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James Newton
Cities Underneath Cities

When we visit Italy where do we go? Do we hope to find an idea of ‘Italy’ that we carry in our mind, or do we hope to discover ‘Italy’ for ourself and experience our own version? The image of the Italian city is fantastic, built of grand palaces and piazzas, colonnades and churches; a rich cultural history awaits the visitor.

I travel to Italian cities searching for a certain kind of place; a place that I imagine has existed for hundreds of years, but perhaps has never existed at all. I hope to find evidence. Within the (old) city walls sits the medieval core and what remains today is a curious mix of living city and tourist destination. Life on the streets seems to continue as it has for centuries. The scale and plan of the townscape dictate how one lives and works and aspects of the city seem to be from a different time. Seen in the early morning before the people and traffic have filled the streets I can appreciate the slower movements of the city. I can see the background.

Over time nature will reclaim the streets. Not through a lack of habitation and activity but as a result of it. Use and repetition create a patina. Weathering, wear: every contact leaves a trace. The buildings crumble, the colours fade, the writing is on the wall. But this is not a gloomy scene, there is no desolation or ruin here, only signs of life and a patina of activity and use. The city is as alive now as it ever was; functioning, vibrant, ongoing.

If it exists then I will find it in the background. That is where it will be, unaware of history and architecture, indifferent to achievement and its monuments. Each generation has left its
marks on the fabric of the city, evidence of the stratification of time visible on every surface. Stone is worn by diurnal, annual, centennial activities which seem to have carved a way through streets like a glacier. Patched up, painted over, scrubbed off, replaced – we try to conceal the evidence – but left long enough it becomes visible again gradually obscuring the surface, becoming the surface. Its course is never run.
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Newton’s bio