Category Archives: Architecture

Natasha Lanzon-Miller: Ghosts of the Archives – An External Website

Image linking to external website

Mary Whittingdale: Rabbits and religion – Rushton Triangular Lodge

“There are three that give witness”. These are the words inscribed on the entrance of Rushton Triangular Lodge. They are a quotation from the first epistle of John 5:7 and refer to the Holy Trinity. As a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, the Trinity was a deeply personal and symbolic icon for the building’s designer, Thomas Tresham (1543–1605). Tresham was part of the Catholic elite of his time: he was brought up and married into the Throckmorton household (a wealthy Catholic family), had connections to the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and argued that the state should not have jurisdiction over conscience. His eldest son, Francis Tresham, was even involved in the Essex Rebellion, and in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot. All in all, Tresham was a prominent Catholic “recusant” – he refused to conform to the Elizabethan Protestant Church. As a result of this, Tresham was subject to the increasing number of penal laws being passed against Catholics. He was heavily fined and imprisoned on several occasions. It was upon his release from prison in 1593 that Tresham is said to have designed the Triangular Lodge, completed in 1597.[1]

Building made from alternating bands of light and dark limestone.
Image of Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire. CON_B06344_F017_077, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

The number three runs through every vein of this folly-like building. As well as its striking triangularity, the building exhibits three triangular gables on each façade, a triangular chimney and windows, and trefoil shaped windows (the emblem of the Tresham family). Each of the three walls is 33.33 feet high.[2] The Lodge has three floors – the main room of each one being hexagonal, thus leaving three corner spaces triangular (see image of the ground plan). On the exterior of the building, there are three biblical texts in Latin, each 33 letters in length.[3] One wall is inscribed “15” (3 x 5) another “93” (3 x 31) and the last “TT” (presumably Tresham’s initials). The text of 1 John 5:7 is written in Latin, Tres testimonium dant, which might be a pun on his family name: his wife Merial Throckmorton is known to have referred to Thomas as “Good Tres” in her letters.[4] Above the Latin are the numbers “3333”. Evidently, Tresham liked the triadic holy number.

Image of the entrance to Rushton Triangular Lodge with Latin inscription above doorway. CON_B06344_F017_081, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

But Tresham’s building of Rushton Lodge was subversive as well as spiritual. The dissidence of such a novel building should not be downplayed. The peculiarity and obsessivity of this project invites the imagination to run wild. One wonders whether the space ever housed contraband catholic images, candlelit discussions with Jesuit missionaries, or perhaps even a clandestine meeting between Francis Tresham and his fellow plotters. Despite its intriguing design, the Triangular Lodge is thought to have fulfilled a rather more practical purpose – the accommodation of Tresham’s head warrener. A warrener was someone in charge of breeding and managing rabbits for the constant supply of food and skins.[5] The earthwork and buried remains of a rabbit warren can be found adjacent to the Lodge.[6] Indeed, the building is often referred to as “The Warryner’s Lodge” in documents from the Rushton estate.[7] For such a rebellious and ornate building, the Lodge appears to have had a rather quotidian function.

Image of ground plan of the Lodge which shows the hexagonal shape of the rooms and three triangular corners. CON_B06344_F017_076, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

Considering this, the Lodge’s existence seems somewhat contradictory – a highly decorative and puzzling façade which housed plain whitewashed walls and simple accommodation. Further, the secrecy that surrounded Catholic worship at this time appears completely at odds with this small building. For many Catholics, Elizabethan England was a place of illicit masses, of “Nicodemite papists” who secretly refused to internalise Protestant doctrine, of priest holes and the hiding of underground missionary networks. The era was thus characterised by outward secrecy and inward defiance. But the Triangular Lodge flies in the face of this trend: it conceals nothing, its design is testimonial and bold, yet, peculiarly, there is nothing religiously rebellious in its mundane function. Perhaps, therefore, the Lodge is most subversive in its decorative non-necessity – the performative nature of the Lodge’s nonconformity stands out. Its rebelliousness is explicit and unapologetic – a statement of Tresham’s Catholic faith.


Mary Whittingdale
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Bibliography:

[1] Britain’s Premier Independent Heritage Website, “Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire”. Available at:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110904021016/http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/misc/rushton_lodge.htm (last access: 16 September 2021).

[2] Historic England, “The Triangular Lodge (1052038)”, National Heritage List for England. Available at:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1052038 (last access: 16 September 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] English Heritage, “Rushton Triangular Lodge”. Available at:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rushton-triangular-lodge/ (last access: 16 September 2021).

[5] Britain Express, “Rushton Triangular Lodge”. Available at: https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=3532 (last access: 16 September 2021).

[6] Historic England, “Rushton Triangular Lodge: an Elizabethan warrener’s lodge and rabbit warren (1013826)”, National Heritage List for England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013826 (last access: 16 September 2021).

[7] Britain’s Premier Independent Heritage Website, op cit.

Hailey Sockalingam: On Chandigarh

When Swiss architect Le Corbusier responded to popular agitation against his design of Chandigarh city, India, with the wry anecdote “I am like a lightning conductor… I attract storms”, it was clear that he had created two cities, but heeded one.

The project of Chandigarh was commissioned by Jawarharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in 1950. Nehru imagined a city that would serve as a clear symbol of India’s break with the past, in the aftermath of its independence. It was born of a deeply paternalistic vision that, providing its architects could innovate the right formula, the shapes of its urban space would exert a transformative and “civilising” influence on its inhabitants. This remarkable confidence in spatial determinism might, in one sense, make Chandigarh the closest we come to observing a postcolonial vision. Throughout the city, Le Corbusier distils Nehru’s vision of India’s modernity into a “city of rectangles and pure volumes”; the “symbols of perfection”, as he described them. This modernist construction was one arm of a wider comprehensive plan for India, through which Nehru envisioned an enlightened state which would propel its citizens into modernity through a programme of rapid industrialisation and economic planning – all guided by the principles of rationalism, secularism and social justice.

Photography is a forgiving medium through which to record a claim to human mastery. A photograph is necessarily reductive in some sense, and it is in this way – as a series of reductions – that we are most able to envisage Chandigarh as Le Corbusier intended; as the product of a victorious “battle of space, fought within the mind”.

