The she-wolf of Roman legend from William Kentridge’s reverse graffiti frieze along the Tiber Ricer in Rome. All photos by the author.
Rome is burning. Every day it catches fire somewhere. On the edges a spark blazes up in the vibrating air, in its place a blue ghost-flame quivers and burns a hole into the map. In the pine forests of Villa Ada, Castel Fusano, along the Flaminia and Casilina the fallen pine-needles rustle softly, start glowing and burn through like the finest cigarette paper. The flames pile ever higher, the angle of their crests is that of the summer’s temperature curve. Smoke brims the holes, thick and black: in the unstirring heat-wave it spreads, flat on the ground, like the riverside mist on humid winter nights, is soaked up into the house walls of Prati, Monte Mario, Monteverde, rolls its cottonwool waves relentlessly along the Orbital.
The pine-tree needle catches fire with a tiny snap, like a thread of hair, one needle is one snap, but the needles snapping in at the same time flare up with a hollow boom. In the explosion of flames the black needle glares up white and falls to ashes in an instant, but black flies from it, becoming smoke, colour-ash, which flakes down on the burnt soil, it rains down, black, in the air, on the travertino facades, on the granite cobblestones, moves into the sky, into the blue: fossilized scent, resin becomes the colour of time, black. In Ostia’s pine forest, where in August people gather cones to pick the pineseeds, tall orange-red grass is undulating around the tree-trunks. The pine-trees do not catch fire from below though, but from above, as if they needed the sun to harry the last heat through them to be filled with fieriness. They stand the firestorm the way they stand tempests: not bending but stretching taut like a veil, as if the sky pushed down on them with all its weight, their needle foliage undulating in all directions at the same time, like bird-swarms in the evening. The papers report arson. Roghi, stakes send up their smoke everywhere, places of execution; fires are general all over the country. In northern Rome, in Torrevecchia, on the street named after Cesare Lombroso, the tent camp of the Roma goes up in flames, the makeshift lodgings and covers burn with greasy smoke. Every hour the ululation of a siren breaks into the hardened noise of traffic.
In Palazzo Sacchetti, close to the river, an inward-curving hairlock, on which the photographic light had lit up with such blond reflexes, and the neck’s soft skin above the high blouse neck, where it is the whitest, flare up – the picture burns into its negative, its contours blaze white-hot, showing up the face for one more instant. Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt. Its edges curl inward like ferns, the wide stretch of the forehead resists yet, its place now fire-torn; the smile born on the teeth’s mineral white turns into a ghost flame, then smoke-black. Time sediment. White and light, consumed, Verlorne, in the flame-shelter, bearing still the shining and the pain in the descending evening light, between the wind-sheltered walls of Palazzo Sacchetti, where her name is not written. The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it.
On the street climbing up the Celio, under one of the drooping little trees that hem in the Ospedale Militare’s parking lot, a thin African boy sleeps on the asphalt, face upwards. He looks barely twenty. Abandon of sleep that makes the arms fall open and the head roll sideways in the syncopated noise of cars speeding upwards across the speech noises; trust that the feet stepping over will not kick him in the face. Or a tiredness beyond circumspection. He is lying on the asphalt cracked up by the inveterately trespassing cypress roots that will not accept the status quo of street maps. As if a gently rippling sea had washed him up here, quietly depositing him on an asphalt dune, for some awed grown-up to clumsily hoist him up in his arms. The sea sends its voice up here: beyond the wall, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana the wind pendulating cypress and pine, oleander and myrtle scent is the radial ripple of sea-waves in the air. On their surf the ancient marble paper ship, the Navicella had once sailed up, to be shipwrecked on the crest of this wave-shaped hill, in the vineyards overgrowing the debris. Across the street, among blackish-green foliage, the 5th-century monolithic bulk of Santo Stefano Rotondo; in its external ambulatory thirty-four scenes of martyrdom, variations on a theme: how gracefully the beturbaned centurio moving on mannerist dancer legs gathers momentum, to chop off the hand of the girl standing in counterpose. According to the script, during Hadrian’s reign Eustachius was burnt together with his Christian mates inside a bronze bull. The brown animal stands with head thrust up and feet planted wide apart, in an opening in its side several praying men huddle together, smoke is already rising under its belly. Tuning-in of a giant tuba in an orchestra; cleft-hoofed ancient death truck. A funerary monument removed from the mosaic floor stands alone beneath the splendid spoglio columns, a compact hooded effigy. Only the cut of the majuscules and the Latin diction signals that, although born in a faraway, frosty land, he belongs here: Roma est patria omnium. The deceased, Johannes Lazo, was the commissioner of the first Renaissance chapel on the edge of the known world, Transylvania: frail Italian souvenir, the filigree monument, carved with urns, fruit wreaths and sea-shell niches, of the homesickness for Rome. Entering the park of the Celimontana, on the pebble path that coats the sandals with white powder, an improvised sign bids those who have come to the birthday party of the little Francesco follow the butterflies. Pink, orange, violet, green plastic butterflies are hung on the greenery, jolly Christmas decoration in June: in the tangible half-shadow of pines, magnolias and oleanders, minute buoys signalling the haven of parents giving out generous helpings of ice cream from thermal bags. At the park’s further end space is hollowed out into a bay around a fontanella’s babble. The name on the signpost is new: Largo delle Vittime di Tutte le Migrazioni. In memory of the dead of the 2013 shipwreck at the shores of Lampedusa. A reminder that the sea-mill grinds pneumatic boats and bodies. In early July five thousand refugees are brought ashore in one single day by the rescue ships. Eight hundred land in Brindisi. One woman sings when she steps on dry land. On the boat a child is born, they baptize him Cristo. Below in the news a report of a Bangali refugee savagely beaten up by a group of teenagers because he obtained social housing.
