September 2022 - June 2023
So happy to have been awarded the Ampersand Foundation Fellowship at the British School at Rome. During my 9 months in Rome I will be writing about my material experiences in the fashion I have been doing on Tenderfoot since I launched the site. I'm sure however Rome will open my eyes to a new experience of materiality rooted in an Italian way of life and Rome's unique history - how can it not! I would like to share my observations and thoughts through this stream of writing, in a hope to unpack some of my material experiences.
15th May, 2023
I have recently returned from a six day cheese course in Italy. The course run by an extraordinary woman called Erica, whose earlier career was in archeology living in Cambridge, then she moved to Italy some years ago and never left. She runs courses that are less touristy and are focused around the production of artisan foods - cheese, salumi, bread, olive oil, truffle and gelato.
The course I was participating on focused on visiting cheese producers, to gain practical and hands-on experience. When I signed up for the course I had paid little attention to the specific locations I would be visiting, other than I knew it was around Tuscany, and did not anticipate the exceptional and dramatic landscape that I would be travelling through, visiting farms and cheese producers in the mountains of Tuscany and across the rambling hills of Emilia Romagna.
We visit small cheese producers who Erica has got to know personally over the years, relationships she has nurtured to give us access to small family run businesses. Visits usually start early in the morning observing the cheesemakers prepare their milk. All these small cheese producers we visit are woman, while the men of the family take care of the animals that produce the milk – goats, sheep and cows.
We visited Marzia, who has a very small cheese operation which she runs from a tiny room annexed to her home in a small town just above Bagni di Lucca. She adds rennet to the heated milk, and when the curds form (the consistency a bit like panacotta, but less firm) she cuts them, slicing through the curds with a long knife, and then more rigorously with a whisk until finely broken up. The curds eventually settle at the bottom of the pot binding themselves together, then using both hands she collects up the curds from the bottom of the pot, lifting them to the surface and out of the liquid into cheese molds.
We leave the small cheese room and enter her home next door where we sit down to dinner with her family for a home cooked meal, everything locally sourced or made by her family – home milled chestnut flour for the pasta, cured meats from their animals and of course the cheese…. Once we have eaten and are full of wine, we return to the cheese room to watch her make ricotta from the whey (and just as a note ricotta is not cheese!)
Some of the locations of these farms and cheese producers are incredibly stunning. One morning we head up into the mountains above Lucca. We arrive in the middle of woodland, a stream with chestnut trees lining the banks and wild flowers carpeting the ground. A stone building perched on the river’s edge next to a stone bridge where Vitalina and her husband greets us, along with her three collie dogs, one of which is pregnant and lies in the sun with its belly spread out across the ground.
We are taken into a small stone out building where there is a tin lined copper pot full of fresh raw milk being heated over a gas burner. There is no clutter in this room, only what is needed to make the cheese. The simplicity of this beautiful space seems to reflect Vitalina’s calm and measured personality.
We are taken through the stages of making her cheese. From heating the milk to separating the curd to make caprino (goat cheese), and then reheating the whey and adding a small amount of salt to make ricotta. She takes us into another small stone room where she stores her cheese on wooden shelves covered in fine muslin to keep the flies off. She has fought hard to keep her wooden shelves. The regulations are to use metal, for hygiene reasons. However Vitalina has convinced the regulators that her wooden shelves are fundamental to her maturing process, and assures that they are kept spotlessly clean. The temperature and air is perfect for the maturing in this room. The door is adjacent to a small window which she can opened to adjust the air flow. The cool but moist air from the river gives her cheese it’s unique flavour and consistency. Her ricotta is the most creamy I have tasted, and yet she adds no extra milk or cream, which is a trick of other producers, who never seem to get this creaminess.
Her cheese is made from goats milk, and her and her husband have their own herd. The milk is never chilled, it comes straight from the animal every morning. The milk is the product of the animals well-being, its health, its food intake and its environment. The goats produce less milk at this time of year as they are feeding their young. Everyday the milk will be slightly different, depending on the goats body temperature and mood. It depends mostly on what they eat and where they are in the lactation cycle. Also, by avoiding any travelling of the milk from one location to another, no pumping through pipes, sloshed around in a milk trucks – so the milk is calm and relaxed. Vitalina tells us that the goats don’t like the rain, they prefer to stay in the barn, so on very wet days she lets them stay home.
We are taken to see the goats which are kept just above the house, up a small track in a barn with an attaching pen. Each adult goat has a bell attached to its neck, so when they move together they produce music from the different tones of each bell. The kid goats have their own area in the barn, warm and cozy, the floor thick with fresh straw and hay. I have fallen in love with these creatures. They have so much character. They nibble at my clothes and my fingers and are incredibly bold and playful.
The adult goats are taken out to pasture each day, if it is not pouring with rain! It is only drizzling today. We watch them being herded into the road, across the bridge and disappear out of sight, under the control and care of Vitalina’s husband and their obedient collie dogs. The sound of their bells disappearing into the distance. The scene is cinematic…
Over the duration of the course we – just to say, 'we' is me, Erica, and the other participants, most of which are cheese makers or people who are starting out to becoming one. There is 8 of us. I’m the odd one out, as always! But Erica gets why I’m here, and when the cheese makers inquire what we all do and why we are on the course, I can hear with my limited understanding of Italian Erica explaining that I am an artist, with a fascination for hands on engagement with materials, and artisan food production. Well I hope that is what she is saying….!
