stood like mirrors reflecting the sun off their blinding whiteness, endless duplications of themselves in an ultimate homage to the skill of the stonemason’s hand, so much harder to achieve than the caprices of novelty.

After the fall, one of this innumerable number eventually found themselves a lone survivor, unearthed from a pile of rubble somewhere and propped up in a Vatican garden to be lauded, worshipped, studied and adored as if he himself were the direct personification of all that beauty could ever be, and had ever been. The sculptor’s duplicate was so perfect in its fate that it usurped all its predecessors from which it had once been reproduced.

Slowly at first, one souvenir at a time, he began to multiply. Smaller versions, bronze versions, porcelain versions, eventually plastic versions of him in all sizes and varying levels of verisimilitude started to appear, initially all around the city he had found himself in, and then later elsewhere, in other cities, in other countries, all over the world, in living rooms, mantelpieces, on coffee tables, desks, windowsills and display cabinets.

At some point a notion coalesced around this particular forebear. A conceit in which his burgeoning progeny were all ultimately futile, and fundamentally worthless attempts in miniature to capture the qualities embodied in his original, authentic form. But nobody explained this to him, nor to his children, and while they may not have been exactly him, they were still so very, very beautiful to all those people who bought them, to their children and their parents, and to him.


In photographs, black and white and colour and polaroid, Kodak and Fuji, and then digital bits and bytes the family grew into a nation. In colour, in photo albums, animated, through memes, on blogs, spread not only around the world’s living rooms but into every single person’s pocket, backlit, bright, photoshopped, zoomable, editable. In 3d. Poly-mesh surfaces which you could cut and stretch, and that were just like real marble. Apps in which you could make the nose bigger, bulk up the abs, rotate the head and then shoot it off to Amazon to print, for a package to arrive in three days with your very own idea of beauty in a little ball of bubble wrap. 

A notion soon formed that every single member of the family was worth as much as any other, as much as the ones who came before, and as much as the ones who would come after, and as much as those others who were printed, cast, carved, painted, rendered, and drawn at the same time. There was no such thing as an Ideal, and there never had been an Original. Beauty was simply the sum total of the pleasure experienced from all these innumerable items, and so the more of them there were, the more Beauty there was.

And so out they popped, fluorescent modified babies, in plastic and stone and metal and ceramic, each one slightly different, printed everywhere from Busan to Bilbao, and no longer trying to look as much as possible like that lonely statue in a Vatican garden. Each new object in fact trying to look as different as possible whilst still nonetheless containing the instantly recognisable trace of its origins.

Beauty increased exponentially, an unprecedented escalation of gorgeousness, and with every stage of explosive growth the prestige of their ancestors surged proportionately. The larger the family, the more collectively revered the progenitors. Gods don’t exist without believers, and the more believers there are, the greater the god, and so it is in the realm of objects.

It was at this point he woke up, proud heir to a lineage as august as any of the great aristocratic families. Pasquale. A bright, deep, luscious red. Electrically so. He is cold to the touch, and as someone comes over and flicks his side with a finger, he rings like a wine glass.


He is unique, this Pasquale, and new, so shiny, shiny new, and yet he is enriched by the depths of a past he has inherited and of the breadth of a present his kind have conquered, of features he sports which speak not only of a Renaissance Garden and its star attraction, but of a hundred thousand display cabinets, a million Instagram accounts, the marble remains of a hundred Roman cities, the precise hands of a Greek sculptor, the pages of five hundred years of artist’s sketchbooks, the molten metal of the bronze caster, the click of a Canon’s shutter, and the mechanical whining of a 3d-printer.

Pasquale knows all of this. It is why he looks so serene.


This story refers to the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican Museums, his predecessors, and his many replicas.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Rome Wasn't Built From Arrested Decay

^Quintus, Thaksin, Gaius and Alhasan

If you walk down any street in the centre of Rome you will hear any number of languages from all over the world. You will hear them at any time of day, all months of the year, in 2015 just as you would have heard them walking down the same street (or one underneath) in AD100, 1690 the 1880s or the 1950s. Us visitors course in and out of the city each and every day, week after week, in and out, surging down its streets, reaching into the tiniest of alleyways and the smallest, most reclusive of its church interiors, and back out again, pulling out of the side streets and back up the boulevards, and out to the railway station and the airports, draining the city of our presence just as a new surge replaces us almost before we have left, keeping the shops and the cafes and the museums ceaselessly flush with the bloom of our foreign pockets.

