Travelling on the ground – by train through early 20th century Sweden with no hat

I am travelling on the ground again – this time in Sweden, but somehow still with direction Rome. The sun is rising outside the window over still green summer fields. I am on my way to Engelsberg manor and ironworks, founded in the 17th century and a Unesco World Heritage site in Västmanland, Sweden, where I am about to participate in a seminar focusing on the Swedish research institutes in Rome, Athens and Istanbul. Changing trains in Katrineholm and Västerås, I will eventually be picked up by car at the train station in the small village Ängelsberg and transported to the manor. This, and a message from the organizers that almost no Internet and mobile phone network is accessible at the site, lends no slight Bridesheadesque aura to it all, and I feel the severe fault of not having brought a hat of any kind. On the other hand, that aristocratic, secluded elite-notion is exactly what the seminar aims to counteract: after the crisis last autumn, when the Swedish institutes in the Mediterranean were under threat of losing their economic support from the Swedish state, one of the main aims is to spread information about the activities of the institutes to all parts of society, and erase the common misconception that the institutes constitute luxury havens for linen-clad archeologists (with hats) drinking wine in the southern sun.

Since I am so easily influenced by anno dazumal-atmospheres, I brought my Baedeker’s Schweden und Norwegen from 1906 along for the trip (which will take exactly 5 1/2 hours from Gothenburg to Ängelsberg). The first edition came 1879, when, as stated in the preface, the German Reiselust for Scandinavia arose. The whole book is based upon travelling by railway. In fact, this was a time when the railway in Sweden reached its maximum spread, with many smaller routes and stations have later been closed down again. This, the late 19th century, was the period when so many small railway towns emerged, flourished, only to lose importance and population again when their railway stop was suspended in the later 20th century. This was the era of the grand hotels; every town had its city hotel (stadshotell) – magnifique and ornamented buildings at the central square in the city center, where restaurants and ball-rooms attracted both travellers and locals – as well as one or several railway hotels near the station. When I flicker through the pages of the guidebook, it amuses me to see that several of these hotels still exist today, and often have preserved much of their original interiors; I get the urge to from now on always only stay in hotels mentioned in 1906. What is more, the principal train routes in Sweden still, of course, follows the late 19th century tracks, and so, it is really possible to travel through Sweden in style as if the twentieth century still was ony a few years old. For example, the train I am now on, the Gothenburg–Stockholm train, forms an important itinerary in the guidebook, with all the stops on the way, and their hotels, listed: Alingsås has a city hotel, Herrljunga a railway restaurant, Falköping a railway hotel with restaurant (”gut”), Skövde has Hotel Billingen (where I actually have stayed once, when attending a pop concert in Skövde Cultural Centre), Laxå has railway hotel and restaurant, and so have Hallsberg and Katrineholm, the important knots between the south and west main railway lines through Sweden. In Katrineholm, I will change trains and head north, and it remains to see which route that train will take – I will let that be an adventurous surprise, my 1906 Baedeker in hand.

Hotel Billingen, Skövde (Wikimedia Commons)

Hotel Billingen, Skövde (Wikimedia Commons)

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Au revoir to Switzerland. Ghosts and bodies, dreams and memories.

When our stay at Foundation Hardt drew near its end, we went to the Baron’s tomb in the far end of the garden to say thank you. Baron Kurd von Hardt had been a very present character during our week in his villa. References were made to him frequently, we lived among his works of art and used his furniture, a portrait of his mother hung on the wall in the salon, his diplomas on another wall, and a shortened version of his name constituted the password for the wifi. Some said that the ghost of the Baron used to haunt his old bedroom; I, who stayed in that room, saw no trace of any Baron shadow, apart from that I sometimes woke up at night without knowing why, but immediately fell asleep again. On one of the last days, rumours reached us that someone several years ago had seen a secret art collection of erotic nature in the attic. The secretary claimed not to know anything about it, and that nothing of the sort existed in the attic (though we were not allowed to see the attic). Instead, he suggested that if any unknown art of the Baron’s existed, it would probably be stored away in one of the cupboards in the Baron’s room; that was, my room. I had not noticed before that the cupboard to the left was locked – the other cupboards had been more than enough for my small Swiss wardrobe. At once, a delegation led by the secretary knocked on my door, and the key was put into the cupboard lock. The door swung open, and heaps of framed pictures were revealed inside – though, to our disappointment, they depicted nothing spectacular, only the common Piranesi engraving and other similar things, and the delegation went downstairs again.

It had been very easy to get used to the luxury and beauty of the Foundation. John Steinbeck once wrote about Positano in Italy that ‘it is a dream place that isn’t
 quite real when you are there and becomes 
beckoningly real after you have gone.’ With the Foundation, I found it was the other way around. It soon seemed perfectly normal to trot down the wooden stairs, so polished that they seemed slightly golden, for breakfast each morning, to wine and dine on the terrace, to charge one’s computer on a rococo sideboard and to play ping pong in the dark garden after sunset. It seemed quite everyday to chat about catacombs at dinner as the aroma of crème brulée spread from the kitchen, and to lunch on lamb and have berries and lemon sherbet for dessert while hearing the latest gossip about some Roman principe or the Agnelli family. It is now, when we have left, that it all seems but a dream, the villa where we stayed from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, the villa hidden away behind walls and yet with the welcoming gesture of a gate always kept open.

When, after the last ping pong game of the last evening, we went in the dark to the Baron’s tomb, we almost expected him to materialize out of the quite Gothic atmosphere – he didn’t, although Sabrina very politely thanked him in good French for his hospitality. Next day, when I packed my things in the Baron’s room, I found a small shell in my suitcase which I once had collected on the beach of Ostia outside Rome. I felt that I wanted to leave a trace of my stay, and so I hid the shell inside the mantelpiece. When I looked up again, one of the doors to a small wooden Renaissance cupboard had suddenly opened by itself, a cupboard which I had not used during my stay. I curiously looked inside, but it was empty. I closed its door again and wondered if it finally was the Baron, discreetly saying goodbye.

We took the train home from Geneva, via Basel and the night train ’Comet’ from Basel to Hamburg. I read in my newly bought La Repubblica about the shooting on the Paris train – I realized that I had not read any news whatsoever during the week in Geneva. My thoughts wandered further to an article I recently read about migrants who have come over the Mediterranean sea to Italy, and continue their journey to the north via train, if they succeed in getting a train ticket from the providers of clandestine journeys. Dressed up as normally as possible and with no luggage, they hope to manage to get to their destination without being stopped by the police on the way. I saw some of these travellers on my last train ride from Rome; they changed trains in Munich and asked me for help about their reservations – they could not decipher a word out of their tickets. A mother and her small child; two young boys. In Fulda, I saw them being led away by police late in the evening, and it hurt to think that the only thing I had done, or could do, to help them was to show them their seats, which turned out not to be theirs at all. And I thought of the very force, when one has nothing, to put one’s body somewhere, on a train, on a platform in Fulda, and even if you have nothing, and no passport, when you are on the ground of a country, that country must act to help you, or arrest you, or send you back, or put you into a temporary shelter. The very presence of a body, whoever it is and wherever it is, is demanding and cannot be ignored.

