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Spring 2012

On Architecture

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Katharine Michaels

Twenty-five years ago I came to Italy to get away from a bad love affair. Why Italy? A different continent; my long interest in the classical tradition, its art and artifacts; not France. I could read and sort of speak French, had been dazzled by Paris, Chartres, and Burgundy in my twenties, but had also been lonely there and didn’t feel quite strong enough for the French. How bad could a year in Rome be? I took a leave of absence from my job, borrowed some money from my oldest brother, and fled.

I hoped that three years of Latin and five years of French grammar and literature would help me with Italian, which they did. Tellingly, however, the intensive lessons in conjugation by another bad (also, handsome and charming) boyfriend—this time Italian—were more effective in opening the Mediterranean idiom to me than any talent I might have had for romance language verbs.

My new love was an actor and a translator, and before long I found myself trying to give him madre lingua support in his translation of Henry James’s book of essays on the theater. I think no other enterprise could have more quickly dramatized for me the differences between English, with its sloppy and richly elusive referents, and the elegant sobriety of Italian, refusing all ambiguity that might arise regarding the gender of nouns and their adjectival modifiers, or the calibrated demands of possessive forms. Words can’t bleed into each other as they do in English (though the ease of rhyme and the lusciousness of fully spoken double consonants in Italian may offer ways around these structural limitations). It always struck me that this irremediable rigidity of reference is strange in a country famous for its love of amorous intrigue and sleight of hand—for instance, there is no way in Italian to glide over whether the friend you had dinner with is male or female.

In those early days in Rome, in a garret apartment with views of the quietly beautiful Collegio Romano, I struggled earnestly to give my amico bello a true sense of James’s snaky sentences and to help stuff them respectably into the measured constraints of an Italian paraphrase. The result, to me, seemed unrecognizable as James. Though literarily unsatisfying, this foray into translation did provide me with a great, guilty pleasure in the anarchy of English, at the exact moment that I was straining to become proficient in the loveliness of Italian. I did not go on to earn my daily bread as a translator, but those early syntactic lessons have continued to echo in my head and in my work as a restorer of old Italian stone farmhouses.

Architecture and building are syntactic. Not a revelation, perhaps, but salutary, for me, for whom reading and allusion were natural in a way that geometry never was. How I got from Rome to the Umbrian countryside and from Henry James to ruined piles of stone is a different story. All I mean to say, here, is that the two undertakings—translation and building—felt continuous: projects based on ordered arrangement and transitions, in both cases dependent on the genius of materials.

I had never done any designing or building in America, though I had always loved architecture, and indeed it had been a compelling reason (or justification after the fact) for my rapid and desperate choice of Italy as an escape destination. On first seeing Borromini’s broken façade at the Oratorio of Chiesa Nuova, I suddenly felt a tremendous sense of relief that my journey had been worth it, would offer actual solace, not just feckless, frivolous escape. What I found so moving was its sculptural longing—evident in the undulating surfaces of the disrupted classical façade—radically new, yet appropriate in the land of shattered Roman pillars and capitals, scattered around the city as mangled marble heads and torsos.

I remember the first time I had a prolonged conversation in Italian with a plumber. As he described the linking of various cisterns, tubes, pumps, and filters, I realized that I was listening to the connective tissue of his speech, actually seeing the Italian nouns and verbs flowing like water and waste to their final resting place at the end of the sentence. I was learning grammar and plumbing at the same time, just as I learned about building through Italian syntax and the fatal, ubiquitous subjunctive forms that underlie the language and the culture.

By 1990, I found myself, through a series of willful choices, at the top of a hillside with southwestern views across rolling hills and mountainous terrain, squarely on the border between Umbria and Tuscany. In front of me were a series of formerly cultivated terraces, now blanketed in blackberries, and, in the distance, virgin landscape encircling a battered Romanesque bell tower, a few farms, and the crenellated corners of a castle keep that dates to the ninth century. Behind me, roofless, with trees growing between the floors, was the ruin of a once commanding casa colonica, brooding over a layered history still visible in building shards and cultivated plots in the near and far distance.

It was the longest day of the year. Having walked up a three-kilometer gravel and mud track to reach this place, I stood very still, gazing westward with the house as the sun set slowly into its rolling ocean of distant hills. Decision-making has never been easy for me, and I am inclined to weigh all options, as if one could. But in this moment my conviction was quiet and absolute. I knew I was going to do what was necessary to live within this house and history. The only other time I felt such unambiguous conviction was five years later, when my husband-to-be found his way, against all odds, up to the doors of this particular place and asked me to marry him. Five weeks later, I did.

The house was called Pancesi, probably named for the family of tenant farmers who built it or parts of it in successive centuries. Though the word means nothing in Italian, it invokes pancia, the word for stomach, which I took to be a good omen—food, sustenance, navels, an omphalos.

That first long day, alone with the house, I scrambled up the broken and collapsing outdoor staircase to a gutted porch area located in front of the entrance, whose door was still ringed with pietra serena stone. On the exterior wall of the house near the entrance was a scrawled warning: edificio pericolante. I can remember the feel of the syllables in my mouth. Unsafe building, tumbledown, collapsing structure. When I turned westward, the view of the sinking sun and the cresting waves of hills glimmered and refracted. Jumping across the hole in the porch, I landed on the stone threshold of the house, the limnis. Then one step beyond and I was inside. I adhered to the walls, trusting, and inched my way, bottom, back, and thighs to stone, palms cupping the irregular surfaces, into the ruined interior, open to the dying, cracked light.