The world can’t get enough of Rome, and like the imported seeds of an exotic plant, bits of it, ideas about it, images of it are taken every day, away to innumerable other cities from Kampala to Kuala Lumpur, Paramaribo to Port-au-Prince, Bengaluru and Beirut, where they are spliced with local species and lovingly nurtured in tropical locales, until they blossom and breed and grow into their own unique varieties and subspecies that take root and proliferate and rapidly become as much a part of their new homes as anything that had been there before

But Rome loves the rest of the world as much as the rest of the world loves Rome.

In 1986 the first McDonalds opened next to the Spanish Steps, ostensibly to serve and be served by the rich alluvial flood of tourists which keep that part of town permanently submerged. However, instead of being inundated with Americans visiting from Atlanta Georgia, and Georgians visiting from Tblisi, the outlet was stormed, not figuratively but in a very real sense, by ecstatic city dwelling youths, frenzied by the prospect of consuming on their doorstep some of that outside world which itself had been so expertly consuming their city for the past two millennia.

^Shreebaldone Uno

“The opening was huge, so big that teenagers nearly stormed the restaurant, stopping traffic and causing havoc in the streets. To stop the mania, officials decreed that McDonald's would have to be closed at certain times until further notice” *1

The bright red background of the company’s corporate identity was a vivid, twinkling, shiny new red, a plastic television-red for a city of faded, eczematic, itching reds on buildings whose facades were uncomfortably peeling and crumbling, and fading into a flaky brown decay. The entrance was declared by triumphal arches which looked like two pairs of bananas, California reinventing a Roman tradition in its own healthy way, letters that were sunny like Los Angeles in a city of letters set in cold stone. Inside there were banquettes that were reflective yellow extrusions as curvy and bulbous as a Bernini, in which you could see yourself all yellow and radiant like your face was the inside of a gilded dome in the Vatican, only happier.

There is a conspiracy against this city to arrest its passage through time, to guard it from the intrusion of novelty. No new districts are currently built. No new buildings are allowed in the old districts. Botox is injected in various places by UNESCO and the heritage bodies to insure a static and reliable complexion to its historic rictus. But behind the preserved plaster facades and travertine walls the young of the city, while inescapably steeped in the baroque bed in which they were born, are nonetheless hungry, were hungry, and have always been hungry for more. Heritage becomes a burden, is sterile unless constantly revived, generation after generation, through its coupling with new and energising sources of foreign, alien influence. It has to be constantly, rigorously reinvented. This is instinctively understood by those who have been sustained by its immemorial age, and with a confidence obtainable only by those of impeccable origins, Romans unfailingly set out to acquire youthful brides for their aging metropolis.

^Shreebaldone Due

“Three dancers in red - Valentino red - floated like puppets on a string in front of the Colosseum. As their shadows flickered over the ancient stones, a giant balloon, celebrating Valentino's 45 fashion years, drifted by and a golden shower of fireworks exploded.” *2

A few shop fronts away from the McDonald’s is Valentino’s atelier, that great purveyor of Roman Red and Imperial White. In the 50s he had been drawn to the sequined salons of Paris, where he had assimilated into himself the glamorous lipstick of its couturiers and the imperial iciness of its high society. Upon his return to Italy he had fused the foremost in French fashion, with an abundantly italic ripeness, a hybrid of imported ideas and parochial flair that clothed a whole decade of Rome’s Dolce Vita, gave body to the cinematic worlds of an entire generation of Rome-obsessed directors, and came to be known as purely, essentially Roman, as much part of its platitudinal history as the senatorial toga, or the robes of a cardinal.

Valentino came to Rome from a Paris plundered by his hungry Italian eye, returning with his spoils to transform the bodies of his city, and in the same manner, perhaps even more so, there are thousands upon thousands of Romans now spread around the world, scouring and assimilating and consuming elsewhere with at least as much vigour and intensity as those who have always come to their city. From Cairo to Camden they are observing and absorbing, learning and acquiring the precious materials with which they will eventually return home and begin the perpetually necessary process of renewal which Rome must always undergo, being reimagined from within, using the excitement of things encountered without. 