The photos in the Conway Library, taken principally during the construction of the Capitol and the city’s early years, capture the instant when Nehru’s ideal loomed most plausible in the eyes of those who encountered it. Pausing at each photograph in the digitised archive some seventy years later, it is almost possible to be persuaded by them: the clean elegance of the Secretariat building, poised dramatically against an empty landscape. Le Corbusier sat soberly in front of an anthropomorphic map, on which the Capitol government complex sits elevated like the head on a human body. The “rippling, beautiful rhythm” of the Assembly Chamber, designed to give space for the circulation of high ideas – strikingly different from the classical vocabulary of the British Raj. These photos of Chandigarh at its most persuasive have gained a complex novelty, as their optimism is increasingly set apart from a growing body of works documenting their natural decay in the passage of time. Against the plethora of anxieties about the future that attend life in the twenty-first century, there is an undeniable charm to the vision of confidence offered by the photos.

Yet this evocation of rupture from the past does not bear scrutiny.

Artwork by Hailey Sockalingam. CON_B04391_F002_031, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

In taking a closer look at the ideas that undergird Chandigarh as a symbol of modernity, it becomes clear why the city falls so easily into dialogue with the architecture of the British Raj. Whilst Nehru opposed the British imperialist claim that India required western tutelage, he embraced the basic framework of human “development” upon which this was premised. This development, a historicist discourse in which human societies around the globe could be placed on a temporal scale from barbarity to civilisation, was a principal means through which Britain legitimised its imperial venture across the world from the eighteenth century. In The Discovery of India, Nehru sought to rework this framework, by drawing instead on the historic achievements of India’s Indus Valley Civilisation to posit a theory of modernity as cycles of development and decay. In this way, Nehru’s thought stops short of a complete reconstitution of imperial modes of thought, and it can be difficult to tease apart Orientalist tropes of India’s decline from his own invocations for modernisation.

The spirituality of India was one of the key targets of Nehru’s conception of backwardness. He dismissed the religiosity of people in India as “absurd”, and attributed it not to their own world experiences, but to the “exploitation of the[ir] emotions” by elites. The imperial resonances in Nehru’s vision for India can be usefully set against Gandhi’s alternative projection of Indianness, and its embracing of Orientalist depictions of village India. Taken together, they provide a powerful insight into the postcolonial dilemma; the apparent impossibility of asserting an identity that is oppositional to, but not restricted by, the terms set out by the imperial power.

If Le Corbusier understood his role as architect as commensurate with puppet-master then he, like Nehru, underestimated the agency of the city’s people in staking the terms of their lives. Even the photos in The Courtauld’s collection, taken in the city’s early years, hint at numerous sites of contestation and the quiet persistence of traditional Indian mores with Le Corbusier’s metropolis. Le Corbusier designed the city around a series of single purpose zones, neatly separating the residential, industrial, leisure and government elements of city life. He appears to have operated under the assumption that, if placed in the spatial context of a middle-class commuter lifestyle, incoming peasant masses would be transformed into a socio-economic position to fill that role.

The photos in the Conway Library hint at the way the city’s people defied Le Corbusier’s rigid prescriptions; buffalo and goats are crammed into tiny spaces outside the geometrical houses, shacks are set up next to the highway. In the residential area, dubbed the “container of family life” by the architect, residents opened small shops in the ground floor of their houses, and maintained the local principles of caste, kinship and religion in areas purportedly organised by administrative rank. We might think of Le Corbusier’s design as laying the groundwork for two cities; the perfect geometry of the Capitol, set against the rhythmic irregularities of its inhabitants’ lives.

In this light, Le Corbusier’s response to popular agitation to his stringent demands is telling. His aggrandised sense of his own monumentality as a catalyst for modernity precluded him from heeding the unshakeable influence of the city’s people in determining the quality of their own lives.


Hailey Sockalingam
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Sydney Rose: Building Endurances in the Courtauld Digitisation Project

During the first years of The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer program, Peyton Cherry wrote about how the project aims to capture materiality. Cherry emphasizes how “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5 in Cherry, 2019). In her blog post, she discusses how the digitisation project aims to contain as much of the materiality of the photographs as possible and to preserve context. Cherry outlines how the project seeks to keep texture, marks, or stains visible in order to reproduce “the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections” (2019). When I joined the Courtauld project a few years later, I hoped to extend her ideas further and contribute to the ideas about the project itself, by highlighting that the documentation of materiality also encompasses the evidence of decades of connections between the photograph and its use.

Cherry already outlined in detail the methods that The Courtauld uses for this digitisation project. The policy, with the salient points outlined below (Fig. 1), is a part of a method which ensures that the photographs and prints are not reduced to what our Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson calls “a point zero,” or a photograph contained within a timeless bubble which neglects context; Bilson’s approach to this project directly counteracts this trap in photographic theory. Again, this method is not about scanning the photograph, but photographing the photograph. In this way, the use of this object is also documented through its inclusion of handwritten notes by the photographer, labels written by curators, or numbers indicating categorization. Further, when photographing the collections for digitisation, raking light is often used to reveal a sense of depth through shadows and to illuminate small markers of use such as marks or tears. When the digitisation project includes each of these markers, the materials become signifiers of even more information, and document not just the subjects of the photographs but how everyone who has encountered that photograph has engaged with it.

Fig. 1. Digitisation manifesto from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

Popular photographic theory follows Berger (1972) and Barthes (1977) to propose these photographs as moments frozen in time. This aligns with most reception theory, where photographs are a freeze frame fragment of time to be seen in the present. However, the methods and outcomes of this digitisation project emphasize that these are not frozen in time at all; instead these photographs are endurances which reveal our engagement with them through time. These photographs endure across time to show us that the collections refer back to themselves and to every time they have been used.

For example, the boxes containing the work of Tony Kersting boxes are labelled by his own hand, with his accompanying instructions regarding how he wishes his work to be published or cropped. Within these boxes there will also be unique identifying numbers, handwritten by volunteers, that are used to organize the collection. There may even be some small damage from an intern who was just learning how to handle museum artefacts or how to use the high-res camera. In the image below, we see that the digitised collection does not neglect to reflect on its own existence when it includes the record of its own organization and interactions (Fig. 2). Here the image contains the stories of contact between the photograph and the photographer, the individual curators, the museum structures, and the intern.

