Alessandro Torresi: Wanderers / wonderers through the Roman night

At night, when people fall asleep, the city wakes up and starts to live. And this is particularly true for Roma. There is something mystical about this eternal city which seems to transcend the reality we live in. Only at night, when the streets get empty and there are no tourists wandering through the narrow alleys and hidden corners of the city, you can truly feel what it means to say: “I am in Rome”.

Roma is a protective mother who guides us from street to street, ancient palace to ancient palace, in a perpetual quest to understand the essence of our fragmented life. And as we walk, we might notice lonely and adventurous wanderers who are stuck in the same quest. And as we pass each other, we feel our nostalgia growing, even if we don’t know why. It is like we are aware that we are missing something in our lives, or that we can never fully have it: but the melancholy caused by a lack of love, success, or happiness is heartened by the warm arms of Roma.

Roma is a protective mother who cannot be fully understood. You feel loved, you feel protected, but you cannot fully understand why. You just know that you must keep walking and you must keep passing people by. Roma is unreachable, because thousands of years of history are shown off with pride every inch of the city, but you constantly sense a decadent presence that confers to the city a folksy halo.

Roma embodies the ‘Cabiria’ character in Fellini’s “White Sheik”. When the bourgeois character Ivan is sitting at night in an empty square, crying because his wife has snuck off to meet her soap opera idol, he is the lonely vagabond who’s oppressed by social conventions. And when he is lost for words, in despair, the prostitute Cabiria suddenly appears, whose only way to show love and support is by making jokes and by keeping things light. Cabiria and her friend Assunta look at the pictures of Ivan’s wife, making silly but loving comments, raising Ivan’s spirit up. Roma, as Cabiria, will never take you seriously, but it will always make you feel comforted and at home.

A still taken from “The White Sheik” where an open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

A still taken from “The White Sheik”, 1952. An open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

I become that adventurous wonderer every time I have the occasion to visit Roma. Coming from a very small village located in Southern Italy, I have cultivated, since I was a child, a fascination for Roma. The capital was just a four-hour drive from my village, but my family and I were not used to travelling a lot. So, when we visited our cousins in the city it almost felt like we were travelling to the other side of the world. Roma was on the national newscast every day; Roma was the place where my fellow countrymen were going to try their luck to find a job; and Roma was the city where my older cousin was attending University. There is a very special unsaid tradition in my family that tells you that every time you leave the village, you have to wave goodbye to every relatives’ home. And I remember those moments, when my cousin had to return to Roma, as heart-breaking and painful, feeding my view of the capital as “The” destination with no return. Even today, although travelling has become a more common thing for me to do, when I visit Roma, I feel in the same way I used to feel when I was a child.

Last August, for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my family and I decided to take a two-day trip and there couldn’t be any other destination but Roma. We arrived in the late afternoon and we were supposed to leave the following day after lunch, so we had just one night. I was really looking forward to walking through the city centre when I could have spent some time really enjoying the empty city.

It was 3 am. While my parents and my brother embarked on the impossible mission to find an open ice-cream parlour, I ventured to walk around Piazza di Spagna. I climbed the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps and, reaching the top, I was dazzled by the view: the city enlightened by hundreds of tiny yellow lanterns. It reminded me why I love Roma so much. You can get bewildered by the grandeur of the architecture, but you never feel uneasy.

On the way to re-join my family, I suddenly felt observed by two stone hollow eyes. It was like being trapped in one of those oneiric scenes of Fellini’s movies. The city was alive, and it was peering at me. I instantly remembered when I visited the Cinecittà film studios for the first time and I got hypnotized by the majesty of the Casanova’s Venusia. This massive sculpture of a crowned head, which had been made for the opening scene of the movie directed by Fellini in 1976, now stands at the entrance of the historical studios. The hollow eyes that confronted me that night were, in fact, just the entrance of the Hertziana Library of Zuccari Palace, one of the largest History of Art research sites in Europe, but I really had the impression that the huge mouth of the creature was a magical portal to enter a parallel Roma. A photograph by Anthony Kersting held in the Conway Library as G19688 captures this strange doorway.

Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari, in Via Gregoriana, Rome. By Anthony F Kersting.

Two furious eyes reveal the entrance of Zuccari Palace, Rome. Photograph by Anthony Kersting, “Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari Via Gregoriana, Rome. KER_PNT_G19688. The Courtauld.

It is funny how an elusive glimpse can take you to impossible places. But this feeling is quite common when you visit this unique labyrinthine city. It is the atypical and the bizarre that transform Roma into a human, into a mother. The intrinsic contradiction between the sacred and profane, between the solemn and familiar is the blend that continues to attract hundreds of wanderers every year. If you arrive alone, you will have the city to keep you company. The towering fountains, the cramped cloisters, the wide arcades, the charming churches are a multitude of faces that will guide you through the city, that ascends to the eternal because every vagabond will leave a peace of their soul that will live the streets forever. And at night, when it’s just you and the city, strange miracles can happen.