My thoughts wandered on to tourist hoards in Rome or Venice, irritating clusters of bodies that are in the way, and crowd the street that you wanted to have solitarily and picturesquely to yourself. Bodies that bring with them only sweat and dust (as it was put in an article about the exposedness of the artworks in the Vatican Museums), bodies that noone wants around, if it wouldn’t be for the fact that they may have some money to spend. Places and bodies, bodies whose existence cannot be denied. When you stand before the Colosseum, you are a monument in the same right as the monument you are beholding, and so are the tourist groups around you and the dressed-up gladiators and the paninibibitegelati-sellers. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to travel freely, to move from place to place without being arrested by the police, and we may feel as if we tread very lightly on the ground and leave nothing behind us when we go to another place. But the imprint of our bodily presence is somehow left where we once were, whether we want it or not, and whether we place a shell within a mantelpiece as a small token of physical remembrance or prefer to only utter ’merci, au revoir’ in the dark under the trees, words that dissolve and float away like smoke and shadows.

The Baron’s room.

The Baron’s room.

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The orangery

When our two workshop days at Foundation Hardt were over, I realized that I had not left the grounds of the villa since we arrived. The breaks between work-hours and dinner had been too short to do anything else than rest, and besides, a slight Zauberberg-feeling looming in the beauty and secludedness of our temporary home made it seem too big an effort to exit the gates. I had not seen much of Geneva and its surroundings on the way here – from the taxi, I had only caught a glimpse of the lake, the mountains, the city quarters, the square cobolt-blue suitcases in the Prada shop window. I had no particular idea of exactly where we were or how to get into town, I hardly knew in which direction the lake was, and the large trees in the small park screened away any view apart from some shady Alps just seen from the terrace. My world was defined by the high walls over which figs, kiwi and grapes clung and cascaded; soon after dinner the sun set and the August darkness put everything to rest. It was perfect for our aims, but when the concluding discussion on the last workshop-day was finished, everybody suddenly felt the need to escape outside.

The orangery.

The orangery.

It was sunny, yet still cold. The orangery of Foundation Hardt, where the formal parts of our workshop were held, lay in the shade in the far end of the garden, and the sun never quite got to warm its stone walls. While the high trees had been gently waving their green cloaks far above us, filtering light and sprinkling shadows through their leaves, we had been struggling with our texts and definitions, our questions and our conclusions, and when I later saw the orangery from afar, it was as if our discussions still presided there, and our thoughts floated under the ceiling. The orangery had changed from a place where something was about to happen to a place where something had happened, a place where we had met, and thus immediately had gained importance from this fact. And maybe just because of that we now felt the urge to wander. Some of us would leave already the next day, so time was short. Some were going at once, some were to meet at twenty to six, some decided to stray away somewhere in between, but the one goal everyone wanted to see was the Villa Diodati (for the legends of Villa Diodati, see previous blogpost here). As in a confusion comedy, we all crossed each others way somewhere on the short distance to Villa Diodati: I met Sabrina and Stefano at the meadow with the splendid view near the villa, we spoke for a while about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley while the boats went back and forth on lake Geneva below us; when my friends had left, and I headed home, I met Frederick, Mikael and Anna on their way down.

I went alone to Villa Diodati, because I wanted to encounter it alone. I wanted to gain my first impressions of it without company; I wanted a tête-à-tête with this possibly enchanting place. But when I found the gateposts with the name of the villa engraved upon them – just as I had seen in photographs – and saw the villa itself, just another villa with a lake view, I felt nothing in particular. It was beautiful, but it did not speak to me – I beheld its beauty in an objective way, but my inner feelings were silent. The lettering on the gateposts was the only thing that gave the place any personality. I took a picture of them and went away.diodati

I have often thought about why some places have such an effect on us, and why some don’t, and I reflected on that again when walking back from Villa Diodati (more hastily than I would have wanted, in order not to miss dinner at 7). I have thought about why we expect, or hope, to feel when we encounter monuments and sceneries, and what it is that we expect to feel. Guidebooks and travel literature overflow with assertions of emotions and instructions for being overwhelmed. It would be a severe fault to stand at a view-point in Rome and to feel nothing. To see, and to feel; to see something never seen before, something more beautiful or more grand than ever before, and to respond to that with the proper emotion. Already the guidebooks of the 12th century assure that the buildings in Rome are larger than any other, and that the ancient marble sculptures are so lifelike that they seem to breath. Thus, it seems that travellers want to be overwhelmed – what would the point of travelling be if one remained totally indifferent? But often, grand buildings just make us feel small, and beautiful sceneries make us feel insignificant. Or we just don’t feel anything, take a photograph and leave. Since I so often have pondered over this, both during my own travels and within the Topos and Topography project, I no longer get disappointed when my feelings fail to show. I just register the fact that this experience did not strike me; not this time, not at this hour, maybe next time, maybe never. I have learnt that these particular feelings cannot be predicted, and that their fashion of showing up quite unexpectedly in fact forms part of their impact.

I recently read an article in Harper’s Bazaar where the author described a visit to the musealized home of the Brontë family. ”I didn’t mean to be a pilgrim”, it starts, and neither was Erica Wagner, who wrote the article, a particular fan of the Brontës. But when she saw the tiny writing desk of Emily Brontë, she was hit by emotion, and surprised by her reaction, because she had not expected it. She was affected. When I read that, I remembered a similar experience of mine when visiting Sissinghurst, the home of writer Vita Sackville-West, who happens to be one of my great heroes. Sissinghurst is today famous more for its garden than for its former inhabitant; I did expect the garden to be beautiful, but did not expect to meet something of Vita herself there – the memory of her was kept in her books, and in the books about her, I thought. The garden was beautiful and stunning, but when I climbed the stairs of the fairy-tale brick tower which hosted her library and writing room, with every step higher I was overflown with emotion. Even before I had stared through the fence into her dark library with all its books and works of art, even before I had seen her little book stand, and a bunch of flowers put there by some loving invisible caretaker, I felt that I approached the person Vita, that she was there, and that climbing the stairs of her tower was like entering her mind and existence. I was taken by surprise, just as the unwilling Brontë-pilgrim, and I did not know what to do with this sudden overwhelmedness, so I took a photo and went away, as I did at Villa Diodati – but in that case, the photo is all I keep, while from Sissinghurst, the memory of my emotions will last, and the photo, which I found in my Dropbox archive, becomes unnecessary.

The tower at Sissinghurst, seen from the garden.

The tower at Sissinghurst, seen from the garden.

The library of Vita Sackville-West.

The library of Vita Sackville-West.

