Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pacific Islands and Roman Piazza

Despite its great size, there is a modern signifier that most people rely on but fail to notice: the city. Just as natives give significance to natural topography, the geography and architectural elements of the modern city combine to create a language that communicates the values of those that inhabit it. One particular city that speaks with a refined voice ripened over centuries is the Italian capital of Rome. In particular, there is a definitive architectural element that, while simple in form, is able to signify the ever-evolving cultural values of the inhabitants of the Eternal City: the Italian piazza. Like the geographical and cultural maps of New Zealand’s Maori, the piazza can communicate the lineage and values of Italian culture across the centuries.

An intrepid traveler may discover at least three distinct types of piazza in Rome: Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern. The Renaissance piazza is either perfectly circular or square in shape and bounded on all sides by a loggia (or portico) through which men and women may walk; it is often centered on a gushing fountain. This architectural form is reflective of Italian Renaissance thought, which valued classical forms of beauty and unity and promoted social exchange. On the other hand, the later-constructed Baroque piazzas like often lack the loggia, are oval in shape, and centered on a sculpture. While still a central meeting place for inhabitants, the sculpture was meant as an ever present reminder of state power. Each of these ancient forms has given way, however, to the modern piazza: it has no graceful loggia, no trickling fountain, no towering obelisk; they have each been replaced with parking spaces. In a culture where individuals are ever more atomized and social unity and exchange has taken a backseat to productivity, the piazza has reflected this change. Despite these changes, the concurrent existence of these three forms serves to subtly portray the Italian lineage to a careful observer.

Just as one is able to read the history of Rome in its architectural map, Albert Wendt and Epeli Hau’ofa describe how one can read the geographic and cultural "maps" of New Zealand to discover its history and culture. For Hau’ofa, the language one uses to refer to the physical features of his country is a more important a signifier than the geography itself. The signifiers of language have the ability to energize a culture or to stultify it. As he notes, "there is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands.’" (31). The first connotes "a perpetual state of wardship" (30) or dependency on others; a string of "tiny" islands cannot be self-sufficient in the modern age. Hau’ofa argues, however, that this view is only the results of the linguistic signifiers used to describe his home. Like the piazza, the signifier and the referent are able to signify important social realities, whether it is the consolidation of state power or the evolution of neocolonialism. In the case of New Zealand, he argues a change in signifier could alone have a significant effect on the island nations of the Pacific.

In his lecture "Pacific Maps and Fiction(s)," Arthur Wendt describes the importance of the many types of cultural "maps": the geographical, the literary, and the historical. Each of these has a foundation in both fact and fiction, but neither element may be dismissed. We are each born into a "treasure house of oral ‘maps’/traditions" that, along with our location, contributes to our lineage and ultimately our sense of self. In order to gain a sense of oneself, one must strip away the fictions to read the truth. In Rome, the stratified nature of the city allows one view historical signifiers from every era: the lineage and history of Italian culture is literally written on the walls and stones of the city in addition to the history books. By stripping away the myths and popular explanations for these structures, one can discover the rich history and cultural they signify.

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