Rome antics: David Macaulay on

His love and fascination for Rome dates to his days as an architecture student, but David Macaulay found the path to his book Rome Antics took some unusual (and frustrating) turns. Through failed pop-up designs, scribbled-out title possibilities, surreal sketchbook pages (think “Piranesi meets Escher”), and rambling storylines, Macaulay details each step of his winding journey toward completion of his illustrated homage to the city. (Recorded February 2002 in Monterey, California. Duration: 21:34.)

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I draw to better understand things. Sometimes I make a lot of drawings, and I still don’t understand what it is I’m drawing. Those of you who are comfortable with digital stuff, and even smug about that relationship, might be amused to know that the guy who is best known for The Way Things Work, while preparing for part of a panel for understanding, spent two days trying to get his laptop to communicate with his new CD burner.

Who knew about extension managers? I’ve always managed my own extensions. So I — it never even occurred to me to, to read the instructions. But I did figure it out. I had to figure it out, because along with the invitation came the frightening reminder that there would be no projector. So bringing those carousels would no longer be necessary, but some alternate form of communication would.

Now, I could talk about something that was — that I’m known for, something that would be appropriate for the more sort of technically minded people here, or I could talk about something that I care about. I decided to go with the latter. I’m going to talk about Rome.

Now, why would I care about Rome particularly? Well, I went to Rhode Island School of Design for architecture in the second half of the 60s. I was lucky enough to spend my last year, my fifth year, in Rome as a student. It changed my life. Not — the least reason was that I spent those first four living at home. Driving into RISD everyday, driving back. I missed the 60s. I read about them. I understand that they were pretty interesting. I missed them. But I did spend that extraordinary year in Rome. It’s a place that’s never far from my mind.

So whenever, given an opportunity I try to do something in it, or for it.

I also make drawings to help people understand things. Things that I want them to believe that I understand. And that’s what I do as an illustrator. That’s my job.

So I’m going to show you some pictures of Rome. I’ve made a lot of drawings of Rome over the years. These are just drawings of Rome. I get back as often as possible. I need to. All different materials, all different styles, all different times, drawings from sketchbooks, looking at the details of Rome. Part of the reason I’m showing you these is that it sort of helps illustrate part of what I go through with trying to figure out what I feel about Rome and why I feel it.

These are sketches of some of the little details. Rome is a city full of surprises. I mean, we’re talking about unusual perspective. I mean, we’re talking about narrow little winding streets that suddenly open up into vast sun-drenched piazzas. Never — though piazzas that are humanly scaled. Part of the reason is that they grew it organically. That amazing juxtaposition of old and new, the bits of light that come down between the buildings, that sort of create a map that’s traveling above your head, usually blue, especially in the summer, compared to the maps that you would expect to see of conventional streets.

And I began to think about how I could communicate this in book form. How could I share my sense of Rome, my understanding of Rome? And I’m going to show you a bunch of dead ends basically. The primary reason for all these dead ends is that if you’re not sure where you’re going, you’re not going to get there with any kind of efficiency.

Here’s a little map, and I thought of maps at the beginning. Maybe I should just try and do a little atlas with my favorite streets and connections in Rome. And here’s a line of text that actually evolves from the exhaust of a scooter zipping across the page. Here’s that same line of text, wraps around a fountain in an illustration that can be turned upside-down and read both ways. Maybe that line of text could be a story to give some human aspect to this. Maybe I should get away from this map completely and really be honest about wanting to show my favorite bits and pieces of Rome. And simply kick a soccer ball, which happens in so many of the squares in Rome, and just let it bounce off of things, and I’ll simply explain about each of the things that the soccer ball hit. That seemed like sort of a cheap shot, but even though I just started this presentation, this is not the first thing that I tried to do. And I was getting sort of desperate.

Eventually I realized that I had no content that I could count on, and I decided to move towards packaging. (laughing) And, I mean it seems to work for a lot of little things. So I thought a little box set of four small books might do the trick. But one of the ideas that emerged from some of those sketches was the notion that emerged, was traveling through Rome in different vehicles at different speeds to show the different aspects of Rome. Sort of an overview of Rome that you might see from a dirigible. Quick snapshots of things that you might see from a speeding motor scooter, and very slow walking through Rome you might be able to study in more detail the wonderful surfaces, and whatnot, that you come across.

Anyways, I went back to the dirigible notion, went to Alberto Santos-Dumont. Found one of his dirigibles that had enough dimensions. So I could actually use it as a scale that I could actually juxtapose with some of the things in Rome. This thing would either be flying over or past or be parked in front of, but it would be sort of like a ruler, sort of travel through the pages without being a ruler. Not that, you know, how long number eleven actually is, but you would be able to compare number eleven against the Pantheon with number eleven against the Baths of Caracalla, and so on and so forth.