Image showing magnified portion of final digitisation product, indicating shadow and depth as well as the inclusion of handwritten notes, from Future of Library Symposium

In another example, the photo below has two different styles of handwriting and a typewritten label (Fig. 3). These were likely all made at different times possibly by different people. This photograph is a part of the collection of images from the Ministry of Works documenting the damage from the bombings of WWII, with this specific photograph showing the damage to the parish church in Lambezellec, Brest. This Catholic parish still holds mass in 2021, though during the 2020 lockdown, there was an incident wherein the building was damaged again as some of the items were upturned and the lamp of the tabernacle was stolen (Ouest France 2020). Father Jean Baptiste Gless says that despite this incident, he will continue to leave the church doors open in the mornings so that people can come pray (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. CON_B05711_F001_042. Image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, from the Conway Library
Fig. 4. The open doors of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambezellec
Fig. 5. Internal view of the stained glass windows of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambézellec

In 2021, I came to the Courtauld project and added another tangible layer to this part of the Conway collection (Fig. 6). The layer I have added is of the undamaged church, before the bombing. Now, the image features both moments in time. This layer is not just the visible layer I superimposed but also the contribution to the knowledge around the histories of the photograph and collection. Each time we write about a photograph or engage with it in any way, we add to the histories and build upon those histories. Here, we play with time but we do not freeze it to what Tom Bilson calls “year zero.” This visual creation is especially interesting as it shows how this additive layering moves beyond the original image, stretching off the screen and reaching off the canvas.

Fig. 6. CON_B05711_F001_042: image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, with image of the undamaged church superimposed

On a theoretical level, I am also building on Cherry’s work in the same way that the collection builds on the work of hundreds of volunteers and in the same way that each engagement with the collection builds on earlier engagements. Ultimately, how the collection is digitised is not just about the photographs which end up digitised, but includes the entire history of how we have interacted with the photographs. Each engagement between curator or volunteer, writing labels or making small oily fingerprints, is a critical part of the material world created by the photograph which, through this long process of use, becomes less of an abstract digitised image and more of a museological object containing its own histories.

This project refuses to exclude evidence of its own existence. In digitisation initiatives, it is crucial to step back and look at the full scope of materiality to see how the collection is not simply materials but also the histories of how we interact with these materials. This project does that every time it records not just the numbers of archival boxes but pictures of those boxes. As Cherry (2019) suggests, the Courtauld collections are not simply photographs but cultural artefacts in and of themselves. Every picture which is not cropped, every edge revealing depth, points to the full histories of this collection and how every volunteer has become an integral part of that story.

 


Sydney Stewart Rose

Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Doctoral Researcher, Pitt Rivers Museum
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford
Linacre College

 

References
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: London.
Barthes R (1977) The Rhetoric of the Image. In: Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang: New York.
Cherry P (2019) Journey Through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity And Distance. The Courtauld Digital Media Blog, July 1. http://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/
“L’église Saint-Laurent dégradée à Lambézellec.” (2020, April 5) Ouest France. https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/brest-29200/brest-l-eglise-saint-laurent-saccagee-lambezellec-6800809

Caterina Domeneghini: Beyond Ruins – New Insights into the War Damage Collection in the Conway Library

Has not that ruin, say he, a good effect?
A Dialogue on Stowe, 1746

The Conway Library

War-time ruins have always exerted an inexplicable fascination on the observer – a puzzling and not infrequently morbid sentiment that has been targeted as a serious object of academic enquiry since at least the aftermath of World War II. Besides provoking an undeniable and undeniably problematic aesthetic pleasure – one should only think of Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value (Ruinenwerttheorie), by which he persuaded Hitler that they should only employ materials that would make “good ruins” in the event of collapse during their architectural plans for the Third Reich – ruined monuments and buildings have also been exploited as a political tool. They have been constantly overwritten, either literally or figuratively, by the activities of bulldozers and cranes, bricklayers and architects, as well as journalists and photographers commissioned to record the revival of a city.

The purpose of the following article is, broadly speaking, to explore concepts of ruination and transformation, drawing from the war damage collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Known informally as the Ministry of Works bequest, it comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Europe towards the end of World War II. The collection is part of the Conway Library, which takes its name from writer, traveller and mountaineer Martin Conway. The first Director General of the Imperial Museum of London and Professor of Art at Liverpool and Cambridge, one of Conway’s chief interests was photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage. The Ministry of Works images continue precisely that tradition: taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland, they record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of annihilation.

What these pictures capture, as we shall clearly see, is the pars destruens. They crystallize a single moment, and that moment is desolation, devastation, destruction. But this is not the whole narrative. As much as the images speak for themselves, they also leave much unsaid. There is a hidden story behind these photographs, a story of human efforts and contributions to the process of preservation, rebuilding and revival, which successive generations have perpetrated in written documents and oral narratives. At a time when cultural heritage is still dangerously under threat in many corners of the globe, it is all the more imperative to continue to fill in the gaps. This article encourages us to do just that. We desperately need a pars construens; that part will be equally explored here, by taking advantage of the invaluable potential of ruined infrastructures to present themselves as a challenge to be either replaced or restored – as they were, in fact. The unfinished nature of ruins, by definition, creates a sense of superseding that invites the observer to inscribe them into a narrative of progress. For every part we see in the Ministry of Works photographs, there is a part that we do not see, which acts as a catalyst of imagination, an engine of speculation. A ruin bears the trace of unscripted possibilities. In so doing, it generates questions on the process of reconstruction and its dilemmas: whether to reconstruct or to preserve; how much to reconstruct; whether to construct anew rather than to rebuild.

The Pleasure of Ruins, and Beyond

In 1953, English writer Rose Macaulay, a civil servant in the War Office, published a ground-breaking and controversial study on ruination, the first of its kind, entitled Pleasure of Ruins. Her approach, as her introduction and the title of the book itself point out, is that of a pleasurist (some would rather say of a voyeur…). Often criticized for being excessively self-indulgent, Macaulay offers complacent incursions into “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind”. She argues that “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol”. Starting with the ancient world, her account ends with a two-page coda, “On the new ruins”, foregrounding the conjecture that the devastation evident across post-war London and other parts of Britain will one day be looked on with admiration, just like we now admire the ruins of antiquity.
On a very superficial level, Macaulay must be right. There is an undeniable aesthetic component to decaying buildings and crumbling monuments: they provide a treasure trove of encounters with the eerie and the unexpected. As we first approach the Ministry of Works photographs without context, we might gaze in awe, for a moment, at the oddly unique shapes that missing bricks and huge cracks conferred onto the architecture captured in a snapshot (figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. The Conway Library
Fig. 2. The Conway Library

There is an element of honesty to these photographs, which equates them to the apocalyptic stories and dystopian novels that many of us also adore. Even if they represent the worst possible scenario, such narratives still feel real to us as we know too well that human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes. The devastation of WWII, so harshly and honestly depicted in the images, is probably the closest to apocalypse we have ever drawn (figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. The Conway Library
Fig. 4. The Conway Library

In addition to that, stories predicting the future speak to an innate desire to have control over our fate; we seem to appreciate ruins because, in a similar way, they trigger our imagination. They encourage us to think of elsewhere, a phenomenon that works in two directions. One the one hand, to perceive a ruin is to recognize that it has once been otherwise, and thus to travel back in time; on the other hand, the ruins captured in the photographs increase awareness of the present and future condition of our society. As photographer Yves Marchand, co-author of Ruins of Detroit, puts it, “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you’re going to be – you can see all those three at the same time”.

