Monday, September 14, 2009

A Continual Process

The other day we were sitting in Piazza San Stefano, a quiet, auto-free space in front of a network of medieval churches. The buildings on either side of the church were centuries newer—17th or 18th century, mere babies. The detail in these buildings could keep the eye busy for hours. We wondered who the portraits were that were arrayed under the cornice and as we did so, had to resign ourselves to the sad fact that a building like this could never, would never be built again.

Which brings me to a brief discussion of the movie Death Becomes Her. It came out almost twenty years ago and starred Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis with Hair. Since only about five people actually saw this movie I don’t think you’ll consider me tiresome if I outline the plot. Meryl and Goldie, quite by accident, (isn’t it always by accident in these cases ?) discover an elixir that gives them eternal life. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same thing as eternal youth so their bodies wear out and their limbs tend to come off when they throw each other down the stairs. ( You'd think that having eternal life together would create a sort of bond, but they can't stand each other). Bruce Willis is a plastic surgeon and also married to one of them and due to his profession he is continually “on call” to repair damage to them. (It was a totally forgettable movie, not especially funny except for a dig by a witty reviewer who surmised that there must have been one heck of a fight between Meryl and Goldie to decide which of them got to be the blonde).

So why am I bringing this movie up ? Because it reminds me of Italy. Every local government must employ hundreds of Bruce Willises to repair one fading building after another-- cleaning, patching, shoring up, realizing that there is always a next one. Growing up in Chicago, where new buildings are always going up, way up, (often taking the place of lovely older buildings) I find this a strange state of affairs. Architecture here is so much more a question of maintenance than of construction. I picture a group of Council members (or whatever you would call the group that oversees the physical well-being of the buildings.) I imagine them peering through monitors that connect to hidden cameras trained on every quarter of the city. How fretful they must be as they try to keep up with damage incurred by pollution, weather and time…not to mention people. One Council member turns to the other and says, “Did you see the way that kid Boris was rubbing his chocolatey hands all over the stucco ? Those fingerprints aren’t going to come off anytime soon !"

Saturday we visited the nearby city of Modena which is lovely. The Duomo is a fine example of the Romanesque with engaging, even funny sculptural details on walls and capitals. The fa├žade was partially in restauro (under restoration) and because of this, some of the walls were covered with protective cloth (canvas ?) Like many such contrivances, this one’s cloth covering was silkscreened with an exact full-sized photograph of the wall which it was hiding. So we were able to gaze upon the rhythm of the walls arches and its elegantly proportioned pilasters except that they weren’t real. How to react to this ? I have to say that when I see these faux building covers I feel like I do when speaking with a person who has spinach in his teeth. I try not to see it and yet it’s there.

In the larger cities and even the middle-sized ones, there is so much restoration work going on that I feel a little guilty. I want to go up to somebody in charge and say, “Really, I wish you wouldn’t put yourself to so much trouble for us. Honestly, you should see the mess I have waiting for me at home.”

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