Muny Morgan: Stepping Back in Mind, South East Asia

Audio version

Read by Tianyu.

Text version

Looking at Anthony Kersting images from the Conway Library at first glance took me back to my youth. It’s fascinating how a photograph – familiar or unfamiliar – can conjure up images of your experiences from a period in your life. It might do so directly – capturing a specific detail of a known building – or indirectly – by having a similarity with another place entirely. Almost like an aroma, or perfume, it can take you back to a specific memory, experience, time or place.

When I make this statement, I am referring to this image of Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok.

Bangkok, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G28266, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Although at first glance I thought: “this is the temple I visited on one of my many trips to Bangkok whilst residing in Singapore”, it occurred to me that I saw so many temples in Thailand that I might be mistaken. It was only after going through my personal, disorganised archive of photographs that I could confirm that it was indeed the same one, although I couldn’t locate the image of the reclining Buddha inside the temple.

Image of the temple taken by Muny Morgan. In it we can see the golden spear behind the protective walls.

Image by Muny Morgan.

When I looked at the images I selected for this blog, they took me back to a period in my life when I had just completed my postgraduate studies in Architecture. At the time, there was a recession in the UK and the building industry is often one of the sectors that are negatively impacted first. There were no jobs for budding, enthusiastic, young architects with no work experience, like me. But this took me, thankfully, to my first job abroad in Singapore, where I lived and worked for two years, and from which I could travel around South East Asia.

The images taken by Kersting in Singapore took me back 20 years in an instant. I recall my weekend walks (in the extremely high humidity temperatures), searching for the historical context of colonial architecture, contrasting with the dizzying heights of banks, hotels and condominiums that tower over the domestic-scaled “shop-houses” on this tiny sovereign island city-state in South East Asia.

St Andrews Cathedral, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30646, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

An image of a rugby and football playing ground, with skyscrapers rising in the distance

Cricket Ground near City Hall, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30645, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Old Supreme Court, now National Gallery, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30640, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Kersting captured St Andrews Cathedral, white as icing on a wedding cake, and the Cricket Ground near City Hall, where you could envisage, under colonial rule, a game of cricket being played. These were all on my daily route to the office I worked in, as well as the Old Supreme Court which was the last building to be built in the Classical style in the former British Colony. This building is now part of the National Gallery.

Image by Muny Morgan.

I marvelled at the way this island expands at such speed from a construction perspective and at the amazing architecture that exists. The skyline continues to progress and increase in density, and the structures become more and more challenging. For this reason, this is a place I always want to revisit.

The last time I was fortunate enough to travel to Singapore was ten years after I had worked and lived there and I couldn’t believe the number of new buildings that had emerged. 

Image by Muny Morgan.

It made me think of the images of places that have been recorded in history and time, buildings that have disappeared forever due to wars, human intervention and natural disasters, many of which are captured in the Conway Library.

Photography is an important tool for recording places and people as they are in a particular time. This makes the Conway Library, and other photographic archives of this kind, vital to reconstructing our heritage and history and makes the efforts to digitise it and present it to the public even more important. Preserving these items is to preserve that time and place forever, making it accessible to all across the globe, enabling research and consultation for whatever purpose.

Sat here in London on a rainy November day during lockdown 2, exploring Kersting’s photographs was a wonderful moment of escapism that transported me in an instant from my current burdening thoughts and worries to memories of the past. It made me feel more hopeful for the future, during a year of overwhelming disruption and changes to life as we know it.

Finally, for readers looking to spend some time with a good book on memories and olfactory triggers, I recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German writer Patrick Süskind.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Emerging from the emulsion: Milton Hall chinoiserie

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text version

On Thursdays we have an evening shift for those volunteers who can’t participate during work hours. Sarah, our Volunteer Coordinator, is here for that shift but I am not, so on Friday morning I go through the Capture One sessions to see what the team’s been up to. It’s so impressive: the images the volunteers create are just fantastic, they all learn so fast and their contribution to the project is amazing.

This morning I came in and looked at the last image they took. They were digitising 17 x 22cm glass negatives from the Kersting archive and this one shows a very ornate chinoiserie bedroom.

KER_NEG_W1248

Before the project started, in order to find out more about the bedroom I would have had to go through Anthony Kersting’s ledgers, find the right entry, and decipher his handwriting – which is something I am particularly bad at – but now, thanks to our volunteers’ efforts, all I need to do is search for the negative number in their transcription.

According to Kersting, this is a picture of Lady Fitzwilliam’s bedroom in Milton House, which he took the 10th of November 1959. Further research reveals that the building’s name is in fact Milton Hall, and that there aren’t many images of it available online. So here is a preview of what is to come once the Courtauld’s  photographic collections become available on our website: zooming into the image we can see some wonderful mother and child scenes in the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper. Enjoy!

Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Milton Hall, wallpaper detail. Anthony Kersting archive. The Courtauld Institute of Art.