There has been no building for some time, activity in general has been somewhat subdued and there is a glazed sheen of ennui to the pretty skyline here. But Romans keep returning, from all over, and each time any one of them arrives he brings with him strange seeds of potential newness that he unwittingly sows in her abundantly fertile soil. Super malls from Chongqing, skyscrapers from Astana, themed communities from Dubai, music from Accra and fashion from Lima, all curled up and desiccated, ready at the first glimmer of rain to sprout up all giddy and excited amongst the arches and the columns and the frozen facades.

^Quintus, Thaksin, Gaius and Alhasan, detail

Just as the city has always unexpectedly exploded in bouts of delirious creativity when global winds blow opportune showers its way, so it will again soon, and this time around its stockpile of imaginative reserves is an immense magma chamber, an infinitely dense mass of pressurised newness churning beneath the city, which is as vast as the wanderings of its inhabitants, and as colourful as the sum of all the pent up, frustrated desires of a city’s million excitable minds.

These past thirty years Heritage has acted as the plug to Rome’s volcano, which is bloated and burning, and it is about to burst.


*1 “The Unique Story of McDonald's Restaurants Entering the Italian Market

*2 “Valentino at 45: Painting the town in red” By Suzy Menkes

This post is dedicated to Renzo Campisi, a very great Roman

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Memory Palace

^Memory Palace rear facade

His parents had mandated at least one palace or villa and three churches a day. From the time he normally got up for school until the time he would usually be having dinner they marched from stone building to building, corridor of marble statues to other corridors of marble statues. Everything was old, dirty, stained and big, and nowhere was properly heated so he would hide as deeply as possible in his oversized puffer jacket, peering out from the duvet-like hood at cliffs of stone so big, and from streets so small, that he couldn’t see to the tops without pivoting from his waist to stare upwards.

The subway was all bright orange, but covered in layers of brownish gunk so that it was like he was worming his way through some sort of huge, rotting citrus fruit. There were old ladies hiding behind things in the street, abandoned phone booths and bus stops, who leered suddenly out at him as he passed by, looking for all the world like extras from Pirates of the Caribbean, almost comic with their bedraggled rags, bent backs, and theatrically shaking hands outstretched with wobbling canes. Whenever they were in a square and his mother was reading for them from the guide-book, young men would approach, offering him selfie-sticks, and as they crossed streets to get a better view of the front of one church or another they would have to squeeze between groups of other young men with lots of colourful things in rows on wet, grimy tarpaulins spread out over the pavements.

^Memory Palace Front Facade

Discomfort was what he noticed most at the time. Interiors so big that they disappeared into darkness and which were even colder than outside, cafes in which he wasn’t allowed to sit down, streets that were more like obstacle courses or bomb sites strewn with cars and broken chunks of pavement, scooters scattered here and there, a total lack of his favourite fast food, and he couldn’t understand why they weren’t driving at all, in a car with heating, and why his phone didn’t work, and why nothing was clean, and why they couldn’t just go to a mall, for a bit, for a break.

It was only later that images of the various buildings he saw began to surface in his memory. What had riled him during his visit, that everything was so different to, so at odds with the comfortably shiny, quotidian newness of his surroundings back home, had in retrospect become an object of fascination. As he grew older, he began looking for qualities other than those offered by the acres and acres of air-conditioned, polished-stone floor and white plaster wall interiors that had provided the backdrop to his youth. That particular, miserable trip in which he had felt helplessly trapped for an impossibly long week, cold, shrunken and exhausted at the mercy of gargantuan, crumbling, multiplying old buildings, in the end proved to be a mental reserve of inspiration to which he found himself returning constantly.

^Memory Palace Rotation

He didn’t have specific recollections of individual places, he hadn’t been paying enough attention at the time to know what exactly he had seen and where, instead everything he had visited merged into one, becoming in his head a kind of super extended piece of indistinct architecture that incorporated into itself an almost limitless index of stone moments from all over the city and from all periods, haphazardly united only by the fact he had visited them, and that they had somehow managed to impress their forms deeply into his little shivering head.

The visit had been like being pinned to the sides of a giant centrifuge full of columns, porticoes, colonnades and entablatures, and upon returning to his experiences he set about introducing a sense of order to the thrown about jumble. He would allow himself to linger a while with each impression, with the memory of each niche, exedra, antechamber or clerestory, and he would allocate a grading to the strength of impact its form obtained from him, to the allure of its particular kind of strangeness. From his daydreaming contemplation and categorical meanderings through the full depth of what he had seen, the blurry, massive and disorderly edifice that had encompassed the time spent in the city began to obtain solidity, form, a sense of hierarchy.

