Going slow or flying fast – instructions for promenades in Rome

In Madame de Staël’s novel Corinne, or Italy (1807), when the protagonists of the book are heading for Tivoli, lord Nelvil drives the four-horse carriage himself and enjoys the speed of the drive, since ”speed seems to enhance the sense of being alive”. As I stood on bus 628 this morning, and held on to the handrails the best I could as the bus jolted its way through Rome, I thought about that quote and about how accurate it was. I’ve always loved going with great speed through Rome, be it on a bus on the verge of mechanical breakdown or in a taxi, because I love seeing Rome and its monuments, crowds, and houses swirl by as a colourful and heady carousel. I love the speed because it not only conveys a feeling of being alive, but also a sense of not giving a damn. I am on my way, and therefore I’ll leave behind whatever comes my way in order to get to my faraway goal. But the sense of being alive can also very fast turn into a bolt of fear, when the night bus speeding along the dark and empty Lungotevere or a taxi on the motorway towards the airport suddenly goes too fast, and the speed of life is substituted by the fear of actually losing ones life in an instant.

On that bus, I started to think about fast and slow, and what they do to us and our perception of life. When I go to Italy by train, I prefer to think about it as slow travelling, because the whole journey from Gothenburg to Rome takes more than 30 hours. But at the same time, the train I am travelling with, be it a German ICE train or an Italian Freccia, is going by 240 km/h or so, and the feeling one gets is rather of flying across the yellow fields of Toscana and through the dark green hills of Umbria. When in a plane, which in reality moves I don’t know how many times faster than the train, the sense of speed is instead dissolved into the literally thin air 30 000 ft above ground, and the aircraft seems to be hanging in the air in a slow and at times almost peaceful flight. Still, it is the fastest way to travel, but yet, as it were, surrounded by boredom and slowness: queueing to check in, waiting at the gate, waiting for the luggage, waiting for the airport bus.

Or does fast and slow in this case actually refer more to the way we experience things on our way? A day spent flying is often a blank, empty day, when we switch off not only all electronic equipment but also, in a way, our senses. A day on the train, on the other hand, can be full of experiences: watching the landscape change, listening to the languages of the passengers succeeding each other as the train crosses yet another border, changing trains at a station in an unknown city, eating one’s lunch pack as on some adventurous picnic, or having a glass of wine in the dining car. A day on the train is exhausting not because of uniformity and dullness, but because of the stream of impressions that force themselves upon us. To travel slow is to allow oneself the time to experience, be it planned or random; to travel slow is to allow time to exist, even if that also comprises periods of boredom when the train never seems to get to its destination. To travel fast is, in a way, to deny time, to refuse the existence of time, and to get that feeling of immortality as if we were out of reach of the grasp of time and thus of death. To be slow is not necessarily to be slow-witted, but rather thorough and diligent; to be fast is not always to be sharp and quick, but also negligent and ignorant. Fast is an arrow shot in haste that often misses its goal; but being slow risks to be the delayed decision that fails to grasp an opportunity.

But what, I thought, while the Mausoleum of Augustus and via del Corso sailed by outside the bus window, what about walking? Isn’t walking the slowest kind of travelling possible? Be it strolling, promenading, pacing, rushing, marching – walking can never be fast, and however much we try to hurry we fight in vain against the impossibility of speed. Rallentare a passo d’uomo, it says on the traffic sign, slow down to walking pace – and I have often enjoyed the fact the the electrical minibuses of Rome for most of the time do just that, moving not much faster than the pedestrians on both sides of the vehicle, and that speed – or lack of speed – is just perfect for sightseeing. So is walking the perfect pace of experiencing what we pass by, with the in-built function of stopping when something particularly interesting meets our eye?