The places, and what they do to us when suddenly a connection is made. It happens so fast, and it happens so slowly. It happens when we are alone, and it happens in the middle of a crowd. Sometimes, the very fact that we have been together in a place charges it with this connection; sometimes, our emotions erase everything and everyone around us as if we were alone with our monument, even if we stand in the most frequented sightseeing spot in the world. If I return to Foundation Hardt, the orangery will forever keep the memory (just as in some old evergreen song) of our workshop there, and our journey together through a cold summer in Switzerland. On our last dinner, in a speech when the crème brulée was half eaten, one of our invited guests read the following quote aloud from Madame de Staëls Corinne, or Italy (1807):

”When Oswald and Corinne set out the next day, they were confident and at ease. They were friends who were travelling together. They began to say we. Oh, how touching it is when lovers say we. What a declaration ot contains, shyly and yet eagerly expressed! ’So, we are going to the Capitol’, said Corinne. ’Yes, we are going there’, replied Oswald, and his voice was so sweet and tender that it said everything with those simple words. ’The top of the Capitol as it is today is the place from which we can easily have a view of the seven hills’, said Corinne. ’Then we shall explore them, one after the other. There is not one of them which does not preserve some traces of history.’”

I was so touched by this that I almost shed a tear on the crème brulée. It was the perfect quote. We had been sitting in an orangery in a garden in the middle of nowhere, we had been discussing Rome and travels to Rome, we had been travelling together, and all this hade made us into a we, but had also made the orangery into the monument of our experience and the vessel of this memory. But to someone else, it would just be an orangery – beautiful, and certainly worth taking a photograph, but then go away.

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”Be happy, be happy, be happy.”

When we arrived in Geneva, it was still cold, but sunny. The train between Zürich and Geneva had brought us from a more austere, alpine landscape into hazy-blue Mediterranean surroundings. Lake Geneva suddenly appeared to the left of the train as a glittering reminder of the villa that was waiting for us on its shore, the villa which we were going to have all to ourselves for a week, during the last workshop of the Topos and Topography project. This was to be the first time that we did not meet in Rome, and the first time that we were going to present our first drafts of the texts for the final publication of the project. And, as I remarked to Stefano when we dragged our heavy suitcases down the stairs at Zürich central station, it was the first time that we actually travelled together. We had been tourists in Einsiedeln, we had come as a sort of pilgrims to the abbey library, and now it seemed only logical that we should undertake the last leg of the journey to Geneva together. It was as if travelling together had made us more of a group, more of a we than we ever had been before, our train tickets kept together in one single folder.

The terrace of Foundation Hardt.

The terrace of Foundation Hardt.

The taxi stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, on Chemin Vert, a small street quite rightly surrounded by greenery, on the border between Coligny and Vandœuvres, two suburban residential villages outside Geneva. And in the midst of the same greenery I am writing this on my very last day at Foundation Hardt.

Within minutes after our arrival, we sat at the dinner table together with the director of the Foundation, professor Pierre Ducrey. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, we talked about Latin literature and other sublime subjects while having the most exquisite meal under the chandelier of one of the most lovely places I have ever visited. The art, the furniture and the interior decoration was all preserved from the period when Baron Kurd von Hardt, the founder of this institution, still lived in the house, and spindly, gold-framed Roman engravings, dark glossy still life paintings, marble sideboards, pastel-coloured upholstered sofas and speckled oriental rugs formed the scenography of our little evening tableau. As a child of the modern age and of moderate means, the only thing I could associate to was a museum. We are inside a museum, and it is wonderful; these marvellous things are here to be admired, to be looked at, but not touched. But when professor Ducrey told us about the ideology of the Foundation, I suddenly understood that it was quite the other way around. ”This is your Foundation”, he said in his utterly pleasant manner; ”the Foundation belongs to you. You will have whatever you need when you need it. In the park outside, you will find animals and birds; in the garden you will find fountains and flowers of all sorts. Be happy, be happy, be happy!” To be instructed to above all be happy, to be reminded of joy and the pleasantness of nature – I don’t know if I ever have experienced that in academia. We are too often confined to rather depressing ambiances, square and bleak rooms dominated by entangled electric wires, curtains of undescribable quality, worn floors, and furniture in non-sustainable materials, as well as to too few teaching hours, too large student groups and what have you, and we have to rely heavily on our phantasy for evoking the spiritual landscape of our studies. Academia is not the place for gold-diggers in the literal sense. But thanks to the odd patron, places such as the Foundation Hardt exists, which give researchers with precarious working conditions a chance to for a short while enjoy a safe haven and peace of study, and the serenity that is what brings great ideas alive (competition and strife about the few fixed academic positions available is, I can tell you, and contrarily to what some would like to argue, the one thing that surely will kill every fragile butterfly of an idea, create dissidence and bitter conflict, and eventually hollow out the freedom and diversity of academia). From professor Ducreys words, I realized that this magnificent villa was not a museum, but actually the backdrop of our workshop, the scene for our discussions and the playground for yet unknown ideas and future plans. And it has not at all to be about luxury. It would suffice with a green lawn like this, a small, chuckling stream or a fountain, and a few high trees for a cool green shade on a hot day; in short what in ancient literature would be called a locus amoenus (”a pleasant place”), the place where poetry and philosophy comes to life.

Flowers in the dining room of Foundation Hardt.

Flowers in the dining room of Foundation Hardt.

And so, when going to bed that evening in my yellow ochre coloured room, I was feeling a slightly bit nervous about the start of our workshop the next day, but when I saw the bright red dahlias in the flowerbeds outside my window shine through the dark, I repeated to myself: ”Be happy, be happy, be happy.”

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The weight of manuscript no. 326

We met pater Justinus outside the Hofpforte at ten in the morning. It was still cold and grey outside, and we had laboriously ascended the steep slope that divides the abbey from the worldly Klosterplatz below with a horizon of hotels attentively gazing up onto the church. We followed pater Justinus to a small door behind which a long, whitewashed cloister corridor led us to a staircase, and suddenly we stood outside the doors of the library. It was impossible not to feel that we were on some secret mission, hurrying in concentrated silence through the white corridor after the long Benedictine monk in his long, black garment. The whole sojourn in Einsiedeln so far had been about waiting for this moment, and somehow my senses had been put on hold until now. But when we proceeded into the abbey, an ocean of emotions and piercing sensuous signals started to rush forth. Everything stood out in detail, the black and white of our surroundings, the light falling in from the windows on the left, a glimpse of a basket field outside, photographs from anno dazumal exposed on the wall to the right (an early 20th-century student in sport clothes, posing with a cigarette; men in masquerade outfits; the notion that a certain sense of humour seemed to prevail inside the abbey walls). It was as if our hasty walk through the corridor was the detail-filled narrative of a story, stylistically meant to catch the interest of the reader and to rise the expectations of what was about to come. Yes, it felt like acting out a story that magically wrote itself while we were living it. And the doors to the library was the final page to turn.

When pater Justinus opened the door, I immediately knew that I was entering one of the most beautiful rooms I had ever seen. I knew it because of the smell. It was like being inside the most luxurious pastry-shop in the world. The aroma of sugar and sweet vanilla and meringue simmered in the air amongst the bookshelves, where parchment and leather bindings gleamed as brightly as ever the macarons of Ladurée. The light on the wooden floor was so merry, the stucco decorations so joyfully applied, the shelves in a rococo dance along the walls and whirling up towards the ceiling. All my fears of the Cloister Claustrophobia vanished into thin air. This was a place of pure happiness.