When I returned to Rome I sit in my studio, make some sense of the whole experience. I keep thinking about the cheese as living matter. You witness the care and responsiveness between cheese handler and their materials throughout the process, in particular the moment when the cheesemaker collects up from the bottom of the pot, the sunken curds into a big material ball. The fine rice size pellets of curd that have been cut up form into a lump at the base of the pot, and then are gathered and raised to the surface as if the milk, pot or both are giving birth. We saw this being done in two very different circumstances.
The first time was with Linda and Lisa, sisters that make large formed hard cheese together. Linda crouches down reaching both arms deep into the pot. Milk up to her arm pits. She is gathering the curds from the bottom of the pot into a ball, feeling her way slowly and carefully until all the curds are bonded together. This is a slow and delicate action, so not to disturb or break up the material. Then slowly she lifts up the large mass of curd, getting her forearms under it and raising it to the surface of the liquid. With all her efforts she lifts the curd mass out of the pot, stands up cradling it in her arms, and places the entire material cluster into a large plastic cheese mold on the table next to her. Its steaming and alive. She then pushed all her weight down onto the cheese in the mold to push out the liquid, which escapes through holes in the mold, rotating it between the squeezing. An action repeated flipping the cheese in the mold every minute or so until as much liquid as possible drains away. I watch this rich yellow whey trickle away into a large bucket. The cheese once dry and firm will be removed from its mold and start its maturing process in the maturing room.
The rennet and cultures added to the milk brings it to life, the material is continually transforming and changing through the application of heat and physical manipulation, aided by tools and technology. Small producers are very hands-on and the equipment is simple. The bigger the production the greater need to use technology to move the material around. This living matter from raw milk to maturing cheese is in endless transitional, from the young and fresh to the old and mature. The appearance, consistency, smell and taste changing every day until the moment of consumption.
This cheese birthing, I experience on a very different scale the last day when we visited Parmigiano Reggiano producers in Emilia Romagna not far from Bologna. This was the first time we visited a large producer, though still very much artisan using raw milk, but on a much grander scale. 23 copper lined large pots each containing 1,000 litres of milk, each at 2 minute intervals of production. At the beginning of the day all 23 pots are filled with raw milk and the rennet is added to the first pot, then 2 minutes later the second pot has the rennet added and so on. This means that the small team of six can work all milk pots consecutively.
We watched the dairy team heat the milk adding the starter culture. Once heated the curds start to form, and with large curd cutters, they begin to slice through the curds, then chopping more rigorous while stirring until the curds are in small rice size pellets. The curds soon sink and rest at the bottom of the pots knitting themselves together. A large wooden paddle the size of a rowing oar, is plunged to the bottom of the pot. It looks like it is made of some kind of special red wood, a rich red/dark brown, beautifully crafted. The paddle is used to bring the mass of curds to the surface. I watch the handler scoop up the curds – the curd mass is bigger than I expected. It bobs to the surface, then two people catch the curd in a large piece of muslin cloth and hang it over a metal bar resting on the edges of the pot. The shape of the curds is formed by both the base of the conical pot and the cradling cloth. It is then sliced in half using a long blunt knife, to be maneuvered into 2 muslin cloths. The method of separation is choreographed perfectly. The handlers manipulate the cut cheese, rocking backwards and forwards to create the separation, then quickly they introduce a second muslin cloth and one of the halves is flipped into it. Two formed cheeses now ready for their molds.
I watch this process over and over again as they work along all 23 pots. The actions are well rehearsed and yet each time they separate the curds there is an anticipation and urgency to get it right, not to drop or harm the material. So much care is taken, care you give to living things – to cradle, to not puncture, to keep whole.
1 - 3 Making cheese and sharing dinner with Marzia Ridolfi near Montefegatesi.
4 - 8 Simple farmhouse goat’s cheese with Vitalina Fiori, near Barga, Tuscan mountains.
9 - 12 Visit to Caseificio Ca’Vecchino to watch production of Parmigiano Reggiano producers in Emilia Romagna,
10th April, 2023
I spent a day with Liza Dieckwisch this week, who has become my cooking pal and food collaborator here in Rome. After a successful day working with vegetables together, using a range of seasonal produce from the local market – such as agretti, cardoons, and puntarella, we planned a day of offal. We particularly wanted to tackle the innards of a lamb, taking the raw material, prepping, cooking and eating it. We both have a need and fascination to understand and experience food through our bodies (handling and eating), to develop a physical relationship to the materials we use and encounter.
Liza is also an artist and like me is spending 9 months here in Rome. She is based at the German Academy, and although I am rather jealous of her enormous studio which makes my studio at the British Academy seem a little small and humble, we have found a friendship that is linked both through our art practice and our love for all things food….. both of which are totally entangled. We have decided to cook together regularly, after finding it impossible to get direct hands on experience in Roman-Italian restaurants or with food producers. There is a lot of bureaucracy and health and safety restrictions that prevent us working in the food industry here. So me and Liza are doing a lot of stuff together – cooking, visiting foodie places and talking a lot about it all.