In his Promenades dans Rome (1829), Stendhal wrote that there are two ways of seeing Rome: one is to observe everything of interest in one quarter, and then pass on to the next; the other is to seek each morning for the beauty for which one feels oneself disposed on that particular day, and, not surprisingly, it is the second method that is recommended by Stendhal. The first approach is of the slow, but thorough kind – the catalogists, the categorists and the collectors would prefer this kind of organized slowness, necessarily including several thoughtful stops. The other way, however, gives instead in to the movement – moving, randomly and after one’s whim, ready to change direction in an instant when an interesting alleyway suddenly opens to the left, or a suggestive column fragment appears to the right: because the slow movement allows us to constantly evaluate what instinct to follow next. And quite as Stendhal, I much prefer the second method to the first in my own promenades dans Rome – slow but dynamic, slow but curious, slow because the pace of my feet is in perfect concordance with the pace of my senses. To float like a butterfly from sight to sight, with nothing else in mind but colour, perspectives, sounds and scents, float until the feet get too heavy and the head too full of novelties. With our feet, we not only cover and survey distances, but also time. By walking, we even create time, form our own itineraries, make our own history, while on a bus we tend to feel that we instead lose time, and never get to our goal quick enough.

To walk in Rome is a theme recurring through the centuries (as investigated for example in this brand new publication), from the ancient Roman on performative tour through the city to the pilgrims striving from indulgence to indulgence, from Bartholomeo Marliano who measured Rome with his own feet and his own eyes in the 16th century, as described in his Urbis Romae Topographia (1544), to any modern tourist guidebook, which all will assure you: walking is by far the preferred way to move around in Rome.

I went off the bus just north of piazza Navona and started walking.

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Posted in The Journey to Rome, Uncategorized

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

Starting point: piazza di S. Maria Maggiore


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                 In dextra:

Sanctus Vitus             Forma Lateranense. Monasterium Honorii

                               Nympheum

Sancta Biviana

Forma Claudiana               Porta Praenestina


Dear itinerarists!

The time has come to conclude Itinerary VII, and to make our way from S. Maria Maggiore to reach our goal, Porta Praenestina, or Porta Maggiore as it is called today. From piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, via Merulana will lead us down to the axis of our itinerary, along the ancient clivus Suburanus, about which you can read in the preceding blog posts. When we find via S. Vito to our left, we are on our way again, and soon, the beautiful sight in the image below will meet our eyes.

The church of S. Vito and the arch of Gallienus / porta Esquilina (Wikimedia Commons)

The church of S. Vito and the arch of Gallienus / porta Esquilina (Wikimedia Commons)

This little gem, joining together antiquity and the Middle Ages in a bracelet of marble and brick, hides in this little street away from the busier areas of this part of town. The church is S. Vito and Modesto, also known as S. Vito in Macello. It is first mentioned as a diaconia in the end of the eighth century, just around the time of our the manuscript of our itinerary, which shows that the street we are walking was an important and frequented neighbourhood then, and that all of the pilgrims and visitors who strode around in Rome after the instructions of the manuscript sooner or later passed by S. Vito. In the centuries to come, however, this area lost importance and the church fell into ruin, to be restored in the 15th century by pope Sixtus IV.

The arch to which the church clings is called Arco di Gallieno, since it was rededicated to emperor Gallienus in the third century CE; the structure of the gate as seen today was built already under emperor Augustus. But the story of the gate goes way much longer back than that. This is one of the most important city gates in the old city walls of Rome, the so-called Servian wall, named after the Roman king Servius Tullius, who is said to be the first to include the Esquiline hill onto the city of Rome. The walls were constructed several centuries BCE in heavy and rough blocks of tufa stone, parts of which still are visible for smaller stretches around the city center. The circumference of the Servian wall was much smaller than the Aurelian wall built in the third century CE, and the ultimate ritual for any antiquity-aficionado would of course be not only to walk along the entire Aurelian wall (which, I am informed, takes about a day from dawn to dusk), but also, shorter but more challenging, to encircle the almost exstinct Servian wall through the more modern quarters that later have erased the better part of it. (See a rudimentary plan of the two walls here.)

The Einsiedeln manuscript does not, though usually attentive to inscriptions, report the inscription on the gate with the dedication to Gallienus (CIL VI.1106).

