American Academy in Rome
I returned to St. Peter’s today. My third visit. I’m struggling with the idea of the hidden tombs below the floor, buried within Vatican Hill, exposed (but not) to the east (the Niche of the Pallia), centuries of other shrines and altars burying it, encasing it. Rising floor levels. The paradox that the thing that is there (Peter’s bone fragments, body, faith) can’t be seen or experienced. The thing that is there, both there and not there.
Like the “scavi” images from yesterday, I’m seeing these studies as maps. Graphic images to document the place. Because I took the necropolis tour on Monday, I know the relative position of the hidden tombs, where they’re located beneath the floor inside the basilica, and in elevation as one approaches up the Vatican slope. This is my documentation.
I went up into the dome today too, to look down on it.
But I can’t photograph “it.” The story is written: burning curiosity, discovery, mistakes, Popes, holes, inscriptions, the red wall, the missing feet, the coins, the mouse. I was determined to find the surface or the object that would allow me to fix on the place but I’m coming up with nothing.
Then I saw the people. Moving all around me — blocking, gesturing, approaching. “Do this in memory of me” — bodies still activate the puzzle. Desire lines. The perfect paradox. The stand-in for the unknowably sacred: complete obstruction. Film stills from a film that can’t be seen. Title: Anamnesis (here and here).
Obscurity / security
Week one. Non-stop weekend, new people and places, connecting to familiar voices at home. Matters on my mind: the question of place. Marking place, the ambiguity (and certainty) of position and situation. Logos (objective observation, reason) vs mythos (emotional appeal, faith, intuition). With all of the relentless conviction of the Roman hotspots, to spend time with any one of them obscures the confidence of the place and secures my connection to it. Question: does the red wall’s graffiti provide certainty, or doubt? The foundation — literally, below the floor, supporting this place (this basilica, this city) — calls faith into question, while defining it. The story is seductive but slippery surfaces collapse with just the slightest ponder.
And St Peter’s missing feet bones: because he was crucified upside-down?
From Vitruvius Book VII, Chapter 13
1. I shall now speak of purple, which, above all other colours, has a delightful effect, not less from its rarity than from its excellence. It is procured from the marine shell which yields the scarlet dye, and possesses qualities not less extraordinary than those of any of the body whatever. It does not in all places where it is found possess the same quality of colour; but varies in that respect according to the sun’s course.
2. Thus, that which is obtained in Pontus and in Galatia, from the nearness of those countries to the north, is brown; in those between the south and the west, it is pale; that which is found in the equinoctial regions, east and west, is of a violet hue; lastly, that which comes from southern countries possesses a red quality: the red sort is also found in the island of Rhodes, and other places near the equator.
3. After the shells are gathered they are broken into small pieces with iron bars; from the blows of which, the purple dye oozes out like tears, and is drained into mortars and ground. It is called ostrum, because extracted from marine shells. Inasmuch as this colour, from its saltness, soon dries, it is prepared for use with honey.
At St. Peter’s Basilica
“The excavations revealed the remains of shrines of different periods at different levels, from Clement VIII (1594) to Callixtus II (1123) and Gregory I (590-604), built over an aedicula containing fragments of bones that were folded in a tissue with gold decorations, tinted with the precious murex purple. Although it could not be determined with certainty that the bones were those of Peter, the rare vestments suggested a burial of great importance.”
Murex purple, also known as Tyrian purple
“Tyrian purple (Greek, πορφύρα, porphyra, Latin: purpura), also known as royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye, is a purple-red natural dye, which is extracted from sea snails, and which was first produced by the ancient Phoenicians. This dye was greatly prized in antiquity because it did not fade, rather it became brighter and more intense with weathering and sunlight.”
I measured the floor panels using my shoes. These new studies are one-sixth actual size.
All of it feels like a study. Of what, I’m not yet sure.
Before crossing the river this morning I visited Santa Maria in Trastevere. The large-scale, graphic circle/square pattern in black and white marble is all over Rome, most notably on the floor of the Pantheon. There it was again at Santa Maria.
At Poggi I picked up some big, chunky oil pastel crayons in black. The circle was just a gut instinct to mark the paper. To inscribe what I saw at Santa Maria. To mark my spot, my place here right now.
The fat oil crayons are a joy to use. My first time. I can scratch into the thick surface and “etch” it. I’ll definitely do more with this.
This morning I made my way down the hill and crossed the river at Ponte Garibaldi. I looked down and tried to capture the color of the Tiber rushing by in my mind and on camera, and realized at that moment that I had to begin work today, immediately. That my challenge to myself for this residency is to produce work every day. And by work I mean new work, every day.
One idea that I’ve been looking forward to before arriving is “slow design” (because in my business the speed of design/production has become ridiculous, insane). So perhaps this morning’s mission challenges this, because it asks for quick thinking and response. But honestly, after thinking, writing and analyzing this sabbatical for six months, I find myself craving the act of “making.” It’s sudden: I came face-to-face with it when I walked into the studio yesterday. A physical feeling. I really need to use my hands. And make work that goes outside my comfort zone (no more little books, for now).
So I discovered Poggi (fantastic) and grabbed some supplies and without thinking too hard ran back to my studio. I’ve got 34 more days at the Academy and I want to fill it with work that responds to Rome. No big concept beyond that. Just look, see, absorb and make.
I made two quick things this afternoon. First (above), a painting.
Less than 24 hours. In total awe of this place. It’s 8am and the sun is just coming up behind me over Rome and starting to flood the apartment. I’m starting to believe I could just stay in here the entire time looking at how the light moves around the city.
They’ve given me the Russell Cowles studio, #253. I just looked him up and he was an American painter in Italy from 1915–20. Spent 1920 at the Academy as a Rome Prize Fellow. Died in 1979. I’d like to think that he actually used my studio, but who knows.
The studio is huge and empty, except for some perfectly basic furniture. A weird hallway runs behind one of the walls, within my space. A giant window. I fell asleep on the couch before dinner last night. I haven’t even seen it in daylight yet.
Dinner was like the furniture. Simple but absolutely perfect. Risotto with beef. Stewed rabbit and onions. Cauliflower. Everything served family-style on giant platters. After, walked from the main building up the street to the gate of Villa Aurelia. My apartment is the top floor of the Villino, next to the Villa. Cats in the street.
So much more I’d like to jot down, but it’s time to get up and walk down the hill. Start moving through the city.