Landscape, music and the road

I often drive down Portway, the Roman road that leads to Salisbury and beyond, and with the right CD playing, a trance like state is induced as the landscape flows past. There is something about landscape, movement and music that work together perfectly, and the popularity of road movies is hardly surprising. Two of my favourite road films are ‘Radio On’ (Chris Petit, 1979) and ‘Badlands’ (Terence Malick, 1973), both of which exploit brilliantly the way music, landscape and movement can establish a state of mind. For those who have not seen these films, the plots are quickly summarised. In ‘Radio On’, Robert, a disc jockey, drives from London to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother. On the way he meets a series of strange and dislocated characters, and the film ends in frustration and doubt. In ‘Badlands’, an American film set in the 1950s, Kit, a twentysomething drifter who fancies himself as a rebel James Dean, takes off on a killing spree across the mid-west with Holly, an impressionable teenage girl. With the law closing in on them, they head off the road towards the badlands of Montana. Visually the films are very different. Petit takes us on a black and white trip down Westway and the M4. Tower blocks alternate with waterlogged countryside, shabby backstreets and, in the film’s final moments, a huge and horrible quarry. ‘Badlands’, by contrast, is gorgeous to look at, infused throughout with a dreamlike beauty. But essentially both films work in the same way, each director using landscape and music to allow us to enter the mindset of his characters. The grandeur of the American west complements Kit’s perception of himself as a hero of myth. And Robert’s half-life (he deejays in a biscuit factory) is underscored by the bleakness of the world around him. Then there is the music. In ‘Radio On’, an edgy New Wave soundtrack creates a mood of aggressive disenchantment. Robert sips beer in a roadside bar as Wreckless Eric belts out ‘Whole Wide World’. In another pub we hear Lene Lovich’s ‘Lucky Number’ (not so lucky for Robert, as moments later he is decked by a pool player whose arm he has jogged). Ian Dury consoles the workers in the biscuit factory with ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’. In ‘Badlands’ too music is used to reveal different psychological states. The film’s leitmotif – Carl Orff’s ‘Gassenhauer’ – has an otherworldly quality in keeping with Kit and Holly’s diminishing grasp of reality. And the naivety of their romance is hauntingly portrayed when, with their options running out, they waltz together in the headlights of Kit’s stolen Cadillac to Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘A Blossom Fell”. I have never owned a car with SatNav, but I have never been without a CD player, and the idea of a long drive without music is just not on. Soon I shall be driving down another Roman road, Ermin Way, en route from Cirencester to Cheltenham. What will I be listening to? I am happy to let you know in due course. But it is worth noting that ‘Land Observations’ has now joined my in-car collection.

DJ Roberts, 2013

I came, I saw, I rolled my suitcase —

Roads that the Romans built in Florence

Saturday came around again. Another ragged, multicoloured column of adolescents passed by under my window, each pulling a suitcase over a sounding board of stone paving chevron-grooved to keep pedestrians upright in slippery conditions.

The roll of assorted valises has spontaneously composed itself into a kind of municipal anthem of twenty-first-century Florence, played incessantly in every street of the centro storico at any hour on any day. Orchestrated by the migratory patterns of global tourism, it is an anthem conferred from outside and constitutes the soundtrack of today’s processional routes, the ones established by visitors seeking out the addresses where guidebooks advise they stay.

Main streets and side roads resonate with a monotone concert of baseline rumbling as hard tiny plastic wheels rotate on steel axels low-slung beneath compact baggage. Subtly inflecting this steady low tone are insistent staccato clicks chirruping from contact with the grooves. Above both bounce a purposeful gurgling which adds an unexpected harmony, concentrated in who knows which part of the miracle motion of modern luggage.

Unobtrusive despite its ubiquity, this mechanical muzak insinuates itself into the general bustle of the city, like weaving in a textile. From Santa Maria Novella, where trains and coaches halt at the 1930s railway station, its minimal melody courses along Via de’ Cerretani before taking any of three turns to the right: at Via de’ Tornabuoni, Via Roma or it holds until after the Duomo to veer off down Via del Procònsolo.