^Memory Palace from above

At relatively regular intervals he would return to sets of discrete moments and reevaluate them, judging each from his new standpoint of having grown a bit older, having slightly different notions about things, and he would find that some would rise in his estimation, and others retreat, so that the edifice in his head would be reconfigured, with previously humble features expanding to become central conceits in the space of his mental composition. It was by this stage a recognisable place, a properly prodigious palace, an immense palazzo, a complex through which he could wander at will, whenever and wherever he wanted. It was constituted of every single detail he had managed to extract from his memories of those tiring days, as well as embellishments which he himself had added, refinements to shapes that were in retrospect perhaps a touch too severe or banal.

^Memory Palace Front

In some ways the palace had started out as a souvenir of his visit, one made of pure recollection, but in the intervening years it had grown into something far larger. Its corridors and the endless bays on its façade and its courtyards had taken on a life of their own far beyond the city itself, or the trip that had originally inspired them. It incorporated into itself, into its forever reshuffling turrets and pediments and arches, something of all his experiences since that first trip. It was an architectural Chinese Whispers that had begun in the actual buildings visited, and had been passed progressively through all the various versions of himself as he transitioned from childhood to youth to adulthood, transforming each time as it was passed on, but also accumulating aspects of him, collecting the residue of his passage through time in the same way that the real buildings in the city he had travelled to long ago had accumulated grime, and dirt and stains from the passing of life around them.

He never revisited the city again. He was well aware of the yawning discrepancy between the fertile world he had cultivated in his imagination over the years, and the no doubt disappointing reality of the widely dispersed set of individually perhaps not stellar buildings out of which his world had initially evolved. Instead he endeavoured to create moments from his palace in whatever small way his career in a medium-sized commercial practice allowed him. Upon completion, prior to their being open to the public or clients, he would walk alone around his building, and for a few brief moments the private life of his daydreaming would become entirely coextensive with that of the world around him, and he would feel an enormous sense of calm.

^Memory Palace Rear Facade

Most of the office’s projects were redevelopments of the kind of malls and commercial complexes whose interior banality had led him to retreat back into his memories in the first place. Their era was up, and so they were being repurposed to any number of new uses. If you head to the outskirts of his hometown now, as many architecture students have found themselves doing in recent years, to the places where the malls used to be, you can find a quite remarkable collection of buildings, interiors, facades, and bits of buildings whose architectural form have absolutely no precedent in the area around them, and frankly seem to have no precedent whatsoever. His palace exists, in pieces, scattered around, not coherent and cohesive as it had existed in his head, but dispersed, piecemeal, like the way he had experienced those places back on the visit with his family in the first place.

The people of the town are rather proud of them, especially as they've become reason for a small degree of international attention, and some tourism. And so even after he has passed away, the memories he had used to build his own world have in turn become material for others to come and feed upon, take away, remember, reimagine and rebuild in their own fashion elsewhere, and so on, forever, everything transforming everything else endlessly through the vehicle of the human imagination, city to city, town to town, imagination to imagination.

^Memory Palace Rotation Zoom

Thursday 29 January 2015

Giorgio de Chirico's Alternative Authenticities

^de Chirico's Sony

I realized that there are very many strange, unknown, solitary things which can be translated in painting (…). To imagine everything as enigma (…) the enigma of things that usually are considered insignificant. To feel the mystery of some phenomena of sentiments, of characters of a people, to imagine also the creator geniuses like very odd objects that we can turn over by any side. To live in the world as in a huge strangeness museum, full of odd multi-coloured toys, which change aspect, which we, sometimes, like children, break to see how they are made inside. And, disappointed, we realize they are empty.

Giorgio de Chirico, about 1912

At the entrance to the parlour of Giorgio de Chirico’s flat next to the Spanish Steps in Rome there is to your right a niche containing a 1970s Sony television. Around the television fall two heavy velvet curtains in a deep burgundy, parting gently from ceiling to Sony to reveal a cascade of heavily pleated white fabric, like an Elizabethan ruff for the piece of Japanese technology. To your left is an early twentieth century rococo revival chair on which the artist would sit, for at least two hours a day watching fabric-ensconced programming with the sound turned off, gathering inspiration, pure sensorial colourist delight, and letting his mind wander gently from Italian game shows to nature documentaries, to the making of his first paintings, to memories of his brilliant but lost younger brother, to the strength of his young shoulders moving through cold waters, to the memory of carrying luggage alone across a burning-hot square, and quietly back again to his parlour, and his wife, and his chair, and television.

