Reflections on Visiting Rome and Florence in Spring 2018

Founded around 750 BC, the Romans have had long practice of learning to live together. Here cosmopolitanism is at ease with itself.

The way shops are on the ground floor and people live on the floors above, usually up to three, four or five storeys is a good model for practical mingling.

Beneath the first impressions on the surface, things are more complex. The ruins of Rome are a warning that empires come and go, hierarchies provoke revolt. Few organisations or political structures will remain in place, unless like the Roman Catholic Church, they are at least nominally based on a vision of justice and peace.

Today’s republican spirit is still befuddled by the wily mendacities of the Berlusconi’s of this world, a gnome who is still promoting himself as leader in despite of more than 60 legal cases against him. Here is a mountebank who used modern media and false witness to make others’ lives a misery while promoting his own pointless sway. Masquerading in the clothes of freedom, he wastes everyone’s time by hogging the limelight.

At the heart of our limited, oh so limited democracy, is “oligarchy”. The ruling elite in nations around the world whose privileges bring them little joy, seem to hang on to power to primarily avoid the consequences of their mendacious machinations.

Science through social Darwinism has deluded them that meritocracy is the truth of existence, that the elite have always and will always rule. Doesn’t the way history is currently written show us that the world is ruled by great men?

The ruins of Rome remind us that in the end this way of thinking leads to collapse.

There were two sculptural friezes I noticed in a lounge at Rome’s Ciampino’s Airport, made from marble with power tools – post-modern pieces of corporate expression, monotonous and yet an effort of sorts to decorate a panorama of captured nervousness, as punters waited for flights.

It was marginally better than a blank wall and much better than an advertisement selling junk values. But it cried out to our time to energise and instil meaning into what we make and do.

The food being sold in the eateries at the airport was made without love, to feed the cooped mass with something to fill their stomach at an inflated price, because the corporate gravy train has strangulated economic relations – presumably through rip-off rents by the powerful, fleecing even their own allies as well as the passengers.

What a contrast to the exquisite pizzas and pastas in Rome’s backstreets where chefs took pride in garnishing morsels of paradise, or the artisan sandwiches of Florence where even the police were standing with their tongues out salivating at cured viands decorated with rocket and marinated aubergine. The artisan food was cheaper, more nutritious, more filling, more interesting, but necessarily freed from the rent-bind, the rip-off pact with mammon, that forces junk food into its obsession with obesity and blandness – its tasteless lack of culture.

But in our post-modern times we should congratulate the warlords of finance for at least trying. These desk junkies, scavenging on their PC’s, paying the front of house staff peanuts, inventing meaningless complications to siphon off funds for their lack of effort or imagination.

Congratulate them on surviving and creating unnecessary inequality, on capturing state power through oligarchic orphanages of representation, spaces where the old leeches can be soothed with NHS Dettol.

In Florence, splendour and beauty combined to create the model of a city state refined with the intricacies of human skill. The republican spirit of the Florentines always revolted against Medici might.

Although the names of palaces have been captured by the elite, we know it was the artisan and not the banker who ultimately gifted beautiful buildings and decorations.

True, there are not enough trees and green spaces for contemporary taste. True there are still homeless mendicants with soiled clothing wandering streets and begging coins. These are the marks of our future endeavours, where we must strive to heal the wounds of wars and discord. Even in a town as insulated and exemplary of glory as Florence, the fissures of our broken system crackle.

The questing spirit of the Renaissance, the striving for equality: before the law, between the genders, races and abilities is revealed in the opulent splendours of murals, in the harmonious contours of architecture, in the calm cloisters for contemplation on the truth of the utter emptiness that would take another human and hurt them, crucify them.

History tells us the cautionary story of how the believers whom the Romans crucified and fed to lions, whom they drove out of the temple and dispersed with wanton violence, ultimately took over the city of Rome, and founded a universal church, because their sense of community, devotion to education and mutual support, was tougher and more useful than the gluttony and sadism of so-called strong leaders.

The art of the Renaissance, the depictions of beauty and harmony remain a counterpoint to the caprice of princes and a rebuke to their petty thuggery.

Culture will be cleansed with the truth that the meek, the poor, the lost and lonely, the despised and rejected will inherit the earth.

Meritocracy is barbarism in disguise. Freedom is our future and we find it when we help a brother or sister along the way.


Santa Barbara Timeline Mosaic and Radio interview

santa barbara timeline mosaic

We are so looking forward travelling to Santa Barbara and meeting with Elizabeth Gallery and Robin Elander as part of a Certificate Design Course we are delivering. What a project and how thoroughly are they researching the many layers of history to be reflected in the Santa Barbara Timeline Mosaic. Building a project made by the people for the people. This fits perfectly with the ethos of London School of Mosaic where we reach out to residents and those who could be uplifted by practising artisan craft, giving themselves time to think about quality of life and reflecting about their local history.

We know Betsy and Robin are delving back into pre-history when the area was part of the ocean; tapping into the oral history of the Chumash: the seashell people who first settled the Santa Barbara area 13,000 years ago; recording the first European contacts and how they moved in to trade and then settle the area. Was it the planting of crops and spread of agriculture that supported a population growth? How did the industrial and technological revolutions affect the area? All these subjects and more will be opened up to research and as we think about how best to design a mosaic to last for several hundred years. It will inevitably be our own interpretation and people of the future who see it will wonder why we chose to highlight some themes?

Mosaic is architecture’s most expressive surface. Betsy Gallery is showing how artists and the community can work with developers to include character and detail into the fabric of her neighbourhood. When what we make will last for so long in the future, we can take time to be inclusive and considerate, to put in many symbols and layers of meaning, to keep a record of what we are doing so future generations can look back and find inspiration from our own efforts. If we leave a legacy then we set the future free to use our skills and expertise, to take off with their own fresh interpretations.

We thank Elizabeth and Robin for their invitation and their interest in what we achieved through Queenhithe Mosaic, on which the Santa Barbara Timeline is modelled. This has been a huge complement of our work and we are enormously pleased how this has inspired their project. We look forward in sharing our experience and skills with them. 

Find out more about the certificate course we delivering in Santa Barbara in December 2017: Designing large-scale Public Mosaics

Listen to our radio interview with Elizabeth Stewart: