Roma 9 | Death & Romance

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012

13_San Giovanni Laterano

Route: home to San Giovanni in Laterano, bus to Catacombe di San Callisto along Via Appia. Down in the Catacombs then up to the Ardeantine Monument along Via Ardeantina, back to a 5km walk up and down Via Appia, bus to Statione Barberini, denied entry to the Capuchin Crypt, walk down to Via del Corso, then back up to Barberini, then home.


As history accumulates, so, inevitably, do deaths.

“Adolf Loos limited architecture strictly speaking to the monument and the tomb, considering all other structures constrained, sullied, even defiled by use.” — Robert Harbison, Memory

As with most European cities, cemeteries were not allowed within the city walls for reasons of spirit and sanitation. Our first stop in the countryside was at Catacombe di San Callisto. Comfortably nestled in the rolling agricultural hills fertile from years of burial (that was a bad joke, I’m sure the tombs have nothing to do with their agricultural productivity), if not for a giant yellow sign, you could not tell that 30 ft. below ground lie 20 km/15 hectares of complicated, damp, cold, and narrow catacombs where four Popes were once interred. If images of the X-men rebel Callisto did not conjure up enough grotesque imagery, the tombs themselves are actually empty save for one princess’ skeleton still encased and mummified. The bodies were likely brought to safer resting places and the tombs excavated for archaeological progress. In reality the site is named for Pope Callistus who was once buried within said catacombs. The most shocking part in my opinion, was a white marble statue of St. Cecilia, pictured below with an image from an Italian travel website. So faithful to Christianity during the crusades, she was captured and martyred on many attempts. On the final attempt she was faithful enough to place her forefinger and middle finger together in a sign of god, even as her beheaded body fell to the ground.

The engraving on the bottom reads a different kind of memorial: one of an American woman to whom the statue owes her patronage. A little bit sick to put on a deeply religious and ancient tomb if you ask me.

Emerging from the unknown darkness out into the ever hot and bright Roman sun, we can reflect on what remembering death means to us. To me, the weight of death is oppressive; the thought of it is freeing. Five minutes south along Via Ardeantina lies the first great modern monument in Rome: the Ardeantine Monument/Fosse Ardeantine. Because the spatial experience is so important, I will describe this using a photo-narrative.

Built in 1944-51, the monument contains the bodies of 335 Roman civilians who were brought to the neighbouring quarry, tortured, and shot by German soldiers three months before Rome was liberated from German occupation in WWII.

The journey through the site is haunting. Tall, dark caves with only one label “TOMBE” directing you where to go. As you walk through, you visit the sites where the civilians were killed, left to imagine ghosts of remnants of a seriously haunted past. Not a good time to lurk around the corner.

As you exit the quarry, however, you are reprised by a slice of forested sunlight before being welcomed downward beneath a gigantic concrete slab suspended one foot above the gravel tombs of the dead, each bearing a vintage cameo and name.

Interestingly, although I did not notice when I was underneath it, I can see it in pictures now: the 25 x 50m concrete slab was made slightly concave underneath as to “not make it seem too oppressive to visitors”. As if the entire situation were not oppressive enough.

The light that enters the tomb from the gap is phoenomenal. It makes pictures look grainy but the earth look supreme. Sunken six feet under as a living subject to observe and pay respects to the dead, you feel enlightened by the weight of death, of the allusion to the final slab on a tomb that you share with humanity.


Like the sun rising over a battlefield, Lord of the Rings-esque, the rest of the day was not shrouded by our memorial experiences of the morning. It was instead happily followed by a loving stroll down Via Appia Antica, the oldest road in Rome that once led to her colonies. Extremely cobblestone-laid, Via Appia Antica is charming because it is littered with ancient fragments bringing to mind a bricollage image of a horse-drawn carriage losing bits of buildings pilfered from foreign and native places as it bounces along the road.

Too narrow to hold two automobiles, the road is closed to cars on Sundays, which, according to my guide book, is one of the most romantic outings in the city. Equally beautiful on a Tuesday. It was a great way to regain faith in nature after the bitter taste of the EUR on opposite 30 degree axes exiting the south of the city. There is a romance to our tragedy, to our history. To the sad church facade left standing in the countryside; the evidence of something once loved. A piece of a column embedded among the cobblestones. Statues with no faces and no homes. A red poppy handed to you, pressed in the folds of your sketchbook to fall happily on your lap when you are  at home to remind you of a peaceful skip, hop, walk, race in the sun in the Roman countryside. A brick laid path stemming into estates of old money. Times like these I think I could have been a country girl. .

