Vast Methodical Fragments

Go back to the Renaissance and see it in another way, without the narrative already baked into the name. Think of it as a cosplay, as a reconstruction of the order of a life that seemed worth living, as a cobbling-together of the survivals of the past in a stage complete enough to act in.

Look at a Renaissance garden, particularly. Then, as now, the garden was a display of power, a collection of local desirable plants and materials, cultivated to their fullest potential, a microcosm of the world to be dominated outside. It was an inheritance of the knowledge of medieval times, banked in a portfolio of material holdings such that it grew in interest over time. But equally, it was a purposeful extrapolation from the fragmentary reality seen in Pliny the Younger, from side mentions here and there of the Roman authorities what a garden was supposed to be. Put yourself in the villa at Fiesole. What to contemplate? Something recursive – not only the present life, done correctly, but what the past life, the more correct life, was in its roundness. These were the grounds for a well-ordered simulation.

Populate the garden with a familiar cast of characters, by acting them out. Skin the walls of the villa with the paintings of the Domus Aurea. In these spaces, the powerful greatly reduce the checks that meet them at all turns in their projects in the wider world. They may act and observe with an even greater degree of latitude. Aztec emperors, Chinese emperors, Roman emperors: they make abscess spaces, controlled simulations that reduce interference from the surrounding world; they collapse the distances, and stretch the width of the possible spectrum of climates. They convene materials, styles. But their microcosms are not still; they are not money pits, or sealed treasuries. They are meant to live, to be operated by living in. Domination, again, is one side of the coin; the other is a projection into a space of fantasy.

felibien pliny
André Félibien, Reconstruction of Pliny's Laurentian Villa, 1706.
krubsacius pliny
Friedrich August Krubsacius, Reconstruction of Pliny's Laurentian Villa, 1760.
canina pliny
Luigi Canina, Reconstruction of Pliny's Laurentian Villa, 1840

Is this a product of wealth and wealth alone? I don’t think so; this will to make, or re-make, a world is present in the majority of gardens, monads that each reflect a wider realm. A fashion is not only a constrained set of options that can be readily bought, or a token of belonging, but a fantasy of a shared culture, and a way of projecting that fantasy into the shared world. Our gardens transpose life, our usual set of surroundings, into a more legible and miniature set of terms, for negotiations with the market world, for encounters with the culture one wants to belong in.

The idea of a simulation is helpful here completely apart from the idea of simulacra; the gap between reality and its subset is, after a certain point, a canard. The idea of simulation is, as a lens of seeing the workings of the world, itself a simulation; which is to say it isolates a coherent set of conditions and relations that illuminate an aspect of the whole. Think here of a state of affairs that is populated by actors; that is at once repetitious and subject to emergence; that is restarted at intervals with new conditions, or altered with a combination of knobs and sliders; that is generated against a ground with a predictable set of preconditions.

In running, such a simulation achieves a clinamen from its original goal; it is found embedded in another target. Lacking the means to repeat the Roman garden and its inhabitants, it ends elsewhere; outrunning a Cola di Rienzo, or a Mussolini, it ends up a repeatable model, that has in fact gone on repeating ever since.

As with any open work, the question becomes the form and identity of that work, when all the pieces are in question - a name, a text, a place? A family resemblance? The shared project we can see of the Renaissance princes and artisans, to elaborate from all angles an ambiguous space of fantasy; what made it hold together? Why project together, how to agree on a shared realm? What did Neptune and Thetis supply that St. Sebastian and St. Agatha could not? How did this world, half resurrected and half invented, relate to the world it hoped to colonize? 

(July 2017)