Since being in Rome I have gained an interest, respect and taste for offal. Before arriving here I would probably have only eaten liver and kidneys, familiarized through my husband’s liver and onion dish, and my mums steak and kidney pie. Finding offal such as tripe and sweetbreads something I would have avoided. I think the texture combined with my psychological block about these less common consumed organs had stopped me from being open to trying them in restaurants, or cooking with them at home. Ridiculous really! Rome loves offal and there are so many dishes to eat here that use the different innards of the animal.
The first time I had offal here was in Testaccio market, where a food vendor sells hot steaming offal sandwiches. You see people, particularly manual workers queueing in the morning for their super food breakfast sandwiches. When trying a offal sandwich, the tripe was so soft and not at all chewy, which was very different to previous experiences I had had eating tripe in Italy, and also when I visited Japan – where I recall a very chewy experience where the meat would not break down in my mouth and was impossible to swallow. I’m really not sure it was that bad, but my head had rejected it before it entered my body. This is what has changed for me here – I no longer distinguish between meat types, as in judging what is more or less acceptable and palatable to eat from an animal. Handling to understand the meat I eat, has really helped me to challenge my eating habits.
I’m exploring all sorts of cooked innards in restaurants now. I appreciate the fact that all the parts of an animal are being used. Often people only want the prime cuts – such as fillet steak, prepped and prepacked. Liver for example sold in the UK has been the same price for years, due to its low demand, and yet in my opinion it is as tasty as an expensive fillet steak. I do think if you eat meat you should gain an understanding of where your meat comes from, and try and expand the range of cuts you buy. Being in Rome has really opened my eyes and my stomach in this field.
Buying offal to cook with Liza had to be planned, as very few butchers have these ingredients ready available. We ordered the innards of a lamb. It included - heart, spleen, lung, liver, sweetbreads, trachea and intestine. The organs came all attached (apart from the intestine that had been cleaned and washed in salty water.) We noticed the kidneys were absent. The butcher must have removed them and sold them separately – naughty butcher! The first thing we did is explore handling and look at the lambs innards - holding the linked organs up to see which part was connected to what and where things were placed in relation to the trachea (windpipe). We also ordered beef cheeks and sweetbreads, and caul fat. Caul fat is the lacy fat membrane that surrounds the internal organs of most animals - ours was pigs judging by the size of it.
Each part of the lambs innards was very different in shape, texture and colour. The heart, robust and the hardest organ - it’s shape just as you expect. Cutting through revealed the dense muscle and the pale coloured entrance and exit tubes. A lambs heart is small about 5cm long, and can sit in the palm of your hand. Leading down to the heart was the trachea with the sweetbreads attached on either side. This is a very loose and long organ, lumpy, squidgy, pale in colour and very soft. Although, trying to cut through the transparent membrane that houses this organ is almost impossible. The sweetbreads we had from the cow had such a tough membrane we could not find a knife to cut through, and even with scissors it was difficult. The lungs came next, the largest organs of our lamb innards, rich pinky red flaps. The spleen is very different in colour and texture, deep dark red with a blue shimmering almost metallic membrane.
I apologies now to those of you who may be a bit squeamish when it comes to raw meat, but I’m telling you, once you go beyond the materials origin and associations, and handle this stuff, you can exploring its materiality, like you would any object.
Cutting through each organ reveals the structure, veins, arteries and fat running through. Each a perfect structure that makes up a perfectly designed machine - flexible and agile while also robust and resilient. I did not find myself thinking much about the living animal this material had come from, as I explored the dead fleshy matter, instead I was absorbed in the forms, textures, colours, smells and material details of each inside and outside part. I find it humbling to think about all flesh as material, a grounding and levelling between humans and animals. We are all pretty much made up of the same stuff – but on slightly different scales.
After handling the lamb material to explore how it felt, moved through our fingers and looked like in the sunlight, we divided our organs in to 3 dishes - one for making sausages, one for wrapping in caul fat and one for making Coratella. We were going to make two types of sausages, one with the beef cheeks and sweetbreads with a range of herbs and spices, including, pine nuts, sultanas, garum, cumin, sage and rosemary. The other with the full range of lambs innards with just salt and pepper.
Pushing each batch of meat for the sausage meat through a mincer we then added cooked basmati rice to bind both batches into a firm consistency. We did a number of testers, small shaped patties quickly fried, to taste our mixes. The lamb one was seriously rich and very delicious, the beef was more ordinary – so we added a few more ingredients to jazz it up. You can really add anything to a sausage mix. What happens when you add dark chocolate, seeds, cheese? Why not!
Whatever process you apply to a piece of meat will reveal different material qualities that it has. Pushing sweetbreads through a mincer machine (not a pretty sight!) demonstrated its soft elasticated qualities, looking more like slime than mince, with the membrane getting caught up in the metal template where the mince is extruded. Whereas the beef cheeks came out as you would expect mince to look like. Each type of meat we put through the mincer came out at a different speed, with different pressure needed to push the meat through the machine. I could have made a graph to illustrate each cut of meats density based on this process.
