Continued from last week:
Bill Travis, “Aqueduct, Minturno,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 16 X 20 in., 2006
In creating personal, contemplative images I hope to involve the spectator in the scene. A ‘document’ only commemorates a place or a moment; an ‘interpretation’ is richer, in my view, because it invites others to join in and add something of themselves.
All of the works in this book consist of photographic transfers over boards with oil paint and mixed media, a technique I invented to explore connections between painting and photography. The result is something that looks lifelike but, at the same time, cannot exist in real life. Ultimately that is because, behind the tree or the face or the building, is an emotion or a feeling—abstractions we can experience but never see. Visible things offer clues to help us reflect on the invisible.
Bill Travis, “Bird, Sperlonga,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 16 X 20 in., 2006
Assisting me in my exploration were a number of friends, Carla, Gio, and especially Stefano, whose knowledge and love of the area are infectious. With one, or more, or all alone, I picked up the Appian Way at the Garigliano River and traveled steadily north toward Rome, up the entire tract of the Appian Way through Lazio (or Latium). Most books proceed the other way around, starting from Rome and then heading south, but I wanted to reverse the order, because “all roads lead to Rome”; but mostly because the sequence gives the itinerary a new drama, as we move from silence and emptiness to the ancient world’s most populous and monumental city. Here and there I move five miles off-track to give some flavor of the territory, mindful of Lawrence Sterne’s counsel—offered centuries ago—that the greatest pleasure of travel is not to arrive, but to take the road wherever it leads.
Bill Travis, “Near Itri,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 16 X 20 in., 2006
Here is a slightly modified text I wrote for my first photographic monograph, Along the Appian Way, published by Mercanti in Grottaferrata, in 2006. Today’s post includes some of the images I made for the book:
Just outside Velletri, roughly twenty miles southeast of Rome, lie two roads whose intersection has a touch of the surreal: on the one hand, the Avenue of the Soviet Union and on the other the Appian Way, a very odd couple indeed. But if the Soviet Union is no more, the Appian Way is still going strong in its twenty-third century: in the collision between ancient and modern, it is Antiquity that survived. Over time, the Appian Way has also witnessed the rise and fall of Rome, which built the road to connect the city to points south; the barbarian invasions, the Papal State, and the unification of Italy; the construction of tombs and villages, monasteries and villas; malaria, freeways, and supermarkets. So the ‘real’ Appian Way is not the one built by and named after Appius Claudius Caecus ca. 312 BCE, or the road sacked by Goths, or trodden by medieval pilgrims, or traveled by motorcycle, but all of them together. Landscape has a memory and the wealth of the Appian Way lies in the manner each culture has left its mark.
Bill Travis, “Medieval Street, Minturno,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 20 X 16 in., 2006
As it survives today, the Appian Way—‘queen of roads’ for the poet Statius—is part highway, part archeological park. It extends 364 miles from Rome to Brindisi, alternating between the Ancient Appian Way, the Trajanic Appian Way, the Old Appian Way, the New Appian Way, the Via Appia Pignatelli, Route 7, and various combinations of these, sometimes at a few miles distance from each other. Perhaps that is why the Appia reminds me of the stories my grandmother used to tell. You could never be sure where they began or ended, only that they’d take a long time.
Bill Travis, “Street in Sermoneta,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 20 X 16 in., 2006
Scholars have in fact proposed three different starting places: the Roman Forum (containing the golden mile, or miliarum aureum, where all roads led), the Porta Capena at the Servian Wall, and the Porta San Sebastiano at the Aurelian Wall. All we know for sure is that the one ‘starting place’ identified as such by a handsome stone plaque was nothing of the sort, unless we’re willing to believe that the road started in the middle of an aqueduct. Still, the error has a certain poetic justice, as the road stops at water’s edge, where the Adriatic laps the shore of Brindisi. Then again, Brindisi was only one of many ends, as the road previously stopped at Capua, Venosa, Benevento, and Taranto.