The name of the street descending from the Lateran to the slopes of the Celio, along the walled-in complex of Ospedale San Giovanni, is Amba Aradam. It has an outlandish ring. One evening I stray there, spotting no sight-buoy that could lead me back to one of the known places. As it turns out, I have ended up behind the Celio: I climb back to the Navicella and to the parking lot where the African boy had been sleeping with his head on the asphalt. There are people sleeping here at all hours in the shallow niches of Severus’s walls on cardboard sheets, staffage figures in the Roman landscape, like the vedutists’ shepherds, signs that the place is populated. Amba Aradam, Celio: names. That of the celestial-sounding hill is the name of an Etruscan king, Caelius Vibenna, Rome’s first conqueror. That of the street at the feet of the hill is the name of a giant mountain in Ethiopia. In February 1936 General Badoglio’s troops, complete with fighter-bombers and several blackshirt and alpine divisions besieged the mountain and the mountain pass leading to the capital, Addis Ababa. In a few days the battle is won: the Ethiopian defence entrenched high on the mountain is caught in the enemy’s clench, and for four days on the remains of Mulugeta’s fleeing army the Italian aircraft drop forty tons of mustard gas. Mulugeta’s son is killed by members of the Galla tribe, allied with the Italians, his corpse mutilated; the father, who returns to recover his son’s body, is killed by an Italian bomber. Beneath the name of the mountain covered in contorted bodies suffocated in the poison gas a tunnel is dug, the third subway line will cross sedimented time in this direction from the Colosseum. During the excavations a spectacular discovery is made, a frescoed villa from the imperial age, a rare wooden structure destroyed in a fire; among the remains the skeleton of a dog comes to light, together with what is believed to have been a puppy, probably trapped in the building on fire.
The refugees have been cemented into the structure of this city made of images in the form of other imaginings. The Trojan refugee who was to found Rome, Aeneas, stumbles toward Rome clad in heroic nudity, in the body’s beauty, with his father astride him. Anchises, who saddles his son’s shoulder, bears aloft the statue of the house-gods with his thinning but still vigorous arm, while Aeneas’s young son holds on to his father’s knee: petrified dance movement, the allegory of the three ages of man, of the three human times. The young body spiralling inward with the energy compressed under high pressure, like a pillar, the promise of history.
Refugee human times are not always as muscular as on Bernini’s statue. On undergrowth and under foliage that are at once a Renaissance cliché and could be a grove in Villa Celimontana or Villa Ada, in the half-shade two exhausted adults and a baby receive a guest on their flight: a messenger with tempestuous drapery blown here from non-natural light, an angelos who – for what language could he indeed use with them – makes music. Embarrassingly bare-assed, on a tangible fiddle and from a score that Joseph holds for him – the one who has not given in to sleep like Mary, whose bun and hand embracing her child have come loose. Joseph holds the score and hides one bare foot with the other with the same old man’s clumsiness as his lookalike Matthew, whose lumpy hand is folded on the pen by the patient teen angel boy. The only one to look both at the angel and out, at us, is the half-hidden animal: one difficult non-human eye, its expression more unreadable than the angel’s backside. We see the music: although it can be played from the score, the fiddle’s voice is the fluid light itself, coming from an unlocalizable source, making everything freeze and setting everything aquiver at the same time. It doesn’t draw the contours of the body but wraps them up in aural shining. Magnetic storm, in which only the angel’s hairlock, unfolding loincloth and fluffy plumes of the lower wing stir, because he has two pairs of wings: one that looks like a chicken’s wing at most, and one leaden-heavy, folded into a strict vertical, perhaps a raven’s wing, in any case one that can by no account be supported by the malleable puberal shoulder. Teen cherub. Across the painting’s plane, the donkey’s dark shoulder echoes it. Mary, the chosen one does not see, does not hear the angel, but her red robe’s hem dropping to the ground starts glowing, as if shot through with radioactive rays, and is lifted from the ground in the same way in which the leaves curl back, their edge turned phosphorescent. Useless, gratuitous, almost inappropriate gift: it doesn’t feed or quench the thirst, it doesn’t even soothe the poor blistered feet, doesn’t offer directions or background info; no help or compassion, only an instant out of joint in the time of those whose lives have come out of joint. To receive it, to connect to it is only possible in the way in which the unpracticed hand does as it holds up the score, or the quietly radiating stone between the angel’s and Joseph’s feet, on which it is not the angel but Joseph who casts light. Perhaps in fact it is all about an angel descending to practice his instrument and do field research who, finding himself a live stand for the score, with his newfangled knowledge composes a mellifluous ciaccona on what it is like to give birth in a manger.