The pulsating brightness, and nervous energies of consumer advertising and primetime entertainment were a liquid shower of art, a reinvigorating massage of creative virtuosity to which he could quietly surrender each evening, better than a sunset, more beautiful than the stars.

The walls are cluttered with works reminiscent of, or almost exactly recalling various old masters, all painted with the same vigorously contrasting colours and definitive, dark outlines. There is a self-portrait in the style of Peter Paul Rubens from which de Chirico, dressed in a purplish velour gown, looks down at you with theatrically affected disdain. Every evening he would admire paintings by Velazquez, and Constable, and Rubens, from coffee table books whilst sipping his evening whiskey, appreciating them in the same manner and at the same time as his wife would peruse her imported edition of Tatler. There would often be a page in one of the books he found himself returning to again and again over several evenings, and he would be compelled to paint it, to take it off the page, to bring it to life.

Sometimes images we have seen, scenes from movies we have watched, chapters from books we’ve read ingrain themselves so deeply in our consciousness that we can no longer distinguish them from actual memories of our lived lives. For whatever reason, because of the strength of the impression made at an impressionable moment, or because they say something about us that our own experiences never managed to say, they become part of us, they become our own memories. His repainted old masters were de Chirico’s acquired memories, dreams and ideas and images from the history of art which became his own.

^Enter the Chirico

Whereas soon after childhood most of us lose the ability to incorporate external images into our own sense of self, de Chirico actively cultivated his through the act of repainting, so that it only became more potent as time passed. His everyday domestic existence was interwoven with sublime clifftop temples, dancing naiads, papal mistresses, classical battles, bucolic pastures and tormented Sybils. The Rijksmuseum, the louvre, the Prado did not need to exist because their contents were in the end just reflections of recollections in his head, insubstantially distant copies of very real paintings he had on his walls.

The floor is herring-bone parquet, a motif repeated in several of the paintings on the wall with the same glossy sheen as the varnished wood below your feet but distorted, rippling, with the naked torsos of men submerged almost to their shoulders in its chevrons, reaching out in front of themselves as if swimming through the living room floor. A younger Giorgio was once attending a dinner event, and trailing the other guests as they moved from parlour to dining room when he caught their indistinct, watery reflections in the beautifully finished parquet. He followed their intermingling images as they slid across the floor, gracefully as a group of divers slipping under the calm classical sea towards the island of the dining table where they re-emerged, fully dressed, not a drip or drop or scrap of flesh in sight, ready for the meal and its attendant polite conversation.

Bourgeois interiors became insubstantial, translucent veils over limpid Aegean expanses, and their sets of furniture archipelagos, peopled not by decorous step-aunts and local notables but Circe and Polyphemus, Calypso and Aeolus.

Next to the easel in his studio there are some plastic fruit. Oranges, apples, and bananas. Diagonally across from the seat where he would paint are a set of shelves full of cheap porcelain figures, reproduction ceramic vases, plastic characters, tin toys and assorted souvenirs. Rome is very much present in much of de Chirico’s work produced during his long residency in the city, a time in which he became a well-known feature in the area, going about his daily life from café to bar to apartment, with exactingly repetitive punctuality. He was not the kind of artist who could be spotted, notebook in hand, or box of oils at his side, sketching meticulous studies of the city’s great monuments. He would meet acquaintances at café Greco, attend concerts, host afternoon tea, living a respectable, gentlemanly existence. He would paint while dressed in a suit, covering himself with an apron, incorporating all the wonders of the city around him, the glories of its past and of its mythologies into his oeuvre by painting the little knick-knacks with which he surrounded himself. The tiny papier-mâché Colosseum would become the huge arena on his canvas filled with battling gladiators, while the lumpily indistinct plastic figure with what looks like drapery would turn into any number of nymphs, Penelopes, and un-placeably eerie marble statues. The tin toy charioteer, still in its box with German labelling for northern visitors, became the dynamic, whipping Ben Hur of dreamlike landscapes, and a badly proportioned temple of sorts would turn into the teetering, stacked towers in the distance of so many bizarrely populated piazzas and streets.

