Et in Arcadia ars: Thoughts on Volcanism and Urbanism in Southern Italy, Part Two

[This is the continuation of the post from last week.]

The Plain of Catania, atop which the city of Catania sits, is land reclaimed from the Ionian Sea by Etna’s lava and other subterranean volcanic uplift. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who traveled across it while writing the letters and notes that became his Italian Journey, refers quite accurately on May 1, 1787 to “Lava everywhere, one enormous flow after another.” The city of Catania owes its very existence to this volcanism, the ground on which it sits being inseparable from the same force that periodically ravages it. The soil there is highly fertile because it is full of nutrients belched up by the volcano, and one result of this is the nerello mascalese grape, grown on the slopes of Etna, which makes an unusual red wine (sometimes called Etna rosso) that is rich with extraordinary mineral flavors unavailable elsewhere. This is but one example of how the human relationship to sites that also repeatedly devastate human endeavors issues from an artful relationship to material surroundings and what they afford. The wine is a product of human artistry but also of volcanic activity playing out in wayward ways. It owes its existence to a collaboration of forces.

In addition to seizing whatever natural advantage such sites provides through this sort of collaboration, humans have also sought, through their capacity for artifice, to stave off disadvantage by imposing limits on volcanic waywardness. Appeals may be made to the supernatural, including Catania’s favored Saint Agatha, a third-century Christian martyr and the patron saint of, among other things, eruptions of Mount Etna, or people may hold fast to superstition, as happens in the case of the town’s emblematic U Liotru, a fountain constructed by the architect of the city’s duomo, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, in the 1730s from a variety of locally significant items, including a late antique or Byzantine carving of an elephant in basalt that, hewn from volcanic stone, serves as an apotropaic talisman or good luck charm of sorts for the city. Those desirous of preventative measures rooted more firmly in physics have sought to engineer the volcano’s activity by diverting lava away from human settlements through ingenious controlling techniques. The first efforts of this kind to appear anywhere in the world appeared in the vicinity of Catania during Etna’s eruption in 1669. Sometimes, such strategies are effective, but on the whole preventing volcanism from taking its course seems to be every bit as impossible as preventing urbanism from insisting on its own: lava, like our agency, is inevitable, divertible to a degree, but, in sufficient quantity, unstoppable.

Catania and other cities within volcanic terrain have been and continue to be destroyed over and over again, always existing under the threat of their own eradication, yet they also continue to be rebuilt over and over again. The Italians have a word for their repeated reconstruction at sites of calamity: resilienza. This would seem to be not only an Italian value but also a key component of human artistry more broadly, a tendency to be resilient, to insist and insist again on things being a certain way, on there being, for instance, a city near the water at the base of Mount Etna called Catania (the name has undergone only slight modifications of pronunciation since prehistory despite the city being controlled by several different occupying groups). Indeed, artistry has a tendency to bring about copies, replicas, repetitions, iterations, and variations — in a word, sameness. It thrives on pattern, habit, groove, and funnel. Street layouts persist for decades or centuries, city footprints for centuries or millennia. Volcanoes similarly keep close to sources of creation and tend likewise to create repetitively, offering up the same sorts of creation again and again in the same spots. This creation is channeled, routed, standardized. Laws, customary or physical, enforce conformity. We are legal beings because we are artisans subject to artistry’s conditioning, and volcanoes similarly follow their own paths in the ways that they do because they are bound to what geological principles elucidate as their own obligations: the ways that, by erupting, they make the very pathways along which they will erupt in the future, just as humans produce the cities within which they will produce cities.

However predictable this may seem, however defeatist, occasionally, the model falters and other possibilities present themselves. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum near present-day Naples (and killed Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History contains the oldest extant art-historical accounts amidst chapters ostensibly concerning geological matters such as metallurgy, mineralogy, and mining, testifying to deeply seated intertwining of the geologic and the artful), proved so devastating as to forestall any resilient behavior in its vicinity — a lapse of resilienza. The Romans elected not to rebuild their cities there, and the ash-covered ruins of both remained buried for centuries. Only in the late sixteenth century were they rediscovered, and it was not until the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century, famously taken by Goethe, that it truly began to attract attention as a window onto a lost past, one in which erotic art antithetical to prevailing mores spoke of a gulf between present and past, a gulf that measures how resilienza differentiates the civilization that it perpetuates, mutating the tunnels or streets and flows or journeys, but following the same basic pattern of there being tunnels or streets and flows or journeys. Given enough time, this variation that reinforces becomes an impetus to leisure activities, namely tourism, as sameness generating difference piques our curiosity, suggesting escape from our daily repetitions.

Receipt for beach chairs and umbrellas

Against resilienza, there is another concept familiar in southern Italy that also thrives around its volcanic regions, particularly where tourism takes place: παυσίλυπον, a Greek term that means something like “ease” or “repose,” connoting a general lack of worry and escape from pain, something like what the English phrase “take it easy” makes into an imperative. The neighborhood of Posillipo in Naples, which affords tremendous views of the Gulf of Naples, derives its name from this Greek concept that also, in its basic outlines, stands behind the Italian phrase la dolce far niente (literally, “the sweet for nothing,” a kind of aimless relaxation pursued without care for worldly affairs, a relative of the otium enjoyed by ancient Romans when not pursuing their negotium). When we enjoy the spoils of this particular and peculiar art — and the coasts and islands of southern Italy afford ample opportunities for paradisiacal leisure on beaches or in grottoes, eating delicious foods and drinking outstanding wines while absorbing the sun’s warm rays and reading a good book — we neutralize our agency, restoring the actuality of our doing to the pure potentiality of what we could be — but are not — doing. When we pursue this art of not pursuing arts, we become, in a word, dormant, leaving our creations to ruination were we to remain inactive long enough. Perhaps, were we all to indulge in this way — or, more passively, were we all to appreciate better the art of sweetness for nothing — Nohbdy would look after the urban homes we cannot help but build and, if we are truly fortunate, also spare us from the lava.

[All photographs taken by the author.]

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