The main limit of Macaulay’s approach is that it is unidirectional. She makes the example of traveller Mr Thomas Coryat, who arrived on the Trojan shore opposite Tenedos in 1612. After seeing extensive ruins, the remains of a goodly fortress, marble pillars and sepulchres, he spent his afternoon guessing: one of the sepulchres must have belonged to King Priam; the fragments of the great buttressed wall on his left were first built by Ilium when he enlarged the city, and then rebuilt by Priam. I suggest we need to go further than that. We cannot simply self-indulge in the pleasure of fantasizing about what was once there, driven by mere antiquarian frenzy; when looking at these photographs, we must think of what is now there, just like the soldiers and civilians in situ must have imagined what was going to be there once restoration was completed. “Exploring abandoned buildings isn’t about revelling in their collapse at all,” argues Dylan Thuras, author of the foreword to Dan Barasch’s Ruin and Redemption in Architecture. Upon recalling an adolescence spent in the thrall of deserted flour mills in Minneapolis, now partially restored structures, he evaluates such imperfect architecture as occupying “a shadowy liminal space between self-destruction and the possibility of rebirth”.

We can infer from the visual examples below how this whole process of imagination, moving in limbo between destruction and rebirth, might have worked for the observers of the time, looking grimly at the ruined buildings around them, and works equally well for us today as we examine such buildings in the photographs. In images 5 and 6, René Levavasseur – the architect charged by the French government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche – is caught scrutinizing the damage of two churches in Normandy.

In fig. 5, he lists damage to the beautifully sculpted bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower – an unfortunate victim of the fighting for the beachheads nearby. Confronted by ruins without being intimidated by them, his serious and attentive gaze makes us think that he was already anticipating in his head the steps and strategies through which the reconstruction of the tower might be carried out, leading us to wonder in turn whether and how this actually took place at all. Here, imagination gives way to historical documentation: archives of Le Monuments Historiques inform us that reconstruction works were undertaken in 1949, after a deeper and more resistant foundation for the church had been secured. The square floor of the bell tower was completed in February 1950, followed by the stone spire in August of the same year. Finally, in October 1952, the building was returned to worship. In fig. 6, similarly, Levavasseur is shown holding a gargoyle “knocked loose from the tower of the cathedral at Carentan before American forces drove the Nazis from the area”. There is both intimacy and remoteness in this picture. The architect holds the gargoyle firmly with both hands, as if a father with his child, but also keeps it at a distance, in order to better scrutinize it. Again, his expression suggests he has full awareness of the exact spot the piece will occupy after reconstruction. This photograph gives out very strong ritual vibes. Levavasseur almost looks like a priest holding a newborn during some religious service, laden with symbolic meanings. A new life is brought into the community and exhibited triumphantly before the eyes of its participants. A new life, by the same metaphorical token, is also given to the cathedral: the gargoyle will be inset back into the tower.

Fig. 5. The Conway Library
Fig. 6. The Conway Library

Ruins and Bodies

I found it a funny coincidence that so many of the buildings hit by the blow of war were cathedrals, churches, places of worship. In these images, the desolation of conflict blends with a vacuous, sinister spirituality, almost verging on mysticism. Ruins shelter the spectres of the past while standing for an uncontrolled present. And such is a present in which very little faith remains. “There is Auschwitz, therefore there can be no God”, Primo Levi famously asserted. Just as God has abandoned men, men seem to have abandoned God. In the images below, the crucifix, the only element left intact among ruins in a deserted land, becomes an almost surreal symbol of such a legacy. In fig. 7, a crucifix still hangs from the rafters of a severely ruined church in Erkelenz, Germany, damaged by artillery fire in February 1945; in fig. 8, a battered cross survives, bending, in a battle-scarred roadside shrine in Dahnen, where no trace of human presence can be found. The Church, no longer the living and breathing body of those assembled in worship, is reduced to a speechless mound of matter. Yet at the same time the very integrity of the cross, a leftover functioning as an ironic symbol of defiance in the midst of so much destruction, must have represented a glimmer of hope for many a passerby. Perhaps it is true, as Professor Charles Lock has written, that one of the secrets of ruins is that “inasmuch as they retain a trace of spirit, of motion, they speak to us of something other than perdition”.

Fig. 7. The Conway Library
Fig. 8. The Conway Library

That must be as true for monuments as it is for bodies. In fact, the architecture and people in the photographs seem to share similar histories. Buildings are as maimed as the invisible corpses of soldiers and civilians who fought around and for them. Indeed, a fallen stone or one still standing might be analogous to the human body, Lock has suggested: “the upright stone reminds us of a person standing, liturgically; that which is cast down was once, like a corpse, a spirit’s dwelling”. The collection offers some glaring testimony of the tense, uneasy co-existence of ruins and civilians, whose complex relationship would only be fully healed with the passage of time, by means of concrete urban intervention and re-planning. Fig. 9 shows a man cycling undisturbed through the streets of Palermo, in spite of the bleak view of crumbing Palazzo Trabucco marked in the background by cracks resembling the bites of giant jaws. Life goes on amidst wreckage: not giving up your daily business was as powerful a form of resistance as concrete military manoeuvres, sometimes. The same sort of disquieting blending is manifest in fig. 10, depicting the interior of the Cathedral in Messina – which underwent a controversial and not fully transparent plan of reconstruction from June 1943 to August 1947. The photograph captures a man standing still, as if striking a pose amidst debris of wood. In so doing, he almost becomes part of the triptych behind him, the Altar of the Pietà.