Self-abandon, the body’s surrender starts on the edges: the ankles and knees give way, the hands hang dumb and senseless, the neck is broken into an impossible angle by the dropping head. One of the most bewildering statues to be copied in Rome captures the stages of the body’s resistance and self-surrender: the Gaul killing himself and his wife erects a memorial to the vanquished that puts all triumphal symbols between inverted commas. In the pyramid-shaped composition everything is in movement, before the collapse everything fills up with life like a wound filling up instantly with blood: the warrior’s stretched thigh, stepping forward, the acute angle inscribed by the underarm that thrusts the blade into the neck, with the outward-turning head and the blade, and the other acute angle to echo it, that of the Gaul’s left hand holding up the collapsing woman’s left to keep her from falling to the ground. The direction of the step forward is also the direction of falling; the line of the supporting right leg, about to kick itself away from the ground, is repeated with stormy flutter by the cloak which, for one sole moment evicted from the passage of time and even from itself, resists gravity. In the spot-light streaming down from the museum ceiling the marble sends out into the room the taut skin’s mortal beauty: do not go gentle. The upward-spiralling movement is escape artistry. It starts from the helplessly toppling two feet of the stabbed woman, who is now only supported by the still living arm.
The childlike, soft soles turn outward, giving up balancing, they tumble the way the hem of the dress falls: living flesh and lifeless matter fold onto one another, unresisting, the clothes still preserve the warmth of the breathing-out body, but they fall upon one another with the great, meaningless co-belonging of organic matter that starts decomposing that very instant, while above them life rages in an acute angle against the dying of the light.
To look up at it are the fallen barbarian horses on the lowest layer of the giant sarcophagus placed to one side, trampled by four layers of victors and vanquished. The figures of the uppermost layer are too busy slaying the last enemy in trousers, lifting the eagle banner, or blowing with puffed-up face into the trumpet that winds round their head like a halo. In the museum rooms quietly sizzling light splashes against the plinths and pedestals and, breaking on them, splatters shiny drops up the marble feet.
In the afternoon the sky moves closer and pours down its liquid light down the bodies, the walls, covers the skin and the windows’ volute consoles in shining. With its overflowing waves it washes off all the dull, leaving a wet sheen on the stones, windows, faces, the bare legs of tourists pushed onwards by the systole-diastole of Via dei Fori Imperiali. Every single gull crossing the blue, every travertino facade, cornice blotting up the light radiates into the blue that stretches like a dome and opens with a lantern: oblique light cascades upwards and downwards at the same time.
On the crest of the Celio the two courtyards of Santi Quattro Coronati are sluices that let the noises of the outer world trickle into the acquarium of silence inside in a thin stream only. In the shade a man and a woman stand talking. The woman must be fiftyish, slender legs on tall sandal platforms, slender neck tilted slightly toward her interlocutor. Trespassing beauty: for how long does form hold its contours together in the face of time. The cloister is soundproofed by light-striated air walls, the background noise is caught up on the small twin columns’ grid of shadows.
It was built in the early 13th century out of the Roman debris of the Celio: the toy-size plinths grow water lily capitals from the rich soil of inscribed marble slabs, frieze fragments; the fraying-edged majuscules are larger than the blunt stone leaves curling upwards on the plinth corners. Under a filigree arch, a densely engraved marble slab: the squares, x-es, triangles of ancient draughts, fossilized friendliness in a convent.
The corridor’s stones, which can be read like a library, are deep black, only their worn-off, polished edges are bone-white; every engraving, inscription seems to add yet another layer of deep black. On the sunlit side the columns modulate from sun-bleached brownish-white to deep black: the most light-worn white trickles down in thin lines on the inner, shady side, then from the parapet down to the stone floor, white light-inundation areas on the corridor. Restoration started a few years ago: the nearly thousand-year-old dirt, pollution is cleared away, erased from the stones with laser, with dentist’s instruments. The restored patches are almost ostentatiously white – small-scale transfiguration. Black: the colour of time, its material: dirt, stain, pollution, smog. The miniaturist’s painstaking back-erasure leaves sharp black-and-white contrasts. In only a few years the difference between the two ends of the cleared cloister corridor becomes visible: time starts silting immediately.