We made our sausages with the lambs intestines and also used our caul fat to wrap some of the mixture. Caul fat is an extraordinary material. It looks like lace. Between the fatty lacy strips is a fine membrane. It reminded me of the thin skin that you can peel off your body after being sun burnt, like fine paper. When ripping it, it tore a bit like very thin tissue paper and the sound was similar. The caul fat cooks like crispy bacon when frying it around meat cuts or sausage meat, contributing an intense extra layer of flavour to the sausages.
The other dish we made was Coratella, this is when you cut up the innards into small pieces and fry with a lot of onions. The important thing is to add the liver last as it cooks very quickly. The Roman way is to add artichokes but we left those out. I added white wine and some vegetable stock, and after tasting added a bit of honey to sweeten, as offal can be a bit bitter. After cooking a while the dish went a very dark colour – almost black – must have been the blood from the organs.
We made so much food, so were pleased when Liza’s neighbours were interested in coming to eat some of it. Someone brought vegan sausages for us to cook for their vegetarian children. I looked at the ingredients on the package of the tofu sausages and was horrified by the long list of indistinguishable ingredient, food additives and flavourings. Given all the debates around whether to eat meat or not in protecting the planet, I’m not sure a vegetarian/vegan option is necessarily a better ecological decision, based on this product!
We ended up doing two dinner sittings for all the food we had produced, each time guests contributing to the meal with cooked artichokes, salads and wine. Also, I watched as one of the children ate our offal sausages. I asked them if they liked it and they nodded frantically as they grabbed a second.
Me and Liza are planning a dough day next…
2. Lambs innards.1 Liza with intact lambs innards.
3. Making sausages.
4-5. Caul fat.
6. Sausages using lambs intestine.
7. Sausages using caul fat.
8. Cooking sausages.
6th March, 2023
What keeps returning to me over and over in Rome is the layering of this city. Layers going up and layers going down. The more your investigate the more there is to be discovered below ground. Over centuries buildings have been crushed or filled in to make space for new buildings and this process has been repeated over and over again. Basilicas built over churches, churches built over houses, houses built over barracks, barracks built over mausoleums, mausoleums built over…..
I have visited a number of sites below ground in Rome, excavations that reveal buildings and lives lived from the past. Often there are multiple layers uncovered of different types of dwellings, religious sites, government buildings, burial grounds and humble homes.
What I find so exciting when visiting these subterranean worlds, is the juxtaposition of archeological remains and the materials that were used to fill in the sites, in order to build on top. Standing in the ruins underneath the Basilica of St John Lateran, on a visit set up by the archeologist who is heading the excavation, you can see beautifully decorated rooms of wealthy villa owners, walls painted with delicate frescos and intricate floor mosaics, all of which have been carefully excavated and cleaned up, but are still colliding with the remains of the rubble that was poured into these spaces to create the foundations for the new buildings that were constructed on top. I guess it is not impossible to remove all this rubble, due to structural constraints, and the fact that it takes a long time to remove it without damaging what is underneath, which is why you are often left with this dramatic contrast of delicate archeological ruins and raw rough matter.
What we are witnessing is the excavation process, the careful removal of infill to reveal the architecture below. The remains of these brutal rubble mounds of filler I find beautiful as well as invasive. They are a reminder of what these sites have gone through and witnessed. Somehow, when things are cleaned up too much I lose a sense of the history of the site, the stages between each building’s construction. Surely, it’s destruction is as important as its realization, in terms of understanding it’s material history and context.
Also, the rubble and concrete matter that was poured into these sites to form the foundations for the new, expose different building methods and also the gesture of its obliteration - one that can appear violent, destroying the old in order to make way for the new without much regard for what was being buried. Mind you it is easy to bring my contemporary values to these excavations, to be shocked by the destruction of beautiful artworks and architecture. In the case of the Lateran the Roman emperor of the time needing to build barracks for his soldiers in an elevated location of the city, of which this site could provide. So worrying about saving the old buildings already there, was of little concern. What we now think is extraordinary and worth preserving was then quite ordinary and replaceable.
Seeing the piles of rubble in these excavated sites exposes how they poured the rubble in from above, the direction of the infill matter caught in motion as it cascaded into the spaces, capturing what it might be like to be trapped underground during a disaster. I think about the people trapped in buildings during the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria. How quickly exits can be blocked and buildings can be crushed. As we go deeper under the Lateran I try not to think about what is above me, all that weight of architecture, the basilica with its huge marble sculptures all bearing down on top of me. I’m always impressed by the engineering of underground constructions, how it is possible to build tunnels without the above caving in! I’m sure in the past things did collapse when underground structures where not strong enough.
When visiting St Clement Basilica, a church that is built over two previous churches. Below a 4th century basilica that had been converted out of the home of a Roman nobleman, and below that a 2nd century church that briefly served as a mithraeum. I weave down through the layers, descending narrow stairs. I can hear water running, the noise travels throughout the site and I’m eager to find its source. In the very depths I find the fresh flow of water exposed running along a channel in the floor - an underground stream. This water flow whilst its contents are fresh and ever changing, its direction is ancient. Like the Lateran excavation, the experience of seeing these multi layers is somewhat confusing, in that this is not an experience of the individual buildings, what it would have been like to occupy them when they were in use, but an archeological experience, a collapsing of histories, which dare I say satisfies my contemporary need to ‘have it all at once!’
