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.

Alessandro Torresi: Craco and the fascination for the abandoned

I was 16 years old when I moved to my current house on the hill in Marsicovetere, Italy. I remember that the first thing I did, after throwing my stuff on the bed, was to put on a pair of comfortable shoes to reach the tiny, abandoned stone house I could see from my terrace. I ran along a footpath by the wooded coast directly to the entrance of what I later learnt was, in the late 1960s, the humble house of a family of farmers. I imagined some children looking out from the turquoise window, spying on their parents working the land, checking if they had enough time to plan a bit of mischief. That ordinary abandoned house became a powerful spark that made my imagination and curiosity wonder and flourish.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite days of the year was Good Friday, when the entire village would walk the Way of The Cross. Through the narrow streets of the old town, we would march to reach the abandoned monastery at the base of the mountain which, once a year, became the designated spot for the representation of the last stations of the Passion of Christ. For me, the folklore of this unique day was better represented by the image of the abandoned monastery; a ruined place, inaccessible for 364 days of the year, that for just one day could be reborn as an agora (meeting place) for all the peasants.

I have always been fascinated by abandoned places and by the special mystery of worlds that could have been but, for adverse reasons, stopped accomplishing the purpose for which they were built – I bet that each one of you reading this piece has at least one memory that took place in an abandoned site. Maybe it is because we like the idea of finding ourselves in a situation of danger (perhaps we even dare to imagine being witnesses of nefarious night-time crimes). Maybe it is because everyone has felt abandoned at least once in their lives; so it’s like we can claim to be the temporary owners of places that have seen a multitude of lonely explorers stepping inside and thinking they are the first to have discovered such a mysterious spot all for themselves.

While working on the classification of the photographic collection of The Courtauld’s Conway Library on Zooniverse, a series of pictures of St. Hilarion Castle in Cyprus caught my attention. Before I could even realise, I started to imagine what it must have been like when the castle was at the height of its use as a defensive fortification during the Byzantine Era.

The first picture below shows the ruins of the cistern of the castle. What was once one of the most vital places of the site – since a high storage of drinkable water can play a significant role for an island with drought problems like Cyprus – is now a cistern of abandoned memories that cannot be re-discovered anymore. I thought about the splendour of Byzantine chapels, with their iconic coloured cupolas, and I felt a sense of nostalgia and melancholia when I saw the second picture, which shows the remains of a once-glorious chapel. St. Hilarion Castle appears to be perched up high, and its rock walls defend a past made of secular traditions that cannot be replicated. It is as if the stone walls of the third picture were hiding a mythological creature who is asleep and waiting to live again.

Of course, this is only my perception but what I really want to stress is that heritage sites like St. Hilarion Castle are fundamental for our cultural consciousness. They stimulate our curiosity towards the past, but they stimulate also new visions of the future pushing us to think about how we can avoid the same mistakes that led these beautiful sites to perish, and how can we start again.

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is blurred at the top (a finger over the lens, or maybe some fog!). In the bottom 2 thirds of this landscape oriented photo you can see an old stone wall with an arched wooden doorway nestled in the middle. The place looks like a ruin, but it's a close up shot so hard to tell what the surrounding area looks like.

St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom right on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is taken inside the ruined castle. Here the damage is clear: what was once a domed or vaulted roof is now open to the sky. The walls are in various states of disrepair, with jagged brickwork exposed. This must once have been a grand room, but now it's empty.

St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This photo is down the hill, looking up at the castle. From here, it looks like the castle is perched on the edge of a sheer rock face. The castle is clearly overgrown with plants, and the roof is clearly damaged. It's a plain, square, stone building, stark against the landscape.

St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom left on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

What intrigued me the most about the images of St. Hilarion Castle was their resemblance to the memories I had of a once abandoned Italian village called Craco, nowadays a popular touristic destination.

Craco, perched high on a hill. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

In 1963 a landslide forced the inhabitants of this little stone village of the Basilicata region, situated at the top of a hill surrounded by gullies, to move to a newer town named Craco Peschiera. They had to leave their homes abruptly, abandoning Craco and turning it into a “ghost town”. As the years went by, nature gradually took over, creating an evocative environment where time seems to have stopped. This atypical setting re-entered the centre of the conversation when it was chosen as the location of important international film productions such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004). Suddenly, institutions started to realize the unlimited potential of abandoned heritage sites like Craco. They represent a past that for many years we tried to forget, because they could not fit in the narrative of the fast world, of industrialized and smart cities. Places like Craco, or even the nearby Matera that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been “shameful” for many Governments who saw in them the failure of their vision of progress. They were cut off from the public conversation, existing only in the bitter memories of the people who once lived there.