Into the stones faces are inscribed, face-stones. The statues of the historical collection of Palazzo Altemps did not only dilapidate but also shot new limbs. The collectors had the unearthed marble bodies restored, that is, the famous sculptors of the day, Algardi, Bernini supplied the missing arms and legs, sometimes even placed heads from other statues on the torsos: marble prostheses, transposed ancient heads. In the collection there is a monumental bust of Antinous: of the portrait of emperor Hadrian’s lover made into a god on account of his beauty only the nape with the thick locks, the neck and the shoulders was found. The face had been consumed by erosion, smashed in by iconoclasts or lime burners perhaps, its inward-turned gaze long soaked up into walls that had themselves crumbled since, adding to the debris.
To recognize among hundreds of torsos, from the angle of the nape, the arc of the shoulders, the tilt of the faceless head, the peerless loved one: to see back the face and the gaze, the shining, the pain and the name. Face transplant bridging one and a half thousand years.
In Rome the stones are more brittle. They had been tenderized by the incessant touchings, fallings, by the procession of wheels, sandals, hooves. Their species are as known, tended and pruned as fruit trees in other lands. A pulvinum, cushion receives the weight of the architrave before passing it onto the capital, a mediator between two kinds of hardnesses: there exists an imaginary that would carve even a pillow out of stone. Working in soft matter is out of the question here.
In the Ghetto, in the courtyard of Palazzo Mattei, paved with ancient reliefs, there is a stone seat for the weary: a stone cushion carved to measure onto a small sarcophagus, complete with tassels, mattress-like dimples, seams and bumps. Stone upholsterer, a Roman craft by excellence: to upholster the brittle lid of stones, sooner or later put to practical use, with stone layers against the engraving of human bodies; to wrap into stone. The fraying and thinning of the stone-down-filled marble brocade is in fact acquired burnish.
On the Trastevere side of the river, the stretch of embankment between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini is populated with a spectral procession that is barely visible at first sight. Its figures are too large and too tangible to be truly visible and identifiable; the joints of the embankment wall and the weeds growing in them keep pushing themselves into the foreground.
The images themselves seem to have been deposited here by the river, to belong together with the driftwood and plastic bottles stuck on the pillar, cemented into a compact cream by algae. Seen from the other side, however, they lose their tangible materiality, becoming merely visible. The place they ought to be looked at from, their true audience is the river itself. The pageant of triumphs and losses is headed toward Ponte Sisto, the Tiber’s triumphal arch on William Kentridge’s giant frieze, engraved into the material of Rome. The images are negatives: they are not painted on the stones, it is their background that has been carved out, the patina has been cleared away, so the drawings stand out in sharp black-on-white contrast. Their material is the stuff of time: dirt, silt, pollution, smog. The ceaseless procession performed to the river doesn’t remove itself from time: in time, the contrast will fade and eventually vanish, together with the images, as smog is deposited, thick and black. The parade of the triumphal symbols of history and of Rome is literally in decay, and of decay.
The silhouette of Marcus Aurelius’s equestrian statue is still complete, only the white patches of light on the shin and the horse’s rump foretell the coming erasure of edges and distinctions, but the horse and chariot arriving after him are themselves ruins: the horse appears to be a ghost animal patched together from spars and barbed wire, body posture without a body; the chariot’s wheel and gearbox stick out, lean silhouettes, as the vehicle rolls unmanned into the void.
The flesh of the Capitoline she-wolf seems to be melting downwards, two jugs placed under her dugs; a skeleton-wolf lopes along after her against an empty horizon where only a tree stump grows.
In a black square rolling on four wheels, the white-on-black shadow-puppet silhouettes of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a vehicle or a blown-up ad on the vehicle’s side, which pulls a barrow with a gigantic statue head, perhaps Constantine’s head, the pendant of the Capitoline gigantic foot. In the easily recognizable composition of the Rape of the Sabine Women, the man brandishes an oversize machine gun.
Everywhere the images freeze on the threshold of recognition, with their transpositions, re-orchestrations and bewildering contingencies slide into foreignness, displace and evict that which we believe to be our common visual heritage, our common fatherland of images.
Agallop on his shady horse, a long-maned skeleton with drawn sword: perhaps one of the mutant horsemen of Dürer’s Apocalypse, perhaps death flogging the blood-curdling blind horse of the Palermo Trionfo della Morte – but the debris which it tramples is indistinguishable: the body of an infant blown out of proportions? a shapeless heap of corpses?