What I mean by this, is that we are very familiar with the presentations of condensed histories, such as in museums, compact cross sections of history and timelines delivered in simplified formats, neatly packaged for quick consumption – a time plan on a museum wall, a 10 minute interactive light show to sum up an entire age. I was watching a YouTube clip this morning about the history of Garum sauce, a fish sauce made from fermented fish with salt, very common in Ancient Rome. The guy presenting the programme delivered an entire pocket history of Ancient Rome with cartoon diagrams in 5 minutes, about the maximum time we give to any YouTube video.
These excavations can feel a little bit like a theme park, pulled into the excitement and drama of the multi layers, and less of the layers themselves. Having said that these tours are super interesting and unforgettable.
On visiting the Domus Aurea, Nero’s Palace in the depths underground, you are given a virtual tour, 3D virtual glasses that transport you back to the time of Nero to explore his living pristine palace. It is pretty amazing as you float through rooms observing their decorations, gliding into the outdoors amongst virtual blossoming trees, to the edges of the garden and the limits of the virtual environment. It is really seductive and helps to understand what this building would have been like in its hay day. But I’m pleased when the 20 minute tour comes to an end and I return to my own physical interaction and imagination.
As I walk from one space to the next below St. Clement Basilica, I am drawn to the light sources, spot lights rigged up, one or two in each space. The intense localized lights have created what must be the perfect environment for certain plants to grow, each light is surrounded by bright green moist spongy moss, and dainty leafy plants growing out of the walls. Like the stream running at the base of the site, these clusters of nature bring new life to the space. I love how nature can take advantage of the smallest opportunity to take root and thrive.
The damp conditions and bright electric light are seemingly perfect for these mini wall gardens. It was interesting that no one had removed these growths from the historical remains. Perhaps there was an appreciation of what this succulent greens brought to the tourist experience, or no one could be bothered to remove them! Maybe the plants are important to the ecosystem of the site and are contributing to the preservation of the space, or more likely not! I will never know, but for me these beautiful moments in these dark damp spaces brings something very special to my experience. It made me think about time beyond that of the building and myself – the plants were acting as an interface between the building’s time and my time, their growth slow but prolific, and interwoven into the spaces. It was also a reminder of how all buildings are in constant transformation, even when appearing to be frozen in time.
I have just come back this afternoon from visiting the Vatican Necropolis of St. Peters Basilica. After passing through high security to access the site, I joined a small group and was led down through the layers of architectural history below the basilica, guided by a very knowledgeable historian who brought diagrams and maps to explain the complex shifting histories of the site.
This was a very cleaned up excavation compared to others I had experienced, no leftover tumbling rubble or gritty floors. In the deepest depths of the site a pagan cemetery, a street running between each mausoleum still intact. You could see how the buildings had been cut into the hillside to create terraces. The guide explained, when the Roman emperor Constantine the Great built his church on top of the necropolis in the 4thcentury, he merely sliced off the pediments of these buildings, and cut off the top of the hillside, filling these topless mausoleums with the rubble and earth from the hillside, in order to create the foundations for his new church. The walls of the mausoleums providing strong foundation structures. The current basilica, which stands in its place now was built much later, completed in 1626.
Saint Peter is buried on this site, and with the aid of a laser pointer our guide focused us on some of his remains housed in a small glass container within a wall. The story of Saint Peter’s grave and how they found it is fascinating – definitely worth a read.
Visiting these multi layered excavations, is always wrapped up in excited expectations, due to their hiddenness from above. I now find myself peering down through the floor iron gratings in all churches and basilicas I visit, to see if I can get a glimpse of what lies below, sometimes met with returning eyes of underground visitors looking right back at me.
Basilica of St. John Lateran
2-3. Under St. Clement Basilica1 Under
4. Domus Aurea
5. Under Basilica of St. John Lateran
6. Domus Aurea
Stone - Sampietrini to Bernini
17th January, 2023
I have not put Sampietrini and Bernini together just because they rhythm! nice though! But they are the two things made of stone that I have become increasingly fixated on here in Rome. The Sampietrini is the typical black basalt paving stones you find on most of the historical streets of Rome. The average size of the individual stones are about 12cm x 12cm and 6 -18cm deep. The basalt rock was originally quarried around Rome, however since 2000 the city imports much of the stone from China. The cobbles are an ingenious invention, they are laid on a thick bed of sand with gaps left between them, allowing water to drain away easily. In spite of being quite irregular they are incredibly strong, resilient and elastic as they let the ground breath because of the gaps between, having room to move over time finding their natural position.
I have watched workmen laying them meticulously in rows then beating them into the ground with a hammer. There are a range of different patterns the stones follow. Over time the pressure and weight from moving traffic passing over (once horse drawn carriages and now much heavier vehicles,) and the subtle shifts in the ground underneath has altered the angles and position of the stones. On certain roads you can see extraordinary shifts in the roads terrain - peaks and troths creating waves of cobbles, more like a seascape than a road. There has been a lot of debate in Rome whether to replace the Sampietrini with more modern road surfaces, but I’m happy to hear that this proposal has been fought and the Sampietrini remains at least for now.
