Ever humbling and heartwarming is hearing inside stories from a man who has known the town you’re writing a book about through 27 years of his own experience exploring it. Brothers Jerry and Ron arrived this evening to share stories over a rice pilaf with succulent sauteed calamari in the center. Without saying as much, I asked them to sing for their supper, delighted by tales of claustrophobic investigations, larger-than-life snakes, and a protest demonstration wherein Vittoria interrupted mass to demand why the new priest couldn’t wait to start until everyone [read: she] was in attendance. (Note: no mass that I’ve attended has ever begun on time — this lesson must have stuck.)
Naturally, I’m aware that many people have been involved with NIAUSI long before me, but hearing Jerry’s stories in person took me to a recent yet unknown layer of memory that exists about Civita — some of which is now gone. In fact, tonight was the first night that I heard Vittoria’s or Domenica’s names (Domenica, the great grandmother of Elena, who was just baptized.) The concept of time plays games with me again: each time I grow to understand a part of the sequence, someone adds new data points — though I’ve learned much in less than 60 days.
Hearing new Civitonici names from Jerry, and learning that his own daughter was baptized here (Vittoria is her godmother) hearkens me back to a thought I had yesterday as I wrote about Elena and Alberto: I’ve witnessed their baptisms, and they will be alive to experience Civita long after I’m gone. In terms of data points, we are all mere blips in a very long series of moments.
What seems most apparent is the concept of allowing things to be appropriately revealed over long periods of time. One person’s lifetime –or even the life spans of her children and grandchildren– are nothing in comparison with the span of Civita; yet, things happen when they’re meant to, and they often take longer to occur that we hope. Take away the monstrous imbalance of time, and one realizes that it’s all about uncovering what is proprio in the moment and in the manner that it’s most impactful.
Architecturally, one sees this in buildings like Astra and Tony’s house where tufa stone erupts gently from the white stucco in window arches. Personally, one finds revelations in stories from people like Jerry, who dared to crawl through a long passage no wider than himself to discover a tiled Etruscan room large enough to stand somewhere beneath the depths of Civita. It was evident that he found many things during that journey that will always remain quietly with him. Though he may return to certain places in Civita –like I will always return to my rock to write, even decades hence– that cave will contain a lifelong memory and special meaning for him that will only happen once.
The key, really, is in the layering of time. With anything –an experience, a building or physical place, a human psyche– one must begin with a solid foundation, otherwise any renovation or restoration will be a disaster. It’s equally important to determine what should remain throughout, what must be discarded, and what will replace the things that are removed. For Jerry, the bones of his Civita memories include that investigation; there’s not a need to find and replace it — it will always be there.
In every building, designers know that certain parts that will wear out over time; they also know that there are the elements that must last — the bones. One cannot build a timeless building with rotten wood or a cracked slab without deep and dire consequences; the building falls, leaks, crumbles. Similarly, it’s impossible to create a true sense of self without a deep understanding of one’s own motivations, weaknesses and strengths. When something is strong and meaningful by nature –Jerry’s memory and what he learned from it, or even the bedrock of Civita herself– it forms a solid foundation of promise on which more can be built over time.
In architecture, what brings a renovation together is someone who can correctly identify which weak spots will kill the building, and which non-structural flaws might actually lend interest and character, perhaps impairing a sense of perfection but also yielding an unparalleled authenticity: something original and true.
What I realized from our conversation tonight is that it’s totally possible to be a part of Civita even if I’m never a Civitonici myself; it’s possible to become involved in people’s lives and events, to see a lifetime’s progression in a grain of sand — and in a baptism. I may never bring the vision of a true insider, but my own vision derives from a stance both inside and outside, permitting me to consider this place from many vantage points and lenses in order to create a unique composite picture so clear that others can grasp it for themselves.
As with anything –buildings, lifetimes, relationships– success only comes from a combination of the right time to build, demolish, and restore. Bringing a sense of intelligence about what materials to employ, what to leave hidden or at rest, and what to reveal — that’s an elusive art.
Over a month and a half into my investigation of layers in Civita, I can confirm that only a place with such good bones could continue to reveal such appropriate lessons over time.