The two figures pushing a wheelbarrow are perhaps transporting a body with a bishop’s mitre, the scene is that of the translation of relics, the de rigueur element of a saint’s legendry, but perhaps they are depositing a plague corpse. In the procession they are followed by a group picture with execution: stooping men with hands tied behind are pushed before a man who stands with sword raised high, and will most probably cut off their heads; at their feet, an almost amorphous trunk – the transfiguration, disquietingly stripped of context, of what scene of martyrdom, by what painter? Who are the ones to be executed, where, when does the slaughter happen? Rome’s archive of images is here the collection not of knowledge but of the imprints of unsettling gaps and lacunae, of non-knowing: everything looks vaguely familiar, but is dislocated to the point of unrecognizability. A Goyaesque figure with a goat’s (or wolf’s?) head and hooves bows down to a piously kneeling, headscarved heap of clothes, giving a gift or offering communion, an oversize espresso coffee pot in his hands. On a forward-pushing horse with head thrust up and one foreleg lifted into an improbable height, a faceless figure in frenzied, cambered Napoleon posture; the horse pulls a Fiat Cinquecento weighed down by a pile of bodies, which distantly evokes the pyramidal composition of the Florence Pietà. On top of the pile, Bernini’s Saint Theresa collapsing in ecstasy, beneath her the murdered Aldo Moro. The horse’s lifted and supporting forelegs are in pieces, the hooves hang in thin air, there is nothing to prop up the body, which is itself an image-ruin, the sole thing that rests of it is the blind forward thrust. Left behind, a monolithic figure in diagonal foreshortening, one of the corpses; it lies face downward, its shirt slid up to the shoulder-blades. What is the blackness smeared around the upper body: a pool of blood? the arm, twisted back? torn clothes? Four men leaning forward in Roman tunics carry indistinguishable objects on their shoulders, among them a menorah. The image is the imprint of the relief inside Titus’s arch – but only here does it become conspicuous how porous the image is, how full of gaps: the first man in the row has no legs whatsoever, he propels himself forward into the void on what appears to be a single crutch, according to the impossible physics of drawing; the others all lack a limb, part of a face. What the eye fills in readily on the arch’s worn-off relief, now suddenly appears uncannily holed, perished, fallen to pieces – we see what is, not what we know. The moment the historical context does not shroud the image into reassuring loftiness, patina, it is revealed that what we believe to know is a mere ruin, and to what extent the material of our images and stories, taken for granted, is filled in with the mortar of imagination-supplement.
About halfway in the procession in a black square it is written in brackets, QUELLO CHE NON RICORDO. But the image-less field is not blank, it is not erased, cancelled, scraped away, on the contrary: it is black deposit, unstirred time. The archive can also be empty, useless, if all silted layers are at our disposal. Here where black is the colour of saturation, of time, and white, that of emptiness, of non-time, the colour of erasures, damnatio memoriae and tabula rasa, the saturated black archive becomes the place of non-knowing. Perhaps it is no accident that in this very place someone scribbled a graffiti over the black – time takes back and inscribes these non-knowing images without delay. Below, a portion of the path is cordoned off with yellow tape where in a storm branches from the plane-trees of the Lungotevere broke and fell a few days before: the mound of debris started growing instantly, it is only a question of time when it will reach the bracketed words.
On a plank two men are crossing over water into a boat’s bow, one bends double under the weight of a chair: what are they loading in, where is it they are bound, where they can make use of a chair? The image doesn’t continue in a shore, as logic would demand, but in the prow of a boat full to the brim with people staring at some horizon: from the visual echo of the group propped up above the dying and looking up at their frantically waving mates on the Raft of the Medusa, it is impossible not to think of the cockleshells setting out every day across the Mediterranean. The boat itself is unaccountably strange, metamorphic. What seems to be drawn-in veils or an improvised awning that can hardly give any shade, looks disconcertingly like a horizontal gallows. Beneath, the water surface morphs into something that is at the same time a row of beam-thick oars (who are these men, galley-slaves?) and a makeshift raft’s cross-beams, half submerged – another echo of the Raft of the Medusa. Yet, in front of the raft of hope or hopelessness no rescue ship comes in sight on the horizon: in an empty wasteland the ghostly skeleton of the Capitoline she-wolf slogs, all that remains of her is the bones and the hanging dugs. In front of her, uncannily unlocalizable images, a group of faceless men carrying heavy bundles on their shoulders: history as ceaseless lugging, coming-and-going, eviction, removal with the dead, house gods, shapeless bags, lives. In front of a general’s prancing horse, the advance guard is a hussar-shakoed dummy saddling a vaulting-horse, the legs of his mount are gun barrels and crutches, its head a flag – unforgettable summing-up of the nauseatingly repetitive iconography of nationalisms. A big-maned silhouette dashes ahead with an oversize machine gun, like Ronan the barbarian, the foldover flaps of his combat boots flutter after him like Hermes wings. A horse skeleton drops to its knees in front of him, its clutch-legs put together from gunbarrels. Behind him, a quixotic vehicle rolls in: a bathtub in which Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg kiss as water (or gas?) pours down on them from a showerhead hanging from a pole that is fastened to the tub. The imprints of the images of culture are hauled hither and thither among the other bundled goods, becoming ever more brittle, their edges break off, their fate is that of classical or early Christian iconography: they can be deciphered only fragmentarily, painstakingly, and with gaping lacunae. Our culture as ruin. Overlooking the procession that sets out in the direction of the two bridges from the black square of non-knowing and non-remembering, under Ponte Mazzini, two meters above the driftwood island, humanity in ruins: the gaudy plastic tents and shapeless piled-up bundles of refugees and of the homeless.