The undertow of clicks and gurgles rumbles into the main arteries of central Florence with inevitable banality. The roads take it without complaint, though, for not only are they well worn, they are ancient hosts of foreign feet. Previous hordes, less good-natured than jet-wearied tourists, have imported their wheeled hardware and marching songs into unwelcoming Florence. The Germans in 1943 came, conquered and blurted ‘Horst Wessel’ before retreating the following year to the percussive din of the explosives detonated to halt the advancing Allies with fallen historic masonry.

The same routes rang to manoeuvres of Austrians and French in centuries before; to taunts of warring Ghibellines and Guelfs; and to the onrush of rapacious Franks and Goths. We can imagine all approaching their destinations along the same itinerary of thoroughfares, passing buildings that reverberate today with the tickety beat of revolving plastic wheels.

These routes yield uncomplainingly. They have outlived the city’s great history, having been laid down when a place auspiciously called Florentia had only recently appeared on the Tuscan plain beside the River Arno. Julius Caesar’s name is linked with the soon-to-flourish city’s creation. But folklore has a taste for the most august and possibly Octavian deserves more credit for seeing this walled colony planted on drained lowland soil. Tucked inland by a narrow margin, Florentia identified the easiest point around for a ferry to cross the river and put legions, administrators and travellers on the road south to Rome.

Thus Florentia acquired its own roads. Known now as Via de’ Cerretani, Via de’ Tornabuoni, Via Roma and Via del Procònsolo, each of these prime streets of Florence today was a via principalis of that new point on somebody’s map around 41BC. Naturally, the names have changed: the Cerretani and Tornabuoni are relatively recent notables, people of the Middle Ages. In terms of the Classical era, they lived only yesterday.

Via Roma, at least, promises a link with Antiquity. But no Roman dux named it. Instead Il Duce’s regime endowed every prominent Italian town in the 1920s with a road citing the capital, an attempt to engender a sense of nationhood in a country, still today, reassuringly but alarmingly incohesive about its identity.

No, those road names ride the shoulders of ancestors that followed the lines of the first city walls. Tornabuoni was the western flank; Procònsolo on the east; and where Cerretani leads away from the Duomo the north wall stood.

So on that Saturday I was thinking of walking the bounds of Roman Florence. Being the weekend, the question was whether to wait until the approaching working week when surely there would be fewer people around. But there are never fewer people around in Florence: there are just escalating grades of ‘more’. Have so few roads ever been so incessantly pounded as those in this city centre?

It comes, then, as no surprise that any trace of the Roman past lies a metre beneath today’s surface. Venice may be sinking because of global tidal action, but Florence is being pushed down daily, hourly and every minute by the strictly local impact of stiletto, shoe and trainer.

To circumnavigate the Roman city is not a time-consuming objective; by our standards, Classical Florentia did not cover a large area. Nor is it hard to identify the streets because the original gridded plan is discernible today.

But not at street level. Ancient remains are almost unheard of here. One reason is that Florence developed so fast in medieval times that buildings came and went. Another is that Florence is not thought of in terms of Antiquity. The Renaissance is the city’s key cultural brand and it is that tier of existence you can see – and it is, admittedly, magnificent.

During centuries of economic and social foment, new streets have climbed, curved and cut paths, narrow and densely built upon, across and over the first geometric street plan. But that Roman urban ancestor left its mark indelibly on the city. And it is visible from two hard-to-get perspectives – from below and from above.

For a glimpse of the original city you need to peer into basements. That of In Piedi Nudi nel Parco, the self-styled ‘concept store of avant-garde designers’ on Via del Procònsolo, is obligingly visible. The developer of the shop’s modern building made the floor of toughened glass so that beneath display mannequins and racks of clothes are illuminated stubby old walls and the circular aperture of a well.

On the adjacent road surface, the past is neither present nor vestigial but is symbolic. Two concentric metal rings sunk into cobbles of indeterminate date mark the circumference of one of the round towers that were a feature of the city wall. The stones have gone, maybe to lay other roads, but the image remains.

That image of history’s imprint on the present is most powerfully evident from above. It’s best seen from Brunelleschi’s cathedral cupola or in the abstract elevation that a map supplies. Holding the centre of the city plan is a rectangle orientated towards the cardinal points on a compass. Beyond and within this hub streets may dawdle, fan and congregate in messy huddles and ordered grids, pointing this way and that. But that Roman enclosure holds.