Fig. 9. The Conway Library
Fig. 10. The Conway Library

On the other hand, several pictures from the collection keep for themselves some crucial hidden truths, and it is down to us to uncover these through historical research. It is not so widely known, for example, that the urgency of starting reconstruction works at Montecassino – where the famous Abbey had been reduced to little more than a sandcastle by the bombing of May 1944 – was dictated by a humanitarian motive other than a merely moral, or for that matter artistic, one (fig. 11). The bodies of dozens of civilian victims who had not been able to leave the monastery before the bombing lay buried under the debris. Their discovery and burial would only have been possible with the removal of the rubble. When people can finally stand up and pull themselves back together, then it is also the right time for monuments to rise again from the ashes. Succisa virescit are the words that can be read on the coat of arms of the Abbey – literally meaning “cut, it grows back”. And indeed for the fifth time in its history, despite the difficulties caused by the post-war period and its widespread destruction, the Abbey of Montecassino was brought back to the light. The restoration aimed to reproduce the original structure and was carried out from 1948 to 1956, under the direction of engineer Giuseppe Breccia Fratadocchi. Two hundred and fifty workers took part in the project, working side by side with the monks embodying the mantra of their master Benedict buried there: ora et labora. The statues of the benefactors – popes, kings and princes – which had originally occupied the Chiostro dei Benefattori (Cloister of the Benefactors) were placed under a canopy. In a rather curious turn of events, the statues now looked at these other humble benefactors working with zeal, having no treasures or privileges to bestow but their hands. All the church coverings, marbles, mosaics and sculptures were also restored.

Fig. 11. The Conway Library

We can contrast this extraordinary story of successful cooperation and resilience with a less fortunate one, again from Italy, which can nevertheless function as a memento to the importance of implementing strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in times of conflict. The Church of Santa Maria in Passione on the hill of Castello, Genova, was severely damaged by two aerial bombardments; the first, on 22 October 1942, caused the roof to catch fire, but the most destructive was a second attack on 4 September 1944, which almost razed the top of the hill of Castello to the ground. The bombardments almost completely destroyed the frescoes and caused serious damage to the outer walls, some of which had to be demolished (fig. 12). The monastic complex remained in ruins for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a project devised by the Municipality of Genoa and supervised by architect Ignazio Gardella gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the area with the construction of the new headquarters of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Genoa on the site of the former convent of San Silvestro, the Niccolò Paganini Foundation and the headquarters of the Permanent Urban Observatory, created to promote initiatives for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the historic centre. Starting in the 1990s, another project (“Progetto Civis Sistema”) envisaged more conservation and restoration work. However, this was interrupted in 1997 and the site was completely abandoned. Everything was enclosed with barbed wire. It was only in 2012 that a group of students decided to break the fences and clean up the area. Since then, Santa Maria in Passione lives almost exclusively thanks to the support of citizens through donations and voluntary work.

Fig. 12. The Conway Library

Concluding Remarks

So, to reprise the question from which this article started: do ruins have a good effect after all? The answer is yes, I would say. But it should be remembered that for every good effect there is always a price to pay. In tracing a history of destruction and reconstruction through painstaking human efforts, I have tried to raise awareness of how essential the preservation of cultural heritage is for the wealth of communities. Several collaborative strategies have been implemented for this purpose both before and during World War II, as we have seen.  Examples feature the Service des Monuments Historiques in France, of which the abovementioned Levavasseur was a member, founded in 1830 and charged with several “passive defense” and reconstruction measures as early as 1935; or the Roberts Commission in the US, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies (the “Monuments Men”) with the aim of both protecting works of art and buildings from deliberate destruction and of returning them, so far as possible, to their owners or the appropriate local authorities. Similarly, after the conflict, international organizations acknowledged the urgency to create conventions to protect sites and artifacts in conflict zones. UNESCO, among others, was established in 1945. However, as several speakers at the Courtauld talk Post-conflict: Art History and Cultural Heritage in Dialogue on 15 June 2021 illustrated, UNESCO and world heritage have been criticized for many failures in recent years, including that of deterring the destruction of heritage during times of war. There is need for greater cooperation between different groups – professionals in the field and governmental authorities in primis, but also scholars, local organizations, and no less the general public. As the example of Santa Maria in Passione demonstrates, ordinary citizens are often in a unique position to help when the threat of destruction, deterioration or looting looms over them. The very significance of the Ministry of Works collection, which has never before seen in its entirety as a consequence of being spread across hundreds of boxes, is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project at the Courtauld, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported entirely by volunteers. If ruins, as it has often been suggested, are essentially “democratic” – their appeal is for everyone, from children visiting a site for the first time to experienced archaeologists – then their protection and revival becomes, by the same token, a universal responsibility.

 


Caterina Domeneghini
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Humanities, Oxford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Lorraine Stoker: The Hop Exchange

Audio Version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text Version

The Hop Exchange is one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the South Bank/ Southwark area. In fact, Southwark was for centuries associated with hops, breweries and coaching inns with the local area being the centre of London’s brewing industry. All road traffic from Kent, Surrey and Sussex came through Southwark with Borough High Street and Old London Bridge the only land route from the south into the city until as late as 1750. Eventually traffic began to by-pass the Borough as hops were transported by railway to London Bridge Station, or by boat up the River Thames.

A photograph of the Hop Exchange in Southwark. The photograph is a close up detail of the classical style pediment (triangular detail) above the front entrance. The pediment features carvings of hop harvesting figures and plants.
‘London, Hop Exchange’, detail of design by RH Moore. CON_B04088_F001_008. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

The Conway library image CON_B04088_F001_008 draws your attention to the portico and the tympanum, with the hops and malt crop depicted either side of the ‘hop picking’ central scene, indicating the importance of this industry to London. This building was designed by R. H. Moore and built in 1866-67, and although it is neoclassical in design this was not just an idealised vision of ancient agriculture: in reality the same hop picking scene was visible in the fields of Kent until the late 1950s.

Traditionally, the impoverished local population and Londoners would descend on the Kent hop farms. This ritual saw mainly women and children (with male overseers) hop-picking for a few weeks every year to supplement their meagre income.

The tympanum (the decorated area) clearly shows the long hop bine hanging from above, being pulled or cut down for the women to pick the hop flowers. (Hops have ‘bines’ rather than ‘vines’, with ‘hairs’ rather than tendrils to help them climb).

This Pathé newsreel gives an excellent and accurate account of the process of hop-picking and an insight into the so-called ‘holiday spirit’ of the families who travelled to the hop fields to bring the harvest home.

Close up of CON_B04088_F001_008. The carvings show hop harvesting figures and plants.

The photograph in the Conway library of the Hop Exchange portico is not ‘picture perfect’ in many ways: it is oddly cropped and at something of an uncomfortable angle. However, I chose it as a starting point for this blog for several reasons. Born and bred in Kent, I have fond memories of hop-picking with my grand-mother, with the smell and the beauty of the hops and making mud pies with other children. Almost sadly, within a few years, mechanisation was to spell the end of this labour-intensive tradition. On reflection, it is also an indication of the vast improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Post-war Britain, with food rationing coming to an end, an increase in the social housing building programme and a society who wanted better for the next generation.