Pizza bianca, focaccia al rosmarino. Salt, rosemary and oil: taste of friendliness. L., stranger, unknown friend. Flashing blue eyes, flashing white teeth. She talks about the flavor of the soil in pizza dough and in vegetables. At the shaky small table our plates touch, we taste one another’s food. It is only steamed leaves – my favourites, bietola, cicoria – she refuses, for their substance, she says. On the first evening, a group of cheerful half-strangers, we walk up the Palatine hill after closing hour, when the gulls and songbirds take it back from the crowds. All through she talks about the poetic justice in the fact that the erstwhile triumphal arches, the columns of the forums are taken apart, the emblems of one-time victory become lintels, construction stones, the symbols of power do not survive the demise of power but as objects of daily use, shedding their former meanings. The triumphal arch is turned into a gate in the shrunken walls of the shrunken city, lime-burning stoves spring up inside what used to be a theatre, weavers spread their starched linen, goat herds graze beneath the columns of Fortuna Virilis, on the ruins a little, scarce life sprouts. She speaks in Italian, fast and with gusto, mixing in some Spanish turns-of-phrase every now and then: mongrel Romance, she says. We toast to mongrelizing. Every day early in the morning she walks up the Aventino hill to the Giardino degli Aranci, when there are no people there yet, only the birds, the trees and the sky. Thirty-five kilos of animation. She is first and foremost interested in the way the language of science frames the body. Before becoming a freelance she was an engineer and designed attack helicopters for the US army. It is from there she took to the world, lived on orange and oil farms, started speaking in other languages. At one of the lectures, about the biopolitics of the early 20th century, there is a lengthy quote from a letter reporting with wry humour the death of one of the imprisoned participants of the Easter Rising. To demand prisoner-of-war status, he goes on hunger strike, the authorities try force-feeding on him, but in the course of the operation the bougie is jammed into the larynx instead of the aesophagus. It couldn’t have escaped her that they share a surname. At dinner she relates how she got ill with a sombre autoimmune disease, and was hospitalized for a long time; she was declared an anorexic, so she was excluded not only from the numbers of the healthy but also from those of the anorexic, who sensed she wasn’t one of them. One morning she faints on the Gianicolo hill – having walked up all the way in the merciless sun, crossing half of Rome; the physician who consults her is of the opinion that she is critically undernourished and prescribes infusion, but she rejects the idea of hospitalization. It’s only the level of her blood sugar that tends to drop, she says. She is walking away on the immense, treeless square, Giacometti woman, fluff-haired bare life, her thigh the width of a child’s wrist, sore skin and bones in the moving boots, away into the glaring light. The university doesn’t take responsibility for the costs of eventual treatment, the doctor’s diagnosis is anorexia, so they would send her home halfway through the program, with the recommendation to heal; she turns down the offer of a flight the next day and will not accept the diagnosis, prefers to travel on southward, seaward; in a farewell message she invites me to a good meal somewhere, sometime.