Bill Travis, “Old City, Velletri,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 20 X 16 in., 2006
The ancients first used the Appian Way as a military road, which is why it remains resolutely straight for miles at a stretch, fording rivers, towering over valleys, cutting through a mountain, and bypassing several towns of ancient foundation. Over time it assumed a commercial aspect, but as the Pontine Plain it once traversed turned into marshland and centers of habitation shifted to more salubrious and defensible hilltops, the road took a more inland route, affording the magnificent views we still enjoy today. Along the way monuments and Coke bottles dot the road. The Appia is many things at once: old and new, noisy and quiet, noble and rustic.
Bill Travis, “Intersection with via Appia Pignatelli,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 20 X 16 in., 2006
It is also extraordinarily beautiful. And that is the problem, at least from an artistic point of view. What could be more enchanting than sunset over the aqueducts? Yet, when painted or captured on film, the same scene suddenly seems trite and uninteresting. The problem would be simpler if the road were ugly, challenging the artist to stress that ugliness or, perhaps, to find a hidden grace, but as luck would have it the road and its environs are magnificent to behold. So we must make peace with its beauty and dig a little deeper.
Bill Travis, “Baths of Caracalla, Rome,” photographic transfer on masonite board with mixed media, 20 X 16 in., 2006
My own digging led me to explore another Appian Way, the inner road, in a sense, which takes the scenery as a point of departure for a sustained meditation on place. Each work reproduced here is a contemplation where my own world intersects with the world around me. The choice of scenes is therefore highly personal: the point is to create images, not of ‘everything’ in an encyclopedic spirit, but of things I find especially moving. Given its diversity, the Appian Way offers a rich field for investigation and, as I worked on this project, I began to think of my camera as a sketchpad, a place for recording first impressions. First impressions, not final results—because the Appian Way is interesting to me more for its intimacy and lyricism than for transitory effects. I suppose this means I was looking for an Appia that lies outside time, and in that spirit work began in the field but continued, much longer and more intense, in the studio as I reflected on, transformed, and personalized the initial response.
More texts and images next week. Stay tuned…
Bill Travis, “Rome, Gianicolo,” photo on kozoshi paper, 10 X 15 3/4 in., 2011
Life is full of missed opportunities, where you wish you had only said something at the right time, but one opportunity I’m glad I missed occurred when I started at the Institute of Fine Arts, a graduate school of art history on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before matriculating, I had spent a year studying academic German, including a four-month stint in Munich, which gave me just enough of the language to read texts on High Gothic architecture but not enough to order Wiener schnitzel. Returning to New York City from Germany and feeling proud of this dubious linguistic achievement, I remember walking down the halls of the Institute, when I overheard two elderly people speaking the language of Goethe. “Ach,” I thought, two Teutonic visitors who will need my expert assistance, and I would have gladly offered it if only I’d remembered how to say “May I help you.” It was a lucky thing to forget, for in point of fact I knew absolutely nothing about the school, not even that the two Germans were distinguished professors there. A week later, I was taking a course with one of them.
Bill Travis, “Rome, Aventino,” photo on mitsumata paper, 9 X 13 3/4 in., 2011
I will never forget Wolfgang Lotz. Though I revered almost all of my professors, he was my favorite and, as he was constantly flying back to Rome, where he was Director of the prestigious Bibliotheca Hertziana, I was unfortunately able to take only two classes with him. One was on the architecture of sixteenth-century Rome and the other, on Roman urbanism of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. He literally wrote the book on the subject, several books in fact, and he wore his knowledge on his sleeve, never getting bogged down in pedantry but, rather, communicating ideas with the utmost grace and ease. Other professors were brilliant, but only Lotz made you feel you were actually there, in Rome, with Bramante and Michelangelo and Vignola and Raphael, witnessing them in the act of creation. When Professor Lotz talked about the Villa d’Este, he brought you face to face, not only with the building, but with the gardens and the play of light and air, and the gurgling of the fountains. And when class let out, you thirsted for more.
Bill Travis, “Rome, View from the Gianicolo,” photo on mitsumata paper, 8 X 14 7/8 in., 2011
One evening, enthused with some readings he’d assigned, I lectured a friend for two hours on the history of four palaces. (I don’t remember if I saw her again.) When I visited Rome the whole city came alive for me and thanks to the professor’s expert guidance, I knew something about what was there, what had been there before, and what was planned but never built. I might have followed up and become a student of Roman architecture, but then the good professor died, and my future in the field died with him.