Roma 8 | Fascism

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012

11_unknown church

Route: Metro to EUR, walk halfway then to and from and back ??? church, bus back to Statione Termini, afternoon capo cornetto, delirium, early night.

A Crisis of Identity, a Crisis of Faith

Today we went to the EUR, the business financial district of Rome, and also the most “modern” and car-based culture in Rome. It stands for Esposizione Universale di Roma, which was slated to happen in 1942 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Fascism in Italy, but never did because of the second World War. Although the buildings in EUR were commissioned to a variety of architects, they ended up looking very much the same. Get ready for a lesson in Fascist Architecture 101.

Continuing the discussion on day 5, modernism in Italy did not completely adopt the style of flat roofs and long horizontal windows. Instead, it tried to avoid historical reference while still respecting the context of a strong history by keeping forms like columns and arches but eliminating any sort of ornamentation from them. Where there is a break

aesthetic – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –                           – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – meaning

between aesthetic and meaning. The result is a lost-looking concrete and steel architecture that, when blown out of scale in order to proportion itself to the power of Fascism, was not only void of reference, but of feeling. See Italian surrealist/pittura metafisica artist Giorgio de Chirico for art historical adjacency.

Where streams of parked cars form a second river.

Where 416 arcaded collonades house a completely empty glass box adorned with statues of men. A nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators transmigratory.

trans·mi·grate  (trns-mgrt, trnz-)

intr.v. trans·mi·grat·edtrans·mi·grat·ingtrans·mi·grates

1. To migrate.
2. To pass into another body after death. Used of the soul.

To assert power and the strength of men in the face of an oncoming storm.

Where they named a piazza after JFK to show the strength of principle alliances.

To contemplate the heavens staring up at a church you can never reach.

Where in isolation, the manmade lakes and manmade tower boast their internationalism, asking “look at me, I am the future”

Where the streets are named after countries and dead presidents whose presence can only elevate us.

The EUR deals with scale in a different way than in Vatican City. While both are completely at an un-human scale, the EUR not only does it with it’s buildings but with it’s approaches. We were warned that walking from one point to the other would appear near but actually be far, but we also experienced this in an accidental way by walking 7 km to the wrong church on a highway. That aside, tiredness, six lane highways, sedans and suits, square columns, and a reading presented by Rosa on memory made me feel more than a bit empty inside.

I had a bit of a crisis of faith and identity today. And for this reason, I think this was one of the most interesting days in Rome, because usually people talk about spatial affect only when it refers to beauty: the joy you feel when you walk in an elaborately decorated church or your childhood home. That the EUR can make you feel uncomfortable to the point where you question your own existence is even more powerful. I wasn’t left with a lot of conclusions after today: mostly questions.

Why did modernism fail, on an international level and specific to Rome?

Why did it result in the cars and suburbs and keyholes that we see today?

Why do we keep a record of our family histories, do they matter, what what does it mean that I do not exist in my written history?

What happens then to people that have never existed in any?

Why do we build objects that fail to bring us joy?

What use is it to strive together for something beautiful in a world where one terrifying power can end it?

What of individual creativity in a world where we are constantly asked to give to others?

I took an unopened pinecone from the EUR. It sits on my mantle reminding me that even when all you can see for miles and miles makes you want to shake your head, you look down. There is new life waiting to spring forth, with the scent of gin and the vitality of a hundred year old tree.

A Poem for the EUR:

Existential Surrealism.

Meaningless Monument.

Abstracted form.

Distance of scales, Scales of empathy of distrophy weighing.

Third Rome, a Fourth.

A secular god to a Fascist religion.

Where is the Temple to Human Spirit now?

That is to stand when we are forgotten.

Non-descript among the leaves of our families’ trees.

This is why we remember.

I will find meaning in everything I do.

The song I listen to when I have days like this:

Roma 7 | Derive & Psychogeography

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

Route: Metro line A to Spagna station, lounging and sketching on the Spanish Steps. Walked down Via dei Condotti to revisit and sketch Ara Pacis Augustae. Wandered down to Piazza Navona for tartufo, dinner, drinks, and a soccer game near the Piazza, journey home.


To Drift: not the avoidance of commerce and spectacle in the Situationist sense, but more of the “organized spontaneity” and play amongst the romantic ruins and organic development of Rome’s historic urban core between and within monumental spaces. i.e. getting lost on purpose. Detournement through the deconstruction of classical axes and critical confrontation with the monumental sources of Western spectacle. Serendipity. A singular reading of movement in a city by memory.