On the right side of Termini the Via Giolitti’s row of palaces is a breakwater, against which the relentless waves of tourists smash, to be drained into the Piazza della Repubblica, or along Via Gioberti and Corso Cavour into the communicating pools of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Forum. Only the spumes are splashed into the parallel streets; they, too, mostly seek out the cheap little souvenir shops and street vendors, and the kebab and pizza-a-taglio shops pouring out their burnt oil smell day and night. Tourists grown into strange centaur forms with their backpacks count their coins in the sqeezed-in little places where with sparing movements, Filipinos eat their supper at the end of a day’s cleaning, or Africans who spend most of the day in the blade-wide shade on the deserted end of Via Giolitti, between the De Chirico tower with its winding stairs and the shell of the Tempio di Minerva, hoping for some daywork. In the district mornings start very early: the mercatini move out on the streets, the always too narrow pavements brim over not with passers-by but with hurriers-to and luggers. The intonation of Filipino and Romanian blends readily into that of Italian, while the various Chinese, Indian and African languages stand out distinctly with their vowels hollowed out by different configurations of the throat, tongue and palate. On the instantly heated asphalt, amidst the general busy-ness there are a few islands of slowness, unwashed-looking shopwindows, unopened-looking doors. On a corner, the once modern art deco masks of Cinema Moderno watch over a few parking motorini and the rear entrance to a deposit. Above an exchange office, an antiquated font from the ’60s proclaims in a husky voice, CAMBIO; in its shop window rows of commemorative medals and 19th century coins, a whole numismatic collection – as if sullenly drawing aside, outside of time; the day’s exchange rate is posted almost apologetically sideways. With calligraphic letters, as though in the hand of some award-winning primary-school pupil, a painted sign above a shop window in which dust gathers on military orders and decorations: Ma Mi – La Sartoria del Militare. Ma mi: Giorgio Strehler’s song about the hardened thug of the Milan malavita who, past his years in the resistance and facing a long term in prison for some unspecified criminal act, when the captain offers to set him free in exchange for the names of his mates, refuses to chirp, standing the clouts in San Vittur prison quaranta dì quaranta nott, as he once had at the hands of the todesch de la Wehrmacht. Ornella Vanoni removes her earrings and with head thrown back sings out in her untamed throaty voice in the sixties, sbattuu de su sbattuu de giò, like a real duro. Up-yours spite, the tomcat stink of the ballad of the malnati growing up on the streets like feral kittens sprays the uniforms that step over the threshold; the words of the explosive hit of the antifascist generation are sewn into the military finery of retired army officers. Two outlandish words in a faraway dialect, remnants of the republic’s sun-bleached spirit, blend in with the Chinese names on shop windows.
The largest island of the archipelago of stillness is the improbably silent little park in front of the Acquario Romano, meant to be a monument to water. Under the two flights of stairs leading to the entrance, safely out of reach at the bottom of a minute fake grotto, a toy fountain sends out its tantalizing gurgle to the thirsty. There is no fontanella on the surrounding streets, only throat-parching exhaustion gas, heat that massacres the feet; in the shops mineral water bottles are everywhere placed well in sight. In the prolonged draught not only Rome but the whole province is suffocating: with the level of Lake Bracciano, where most of Rome’s water comes from, at a historical low, and environmental disaster pending, the city administration decided to switch off the water of the fontanelle, free for all in all parts of the city. A sentry box guards the entrance; a uniformed policeman watches over the few Africans who sit in loose groups on the benches of the shady side, immersed in their cellphones or merely trying to get a few hours’ comfortable sit instead of sleep. In a corner of the park, a group of singular objects: a haphazard structure, a shaky assemblage of a few elements, and two chairs put together from a few metal sheets and circles.
Two examples of Yona Friedman’s communal, utopian, improvised shelters, variable at will and designed for those in need. Friedman obviously knew quite a bit about scarce, improvised dislocated life – himself a survivor of fascism in Hungary, who first moved to Israel after the war, then to Paris in 1957. His oeuvre is a collection of shelters, homes, spaces that anyone can join together according to their needs out of ‟crumpled sheets” and supports chosen at will – the polar opposite of postwar International Style subordinating life to the structures born on the drafting table; one of his insights is that a sheet, if crumpled, gains in solidity and resistance. The chairs are here as part of a Friedman show at MAXXI. There, in Zaha Hadid’s sculptural, ostentatious space, in the histrionic museum light Friedman’s mobile mock-ups sit awkwardly, like blistered feet in a posh shoe shop; the project of the street museum – bearing the motto, it is the exhibits that make a museum – is especially ironic here, where the building is the main spectacle, pushing all the exhibits into the background.
Inside and in front of it museum death is general, not even Mario Merz’s glass igloo and Piero Gilardi’s carnivalesque, anarchic set of demonstration masks and still lifes cut out of psychedelic-coloured polystyrene can resist its pull. The two chairs stand in the park corner like two exhibits with attached labels – extensions of the architecture centre inside the Acquario. None of the Africans occupied either of them, although they were made for them, even if not placed here for them. I sit down in one, it’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy: radical design for the middle-class flâneur. Inside, beyond the cafè an exhibition of the works of the visionary architects of the ’60s, Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fiorentino, among the first to sense that modernity’s faith in reason cannot hold. In the bookshop on a stand, designer’s items, bookmarks with catchy mottos and maxims from Confucius to Bob Dylan, you must change your life, one euro apiece, the price of three bottles of mineral water in a neighbourhood grocery.
