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narrativa e di portafoglio

narrative and portfolio of Ian Siegel

Sorry for the lack of postage over the past couple of days, Internet has been tough to come by, thanks to a change of location that you’ll soon read about. I’ve been Microsoft WordPressing, as we’ve come to call it—typing up posts in Word so I don’t have to use up time on the Internet, which we were billed at while staying at our last hotel.

Thursday, July 15

Hope you don’t mind reading about bricks—this post is all about masonry.

Today we visited the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, a Roman bath house which served not only functions of physical cleansing, but it was also a location for social interaction and business transactions—the sort of Facebook/Twitter equivalent of its time, when people still interacted face-to-face.  The baths were split in half, one side for men and another for women; there was one common space similar to today’s public pools, and private spaces for each gender that contained their own cold pools, hot pools, and a sauna/steam room.

While comprehending all the spaces of the baths and their properties and functions constitute enough material that it can be its own concentration in a degree in Roman history, I found myself most fascinated (I wish I could mix things up a bit and use a word other than fascinated; I’ve probably used that word in every post thus far, but the word works so well) by the methods of construction that the ruins of this bath house reveal, even after millennia of non-use.

In its state of ruin, the baths hints are visible regarding its construction—back in the day, the brick we saw was covered with a marble or stone veneer, which was likely clipped onto the walls at the “pigeon hole” openings.

The method of construction implemented in these arcuated walls is very similar to the construction of the Aurelian Wall, the fortified wall that I walked along on my first day in Rome that and fascinated me so much. (See post from Day 1).

I took this photo during my walk along the wall, and had assumed from decaying and missing bricks that the brick had been applied to the concrete wall as a veneer. In fact, the brick had been there first, to serve as a permanent framework into which the concrete—which gives the wall most of its strength as a fortification—was poured. When we build with concrete today, a light framework of plywood is constructed, concrete is poured into it, and when the concrete is cured the framework is removed. In ancient Rome, two freestanding, parallel walls are built of brick—much, much stronger than plywood—and mortar with a space between them a couple feet wide, and then concrete is poured into the cavity. Today we build buildings to last ten years—the Romans built buildings to last for millennia.

Another construction detail that blew my mind today—an arched opening in a wall.

The amazing thing about the construction of this arch can be seen above the opening, where you can see two more arched forms in the brickwork without openings like the one that meets the ground. The reason for this is simple genius, and even more mindblowing to know that the Romans not only knew how to execute such a feat of engineering, but just that they knew that they should.

The two arches above the opening are called relieving arches. The whole point of an arch is that it evenly distributes a load around an opening, so that a small portion of, say, a brick wall can be replaced with glass (which the average person calls a window), whose load-bearing properties are far inferior to masonry. The relieving arches are put in place so that the heavy load of all the bricks directly above the arched opening (roughly two stories worth of bricks, whose weight adds up to quite a heavy total) are directed straight down to the same location as that of the first of arch, reducing the amount of work that could be done on the wall and the arch.

While typing this post I found myself wondering if, while the baths were still in operation hundreds of years ago, the relieving arches were expressed through the interior finishes, or if their forms were covered and hidden behind a stone or marble veneer or mosaic, the way a steel beam in today’s construction is often hidden within walls or behind dropped ceilings. These relieving arches are beautiful feats of engineering; it seems to me that it would be a shame not to express the structural acrobatics at play. After a talk at the end of the day with Jim Dart, I have learned that the relieving arches were not expressed—they were likely concealed behind wall surface ornament. Expression of structure is a modern idea that became popular during the 1920s and 30s (obviously, a couple millennia after the fall of the Roman Empire).

After the Baths of Caracalla we took a walk to a piazza featuring one of the few built works by Piranesi; a sort of graphic designer of the Renaissance, he collaged different iconography in his compositions, which were translated into shallow 3-dimensional work in the form of a kind of relief sculpture in stone wall. But more exciting was across the piazza from his work; a peephole—we called it “the best peep show in Rome”—a mere keyhole into which we glanced, revealing a secretly beautiful view of the dome of St. Peters, framed by an alleé of trees.

