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Jules Verne said, “Look with all your eyes. Look.” Part of the beauty of spending an extended period of time anywhere, and particularly for me during my fellowship in Civita, was having the luxury of time to observe, and witnessing the ebb and flow of the life of a town.

Writers and artists love details, but there is always a push and pull between the obsession with detail and the semi-conscious acknowledgement that everything will eventually vanish. Relief, essentially, mixed with dread. The Surrealists painters recognized this, calling it “the potency of the everyday.”

Much of Civita has been documented—its history, culture, architecture, and traditions. These things have been studied, talked about, described, inventoried, photographed, and analyzed. Documentation was part of why I was here on a NIAUSI Fellowship. But what about the rest?

The passing of a day in Civita, like anywhere else, includes actions and events that are not usually noticed, things that have no real consequence in the grand scheme of the recorded history of this place. Does that mean then, that what happens when nothing “important” happens worthy of remembering? My suspicion is that noticing the unremarkable might yield a different kind of map of this place. And the process of noticing could, in itself, lead to a particular kind of subjective storytelling since the mind tends to want to question the why and wherefore of what it sees. Observing the world in action, it wants to make connections.

The Italians have a wonderful expression: il dolce far niente which translates as “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Too often in today’s jam-packed, work-driven, internet-powered world, it is easy to forget how to “do nothing.” Even worse, we wrongly believe that doing nothing equals uselessness. The Italians are wiser. They live il dolce far niente even when they are busy serving pranzo, mixing mortar, or ferrying wine bottles and plastic to the recycling bins. Perhaps it is the wisdom that comes from living in a culture with a 3,000-year heritage or simply an understanding that the sum of life is larger than what we can pack into an 8-hour workday. Regardless, life here is not something that can be spent, wasted, or passed.  It simply is. Every moment holds possibility.

So how could I try to capture this? For two 6-hour periods on two separate days, I sat in the Piazza S. Donato and watched what was happening around me. I recorded everything I could see or hear and at first the simple act of needing to look and write was enough to occupy me. But slowly, after a few hours, my mind shifted in a way that’s difficult for me to describe precisely to you right now. I suspect it was akin to moving into a meditative state. I noticed more detail, found myself wondering about the stories behind the people I saw. I made connections or made them up anyway and questioned much more than I thought I would.

Here’s a short portion of what’s described on this map, which is designed like a broadside. Here’s a sample passage. This is from 6:00 pm on October 14, 2012 from a bench in front of the Palazzo Alemanni. The weather was sunny with some clouds.

The man’s drawing is good. Pencil only, but his subject is Antonio’s bruschetteria, not the church as I first thought. A little boy is being scolded by his mother for digging in the gravel dirt of the piazza. She cleans his hands roughly and he cries when she picks him up and plops him in his stroller. Another little boy is curious. He circles the nearest Etruscan column, running up now and then to take a peek at the artist. “Mama, viene qui! Guarda!” he calls and his mother comes to look. A toddler runs up and down the church steps, amazingly steady. Is this how Italian women learn to walk on cobblestones in heels?

Five dogs are suddenly in the piazza. The cats stare but don’t budge. They know they live here. The little girl walks past me, interested in what I am doing. She says something in Italian and I smile, unable to communicate with a 4-year old. Craig comes by to tell me he just realized his camera can pan left to right, not just right to left. He needs another month! The artist’s companion (because now I’ve decided they are a couple) walks by to see if the drawing is done. It is not. A dog pees at the base of one of the Etruscan columns. I wonder how many millions of times that has happened. The kids are back. Not once has the artist ever looked up at them, not one glance. Is this good or bad? The little boy jumps around and accidently kicks the conté crayon box. “Matteo!” his father yells and swats him. The sound of Matteo crying. “No, Matteo, va bene,” the artist says, smiling but still not looking.

A young woman in black spandex and a bright green top is sitting on the church steps, taking a selfie. Two older women pass by. They could be sisters. Same glasses, hair, scarves. One is using a cane. They seem confused. The man in the red sweater is back in his spot in front of the church, this time near the far right door, which is closed. Four people are suddenly right in front of my table, cameras raised. Where did they come from? R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” is playing inside Da Peppone’s. The sun has gone back behind the clouds. A pack of cyclists, all men, all wearing branded Italian jerseys ride past me on the cobbled street that rings the piazza. Only one bumps his bike down to ride in the graveled area. Six women, all with Orvieto water bottles, leave La Tonna souvenir shop and cross the piazza toward me. Three of them stop to examine the bottom of their shoes. “Madonna, Madonna,” they repeat to each other.

