A Sense of Soul / Un Senso di Soul

For a place known as “the city that dies,” one that visitors indeed treat as a ghost town, Civita does not feel a bit haunted. Even true, in spite of the visible corpse resting inside a glass coffin on the altar of the church.

I’ve spent the past week considering the concept of “after-image” or “collective soul” in ancient places, positive that, after more than 2,000 years, there must be a specter lurking in someone’s grotto. Yet, all I’ve found in Civita is quiet repose and animated conversation. (In Italy, is there any other kind?)

This morning, as Tony, Gaia, architectural artist Iole Alessandrini, and I set out to visit Astra’s grave in honor of her birthday, I sifted through the stories I’ve heard during the past two weeks about her life and her work in Civita.

In this time, I’ve also seen how her architectural restorations quite successfully build upon and carefully reveal the past by employing a consistent and honest palette that recognizes natural form and function. This, wedded with clean, modern materials, gives her designs a fresh sense of re-purpose — including Josè’s home, which Astra renovated over 40 years ago.

This carefully revealed palimpsest is, in fact, the very reason that Civita does not feel like an eerily preserved amusement park of ancient spirits, but a very approachable, livable, time-honored place that actually has a future.

When I learned that Astra and Tony lived in Lo Studio while they constructed the home where Tony now resides, I realized how very unaware I am as to the degree in which these homes –and Civita– have been restored. Il Ruderino once lived up to its name, half-destroyed and crumbling. Il Nuovo, the newest acquisition in which I live, fits so well with Lo Studio and Il Ruderino, that I cannot imagine these homes weren’t always linked.

Then, there is Tony’s home and garden, in which he and Astra resided for years. When I asked him to describe the creation of which he felt most proud, he said it was their pergola — the perfect place for dining under grapevines. The pergola’s arches, I discovered, are actually the last remaining portion of the exterior of a home that once stood on the property. They look like they were spirited out of a Roman ruin, although I had assumed that they were fabricated specifically for the pergola because they fit the space so ideally. Evidence again of how authentically revealed –and well used– the past is here.

Iole described how she met Astra by serendipity when they separately pursued a design competition in Rome during the early 90s. She couldn’t ignore the coincidence that they had each arrived at an eerily similar solution, though they didn’t know one another. Feeling a sense of connection through the parallel of their design approaches, Iole sought out Astra and was instantly drawn to both she and Tony. From my perspective, she is in many ways like a daughter to them, carrying their lessons into her work today, including her involvement with NIAUSI.

We spoke little as we visited Astra’s resting place, high above the ground. Tony brought a single fuchsia rose from their garden, which he kissed before handing it to Iole to place next to Astra’s name. It didn’t escape me that the lettering for her marker was rendered in a simple font under which reads only the years of her life — no flowery quote, no specific dates.

Even Astra’s grave –with its single rose– stands as an example of clean architectural design.

Story after story, I feel like I’m coming closer to understanding the profound effect that Astra has made in Civita — an integral force in the continued transformation and revelation of this cultural asset as a place for study, connection, introspection, and repose.

As I finished this essay in the common space between Il Nuovo and Lo Studio, I jumped when the door behind me opened slowly — the wind, perhaps. However, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when the front door followed suit 10 seconds later — opening on its own, a space just large enough for a person to exit through. Perhaps I was wrong, and there are indeed spirits residing in Civita.

Buon compleanno, Astra.

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