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22 September 2016

TMI: Point Clouds and Clouded Points

Physics Envy and Archaeology Today

I presented a talk at a conference about Architecture and Archaeology on the via Appia on 10 September.  “The Archaeology of Invention” was meant to suggest how, and why, we might recover a productive relationship between architecture and archaeology.  Not being an archaeologist in the modern sense myself, but interested in ancient buildings, I thought it was useful to posit some questions about why as a culture we do archaeology at all (the ancients didn’t, neither did the medievals), what it has to do with the making of architecture, and what might be a kind of ideal archaeological landscape.
Piranesi figured large in the talk, based on a quote by the artist that furnished the title for John Pinto’s recent book, Speaking Ruins: Piranesi, Architects, and Antiquity in Eighteenth Century Rome (Michigan). I rendered the quote in English slightly differently than Pinto’s source; here’s my reading:
They’ve filled my spirit, these speaking ruins, in ways that drawings could never have been able to do—even very accurate ones, likes those made by the immortal Palladio, which I have still kept before my eyes.
Pinto summarizes what was so different between Piranesi’s day and ours:
In the eighteenth century there was a reciprocal relationship between the act of archaeological reconstruction and the practice of modern architecture.
Pinto, p. 42
In fact, Piranesi encouraged what he called “ragionevole congettura,” or responsible [I might say ‘reasonable’] conjecture. In the introduction to the Antichità romane, Piranesi expressed the hope that his prints would stimulate “una nuova architettura antica.”
Pinto, p. 8
Confronted by the ruined majesty of ancient Rome, architects and artists from the fifteenth through at least the eighteenth century weren’t intimidated, they were inspired. Not so, apparently, today’s archaeologists. After my keynote some of the talks dealt with the latest digital surveying technology, point clouds and 3D models. Fair enough. But those speakers felt compelled to define themselves as engaged in knowledge, of the scientifically verifiable kind (as opposed to, of course, art, or matters of judgment); one even cited Karl Popper’s falsifiability definition of science. But these surveyors are engaged in the collection of data, not proposing the theories that Popper was trying to qualify. Data, of course, can be falsified, but is not in and of itself a falsifiable theory. It simply is. Of course, there is better data. But the question, it seems to me, is what to do with the data beyond determining which splotch on a ruin needs to be cleaned? Should whole sections of aqueducts be rebuilt in part to stabilize them but also to restore their place in the landscape? How much of stub walls from a Roman circus should be rebuilt to give a better sense of what the place once was like?
            These questions raise problems of conjecture, and risk. “Science,” of the data collection kind, is risk free. And it’s certainly more comfortable to be in the technologically determinant world of data gathering than in the wilds of artistic conjecture. But every choice about the archaeological landscape is a judgment, not a fact. To rebuild or not, to restore or not, is not, as one of the speakers suggested, a question of cost and efficiency. It is a question of why we do archaeology at all, what it is the past has to say to us, and what we have to say in response.

Thus, my capriccio on the Circus of Maxentius. Thinking about what a reconstruction of the circus might be like, I wondered about returning its spina’s obelisk from the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona (the former Stadium of Domitian), but bringing the fountain back along with it. To restore is, in its way, to contaminate; why not embrace the contamination, aiming not for philological reconstruction but a kind of fertile reinsertion of the scattered remains with the baggage they’d acquired in the intervening centuries? So too Cecilia Metella, which I show restored with its tumulus and cypresses but retaining its medieval battlements. And the carceres, or starting gates, of the Circus get restored in a Borriminian vein to recall the Pamphilj context of the Four Rivers.
            A serious proposal? No, nor is it scientific. But it would be a vastly pleasanter place, with its pool fed by the nearby Almone river cooling the otherwise desiccated landscape of the current circus (it was awfully hot and dry trudging around there and drawing and painting this summer). And if a great Roman family of an earlier century had acquired the property and had the means they might have done something similar. By instead displaying the desiccated cadaver of a late Imperial villa as somehow a scientific fact rather than an aesthetic landscape we lose the chance to dream, to invent in a way like Piranesi and his predecessors would have. And we are, whether we can admit it or not, the poorer for it. That is a fact.