Wednesday, March 26, 2014

San Clemente -- In praise of interpretation that is "almost alright"

I have heard the rushing waters of San Clemente in my head on numerous occasions since we visited.  The sound, and then the sight and taste of those waters, deep in the church, down at level of Republican Rome two thousand years ago, thirty feet below today's city, is what most captivated me -- and generations of visitors -- at San Clemente.  But I was thinking recently of how rudimentary the interpretation there is.  No audio guides.  Little signage.  And I liked that.  I don't mean to suggest that I was deluded into feeling like I was going to an unknown or untouched sight.  Lines of tour groups and grouchy ticket-takers are quick reminders that you are in a popular place.  But there was something "almost alright," as Robert Venturi said, about the underdeveloped interpretive program. There is enough that is rough and unfinished to allow you to discover your way down, down, down through narrow passages to the mythraeum of the Roman villa on which the church was built, and then through small, dirt-floor rooms to the waters.

I have never believed that an historic site "speaks" to us on its own, that its history will somehow be learned simply by standing on a site.  History demands a telling.  But there are also places and times when we should step back and allow for more unexpected discovery.

1 comment:

  1. this question of whether or not places remember and what the telling means or looks like makes me think of the phrase, "places remember events," a phrase James Joyce scribbled in the margin of his notes for Ulysses. geographers have approached this, i think --- but it is so difficult to move beyond the phenomenological without sounding like a fruitbat.