"The best peep show in all of Rome"

For a good photo, check the blogs of Caio Moretti or Adam Rapciewicz at

Friday, July 16

TODAY, on the other hand…

Today was vastly different from anything we did or saw last week. Today we left the charm and comfort of the Hotel Derby. Today we arrived in a place different from anyplace we have ever imagined, a place displaced from the Rome we have come to know, a place where non-existent are the amenities and comforts that the price of this trip should have purchased. “I feel like we’re fighting a war in Afghanistan or something,” said one of us. Beds are something we expected, but shouldn’t have. As are warm showers and pillows.

Today we moved out of our hotel in the suburbs of Rome and into what used to be an insane asylum. I’m serious.

Here’s a fun fact. On the frieze of the building was inscribed “Mancomio della Provincia.” Mariano informed me that the word “Mancomio” is a derogatory term for a crazy house or asylum, a word avoided in the Spanish language because of, let’s say, its “political incorrectness.” Italians, I suppose, have less reservation using the word.

Oh, and have I mentioned yet that we’re living here this week?

We began a week-long workshop today (in our new accommodations) with a group called Stalker.

“Glass half full” has become the motto of the day. Why? I’ll leave the speculation up to you.

Please pardon the sarcasm of tonight’s post. Sarcasm is another theme of the day.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, we’re unanimously a little unimpressed. But I may understand why, and I’m about to try to do it justice. Jim Dart, if you’re reading this, let me know tomorrow how accurate this analysis was:

I think we’re living here so we understand that there’s another side of the city of Rome. I’ve fallen in love this week with the glory of the past, with a rich history of people centuries ahead of their time. So have most tourists to this city; they arrive with few expectations and leave with lifetime memories. But this is because they haven’t been exposed to a few of the things our group has seen over the past couple of days.

We have gone on two long walks with the Stalker group. I find it interesting that we have gone on “walks” with them; when one asks another “Hey, can we go for a walk?” it is often time because there is a serious and private conversation that needs to take place between both parties. Between our group and Stalker, it seems that there is an important matter that must be discussed.

This matter regards the impoverished and underprivileged of the Romans, the outcasts of the city. Those who make a living by selling umbrellas and roses to the overheated tourists walking past the Colosseum (which, by the way, I’ve seen from the outside, but haven’t really cared to post about.  Or worse, these are the people who don’t even make a living, but beg desperately for loose change.

Despite last week’s experiences, Rome is not a perfect city. There are people we’ve spent the week calling “gypsies,” a blanket statement for any beggar who catches our eye. Stalker took us on two walks on the city’s outskirts, far from the beaten tourist path; one walk led us past a shantytown of the past and a small community of, well, call them what you want—squatters, homeless, gypsies—who made a temporary living place in tall grass in Rome’s immediate countryside, and another walk that took us past one or two people sleeping alone at the riverside, hidden from public view.

A shantytown is what we unwillingly emulate this week. We are encouraged to act as a “community” of those who do not have much more. Should be interesting.

Many of us have joked—rather seriously, actually—about finding a hotel close by for the week, or (perhaps) even funnier, just taking “airport showers,” the sort of sponge-baths made possible by airport lavatories.

I don’t feel like getting into specifics; it’s rather depressing. The group I decided to head up (because I was most repulsed by this side of living at the asylum) was improving the state of the showers. All day consisted of me trying to coordinate a group design charette to make the showers—which, I might add, was outdoors—more usable to a group of Americans who are used to showering in a warm and private environment. I don’t blame them; I prefer it as well. But as it existed, it looked something like this:

Those are bags of dirt piled in the corner.

Sketches of our proposal for the shower house design

This is not the Rome trip any of us signed up for. I apologize for the complaints expressed in this post, but holy crap, we were pissed today.

Today’s quality improved at our dinner. On the patio opposite ours—the showers improved but just a bit, we’re in the process of making them even better—was a designated barbecue/dining space, and looked a little something like this at the end of the day:

Along with a shower, dinner boosted all of our spirits and made us feel a little better about our accommodations (and, I suppose, our lives at the moment). Tonight should be interesting trying to fall asleep on a fairly uncomfortable blow-up cushion laid against the tile floor. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Allow me to mention that today, July 18, we’re a bit more accustomed to our space and conditions have improved.

Random cool image of the day


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