It did not matter of what supposed quality the items he painted from life actually were. In fact the less inherent artistic value they held the better, any qualities they might have had would only have been a distraction. They were triggers, tools to set off the act of mental construction in which he would each time build his own versions of things, his own resonant and imprecise iteration of buildings, statues, stories and characters he had seen and read, and which would be reborn each time, reinvented and refreshed precisely through the imprecisions of his memory. Painting the real thing in any way would have erased exactly those qualities he was searching for, because he would have been painting an actual object, rather than the resonance that remained of it through time.

The reality of Rome existed all around him but it was the city that existed in his thoughts, the one that belonged entirely to him which he would spend his days visiting, eagerly as any wide-eyed tourist, and to which he would gain entry each day via his incongruous collection of kitsch collectibles.

^Eternal Returnimation

As de Chirico aged he began returning to imagery first explored as a young man in his metaphysical paintings. Impossibly uneasy perspectives, strange and impersonal architectures that could be anywhere but were precisely located in very specific, eerie nowheres, burnt with yellows and browns and chiselled in confused shadows. Scenes of loss, confusion and yearning embodied in an architecture of unanswerable questions. Nostalgia tends to be strongest in the young, during the period in which their indistinct memories and impressions of childhood are still suffused with an immediate potency, with a magical strangeness unmatched by the real world, with an overwhelmingly powerful attraction that cannot be anything but frustrated since the effect of those experiences can never again be replicated. At the same time as the past aching in the near distance, the future at such a point in one’s life is wholly uncertain, oppressive in its fearful emptiness since one has absolutely no idea what one’s path in life maybe, and where it may take you when, if ever, it is found. His metaphysical paintings perfectly evoke the mental state of a young man trapped in this existential paralysis between past and future.

As we grow older and gain some distance from youth, the imagery of adolescence loses its penumbra of yearning, and slowly becomes instead a reserve of restful, pleasant places in which the imagination can wander at will. In revisiting the spaces evoked in his works of angst and loss, de Chirico reconfigured their constitutive architectural elements as the urban space, the all-embracing context for the analogical world he had spent the intervening years building for himself. The perilously pitched colonnades and looming towers, distant walls and peering chimneys became host to all the richness and complexity embodied by the characters of his imaginary pantheon. Next to the Spanish steps, in his suit, watching television and admiring old masters in coffee table editions, he had reached a happy equilibrium. He had managed over the years to build a dazzlingly elaborate private universe, a joyful playground of memories collected from himself and the world around him, through which he could and would wander as through the most cosmopolitan of cities, the most majestic of archaeological sites, the most awesome of landscapes.

As we move through time we incorporate things around us into the very fabric of our being. Most of us do this not as a conscious activity, but are guided by what is generally accepted as good and right and worthy and fun and of significance. Others require that the whole process be under their authorship, for the criteria of who, and what enters the event horizon of their identity to be defined entirely by themselves and their own understanding of what might constitute substance, delight and value.

In its unequivocal, unarguable validity as the crucible of historic depth and artistic brilliance, Rome is the one city where those who wish to define their own understanding of authenticity and meaning, truth and quality, can come to be free of the norms through which those very things are usually so despotically defined. The city’s incalculable weight of tradition frees those in its midst from any responsibility towards contributing towards it, the pile is too great, it can take no more, it begs please no more weighty works, please no more heavy histories and authoritative judgements, please invent old things again like they are new, see things differently, help it lose some weight and dance again, imagine the city like Benjamin Button, getting younger and younger with every passing year, and the older it in fact is, the younger it will now be. 

And it works, because each time a de Chirico spends his lifetime reimagining Rome, he changes the city itself to the exact same degree that the city helped form him and his dreams in the first place. And so it is with every dreamer who lands on the shores of the Tiber, destined to be transformed by, and transform in turn this city of historical depth and imaginative emancipation.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

All Colours Lead to Rome

^When Niccolò met Gianni and Pierluigi, and Ugo, and Pietro.