It is ironic that this beautiful grade 2 listed building actually had a very short life as a trading floor for the hops and the brewing industry. Some hop firms did rent the offices within the Hop Exchange but it was built too late to be effective or profitable and fell into disuse in the early 1900s. To understand why, we need to understand the industry. The building had eleven storage areas and was intended to be used as a single market centre for dealers (like the Stock Exchange) where trade was conducted on the trading floor. The dried and packed hops travelled to London and were originally intended to be viewed under the gallery roof which provided the natural light needed, even if the hop picking season started in September and inspections took place in February and March. Unfortunately, for the Hop Exchange, the buyers acting on behalf of the growers – called hop factors – now owned their own showrooms and acted very successfully as middlemen. Just a little further south from the Hop Exchange there is still the façade of an original hop factor showroom owned by W.H & H. LeMay (No. 67 Borough High Street). Its frieze also shows a scene of hop picking. Within such showrooms hop merchants would buy on behalf of the brewers.

A photograph showing WH and H le May Hop Factors Southwark by Lorraine Stoker. The building is a terracotta colour, and above the windows the name of the hop factors is displayed along with carvings of idealised hop picking scenes.
WH & H LeMay Hop Factors, 67 Borough High Street, Southwark, photograph by Lorraine Stoker.

Selecting CON_B04088_F001_008 was also an excuse to showcase the beauty of the interior of the Hop Exchange. Southwark’s hops came from Kent and the symbol of their origin can be seen in this beautiful interior of the Hop Exchange. The main hall is a vast open atrium with three levels of ornate balustrades with hop plant ironwork decoration. The green of the ironwork contrasts beautifully with the red of Kent’s county arms – Invicta – a white horse on a red background, and the muted cream tones of the paintwork. The interior draws us in, almost envelops us – not merely to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and long-lost memories of childhood, but also inviting us to stand in awe of the Victorian design.

A photograph showing the inside the Hop Exchange, by Lorraine Stoker. This is a view of the central hall, with three levels of balconies around the hall, all decorated with green ironwork with red details, and a huge skylight.
Inside the Hop Exchange, by Lorraine Stoker.

The Hop Exchange building exudes a confidence both with its name and design but what started as a ‘speculative building’ became too great a risk and the venture failed miserably. Originally the Exchange was two stories higher with a glass barrel-vaulted transept for natural light, but a fire in 1920 saw the removal of these damaged levels and the building was then used for offices. Acquired by a private company specialising in property investment, development and management in 1983, this company then restored and transformed the interior, changing the dirt and tarmac flooring (highly suitable for its previous trade) to a Victorian style replica. The building remains a general-purpose office and event venue, and successfully conveys a very functional, business-like environment.

There were many similar floor exchanges across London (originally eleven in total), including the Coal, Metal and Stock exchanges. However, wartime bombing, redevelopment and modernisation have left the Hop Exchange as the last remaining Exchange building in London. It remains a grand Victorian commercial building, gently following the curve of the then newly constructed Southwark Street, which had been laid out by Joseph Bazalgette in 1860 and opened in 1864. Although Grade 2 listed, its future can never be assured given the tide of demolition and facadism within the Borough of Southwark.

Alessandro Torresi: Wanderers / wonderers through the Roman night

At night, when people fall asleep, the city wakes up and starts to live. And this is particularly true for Roma. There is something mystical about this eternal city which seems to transcend the reality we live in. Only at night, when the streets get empty and there are no tourists wandering through the narrow alleys and hidden corners of the city, you can truly feel what it means to say: “I am in Rome”.

Roma is a protective mother who guides us from street to street, ancient palace to ancient palace, in a perpetual quest to understand the essence of our fragmented life. And as we walk, we might notice lonely and adventurous wanderers who are stuck in the same quest. And as we pass each other, we feel our nostalgia growing, even if we don’t know why. It is like we are aware that we are missing something in our lives, or that we can never fully have it: but the melancholy caused by a lack of love, success, or happiness is heartened by the warm arms of Roma.

Roma is a protective mother who cannot be fully understood. You feel loved, you feel protected, but you cannot fully understand why. You just know that you must keep walking and you must keep passing people by. Roma is unreachable, because thousands of years of history are shown off with pride every inch of the city, but you constantly sense a decadent presence that confers to the city a folksy halo.

Roma embodies the ‘Cabiria’ character in Fellini’s “White Sheik”. When the bourgeois character Ivan is sitting at night in an empty square, crying because his wife has snuck off to meet her soap opera idol, he is the lonely vagabond who’s oppressed by social conventions. And when he is lost for words, in despair, the prostitute Cabiria suddenly appears, whose only way to show love and support is by making jokes and by keeping things light. Cabiria and her friend Assunta look at the pictures of Ivan’s wife, making silly but loving comments, raising Ivan’s spirit up. Roma, as Cabiria, will never take you seriously, but it will always make you feel comforted and at home.

A still taken from “The White Sheik” where an open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.
A still taken from “The White Sheik”, 1952. An open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

I become that adventurous wonderer every time I have the occasion to visit Roma. Coming from a very small village located in Southern Italy, I have cultivated, since I was a child, a fascination for Roma. The capital was just a four-hour drive from my village, but my family and I were not used to travelling a lot. So, when we visited our cousins in the city it almost felt like we were travelling to the other side of the world. Roma was on the national newscast every day; Roma was the place where my fellow countrymen were going to try their luck to find a job; and Roma was the city where my older cousin was attending University. There is a very special unsaid tradition in my family that tells you that every time you leave the village, you have to wave goodbye to every relatives’ home. And I remember those moments, when my cousin had to return to Roma, as heart-breaking and painful, feeding my view of the capital as “The” destination with no return. Even today, although travelling has become a more common thing for me to do, when I visit Roma, I feel in the same way I used to feel when I was a child.

Last August, for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my family and I decided to take a two-day trip and there couldn’t be any other destination but Roma. We arrived in the late afternoon and we were supposed to leave the following day after lunch, so we had just one night. I was really looking forward to walking through the city centre when I could have spent some time really enjoying the empty city.

It was 3 am. While my parents and my brother embarked on the impossible mission to find an open ice-cream parlour, I ventured to walk around Piazza di Spagna. I climbed the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps and, reaching the top, I was dazzled by the view: the city enlightened by hundreds of tiny yellow lanterns. It reminded me why I love Roma so much. You can get bewildered by the grandeur of the architecture, but you never feel uneasy.