The Einsiedeln library (Wikimedia Commons)

The Einsiedeln library (Wikimedia Commons)

Pater Justinus told us briefly about the story of the library and the importance of library work for a Benedictine monk. According to the rule, a monk is supposed to spend two to three hours each day reading or writing – so it was in the tenth century, when the abbey was founded, and so it is now, though pater Justinus admitted that he seldom got that much time each day; he had far too much to do. As an academic, it is easy to relate to the reading and writing being the core of one’s everyday existence, but it struck me as a beautiful way of focusing on the process, not the goal. The hours spent reading are worth something in theirselves; the hours spent writing is an action that has meaning in every stroke of the pen, not only in the finished result or the final publication. It is so easy to feel that whatever you write, you are always too late. You should have been writing it weeks ago, the deadline has already passed, and you should be writing something else instead, or you discover that someone else already wrote that. But for the writing in an abbey library, all that is of less importance. The true value lies in the aim and the action, and the greatest value of all may be to carefully copy what someone else has already written.

”But now”, pater Justinus said, ”I am going to fetch the manuscript for you”. He went away for a brief moment and returned with a cardboard box that he placed on a long wooden table. His white hands disappeared into a pair of white cotton gloves, and he picked up a small book from the box. The Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326. When pater Justinus displayed the first pages, and carefully placed a thin cotton-clad metal chain onto the book to keep it open, I already knew what it would look like: the manuscript is consultable online, on the homepage of the Virtual manuscript library of Switzerland, where it is reproduced so well that the pages actually look better that in reality. I already knew on which pages the itineraries through Rome are described, and on which pages the inscription collection is transcribed. On some of the pages, a later hand (the anonymous scribes are technically referred to as ”hands”) had sketched an actual picture of a hand, pointing to interesting parts of the text. And as pater Justinus turned the pages, and my un-gloved hand pointed to other interesting passages of the text, past and present hands, imaginary and real hands, visual and textual hands mingled together, all pointing in the same direction: to the oldest preserved guide to the city of Rome.

2015-08-17 10.37.06

Pater Justinus told us that there for some reason had been an enhanced interest in this manuscript recently. He had already shown it to specialized visitors several times this year; it had been to Aachen and to St. Gallen for exhibitions, and it was going to Salzburg for another exhibition soon. We asked how it is transported when on loan, and pater Justinus said that he usually wraps it up carefully and puts it in his briefcase, delivering it to its destination (when it went to Aachen, though, it had been transported in a safety box). To imagine pater Justinus on tour with this little book, a book written to be on tour and written for travellers, added yet another layer in the millefeuille-story that is the manuscript no. 326.

When time was up and we had to conclude the manuscript examination, someone said: ”Anna, you should hold the manuscript just once before we leave!” Pater Justinus agreed, lent me the gloves and I was given the book. I did not dare to open it, and I probably should not have done so anyway since it was not resting on the table, so I only held the small volume with both hands. My only thought was: ”It is rather heavy to be so little”. When I touched the book, it became suddenly only physical, a small block of tigthly pressed parchment pages, a square object of a certain weight. Suddenly, it was not the object of my research and the core of our study on the history of guidebooks to Rome. It was a square, weighty object, which had been carried, held and lifted by so many before me, known and unknown, by Einsiedeln monks, by Pfäfer monks and Reichenau monks before them (when the manuscript yet had not come into possession of the Einsiedeln library), by a certain Ulricus de Murtzuls in the 14th century (whose signature is in the book, and thus is the only identified owner of the manuscript), and perhaps even carried into and out of the city of Rome.

2015-08-17 10.46.24

When we left the library and walked out of the abbey through the same little door where we entered, these were the impressions that stayed with me, imprinted into my senses rather than my memory: the sweet smell and the bright colours of the library, and the weight of the manuscript – at the same time both quite literal and deeply symbolical. A couple of hours later we boarded the train towards Zürich and Geneva, and when we started to descend through the mountains and the Zürich lake appeared, the sun broke through. It was going to shine all the way to Geneva.

 

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On Foreign Ground

The Einsiedeln Abbey.

The Einsiedeln Abbey, Switzerland.

Yes, it is a very cold summer indeed, I thought when crossing a grass field early this morning while the rain came and went, forcing me to wrap my scarf around my head in a way that could be applied to various kinds of religions. From where I stood, I could behold the Einsiedeln abbey from a distance. Surrounded by clouded hilltops, it was silent, enclosed, fortresslike. I have a strong inclination for claustrophobia, and it seems rather etymologically correct that monasteries and cloisters often produce this feeling in me, rather than conveying an atmosphere of seclusion and pious, scholarly peace. I saw the majestic abbey buildings from a distance, an outsider and stranger alone in the morning rain, and thought about that in a couple of hours, we would enter the monastery library to do what we came for; to examine the manuscript no. 326, for centuries protected from the world by stone walls and misty mountains.

The day before, we had arrived in the village of Einsiedeln in a cacophony of sound. Outside the railway station, a group of street organ players in folkloristic clothes were playing and singing; as we rolled our suitcases over the cobblestones of the Hauptstrasse, it sounded like a thunderstorm, and when we had checked in at our hotel at the Klosterplatz, immediately in front of the gigantic façade of the abbey church, the bells started to ring, as they would do every second hour and during such a long time that the sound almost became paralyzing.

Our research project, Topos and Topography, has guidebooks as its special focus. New ones, old ones, used ones; works of various periods from the Middle Ages and onward with one aim: to help the poor stranger, lost in a foreign place, with no idea about how to behave, where to go, what to see and how to get there. It is out of this need, this emergency situation, when the travellers just have started to wonder why on earth they did not stay at home, and what the use of travel really is, that the guidebook tries to come to their aid with all its seemingly dull and dry descriptions and prescriptions.

When we entered the Einsiedeln abbey church yesterday afternoon, we did so without guidebooks. Thus, we almost missed the very centre of attention inside the church, the chapel to Our Lady of the Dark Forest; we had no clue about when the salmon pink stucco decorations were made, or where the little door to the left of the choir may lead, or when next mass would take place, or whether Christ and all the angels really assisted at the consecration of the church in 10th century or not. Eventually, some of us bought guidebooks to the church at the entrance, but did not get much wiser from that since they were written in a very densely composed German. Just as in a rather boring museum, I started to feel that my feet were a little sore, and began thinking about whether to buy some Kräuterlikör in the cloister shop or not. My body protested to the situation with tiredness and ache, and my mind typically tried to solve its anguish with thoughts of shopping.

The madonna of Einsiedeln.

The madonna of Einsiedeln.

When time had come for dinner, we did not know where to go. Almost every restaurant seemed either too expensive or too bad. When we decided for a place, the Swiss specialities on the menu and their names were both problematic and hilariously funny, AND expensive. We did not get any napkins, and noone knew what napkin is called in German. Food and wine arrived, and our first Einsiedeln evening together became as nice as ever when we get together – only that this time, we were not on our home ground, Rome, a place we all know very well from years of visits and various research projects; we were on foreign ground. We were strangers. We were tourists! We were a group of tourists.