“Pompeian red: you are taken to a roman villa where lying men dressed in white peplum are served by young Egyptian slaves elaborate dishes, animals stuffed with animals stuffed with other animals, from the big ones to the small ones, and there is marble on the floor, outside the Mediterranean is blue but the walls of the room are red. That is all you see in a fraction when you hear Pompeian red.
Nathalie Du Pasquier, Associations

Early Rome was a terracotta vase made from Red Ochre clay, like the Latin soil, like the walls of its buildings, like the background of its frescoes, with Yellow Ochre and Green Celadonite filling out squares and circles and any number of patterns, straight from the mud of the Lazian rivers and into the decorative schemes of ornamental objects, interiors, art. Figures were defined by black lines whose marks were made by the charred reductions of peripheral farmyard detritus, animal bones and discarded vegetation, not the accumulation of every other colour but the burning away of all life, a black nothingness for the depiction of anything. Egyptian blue glaze was like the eye of a northerner, or the sky at dusk, but boiled in a vat like a broth of minerals.

“Hours gave you gold for your flesh, excellent colours for the extremities of your limbs; (…) fortified your flesh with vermilion, so that you can live, so that you can live forever, so that you can grow younger, so that you can grow younger forever.“
The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Rome came from red, and to red it will return.

"a world of statues that was reminiscent not of a trip to the British Museum today but rather of a colourful, interactive, hands‐on visit to Madame Tussauds."
Professor Mark Bradley, Colour and Meaning in the Ancient World

Numidian Yellow marbles, yellow Pavonazzetto from Phrygia, green Cipollino from Greece, purple Porphyry, pink granite, black basalt, Alabastro from Carthage, creamy Travertine from Tivoli, red veined Cottanello from Sabina. The buildings of the Forums in Rome were dazzlingly decked-out in multi-coloured marbles from the farthest reaches of the empire, just as much as its cosmopolitan crowd were dressed in every exotic attire that might be worn in any of the myriad nations whose lands laboured under the wealthy warmth of the imperial sun.


Imperial colour was cosmopolitan.

“For colour is the material in , or rather of, painting, the irreducible component of representation that escapes the hegemony of language, the pure expressivity of a silent visibility that constitutes the image as such”
Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, P.4.

Vermilion, Ultramarine, Azurite, and Verdigris mixed into the brightest of bright pinks, pale blues, opalescent greens, limpid purples and bulbous reds that spread across acres and acres and acres of walls, ceilings, and canvases in palaces, churches, apartments, villas and monasteries across the city. Popes saw themselves as emperors and St Sebastian became the focus of a gaze not quite in line with what might have been considered that of a pious Christian’s. Michelangelo terminated the Sistine chapel in an awesome cascade of writhing nude figures, pinned to the blue plaster surface of the wall like a squirming taxonomy of artistic ingenuity. Raphael built a villa for a Cardinal that was to have rivalled the palace of Nero in its devotion to the senses and saturation by chromatic display.

‘According to Hebrew tradition, man’s first name, Adam, stands for “red” and “living”.’
Manlio Brusatin, The History of Colours

An indolently naked Adam reached out to a purply-red man-God in a twisting bed of golden figures, and as their fingers touched the renaissance burst like a firework across the drab spectacle of medieval Europe.

“…savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours, trans. C. L. Eastlake, p. 55. (qtd. in Batchelor, David Chromophobia)

A whitewash descending over half of Europe. A darkness consisting of the brightest pigment. The renunciation of idolatry, the elevation of text, the installation of a suspicion that the power of pigment is too much for the unwitting worshipper whose autonomy is superseded by dumb awe. No more ceilings like the sky at night or the heavens in your most voluptuous dreams. No more saints in the grip of other-worldly ecstasy or rooms whose walls were gardens that between them contained green shoots from which grew carnal pleasures in abundance. The North paled.

Calvin and Luther conflated colour and Catholic corruption.

“In Egypt colors were considered to be signs indicating the “essence of things and not their appearance,” as witnessed by the Egyptian word for “Color,” which also meant “to be”. According to this thought colors had been separated from the divine body at the time of Creation and had been assigned to every population, to every animal, plant or mineral, to distinguish their peculiarities”
Lia Luzzato & Renata Pompas, Il Significato dei Colori nelle Civilta’ Antiche

Rome blushed, and carried on, only more so. A deep, rich, red, ornate proliferation of giant columns and stormy skies at sunset. The counter reformation saw a redoubling of the power of pigment and the exaltation of art. You no longer had to stand in front of a painting, they had grown so big that the whole building was now inside the depiction, the street outside, the entire city was a swirling vortex of putti, saints, martyrs, pediments, colonnades, chapels and staircases, rising up to a Catholic Trinity at the centre of which rested the golden poise of an all-consuming St Peter’s. A Roman riposte in marble and oil.