On the way to re-join my family, I suddenly felt observed by two stone hollow eyes. It was like being trapped in one of those oneiric scenes of Fellini’s movies. The city was alive, and it was peering at me. I instantly remembered when I visited the Cinecittà film studios for the first time and I got hypnotized by the majesty of the Casanova’s Venusia. This massive sculpture of a crowned head, which had been made for the opening scene of the movie directed by Fellini in 1976, now stands at the entrance of the historical studios. The hollow eyes that confronted me that night were, in fact, just the entrance of the Hertziana Library of Zuccari Palace, one of the largest History of Art research sites in Europe, but I really had the impression that the huge mouth of the creature was a magical portal to enter a parallel Roma. A photograph by Anthony Kersting held in the Conway Library as G19688 captures this strange doorway.

Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari, in Via Gregoriana, Rome. By Anthony F Kersting.
Two furious eyes reveal the entrance of Zuccari Palace, Rome. Photograph by Anthony Kersting, “Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari Via Gregoriana, Rome. KER_PNT_G19688. The Courtauld.

It is funny how an elusive glimpse can take you to impossible places. But this feeling is quite common when you visit this unique labyrinthine city. It is the atypical and the bizarre that transform Roma into a human, into a mother. The intrinsic contradiction between the sacred and profane, between the solemn and familiar is the blend that continues to attract hundreds of wanderers every year. If you arrive alone, you will have the city to keep you company. The towering fountains, the cramped cloisters, the wide arcades, the charming churches are a multitude of faces that will guide you through the city, that ascends to the eternal because every vagabond will leave a peace of their soul that will live the streets forever. And at night, when it’s just you and the city, strange miracles can happen.

Ben Britton: Building Independence – the Kenyan Parliament

Audio version

Text version

Anthony Kersting’s photographs of the Parliament Buildings in Nairobi illustrate, rather neatly, the contrast between the two stages of its design. The first section, built in 1957, was commissioned by the colonial government, whilst the second was completed, by the same architect, following the country’s independence in 1963. The architect in question was New Zealander Amyas Connell, who, following a career in the UK in the 1930s, relocated to East Africa, and eventually attracted the attention of Kenya’s British governors, who sought a suitable design for Kenya’s post-independence parliament.

However paternalistic a gesture, the building and its history tell a complicated story which reflects a wider trend in the Global South, whereby international cooperation and modern architecture were implemented as part of the decolonisation process, and coincided with the adoption of policies of Non-alignment.

A photograph of the Nairobi parliament building, taken by Anthony Kersting. The photograph is black and white and shows the modernist clock down rising up from the low buildings. The photograph is catalogued as KER_PNT_G06606.
‘Nairobi, National Assembly Building’, by Anthony Kersting, KER_PNT_G06606. Kersting’s ledgers date this photograph to the 12 March 1968. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

The most prominent aspect in the first image is the clock tower. It was not, however, included in Connell’s first draft, and instead represents his response to the criticisms levelled by the British, who considered the designs not English enough, and lamented that it did not look remotely like Westminster. Indeed, the coolness and near-classicalism of the surrounding buildings represent not just the modernising of Kenya’s political environment but were designed more than anything in response to geography. The Modernist architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who did a considerable amount of work in Lagos, Nigeria, had recently published an influential and detailed study of Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone[1], which demonstrated the practicalities of the Modern style in equatorial countries. So as to appease the British, however, Connell included the central clock tower (then the highest building in Nairobi), a modern mock-up of St Stephen’s tower. There is something comically absurd, however, in its reduction to pure rectangles, and the omittance of Gothic detailing anywhere other than the clock-face itself.

Drew and Fry’s influences extended beyond the African continent. Most famously, they were invited by Prime Minister Nehru to be part of the design team headed by Le Corbusier for the new city of Chandigarh, a symbol of India’s post-independence development. Architectural Modernism was a prominent feature of many newly-independent nations, and, even in countries in which it was implemented prior to the end of colonial rule, a unifying feature of many Non-aligned countries.

Founded in Belgrade in 1961 and rejecting formal alliances with either of the Cold War superpowers, the Architectural Modernism movement allowed for communicative processes beyond those of ‘Iron Curtain’ politics and bloc-formation. As well as the work of Western architects, architectural historian Łukasz Stanek details the Modernist buildings designed by Eastern Europeans in a variety of Non-aligned nations at the invitation of post-colonial governments, as part of a process he deems “socialist world-making”[2]. Although not a founding member of the Non-aligned Movement, Jomo Kenyatta represented Kenya at the 1964 Cairo conference of these countries, and the parliament buildings represent an important addition to the Modernist practices and ideological implications which developed in the Global South.

A print of a black and white photograph of the parliament building in Nairobi, taken by Anthony Kersting. This photograph is catalogued as KER_PNT_G6608.
‘Nairobi, National Assembly Building’, by Anthony Kersting, KER_PNT_G06608. Kersting’s ledgers date this photograph to the 12 March 1968. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

These ideals are nowhere more stark than in the second section of the buildings, in which Connell takes a decidedly Corbusian approach, and which incorporates a sculptural frieze depicting the triumphant victors of the independence struggle. It is a shame that Kersting did not take a detailed picture of the frieze (the sculptor of which is unknown) as it is the most direct affront to the pro-British sentiment of the earlier section. His photograph does, however, demonstrate the fluidity and breadth of the National Assembly Building, housing the Kenyan parliament’s lower house. It is, in its architectural form, a testament to the newness of the country, both domestically and in playing a role on the international stage.

As Dennis Sharp writes, the building is an attempt “to develop a new and relevant architecture appropriate to the burgeoning political situation”[3]. The employment of the Modern style, which was implemented across Nairobi consistently in the post-independence period, was by no means constitutive of socialistic revolutionary activity; it was, however, and remains to this day, a demonstration of a solidarity shared across the Global South, to participate in international politics on the basis of positive neutrality, and to maintain relationships, architecturally or otherwise, beyond the division of the world into colonial and military blocs.


