An early photograph of Rome shows a deserted Piazza del Popolo in the year 1850. That day nothing ought to move, the camera eye had to be open for a long stretch of time. Pictures then taken always bathe either in early morning’s lustrous light or in the sunshine of a Mediterranean high noon. The times that people out there sleep and the photographer can secure his lonely hit.
Sometimes a lens stayed open for too long.
That day a donkey, oblivious of the agreement, had its own rendezvous. Halfway the shot it emerged, a fuzzy shadow strolling through the image, its destiny a standstill at the fountain. The smile of a shadow, immortalized in the Eternal City – like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, a phantom lingering in the tree while its bearer has already disappeared.
The source of that photo I’ve lost. This 19th century image, though, gives an impression:
Perhaps this epiphany serves as upbeat for a little essay on the Genius Loci or the Spirit of Place.
To occupy space, something or someone needs at least one neighbor. Completely alone one is nowhere. Aristotle defined a place as the inner surface of what immediately surrounds it. Beautiful, yet a little obscure.
In sharp contrast to Newtonian physics that antique philosopher was convinced that all and everything is on the way to its predetermined, final resting place. Here memory seems superfluous, everything previous finds its destiny and then, perhaps, disappears. Rest or stasis, in Aristotle’s philosophy, is self-evident, only movement demands explanation.
In our modern perspective nature is always already under way. Not movement is exceptional, stagnation is. Permanently on the road we are, never completely ‘at home’, even in our dreams in search of we often know not what – the source of history. History is what is not any more, at least not here immediately. Only its shadows linger, as documents, monuments, artifacts, music and ruins. The past, when present, resides in our ordered social habits.
In my half year in Rome I hoped to find that ass, if only in a mist of make-believe. Rome’s Genius so I thought. That magnificent city contains an overdose of mementos, so many documents are available. The visitor must decipher palimpsest after historical palimpsest. It seems imperative to transform the ‘site’ into a ‘place’. Place is time gone by, now experienced as a moment with momentum – a power in place.
In his book on the Etruscans* Christopher Hampton attempted to gauge a ‘vision of life’, to eavesdrop on ‘hints and echoes’ and listen to ‘the voices of silence’ dwelling in their artifacts and ruins. That is all that is left – no literature exists, no historical documents, no music. Only ‘the eloquence and expressiveness’ of things bring out ‘shadows’ that Hampton’s mind might meet.
Perhaps in an Aristotelian manner we may consider the seeker Hampton to reach his destiny in Etruria. Yet, how much of the Genius Loci is theirs, how much of it resides in the eye of this alien beholder?
In olden days the Spirit of Place – why not its Imp – resided in the Head of the Household. It was pretty much sedentary. Did that Spirit die with The Man? Or is his spirit able to migrate into the tangible things of the habitat, wandering amongst them, turned into an illusive entity? If so, could this then be the famous Genius Loci the traveler desires to meet?
In its long history, though, the Spirit of Place must have suffered metamorphosis. We latecomers are cleansed by Feuerbach, Nietzsche and, why not, by Marx, Hampton’s great ami. The Spirit of Place has come down to earth. Der Mensch ist was er iẞt – Man is what he eats. The ‘inner surface of what surrounds us’ is of our own projective making.
It remains a reassuring illusion, the idea of a Spirit of Place awaiting the inquisitive visitor. A guarantee as it were, that the anthropologist’s work is not in vain. Yet, we can never discard the assumption that, after all, the Genius Loci resides in that visitor, yearning to find some things rather than others. We are a projecting race.
The Genius Loci – it is one’s Self! One’s biography, one’s knowledge and the literature read jointly compose ‘a site’ which, when visited, may prove to be the place. If, to be sure, one is fortunate enough to find it.
Always hope for this meeting of minds – the concurrence of the Genius Loci with what one hopes to find out there.
* The Etruscans and the Survival of Etruria, 1969
Sierksma, Haarlem December 2015