John Outram

In Rome I learned the secret of a successful city: it gives good dreams


John Outram


First published in AT11, 1990

I met him on my last day in Rome. I was on the stone bench carved for the Clients of the Massimi by Baldassare Peruzzi when a neatly dressed man came out of the Palazzo and sat down next to me. For some reason he addressed me and took me to eat in the Piazzetta della Quercia. I learnt that he was a scholar of Danish parentage but British nationality.

He confided to me that his parents had gone to the Pitcairn Islands so that he could be born on the Axis Mundi. Pit and cairn, they had argued, were too unlikely a verbal conjunction of the nethermost and the uppermost. Ever since learning of the reason for his improbable birthplace he had been unable to shake off the notion that his destiny was to make some kind of contact with these mythical regions, so unknown to the modern traveller.

Rome, he tried to persuade me, was more than the sum of its patrons, its architects, its painters and its sculptors. He had spent his lifetime in its libraries and now, after forgetting most of the facts he had so painstakingly learnt, he busied himself in the Oneiriana, the municipal archive in which were recorded the dreams of Rome’s common citizens.

To begin with the period just before the records began, he said, Rome consisted only of some modest buildings and many great monuments. The state of affairs was translated by the archive into a landscape set with superhuman buildings erected by an antique race of giants and heroes who appeared to contemporary human eyes as bulls and cows. The antique heroes disguised themselves to a miserable humanity as mere cattle grazing amongst the ruins.

From this time on the dreams of ordinary Romans were marked by references to periodic inundations, akin to those of the Nile, which were held to have filled the valley of the Tiber with mud up to the level of its seven hills. Then as the waters retreated they cut deep ravines into the soft earth. These retreating torrents cut their way down to the levels of the ancient city, revealing its black and shiny flagstones. It was commonly recorded that these flagstones, set on the diagonal like the rippling streams of rainwater they often conveyed, were the skin of a great serpent that coiled about the buildings of the city like a net moving and rippling during the dark hours.

This mud (‘fango’ in Italian) buried the great monuments until all that remained visible above the level of the floodplain were the occasional tall spire or huge dome, marking like a buoy the body of a drowned monument. In the deep ravines their facades appeared, marbled outcrops in a geology of brick.

Another dream, he told me, concerned a country that used to float in the skies of Rome, covering the whole city with its rivers and mountains

The Dane took me up to the foundation in front of the Villa Medici, on the terrace of the Pincio, and showed me the equivalent of this aboriginal floodplain, the carpet of roof gardens on top of every building in baroque Rome.

Another dream, he told me, concerned a country that used to float in the skies of Rome, covering the whole city with its rivers and mountains. This dream landscape was the place to which the townsmen would transport his imagination when his eyes closed in sleep.

He believed that this singular idea was not a picture of the heavenly Jerusalem, as usually supposed, but was the product of the conjugation of the winding of the streets of the city that prevented long views of anything and the hundreds of painted ceilings in Rome. He argued that the eye, which always sought distant prospects, being denied them by the close-knit geography of the city, turned upwards; the ceilings acted like magic lanterns, projecting their visions upwards with power and profusion.

He coined the term ‘fresco bubble’ to describe the limits of the portion of this imaginary landscape which each painting could support. He had calculated an empirical formula to explain how this phenomenon of the ‘oneiric landscape’ could occur in a dense city like Rome and how nothing like it was possible at the densities of development obtaining today.

Today, he maintained, the ceilings would be too far apart for each of the ‘bubbles’ they projected ever to join up into a great urban canopy, a landscape which the dreamer (or ‘oneiristos’ in the technical language of the archive) could colonise with his imagination, even during the day.

I had to confirm to him that I had felt the presence of this landscape. It had seemed to me to be a view into infinitude, populated by the savage beings of myth and my own fancy. Indeed I had felt the presence of it so strongly that it seemed to me as if the top of my soul had opened like a box and lay exposed to this territory of rational and public fantasy. It had seemed to me that my head had been at home ‘in the clouds’ while my body lived and went abroad about its physical business without any sense of discomfort among the smoke and noise of the busiest streets.

The Dane leant forward. ‘You see’ he said ‘this seems to me a technology we have to understand’. The Romans, in making dreams the foundation of their urban theory, knew the antidote of the lament of Hamlet, who, you will remember, said “I could close myself in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams”. The secret of the design of a successful city, he maintained, was that it gave its citizens good dreams.