Ben Britton
Digitisation Volunteer

References

[1] Drew, J., Fry, M. (1956). ‘Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone’, Tropical Housing & Planning Monthly Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 2-7

[2] Stanek, Ł. (2020). Architecture in Global Socialism, Princeton University Press

[3] Sharp, D. (1983). ‘The Modern Movement in East Africa’, Habitat International, Volume 7, Issue 6, p. 323

Alessandro Torresi: Craco and the fascination for the abandoned

I was 16 years old when I moved to my current house on the hill in Marsicovetere, Italy. I remember that the first thing I did, after throwing my stuff on the bed, was to put on a pair of comfortable shoes to reach the tiny, abandoned stone house I could see from my terrace. I ran along a footpath by the wooded coast directly to the entrance of what I later learnt was, in the late 1960s, the humble house of a family of farmers. I imagined some children looking out from the turquoise window, spying on their parents working the land, checking if they had enough time to plan a bit of mischief. That ordinary abandoned house became a powerful spark that made my imagination and curiosity wonder and flourish.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite days of the year was Good Friday, when the entire village would walk the Way of The Cross. Through the narrow streets of the old town, we would march to reach the abandoned monastery at the base of the mountain which, once a year, became the designated spot for the representation of the last stations of the Passion of Christ. For me, the folklore of this unique day was better represented by the image of the abandoned monastery; a ruined place, inaccessible for 364 days of the year, that for just one day could be reborn as an agora (meeting place) for all the peasants.

I have always been fascinated by abandoned places and by the special mystery of worlds that could have been but, for adverse reasons, stopped accomplishing the purpose for which they were built – I bet that each one of you reading this piece has at least one memory that took place in an abandoned site. Maybe it is because we like the idea of finding ourselves in a situation of danger (perhaps we even dare to imagine being witnesses of nefarious night-time crimes). Maybe it is because everyone has felt abandoned at least once in their lives; so it’s like we can claim to be the temporary owners of places that have seen a multitude of lonely explorers stepping inside and thinking they are the first to have discovered such a mysterious spot all for themselves.

While working on the classification of the photographic collection of The Courtauld’s Conway Library on Zooniverse, a series of pictures of St. Hilarion Castle in Cyprus caught my attention. Before I could even realise, I started to imagine what it must have been like when the castle was at the height of its use as a defensive fortification during the Byzantine Era.

The first picture below shows the ruins of the cistern of the castle. What was once one of the most vital places of the site – since a high storage of drinkable water can play a significant role for an island with drought problems like Cyprus – is now a cistern of abandoned memories that cannot be re-discovered anymore. I thought about the splendour of Byzantine chapels, with their iconic coloured cupolas, and I felt a sense of nostalgia and melancholia when I saw the second picture, which shows the remains of a once-glorious chapel. St. Hilarion Castle appears to be perched up high, and its rock walls defend a past made of secular traditions that cannot be replicated. It is as if the stone walls of the third picture were hiding a mythological creature who is asleep and waiting to live again.

Of course, this is only my perception but what I really want to stress is that heritage sites like St. Hilarion Castle are fundamental for our cultural consciousness. They stimulate our curiosity towards the past, but they stimulate also new visions of the future pushing us to think about how we can avoid the same mistakes that led these beautiful sites to perish, and how can we start again.

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is blurred at the top (a finger over the lens, or maybe some fog!). In the bottom 2 thirds of this landscape oriented photo you can see an old stone wall with an arched wooden doorway nestled in the middle. The place looks like a ruin, but it's a close up shot so hard to tell what the surrounding area looks like.
St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom right on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is taken inside the ruined castle. Here the damage is clear: what was once a domed or vaulted roof is now open to the sky. The walls are in various states of disrepair, with jagged brickwork exposed. This must once have been a grand room, but now it's empty.
St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This photo is down the hill, looking up at the castle. From here, it looks like the castle is perched on the edge of a sheer rock face. The castle is clearly overgrown with plants, and the roof is clearly damaged. It's a plain, square, stone building, stark against the landscape.
St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom left on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

What intrigued me the most about the images of St. Hilarion Castle was their resemblance to the memories I had of a once abandoned Italian village called Craco, nowadays a popular touristic destination.

Craco, perched high on a hill. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

In 1963 a landslide forced the inhabitants of this little stone village of the Basilicata region, situated at the top of a hill surrounded by gullies, to move to a newer town named Craco Peschiera. They had to leave their homes abruptly, abandoning Craco and turning it into a “ghost town”. As the years went by, nature gradually took over, creating an evocative environment where time seems to have stopped. This atypical setting re-entered the centre of the conversation when it was chosen as the location of important international film productions such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004). Suddenly, institutions started to realize the unlimited potential of abandoned heritage sites like Craco. They represent a past that for many years we tried to forget, because they could not fit in the narrative of the fast world, of industrialized and smart cities. Places like Craco, or even the nearby Matera that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been “shameful” for many Governments who saw in them the failure of their vision of progress. They were cut off from the public conversation, existing only in the bitter memories of the people who once lived there.

However, in 2020 we witness how quickly cities stopped being the safest and most desirable place to be. The high density of social contacts in urban areas meant a higher density of Covid-19 cases, and, as a result, large numbers of people decided to move, permanently or temporarily, to the countryside, putting the spotlight on those places that never had the chance to “shine”, and for which conservation and preservation are now of primary importance for the social and cultural wellbeing of the rural inhabitants.

Maybe, my fascination with abandoned sites lies in the idea of rebirth and second chances. A place with no present can have many possible futures. Craco has had its rebirth in 2011; from that year onwards it has been possible to visit the main street of the village with a guided tour that touches on the ancient palaces and convent as well as the ruins of the once inhabited houses. Wearing a protective helmet, you can take a trip through time, travelling back to the 1960s and experiencing a different side of the Italian dolce vita.

Inside an abandoned building, Craco. A single wooden chair is off-centre inside a once-grand, now crumbling room with barrel-vaulted ceilings. A tree is growing, indoors, on the back wall. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

I visited the beautiful yet mysterious Craco last summer. I am used to the slow life of the Italian southern villages, however, I was not expecting to feel such a realistic impression of being stuck in an ancient medieval village, where the only signs of modernity were the “explorers” taking pictures (as you can see from the pictures below, taken during my visit to the heritage site in 2020). I was even more surprised to see many international tourists, which is (unfortunately) quite uncommon for heritage sites in my region.

Scenes from Craco, Italy. Tourists in hard hats explore the ruined streets. Donkeys roam on the cobbles. The buildings are so decayed it’s easy to imagine they are growing out of the hill, rather than falling back into it. Photos c. Alessandro Torresi.

Craco can represent a succesful model, exportable everywhere, of sustainable fruition of an heritage site where human intervention is resepctful of the place’s history and natural environement, while representing an invaluable asset for the local cultural and economic development. It’s abandonment, and its resulting mysterious atmosphere, may therefore save it.


Alessandro Torresi
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer