Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Template of Public Spaces

Rome has always been the template for public spaces: 
  • The Coliseum
  • The Vatican
  • The Forum
  • The Palatine Hill
  • The Pantheon
Marc Anthony's funeral oration--public. Where where most ancient Romans buried?--via Appia Antica (alongside Rome's most well-travelled road). If it happened in Rome, it happened in a public space. Do I need to direct you to the story of Julius Caesar...

Romans could not help themselves. They loved their public spaces. And more often than not, public spaces meant public beauty:
  • 300+ churches
  • 2000+ fountains
  • 10,000 shrines to the Blessed Mother.

One can't walk down any street and not see at least a church, a fountain, or a shrine--often all three. But deeper than the beauty, the public spaces in Rome christened a change in the world.

For all that was public about Rome, it was still pitch black at night, and most people literally lived a colorless existence--drab clothing, homes, and tools. Earth tones: browns and grays. Stone and dirt. That was Rome. Yet, it was the public space--and more specifically the shrines to the Blessed Mother--where we see the first public evidence of humanity emerging from the darkness. 

The shrines have been up for centuries. When candles lit the Roman streets, citizens placed paintings of the Virgin Mary behind them to help light their way. Each painting is different and can be found on the corners of buildings or near the closest intersection of narrow Roman streets.

In the picture included here, the color of the building is typical of a Roman building. Today, no one is allowed to alter much when you buy a building in Rome. When restored, all buildings must be kept their original color. Walking Rome, we see the limited color palette available so long ago: the earthy tones of yellows, oranges, and browns. Occasionally, one might find a pale blue structure--a sure sign of wealth. In order to make "blue" the lapis stone from the Middle East was needed. As a matter of fact, some frescoes in St. Francis' Basilica are scarred with scratch marks from commoners fighting to scrape away the blue with their fingernails--if they could collect it, they could resell it.

In some respects, this was the first time people were seeing color. Imagine living in a time where the only color you saw might be on the fabric of wealthy merchants and politicians, or painted on the walls and ceilings of churches--all in public spaces. 

The public spaces of Rome retain their beauty, mystery, and emotional ties. Yet, I struggle to compare those public spaces to anything we have here today in America. Where do we go to see something modern for the first time? To see something revolutionary and representative of wealth and beauty? To see something which simultaneously awe? To see something so tempting that people can't but to try and steal it?

The 10,000 shrines to the Blessed Mother may have lit the way for Romans to walk from street to street, but they also began to lead the world into a state where color was seen by everybody, everywhere--and that course of revolution is indeed the template for all public spaces.

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