This is Beatrix, she has a dog named Ajax. She has purchased a dirigible, a small dirigible. She’s assembling the structure. Ajax is sniffing for holes in the balloon before they set off. She launches this thing above the Spanish Steps, and sets off for an aerial of the city. Over the Spanish Steps we go. A nice way to sort of show that river, that stream, sort of pouring down the hill. Unfortunately just across the road from it, or quite close by, is the column of Marcus Aurelius, and the diameter of the dirigible makes an impression as you can see as she starts to spiral around the column of Marcus Aurelius, gets a little too close, nudges it. This give me a chance to suggest to you the structure of Marcus Aurelius, which is really no higher than a pile of quarters high, thick quarters. Over the Piazza of St. Ignacio, completely ruining the symmetry, but that aside, a spectacular place to visit, a spectacular framework inside of which, usually, you see extraordinary blue sky. Over the pantheon and the 26-foot-diameter oculus. She parks her dirigible, lowers her anchor-rope and climbs down for a closer look inside. The text is right side and upside and you are forced to turn the book around, and you can see it from ground point of view, and her point of view, looking from the hole getting a different kind of perspective. Moving you around the space. Particularly appropriate in a building that contains perfectly a sphere, dimensions of the diameter being the same as the distance from the center of the floor to the center of the oculus.

Unfortunately for her, the anchor line gets tangled around the feet of some boy scouts who are visiting the Pantheon and they are immediately yanked out and given an extraordinary but terrifying tour of some of the domes of Rome which would, from their point of view, naturally be hanging upside-down. They bail out as soon as they get to the spot of Saint Ivo, the little spiral structure you see there. She continues along her way to the Piazza Novano, notices a lot of activity at the Tres Palini restaurant, reminding her that it’s lunchtime and she’s hungry.

She keeps on motoring towards the Campo de Fiori, which they soon reach. Ajax the dog is put in the basket and lowered, with a list of food, into the marketplace, which flourishes there until about one in the afternoon and is completely removed and doesn’t appear till six or seven the following morning. Anyways, the pooch gets back to the dirigible with the stuff. Unfortunately when she goes to unwrap the prosciutto, Ajax makes a lunge for it, she’s managed to save the prosciutto, but in the process she loses the tablecloth, which you can see flying away in the upper-left-hand corner.

They continue without their tablecloth, looking for a place to land this thing, so they can actually have lunch. They eventually discover a huge wall filled with small holes, ideal for docking a dirigible because you have a place to tie it. Turns out to be the exteriors wall, that part of it that remains of the Coliseum. So they park themselves there and have a terrific lunch and have a spectacular view.

At the end of lunch, they untie the anchor, they set over the Baths of Caracalla and over the walls of the city in an abandoned gatehouse, and decide to take one more look at the Pyramid of Ciasestius, which has its lightning rod on top, and unfortunately that’s a problem. They get a little too close, and when you’re in a dirigible you have to be very careful about spikes and that sort of brings her little story to a conclusion.

Marcello on the other hand is sort of a lazy guy, but he’s not due at work until noon. So the alarm goes off and he — it’s five to twelve or so. He gets up, leaps onto his scooter, races through the city past the church of Santa Maria della Poche, down the alleys, through the streets that tourists may be wandering through, disturbing the quiet backstreet sort of life of Rome at every turn. That speed with which he is moving — I hope I have suggested — in this little image, which again can be turned around because there’s text on the bottom and text on the top, one of which is upside-down in this image.

So he keeps on moving, approaching an unsuspecting waiter, trying to deliver two plates of linguini, in sort of a delicate white-wine clam sauce, to diners who are sitting at a table just outside the diner in the street. Waiter catches on, but it’s too late. And Marcello keeps moving in his scooter. Everything he sees is affected by the linguini.

But keeps on moving because this guy’s got a job to do. Removes some scaffolding. One of the reasons that Rome remains the extraordinary place that it is — because of scaffolding and the determination to maintain the fabric, it is a city that continues to grow and adapt to the needs of the particular time in which it finds itself or we find it. Right through the Piazza della Rotunda, in front of the Pantheon, again wreaking havoc and finally getting to work. And Marchello as it turns out, is the driver of the number 64 bus. And if you’ve ridden the number 64 bus you know that it’s driven with the same kind of exuberance as Marchello demonstrated on his scooter.

And finally Carletto, you see his apartment in the upper-left-hand corner. He’s looking at his table. He’s planning to propose this evening to his girlfriend of forty years. And he wants it to be perfect. He’s got candles out, he’s got flowers in the middle and he’s trying to figure out where to put the plates and the glasses, but he’s not happy, something’s not working.

The phone rings anyway, he’s called to the palazzo. He saunters — well, saunters a good clip, but compared to the traveling we’ve just seen, it’s a saunter. Everybody knows Carletto, because he’s in entertainment, actually he’s in television. He’s actually in television repair, which is why people know him. So, they all have his number. He arrives at the palazzo, arrives at the front door. Enters the courtyard and talks to the custodian, who tells him that there’s been a disaster in the palazzo. Nobody’s TVs are working and there’s a big soccer game coming up, and the crowd is getting a little restless and a little nervous.

He goes down to the basement to check the wiring. And then gradually works his way up to the top of the building, apartment to apartment, checking every television, checking every connection, hoping to find out what this problem is. He works his way finally up the grand staircase to a smaller staircase, until he reaches the attic, he opens the window of the attic and there’s a tablecloth wrapped around the building’s antenna affecting everyone’s television. He removes it, the problem is solved, everybody is happy in palazzo. And of course he also solves his own problem. And all he has to do with a perfect table is wait for her to arrive.

That was the first attempt, but it didn’t seem substantial enough to convey whatever it was I wanted to convey about Rome. Well, I thought, I’ll just do piazzas and I’ll get inside and underneath, and I’ll show these things growing and show why they’re shaped the way they are. And I thought, that’s too complicated. No I’ll just take my favorite bits and pieces and put them inside the pantheon, but keep the scale, so you can see the top of Scandinavia and the Pyramid of Cestius and the Tempietto of Bramante, all side by side in this amazing space. Now that’s one drawing. Well, I thought, maybe it’s time for Piranesi to meet Escher.

In fact you see that I’m beginning to really lose control here and also, also hope. There’s a very thin blue line of exhaust that sort of runs through this thing that would be sort of the trail that holds this together. And, then I thought, what am I doing? A book would sort of be a neat way to collect and store information. It’s a series of layers. I mean you always peel one layer off another, we think of them as pages. Doing it a certain way. But think of them as layers — I mean Rome is a place of layers, horizontal layers, vertical layers.

Well, I thought, just peeling off a page would allow me to — if I got you thinking the right way — would allow me to sort of show you the depth of layers. The stucco, on the walls of most of the buildings in Rome, covers the scar. The scars of centuries of change as these structures have been adapted rather than being torn down. If I do a fold-out page on the left-hand side, and let you just unfold it, you see behind it what I mean by scar tissue. You can see in, you know, 1635, it became essential to make smaller windows, because the bad guys were coming or whatever. Adaptations all get buried under the stucco. I could peel out a page of this palazzo to show you what’s going on inside of it, but more importantly, I could show you what it looks like on in the corner at one of those magnificent building with all the massive stone blocks, or the fake stone blocks done with brick and stucco, which is often the case.

So it becomes slightly three-dimensional. I could take you down one of those narrow streets, into one of those surprising piazzas, by using a double gatefold. Double foldout page, which if you were like me, reading a pop-up book as a child, you hopefully stick your head into. You wrap the pages around your head and are in that piazza for that brief period of time. And I’ve really not done anything more complicated then to make foldout pages.

Then I thought, maybe I could be simpler here. Let’s look at the Ppantheon and the Piazza della Rotunda in front of it. Here’s a book completely wide open. Ok, if I don’t open the book the whole way, if I just open it 90 degrees, we’re looking down the front of the Pantheon, and we’re looking sort of at the top, more or less down on the square. And if I turn the book the other way, we’re look across the square at the front of the pantheon. No foldouts, no tricks, just a book that isn’t open the whole way.

That seemed promising. I thought, maybe I’ll do it inside and I can combine the foldouts with the only partially open book. So we get inside the Pantheon and it grows, and so on and so forth. And I thought, maybe I’m on the right track, but it sort of lost its human quality.

So I went back to the notion of story, which is always a good thing to have if you’re trying to get people to pay attention to a book and pick up information along the way. “Pigeon’s Progress” struck me as a catchy title. If it was a homing pigeon it would’ve been called “Homer’s Odyssey.” But it was the journey of the (laughter) – hey, if it works, use it. But it would be journey through Rome and shows all the things I like about Rome.