A fresh globe of horse-turd is smoking, gleeful find on the Via Appia. On a cypress trunk a sign with picture missing Titù, friendly medium-size black female dog, lost on the stretch around San Sebastiano. Waif on the petrified luggage conveyor silted in sand, from which the soutward-bound carts, litters, odd-toed or cleft hooves, the entering and exiting troops, those destined to promotion or execution have long tumbled off, only the funeral monuments, steles rest with a petitioning look on their portraits, unreclaimed luggage. The feet get used to the passage from the uniform basalt cobblestones to the broad, flat lava-stone slabs with their humps and hollows, with their notches impressed by cart wheels: unfinished lithography, its technique long forgotten, its forms can be only intuited. Functional roads leading somewhere are the most nondescript buildings, non-places. The Appia Antica, too, leads, but not somewhere: pure procession without goal,end, terminus, and without a route – it became Antica when it ceased to be a roadway. Wayward road, only proceeding wayward, into itself. Space evicted from journeying, space become time: its face stopped aging, like the effigies on the funerary steles. It ran out of time.
This is probably the world’s most refined grand orchestra of cicadas: it does not concentrate on the beauty of sound, it treats rhythm as a sound architect, and doesn’t fidget too much about the odd mislaid tone. Of Rome’s many skies this is the widest and of its many lights, this is the most caressing even at its brightest. Among the bitter little cotton-tufted herbs a propped-up marble statue, with a hole where the head should sit: perhaps a standard half-figure with custom-made head, available in right- or lefthanded version. In the hollow in place of the neck a handful of pine needles, cypress cones, seeds gathers: humus that will germinate with the first autumn rain, unrepeatable vegetal life in the mass produce antiquated into uniqueness. Below their multi-storey flowerings, preposterous drawings, the bone-hard agave leaves twist and coil like octopus arms seeking to free themselves. To the right side, a forward-looking little arboretum, its saplings barely rise above the wilted grass.
From San Sebastiano bus 118 drives to the Ardeatina among walls and clouds of greenery, then on to trafficky Appia Nuova. The landscape spreads out wide. On a tall hillcrest against the sky, in counterlight the washed-up backbone of a prehistoric whale, the Villa dei Quintili. In the late imperial age the largest of Rome’s suburban villas stood here; to lay his hands on it, emperor Commodus, who loved posing as Hercules, ordered the killing of the two Quintilianus brothers, the most cultivated patrician heirs of the day. Slow light- and sunward ascent in the descending afternoon brightness. A seamless inverted v-shaped board fence, undulating matte eel’s spine establishes the directions; in the dried-up soil cracks go in all directions, lines of flight.
Fourten years: at the two ends of rising and falling light, the elongated shadows cast on the pathway, their contours do not overlap precisely. Perhaps not even the skeleton building’s contours overlap precisely. In that other time there was wild origano to gather here, and dried-up wild figs whose astringent sweetness lingered in the mouth for days. Perhaps they fell victims to systematization. The unauthorized little farm, too, disappeared from among the ruins, with its sad-faced, drooping-eared sheep and goats that obdurately practiced land occupation with their stench: now crows sit aligned in geometric order on the fence, uniformed uni-squatters, trickling musical notes on a splintered score. But at the entrance from the Appia Nuova a hoopoe bird is hopping, gleeful anarchist, light-discharges at the ends of its orange crest.
The caldarium’s gigantic window is practicing how to capture the most of the sky. How to turn entirely into sky, and the walls, into openings. First it shed its alabaster windowpanes, the ceiling mosaic, then its sills and in the end it stripped down to the brick layering. Its edges are now drawn by the blade-sharp shadows. Lidless eye gone blind in the incessant procession, into which things swim, so it responds to them with its substance. In the early Middle Ages a lime-burner set up shop among the ruins, marble excavated from here had the reputation of yielding prime lime, after it had been broken and matured in deposits for years like wine. Giant stone tuning-fork: to sound it one doesn’t need the wind, the touch of the gaze is enough. Its A is the purest, distilled Rome-homesickness, Rome-sickness. It can only be heard in silence, for otherwise the other, more mixed Rome-sicknesses outvoice it: the street noises, the gull noises, the fluttering of the tree-crowns, the wind-shielded shade, the grass scent, the pine scent stocked away for years in a cone, the undulating tread of sandalled feet, the laughing together.
Source of quotations and paraphrases in the text:
…summer’s temperature curve: Zsuzsa Takács, The Pillar of Salt [A sóbálvány] (2016)
…harry the last heat through them: ‟harry the last few drops of sweetness through the wine”, Rainer Maria Rilke: Herbsttag, trans. Mary Kinzie
Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen]
White and light… Verlorne … wind-shade: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht
The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen], trans. Michael Murray
sea-mill: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht
…do not go gentle… rage against the dying of the light: Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
…the shining, the pain and the name: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht
…humanity in ruins: Samuel Beckett, The Capital of the Ruins (1945)
…quaranta dì quaranta nott…todesch de la Wehrmacht…sbatuu de su sbattuu de giò: Giorgio Strehler, Fiorenzo Carpi, Ma Mi (1959)
…you must change your life: Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, trans. Stephen Mitchell
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.