Vast Methodical Fragments

Go back to the Renais­sance and see it in anoth­er way, with­out the nar­ra­tive already baked into the name. Think of it as a cos­play, as a recon­struc­tion of the order of a life that seemed worth liv­ing, as a cob­bling-togeth­er of the sur­vivals of the past in a stage com­plete enough to act in. 

Look at a Renais­sance gar­den, par­tic­u­lar­ly. Then, as now, the gar­den was a dis­play of pow­er, a col­lec­tion of local desir­able plants and mate­ri­als, cul­ti­vat­ed to their fullest poten­tial, a micro­cosm of the world to be dom­i­nat­ed out­side. It was an inher­i­tance of the knowl­edge of medieval times, banked in a port­fo­lio of mate­r­i­al hold­ings such that it grew in inter­est over time. But equal­ly, it was a pur­pose­ful extrap­o­la­tion from the frag­men­tary real­i­ty seen in Pliny the Younger, from side men­tions here and there of the Roman author­i­ties what a gar­den was sup­posed to be. Put your­self in the vil­la at Fiesole. What to con­tem­plate? Some­thing recur­sive – not only the present life, done cor­rect­ly, but what the past life, the more cor­rect life, was in its round­ness. These were the grounds for a well-ordered simulation. 

Pop­u­late the gar­den with a famil­iar cast of char­ac­ters, by act­ing them out. Skin the walls of the vil­la with the paint­ings of the Domus Aurea. In these spaces, the pow­er­ful great­ly reduce the checks that meet them at all turns in their projects in the wider world. They may act and observe with an even greater degree of lat­i­tude. Aztec emper­ors, Chi­nese emper­ors, Roman emper­ors: they make abscess spaces, con­trolled sim­u­la­tions that reduce inter­fer­ence from the sur­round­ing world; they col­lapse the dis­tances, and stretch the width of the pos­si­ble spec­trum of cli­mates. They con­vene mate­ri­als, styles. But their micro­cosms are not still; they are not mon­ey pits, or sealed trea­suries. They are meant to live, to be oper­at­ed by liv­ing in. Dom­i­na­tion, again, is one side of the coin; the oth­er is a pro­jec­tion into a space of fantasy.

felibien pliny
André Félibien, Reconstruction of Pliny's Laurentian Villa, 1706.
krubsacius pliny
Friedrich August Krubsacius, Reconstruction of Pliny's Laurentian Villa, 1760.
canina pliny
Luigi Canina, Reconstruction of Pliny's Laurentian Villa, 1840

Is this a prod­uct of wealth and wealth alone? I don’t think so; this will to make, or re-make, a world is present in the major­i­ty of gar­dens, mon­ads that each reflect a wider realm. A fash­ion is not only a con­strained set of options that can be read­i­ly bought, or a token of belong­ing, but a fan­ta­sy of a shared cul­ture, and a way of pro­ject­ing that fan­ta­sy into the shared world. Our gar­dens trans­pose life, our usu­al set of sur­round­ings, into a more leg­i­ble and minia­ture set of terms, for nego­ti­a­tions with the mar­ket world, for encoun­ters with the cul­ture one wants to belong in.

The idea of a sim­u­la­tion is help­ful here com­plete­ly apart from the idea of sim­u­lacra; the gap between real­i­ty and its sub­set is, after a cer­tain point, a canard. The idea of sim­u­la­tion is, as a lens of see­ing the work­ings of the world, itself a sim­u­la­tion; which is to say it iso­lates a coher­ent set of con­di­tions and rela­tions that illu­mi­nate an aspect of the whole. Think here of a state of affairs that is pop­u­lat­ed by actors; that is at once rep­e­ti­tious and sub­ject to emer­gence; that is restart­ed at inter­vals with new con­di­tions, or altered with a com­bi­na­tion of knobs and slid­ers; that is gen­er­at­ed against a ground with a pre­dictable set of preconditions.

In run­ning, such a sim­u­la­tion achieves a cli­na­men from its orig­i­nal goal; it is found embed­ded in anoth­er tar­get. Lack­ing the means to repeat the Roman gar­den and its inhab­i­tants, it ends else­where; out­run­ning a Cola di Rien­zo, or a Mus­soli­ni, it ends up a repeat­able mod­el, that has in fact gone on repeat­ing ever since.

As with any open work, the ques­tion becomes the form and iden­ti­ty of that work, when all the pieces are in ques­tion — a name, a text, a place? A fam­i­ly resem­blance? The shared project we can see of the Renais­sance princes and arti­sans, to elab­o­rate from all angles an ambigu­ous space of fan­ta­sy; what made it hold togeth­er? Why project togeth­er, how to agree on a shared realm? What did Nep­tune and Thetis sup­ply that St. Sebas­t­ian and St. Agatha could not? How did this world, half res­ur­rect­ed and half invent­ed, relate to the world it hoped to colonize? 

(July 2017)