Excerpts from A Series of Interludes (Orvieto) Joshua M. Rayner
Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?...Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. ” — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I will not try to tell you what Orvieto is. This will save you heartache and me misery.
What gives any person the right to cast off his label of “stranger”? How long do you need to stay in a place, how well do you need to know it before that identity can be relinquished? I have a sense that people who have lived here their entire lives—and their fathers and mothers before them—have not noticed things apparent to me, the stranger. There is a time in between arriving brand new and leaving a veteran in which the eye stays fresh, a time when some familiarity with a place brings a little knowledge that has not yet been tainted by numbing comfort; I have tried to remain on this plateau of unjaded understanding,
with its steep drops at either end that mirror the carved crag on which the city is built.
But I am beginning to see that time and familiarity may have little to do with each other, and maybe are not important at all, anywhere.
When I arrived, my Orvieto was brand new. Now it is close to four months old, and is still being constructed, sometimes reconstructed. On a map there is a whole town with solid form, but what does the cartographer know? Orvieto is laid out with a walk around the circumference, main guidelines on an axis, a few lines twisting out from the center. It is an unfinished web; my eyes and feet work with my mind as tandem spinnerets. Yesterday I walked down a new alley and a new strand was spun; Orvieto grew.
This is a haunted place, and it is governed by ghosts. Layered specters of its history fill in the cracks, move the streets, and give promptings for what will come. All around I see palimpsests. Nothing has an age because there is no point in thinking like that. The function of this building is to create art students who may or may not impact the next age; broken plaster on the wall that has been crumbling for fifty years exposes the tufa stone blocks that comprise the building’s structure. The Etruscans sat above this one block before it was a block, when it was earth and unnamed and created millennia before any man was. It was soft and secret and remained that way until recently, when it was named “block,” and “Orvieto,” and solidified.
And the building next to it tells a story that we also call Orvieto, along with the four-star hotel and the Etruscan tomb, mottled like the door against which I am leaning. Also the bread I can smell, and the tall cyprus trees and new grass in the gated garden, and this road sign brought from many miles away has also become Orvieto. Perhaps, for a time, I too have become one of these facets called “Orvieto.”
The open-air market in Piazza del Popolo is an exemplification of a foreign thing being part of Orvieto, so much a part of it that if it disappeared, something of the city’s nature would be lost. And another paradox: all that is here in this market exudes impermanence, and I know that by evening there will be no trace that such a thing ever happened. Necessities and treasures, food and utensils and clothing purchased will have dispersed throughout the town, placed in cupboards or on windowsills.
If one expands his view to look over the centuries, the amount of time that the market exists in Orvieto—a few hours twice a week—is so brief that it may as well not exist. But I see the old woman trundling her rolling grocery bag along. The bag makes a rumbling of plastic wheels on stones and cracks between them, a sound that crescendoes and decrescendoes in a rhythm that matches the stuttered start and stop of limping legs. They have been walking to this piazza for this market for close to a century, I am sure. Will you tell her the market does not exist? She spends her week benefiting from it—it nourishes her and her family, gives them life and sometimes excitement, sustains them through their lives. Man cannot live on bread alone, but she spends much of her time selecting bread, regardless. Other time is devoted to thinking of this market, planning for it—the market is not only in her physical world (a world growing less real), but, crucially, it is a central location in the world of her mind. This is the same for many, if not most, Orvietani. So for centuries, likely millennia, the market has been a permanent fixture in Orvieto, beginning when it was Velzna. This temporary collection of physical objects and foreigners is perhaps the last thing you would assign to the realm of metaphysics or whatever you want to call it, but what the market is most is an idea. The idea is important.
I want there to be a conclusion, but other than leaving this place and recommencing in another, there is none. I will continue to imagine that time and familiarity interact, fighting each other and dancing together (depending on something inane like my mood or the weather), but it will be somewhere else. Orvieto is no developed story, consistently and smoothly moving through rising action, climax, dénouement, final page. It can be introduced; from there it must be observed in pieces, separated artificially into interludes, pauses in something that does not stop or end.
Orvieto began as the rest of the world: without form and void, unnamed. With the first unknown inhabitants it received its first lost name, followed by a series of other names in other tongues. It is foreseeable that this progression will circle back on itself until there are no longer inhabitants and Orvieto becomes again an unnamed formless void. There is no place without people. What gives any person the right, ever, to cast off his label of “stranger”?