However, in 2020 we witness how quickly cities stopped being the safest and most desirable place to be. The high density of social contacts in urban areas meant a higher density of Covid-19 cases, and, as a result, large numbers of people decided to move, permanently or temporarily, to the countryside, putting the spotlight on those places that never had the chance to “shine”, and for which conservation and preservation are now of primary importance for the social and cultural wellbeing of the rural inhabitants.

Maybe, my fascination with abandoned sites lies in the idea of rebirth and second chances. A place with no present can have many possible futures. Craco has had its rebirth in 2011; from that year onwards it has been possible to visit the main street of the village with a guided tour that touches on the ancient palaces and convent as well as the ruins of the once inhabited houses. Wearing a protective helmet, you can take a trip through time, travelling back to the 1960s and experiencing a different side of the Italian dolce vita.

Inside an abandoned building, Craco. A single wooden chair is off-centre inside a once-grand, now crumbling room with barrel-vaulted ceilings. A tree is growing, indoors, on the back wall. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

I visited the beautiful yet mysterious Craco last summer. I am used to the slow life of the Italian southern villages, however, I was not expecting to feel such a realistic impression of being stuck in an ancient medieval village, where the only signs of modernity were the “explorers” taking pictures (as you can see from the pictures below, taken during my visit to the heritage site in 2020). I was even more surprised to see many international tourists, which is (unfortunately) quite uncommon for heritage sites in my region.

Scenes from Craco, Italy. Tourists in hard hats explore the ruined streets. Donkeys roam on the cobbles. The buildings are so decayed it’s easy to imagine they are growing out of the hill, rather than falling back into it. Photos c. Alessandro Torresi.

Craco can represent a succesful model, exportable everywhere, of sustainable fruition of an heritage site where human intervention is resepctful of the place’s history and natural environement, while representing an invaluable asset for the local cultural and economic development. It’s abandonment, and its resulting mysterious atmosphere, may therefore save it.


Alessandro Torresi
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Muny Morgan: Photographic Memories of Ravello, Italy

Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.

I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!

This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F006_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_023. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Can Tony Kersting Take You to Your Home Town?

Audio Version

Read by Tanya Goodman-Bailey

Text Version

Managing the digitisation project of one of the most varied, mysterious, and extensive photographic collections in the world, in one of its most prestigious art institutes can look a lot like this:

and not much like the constant carousel of wonderful architectural detail that one might imagine. The volunteers, busy sorting through the images and penciling the accession numbers on the mounts, or zooming in to check the focus in the digitisation studio, are the ones who get to really see the collection, really make serendipitous discoveries. I have to make the time to go and explore, and be sure to do it too or else I might get to the end of whole months having only seen filenames, spreadsheets and conversion code on Terminal.

Belluno_Ponte della Vittoria e Duomo_Anthony Kersting Archive

Today I thought I’d go looking for my hometown – Belluno, in the Italian Dolomites – and see it through A.F. Kersting’s eyes. The 4293 Kersting negatives, which we plan to digitise as part of our project, are numbered sequentially and neatly stacked in their cases. To every negative number corresponds a handwritten entry on a ledger, so if you were to pick a number from the shelf you could easily look it up in the ledger and find out where the image was taken. It’s a bit more difficult to start your search from a specific city; on the negative there are only accession numbers and entries on the ledgers are also sequential by number, not by location. Besides, part of the mystery surrounding photographer A.F. Kersting is that he would travel so extensively: opening a page at random of his ledger you can see that one day he was in Jersey, the next in Scotland, the following entry would be in Munich, then Dubrovnik, then Madrid… which makes tracing his steps and locating a particular town very tricky – and transcribing the ledgers (another fascinating task reserved for our volunteers) very necessary!

Belluno_Piazza Duomo_Anthony Kersting Archive

What I do have to go by in my quick morning search is the prints collection, the selected negatives for which we have prints, and which are arranged by country. These prints were created by Kersting and are unnumbered but annotated in pencil at the back. I ventured to the Italy box and looked for my small town almost as a challenge, and there, to my delight, I found the squares and fountains of my childhood, almost untouched by time, with the only exception being the clothes of the passers-by and the cars parked where they shouldn’t be.

Belluno_Piazza delle Erbe_Anthony Kersting Archive

We are not there yet with the digitisation so what you see below are just some quick group snaps, but hopefully they will give you a taste of how wonderful a photographer Kersting was, and how extensively he documented every corner of the world he could reach. When we’ll have completed the digitisation of the whole collection you’ll be able to search by place and by date, as well as by accession number, and the collection will be truly open. For now, enjoy this small selection as a Friday treat.


Faye Fornasier
Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Manager

Courtauld Connects