Silk’s Post #55 – More writing lessons learned on the road. This week, I’m soaking up history and culture in Rome. I have my own offbeat idea about what makes this ‘The Eternal City’.
Probably like many people who are not European history scholars or actual Italians, I’ve always thought of Italy as Old World. As a county that’s been around practically forever. It’s an easy assumption to make. All those ancient ruins! All that foundation of western civilization stuff! Latin as a language! The place is absolutely drenched in history.
But here’s the part I must have not paid enough attention to when I was goofing off in history class: although the story of Italy begins somewhere around the 9th century BC, Italy as a unified nation only came into being in 1861 – almost a century after that New World whippersnapper, the United States.
Before that, it was a continually evolving collection of city states, duchies, kingdoms and republics which each had its own unique culture, dialect, governance and claims to fame. And although the Republic of Venice, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Papal States, the Kingdom of Sicily and others all had their day in the sun in later times, nothing compares with the grandeur of the Roman Empire – which lasted nearly 1,500 years, at one time stretched from England to the Middle East, and ruled over 50 million people in the first century.
So what makes this city so eternal? And why is it still so vibrant, so classy, even while Italy struggles as one of the EU’s worst economic basket cases? What puts Italy on everybody’s bucket list, and continues to make it a culture, arts and design leader? Oh, yeah, and what does any of this have to do with writing?
My theory: Italian culture has a survival instinct that continually repurposes, reuses and recycles the kind of creative genius that made the Coliseum in ancient times, the Sistine Chapel in the Middle Ages and Ferrari cars today.
Walk around the Foro Romana and the Coliseum, and you’ll see chunks of exquisitely-carved columns littering the ground like common debris. Sore-footed tourists plop down on these priceless shards of history to rest up after standing on the endless entrance lines and moving like a human tide around the massive oval of the arena. Once a column, now a bench.
Earlier our guide, Roberto, pointed out a corner of one house along the narrow, cobbled streets of an older neighbourhood during our walk towards the ruins. In the neoclassical facade, dating from the 19th century, an ancient Cipollino marble column had been incorporated as a decorative element, recycled from some ruin. Roberto said this kind of re-use of artifacts is ordinary. Apparently, the Vatican took great advantage of ‘pre-used’ architectural materials and elements in building the stupendous Saint Peter’s Cathedral.
The same kind of repurposing, reusing and recycling can be seen in other aspects of Italian culture, like layers of pentimento in an over-painted work of art. The cultural DNA continues to find new expressions, but never disappears. Somehow you can park a Ferrari in front of a Roman ruin and actually see the family resemblance. They just seem to go together, the ancient and the modern, and the latter owes something to the former.
So, back to writing.
We often talk about the intimidating ‘blank sheet of paper’. Of how daunting it can be to start from ‘square one’ and create something from nothing. That whole cop out doesn’t work for me anymore, and it took a trip to Rome for me to realize why it’s such a stupid analogy.
We never start from zero, not really. That’s ridiculous when you think about it. We don’t live in an isolated moment in time, or a singular cultural space, unconnected to anything else. We’re inevitably always starting in the middle of a stream, with our own past – and the accumulated past of human culture – flowing through us, and some as yet unimagined creative destination downstream of us.
I wonder whether we sometimes obsess on reinventing the wheel, when the more productive creative path may be in repurposing, reusing and recycling the rich trove of stories, words and ideas that already exist within and around us. Turning them sideways and upside down, examining them, incorporating them into our own work and reinterpreting them with a fresh voice.
Maybe this sounds like another kind of a cop-out, bordering on imitation or even plagiarism. For me, though, it’s about a more realistic and productive way to visualize the writing process. The analogy of the blank white page is, to me, a negative and false barrier. Another of the million rules and ‘received wisdom’ I’ve been struggling with as an emerging writer. The sense of my own creative process being part of a bigger stream of ideas, words and stories – rather than the solitary quest of one writer facing a blank page of paper – is really about an attitude adjustment.
As all the 5writers have commented in various posts, writing isn’t a solitary profession if you have some friends, a community. But in reality we have much more than that. We have a whole stream of collective creativity – thousands of years of it, right up to the present. When we step into it, we become part of that stream and it can help carry us to a destination we can’t easily reach on our own.
If this sounds a bit airy-fairy, let me paint you a picture.
When Michelangelo poured his genius into the Sistine Chapel and other Vatican treasures, he used to spend his evenings studying the design and artistry of the then-abandoned and deteriorating Coliseum – at some risk to himself, apparently, since the site had become the neighbourhood of thieves, prostitutes and other low-lifes. When asked by a solicitous friend what he was doing there and why he wasn’t home safe in bed like any sane and sensible person, he explained that this was his school. He was there to study the masters.
Yes, to study – and then to repurpose, reuse, and recycle. He then, of course, created his own unique reinterpretation, which we recognize as Michelangelo’s personal artistry. Yet, great as he was, he didn’t really start with a ‘blank sheet of fresco’. Even this master had his own masters, contemporary influences and probably a few sketchbooks of copied ideas.
Ciao from Rome!