So to Gian Lorenzo Bernini' marble sculptures, important for me to mention them after the Sampietrini and not before! You can decided what is more important! Bernini's sculptures are scattered throughout Rome, from the Villa Borghese, St Peters Bascillica to churches throughout Rome. He has an unique way of capturing fabric in marble, it is stunning and breathtaking, and what makes him stand out from other sculptors of the time. Swathes of marble fabric wrap around his subjects, flowing energetically as if caught in a whirlwind. It is not just the way he sculpts fabric, but the way he captures emotion on the faces and in the bodies of his subjects. They are dramatic but still sit more in reality than theatre.
Both the Sampietrini and Bernini sculptures are made from humble materials extracted from the earth, formed and shaped for functional and aesthetic qualities. Every material has its strengths and its limits. The basalt cobbles resilient to weight and hard to crack, while Bernini’s Carrara marble sculptures are able to be carved into fine forms without breaking. I have worked in Carrara stone. It is an extraordinary material of which its structure accommodates being carved very thin, unlike other marble that would crack and break if worked into such fine shapes. Every material has its limitations and Bernini was very aware of those in this marble, and pushed its capacity to the limit. Research into Bernini’s sculpture Pluto and Proserpina, the figure at the base, the legs are parted almost too far apart to take the weight of the sculpted figures above. If the legs had been placed much further apart the mass of stone above would have caused it to break under the pressure. He really seemed to be taking risks here.
Whether creating beautiful figures in marble or blocks of basalt for laying on roads these materials are being tested, and only the test of time really reveals their ultimate strengths and weaknesses. Sculptures reveal cracks over years where the changing atmosphere and temperature open up fissures in the stone, and basalt cobbles chip and brake under the pressure of pounding traffic. I have to say both are incredibly resilient to these time factors, compared with other types of stone and materials found in the city.
These two uses of stone could not be further apart in terms of how we value and view them, one often overlooked and the other venerated, but as materials they are both extraordinary and beautiful in equal measure, and capture history and reflect the environment they are in. When spending time observing both I find myself pass beyond their forms to engage with their material qualities, imagining their origins in the landscape - mountains, rivers or deep from within the ground. Both taking long journeys from their sources to be either trodden under foot or elevated into transcendental artistic realms. This I was reminded of in an extreme way when entering St. Peter’s Basilica, to find another extraordinary artists' work, Michelangelo’s Pieta now behind bullet proof glass. I remember visiting it in my teens and I’m sure I was able to get up close, engaging with the stone and the image in equal measures. This stunning emotional depiction of Mary holding Jesus, his broken body collapsed in her arms and lap, you can now only really engage with the image and not its materiality due to the distance created between sculpture and viewer, by the barriers and reflecting glass. It became very clear how important the material qualities are in this work, bringing so much to the experience, now that it was being denied.
I step on the Sampietrini, it sometimes trips me up, or I slip on its shiny surface when it is wet from the rain. Every road, square meter of sampietrini is unique - different size cobbles, layout formations and size of gaps between them. In some places short fresh bright green grass grows between them, the heads of the grass stopping short of the tops of the stones, so when you tread on them your foot does not touch the delicate growth. The green jumps out in contrast to the shiny black stone. Some cobbles have been stabilized and fixed with additional tarmac. This is so not in keeping with the stones, while others have deep gaps with nothing between them, creating mini islands. Each step on these stones grounds you in the city texturally and physically, I can identify different parts of the city now by its Sampietrini. I feel very connected to these stones.
Bernini’s marble sculptures are at arm’s length, often on high plinths, out of reach and almost out of sight some times! The artist Bernini and his assistances, of which there were quite a few have imbued meaning into these stones with extraordinary sensitivity capturing narratives that are emotive and urgent. Often copied from a maquette the sculptors translated the clay medium into stone. It is much easier to model a fluid shape in clay than it is to carve it in stone, and this is why these stone sculptures are so incredible. Stone flows from the hard material capturing movement associated to the living, the flexible and the emphermal. It is not just a replication and scaling up from clay maquette to marble sculpture, statue and monument, but the artists understanding and respect for the material, to collaborate with it, the artists’ breathe seeming to enter the stones veins, then it breathing right back into the lungs of the artists.
Stone is used for both the Sampietrini and sculpture for its strength, permanence (well as permanent as anything can be!) and ability to be split, cut, carved and shaped. It is a material embedded in the infrastructure of our architecture, town planning and art. It is because of its endurance that history can be seen and told through it and by it, and whether that is the stones we walk on or the extraordinary sculptures of Bernini, we can make sense of our history over long periods of time, choosing to admire, test or even destroy it.
1-2, 5-6 & 9 Sampietrini
3-4 & 7-8 Gian Lorenzo Bernini Angels. The Angel with the Crown of Thorns and The Angel with the Titulus, Sant'Andrea delle Fratte. Originally sited on Ponte Sant'Angelo.