It’s a pigeon sitting on top of a church. Goes off during the day and does normal pigeon stuff, comes back and the building is covered with scaffolding and green netting, and there’s no way this pigeon can get home, so it’s a homeless pigeon. And it’s going to have to find a new place to live. And that allows me to go through my catalogue of favorite things. And we start with the tall ones and so on. Maybe it has to go back and live with family members, that’s not always a good thing. But it does sort of bring pigeons together again. And I thought, that’s sort of interesting, but maybe there should be a person involved in this in some way.

So I kind of thought up this old guy who spends his life looking after sick pigeons. He’ll go anywhere to get them, dangerous places and whatnot. And they become friends with this guy and learn to do tricks and entertain him during lunchtime. There’s a real bond that develops between this old man and these pigeons. But unfortunately he gets sick. He gets really sick. But he’s taught them to spell his name, which is Aldo. They show up one day, after three or four days without seeing him. He lives in this little garret. They spell his name and fly around. And he finally gets enough strength to climb up the latter onto the roof. And all the pigeons, a la Red Balloon, are there waiting for him and they carry him over the walls of the city. And he has — I forgot to mention this — And he has, whenever he lost a pigeon he would take the pigeon outside the walls of the city and bury that pigeon. In Roman tradition, the dead were never buried inside the walls of the city.

And I thought that was a really cheery story (laughter). That’s really going to go a long way. So anyways I went through and again if packaging doesn’t work and if stories are going in the right direction, I just come up with titles. And I hope that a title will sort of kick me off in the right direction. And sometimes it does focus me enough and I’ll even do a title page. So these are all title pages that eventually led me to the solution that I settled on, which is the story of a young woman who sends a message on a homing pigeon.

She live outside the walls of the city of Rome to someone in the city. And the pigeon is flying down above the Appian Way. You can see the tombs and pines and so on and so forth. If you are seeing the red line, you are seeing the trail of the pigeon. If you don’t see the lines, then you are the pigeon. And it becomes necessary and possible at this point to try to convey what that sense would be like to fly over the city without actually moving. Past the Pyramid of Ciasestius — this will seem very familiar to you even if you haven’t been to Rome recently. Past the gatehouse. This is something that may seem a little unusual. This pigeon does something that most pigeons do not do, he takes the scenic route, which was a device that I thought was necessary in order to extend this book for more than four pages.

So we circle around the coliseum past the Church of Santa Maria in Casa Me Diem and the temple of Hercules towards the river. We almost collide with the corniceof the Piazza de Farnese designed by Michelangelo, built of stones of the Coliseum. Narrow escape, we swoop down the Campo de Fiori.

This is one of those things I try to show to my students, because it’s a complete bastardization of denial of any rules of perspective. The only rule of perspective I think matters is if it looks believable, you’ve succeeded. But you try to figure out where the vanishing points meet here. A couple of them are on Mars and someone else’s, you know, a couple of others are in Cremona. But into the piazza in front of the Santa Maria della Pacha, where invariably there’s a soccer game going on, we’re hit by a soccer ball. Now this is a terrible illustration of me getting hit by a soccer ball. I have all the pieces. There’s Santa Maria Della Pache, there’s a soccer ball, there’s a little bit of a bird’s wing. Nothing’s happening. So I had to rethink it. And if you do want to see Santa Maria Della Pache you know these books are really flexible, incredibly interactive, just turn it around and look at it the other way.

Through the alley, we can see the impact is captured in the red line. The bird manages to pull itself together past this medieval tower, one of the few remaining medieval towers. Towards the church of, I forgot her name, Santa Neezie, and around the dome looking down into Piazza Novano, which we’ve already mentioned and seen. There’s the Piranesi statue of the four rivers and then past the wonderful Borromini Saint Ivo. Stopping just long enough on the 26-foot diameter oculus of the Pantheon to catch our breath. Then we can swoop inside and around in. And because we’re flying we don’t have to worry about gravity at this particular moment in time, so this drawing can be oriented anyway on the page.

We get a little exuberant as we pass Jesu, it’s not surprising to mimic the architecture this way. Past the wonderful wall filled with the juxtaposition that I was talking about. Beautiful carvings set into the walls above the neon ristorante sign and so on. And eventually we arrive at the courtyard of the palazzo, which is our destination. Straight up through the courtyard, into the little window, into the attic where somebody is working at the drawing board. He removes the message from the leg of the bird. This is what it says. As we look at the drawing board we can see what he’s working on is in fact a map of the journey that the pigeon’s just taken and the red line extends through all the sights, and if you want the information, so we complete the cycle of understanding, all you have to do is read these paragraphs.