Criss-crossing the rectangle are the two thoroughfares that connected the four gates within the Roman city. Every Roman town possessed its cardo and its decumanus and where they crossed was the Forum. Florence has not lost these coordinates. Via Roma and Via Calimala follow the same north-south axis, while the Corso and Via degli Strozzi bring the ancient west-east road into the twenty-first century.

At their intersection now sits the arid expanse of Piazza della Repubblica. A warren of vicoli and pocket-sized piazze known as the Jewish quarter was condemned as squalid and razed to accommodate this monument to hubris. Self-consciously designed as the new forum for a Florence briefly, in the 1860s, the capital of a newly unified Italy, it was once fashionable to sit at the café tables of Le Giubbe Rosse and Gilli. The new Italy was hungry for Roman models of greatness.

The cafés still buzz. The talk of leisured boulevardiers joins the cacophony melding street peddlers’ calls with the tedious repertoires of gypsy combos, tourists’ chatter, the gleeful yelps and rosined-toned hurdy-gurdy notes spiralling from the carousel and, at night, the kitsch crooning that taints the atmosphere around Paszkowski’s forecourt: the transient republic of modern Florence.

The southern extent of the Roman centre departed from the strict geometry of the quadrilateral. It remains unclear whether this deviation occurred on account of bad surveying or, more likely, because of the changed rhythm of the ground as it slid across that open margin towards the river. But the echo of these first decisions informed the subsequent growth of roads and palazzi.

For turning out of Via del Procònsolo into Piazza della Signoria, the square over which the Palazzo Vecchio presides, the road climbs a gentle gradient. That slope is probably what remains of the banked rows of seats in a Roman theatre, the semi-circular structure constructed on the edge of town.

The present-day palazzo sits roughly above this theatre and the walled complex of which it was part. The choice of location was not symbolic (maybe to mark out the city’s medieval patrician rulers as heirs to Rome) as much as it was practical. The Romans built well and for centuries afterwards offered their successors firm foundations, especially important in land once marshy and still traversed by rivers.

And that thoroughness in construction is why main roads follow the Roman roads and why, a few hundred metres from Via del Procònsolo, a fascinating survival of the classical past reverberates in the minds of pedestrians who grasp the significance of the streetscape’s distinctive shape.

West of Santa Croce, across Via dei Benci, a cluster of narrow roads meandera this way and that through small courtyards and beside high-sided buildings that abut the street. Two roads curve quite precisely behind a block that faces the wide piazza in front of the marble-decorated front of the Gothic basilica.

They follow the outline of the Roman period’s most recognisable monument, the Amphitheatre or coliseum. Built outside the Roman fortifications, it marked the town’s growth eastwards. The Medieval buildings that engulf its site prized the monument’s foundations (and, conceivably, abundant materials) and retained its elliptical footprint. The road that echoes its contours continues to acknowledge that predecessor in its name, Via Torta, the ‘twisted’ road.

Roman Florentia reached this far. As Saturday slipped into late autumnal evening, rainwater was cupped in puddles reflecting street lamps in the miniature hill-and-valley surface of the Florence streets of today.

Our era has a strange relationship with history, compartmentalising the past with thematic ideas about heritage. Preoccupied with the present, impatient for a future that also provokes anxiety in us, we seek tangible contact with earlier epochs that are written about but muddied in perception by the fantasising of film and literature. Maybe the past is already inexhumably buried in our minds.  Yet it contains many answers to questions we find ourselves asking about the environment we occupy.

The evidence, after all, is there, resonating underfoot.

Martin Holman 2012

As Molesworth might have said in Down With Skool, ‘any fule kno’ that the impact the Romans have had on us is an unending list of civilising benefits. Just take our roads as an example: they are long, straight, invariably lead to Rome, catalyse industrial growth and are directly responsible for Motorway Service Stations.

The Arts, like any industry, have been blessed by the Roman approach to road building: we now regularly talk about arts and cultural infrastructure as if it were some kind of super cultural highway system. That infrastructure creates the biggest cultural players, determines how they connect with each other, and sets the rules on who else benefits from the nation’s cultural highways. It has its own version of the Highway Code with qualifications, progression opportunities and rules of engagement to boot.

But what happens when the Romans leave town?