9. Apollo and Daphne, Bernini. Villa Borghese. (Detail.)
12th December, 2022
The markets in Rome are something else! I visit any market I pass or hear about in Rome – they are my favourite places to hang out and watch.They are all different in character and vary in atmosphere depending on the day and time you visit. Not long ago I. I had walked through it a week earlier when it was closing down for the day, only to experience the markets aftermath, so returning on a Saturday morning when it was in full flow was a treat for all my senses. As soon as I enter a market I am on full alert, my eyes scanning the entire space not knowing what to settle on. I find these environments super stimulating, more than a lot of museums and galleries. Sights, sounds, smells and temperatures bombarding me from every direction. Someone chopping meat with a cleaver, a guy selling steaming hot meat filled sandwiches, vendors touting for business, queues of chatty customers - this is life in full swing…
Rome is a slower city to London, people don’t rush as much, well at least on foot - in vehicles it is a different matter. That’s for another post! There are no double queues on the underground escalators to let speedy commuters pass, no erratic overtaking and cutting up on the pavement, but a more leisurely stroll with time to think and look. But when it comes to the markets it is 100 miles an hour, frantic sellers and buyers for the weeks shop. I have never experienced anything quite like it before. I barely found a space to stand and watch without feeling I was getting in someone’s way. People speeding around with trolleys and consumers pushing to find their place in a competitive queue.
The meat is at one end and the fish the other, with all matter of vegetables and other types of sellers in between. The salumeria, which are the cured meat shops or Italian deli are the most eye catching. I love the way things are displayed, cured meats hang down from hooks, then a small gap where you can see the seller rushing between customers and food prepping, then below the large food cabinets/chillers filled with cheese, salamis, meats and all sorts of things in pots, from artichokes and olives glistening in olive oil to whole and portioned cheeses, some dry and hard like pecorino and parmesan, others wet and loose such as pots of soft lumpy ricotta (one of my favorites.)
I pass a store which has a display of dried and salted fish - bacalao. The entire fish opened out flat and then hung up, tail at the top and mouth gaping open pointing towards the floor. Nothing seems to have been wasted, the entire fish dried out (minus the inners). There are no disguises in these markets, little sanitising and pre-packaging. You are fully aware of the source of the produce being sold. A cows head planted in the middle of a butchers counter paying respect to the animal that has provided all the meat on display. Meat sold in supermarkets on the other hand are disconnected from their origins with little reference to the animal of which the meat has come from, although a friend this morning just sent me an image of rows of entire skinned rabbits packaged in cling film in a supermarket in Trento. The smell in the meat section of the market is intense. I realize this is one of the things lacking in supermarkets, the aroma of uncooked flesh. I don’t particularly like this smell but I feel it is necessary to remind me what is being sold here.
I visited Nuovo Mercato Esquilino recently. A very international operation, most of the vendors are Asian. Piles of vegetables and grains neatly grouped on wooden displays that slope down towards the customers, then rows of preserved and canned foods lining the walls behind the sellers – it’s beautiful. The vegetables are fresh and irregular in shape and sizes, no unnecessary standardising of carrots going on here. The floor is scattered with the bits that have broken off the various fresh goods - husks of onions, outer leaves of leeks, tomato stalks. This underfoot experience heightens my tactile engagements all the way from my feet to the top of my head. In the middle of the market is a guy with a wheely bag. He takes a piece of paper and wraps it into a cone shape, then with a plastic scoop he digs down into the bag scooping food from two plastic bags at the bottom. I look in, I have no real idea of what is inside, but then I look around and there are groups of men sitting along a concrete barrier in the middle of the market all eating from these paper cones. They start chatting to me, I have little idea what they are saying, but I do know from their expressions and enthusiasm that they are communicating their joy and satisfaction of eating this food from a paper cone.
I ask for a portion peering into the wheely bag as he scoops from both interior bags. It looks like puff rice with various vegetables scattered amongst the mixture. He then spoons a kind of salsa sauce over the top. I sit down with my small wooden fork and plunge in. WOW - its crunchy and spicy, and I can’t stop eating it until every morsel is shoveled into my mouth. It only cost 1 euro and beats any Michelin star mouthful I have ever had. I will never forget this experience.
On visiting Agro Mercato in the Flaminio district I am struck by a fish display. Every fish wedged into ice to look like they are swimming, twisting and turning through the ice carpet, appearing to almost leap from the stand. I notice a group of langoustine, their tails embedded in the ice with claws up lifted as if dancing. This is full on fish theatre. I suppose this energetic display is to enhance the freshness of the produce. It’s working for me. I love the effort and investment the sellers put into their displays, all competing for attention using every theatric they can come up with.
1-2 & 5 Nuovo Mercato Esquilino
3-4 Fish display at Agro Mercato
Table pasta, floor pasta
5th November, 2022
I have been making pasta exploring its material qualities - its capacity to be rolled out thin, to be stretched even thinner, stuck together and formed into all manner of shapes for eating. Making pasta is complicated and yet simple. The simplicity of the coming together of two ingredients – flour (often semolina) and water or flour (00 flour, a finely-ground wheat flour) and egg, and yet the nuances of this simple act of mixing two humble ingredients together is mind boggling. I have made a fair amount of pasta over the past year and have read wonderful books, such as Rachael Roddy’s ‘An A-Z of Pasta’ and Marcella Hazan’s ‘Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’ to teach myself a little of the art of making this astonishing food, such as how to mix and knead the dough, how to form it into handmade shapes or to use a pasta machine to rollout consistent strips, the starting point to a range of pasta forms, from tagliatelle to ravioli. Now I am trying to let loose with the material, to unlearn, and find my own way of making pasta. The thing is whatever I make must be as much a visual and hand touch tactile experience, as one of taste and a mouth texture experience.
