The Layered Past, Italian Style

It’s difficult to describe the way Italy inspires. Perhaps it is the unchecked eating of pasta and gelato, or the way we learned to appreciate beautiful vistas amidst ungodly heat (heat wave code name: Lucifer).

Whatever it is, my feet hate me, but my heart is soaring. There is a lot to tell from this trip so far, but I’ll start with one pertinent to my storytelling project.

From the outset of this project my first lesson about studying the past sketched out the rough edge of my frame of reference. More specifically, that in addition to written chronicles, one of our primary sources of evidence comes from the stratigraphic layers written in the earth.

I grew up comparing the work of archaeologists to time traveling, where each layer took us further back through the ages, revealing how each era built and settled upon the times before.

Consequently, this idea of historical layers of time has never been far throughout my travels. In Italy I am surrounded by the cascading mountain terraces of the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre, the remains of those towns devastated by Mount Vesuvio in 79 AD and their modern counterparts, the ever-growing Roman Forum, and the infamous Colosseum whose lifespan as an entertainment venue for the Roman blood sport was also a story of slavery and a sacred religious space.

Even now, on this beach in Monterosso, I watch as the waves crash around me. Layers upon layers, one on top of the other, into a unified whole that is the Ligurian Sea.

This is what I know: In every age there is a dominant narrative that defines an era, a country, or a place. Those are the stories we know by heart, from school, or from our personal lives. As we scoop out that initial layer we see the people beyond the themes—often sorted into heroes and villains—before ever (if ever) venturing deeper. Those that do, recognize quickly that below that narrative there are infinitely more stories to tell.

These are the stories that, while hidden, serve as the invisible foundation of that dominant narrative. One cannot exist without the other.

For instance look at the image of the Colosseum – here we cannot see the full arena where Gladiators fought, rather we see beneath the surface where hidden from the normal spectator are the rooms and cells where fighters waited within spitting distance of frenzied animals. It is here that they readied themselves for supposed glory and a hoped for freedom. The full story of this awesome structure does not work without also seeing the training, and suffering, of those that were put into service as fighting men.

My point is this:

We build our histories on the backs of a wide swath of human experience, where every story is worthy of being told. Without a concerted push we will always be limited in understanding and empathy for those histories that are not our own.

One more example (and take note I have included one image that may be deemed as graphic):

At some point in my early education I learned about the ruins of Pompeii. An archaeological marvel where the daily lives of Romans were brought to light after a volcanic eruption that decimated the population. Our written evidence come not only from those few who escaped, but also the religious portents and musings of those as far away as Rome. The concrete evidence is in the form of these excavations – showing brothels, empty houses, and chariot-less streets.

Then there are the people. Like many in history their lives were found in the negative space. In the voids they left when the heat and ash came raining down. In Pompeii they were impressions made in the earth and ash. In Herculaneum the dead are slightly more present, as instead of ash disintegrating bodies there are skeletons wrapped around one another as the molten air burned around them.

The images you see in class are nothing like witnessing these in person. Of the four remains at the site, we see youth, peace, pain, and anguish. A young child curled up in sleep, a man covering his face to ward off suffocation, a dog struggling against his chains, and an adult lying prone unaware of the death that was coming. In this one single moment in time, a single moment of devastation, there are four experiences of death.

No one experience in history is the same.

With this in mind I reiterate that the histories we tell are complex and often difficult. They are uneasy stories comprised of multiple points of view. In order to be true to those narratives we cannot depend on our usual storytelling methods. We have to use every single tool at our disposal and adapt what we understand about the layered past to create, engage, and emphasize a deeper level of meaning and engagement with our history.

I’m going to keep thinking. I’ve had some great conversations about how this might be done, but in the meantime if you haven’t had a chance to fill out my survey take a look.

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