Review: Strength and ethics of the context: giving a true meaning to History and to our lives

Daniele Manacorda Roma Tre University, daniele.manacorda@uniroma3.it
  • Translated by Flavio Bacci
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La forza del contesto. Andrea Carandini, Rome-Bari, Laterza 2017, 254 pages, €18

Manacorda, D. 2018. Review: Strength and ethics of the context: giving a true meaning to History and to our lives. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 163-166.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.23821/2018_7a

CC BY 4.0 © The author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

For archaeologists like ourselves, context is a bit like water is for fish: we cannot survive without it. And we cling to the illusion that a world more mindful to the context, in all its forms, would probably be a better or at least a more informed place. 
In its stratigraphical features, context is a fundamentally static concept; in its functional aspects it is rather a dynamic event, a complex mechanism; in its cultural aspects it takes on aesthetic and ethical values as well. And, in any case, it presupposes a quantitative component – which we measure in space and time – and a qualitative one, by giving context historical and human meaning.

Looking away from individual objects isolated from their context and – instead – seeking their style in the relationships connecting them, the culture of context can interpret reality reconciling aesthetic pleasure and historical pleasure. It shifts attention from what is unique and exceptional to that which most directly pertains to its contextual nature, thus overcoming the apparent randomness and entrusting it to the future.

Towards an ethic of context

Andrea Carandini’s book helps us to discern the lines of an ethic of context which is almost a mental form, through which reality appears to us as a tangle of coherent traces, where silent things come alive and catch our attention, dragging us through time and restoring to us the fantastic image of how we were, how we are and how we shall be, almost as if it were the only possible form of immortality.

This is why we cannot live without context, and when we lose sight of it we are compelled to attempt to recover it. The visible and invisible bonds that bind animate beings to things give meaning to our lives: they are the colours and shapes of life’s weft and warp.

This is the decalogue    

The book offers a wealth of ideas, often arranged along a thread of memories intertwined with current events. A page from the history of Italian archaeology, the text is enjoyable both for those who have lived through its different seasons and for those who – younger – will be able to enjoy the first hand testimony of one of its main protagonists.

Here are a few points worth mentioning, as an invitation for further thought:

  • the liberating confession that at once we all are, and yet no longer are, what we once were: this is not stating the obvious, but is the very meaning of movement and future, where the fullness of everyone’s existence may perhaps be found;
  • the effort that the author makes to free himself from his own professional expertise – and we all know how massive that is – in the hope of freeing others from theirs: it is the fascinating ledge along which runs the path between specialization and a holistic view of reality and ultimately of oneself;
  • the emphasis on the smaller values ​​of private life, contained in homes and furnishings (without which even architectures have neither life nor meaning), and on the art of living, perhaps the most important of the arts, since it is – as Carandini writes – supremely contextual;
  • the ideal continuum that keeps historical and aesthetic value together, one inseparable from the other, and the emphasis on the beauty of good, well-made objects: art – I would venture to say – is not ‘a beautiful thing’ but ‘something well done;’
  • a sense of the only possible form of eternity granted to us through transmission of the memories in which objects are steeped and hence – in the background – the relationship between happiness and serenity;
  • an awareness that fortune is always in our own hands. Exemplary is the lesson of FAI, the Italian Environment Fund presided over by Carandini – with unanimously recognized authority – for years now. A lesson telling us that the a few good people can achieve much and that the many, following their example, can bring a nation in difficulty back on its feet;
  • the emphasis, therefore, on people, after an exclusive passion for the cultural object had marginalized the subject, i.e. the individuals who perceive it or who do not perceive it, the communities which give body and soul to places, protecting and enriching them, or which neglect and degrade them;
  • the bold and deliberately provocative critique of the word, indeed of the very concept of, ‘museum,’ a zoo-museum that shelters, as if in a long-term care institution, things that are torn away, like exotic animals, from their original context (and this without wishing in any way to detract from the immense work of cultural dissemination carried out by museums since they were first established);
  • but also key role that the art of valorisation should play, as a specific and promising new profession, to be imagined and created from the ground up;
  • an emphasis, then, on the nature and the spirit of places, in contrast to any mandated uniform strategy of valorisation and management, which run the risk of remaining indifferent to the internal logic of the sites and their vocations –elements that should, instead, be discovered, nourished, and brought to life.