Gold gilding, ruby red granite, brilliant white plaster angels, haloed light through yellow windows, Lapis Lazuli , Latin chants echoing within the sonorous smell of cloudy incense, an other-worldly rising up through embodied power, pigmentation and prayer.

"As white is the colour which reflects the greatest number of rays of light, and consequently is the most easily perceived, a beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is."
Johann Joachim Winckelmann, The History of Ancient Art.

A whitewash of limpid young men in Carrara marble, Hellenic profiles standing one after another in the rustling gardens of aristocratic villas, inviting contemplation, implying a perfect and pure form of permanent youthfulness. Athletic affirmations of unattainable ideals, the bleached boys embodied an eroticism of elevated desires. Passions that were once hidden now openly minced down shady paths, loftily appreciating the pure white buttocks of ancient Apollos, Antinuous’, emperors, athletes, soldiers…

In the bedroom moving flesh tones and the undulating shadows of clean sheets, set against unadorned stucco work wrought with the classical rigidity of the most upstanding scholarship.

Winckelmann worshipped whiteness as a veil behind which he could hide all the shades of his prohibited pleasures.

^When Niccolò met Gianni and Pierluigi, and Ugo, and Pietro. Detail

“We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-coloured and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals”
F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto

The bourgeois march of a Rome bleeding with notaries, accountants and bureaucrats, stuffed with parliamentarians and insurance companies. Its buildings staid as the waiting rooms of family lawyers, coloured like the backs of filing cabinets, they filled the gardens and the parks and the pathways and the fields. Fords and Fiats thundered across Piazza Navona, and trains pumped in and out of the railway stations squeezing more and more people in between the facades, until there were so many apartments and crowds and cars and trams and buses and museums and offices, that the Futurist’s explosive whorls of electric energy were like being on the Via Nazionale and catching a glimpse of the whole city collapsing as it slid past on the curving chrome bonnet of a passing bus.

"[colour] works as an enzyme to catalyse chemical reactions, it generates nervous impulses that open new doors of logic in the brain, it is a sort of perceptive jogging, an aerobics for lazy or drowsy sensory cells. Like jogging it requires commitment, determination, measure, enthusiasm, faith, and patience, and to serve a purpose, it must be used well."
Barbara Radice, Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of new design

The polychromy of the Renaissance returns like flowers growing through rubble left by the war. Televisions pulsating with coloured light. Piaggios buzzing about the place like tropical parrots. A florescent green Granita in a shiny translucent cup glinting in the sun on an Ostian beach. The rose curves of a Cadillac’s wings, the beaming orange of fizzy sodas, the pacific blue of the banquette seating in new restaurants. The city effloresces in pink and purple and yellow elevations that look like stacks of products on the shelves of neon-lit supermarkets. Shiny, loud, cheap, vibrant, plastic, mass-produced, new new new. Banana yellow Fiat 500s driven by women in loose, red cotton blouses. Balconies that zig zag, and curve in and out like Bernini designed them for a 1950s fashion house, and all covered in as many mosaics, ceramics and colourful make-up as you might find in the bathrooms and dressing tables and kitchens that they surrounded.

^When Niccolò met Gianni and Pierluigi, and Ugo, and Pietro. Detail

“If I think of spaces being saturated with colour, or just information, the space that comes to mind is the screens through which we access our internet.”
Andreas Angelidakis, The Colour of The Internet

The city’s new museum for the new art of the new century is steely grey, with squiggly highlights of black, its massive curving pipe-forms looking like they’re straining with all their tectonic might to return to the nineties, when grey was the universal soup of a triumphant but somewhat bored globalisation that just mixed everything together until it was all, well -grey. The young mothers take pictures of it on their phones, and as they post it to Instagram they add a filter, sepia or cool, or faded or greenish, they blur it, rotate it, up the contrast and increase its saturation, ripping it out of its textureless, colourless reality and blowing it apart so that it can float away on the breeze like confetti.

If you look up you’ll see them tumbling, and flowing in eddies together with the pieces of everything else that has been digitally detonated into a million glistening fragments, and just as the sun sets, when the swarming cloud is at its most luminous, you can glimpse shapes as it dives over the city, faces, buildings, neighbourhoods, histories, colours, the billion moments that have built Rome.