When the church bells started to roar again at 05.30, I seriously asked myself why we had come to Einsiedeln. The hotel could not in any way be described as nice; late in the evening before water had started to come UP from the shower sewer rather than the other way around, Internet was not working, though the receptionist said it worked, and dizzy from the long train journey from Sweden I felt that the whole building was swaying, while the bells rang and rang. So when I got up and went for my desperate walk over the rainy fields outside the village, I wondered if this detour of ours really would prove to be worthwhile. But when we met outside the Hofpforte at ten o’clock, I knew that today would be different. Today, we would not be strangers. We would be insiders…

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The Adventures of a Cold Summer

The flamboyantly dressed man in the photo below is Baron Kurd von Hardt (1889–1958). The pale woman in the black dress is the author Mary Shelley (1797–1851).

Baron Kurd von Hardt (from the homepage of Foundation Hardt)

Baron Kurd von Hardt (from the homepage of Foundation Hardt)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840). (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840). (Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks to Baron von Hardt, I am going to take the train to Switzerland on Saturday to meet my fellow colleagues of Topos and Topography (the project on the history of guidebooks to Rome, about which you can read here) in the small village of Einsiedeln, south of Zürich, in the Schwyz canton.

But how is Baron von Hardt connected with Einsiedeln, and what’s Mary Shelley got to do with it? The answer is a tale of beautiful coincidences, manuscripts and mystical revelations, and begins in the building below.

The Einsiedeln Abbey (Wikimedia Commons)

The Einsiedeln Abbey (Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday afternoon, our research group will meet in front of the Einsiedeln Abbey, a majestic benedictine monastery with origins in the 10th century, and it has been active ever since then – very active, buzzing through the centuries with monks, scholars, saints and pilgrims. The monastery library contains around 250,000 items – books and manuscripts – and on Monday, we are going to get a guided tour in the library, with one very special manuscript on the agenda: the one in the photo below.

Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326 (xx)

Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326 (www.e-codices.unifr.ch)

The manuscript no. 326 is tiny. A page measures 12,5 x 18 cm – a pocket book of a sort. On Monday, we will be able to look inside this treasure, and read what may be the oldest guidebook in the world, a guidebook to Rome, written around the year 800. This is one of my study objects within the Topos and Topography project, and to see the manuscript with our own eyes and (hopefully) touch it with our own hands (as medieval beholders of wondrous things used to express it) is an inevitable part of our aim to identify the birth of the guidebook genre.

But Einsiedeln is only a stop on the way of our Grand Swiss Tour. After having examined the manuscript, we will take the train to Geneva, and that’s where both Baron von Hardt and Mary Shelley enter the picture.

In 1816, the so-called ”year without a summer” (due to a cold climate as a consequence of a volcano eruption), lord Byron, Mary soon-to-be Shelley and Percy Shelley spent some rainy weeks in Geneva, telling ghost stories to each other during the evenings in Villa Diodati. Here, Mary had her waking dream experience of a re-animated corpse, a vision which a couple of years later would result in the publication of her novel ”Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus”.

Villa Diodati, Geneva (Wikimedia Commons)

Villa Diodati, Geneva (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, just a few hundred metres away, just around the time when the gothic tales were told in Villa Diodati, another villa had recently been built. This house is today the location of Foundation Hardt, created by Baron Kurd von Hardt as a research center for Classical Studies in 1949.

Foundation Hardt (image from the website)

Foundation Hardt (image from the website)

Here, the last workshop of the Topos and Topography project will be held next week – we will, as an utter luxury, have the place all to ourselves, and discuss our articles and research results about the history of the guidebook. Who knows what visions may come to us late at night, strolling in the garden or leafing through books in the library…

The journey, our Swiss Grand Tour, promises to be representative of the joys of academia when at it’s best – to travel, experience and discuss together with gifted researchers, to explore new and exciting views both metaphorically and literally, as well as to enjoy splendid isolation, immersed in books and peaceful thoughts.

Can you resist joining us, sailing beside us on the swift waves of the Internet? If not, simply stay tuned! Soon, the adventures of a cold summer (well, without any volcanic eruption it really has been an unusually cold summer so far here in the north) are about to begin…

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Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to Porta Maggiore, eighth part

Starting point: piazza di S. Martino ai Monti 


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                  In dextra:

             Sancti Vitalis

Sancta Pudentiana. Et sancta Eufemia            Palatium iuxta Iherusalem.

Palatium Pilati. Sancta Maria Maior                Hierusalem

                                                                        Amphitheatrum


Dear friends and fellow itinerarists!

When we last met, we admired some of Rome’s best medieval towers in piazza S. Martino ai Monti, but now we’d better be on the move again! We have a final climb to do before we reach our far-away goal, Porta Maggiore. The ancient Clivus Suburanus, which we followed uphill on via in Selcis, continues straight across the piazza in via di S. Martino ai Monti. In this section of the itinerary, there are a lot of monuments along our way, and the manuscript starts off by indicating that the church of San Vitale should now be on our left hand. This church is actually quite far away from where we are, along via Nazionale of today. Via Nazionale is a modern thoroughfare, but the church is aligned along the ancient vicus Longus, which crossed the modern via Nazionale at the 19th century building Palazzo degli Esposizioni, next to San Vitale. The church, consecrated already in the early 5th century and founded on an earlier titulus Vestinae, is today located several steps down from street level, and it feels as if one literally climbs down into the past to enter the small, dark portico, which, parenthetically, may be as old as the oldest church building. The church was restored in the late 8th century by pope Leo III, so we can rest assured that it was quite shiny and newly decorated when the Einsiedeln pilgrim went by. Sadly, not much from the medieval period survives inside the church, so the portico is the nearest we can come to the medieval experience we are seeking.

The portico of S. Vitale.

The portico of S. Vitale.

Also rather far away is our next landmark to the left: the church of S. Pudenziana. This church, in via Urbana, is of even older origins than S. Vitale: it may have been founded as early as the second century CE, but more certain is that it was restored already in the end of the 4th century, and again by pope Hadrian I in the late 8th century. Tradition has it (in the martyr legend of S. Praxedis, the sister of Pudentiana) that the church was built upon the baths of Novatus in vicus Patricius (coinciding with via Urbana of today, yet another of the charming streets of Monti), baths which are otherwise unknown from literary sources. In excavations during the 20th century, a bath complex from the mid-second century CE was excavated beneath the church – the church building had made use of a basilical hall of the baths. The conversion of the hall into a church may, according to the useful A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by L. Richardson, not have occurred until the fourth century – yet how fascinating it is that archaeology sometimes can prove even the most vague and seemingly unreliable literary sources! The apse mosaic of the church is one of the oldest to be preserved in Rome, and dates from around the year 400; it is heavily restored, but nevertheless leaves an impression of what our Einsiedeln pilgrim saw in S. Pudenziana (when the frescoes were already around 400 years old…).

