“Palimpsest” (“palinsesto” in Italian) has its origins in the Greek word for “scraped again”. The original reference may have been to layered manuscripts, where older text was no longer more valued by the holder than the underlaying and very rare “paper” – or perhaps the holder actually desired that the text be erased. Texts were laboriously scraped off of very valuable manuscripts, parchments made from animal skins. Many major ancient texts have only been “found” because they could still be discerned, scraped but still decipherable, underneath a “newer” text.
Palimpsest is also very common in art, when paintings/frescos were scraped off for use of the substrate for a new work of art. In lieu of scraping, gessoing was common and easier, over-painting a work with a layer of primer that obscured the old and allowed a new work to be created on the substrate. (Adapted from “The Serve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2011, p.43)
The term “palimpsest” has also come to be applied in urbanism and architecture, many scrapings and/or new layers over the years that eliminate or obscure the original design. Many previously thought of this in the vernacular of “urban renewal”.
A variety of texts and seminar announcements can be found by Googling “urban palimpsest” or similar wording. One example with a very evocative title is “Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory” (Andreas Huyssen, Stanford University Press, 2003), which reminded me of Aldo Rossi’s provocative statement that “Where memory ends, history begins” in his “A Scientific Autobiography” (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1981) and a critical thread in Kevin Lynch’s “What Time is This Place” (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1976).
Venice, Italy, with a “modern” history spanning from March, AD415 to the present, may be the ultimate extant example of an urban palimpsest in action on earth today.
I recall an afternoon spent listening to the brilliant, innovative Finnish architect Alvaar Alto dialoguing with those of us who were students of two of his disciples, then teaching architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the many insights that I gained from that session and that course specifically was taken from the way that new visitors, tourists, residents – or even academics and professionals – (sadly) first view a place. (Sarcasm Alert*):
The way in which a place is first observed is the way that the place has always been and must remain, unless of course change benefitted the observer (*sarcasm intended).
Therein lies a key to why tourists behave as tourist behave in Venice, and everywhere else for that matter.
This observation is not to suggest “stranger danger” or “newcomer blight” in the ideas and experiences that originate from those newly acquainted with a place. As with history as a whole, people are carefully taught what they best not know about the past – according to the agenda of the educator – and in truth have little understanding of any possible existence or reason prior to their self-assumed, post-birth age of reason.
Harsh? Think about it for a while, particularly with regard to Venice and to your - very often adopted - “hometown”. Upset? Look in the mirror; the Cinderella Theory applies: If the shoe fits, wear it. Perhaps you, too have something to learn about that “place” and your attitude toward, your behavior in, that “place”.
Consider this chilling quote from W.G. (Max) Sebald’s novel “Austerlitz”, page 24:
“Even now, when I try to remember…the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.”
Is Venice the Tomb of Memories?