Mae Camacho: Italia as Text 2022

Roma as Text

“Sweet Devotion”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Rome
Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

Looking into Ancient Rome was a brutal introduction to the city’s past. From the texts and clues left behind, I can tell how transparent ancient Romans were about their lifestyle and the beliefs they used to build the city from the ground up. The way ancient Romans lived could be described as an extreme. They built a freestanding stadium of a size never seen before just to gather in the thousands and watch fights that would be illegal to host today, and they did so with technology such as elevators and giant sails that the rest of the ancient world could hardly imagine. They built the pantheon to honor several gods in one huge and undiscriminating space designed to make worshippers feel tiny. The oculus at the top, a hole in the roof from which rain and light flow in, appears as a giant eye, like some God peering down and watching your every move. A smaller but similarly dramatic detail would be the story of the Vestal Virgins, worshippers of the hearth goddess Vesta, who dedicated their lives to preserving a large sacred fire within their temple at the Roman forum. These priestesses were considered higher class citizens than other women for cultivating this flame because it was symbolic for the security and longevity of the empire. It was forbidden to spill their blood, and if the fire were ever to die, it had to be relit using the sun’s rays. These are just some details that reflect the ancient Roman lifestyle built around grandiosity, discipline, and a strong sense of devotion. Every legend told and every tradition held- down to the unprecedented and promiscuous way Romans treated sex- seems to show incredible drama. Among many examples, the tale of Brutus, a man who had his own sons beheaded after discovering they were conspiring against the republic, is one that very clearly depicts the level of allegiance that was expected from all Romans. This devotion, to the republic and the gods they worshipped, is one extreme end of a spectrum justified by logic rather than morals. I see the birth and rise of Christianity as a natural reaction to the radical nature of a people that acted on human nature without fearing judgement. Romans had same sex lovers and killed for entertainment so that the Catholic Church could respond by tearing into that promiscuity and introducing a prudent lifestyle justified by morals. In a way, the birth and story of Jesus Christ marked the end of one extreme through the introduction of another, more “righteous” one. If the Romans had introduced their own tragic story of Jesus’ devotion to humanity and if they had guilted citizens into following in his perfect example, would the world be as conservative and as scared of human nature as it now, or is it inevitable that every action comes with an equal, opposite reaction?

Pompeii as Text

“What You Are Now, We Once Were”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Pompeii
Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

This city frozen in time is one of many ancient relics left behind by the Roman Empire. One huge difference is that this city was preserved by the sudden eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, which covered the entire city of Pompeii in ash and pumice rocks. Underneath, not only intact buildings and art pieces, but human bodies remained encapsulated by the volcanic residue, left untouched for the greater majority of 1,700 years before archeologists found it. It’s weird to walk the streets where the buildings are mostly intact and while you’re being told very human details of the things left behind- I don’t like feeling like I’m in someone else’s bones. But as I tried to immerse myself into the Pompeiian mentality anyway, the new reality was fun to imagine. I can’t infer much of the ancient society for obvious reasons except that they seemed as promiscuous as they did in Rome. Prostitutes would associate themselves with the she-wolf and carve penises into the ground that lead to their brothels. They would howl and beckon those that passed by at night, cementing their association. Near the outside of the city, the Villa of the Mysteries housed a primarily female cult that worshipped Dionysus, where the walls show well preserved and life sized portraits of a woman being initiated. The whole panoramic scene reads like a show dance as well as a story, and in one scene an initiate is whipped by another woman with black wings, presumably being corrected. It reminds me of how different womanhood can be interpreted, and how for many women the phrase “beauty is pain” is a reality. What is abhorrent to one is a rite to another as we fill very limited spaces in between male dominated roles. Often, the bubble a woman can grow inside is limited by the narrative created around her, but within the narrative there are never-ending shows of strength, in association to wolves and in cults secluding our practices.

It feels like the city was meant to be temporary. The uncensored ruins show the chaos and consistencies of urban life preserved until the next eruption. The bodies serve to remind us how quickly it can all be taken away, and how death comes not in moments of silence and saying goodbye, but while we are in the middle of taking life in, stepping into womanhood or serving wine to neighbors.

Tivoli as Text

“Ancient Safe Space”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Tivoli
Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

A major aspect of Roman life was the lax sense of sexuality. Ancient Romans had gay lovers centuries before it was even a known lifestyle but while true homosexual feelings were still looked down upon. This didn’t stop the emperor Hadrian from falling in love and then expressing a lifelong adoration for his sex slave, the greek Antinous. Their story is truly one for dramatic romance novels. Although it would’ve been Hadrian’s fall from grace to expose his relationship, the emperor would take Antinous on tours around the region and to political parties, obviously wanting to share his life with the young man. In addition to greek/foreign slaves being considered below Romans, Hadrian was married and had previous male lovers, but the closeness of the two never went unnoticed or unremarked. This prompted him to build a grand and lavish villa out in the countryside where he and Antinous would often travel out to alone, and where he had collections of books, trees, and artwork. The climax of their story is quite jarring, as Hadrian pronounces Antinous to have drowned after falling into the Nile river. It is speculated that while walking alongside, Hadrian had fallen into the river first, and in attempt to save him Antinous went after his lover. Roman soldiers were able to carry Hadrian out, but Antinous would not resurface alive. In his grief, Hadrian had hundreds of statues of his sweetheart commissioned, and went as far as to declare the young man a god. In between being accepting and rejecting Antinous as a god, there is no denying that the emperor’s grand gestures were born out of real love.

The dramatic story of Hadrian and Antinous, of how seclusive yet passionate their lives together were, is not far from how many in the queer community live today. Homosexuality went decades being treated as a mental illness, a sin, and a mistake. Today, although widely accepted and tolerated, is it still considered a tough conversation to have. Many would rather have gay couples stay out of sight and out of mind, insisting that anything more would be forcing a lifestyle. The last time I was in Italy, the pulse nightclub was shot up in Orlando, marking it the biggest mass shooting in the U.S. at the time. 49 queers and allies were shot dead for embracing their sexuality in a safe space, and as a result the community was reminded of how secluded they have to live in order to stay safe. Villa Adriana served similarly as an ancient precursor to safe spaces for queer love (ironically raided after the birth of Christianity). Although legally tolerated and several centuries in the future, today’s society could not handle even casual gay lovers in the way Ancient Rome did. It is imperative to preserve the story of Hadrian and Antinous and several other similar stories by continuing to push for acceptance beyond what was offered to history’s most famous gay lovers. 

Pisa as Text

“Small Borders”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Pisa
Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

The city of Pisa is unlike most areas of Italy I’ve been to so far. Frozen in medieval times, Pisa is one of many European cities that barely escaped the plague outbreak, which kept its growth limited for centuries to come. Although slightly bigger now, this side effect is reflected in the way the city has maintained small borders and a tightly knit local community. Pisa is visited by millions of tourists a year, therefore exposing it to outside influences almost 24/7, and is practically run by the younger population, making it a pretty tolerant city.

Nearing the leaning tower, there comes a plaza in which collectors and creators gather to sell antiques and valuables, like jewelry of crystals said to have different healing powers. Just a few decades prior, these crystals would be considered an immoral practice. It would be censored as pagan. And yet today vendors gather freely, excitedly sharing their knowledge with foreigners who may or may not even believe in the practice. The city is renowned for one of history’s most famous scientists – Galileo Galilei. Science and religion hardly mix, and yet this city brings the two together through one man. It is said that in the cathedral in the field of miracles, Galileo observed a swinging chandelier that inspired his theories of pendulum physics, and from the leaning tower it is rumored that he dropped two balls of different mass to prove that they’d land at the same time. Today, science is considered almost the antithesis of Catholicism, and yet the birth of dynamic physics occurred in a church.

Right as you exit the train station, a wall nearby homes a giant mural by Keith Haring, a gay artist from the 1980s that suffered from AIDS. In the 1980s, the AIDs epidemic was a taboo subject. It was an unspoken crisis because of the stigma surrounding homosexuality, and yet, in 1989 a young Pisan invited Haring to share his art to the public. Although a simple art style, Haring’s work exists to inspire nothing but happiness. It’s bright and fun and full of abstract figures, which in this painting perfectly symbolize the inclusive nature of Pisa. To name a few subjects, Haring painted a cross made of yellow figures to represent both health and unity, a figure holding a child to represent fertility and parenthood, and a half dolphin/ half man creation to represent the ideal relationship between man and nature. Some other figures could be left up to interpretation. To me, the yellow figure seemingly shaped like a multi-layered cake represents self-evolution. The twisted and stretched person next to it is being literally and figuratively flexible. They are both symbols of growth and acceptance. Throughout the piece, Haring perfectly captures a city with small borders and a giant heart.

Firenze as Text

“A Second Renaissance”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Firenze
Taken by Mae Camacho. CC by 4.0

Moving and enthralling, Florence is a city with much to show for its influence over the renaissance, especially in its preserved art and architecture. The humanistic style of renaissance architecture made its grand entrance once the plague simmered out across Europe and more artistic and innovative thought began to rule the art world. The time of the Black Death was a devastating era for the world, in which tens of millions of people died and regular life was interrupted for good. The grandiosity of renaissance architecture reflects the way societies began to feel inspired after escaping decades of troubling, medieval times. Does this sound familiar?

