Thursday, April 19, 2018

On living under a hyperreal sky

On the morning of 11 August 1993, my partner and I took a train and then a bus from Milan, where we lived, to Courmayeur, an alpine town near the French border. We didn’t book any accommodation, but headed with our blankets a little way up Mont Blanc, in search of an open space protected from the lights of the city. It was the night of the Perseids, or ‘tears of Saint Lawrence’, when the Earth traverses a cloud of debris left by the Swift-Tuttle comet. In 1993, the gravitational pull of Jupiter had shifted the cloud along its orbit, causing Earth to travel closer to its centre. It was going to be the greatest spectacle of its kind for the last several thousand years. Like ultra-celestial fireworks in the night sky.

The night was crisp and clear, and the rarefied mountain air made the meteors streaking across the sky for one, two, three seconds each appear uncannily close. We sat gasping as they rained above our heads almost without interruption.

We weren’t there to look at constellations, except insofar as on such nights the first thing you do is locate Perseus, from where the shooting stars appear to radiate. As with most constellations, Perseus comprises stars and clusters – the most famous is Algol, an eclipsing binary star – that are thousands of light years apart from one another and appear in their distinctive shape only from our solar system. Constellations are illusions, a trick of perspective. Yet they are also a vast storehouse of knowledge and myths, such as that of Perseus, the slayer of the Gorgon. Or Orion, the hunter, the constellation I found easiest to recognise when I moved to the South Pacific. Although at these latitudes, the poor fellow is upside down.

I fell in love with Greek myths thanks to my mother, and with their imaginative projection onto the firmament after a childhood visit to Milan’s planetarium, the largest in Italy, donated to the city in 1930 by publisher Ulrico Hoepli. On the convex inner surface of a planetarium dome you can not only simulate the night sky but also fast forward through the hours, the seasons, or the millennia. It was like travelling through history, as well as through astronomy. It also had a peculiar beauty, as did the imposing Zeiss projector used for the demonstrations. (Planetarium, in fact, was originally used to describe this machine, not the building in which it was housed.)

Later, during our summer holidays, it was a star chart under torchlight, then a plastic disc that came with a copy of National Geographic. By aligning the date and hour and pointing in the right cardinal direction, the disc – known as a planisphere – would provide you with a workable, if slightly distorted, picture of the stars above. I got a lot of use out of this. Later still it was star-chart software on my first laptop, except if you looked at the backlit computer screen and then up at the sky, your eyes would take so long to readjust that you could barely remember what you were supposed to be looking at.

Now it’s smartphone apps, with names like Stellarium or SkyView. These do the work of all those old aides – the star chart, the planisphere, the planetarium – with one key difference: you can point them directly to the stars and even, using the camera, look through your phone at an augmented sky. Or point the phone downwards and see stars under your feet: it’s the sky in the opposite hemisphere, or rather its ghostly projection. This feature creates a powerful illusion: as if Earth itself had ceased to exist and you have become a point suspended in the universe.

Within days of using the apps, the map had become the territory, and I found myself looking at the ‘stars’ on cloudy nights or when indoors. This sky mapped in overlapping fashion by science and mythology. This sky that is so incomprehensibly far and yet with so few apparent mysteries left. Look, I can carry it in my pocket. I can find out at any one time where the planets are, or where the Moon will rise.

The sky has always been hyperreal. For the Greeks, it encoded a great number of their myths. For Polynesians, it was the map they read in order to perform prodigious feats of navigation, while Indigenous Australians used the heavens to orient themselves on land, when travelling in the cool of night. All cultures have used the stars to mark the passing of the seasons and to time the performance of important rituals that sustained them both spiritually and materially – such as the gathering and storing of food following the first pre-dawn winter sightings of the Pleiades, known to Indigenous Australians as the Seven Sisters and to Māori as Matariki.

All this has always been true. Yet that unique sense of awe and wonder remains, when you look up from the chart, the app, the book of legends or the astronomical treatise: the feeling that those stars – on which our ancestors practised their storytelling, and which we now know so many things about, like their size and how far away they are and how long they have left to live and the form their death will take – those stars, finally, of which we are all made, are really there.

Originally published at OverlandThe Autumn issue is out now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Birth of a Nation

The first ever Italian film had an exceptional premiere: on a giant screen outside of Rome’s Aurealian Walls, on 20 September of 1905, that is to say on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the capture of the city by the army of King Vittorio Emanuele II that completed the decades-long process of liberation and unification of the country. The subject of the film was that epic event: La Presa di Roma, the capture of Rome. Only a few fragments survive, including an establishing scene at the Milvian bridge; the meeting between the King’s envoy and Herman Kanzler, supreme commander of the Papal army, which failed to secure the Pope’s surrender; and the irruption of the bersaglieri through the breach opened by the artillery in the city’s walls. The screen was erected next to the location of the breach.

We can only speculate on the effect that seeing those events recreated on precisely the site in which they occurred, and in a radically new medium, would have had on an audience that was likely to have lived through them. This was recent history, and still hotly contested. The Holy See was yet to formally recognise the Italian State, and wouldn’t for more than two decades, until the Treaty signed by Pius XI and Mussolini in 1929. And so to assert its own legitimacy and counter the immense moral influence of the church, the state printed booklets, financed films and staged grandiose public events on the anniversaries of the key events that led to the unification. This was a populist propaganda designed to appeal primarily to the less well-educated, and whose methods and language would later be co-opted and refined by Fascism. Its aim was to foster a secular religion based around the cult of the fledgling nation, and so the film ended in the apotheosis of Italy’s four founding figures: Mazzini, Garibaldi, King Vittorio Emanuele II and Cavour, standing on either side of the personification of Italy, ‘Italia turrita’ (so named because of the mural crown on her head), who graces Garibaldi with the palm branch, symbol of victory.

The image above is a reconstruction of what that final tableau is thought to have looked like, for the original is lost. Its symbolism, it seems to me, is closer to the medieval allegory than to the modern codes for signifying heroism and renewal. The mythology appears so distant in time also because that cult has gradually vanished.

Take Garibaldi. Giovanni Guareschi’s short story ‘Horses of a Different Colour’ includes the following passage:
When they start a new town in Romagna, they first throw up a monument to Garibaldi and then build a church, because there’s no fun in a civil funeral unless it spites the parish priest. The whole history of the province is concerned with spite of this kind.

Guareschi, who was profoundly religious and fiercely conservative, was complaining here, around the year 1950, about the last vestiges of that secular cult, which in the figure of Garibaldi found a symbol not just of nationalism but also for the revolutionary aspirations of the popular classes. That pantheon of four was a strange one to begin with – seeing as it included a republican, Mazzini, alongside the King – but Garibaldi was the most beloved and at the same time the most atypical of the founding fathers. With him, some people might still feel that they had a shot at overthrowing the State; that he would look down favourably upon such endeavours. And so the task of the propaganda at the turn of the twentieth century was to use Garibaldi for his still immense popular appeal, and at the same time to domesticate him.

Hence films like Il piccolo garibaldino (The Little Garibaldinian Boy, 1909), a 15-minute tear-jerker about a young boy of twelve who stows away on one of Garibaldi’s ships during the Expedition of the Thousand to Sicily in order to fight alongside his father, a volunteer. Here he is dreaming about his hero, thanks to a rather nifty matte effect.

Once in Sicily, the boy scarcely has time to greet his proud and exultant father that he finds himself in the thick of battle and is promptly shot through the heart. He will die, but not before having had a chance to kiss the sword of a rather inconvenienced-looking Garibaldi.

There! There! To die near him!

Finally the boy returns to visit his grieving mother in a dream, forming another allegorical tableau alongside Italia turrita.

There is naïve strangeness about these images. The crude emotional manipulation is on a par with other texts of this era, notably the novels of Edmondo De Amicis, but these cinematic beginnings preserve something else, a sense almost of innocence. They were experiments in how to instil patriotism and civic values in a country that struggled to see not just the benefits but even the tangible signs of its recent unification; a country that barely had a language in common, let alone a coherent sense of who or what it was. Its ruling class would soon learn to fear the spectre of socialism more than the spiteful rivalry of the church, preparing the ground for the advent of Fascism. But here, in this freeze frame, it was still busy crafting a quite different myth. One that now seems as immature and pathetically, almost tenderly misguided as that little Garibaldinian boy.

The classic complaint of intellectuals and politicians of our republican era is that Italians don’t have a sense of the state, that they put their own interests ahead of all intersecting and overarching collective interests. They may be some truth in that, although it begs the question of what kind of state one should make sacrifices to: the state that murders its citizens? The state that treats its immigrants like criminals or slaves? The state that pursues modernity without democracy or rules? And so forth. In my lifetime there have been few coherent pictures, few appealing allegories, or possibly too many, all competing with one another. To this day, it makes questions such as ‘where are you from’ and ‘why are you here’ very difficult to answer. I honestly don’t know. I struggle more and more to think of Italy as a place, as a social and political whole to which I belong, yet I wish to be of nowhere else. In this I suspect I am no different to many of my compatriots from one century ago. But I also think this: that the idea of Italy wasn’t always wrong, and that caught somewhere between the history and the mythmaking there have been attempts to forge a sense of shared past and common purpose worth struggling for. More on these in future instalments.