Anna comes out of Da Peppone’s, checking to see if there is anyone to serve. There is not and she goes back in. A pigeon flies into the open window at La Tonna. Another is on the roof of Antico Forno. I hear “Where should we eat?” in English for the first time this morning. The bell tower chimes twice. Father Stefano arrives at the church, dressed in black and carrying two black bags. The calico cat crosses the piazza diagonally, followed by the Japanese man and his photographer girlfriend. They’re laughing. Father Stefano is putting the new October mass schedule in the display board. The man in the red sweater is suddenly at his side, talking, and I realize now that he is the sacristan that I met a week ago when I was visiting inside the church last week with Liza and Craig.

A man dressed all in black heads towards the bridge, carrying a dented silver hard suitcase. A 6-foot tall Japanese woman appears, calling to her group. A man crossing the piazza stops to hug his wife. She carries a set of keys and is smoking. They smile and laugh together. A tabby skitters past me, followed by a calico. Two smokers walk past my table. I smell their cigarettes. Sounds of clinking dishes come from Da Peppone’s. Anna must have customers but I didn’t see anyone go in. Maybe she’s cleaning? One of the Americans rests his black backpack on the Etruscan column near the bell tower just as it chimes seven times. A second later, the bells begin their longer ringing, signaling the Angelus. It’s 7:00 pm.

civita_saints and saviors

During my NIAUSI fellowship, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to some of Civita’s most famous figures in some way, including the contributions made by the late Astra Zarina, who established the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltown program in Civita and handled restoration projects for in some of its first buildings in the late 60s, leading the wave of reclaiming these beautiful structures.

Yet it was impossible and possibly inauspicious, to evade ecclesiastical associations while in Italy. Eccola. Civita’s most famous son, Bonaventura. Chapels and statues to him seem to be on every corner in these two towns. Bonaventura was born Giovanni Fidanza around 1221 AD in a house no more than 20 meters from the Palazzo Alemanni where Zarina taught her “Continuity and Change” programs to architecture students for 30 years.

Bonaventura and Zarina both traveled widely, but both reliably returned to Civita. When she died in 2008, Zarina was buried in Bagnoregio, not very far from a church where in 1490 Bonaventura’s right arm was placed in a reliquary made from gold and silver donated by the people of the town. That event is celebrated every year on March 14—today.

What better way, then, to pay tribute to both Bonaventura and Astra Zarina then to map the trajectories of the lives of two of Civita’s saints and saviors? The map is not meant to be definitive by any means, but instead highlights the overlaps and intersections of two lives and one place.

Do a Google search for Civita di Bagnoregio and one of the first things you will find is a reference to it as “la città che muore” (the dying town). This immediately sets a particular tone, but in fact, this appellation is taken out of context from a text by Bonaventura Tecchi an Italian essayist born in Bagnoregio. In 1947, Tecchi formed the “Pro Civita Committee” whose mission was to save Civita from what seemed at the time to be inevitable death. Tecchi was referring to the erosion of the cliffs around Civita, not voicing a prediction for the future of Civita. Here is the full quote:

“I would never have become a writer unless I had lived for a few months every year, from July to November, starting in my earliest youth, in the valley of Civita, with the vision of the white crests, the golden volcanic clay, the eloquent ruins, in the land of Saint Bonaventure…with the memory of ancient earthquakes, the slip constant…in the city that is dying.”

One of my NIAUSI colleagues here is exploring Civita through the lens of adaptive reuse of its buildings over the years, particularly since the 1960s and 70s when many restoration projects began to take place. It has been sobering to see graphic visual examples which she has found in the archives here of just how deteriorated Civita had been before those restorations projects began to gain a foothold. For those of you who know Civita, the picture below (taken from Piero Bormioli’s book) shows the view of the city in the late 1960s, looking west. Osteria Il Forno d’Agnese currently occupies the building on the left.

Today, tourists walk into the main piazza and we hear them comment on how “old” and “worn” the buildings and some of the public infrastructure seems. If only they knew….in actuality, Civita is in pretty top form today. Certainly, there are areas that need attention and repair, but in most cases, they are receiving it. Civita has become a destination and those in authority know it. A major stabilization project targeting one of the most vulnerable cliff areas on the northwest side of the city was recently completed, funded with money from the Province of Viterbo and the EU. as I write this, dust drifts in my open window and I can hear the whirring of additional anchor rods being drilled into the cliff by seismic workers nearby.

