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.]

Prospection and the Anthropocene

I’d like to share two recent items from the news that make a sobering pairing.

The first is an opinion piece in the New York Times by psychologist Martin Seligman and Times science writer John Tierny summarizing a new theory about human beings that emphasizes our orientation toward the future. Continue reading

Weedy Resistance: Multispecies Tactics for Contesting “The Age of Man”

We welcome Ellie Irons, an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her own website, or see her bio under the “Who we are” tab.

resistance (Biology): Ability (of an organism, tissue, or cell) to withstand a destructive agent or condition such as a chemical compound, a disease agent, or an environmental stressor. (American Heritage® Medical Dictionary) Continue reading

An Age of Trump in the Anthropocene Epoch?

Stratigraphy is the science of rock strata; in geological terms, this translates to the science of time. But what IS time? Difficult to define, for certain, but most of us can agree that it marks the passage of events. We experience the passage of Continue reading

Loving the Anthr*pocene

My previous post was a provocation on refusal.  How, I asked, might the Anthr*pocene concept naturalize and even magnify the violent, dispossessionary forces it purports to describe?  And how might refusing this concept relate to Continue reading

The Iconoclastic Anthropocene: On How We Choose to Destroy Art

Ivo Bazzechi Cimabue FloodOn November 4, 1966, the Arno overflowed its banks into the streets of Florence. A number of prominent foreign art historians, including Frederick Hartt and John Shearman, arrived soon thereafter to assist their Italian colleagues, working generally under the oversight of the Uffizi’s conservation director Umberto Baldini, in developing a response to a cultural emergency: the Italian Renaissance was underwater. Their collective expertise facilitated the arduous work of restoring what could be salvaged from the flood, which had Continue reading

The Roles for Indigenous Peoples in Anthropocene Dialogues: Some Critical Notes and a Question

We welcome Kyle Powys Whyte, of Michigan State University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab.

I bet there have probably been more than a hundred events organized for the purpose of fostering dialogue of all kinds on what meanings and futures are presupposed by the “anthropocene.” I have been to some of them. I even just Continue reading

New Year’s Greetings for 2017




In this season of the solstice, the natural world reminds us that at the darkest moment light can return. But our own nature is such that brighter days in the human sense are not inevitable–they must be strived for and accomplished.  Here’s to the joy of imagining, and working toward, a truly habitable future.

CRISPR as Niche Construction: an Aristotelian View

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is part of a system, noticed in certain bacteria, by which a cell can make changes in strands of DNA. This mechanism appears to be a proto-immune system: it enables a bacterium to recognize Continue reading

Cities as Human Niches: Against the ‘Natural City’

We welcome to the blog Nir Barak, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The city is in some sense our niche; we belong there, and no one can achieve full humanity without it. (Holmes Rolston III[1])

In this post, I want to turn our gaze to cities as the paradigmatic embodiment of niche construction in the Anthropocene. I wish to outline Continue reading

Stewarding the planet? The Anthropocene and nondualist ontologies

We welcome to the blog Luigi Pellizzoni, of the University of Trieste, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The ontological claims embroiled in the notion of the Anthropocene have so far attracted less attention than other issues. However, as I will try to show, it is important to engage in a thorough reflection on them—which I hope to kick start with the following contribution. Continue reading

Interdisciplinarity as conversation

This blog is premised on the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the Anthropocene—indeed, to the general question of human beings’ relationship with their environment. And it aspires to embody a certain conception of interdisciplinarity—one which uses conversation as a model for the interaction among people from diverse intellectual backgrounds. Continue reading

Governance in the Anthropocene: The Role of the Arts

We welcome to the blog Marit Hammond, of Keele University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

The sea around the Brindisi industrial zone is contaminated with toxins and carcinogens, threatening the sea urchin and mussel populations that are farmed in this area. © Environmental Resistance,

The sea around the Brindisi industrial zone is contaminated with toxins and carcinogens, threatening the sea urchin and mussel populations that are farmed in this area. © Cerano Power station outflow, from the No Al Carbone series, Environmental Resistance, 2015.

Continue reading