Bill Travis, “Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli,” photo on white silk, 10 X 15 in., 2011
I wonder what he would have made of my images of Rome now that I have long since transitioned from art historian to artist. These pictures go out in tribute to an inspiring teacher. I would like you to think, as you look at them, of the things he trained us not to miss: the sight, to be sure, but also the sounds, the fragrance, and the life.
Bill Travis, “Rock Creek Park 21,” photo on An-jing paper, 21 1/4 X 16 in., 2011
Years ago, as a freshly-minted graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, I took a course on ancient Roman art with Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen, one of the last survivors of the eminent German-trained art historians who had come to America in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Herr Professor Doktor was the type of person, rarely found today, who possessed a vast and deep knowledge of his field and, as an immigrant to the United States, naturally spoke English better than any native (with a German accent to prove it). To hear him lecture was a thrilling experience.
Bill Travis, “Rock Creek Park 22,” photo on An-jing paper, 20 1/4 X 16 in., 2011
In those days, professors took a lackadaisical attitude toward truth in advertising and were ready to put just about anything in the official course listing in order to get the administration’s approval, without any intention of actually teaching the subject. The first day of class had an aura of mystery as students discovered what they’d signed up for. True to form, my twelve-week course on art under the first twelve Caesars turned out to be almost entirely on the first emperor, and more specifically on a single work produced during his reign. The remaining eleven emperors came crashing up at the end, like a train that had skipped its tracks.
Bill Travis, “Rock Creek Park 23,” photo on Hahnemühle Ingres white, 20 1/8 X 14 in., 2011
The single work this great scholar discussed, week after week, was the Ara Pacis Augustae, the “altar of peace” of the emperor Augustus, which you can still visit today a few blocks down from Prada. I went to see it out of duty when I was in Rome but, despite its importance and even its beauty, I never took to it. I knew too much and felt too little.
Bill Travis, “Rock Creek Park 24,” photo on Hahnemühle Ingres white, 20 7/8 X 14 in., 2011
Maybe you can make too much of a good thing and I reflect on that experience as I post yet another segment of my series on Rock Creek Park. It is a wonderful place and there is so much more to say and to show. But basta! There are other wonderful subjects, too, and next week I move on.
Bill Travis, “Rock Creek Park 25,” photo on An-jing paper, 23 X 15 1/2 in., 2011
Rendez-vous next week, then, to explore Italy, and a fond farewell to the beauty of Rock Creek Park.
I read The Castle, by Franz Kafka, shortly before visiting Prague and one of the many things that struck me about that remarkable work is the way the castle becomes less and less real the further you delve into the book, as if it were disappearing the closer you get to it. What a wonderful image for art, I thought. Why not make pictures that depict something but that, at the same time, take that thing away?
When I returned home, I started working on a number of images, three of which I’m posting today.
Bill Travis, “Stair, Prague Castle,” photo transfer on gold silk, 8 X 10 in., 2010
The first shows a stairway in the castle precinct. Yes, there is an actual castle that Kafka may have used as his model, and what a strange affair it is, vastly larger than anything the city has ever needed, and represented here by a single staircase, which could in fact be anywhere. The picture is not so much about a place as it is about movement into the unknown.
Bill Travis, “Apse, Prague Cathedral,” photo transfer on gold silk, 8 X 9 1/2 in., 2010
Here we’re looking at the cathedral, which towers over us and dissolves into thin air at the same time. I remember waiting for someone to come into the picture… a little cipher, engulfed by a lofty and mysterious apse. You can barely make him out in the lower right corner.
Bill Travis, “Old Square, Prague,” photo transfer on gold silk, 8 X 10 in., 2010
And here is the famous Old Square, with the clock tower to the left and an elegant eighteenth-century palace off to the right. This is probably the most crowded and touristy part of town, but rather than take a photojournalist approach to the scene, I set out to capture something quiet and evanescent. The throngs of people to the lower right are intentionally difficult to make out.
The castle, the cathedral, the Old Square: these three places figure among the best-known sites of the city. They exist in the real world and, yet, in another way they don’t, because where the images ultimately reside is in the mind.
All three pictures are photo transfers on gold silk. There is only one ‘print’ of each and they’re meant to be picked up and held in the hand.