I spent the day in Ostia Antica with Tom Leslie and Esther Schor. A twenty minute subway ride from Porta San Paolo, then a short walk, and you are at the entrance to one of the best-preserved Roman towns.
It does not take long at Ostia to lose the tour groups, You move a few blocks off of the Decumanus Maximus and you find yourself along in weeds, stumbling on extensive mosaics, wall paintings, and the remains of a mythraeum. We ignored the orange hazard tape, which was put up recently in the wake of some collapses due to rain and flooding, and made our way to the edge of town, toward what had once been the beach of this crucial port. (The beach is now another two mile away; the Tiber, which once ran alongside much of the northern side of the town, long ago turned, leaving an oxbow of fields). We found some of the most spectacular mosaics one of the largest of the bath complexes. And then we walked through fields to the synagogue which once stood on the beach and is considered the oldest synagogue outside of Israel. Adachiara Zevi's foundation, Arte in Memoria, since 2007 has biannually invited artists to develop works that will temporarily be installed in and around the synagogue. We all (to be fair, two of us were Jewish, and have strong interest in Jewish history and culture) found this to be the most captivating part of the day. Even though the works were uneven in their impact on us, we all loved the idea of artists being invited in to re-present to visitors the synagogue, and the lived reality of this diverse, pan-Mediterranean port city of two thousand years ago.
Throughout the day, and then last night, I kept asking what I increasingly ask at these ruins: what were we after? None of us were classical scholars, or architectural historians of this period, but we sought out with some persistence specific sites listed in the guidebooks, the remains of a three-story apartment building, a mythraeum with a ladder-themed mosaic, showing the now-obscure stages of, well, enlightenment. What were we hoping for? Where we we driving at?
We hoped to find material pathways into understanding a little more about the people who inhabited these now-ruins. At the synagogue, of course, we paid our respects, and hoped for some further insight into our beliefs, or connections to this religion and people. But most of all, I believe we went to these ruins simply to connect to the distant past. We marveled at the age of the buildings which still stand, the carriage ruts in the stones, an inscription in front of an inn urging that the thirsty come in and have a drink. We sought out the remarkable survival of a square foot of wall painting, the line of guild storefronts, the steam pipes in a bath house.
What we'll remember is less about the people of Ostia (although the idea that this was a truly cosmopolitan port town, in a way more interesting that the summer vacation spot called Pompeii) than that, for an afternoon, we flew over time and had a fleeting -- invented, limited, probably erroneous -- connection to these people and that time.
One of the most interesting of the artistic interventions around the synagogue is Michael Rakowitz's Gheniza in Ostia. A gheniza is a storage area for worn-out Jewish religious books before their ritual burial. Rakowitz created a series of quick-and city columns made of clay pipe material clustered around a tree adjacent to the synagogue. The comparison to chimney's is to inevitable not to be intended. It is at once harrowing and somehow comforting, that these columns -- or chimneys, or figures -- are clustered in a beautiful field, sheltered by the tree.