Up until now my engagement with food as part of my art practice has been where my exploration of handling, observing and making food gets absorbed into processes I use in my studio practice, informing the ways I explore material to make sculpture. This is the first time that my studio practice is directly informing my making of food, so I’m now in less familiar territory. It is a two way exchange between food and sculpture production, a shift I have been wishing for to happen but did not want to force until it felt right – being in Rome definitely feels like the right moment. I am becoming immersed in a food experience here in Rome, visiting markets, eating in restaurants and on the streets, observing the pleasure and urgency around food. Food is definitely at the heart of Italian life and this fascinates me. I’m certain to write more about this in future posts.
The boundaries between my food and sculpture are becoming blurred, which is exciting. I have no idea where this parallel pasta engagement with making food and sculpture will take me, but I hope to occupy this uncertain space of material engagement for as long as possible. Shifting between the floor, manipulating dough into large sculptural tongue like forms, and then onto the table to make mouth size ones to eat.
My idea for making pasta (to eat) is to create an experience in the mouth that captures what I personally enjoy about eating pasta – the sensation of it moving around inside my mouth and looping across and around my tongue, to then bite into it and have a range of textural experiences. This requires fairly large pieces of pasta, thin flaps of irregular shapes that fill the mouth and where a soft and slithery meets moments of al dente bite, so really a pasta that is both gentle and giving interrupted by firm resistance. I’m not claiming to invent a new pasta experiences, as there are many pastas that deal with these ranges of eating experience, but for me it is a ‘way in’ to feel the material inside and outside my body and explore my own pasta relationship.
It has also helped making pasta for eating in the same space as where I make my sculpture. I have set up a table in my studio where I make pasta, and on the floor I make my pasta dough sculptures, so I can make direct links between the materials. For example, I have learnt to knead my dough for my sculpture for as long as I do for my consuming pasta. The kneading exercises the gluten in the dough making it more elasticated. This is important when rolling out thin layers of dough without it breaking. This has made a big difference when rolling out large pieces on the floor for my sculptures (I had not been doing this before, so my sculptures were more likely to break when dry!) I feel a bit awkward referring to my consuming or eating pasta and sculpture pasta as I don’t really want to separate them – but I feel I need to for this writing, and also in terms of what can and cannot be eaten.
Rolling out small individual balls of pasta with a rolling pin on the clean table, I then stretch them a little to make thinner, my shapes are irregular and unplanned, some measuring up to 12cm across, some long and thin others rounder. Then gathering them up into irregular folds and creases I pinch some of the ripples together, to stick and hold the shapes in place, not too much as this will make the pasta too thick, but enough to hold the gathered shapes. I then crumple up grease proof paper and arrange the individual shapes on top to hold their sculpted shapes, giving them space to dry.
I cook a couple of my pasta forms a few days later, tossing them in a bit of butter, salt and pepper for a quick trial, thinking that 1. they will lose their shape in the boiling water and 2. they will not taste very good. BUT, to my surprise the shapes hold and they taste bloody good, and the texture is spot on. I was very careful to not over or under cook them. Placing each, one at a time in my mouth I slowly manoeuvred the test pieces around inside my mouth, prolonging biting into them until I can hold back no longer. It reminded me of the experience of eating dim sum, the scale and texture of a unfilled dumpling.
Over a few days I accumulated a pile of my pasta, so decided to cook for fellow artists and scholars at the BSR. What was I thinking! Cooking for one is not the same as cooking for 12! How would the pasta hold together when cooked in larger quantities. Would it all stick together? And how would I mix a sauce into the pasta without breaking the pieces up. And what kind of sauce to make?
I wanted a sauce that was minimal and would showcase the pasta, so decided to do a very simple sage butter, sage from the BSR garden, good quality butter from the local supermarket and a grating on top of parmesan from the local market. I served it up and distributed it in small bowls to a table of hungry people. Someone made a lovely salad and another bought a fruit tart for pudding. So if all failed no one would go hungry. I asked everyone for feedback on the experience of eating it. The responses where great and very appreciative. It was serving to be quite a sensual experience, with reflections on the slippery seductive texture of the surprising pasta shapes, and how every piece was different in shape and form, and required different fork manoeuvres to move it from plate to mouth.
The scale and individualized shapes of my pasta has got me thinking of how I would like to next time make them bigger, big enough to fill the entire base of a serving plate, and to make a broth to ladle and float on top. The pasta dough on the floor of my studio is also growing and spreading, multiple shapes and sizes, the dough died with black paint, all with strong echoes of the smaller consumables on the table.
1-4 Table pasta for eating.
5-6 Floor pasta not for eating.
I arrived in Rome two and half weeks ago, feels both a long and short time. Long in that I have done so much in the last 17 days and it seems a long time since I was in London, and short in that I am here for 9 months and it is just a snippet of my stay here – so far a bit more than the average span of an average holiday. I feel relaxed here but also a bit discombobulated, excited and a little overwhelmed, but most definitely very happy to be in Rome. I’m walking around with a big smile on my face – can’t quite believe I’m here.
1. Tomb wall on the AppianWay
2. Archeological site at Ostia Antica
3. Archeological dig,Via Salaria
4. Reconsturucted marble statue, Museum Montemartini