We’re seeing the effect of that now on our cultural highways and byways. Roads fall into disrepair. Potholes are rife. Signage points in the wrong direction. We realise we’ve become reliant on a system which cannot do everything it promised to. The centre, as usual, can’t hold and things start to fall apart.

What we forget in this ever increasing gloom are the byways which existed before the Romans ever trampled over our green and pleasant land. We used to have green roads, white roads, death roads and all manner of connections which allowed us to connect with differing communities. With cultural infrastructures such as the Arts Council and local authorities undergoing whole sale restructuring, the Romans are now leaving town too. The exodus of cultural traffic is grid locking our cities and in our countrysides, there are too many lorries for not enough country mile.

Many cultural organisations now can’t rely on the infrastructures of old to do what they need doing. We now need to reinvest ourselves in those ancient highways and byways and make new connections which don’t rely on the grace, favour and declining ability of those tired funders of old to help us plot our way through the current cultural geography.

It’s now time to make new cultural spaces and places, new coherent multi-nodal cultural spaces which demonstrate how cultural villages can connect, supply each other, develop their own longevity and take some ownership back of their own destiny.

What did the Romans ever do for us? Too much. It’s time we started doing it for ourselves.

Nick Owen, MBE

A Site of Many Journeys

A road is the site of many journeys. The place of a walk is there before the walk and after it. - Richard Long, 1980

It is not entirely clear how the Roman surveyors planned straight roads over long distances, traversing hills and linking distant cities. Their lands observations were made with a groma which, with its four hanging plumb lines, might be taken for an ancient percussion instrument. Once a direction was set, it would have been relatively simple to lay out a straight path: line up three points and then move ahead, repeating the process. The first, middle and last measuring poles continually change places, like a configuration of sounds, looped and repeated over and over again until it is time to stop. There is something similar in the way walking artist Richard Long picks up driftwood or stones and moves them from one place to the next, creating a sculpture in motion rather than a standing form. Some objects recur, others appear only once: feather to pebble, pebble to crow, crow to crab, crab to pebble… There are no climactic moments on these solo walks, just a steady progression through a passing landscape hinted at in the most minimal of language.

Roman roads were not confined to a straight course all the time. Richard Long has not always made his walks in straight lines. Straight Miles and Meandering Miles was a 294 mile walk which, as a text piece lists the nine straight miles on his route, one of which took him along the Foss Way, an old Roman road. Drawing a line on a map and walking it, Richard Long imposes limits on how he will experience the landscape. Sounds may come and go but the underlying rhythm will proceed forwards. As the Crow Flies, a twelve hour walk in Scotland, suggests a sense of airborne freedom, but the route was carefully planned in advance so that a continuous walk would be possible. The Romans cut their roads through the wild places of Britain: into the forests and over the high moors. In Italy, to get from Rome to Rimini on the Adriatic Sea they built the Via Flaminia, which crosses the largest of all Roman bridges and tunnels through the Apennines. Nowadays it is a country road, a gentle alternative to the noise and speed of the modern autostrada.

Roads like the Aurelian Way were composed in layers: a base of rubble, strata of gravel and a surface of cobbles or paving stones. Richard Long has built stone lines out in the landscape and across the floors of galleries. Sometimes he uses more fragile material such as willow sticks and river mud. Impermanence is fundamental to how he thinks about his art. A walk resembles a musical performance in that it can be described but not re-lived. The Roman roads themselves are often nothing but memories and traces. Before the Kingsland Road there was Ermine Street, Earninga Straete, and before that a Roman road whose Latin name is now lost. The original roads laid out by the Roman surveyors were never intended to be permanent anyway. Each time they were repaired, milestones were replaced with new ones that commemorated the current emperor. A road, like a piece of music, is not a fixed entity. It exists as a possibility, there before the walk and after it.

Andrew Ray, 2012


a list is a compact and functioning system it is important to move around does anyone know where I can find a map? a list raises both questions and answers lines of discourse different tracks neither string nor line and we are listening an unparalleled network of well built roads all forgotten or lost completely does anyone know where I can find a map? the road runs across the foreground a pathway you can walk a short diversion the invasion changed our island completely a field walking exercise and an aerial survey the roads all run in straight lines regardless neither string nor line and we are listening myth surrounds much common understanding land observations geospatial data sources does anyone know where I can find a map? this previously unknown altemative route probably passes quite close almost parallel to a phenomenon that held an empire together is this the right place to ask a question? empty the wheelbarrows in the correct order neither string nor line and we are listening

Rupert M Loydell, 2012

Gnomen, Romans and Groma

Over time my interest in things roman has become increasingly conceptual. As a child during history, geography and religious education lessons I was asked to draw maps of the roman world but could only ever think about a pictorial empire, in terms that is , of Christians and exotic quadrupeds mid slaughter , aqueduct’s being built with fine bricks, tooled metal breast plates and broad stabbing swords reflecting the sun and at the time, most worrying of all, decimation. Today however I’m more interested in Rome’s conceptual side and how a shadow or a really straight line might cut through nature and trigger our wondering.

I suspect that when it is at its very best drawing is preoccupied by a desire to first simplify, then after that provided an elegant two dimensional route through multi dimensional environments. If this is true, then I suspect that every roman road started life as a near perfect example of conceptual drawing. Not on a map or sheet of velum as a hand drawn line, but as an idea turned into a line in real time and space.

The Romans measured they didn’t estimate, and when they could they cut through terrain rather than work with it. They used the Gnomon to measure time and the Groma to make their lines straight. The Groma was an arrangement of plumb lines that could be lined up by a surveyor to first plot then draw the line that would become either a road, the footings of a villa or the parameter of a piazza. The Gnomon was the stylus that cast the shadow that plotted the curve that visually marked the passing of time. Together the Groma and Gnomen worked in an uncompromising way to regiment the time and space that Romans, wherever they were, occupied.

As the Groma guides the line that is the shortest viable two dimensional connector of the multidimensional problems inherent in connecting two cities, the Gnomen traces the line that is the record of the multi dimensional event that is the earths rotation around the sun.

If drawing is all about engineering elegant two dimensional routes through complex multi dimensional environments I suspect that every roman road started life just like the image cast by the sun on the sundials face, as a near perfect drawing.

Stephen Farthing, Rootstein Hopkins Professor of Drawing, UAL London, Monday, May 21, 2012

The Trodden Path

Walkers and artists – artistic walkers, walking artists – are bound to be aware of the paths followed by earlier generations, even when a conscious choice is made to avoid established thoroughfares of expression. In England, the historical remains of societies, both in the marks of roads and in the residue of art and crafts, lie so thick on the land that avoidance over-influence requires firm decision-making. A bid for independence is part of what makes it intensely satisfying to set out across a seemingly unmarked terrain, just as it often is, as a viewer of contemporary art, to enter a field of unrecognisable creativity, where something new seems to be happening. The fact that in neither case is this really possible does not lessen the pleasure of pioneer imagination. In a country as old and crowded as England, the tabula rasa is an illusion.

Instead of marching off with iron determination to be different, it is easier actually to make a difference by a softer, less dogmatic approach. The artist Tino Sehgal, who was born in London in 1976, said at Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Manifesto Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery on October 19 2008: ‘I just think the twentieth century was so sure of itself, and I hope that the twenty-first century will be less sure. And part of that is to listen to what other people say and to enter into a dialogue, to not stand up and immediately declare one’s intent.’ In the context of roads and paths, Sehgal’s advice translates into an attention to what is already there, hidden and overgrown, its original purpose obliterated.

There is much to see.

In the long-inhabited countryside of West Somerset, the lanes, deep-cut by the passage of feet, carts, and streams, have followed the same route up onto common land for over two millenia. Often narrow, unsuitable for today’s motorised vehicles, the relationship of these lanes to the land they cross is responsive, retaining an ancient sensibility. Unlike the steely-eyed straightness of the roads built by the Romans, to deliver their soldiers as fast as possible to quell and kill, the benign appearances of today concealing the ugliness of their militaristic origins. In between these two are the old drovers’ roads, wide and generous, along which sheep and cattle were delivered from the heart of the downs to towns and cities, as far as London, the stock cared for along the way by shepherds and herdsmen.

Cerith Wyn Evans, a ceaselessly avant garde artist now in his mid-fifties, understands that interesting stories are revealed by quiet attention, pointing out in an interview of 2003 the benefits of ‘keeping an eye and an ear out for the things that are veiled, masked, or under the surface, but which are accessible in many different ways given the opportunity to reflect on it.’

Jeremy Cooper 2012