With our next landmark to the left, we encounter one of Rome’s few definitely lost churches – rather an exception than the norm, spoiled as we are by the fact that nothing ever changes in this city, and that nothing is destroyed, but always reused, in what must be the most splendid example of historical sustainability, if we would coin an expression for it. The small church of S. Euphemia is mentioned for the first time as restored by pope Sergius I around the year 700, and a century later – in the period of our itinerary – it was embellished by gifts from pope Leo III. It was demolished in the late 16th century, when pope Sixtus IV made via Urbana broader; yet remains of the church were seen as late as 1650. On the map of Leonardo Bufalini from 1551, the church is marked out along the vicus Patricius, and today, it would have been situated just where via Urbana and via Panisperna meet, probably at the flat-iron-shaped building which now houses a pharmacy.

The church of S. Euphemia, near S. Pudenziana, in the map of Bufalini.

On our right hand side, the itinerary tells us that we should see Palatium iuxta Iherusalem (the palace near Jerusalem) and Hierusalem (Jerusalem). Apart from the nice example of medieval spelling variants of Jerusalem (the letter H caused a lot of trouble for medieval writers, since it was not pronounced), it was probably evident to the medieval reader that ”Jerusalem” equalled the church S. Croce in Gerusalemme (in Latin s. Crucis in Hierusalem). The church of S. Croce was founded by Constantine in the imperial palace Sessorium, built by emperor Septimius Severus in the beginning of the third century CE. The church was dedicated to the relic of the cross that Constantine’s mother, Helena, who resided in the Sessorium, had brought back from Jerusalem. The name Sessorium was still alive for a while in the medieval sources, in forms such as Suxorio or Susurrio, but the Einsiedeln itinerary has dropped it for the easier ”Palace near Jerusalem”. Now, the church of S. Croce is quite a bit away from where we are standing – as you can see on the modern map below (Google Maps estimates half an hour by foot to get there). But these regions should have belonged to the so-called disabitato during this period, with not much new settlements, and rather few ancient monuments compared to the dense city center, and so it might have been that the towering ruins of the Sessorium could catch the eye of the medieval pilgrim.

The route from via Urbana to S. Croce as suggested by Google Maps

The route from via Urbana to S. Croce as suggested by Google Maps

In fact, ruins of the Sessorium palace can still be seen today – and indeed, the ancient ruins get quite a new fascination when you imagine that they were admired by so many before us during the centuries, and Rome through the eye of the Einsiedeln pilgrim is still there all around.

The Sessorium palace. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sessorium palace. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another landmark near this conglomerate of buildings is, as we read in our itinerary, Amphitheatrum. Not many of the common visitors to Rome may know that there actually exists another amphitheatre in Rome apart from the Colosseum. Smallish and sweet, built in the early third century CE, it hides away just beside the church of S. Croce. In the late third century, it was built into the Aurelian city walls, and its arches were walled up.

The Amphitheatrum Castrense and the city walls.

The Amphitheatrum Castrense and the city walls (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 16th century, the theatre was deprived of its second story, and in that state it was depicted in an engraving by Etienne Duperac in 1575.

Amphitheatrum Castrense. Engraving by Etienne Duperac (Wikimedia Commons)

Amphitheatrum Castrense with S. Croce in the background. Engraving by Etienne Duperac (Wikimedia Commons)

But before we dwell too long on the monuments far from our itinerary, we have some landmarks to our left to turn to. The Palatium Pilati, palace of Pilatus, has caused some trouble for the interpreters of the Einsiedeln manuscript, since a palace with this name is not known from other sources or archaeological remains. Ferdinand Gregorovius, the great medievalist of the 19th century, suggested that it may be the Augustan Macellum Liviae (market of Livia) near S. Lucia in Ortheo, not otherwise mentioned by the itinerary – but we already passed by that area; others have meant that it could be a misunderstanding of the peculiar toponym ad ursum pileatum, ”by the bear in a hat”, which surely is rather nearby, but instead a bit further on along our itinerary (we shall encounter this bear and his hat in our next promenade). Judging from where we are supposed to stand right now – quite near the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, which also is the next landmark to our right, I think we should look closer around us to get a clue to this enigmatic palace. Some scholars has then remarked: Why does the itinerary not mention the church of S. Prassede, which we are passing right by on our way along via di S. Martina ai Monti? The church is probably as old as its sister-church S. Pudenziana, and it was restored by pope Hadrian in the late eighth century, and should thus have been of interest for the Einsiedeln pilgrim. My theory, then, would be that the palace of Pilatus was a structure which in some way was connected to the church of S. Prassede, and that the mention of the palace equalled the mention of the church – but that is just another theory, and we have to return to the more safe landmarks on our way, such as S. Maria Maggiore mentioned above. Founded by pope Liberius in the fourth century, it was restored by pope Sixtus III in the fifth century – and from this period, the magnificent mosaics that overflow the church were made. Once again, we can watch through the eyes of the medieval pilgrim exactly the same (well, though often a bit too restored) wonders in gold and bright colours that our Einsiedeln friend saw.

Mosaic in S. Maria Maggiore (Wikimedia Commons)

Mosaic in S. Maria Maggiore (Wikimedia Commons)

I just adore these gravely solemn sheep impatiently parading in front of the jewel box of Bethlehem; don’t you agree that it is the perfect spot to take a little rest and behold this medieval splendor before our exit into the sharp sunshine of Rome and the grand final of this long itinerary? After all, we have been to both Jerusalen and Bethlehem today… Au revoir!

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The perfect ruin. Destruction, reconstruction and romanticism

In Rome, ruins are impossible to avoid. They are everywhere: grand, small, insignificant, victorious. In Rome, the ruins may be greater than anywhere else, but also the smallest stone is a bearer of history; even the tiniest potsherd on the ground is a potential object to interpret and preserve.

Therefore, when I read André Gide’s novel The immoralist, the sentence ’I started to avoid ruins’ struck me particularly. The protagonist of the book, a classical scholar, has started a journey away from ’books and ruins’, away from conventions and society; he exhorts himself to carpe diem, to live in the present, and follow his real desires (this, parenthetically, of course destroys him in the end).

My own relation to ruins has changed several times over the years. First, as an ambitious student, I was eager to understand the ruins of Rome, and by understand, I meant to reconstruct the monument or building in detail and to depict this reconstruction with my inner eye. This aim most often failed, and I found myself in despair in front of the Forum Romanum, defeated by the myriads of marbles in their scattered and mysterious universe. I wanted sentences, chapters; all I found was mutilated letters and mute erasions.

Forum Romanum, November 2007

Forum Romanum, November 2007

Then, on a warm November day in 2007, something happened to me as I took a stroll over the Forum. I had no special errands, I just happened to be there, and I had my camera with me. As I started to take pictures quite randomly, I suddenly began to see the ruins and the marble fragments as physical forms, almost as individuals: their colour, their shape, their surface. The columns came alive and spoke to me; they felt much closer than when I had regarded them only as remains of something lost. I can still feel the effect on my senses that this autumnal promenade produced, and from then on, I often wandered through Rome with my eyes open and my mind off-duty. Stratigraphies, dating criteria and building phases meant less to me – I only saw colours, shapes, surfaces.