Renaissance architecture is characterized by immense domes and symmetrical spaces, as well as the incorporation of logic and perspective in art. This can be reflected in Florence’s duomo over the cathedral of Santa Maria, which stands tall as an architectural marvel about 600 years after being designed by Brunelleschi. Today, most important buildings, like city halls or offices, are characterized by flat rooftops and a blocky design. There are no painted dome ceilings or classical arches and columns (excluding more historical pieces like the White House and the Lincoln memorial). Modern architecture is still mostly symmetrical, but it isn’t made to look grand. Buildings today are mostly constructed around practicality and space optimization. In many ways, it lacks the inspiration needed to tell a story about the 21st century. However, much like the story of Brunelleschi and his rival, the pressure for an artist to be the best in their field can often produce remarkable architecture. Fortunately, the egos of architects all over the world still inspire designs that push the limits of architecture. Everyone wants to leave their mark on the world as the greats once did, leading to era-defining monuments such as the towering 432 Park Avenue in New York, or the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama.

In most recent times, we are beginning a slow ascent from what is the COVID-19 pandemic. Life will return to normal in some aspects and yet continue to be troubled for years to come. The pandemic has been a mass trauma to the world, but with how desensitized society is I’m not sure there will be a second renaissance to come. In a world of constant input, we recover too fast to remember the grief that art is inspired by. However, in a few years time I still hope to see an outbreak of thought-provoking architecture, marking the beginning of social and artistic change that we desperately need.

Cinque Terre as Text

“Cultivating Pride”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Cinque Terre
Taken by Mae Camacho. CC by 4.0

There is a unique community pride in Cinque Terre surrounding the food grown there. The pesto, the lemons, the fruit- in restaurants they emphasize words like local, specialty, and homemade in ways that other regions don’t necessarily have to privilege to. This can be attributed to the way the five cities have protected themselves from becoming real estate to larger corporations that know the land is a hotspot for tourists. Instead of selling out, they take on the ever-increasing tourist population themselves and operate in a way mostly convenient to locals. A local grocery store refused to budge their midday break hours to open for a passerby, a move that would’ve made a Publix CEO drop dead. Another man gets unfortunately turned away from Sanctuary Soviore deep in Monterosso’s mountain, and it’s clear that almost every hotel in the area is completely booked. However, the locals don’t resort to rapid expansion and building large scale resorts, despite the massive profit it would bring. To an American long exposed to capitalistic behavior, the pride Cinque Terre communities have in remaining original is refreshing. 

In other countries, food grown locally is most often grown for export. It’s produced in the masses with the main intention of supplying a foreign demand. This makes way for exploitation, quantity over quality, and products that can’t have as much intensive care as possible. Mass production and corporate takeover is a recipe for disaster. Often, locals in the labor field will work out of necessity and for little benefit under extreme working conditions as companies look to wring the most output from the least input. By avoiding takeover, Cinque Terre also avoids the disaster that is labor exploitation and the loss of quality in their famous food. Keeping the cities belonging to the original people cultivates a happy community that can’t be found in most other places. I think anyone can enjoy a dinner the most knowing there is dedicated, and passionate work put into the food straight from the source to the table.

Venice as Text

“Unlikely Successes”

Mae Camacho of FIU at Venice
Taken by Mae Camacho, CC by 4.0

Venice has survived for just under 2,000 years with physical improbability in two ways. For one, the entire city sits on over 10 million pillars of pine tree in a relatively shallow lagoon. It sinks to different heights in different places, causing Saint Mark’s Campanile to lean at a slight angle, and allowing the city to sink at night when the tide comes up. In fact, the famous bell tower collapsed once in 1902, when its structure gave away to years of damage and lightning strikes, and Venetians threw its remains into the sea in a dreary funeral procession. This is the literal physical improbability of the port city. But the city is also an anomaly because of its origins. Venice was built by refugees of barbarian attacks after the collapse of the Roman empire, and people from all over Italy fled there until it was officially established as a city. There was a power vacuum in the beginning, and foreigners who understood the profit in Venice’s location also became threats to the city’s autonomy. Venetians had to have known the rarity and value of their way of life- free from a terrorizing higher power and immensely rich from trade. In an unlikely series of events for a medieval city, the wealthy families of Venetians understood the need for a figure head and started the tradition of the Doge. The duke-like position that resisted a conversion into a hierarchy. In a sense, the city had an oligarchy in motion back when it was uncommon politics. Someone well versed in history would expect some sort of corruption or overthrowing in the doge’s 1100-year reign, but the aristocracy of the merchant class were surprisingly able to keep the power in the hands of the citizens. Venice swiftly rose in power after its establishment and in the face of improbabilities. The fact that refugees from different backgrounds got along well enough to start a city, that Venetians managed to ward off conquerors while in a power vacuum, that the Doge institution was kept mostly pure and protected, and that the city’s secrets, prestige, and technologies were kept from releasing- these are all successes rarely ever seen in history. If it was improbable then, it is twice as unlikely for a city to have the same origins today, and infinitely as hard to keep city-wide secrets. Modern globalization makes a Venice 2.0 close to impossible, but it is amazing that what survived the odds is still standing in greatness today, showing us what can be achieved by cooperation and unity.

Author: maeteor

I make art sometimes, write always, and occasionally enjoy it

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