All about me were collapsed oak beams, thirty centimeters and more in diameter, lying on a bed of wood-fired terracotta tiles, which had cascaded like a mortar waterfall from ceiling and roof. At the far end of the room was an enormous fireplace with hand-hewn stone supports and a crosspiece wooden mantle, notched to fit the stone. I had stumbled into someone’s kitchen. Rubbing my way along the wall, I could now glimpse the back of the house, a kind of stone garden, pierced by trees growing out of the rubble of the ground floor, thrusting into bedrooms, where remnants of pastel-painted lime plaster still covered the hard, grey reality of stone with promise of a softer, gayer life.

Finally, I left the house as I had come, inching backwards, still trusting. When I got back to the collapsing front porch, the sun was just a memory of light with color spraying upwards from the darkening hills. It is seldom true that we live inside a day, fully; but that day is inside me still, a tissue of changing light on surfaces—the start of a twenty-year apprenticeship to stone and cooked-earth buildings.

There was no architect involved, just the rectangular line drawings that had to be submitted to the township for building permits by a geometra (one who measures, a surveyor). I loved those line drawings and traced hundreds of my own over the years, as I played with the opening, closing, and flowing of spaces, layouts of kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms—trying always to find a house’s secret syntax. It is hard to describe the excitement I felt and still feel in the designing, which for me always involved imagining the life I would live within these buildings. Over twenty years, I built myself more than fifteen houses, and lived intimately in each of them for a time, as I brought them into being.

Certainly part of my early and lingering obsession with these houses was linked to a hunger for domesticity too long deferred by adventure, work, and an unerring instinct for bad boyfriends. My first Italian love presciently described me as focolare—drawn to hearth and home, in spite of all external signs to the contrary. And it was always true that I designed my stone houses from a fireplace core outwards. This decision, if it can be called that, is an example of personal inclination latching on to the inherent grammar of these buildings, in which the fireplace had been the navel of the house, source of heat, food, and congregation, in the way of peasant architecture through all of time.

I was far more interested in reading the existing structures than creating new forms. What compelled me was restoration, not building from scratch. It was the limitations that drew me—limitations that included, among others, the strict Italian building laws; scarcity of ancient materials, with their human signatures still intact; the way the sun moved across the sky, illuminating and darkening spaces; very little money. Many people, including even my husband, accused me of being downwardly mobile. I suppose I was. But it would have been hard to replace the raw excitement and daily discoveries of this work, whose tools—plumb bobs and chisels—had changed not at all for millennia.

The geometra who had pulled the permits for Pancesi was in his twenties—intelligent, sweet, and inexperienced (and still, today, a friend and a collaborator). Rather than asking him to put together a crew, I spent six weeks, in the American way, soliciting a number of estimates from different builders. For days I struggled to get their estimates to line up in a neat apples-to-apples analysis. Then, in a blinding fit of frustration and intuition for which I have always been grateful, I threw these would-be spreadsheets across the room and decided to make my selection based on character rather than numbers. I chose a short, powerfully built man in his late fifties named Guerriero, “warrior,” as the head stone mason. He was not the cheapest, nor the easiest, but he was immediately recognizable to me.

The line-drawing plans for the restoration of Pancesi, and all the structures that came afterwards, bore some relation to the gross dimensions of the collapsing structures. But the real dimensions only emerged once the debris was cleared away, once the snakes were wheedled out of their shards of terracotta and vegetal intruders of all kinds were uprooted from the old stalls and pig pens of the ground floor. Only then could we start to evaluate, to parse centimeters, to scan the floors for iambic pentameter poems, gleaning beauty. And we stood there in the freezing cold in rubber boots caked with cement, and in the heat, arguing over dimensions, proportions, drawing our ideas on the stone floors with stones, stone on stone. I learned to argue, dramatically, fluently, shamelessly, in Italian. The flourish and the vocabulary came to me as a kind of mental telepathy, as I looked Guerriero square in the eyes and dared him to explain, justify, refute, concede. It was voice-to-voice combat, as we balanced on beams, selected stones, mixed mortar with local golden dirt to trap the light. Leaping into Guerriero’s truck on a Monday morning very early, I would engage him in reconnaissance missions, scavenging the countryside for the rare pre-war terracotta bricks, fired by hand before industrialization eclipsed the art and imposed the metric.

In this way I learned Italian and, together, we put my life, and his, into the buildings that we coaxed into being. Until his sudden death in 2002 from a brain hemorrhage, he was my daily companion, ferociously well-armed foe, co-conspirator, stone grammarian.

Over the years, I have been asked many times what my training was to do the work I do. Was I schooled as an architect? No. I am a reader; I studied English and American literature, with some art history thrown in. And, I looked and looked, and listened to rhythms of speech, imagined things misconstrued and unsaid. As training goes, it seemed adequate to the task.



Katharine Michaels, who restores antique stone farmhouses in Italy, has edited The Essays of Leonard Michaels and The Collected Stories.
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