Later still, my perception of ruins changed again. The more familiar I had grown with the topography of Rome, the more possible it became to widen my vision in the way I had wished for earlier, but had not managed. Now, I saw ruins not as singular objects or isolated monuments: rather, they became longitudes and latitudes of a culture, of a period; like the pattern of heart-beats on a monitor they marked out directions, regions, movement, interaction, conflicts and connections. Especially evident is the case of the medieval itineraries of this blog: moving along the routes with both eyes and mind in action has made me understand the structure of medieval Rome much more deeply than I could have imagined.

What is a ruin? The very word comes from the Latin verb ruere, which means collapse. Ruina, the noun, signifies the falling down, the collapse, but also the result of the collapse: the debris, the remains. Thus, the etymology underlines the actuality of the destruction process: the building falls, and becomes a ruin. Normally, when any old barn in the countryside falls into decay, the ruinous process just continues until earth and greenery has taken over completely. But what happens when we try to preserve ruins?

In the Middle Ages, the ruins of Rome gained a new status as symbols of not only the destruction of ancient Rome, but also of the greatness that once was Rome. Hildebert de Lavardin wrote in the 12th century: Par tibi, Roma, nihil, cum sis prope tota ruina; Quam magni fueris integra fracta doces. ’Equal to you, Rome, is nothing, though you are almost entirely a ruin; broken you show, how grand you were when you were intact.’ A certain master Gregory, known only by name, who wrote De mirabilibus Urbis Romae in the 12th or 13th century, described the ruins of Rome as the greatest, highest and largest things he had ever seen: he is drawn to the magnificent, and cheers when he finds out that the remains of the Baths of Diocletian are so huge that he cannot throw a stone higher than their towering walls (one can imagine him trying, as one of the small staffage figures in the vedute of Rome from the age of engravings). The ruins became temples to the cult of Rome, symbols not of decline and fall, but of the eternity of great things past.

What is a ruin? How do we perceive it? How do we use it? What do we need it for?

In the Middle Ages, apart from the occasional ruin-induced emotion, as described above, ruins were viewed quite pragmatically as something that could be reused. An ancient monument could be turned into a fortress; the immense vaults of a theatre or a stadium could house entire churches or habitations. The ruins were not static, not eternal: they were remodelled and reshaped (and thus, paradoxically, preserved for later times – in the words of Renaissance poet Janus Vitalis: immota labascunt, et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent, ’the immobile falls, and what is in perpetual motion remains’).

The Renaissance and the following centuries continued this practice, albeit on a larger scale: urban planners and monument makers without remorse deconstructed the ancient ruins, and left them in an even more ruinous state. Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini, as the saying went (’what the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini family did’). But the ruins of Rome were great enough to survive also this assault, even if a few disappeared from view in this period, for example the baths of Constantine on the Quirinal hill and the baths of Alexander Severus east of piazza Navona.

It was, as is commonly argued, the Romantic era that first formed the view of ruins that still is in vigour today. With Romanticism, a concept of ruins similar to that in my ’phase 2’ of ruin perception was born. A ruin all of a sudden was a monument in itself, a monument that had a specific form and expression and that evoked emotions as grand as the ruins and the memories that lingered around them. But that did not mean that the ruins were entirely static: shrubs and plants were gladly allowed to overgrow them; their fragility and ongoing decay was perceived as symbolic of the vanitas of all worldly things (a thought originating already in the Middle Ages).

Then came the 20th century, and the 21st. Never, I believe, has so much change, both physical and mental, taken place over such a short period. Never has so much been destroyed, but also reconstructed and recreated, since we nowadays (hopefully) are ruled by a feeling of guilt if we destroy what earlier generations have built. We have invented cultural heritage, something that is global and belongs to all, something that carries the memory of history and humanity, and in its physical form represents values that must not perish. This has left us with the summon that the ruins of the world must be preserved, in order to keep the bonds with what is important to us. The cultural values are eternal, and therefore we strive to preserve the ruins as eternal monuments of these values.

But eternity is always problematic. The long-since excavated walls of Pompeii start to crumble, while at the same time large parts of the site still is unexcavated, and thus protected from our culturally interested intrusive influence. What tourists bring with them to a site is mainly sweat and dust, I read in an article about the Vatican museums, and these things are very noxious to the sensitive cultural heritage. With our interest and enthusiasm, we slowly ruin the ruins that we have decided to keep at all costs.

When I write this, the threats to destroy Palmyra in Syria are imminent. Syria, the country I always wanted to visit but never did, the sites I always wanted to see out of my romantic love for ruins. My friend Valeria once gave me a red scarf from Syria, and each time I wore it I dreamt of the wonders of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra, ’the Venice of the Sands’. Palmyra now faces the risk of disappearing into the sands of the desert just as Venice gradually sinks into the lagoon. The city of Palmyra may be destroyed again, although it is already destroyed, collapsed, ruinous. I am reminded about my early stages of studying Latin, learning that when the Romans won, they not only conquered, vicerunt, but rather ’conquered thoroughly’, devicerunt. The destruction of something already destroyed hits us as hard as the destruction of something intact. We wanted the ruins to stay eternal, immortal and unchanged although they already signalled to us that all things must perish. We put so much effort in preserving the ruins, that we sometimes overdo things and destroy by too much restoring and retouching. And if Palmyra would be destroyed, should we rebuild it? How does one reconstruct a ruin? Can Diego della Valle’s philantropic money prevent the Colosseum from falling, and thus Rome, and the world?

When the ruin falls, what world is falling with it? ’In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay’ – or is the ruin here to stay?

Forum Romanum, November 2007

Forum Romanum, November 2007

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Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to Porta Maggiore, seventh part

Starting point: via della Madonna dei Monti, 68



Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                  In dextra:

SUBURA

Monasterium sanctae Agathae               Sancta Lucia in Ortheo

Sancti Laurentii in Formonso            Sancti Silvestri et sancti Martini


Dear friends, fellow itinerarists,

it is time to take up our trail again through the almost painfully picturesque Monti region, where, as we soon shall see, the modern streets are laid out exactly in accordance with the pattern of the ancient and the medieval ones (for the most part). And, as my private theory goes concerning of the Einsiedeln itineraries, this somehow seems to have produced some of the most pleasant areas in Rome (apart from the fact that they also are the most interesting, intriguing and exciting…). Maybe there really lurks a certain Stimmung from the past here, as well as along the other itineraries, which colours the atmosphere with sepia and makes the evening shadows soft as velvet, and the morning air fresh with dreams and promises. And maybe you will agree with me after having tried the itinerary concept out once again here today, be it in imagination or on the very street stones of Rome.

Traces of a medieval portico in via della Madonna dei Monti.

Traces of a medieval portico in via della Madonna dei Monti.

So this is where we start: at one of our usual medieval ’signifiers’, as you can see above; a column from some medieval portico, which at a later point was turned into a Renaissance portal, and later still the suggestive wooden door, timeless and age-old at the same time, was added. Add some green leaves, and it does not get more picturesque than this…

Moving along up via della Madonna dei Monti, which we learned last time is the Roman street Argiletum, we soon get to another, more unusual signifier. It has been suggested that the small, free-standing house to the right just after no. 68 could be one of the oldest still inhabited houses in Rome, and dating at least to the 11th century. We have spotted the typical, narrow medieval houses during previous itineraries, with a door and a shop on street level and two windows on each floor; but this is different. Here, we could, with a little extra fantasy, see a remnant of a typical Roman domus, with a series of square shops facing the street, and living quarters on the floor above. Since we know that Julius Caesar grew up in this neighborhood, we can now let our imagination swirl a little around the fact that his house could have looked something quite like this. And since there is, at present, a small café in the very building, you could even experience the building from the inside. And, as an almost inevitable bonus-information to the modern pilgrim: hidden behind the house is the small courtyard where you can admire the 21st century fresco depicting a second Julius Caesar of a sort: Francesco Totti, star of AS Roma football team, born and raised in Rome, although in a district further to the south (which we will have the pleasure to encounter in a later itinerary…).

The ’oldest house in Rome’ on via della Madonna dei Monti.

The ’oldest house in Rome’ on via della Madonna dei Monti.

But let’s now take a look at what our itinerary tells us. We know already, as investigated during our last promenade, that we find ourselves in the rather vast Roman Subura region. But as our itinerary presents it, we should now have something called SUBURA right in the middle of our way, as some kind of separate monument or spot rather than a whole region. Moving along, I find it possible that, at some point of time during the Middle Ages, the name Subura started to signify a place rather than a district, and this place could very well be the piazza della Suburra of today. And we will reach this piazza if we continue up via Leonina and end up at the entrance to the metro station Cavour, named after the modern street that at this point cuts our itinerary. As if it were an echo of this possible reinterpretation of the toponym, the house to the right of the piazza actually has a small sign on its corner, saying SUBURA.

On our left hand side, the itinerary now instructs us that we should have the monastery of S. Agata and the church of S. Lorenzo in Formoso. Both of them are there, but we could not have seen them from our itinerary – and we should imagine that this area was as densely built in the period of the Einsiedeln manuscript as it is today, and was during Antiquity. So, if we would like to see the monastery and the church, we would have to make a short deviation from our route. As for today, that won’t be necessary – we have much too interesting monuments ahead; but standing here in piazza della Suburra I will just tell you briefly about them. The church of S. Agata, in some medieval sources actually called S. Agata in Subura, was founded in the fifth century, and its monastery was created in the time of pope Gregory II (715‑731): thus, it must have been a rather recent construction when the Einsiedeln pilgrim passed by, and that fact furthermore signifies that this area was considered important in this period. It is located on via di sant’Agata, which turns left from via della Madonna dei Monti rather early on. The next church, S.Lorenzo, is today called in Panisperna: the exact date for its foundation is unknown, but we know from the Liber Pontificalis that it was restored by pope Hadrian I (772‑795) and that it was enriched with gifts from pope Leo II (795‑816); also this gives us a hint about the activities of the neighborhood precisely in ’our’ period. It is located in the homonymous via Panisperna, which runs parallell to the route we have been walking, a couple of blocks to the north.

Let’s now have a look at what we will find on our right. The church of S. Lucia with the strange addition ’in Ortheo’ is announced as our next landmark. And this will lead us into one of – in my Einsiedeln-biased opinion – the absolutely most interesting and beautiful streets of Rome. We will just have to cross via Cavour, and then enter via in Selci. Now, what is it about it that makes it so special? We have now left the Argiletum, but we are continuing on another Roman street, the clivus Suburanus, translated as ’the slope of Subura’. But – we are also entering a map; a very old map in marble, from the very heart of Roman Antiquity, the so-called Forma Urbis. This large marble plan of Rome, also called the Severan Marble Plan from its creation under emperor Septimius Severus in the beginning of the third century CE, was fixed to a wall on the Forum of Vespasian, and found in myriads of fragments when the Forum was excavated. This magnificent map, measuring 18 x 13 metres, sketches out in detail every street, every building, but more than that: almost every room and staircase, in a system of lines and dots in combination with inscriptions that give us the names of temples and monuments. In short, the map is indispensable for the understanding of the late antique city of Rome, and the only bad thing about it is that it by no means is preserved in its entirety. The holes and gaps are many, and so we are left to guesses in many cases. But not here! We now enter a part of the city where several fragments can be combined into a detailed view of parts of the Clivus Suburanus.

Forma Urbis fragmentIn the image to the left, which is taken from the excellent website of the Stanford Forma Urbis project, you can see our street, via in Selci, crossing the fragment diagonally from the left upper corner to the lower right corner. And on each side of the street, there are rows of small, rectangular spaces, with openings onto the street. These are ancient Roman tabernae, shops and workshops, where freedmen often had their small businesses, bought and sold, manufactured and mixed. In the lower right corner, you see part of the large complex Porticus Liviae, but today we want to stay on a smaller scale: it is, really, the tabernae that are the more interesting in this particular case. And why? Because they are still visible. Many of the small square shops on each side of the street are modelled on the Roman remains, and when you get to the top of the slope, the ancient walls are discernible to the right: Roman shops, turned into medieval shops, and then built into a high wall which belongs to our landmark, the church of S. Lucia.

Ancient and medieval wall structures in via in Selci.

Ancient and medieval wall structures in via in Selci.

In the image above, you can see the ancient travertine pillars, the vaults that have later been filled in with large tufa blocks, and the ancient and medieval brick-work towering above, while a group of rather young itinerarists passes by, rather unaware of the historical significance of the wall behind them. The wall belongs to the monastery of S. Lucia; the church was founded in the seventh century by pope Honorius I (625‑628), and restored in the end of the eighth century as well as in the beginning of the ninth. Below, you can see the façade towards the street in an 18th century engraving by Giuseppe Vasi.

S. Lucia in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (18th century).

S. Lucia in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (18th century).

The strange name of the church, in Ortheo, is a medieval misinterpretation of in Orpheo – marked out on the marble plan in another fragment is the monumental fountain of Orpheus, known from ancient sources and located just a bit ahead, in piazza di S. Martino ai Monti – and yes, it is in this piazza that we’ll find our next and last landmark of today, the church of S. Silvestro and S. Martino. The church, which turns its apse towards the piazza, was founded already in late Antiquity, but restored in the period of the Einsiedeln itinerary by our familiar, diligent pope Hadrian I. And, we are now flanked by the most magnificent medieval ’signifiers’: two wonderful medieval towers: torre dei Capocci to the right, and torre dei Graziani to the left. Built in the 12th century, they guard this route, which was of continuous importance from Antiquity and during the Middle Ages.

The church of SS. Silvestro e Martino and torre dei Capocci.

The church of SS. Silvestro e Martino and torre dei Capocci.

We have been heading uphill all the way, and if you want to, rest your feet a little in the shadow of the medieval towers. I will pop down to via in Selci and meet a friend who has her ceramics workshop in one of the ancient Roman tabernae. Ciao!

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If you want to know more about the ancient roads in the Subura, I highly recommend this article by prof. Simon Malmberg, member of the Topos and Topography project!

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