Friday, January 19, 2018

History Underfoot, or, Something About Living Amidst the Past

A detail of pattern in the terrazzo floor of our rented apartment

My strongest sense of being immersed in the long history of Venice, and of the particular sense of time and its movement available in such old places as this, comes when I'm on my hands and knees cleaning our rented apartment's 18th-century terrazzo floor.

Otherwise, despite all the signs of history surrounding me, the signs that people flock here to see, the signs that people who dream of living in Venice tend to imagine will endow their every footstep and movement here with a constant and unique sense of wonder and beauty, I'm usually absorbed in or distracted by the same kinds of personal concerns that absorb and distract people everywhere else: present, past and anticipated. Locked in a personal narrative, a private history, to which the broader remnants of history all around me, no matter how imposing, serve only as background or local color--just as, to cite a more charged but common case, the most salient feature of the long dramatic history of Piazza San Marco for two lovers is merely what a marvelous setting it provides for their kisses, or selfies.

As I scrub our living room floor, however, it seems that the relationship between myself and the vast historical sweep of this city assumes if not the proper proportion--which even the immense space of the Palazzo Ducale's Great Council Room could only hint at, as, after all, we're talking about well over 1,000 years of history here--then at least the proper perspective. As I scrub with my sponge, creeping inch by inch over the terrazzo, my eyes no more than a couple of feet above it, it's as if I find myself physically engaged with some measureless part of the city's history in all its suggestive materiality: each old smooth polished stone with something about it to catch your eye, but the vast sea of them all together--even if that sea stretches no further than the horizon of the nearest baseboard--presenting a vista of such infinite detail as to drown all possibility of comprehension. Your vision blurs at the abundance, you can't help but go under. Yellow-ochre, liver-red, black, white, gray or green; mottled, veined, smoky, fractured, marmoreal, or almost crystalline: any one of the stones in this floor, it sometimes seems to me to as my eyes pass over them, worthy of being pocketed during a walk on the beach.

These polished stones are markers not just of geological time, though, but of epochal time; vestiges of a process which, if nowhere near as lengthy as the natural one by which such stones themselves came into being, yet still so prolonged as to seem alien to the contemporary sense of time that now governs our daily lives, our very consciousness.

According to a man who came to look at repairing a part of our apartment's terrazzo which is sunken and crumbled, the floor was likely put in around 1750. In her book The Architectural History of Venice, Deborah Howard describes the traditional method of installing such floors:
From the fifteenth century onwards, pastellon* was largely superceded by a more decorative version called terrazzo. In living apartments this surface, like pastellon, was laid on top of the boards covering the ceiling of the floor below. It was made up to two layers of crushed brick and stone set in lime mortar, each layer well beaten down with battering rams for several days. Several months had to elapse between the laying of the two layers. The top layer also contained ships of coloured marble, so that when it was smoothed off with millstones and oiled with linseed oil the effect was like a random mosaic. As in the case of pastellon, the lime base and tiny stones gave a certain elasticity to the floor surface, so that it could resist minor stresses and strains without cracking. If cracks did appear, it was a fairly simple matter to lay another thin layer of terrazzo on top. According to Francesco Sansovino, terrazzo floors were so highly polished that one could see one's own reflection in them, and carpets were even put down to prevent footprints marking the floors. (pp 61-62, italics added). 
I think of those several days spent pulverizing each layer of the terrazzo with battering rams more than 250 years ago as I clean it with my sponge. I wonder who made up the crew that did the work. Were they from long-time Venetian families? From the more recent (at least "recent" in the context of Venice's long history) influx of immigrants from the eastern shore of the Adriatic which the city recruited after devastating periods of plague? Or were they more freshly arrived in the city? Did they tend to be young or old? Are any of their descendants still living in this area, if not the city itself (as so few people live in the city itself nowadays)? Do they have any living descendants anywhere at all?

You might ask yourself such questions while regarding any of those old works of which Venice is composed, whether you're looking at some celebrated monument or the most obscure pile of bricks. But the questions seem a little different when inspired not by those elements of the city you regard from a certain observational distance, but by those that quite literally make up the foundation upon which your private daily life unfolds. Our apartment's terrazzo is the literal ground of my family's domestic, most intimate life, and for that very reason I'm usually inclined to notice it far less than, say, the Basilica of San Marco, or even the bells of the nearby campanile not 100 yards from our apartment, which burst like a flock of pigeons through our open windows in the summer, and wash like heavy surf against them when they're closed in winter.

It's slow going on your hands and knees with the sponge, especially compared to the disembodied immediacy of so much of what now occupies our days, to that immaterial net on which we're both strung up and strung out; wired as we are into a demanding ever- and everywhere present tense, to which any sense of the past is often little more than the particular look of a preset filter--grainy, faded, vignetted--applied with one click to a fresh digital image, and usually monetized. You inch along the terrazzo as a gardener weeds her way through a plot of land, your labor linking you not to the cultivated natural world, but to the built world which in the historic center of Venice replaced the natural world long ago. Long enough ago as to now seem "natural."

From the detached and haughty summit of our technological present, the ubiquitous and omnipotent right-this-second promised to us/demanded of us by our various electronic devices, where we are everywhere and hence nowhere at once, and from which even the recent past looks quaint at best (if not just plain ass-backwards), you're brought back to a particular place in the act of cleaning the floor, lodged within a particular sweep of history, and you realize that you're just the latest--but not the last--in a long stretch of occupants engaged with what's been left by prior generations of anonymous others and their anonymous labors. Not the master of this house, nor the star within the picturesque stage set of Venice, but the latest caretaker in a long line of them, destined to disappear in your own turn without a trace, having done your part to tend to this evocative if ultimately unreadable script of polished stones. 



*A flooring described by Howard as being "composed of ground tiles and bricks set in lime mortar and polished to bring out the red terracotta colour, which was intensified by the addition of the pigment of cinnabar in the top layer." 


  1. This is so beautiful, it reads like a meditation on connection-to place, to history, to craft. I wonder if there has ever been a taxonomy done of Venetian terrazzo floors? It would be fascinating to know when the shifts occurred in material, process, colors, shine! I find terrazzo floors to be mesmerizing and so different, depending I suppose on when they were created. Scarpa's radical shift in terrazzo at Olivetti was inspired by Klee, whereas Koolhaas I swear must have been inspired by giraffes at T Fondaco. There is the witty terrazzo floor at Local, with its 5,000 murrine. And the monochromatic floor at the Guggenheim, which feels completely modern. After reading your lovely post, I will never experience a terrazzo floor in quite the same way. Grazie mille!

    1. Thanks, JoAnn, I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I suspect there must be at least one definitive work (if not more) on Venetian pavimenti, but I don't know what it is. One place I might start to look is in the bibliography of Howard's book--some day.

    2. Grazie, Steven. I was inspired to go on a search and there is a Pavements of Venice book by Sammartini, sounds exactly like my cup of tea!

    3. I'll have to check that out, JoAnn, thanks for the lead!

  2. Hi

    A nicely written and very thought provoking post. It really ties the historic and the personal nature of our experiences together nicely.


    1. Thanks, Guy, I find the linkage between the personal and history to be complicated to establish or get a feel for--even in a place with so much history, almost everything about our lives these days orients us toward the present (and not in the Buddhist sense people like to talk about). Or maybe it's just me!