Andy and Lana Wachowski are best known for writing and directing the “Matrix” trilogy and by all accounts are natural filmmakers. According to a New Yorker article, both siblings count “2001: A Space Odyssey” as one of their earliest influences. The family was apparently huge movie fans, of all genres. Twelve-year old Lana recalls initially hating “2001” because she was perplexed by the mysterious presence of the black monolith. Her father explained simply, “That’s a symbol” and the article recounts Lana’s reaction: “That one sentence went into my brain and rearranged things in such an unbelievable way that I don’t think I’ve been the same since…it’s one of the reasons I’m a filmmaker.”
Now, granted, perhaps not every 12-year old child will respond to symbols this way, but I believe a contributing factor is that we don’t cultivate that type of visual seeing and learning early enough in our educational systems. But the anecdote resonated with me because in Civita I was struck by the complex overlays of symbol and iconography there. Admittedly, this is probably the case in many countries whose historical timeline extends back beyond the 1700s but it felt particularly close to the surface in Civita and very much a part of daily life.
As designers know, the advantage of symbols is that they speak a universal language. I do not need to be conversant in Arabic to understand that the Kaaba represents a significant concept to Muslims. I might not be able to fully articulate the subtleties of its meaning, but I can understand the power and centricity of it as a symbol in one of the world’s great religions.
Once these symbol sets pass into the realm of becoming archetypes — ideas or ways of thinking inherited from all these sources and present in your subconscious — they begin to function as a complete set, as iconography—the collective use of symbols and visual images by a certain culture or group.
Symbols and iconography can be like road maps, leading or guiding you toward a desired goal, encouraging certain behaviors or effects. Each passing generation, utilizing the same symbol, builds up a stronger energy from that symbol with the most effective ones lasting through the ages. Obvious examples include the Christian cross, the yin/yang symbol, the pyramid, and the ankh. It is no coincidence that certain of these symbols from ancient civilizations continue to be an integral part our society, even to the point that corporations use them in commercials, movies, and logos.
Iconography is expert at unlocking a stream of memories, data, emotions and beliefs, sometimes whether we want them or not. That’s why people often choose to pray in a church setting when they could just as easily do so at home, or feel they can mediate more successfully in a space carefully designed to induce a contemplative state.
That I would create an iconographic map of Civita was almost a foregone conclusion and the result is probably one of the more traditional maps in the series. Yet even here, I conflated content since Civita’s three very distinct layers of iconography—historic, religious and vernacular symbols—often mix.
The Etruscans, the city’s first inhabitants and the Romans who followed, were both cultures that understood well the power of symbols and used iconography extensively for protection, fertility, wealth, birth and death rituals. In fact, one of the first things the Romans did on their relentless march to conquer the ancient Etruscan cities was to smash their black clay wear which was heavily decorated with symbols.
For a palpable look into this iconography “mix” you need look no further than Civita’s main piazza and its beautiful Medieval church, the Chiesa S. Donato. Iconography was an integral part of Christian life, and in Italy, it survived, despite the seventh and eighth centuries Iconoclasts demanding their destruction. [bishops keys] In tangible ways, you can see not only the layering of symbols, but also symbol “borrowing” as well as active incorporation of artifacts from one culture to another. [rosette] Rosettes—which many scholars believe derived from the Etruscan paterna or mundus, the symbol of the ever-present life-force—abound as decorative elements. Roman sarcophagi, frieze fragments, and corbels [sarcophagi and corbels] are set into the lower outer walls of the church and the nearby bell tower. Going even further back, the physical divisions of the four contrade correspond to the Etruscan layout of the ideal city, a circle divided into favorable and unfavorable areas.
This amalgam of past incarnations of history, religion and everyday life, along with the addition of some beautiful palimpsests, is mapped on the iconographic map and unified by a tufo background, which in Civita is a welcome constant.