Monday, 17 March 2014

Polypan in Rome

Off to Rome, with an Olympus XA. I still have some of the Polypan black and white film I bought way back in July 2013, so I decided to use it up. I'll write about the XA later, but suffice it to say that it's a wonderful pocket camera that did not let me down. It's unobtrusive, which is a good thing if you plan to take to take photographs of concrete buildings (they scare easily).

A panicked building is dangerous and irrational and wont to hurt itself. On an emotional level I associate Polypan with concrete and steel. I think of Kodak Tri-X as deep black oil, and both TMAX and Acros are charcoal. Polypan is cold to the touch and doesn't smell of anything. It feels solid, dependable. On a practical level it's a bother to despot. ISO 50 is a good thing outdoors, because it means you can use a wider and thus artier aperture. The XA's top shutter speed is 1/500, and I tried to use f/2.8 as often as possible, because in my opinion the audience is wowed more by a shallow depth of field - difficult with a 35mm f/2.8 lens, but not impossible - than by edge-to-edge sharpness. A digital compact will give you edge-to-edge sharpness. That's boring.

Rome's MAXXI modern art museum was designed by the late Zaha Hadid. It won her the 2012 Stirling Prize. It's a striking work of architecture and the museum itself is well worth a visit (it's straight up the road from the Piazza Popolo, albeit that it's quite a trek). It reminded me of the Museum of Liverpool:

The two buildings opened in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but MAXXI had been in development for much longer, as Web Urbanist points out.

You can tell from the little hair in the top-left that I haven't flipped this image; it's back to front (compare with the other photos, where the hair is in the top-right).

W Cope Devereux has nothing to say about MAXXI, because it was constructed a hundred and twenty-five years after he wrote Fair Italy. On a personal level I was not sure what to make of Rome, I had no mental image of it. I mentally associate Barcelona with young people, culture, and cheap prostitutes - which is why so many conferences take place there - and Paris of course is a pee-smelling land of dogshit, Milan is very clean, Florence likewise.

Of Rome I had no real mental image. It has a lot of ruins, but what of modern Rome, outside the context of ruins? I'm still not sure what to think. MAXXI and its more southerly counterpart MACRO have a modern, youthful air. The Vatican feels very grand, and presumably sucks away a lot of Rome's gravitas. The rest of it just is.

As far as I can tell Rome doesn't have a proper focal point. In theory the gigantic Vittoriano is the centrepiece, but it resembles a modern-day copy of ancient Roman architecture and seems much too large for what it is. People congregate on the Spanish Steps and smile and think of Audrey Hepburn, but the Vittoriano is in contrast a dour, joyless thing that has no meaning for most people. You're surrounded by hawkers at the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum, and they're cheesy places, but they mean something. People are drawn to them even if they don't know why, like the zombies from Dawn of the Dead were drawn to the shopping mall.

The main street that runs from the Vittoriano, up to the Plaza Del Popolo, is anonymous and bland and feels empty (it's also very narrow). In contrast Milan has a clearly-defined focal point and a grand avenue that leads from the central station to the interesting part of the city. Rome's central station, Termini, is a city-block-sized monster that exits to a lot of taxis and buses and a McDonalds. It has shops in the basement, a typically European barrage of trinket stores that puts me in mind of Douglas Adams' Shoe Event Horizon. His theory was that as a civilisation declines it turns to fripperies, and eventually the only shops are shoe shops, and then people starve.

Termini is also infamous for its beggars. Writing on the topic in 1884, Devereux had this to say:

    Another marked feature in Roman life we are not so anxious to see imitated in our own country, is the abnormal quantity of beggars one meets everywhere. They are of every sort and description, and swarm round you wherever you go. Some of them a most pitiful and distressing sight, only half clothed and seemingly starving. Their number is only equalled by the legion of priests, who come upon you at every turn, in all grades, from cardinals to novices. Of course, this is by no means to be wondered at, Rome being the one great focus and clerical seminary of the Roman Catholic world. But the contrast between the starving squalid poor and the legions of well-fed priests is very painful.

If Oliver Twist is to be believed, the beggars of Devereux's time were organised, and the same is true nowadays; they hover around the station's ticket machines and give their takings to a gangmaster, who presumably has a boss of his own, all the way up the chain until you reach someone high-up in organised crime. At some point the local police are no doubt given a cut of the takings, or (given that the beggars tend to be young women) are rewarded in some other way cough.

It says "arse". Which means "burned", from the Latin "arsio", where we get the word "arson".

My direct observation of Italian cities is that, compared to London and most of the UK for that matter, there are very few black faces. It's not that I'm taking a census, and it wasn't something that hit me immediately, but once I noticed it I couldn't help but continue to notice it. The area around Termini has a lot of East Asian shops, but outside that small zone the ethnic mix seems to be very homogeneous. There are some obvious reasons for this, quoth The Guardian from last year:

    Through the centuries Italy has been, not a colonial power, but a colony, a plaything of the superpowers. So with the exception of small parts of Somalia, no other country speaks Italian. Unlike France, Britain, Portugal or Spain, there's no large diaspora of Italian speakers who can immediately integrate into the "mother country", knowing already its literature and history. So the peninsula remains insular, an astonishingly monocultural, monoconfessional place.
Italy did have Ethiopia, but my impression is that Italy didn't care two hoots about its colonies and wasn't even interested in them on an economic level, they were simply status symbols, an attempt to colour in bits of the map. The people who lived there already could go hang, and many of them were hanged, and shot.

I surmise that the black people of Italy come from North Africa with high hopes, and are snapped up by local criminals. They're taught to count to ten, say yes no ticket hello and a few basic words, and given a patch of street underneath an arch to sleep; with a cardboard mattress and a coat. They presumably have to accumulate a certain amount of money per day and are charged "rent" which amounts to ninety per cent of their income.

If I was in charge I'd make sure that women are kept well away, so as to prevent my gang from marrying and settling down - which would take them out of my control. If they want to have sex, they have to pay. There would remain the problem of getting rid of the older, less effective workers, but a mixture of drink and drugs and no medical help will take care of that. That's what I would do. Work them until they die, and then never think of them again. Such is life for the underclass of Europe in 2014. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they say in Italy.

As the French say in Italy.