[For the background to the two films discussed in this post I relied primarily on Giovanni Lasi’s Garibaldi e l’epopea garibaldina nel cinema muto italiano. Dalle origini alla Prima guerra mondiale, to which I was guided by my friend Giacomo Lichtner.]
Originally published at Overland,

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Atlas of the Midday Fund

A book of maps. One hundred and twenty-seven of them, held together by three brass screw-on bolts. On the hard cover – the dust jacket, if there ever was one, is lost – the words Atlante della Cassa del Mezzogiorno, 1950-1962. The book has no introduction, and no text outside of a table of contents, the customary brief publisher’s information and the title, place names and legend of each of the maps. So scant is the context that we could choose to misconstrue the word Mezzogiorno in the title and to translate literally, nonsensically, perhaps a little poetically: ‘The Atlas of the Midday Fund’. And we could look past the fact that these happen to be maps of Southern Italy, seeing that they are also, and more visibly, fragments of a geopolitical body laid on a table and dissected.

This could be any country. Above, it is a map of Calabria with the territory known as the Sila and a small area north of Locri coloured in, blotchy, as if to illustrate the spread of a disease. Below, the more familiar boot shape complete with major islands is criss-crossed by red lines that resemble varicose veins. But what these maps document are interventions – in this case, land reclamations and the building of new roads. In other words, they are about the cure, not the disease.

This could be any country in which such interventions had been prescribed and carried out, for these maps are as much an attempt to represent the territory as a way of thinking about and acting upon the territory. With this key in mind, each map becomes at once text and context. Its explanation, its justification, its frame of reference is to be found in the image itself, taken as a whole and over time: we built these roads because there were none; we drained these marshes so that the land could be farmed, and so forth. The old territory, which is never shown, was the problem. The new territory – the object of representation – is the self-evident, necessary solution.

But we must restore some of that missing context. The Cassa del Mezzogiorno – which properly translates as ‘Fund for the South’ – was an organisation established by the Italian government in 1950 to administer loans granted by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan) for the purposes of a series of ‘extraordinary interventions’ in the economically depressed areas in the southern and (partly) the central regions of the country. The Fund, at least in its initial twelve years of operation that are documented by the atlas, operated with a relatively low level of political oversight and was rigorous in its application of Keynesian theories of economic development to these depressed areas. It was in other words a quintessentially technocratic body, a quality of which the book is a direct expression. Not only the minute representational precision of the maps, but also their aesthetic aspect, the fact that this is a beautiful book to look at, are functional to the fund’s design, which was to remake the landscape: to make it better, more productive, more liveable.

I’m not entirely sure what specific information is conveyed the hydrogeological chart of the river Neto and its surroundings, above, but the lines and the colours are very pleasing to the eye. It looks like a place where one could settle. And doesn’t Sicily here look neat, efficient, modern?

If like me you’re into legends, this book is full of treasures. From a map of new facilities built in the province of Naples, I give you, second from the top, ‘X-ray laboratories and tuberculosis dispensaries’.

That is the level of detail that the project required and deployed. Psychiatric hospitals get their own symbol. So too do fruit and vegetable markets and heliports.

Finally the atlas zooms in onto a sample of individual housing developments, which naturally all look like model projects. How could they not? This is the Ex Campo Ascarelli, on the outskirts of Naples.

While for the detail of the actual apartments, we move to Secondigliano.

Decent, modern housing in decent, modern neighbourhoods: it’s what you get when you control the means of representation. Nowadays Secondigliano is plagued by a staggering slew of social problems and virtually ruled by the Camorra. Pasquale Saraceno, the architect of the fund, might as well have been referring to it when he wrote in 1990, at the age of 87, that
when modernisation is only outward and fails to invest the economic foundations, the social structures, the modes of participation in the life of the community, it lends itself to forms of bullying and enslavement, of loss of demarcation between the public and the private sphere, of exchanges of protection and personal allegiances whose roots belong instead to an archaic and feudal past.

The great modernization project failed, but it is not an outcome that could be read in the atlas: not even by its authors, like Pasquale Saraceno, nor by its critics on the Left, who would have looked at each one of those interventions and recognised its specific material value even as they warned that the politics of the extraordinary intervention would become the means for the indefinite extension of the status quo. For our South has never ceased to be in crisis and in the process of being modernized, there just hasn’t been another utopian moment comparable to the one that the atlas represents. Yet it remains such an appealing text, and such a persuasive model: to think that by improving the landscape, by better designing our urban environments we could create the basis for social progress. And if you came across this book, as I did, on the opposite side of the world, and you pretended that this could be any place, you might just believe the story.

Originally published at Overland