We reluctantly now must move on, but let’s take a last glimpse of the church and the arch though the eyes of Giuseppe Vasi in the 18th century:

Engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (Wikimedia Commons)

Engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (Wikimedia Commons)

The manuscript now calls our attention to Forma LateranenseForma, as we have seen, is medieval Latin for aqueduct – and Monasterium Honorii, but as these monuments are quite far from our itinerary, and also will recur in Itinerary VIII, we pass them by, and continue instead straight ahead towards Nympheum. And when walking along, we soon find ourselves in front of the large, busy late 19th-century piazza Vittorio Emanuele, surrounded by modern porticoes filled with shops and bars. It is actually the largest piazza in Rome, and its midst is occupied by a quite shabby park, and – our Nympheum. The large heap of bricks that towers over the west end of the piazza is the remains of the Nympheum Alexandri, a huge fountain built by emperor Alexander Severus in the third century CE.

Nympheum Alexandri in piazza Vittorio Emanuele.

Nympheum Alexandri in piazza Vittorio Emanuele.

A curiosity is that two marble sculptures from the fountain, representing war trophies, and commonly called the Trophies of Marius, are now preserved on the Capitoline hill, though in the shade of the sculptures of the Dioscuri placed at the top of the stairs and beginning of the piazza. Don’t forget to look for them, and to give piazza Vittorio Emanuele a thought when you do.

One of the trophies on the Capitoline hill.

One of the trophies on the Capitoline hill.

Possibly, the trophies were still in place on the monument in the time of the Einsiedeln manuscript, but that was not the main concern then. Instead, the Nympheum served as a gigantic landmark – of the type that the Einsiedeln itineraries are so fond of – at a crossroad. To the left, a way led to the church of S. Bibiana – correctly noted on our left in the itinerary – to which we will return in several itineraries to come, and so we do not have to hurry there at the moment. And to the right of the Nympheum, via Labicana led straight towards porta Praenestina/porta Maggiore. Via Principe Eugenio more or less coincides with via Labicana here, but preserves no traces either of Antiquity or Middle Ages, and is also in other respects quite uncharming – such a bore for us itinerarists, so I recommend that we instead take a tram from the piazza towards porta Maggiore.

The inside of Porta Maggiore.

The inside of Porta Maggiore.

And finally, we stand at our goal, the magnificent porta Praenestina/Maggiore, where the ancient via Praenestina lead to Praeneste in the east (today’s Palestrina) as well as via Labicana (now via Casilina) to Labicum in the Alban hills in the south. And as if that would not be enough, the city gate is also a knot for several aqueducts. The gate was originally constructed in the first century CE for the aqueducts’ sake – the Anio Novus and the Aqua Claudia ran straight through the top of the gate, and the channels are still visible – but was later incorporated as a gate in the Aurelian city walls. Three long inscriptions, repeated on both sides of the gate, record that emperor Claudius let the arch be constructed, and that emperors Vespasian and Titus restored the monument (CIL VI 1256-58). Our faithful manuscript immaculately reproduces the first two inscriptions – quite an accomplishment since the inscriptions are rather hard to read if the light is not perfect – but curiously leaves out the third.

We stand at the goal of itinerary VII, and the Einsiedeln pilgrim now probably incessantly would walk out through the gate to visit some martyr’s tomb or another – as for us modern itinerarists, if the light is fading as in the image above, I would rather suggest that we continue with the tram to Pigneto or Centocelle, where Rome’s most innovative restaurants right now can be found – don’t miss the incomparable Mazzo in via delle Rose! There (if booked in advance – there is only room for ten guests!), a beautiful evening awaits you as a reward for our long walk straight through Rome from west to east, before we start out on a brand new itinerary. Arrivederci!

Posted in Itinerary VII: A porta Aurelia usque ad portam Praenestinam

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)

Posted in Guidebooks, The Engelsberg seminar 2015

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.

Posted in Topos & Topography Grand Swiss tour 2015

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.

Posted in Topos & Topography Grand Swiss tour 2015

”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.”

Posted in Topos & Topography Grand Swiss tour 2015

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Posted in Topos & Topography Grand Swiss tour 2015