Keeping Civita alive takes a lot of work and much resources. But over the decades, it has attracted scores of people who have worked to save it. The reasons are varied and numerous. Some people, like the Rocchi family who own both a bruschetteria and ristorante here, have lived in Civita for over 500 years. The family is very dedicated to the idea of helping Civita survive in the 21st century while simultaneously respecting the geography and geology that surrounds it. Other one-time residents like the Bastoni and Medori families continue a close connection to Civita through the successful businesses that they have established here over many years. It is in their interest to see Civita thrive.

Then there are the contributions made to Civita by the late Astra Zarina and her husband Tony Costa Heywood, who today counts himself as one of the town’s handful of full-time residents.

Zarina was a respected Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, who in the 1980s was instrumental in establishing the UW’s Rome Center, housed at the Palazzo Pio near Campo d’Fiori.

In the early 60s when the couple first visited Civita, much of the town was in a state of extensive disrepair, as noted above. Zarina and Heywood had the foresight to envision the value and potential to restoring buildings in Civita, and their training as architects gave them the skill and vision to make it a reality. But it took hard work and many years. Zarina handled restoration projects for some of the first buildings in Civita in the late 60s for architect friends, leading the wave of reclaiming these beautiful structures. Tony recalls how difficult it was to get workers to even agree to work on a project in an area as remote and difficult to reach as Civita. There was unreliable electricity to run power tools and pozzolana, the volcanic ash cement used here as mortar for the tufo buildings, needed to be mixed by hand. But they persevered.

Civita was enlivened further still when Zarina established the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltowns program in this ancient borgo. Starting in the late 70s and continuing for 30 years, architecture and design students had the opportunity to spent two months in Civita every summer, living with local families and learning the lessons of continuity and change in Italian architecture. In 2007, the pair donated a portion of their own personal restored property to NIAUSI, the organization that is funding my Fellowship, to establish the Civita Institute as a permanent study center in Civita.

These, then, are the real saints and saviors of Civita…the people who loved the city, saw its potential and worked to ensure that it would not become “la città che muore.

For visitors in any context, doors hold special significance. Here in Civita, since I am most certainly a visitor, I’ve found myself taking a particular interest in them, although I am hardly alone in this respect.

Here in the Civita Institute’s Sala Grande there are years of archived materials from the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltowns Program, which was based here in Civita di Bagnoregio and conducted for many years by Astra Zarina, one of the co-founders of the University’s Rome Center. After spending several hours browsing through the materials, it became obvious that doors and gates (and windows) occupy a good portion of the students’ study, but with a noticeable difference in focus.

Student projects tended to document architectural styles, details, age, and construction materials. My interests lie more along the lines of discovering and describing the enormous variety of doors here in Civita, every one of which seems to have its own particular beauty that it carries along with its long, imagined history. Many in fact are wonderful examples of palimpsests, something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. And then, there is their meaning.

The English word “portal” is, in fact, derived from the Latin portalis or Italian porta which means “door” or “gate.” Doors and doorways have been symbolic across cultures for as long as history has been recorded. A door is, of course, both an entrance and an exit, so it has been associated with portals and passageways on many levels throughout history. Doors are closely related to gates and thresholds because the three share some very similar symbolic features and sometimes work together to create passage.

Doors were first seen in recorded history on paintings inside Egyptian tombs. The ancient Romans had advanced architectural elements and were known to have used single, double, sliding, and folding doors. Fun fact: the Roman god Janus is the god of doors and doorways (which makes him, naturally, the god of beginnings, endings, and transitions.) Doors still continue to symbolize all of these elements today.

First and foremost, a door is an entrance. On a literal level, this will usually lead to the inside of something (a house, building, or other structure). But on a metaphorical level, a door can become an entrance to nearly anything, although in ancient art it is most commonly used to symbolize the entrance to another world. On a personal level, a door might symbolize whether you are an intimate or an outsider.

The other common symbolism for doors, and one that particularly interests me, is transitions. At the simplest level, a door or doorway symbolizes the transition and passageway from one place to another, or can symbolize the passage from one world to another in religion, mythology, and literature. But a deeper meaning arises when doors, gates, and passageways serve as symbolic transitions for individuals experiencing change. Most of us have a memory of taking a deep breath before crossing some kind of threshold, be it to an interview, a meeting with a teacher or mentor, or a dining room filled with happy, laughing people, none of whom we know.

Doors are associated with privacy, control, and protection much more than a welcoming, open-view gate. Often a doorway provides little view to the other side when closed. And when open, we generally take far less notice of them.

Taking that step across a doorway also means you’ve crossed a threshold and thresholds are typically boundaries or points at which two places (or cultures or experiences) meet. It is where two worlds come together and provide the traveler a point of passage. Crossing the threshold means taking chances and leaving the past behind. All appropriate musings for a visitor in Civita, and rich mapping material.

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