The Palatine is one of the seven hills of Rome. It is the central-most hill in Rome, rich with history, and one of the oldest parts of the city. The origins of the city began on the Palatine and artifacts that predate the founding of Rome have been excavated there. Its importance cannot be overestimated and yet I came to find a large selection of historical Roman maps rendered the Palatine hill in a vague, ambiguous manner up until the 1600s. The poor rendering of the Palatine hill struck me as metaphorical. The poetics of its poor rendition seemed hold multiple meanings and somehow felt like it connected to my work.
A bit about my recent work: my paintings move between representation and abstraction and depict folded, stacked, and stored blankets intermixed with architectural structural forms such as arches, scaffolds and semi-domes. The forms are rendered ambiguously -- shifting between landscapes, still-lifes, and figurative painting. Within this language of form, I am interested in hidden spaces and dominant spaces. Currently, I conflate the Palatine hill and its palaces with systems of power such as patriarchy.
Looking over the many inaccurate renderings of the Palatine hill, I felt like I was unfolding a hidden place….though what is hidden, I am not sure. Map after map, the hill was never rendered the same way twice. Was this due to the fact that the palaces of the Palatine hill were in ruin? Was it that each draftsperson chose to not look but rather to imagine the ruins? Was it that these ruins were so non-descript that they lead to such vague rendering? I see this as an analogy about how difficult it is to render something that is large and nondescript, with no beginning and no end. A thing that seems to exist yet has no form or shape. It is indefinable and seems infinite. I see a correlation between this and what I think of and render in my work.
While I looked at the maps, I also became interested in this hill as a site for forgetting. Due to their ruined condition and ambiguous forms, the artist had to handle these remnants as abstractions. What to do but to invent what it is? When accuracy is the impetus for the action of map making, what does one create when certainty is an impossibility? From actual form, the map makers render blobs, lumps, and vague wall forms with a few arches, a window-like hole, and even scratchy marks. Instead of looking, they looked to their imagination to make a hint instead of render. It is an act of looking and looking away. Sometimes we go to abstraction to explain the unexplainable or vast.
The act of looking away has its own power and history with this hill. The Flavian Palace, aka Domus Flavia, was built by Emperor Domitian, who, after a long and authoritarian reign was assassinated by his own senate. They quickly decreed that “his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated”. This order is known as a “damnatio memoriae”. With this thought in mind, the fog that surrounds the hill is somehow fitting. I see similarities between the “damnatio memoriae” decree and my use of the Flavian ruins for my own meaning. I am erasing what was before to make a new association that will mingle with some remnant of the original.
As a way into expressing this idea, I colored and cut up the maps, thus highlighting the ruins’ shapes. Highlighting in a pinkish purple, the resultant ambiguous forms seem hard to fathom, hard to define and hard to control. Forms that were intended to display power and divinity of an absolute ruler are now funny blobs in a cheery pink.
I also made a separate page in which I highlighted the Colosseum in the same color for contrast. You can see that which is recognizable -- such as the Colosseum with its similarities to a wheel on its side -- is something that is easily remembered and recorded. It is graspable.
As I worked on this image in Photoshop, what I found intriguing is that the ruins of the palace became abstractions of “ruin-ness”, an ideal of that which is a ruin by each artist. To render a thing that is ambiguous leads to abstracted form. My takeaway from this is that like many things that are ambiguous, the need to avoid a clear rendering (because it is unknowable) is a logical path taken. Your mind becomes a stand in for the real; this stand in is idealized and abstracted. Something about this reminds me of larger ambiguous forms such as patriarchy or systems that seem to shift out of reach and are difficult to know or navigate, let alone to change or eradicate. The history of this ambiguity of rendering the Palatine hill is a precedent that I continue in my work.
The Presence of “Damnatio Memoriae” in Roman Art, Lauren Hackworth Petersen, Notes in the History of Art. Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 1-8
Le Piante Di Roma I, II Amato Pietro Frutas, Istituto Di Studi Romani, Proprietà Leteraria E Artista Riservata 1962
Ancient Rome in the light of Recent Discoveries, Rodolfo Lanciani, Benjamin Bloom NY, 1888, 1867