Today was a Sunday, the holy day of rest. Consequently we slept in, caught up on some sketching, and enjoyed dinner and drinks in the evening. Because we did not take a purposeful trip through the city, today’s entry will be more of an explanation of the derive and the psychogeography of Rome. For those of you unfamiliar, the term derive is French/Italian for drift. It comes from a group of theorists called the Situationists, whose work I have been interested in since learning about it in a first year art course.

Drifts involve taking walks through a city (or any place, really), uninfluenced by where you have to be, or where, or in complete defiance of road signs, topographic contours, and touristic monuments… Basically everything that Rome is made of. It’s purpose is to have no purpose but to follow the pulse and the signs of the city, and turning where you please. They require a certain degree of letting go. In doing so, the original derives carried out in Paris by Guy Debord and his associates were designed to purposefully subvert the urban planning precedents imposed upon the city of the artists by Baron Haussman and his boulevards, as well as the mind-numbing commercialism and mass gentrification overtaking Paris. They are based on the principle that a city has it’s own in-between spaces formed by informal collections of turns and physical realities that subconsciously influence the way we experience an urban space. They are also at once extremely personal:

“The primarily urban character of the drift, in its element in the great industrially transformed cities — those centres of possibilities and meanings — could be expressed in Marx’s phrase: ‘Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.’ 
— Guy Debord, as quoted in The Situationist City by Simon Sadler

I think I am interested in certain aspects of drifts because they, like life, are uncertain and unplanned. For someone who always has to have such a big grasp on concepts, on my life trajectory, on the future, the appeal of the drift comes from it’s voidness of productivity: exactly the opposite of everything I aim for in life. I yearn for them; the new lived experience untainted by expectation, direction, and desire for growth. They are a reminder that some things simply are, and to be there, to simply be, can be one of the most difficult challenges. And I love challenges.

The term “Situationists” derives (haha) from their desire “to create ‘situations’ as opposed to what they saw as Lefebvre’s more passive stance of experiencing ‘moments’ when they happened to arise.” (David Harvey, from The Situationist City).

“Sartre argued that life is a series of given situations which affect the individual’s consciousness and will, and which must be in turn negotiated by that individual. Situationism now presupposed that it was possible for people to synthesize or manage these situations as an act of self-empowerment.”
— Simon Sadler, the Situationist City

Debord also used the words “collective ambiance” to describe them. And thus we arrive at the heart of all my projects, this blog, 100 Days of Summer, and finally, Derive a Roma. To actively seek out moments of self-empowerment in the heart of a planned city and planned life

Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

In Rome, the main factors that influence the urban morphology are:

  • The 165 curving roads put into place by Pope Sixtus V with gradual bends to lessen the steepness of Rome’s seven hills.
  • The intent of axis-node planning methodology that makes you anticipate a journey or a monument around the corner.
  • A complete lack of grid.
  • How the people look standing in the doorways, sitting on the steps, staring you straight in the eye.
  • The ratio of cobblestone to sidewalk.
  • The physical and phenomenal layers of history.

Which can yield the following result in a derive, as we did many times in the city:

  • The joy of finding a famous monument when you meant to go somewhere else.
  • The disappointment of walking 6km when you meant to go somewhere else.
  • Everything you learn in between.
  • The leisure to travel down an alleyway into private property, glimpsing into a walled garden life.
  • Pleasure at the material transitions between pavement, cobblestone, and sidewalk. Brick and concrete. Ruin and complete.
  • Smaller piazzas and piazzettas that are as lively as the main ones.
  • The discovery that the best Italian food is made in the Jewish quarter.
  • The ability to find your way home on ancient streets late at night, drunk, reading every single sign in Italian out loud like a Global Positioning Shelley system.
  • The construction of a myth in your memory, of an experienced urban movement, reminiscient of others in Europe, a wall, a road, a road sign, an empty symbol engraved. A desire to re-read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities on the way to Venice. Reading the Da Vinci code instead.
  • Avoidance of tourists and hecklers.
  • Renouncement of hardened cynicism to Western history.
  • Time spent sitting on the steps of a fountain, happy to be here, grateful for this moment.
  • Living in the moment.
  • Wide eyes and a closed camera. When I see people bewildered by an experience, I stare. I like to think that others feel this way when they see me. Far, far from home, but we’re so happy:

Roma 5 & 6 | Modernism and Modernity

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Montemartini detail Sketch

Montemartini detail Sketch

Route: metro to Statione Flaminio, took the mini tram to see Renzo Piano’s Auditorio de Musica and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI contemporary art gallery just north of the City Walls. Walked back to Villa Borghese (Rome’s Stanley Park), and visited Galleria d’arte Moderna in the park, Rome’s biggest modern art museum. Walked to Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis memorial to Augustus, gelato and wine in the afternoon shade, shopping in Trastevere, walked along the Tiber back to Piazza Navona for dinner. Tried to get back to Statione Barberini, got us lost. Stumbled upon Trevi Fountain at night. Serendipity.

Route: Metro line B to Pyramide, walk along Via Ostiense to Montemartini Art Centre, walk back, Metro line B to Metro line A, Metro line A to Flaminio, walk about Villa Borghese, read for two hours, then walked to Statione Spagna to get home.

Juxtaposition and Success

Friday and Saturday were a study of modernity in the city of ancients, as we visited some starchitecture within and around the city, and I read and summarized a 53 page reading on Modernism in Italy. What follows are my findings from the two journeys.

In sum. Romans have long pushed back against modernism because they are proud of their past, and the whole premise of modernism is rejection of the past and it’s associated values. I would also like to speculate that the strong presence of religion has also played a part in slowing the adoption of modernity into the city itself. But the rejection of modernism does not mean a rejection of modernity necessarily. In terms of transportation, conservation, and a history of reuse, Rome is in many ways much more modern and contemporary than most Canadian cities. Conservation of buildings and renovation over the building of new has a lot to do with the success of surviving artifacts and preservation of the historical fabric of Rome. Condominums atop of a 2000 year old theatre (Theatre of Marcellus, see Day 3)! Subsequently, modern architecture has had to work around this surviving fabric, literally at times.

Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica

During the construction of Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, ancient ruins were discovered while digging for the foundations; a problem commonly “run into” for new building projects, especially Roman metro lines. In the case of Piano’s auditorium, they were preserved and turned into a featured dig roped off as part of the buildings themselves. The three buildings also reference the form of ancient outdoor Roman ampitheatres, as they all approach on a large outdoor seating space. MAXXI we visited another day when it was open, but we visited three other galleries over the two days that are excellent examples of the juxtaposition of old and new that are all extremely successful.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Situated in the middle of old Borghese private property, the National Modern Art Gallery looks nothing like MAXXI, it’s other contemporary. Although it was built in 1911 at the height of modernism, it uses a neoclassical facade that fits in with the look and feel of the rest of the Villa, and is approached by a large descent that equals the ascent, giving it an imposing quality. It’s modernistic aspect comes from the most comprehensive collection of Italian modernist art in Italy housed inside.

The art itself is worth discussing in the “Modernism” section of these chronicles, because, like the building and other modernist architecture in Italy, it takes on new forms, new materials, and tries to struggle free from the holds of history and antiquity that steep and surround them. Marble sculptures in the vein of ancient and renaissance classics began to writhe and pull towards Rodin, set in a gallery with a broken mirrored floor. Experimentations with material and scale stand painfully beside the reminder of an arched doorway, rejecting the monochrome abstractions housed behind.

Why it works: because of the struggle that Italian modernists faced in both architecture and art, this museum stands as a testament and storehouse of a unique and complicated history.

Approach to the gallery.

Mirrored floor.

Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Augustae

One of my favourite spaces in Rome: Meier’s signature white concrete planes set beside a classical church facade and the ancient rotunda of Augustus’ Memorial. The straight planes were a welcome relief after having spent a week drawing column after column after column.

Inside, materiality felt consistent with the monument to peace that it housed, and it was extremely cool. Air conditioning! Ara Pacis refers to the era of peace brought about by Augustus, also known as Emperor Caesar. The monument to peace was discovered in the Augustus memorial (the brown rotunda), and placed outside for public visitation before it was determined that deterioration was inevitable and a building must be commissioned nearby to house the artifact.

Why it works: because it is a peaceful jewel of modernism that houses a jewel of ancient peace. It is non-confrontational but serenely bold. The colour palette breaks with Rome only insofar as it is white, carte blanche, tabula rasa.

Montemartini Art Centre

Again, located on the outskirts of the city, this time on the South side. Entry #6 in my travel book’s list of “Top Ten Beyond the City Walls” describes “Rome’s very first power station has been transformed into a remarkable showcase for Greek and Roman statues – parts of the Musei Capinolini collection…The effect is extraordinary, playing the monolithic might of modern technology off against the noble, human vulnerability of these ancient masterpieces.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The permanent exhibition, called Le Macchine e Gli Dei or “The Machines and the Gods” tells the narrative of the development of two kinds of power in Roman society: power through art and representation of important figures, and powering a city with resources. Against the stark contrast of black cast iron stand fragments of torsos, limbs, asses, all in white marble, shocked to find themselves surrounded by such heavy industry.

Why it works: because it is absolutely beautiful, surreal, and perfectly frozen in time.

Modernism failed in Italy for two reasons.

  1. It was mired by context and did not fit in with the palettes, forms, and shapes of the past.
  2. It was taken up by Fascism.

CIAM, the Congres Internationale d’Architecture Moderne formed by Corbusier and co. in the early 20th century, condemned Italian modernism for not breaking with the past. But with a history as strong as the Roman Empire, what reason did Italy have to reject it’s proud past? With the resurgence of powerful leadership under Mussolini, what choice did they have to really have in pursuit of a new world order? Rome especially found it’s out in the form of “The International Style” and in the proliferation of suburban low-income housing projects that Modernism became so famous for. Even today, commercialism remains the plague of Roman suburbs, leaving the historical centre clean and free from the apparent class divisions that Modernism claimed to want to solve.

One of the main goals of Team X following the dissolution of CIAM was equitable social housing for the masses. Although we passed through one of these suburbs, Garbatella, on our way to the EUR on the following Monday, we did not study them. It would appear that the suburbs are for the second-time traveller to visit and the full-time citizen to live in. They do, however, provide an interesting foil for exploring the historic core, to help define what a Roman Drift really means…

Roma 4 | Public Space & Public Water

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012




Material Transition between the contemporary road pavement and a pedestrian cobblestone-laid zone

Material Transition between the contemporary road pavement and a pedestrian cobblestone-laid zone

Res Publica

One thing you will notice in Europe is the extensive use and creation of public space. Not only is it available and there, people use every inch of it. Especially Italians. Italians are watchers and performers. Any given time of day in any place there will be a man standing in a doorway (who knows where it leads), smoking a cigarette, watching you as you watch him watch. Any given time of day, there is a young couple passionately kissing on the lawn of a public park. Any given time of day, people are seated high, low, mid-level, on the marble steps, on the wooden bench, on the fountain-side, chasing the shade of a small monument. The people and the activity give Rome’s streets purpose. They inspired intentless drifts and a sense of security.

This is in stark contrast to what we are used to in Vancouver: where a journey is from place to place, always somewhere to go and be, running from the rain. Dwelling in spaces occurs only on the beach in nice weather, and even then, we just stare at the mountains. We avoid the unsightly haunts in seek of a version of California.

Probably one of the biggest pieces of advice I got before this trip from my more well-travelled friends was to remember to take time to do absolutely nothing, sit, and watch. I sought out these moments in all the inbetween spaces each and every day, and I think they were the only way we could stop and stay sane. They were also the “situations” that I sought in our daily strolls, an attempt to drift within a framework.

Today, we met at Piazza Navona, and we ended up back at Piazza Navona at night. It is home to three of Rome’s most famous fountains and borders it’s most beautiful Baroque Borromini Church. It is also one of the best used public spaces I have ever witnessed. Situated just off of Via Vittorio Emauele, nestled between a slew of restaurants, the Piazza changes like a season.

In the morning, we saw artists sketching the Fountain of Four Rivers with intense focus, along with other artists setting up their sales stands for the day. As the day goes on, the live sketchers leave, and street performers and tourists move in. The cafes open. The restaurants turn over wine glasses. Ciao, bella.

The afternoon sun arrives overhead and people chase shadows as it moves around the obelisk, in search of the shade. They buy gelato and linger alongside the fountains, wondering whether they should put their feet in, knowing (or not) that it is illegal, not caring how uncomfortable the steel rail underneath them really is. Lovers fight, children play.

As evening rolls around, spectators and guests alike gather to participate in the best of Italian affairs: dinner. As the sun sets and the street lights come on, the fountains are surrounded by an aura of romance and illusion. The wide open eyes of the men representing the Nile, Tiber, Danube, and Platte grow eerie and ominous. The restaurants are open as late as the bars, and the visitors linger over the square that has remained the same through centuries, only a passerby. The Piazza never sleeps, it sits silently still as the stop motion of the days and centuries pass by.

Piazza Navona, 9am

Piazza Navona, night.

Between the 16-19th centuries, drains were plugged and Piazza Navona was flooded. Once a year, huge amounts of water up to 3 feet deep would fill the Piazza in a strange event in which the rich, with their carriages, would fly across lolling in fun, while the bystanding poor would watch or wade. There was a picture of this event on our apartment wall in Florence. All things lead to Rome, not just roads. The other astonishing public commodity in Rome, apart from the various Piazzas and Piazettas, was drinkable water. In every neighbourhood, near an open space anticipated by the widening of your view through a street during a walk, stood constantly flowing public fountains. They took on the shape of lion’s heads, spouts sticking out of walls, fish, and embellished faucets. It seems that Romans long ago figured out how to eliminate a need for Dasani along with their distaste for Starbucks. Every time we were thirsty, all we had to do was wander for five minutes until a fountain was found. Later, in Florence, I drank straight from a fountain that looked like ten babies’ heads spouting water out of their mouths, and I felt like I was kissing an old stone baby on the lips. American tourists passing by didn’t understand.

Icy cold, clean, from a fountain in the rocks of the Roman Forum.

In Europe, where things like dual flush toilets and automatic sensor lights are not touted as “green technology”, but more “common sense”, this evident “wasting” of water could be surprising. But like so many other things that made sense in Europe, you have to look at the source and longevity of these water sources. Many of the aqueducts carrying the water leading to these fountains have been fed for a few hundred to thousand years. The water keeps coming, free, as potable as ever. I like to think that the reason the water in Rome was so hard with minerals and made our hair feel dry and left residue in pots and pans is because it is enriched with a thousand years of pipe buildup.. Kind of like how the beer at the Calgary Saddledome is unlike any other in the world because the pipes to the kegs have never been cleaned.

In Vancouver we have an abundance of water from the sky, yet we have no public fountains. We have an abundance of beautiful outdoor spaces, but no density and desire to fill them with people. We need a new kind of architecture; a new kind of space, with this socialized European sensibility capable of breeding public tolerance and stronger communities. Covered public space that is unafraid of flooding: if they flood the streets on purpose in Rome for leisure, in Japan to cool the streets, what bad can it be to embrace the tides, the rainfall, the puddles? Mathew Soules’ Rain Architecture. Can we look towards an urban fabric that is not subservient to views of the natural landscape, but embraces it and it’s cycles, it’s systems?

Roma 3 | History

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
My sketch of the Pantheon. I think I switched perspective points about three times so please forgive the awkwardness.. Still warming up.

My sketch of the Pantheon. I think I switched perspective points about three times so please forgive the awkwardness.. Still warming up.

Route: Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Piazza and Church), Pantheon |(tombs of Raphael and Vittoro Emanuel II, former King of Italy) and Piazza della Rotunda, Area salra Delargo de Argentina, Jewish Synagogue Museum, Temple to Hercules (formerly Vestal temple), Temple of Fortunes, Basilica di Santa Nicola in Carcare, Teatro di Marcello, Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin which holds the Bocca della Verita/Mouth of Truth, Circus Maximus, and later stumbled upon Campo dei Fiore and Piazza Navona on our way back to the Pantheon.

Roman Mornings was first published in 1956 by James Lees Milne. It recounts eight buildings in Rome as examples of certain eras of Roman history. They are mostly churches, and today the most significant historical sites we visited were two of those churches. In the vein of Roman Mornings, day three of Derive a Roma took us on a historical tour of the city, because if one is looking to read into the layered and conflicted history of a deeply religious and powerful empire, look no further than the buildings which house her faith.


In studio in January, we did a series of case studies based on the interpretation through lenses of stories, strata, and streets  “in such a way as to illuminate the dialectical character of the historical process: one that yields a specific built morphology and a truly unique built entity, and one that is to be found in only one place.” Rome is the perfect place to address through these lenses because it is full of myth, has a visibly layered historical strata, and winding streets that relate directly to papal planning processes. Today, I am interested in strata because it best depicts the multi-layered filo pastry that is Roma’s past. The strata of her churches begin on Pagan foundations overtaken by Christianity, converted from circles to crosses.

Although these churches tell the story of conquest and persecution of religion, faith is the reason that their structures are still so well preserved to this day. We began our day at the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome, and even then only on the interior. Lees-Milne explains:

“One of the most remarkable things about mediaeval architecture in Rome was its almost complete resistance to Gothic elements. This is the more strange when one recollects that the Gothic style is wholly derivative from Catholicism, of which the fount and seat was Rome itself… In the middle ages the city was still so rich in classical remains, in columns, entablatures, capitals and marble details of all sorts, legacies overlooked or spared by the succession of depredations made on classical monuments throughout the dark ages, that there was little need for builders to tax their creative powers. Through the long millenium there was very little new architecture at all and constant alteration and adaptation of old buildings.” — James Lees-Milne, Roman Mornings, Romanesque, Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Being a huge fan of Gothic churches, I was surprised by this fact, and pleased to know that there was at least one, even if it was built on an ancient temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The hint of what lies beneath comes from a Bernini obelisk in the adjacent piazza. The obelisk is carried by an elephant, seemingly happy to have found itself by the Pantheon on it’s way from Africa to the North Pole.

Bernini’s Obelisk outside the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva’s unassuming facade.

Two other churches we visited today explain Less-Milne’s point very well: Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin and Basilica Santa Maria Nicola in Carcare. Situated about a block apart from each other and separated by two carefully preserved ancient pagan temples, Carcare was also built on pagan foundations, and Cosmedin was “not truly Roman, Lombard, or Byzantine, but a protracted evolution of all three styles.” Caught in the transformation of a great empire between two religions, the churches illustrate a careful set of decisions to preserve and conserve specific pieces and versions of history, including remains, materials, and art.

Santa Maria in Carcare. Note the columns and porticoes still evident from the previous church.

The beautiful mosaics in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

Interior shot of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin taken over the choral barrier. The wall used to separate those worthy of witnessing a worship from the common people and women during mass, which was usually given in latin, a language they did not understand.

Taking a step back, one block northwest of the small marble oliphant in Sopra Minerva lies one of the greatest architectural works standing to this day: the Pantheon. Originally built in the 2nd century AD as a pagan temple (hence the name Pantheon, or multiple) to the great Greco-Roman Gods of Venus and Jupiter alike, it was converted into a Christian church in 608, thereby preserving it’s beautifully domed structure and it’s famous keystone-free oculus. Lees-Milne uses the Pantheon to open his book as an example of Ancient Roman architecture, although the story it tells is much more than that of an ancient Rome. I presented Milne’s take on the Pantheon, and here were the most important/interesting facts:

  •  The structure mimics that of a cube, as it stands 140 ft. tall and 142 ft. in diameter. It can fit a perfect sphere inside.
  • The supporting circumference of concrete is in places, 20 ft. thick. It is actually not one continuous mass but instead eight separate piers with weight relieving arches.
  • The sixteen columns supporting the portico are monolithic Egyptian granite, meaning they are each made of one. Piece. of. Stone.
  • It appears bare because all of it’s valuable ornament has been stolen and repurposed into other structures. 60 years after it’s Christening, the gilded bronze in the dome was removed, not to be redone (without gilding) for 700 years. Bernini used bronze beams originally from the Pantheon’s portico to create the Baldiccino in St. Peter’s Cathedral.
  • The Pantheon also uses materials pilfered from other churches.
  • When it rains in the Pantheon, the water drains to the centre directly underneath the oculus to a small hole the width of my finger, but in extreme cases would likely drain to the circumference of the structure because the weight of the walls has depressed the ground they stand on over hundreds of years.

Approach to the Pantheon from behind, with scale.

The inside of the Pantheon’s domed roof.

My sketch of the Pantheon. I think I switched perspective points about three times so please forgive the awkwardness.. Still warming up.

The partial section elevation of the Pantheon from Roman Mornings

The way the light moves.

Where the water drains.

The Pantheon was not the beautiful Pagan church that I expected, where the sun would alight on specific gods and goddesses during the appropriate season. It was a Christian church without an apse; a tomb to two kings and a poet, with an eternal light more successful than any glass windowed church could ever hope to be. Two close, two quotes that I feel describe the magical aura that once existed and that I had hoped to see in the Pantheon:

“Whereas the gothic cathedrals of the Christian builders were aspirant — their pointed pinnacles and spires reaching to the highest heaven in joyous praise of a beneficent Almighty — the Pantheon was meant to be propitiatory. Instead of striving to epitomize in stone the supreme attributes of a single celestial god, the architect of the pagan shrine endeavoured to devise a worldly habitat which the elusive Roman deities might condescend to visit from time to time… a microcosm of that limited universe which the Roman civilization understood…” — James Less-Milnes, Roman Mornings, Ancient Roman, The Pantheon

“Here lies Raphael, whom Nature feared would outdo her while alive, but now that he is gone fears she, too, will die.” — Inscription on the tomb of the Artist Raphael

Roma 2 | Religion, Sacred Belief, and the Symbol

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Problems of proportion evident in my interpretation of St. Peter's Square

Problems of proportion evident in my interpretation of St. Peter’s Square

Route: Metro A line to Vatican City, Piazza San Pietro, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basicila’s Duomo (dome), Museo Vaticano (Vatican Museums), back to Piazza San Pietro.Each day, we are meeting in front of a different Obelisk (a tall square pyramid strucutre like the Washington memorial) in Rome. today, we met at the Piazza of Saint Peter to prolouge our journey into the holy land of the vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica was founded on the remains of St. Peter, as most churches in Europe are, based off of reliquaries or pieces of remains of famous saints or Christians. Having anticipated Bernini’s collonades, the scale did not shock me as much as I thought it would. What did was the ornament. Every single inch of the Vatican, save for the city walls, was covered in some form of ornamental tile, print, design, gilding, etc.

How small is man in the arms of God?

I asked myself this many times today. We took the Metro for the first time to Vatican City, the smallest sovereign country in the world. No passport necessary. Things I learned today:

  • The question refers to scale. In the most important house of God, the answer is, man is tiny like an ant but larger than his own head.
  • Standing/walking in a museum for four hours is more tiring than climbing 323 narrow stairs.
  • The first of many attempts to discern respect and compliance for the beliefs, practices, and places of a religion I do not believe in.

I have never been a religious person. I think that once, I sat in the clerestory of a mass in Edmonton when I was three years old. I remember nothing. I was raised on what my parents might call a blend of Confucianism, Buddhist principles, superstitious idioms, and common sense. Last summer I think I came closest to finding some connectedness to something outside of myself, appropriately named yoga, the sanskrit word for union. But if the closest thing I knew to a place of worship was a hardwood floored, white-walled yoga studio with tea lights capable of holding seventeen people, I was in for a tiny shock in Rome.

We saw a total of 17 churches in Rome, 2 of which were pagan and not used for worship, 1 of which was a synagogue, and 9 of which we entered. Arguably the most important church of all, St. Peter’s Cathedral is purportedly the house of the Saint’s actual remains, which is what sets Cathedrals apart from regular churches: their relics. When you approach the church form the Piazza, it only seems appropriately sized and relatively “normal” a) due to the amount of people swarming the square taking pictures, crossing over, and waiting to enter the church, and b) because you have not walked up to it yet. This is what happens: Churches are interesting places to talk about experience. Their whole purpose is to facilitate a sacred experience through the reenactment and storytelling of previous ones linked through symbolism. But for someone to whom the symbols have no signifier, or at best, one that holds no personal meaning, this experience is not intended. It is instead replaced with a veil of doubt. The interpretation of art for arts sake. Awe and wonder and hundreds of variations of marble making up tens of larger than life sculptures of dead popes. Columns you cannot wrap your arms around because they are meant to wrap around you.

I can see Michelangelo’s Pieta and admire the loving gaze of Mary, but felt more rush, bustle, and elbows than I did trying to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

I can gaze up at the marble baldiccino but cannot take it in without feeling pain my neck, unable to focus on any part of the lovely frescoes in the Duomo because they are too far away.

I can try to enter a chapel to quietly observe but can be shooed out for silence, for sacredness, for my shoulders.

I can walk through a church clockwise and still feel wonder at it’s architecture, it’s affect, and it’s light.

Religion has never embittered me like so many I know, yet I will remain a skeptic because I have found a greater purpose, peace with myself, and learned lessons like compassion and forgiveness without the aid of a book and a priest. I know how to show and feel gratitude to people, to situations, to things, and I thank myself because I know myself. I can take responsibility for my actions in words and feelings and learn from them without a confessional. I admit that I respect other beliefs, but it does not mean I will understand. Yet because I do not understand does not give me the right to disrespect. It was strangely peaceful in Vatican City. Sounds pretty Disney, but in whatever form they manifest, I do believe that at the heart of every religion is love, no matter how wide or honest your columns are.

” ‘Whether or note you believe in God,’ the camerlengo said, his voice deepening with deliberation, ‘you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith… all faiths… are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable.” — Dan Brown, Angels & Demons