The landscape as an organism

From these premises Carandini moves on to provide several invaluable insights on the theme of landscape, the privileged setting for the concept of context itself. A certain landscape rhetoric tends to link landscape to idyllic views of mountains, rivers, hills and cliffs as yet untouched, images which are contrasted with the many eyesores around us. As if landscape were our bad conscience as the planet’s misguided inhabitants.

But what, in fact, is landscape if not the cultural, that is, historical, aspect of the environment in which we live? Landscapes are true organisms, complex systems, where forms of human settlements have been overlapping over the centuries, adapting to natural components and yet shaping them. They are the result of the work and imagination of many generations, which have given Nature a recognizable order to meet their needs.

Landscape, therefore, is the product of a collective activity, where Nature, history, work and art have intertwined, forming a recognizable image of the life of entire communities over lengthy, sometimes very lengthy, periods of time. We encounter this intertwining in varying degrees: in an archaeological layer when we observe its intimate composition, in an architectural setting with walls and furnishings as they have been organized over time, in monuments towering over or hiding in our panoramas, in the roads crossing and connecting them.

Thus landscapes are primarily contexts, where everything exists in a system of relationships with everything around it, above it or below; where everything has a significance, sometimes immediately perceptible and sometimes requiring study to be recovered. Because landscapes, however slowly they may morph, do change their appearance and in so doing preserve their long-standing characteristics and announce new ones.

We see this every time we find, in our countryside, an infinite number of old buildings, abandoned or in a state of collapse or being restored; they remind us of obsolete agricultural regimes, the depopulation of the land, the development of second homes for inhabitants of urban landscapes. Or when we see a shapeless thicket taking the place of once well-tended fields or vineyards and, thinking it something created by nature, may even try to protect it, when it is actually only a sign of abandonment, a sign of loss of equilibrium, like – according to an evocative image given by Andrea Carandini – mold on a book or a painting.

Landscapes are the people who live them

This is why we sometimes wonder whether some cultural-heirloom attitudes (forgive me this term), which favor artistic beauty in itself and treat masterpieces separated from their context, can actually succeed in grasping the role of nature in historical landscapes. The beauty of those contexts lies in the fact that they contain both the normality of usefulness and the exceptionality of the superfluous, but it is only because they live off relationships they endow the former with the aesthetics of utility, and the utility of beauty to the latter.

Even today, the exciting debate about the destiny of our cultural heritage has to reckon with attitudes which tend to isolate the individual contents of a context, selecting manifestations of art from the landscapes that contain them, as if to rescind the bonds that unite those particular products of human labour, the artistic things, to the system of relationships which made them possible.

Every artistic discipline (art, architecture, archaeology) has followed its own path, separate from the others, but the landscape contexts do not conform to the boundaries of our disciplines: they are all together at the same time and something more, because they represent not only the world of products (the popular ‘cultural heritage’) but also the world of relationships. This is why we now understand that it is no longer enough to protect a monument or a fenced site within a degraded landscape, abandoned to its destiny.

Landscape contexts cannot live without the people who testify to their deepest soul, thanks to that ‘awareness of place’ which is slowly developing also in Italy and which gives us hope for a future in which both public and private initiatives will cooperate in ensuring the good health of past and future landscapes.

How may this happen? By encouraging the management of historic sites and abandoned areas by those having the passion and ability to propose new forms of socialization and use, as has been the case, for some time now, of the amphitheatre of Catania, brought back to life by Iban-Cnr. Or by encouraging the recovery of depopulated settlements, reviving them through new economic and social – but no less vital – configurations of use. Or by the reinstatement of traditional but economically-sustainable farming and livestock keeping, in which environmental, historical, anthropological and artistic awareness – combined with attention to civil and social progress – are engaged in the common defence and fruitful recovery of the human value of the contexts in which we dwell. This so that they can also welcome future generations. Because this is a book that looks ahead, a true Janus, curious about the past and the future, with a sentiment pervading its pages:  the value of mildness, of optimism and of good humour! Three Graces which enhance all our lives.

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