July 12, 2019

A Story About Lasagne

History is ‘story ‘and the thing with story is that most of the time, we tell a story from start to finish. For stories to make sense, they need to follow one timeline and so the stories we tell about single experiences and events, don’t take into account the events that are happening in the same space but in different times. 

Last night I was helping my cousin with a year 11 high school biology assignment in which she was asked to analyse data collected over a 6 year period, that recorded which species were observed on a particular site in Queensland’s Daintree. I explained to her that each of those years was a story about what animals and birds were in the area in that particular year. Each year’s worth of data was telling the same story on a different timeline, and what became significant was the differences in the story when you told them all at the same time. By layering the year-stories together, like lasagne, you could tell a much deeper and richer story about animals and birds in the area.

For anyone in complete social isolation, but somehow receiving these emails, a lasagne is a delicious vertical construction of layers that goes ‘pasta, sauce, meat or spinach, pasta, sauce, meat or spinach, pasta, sauce, cheese’. The layers of a lasagne, the organisation of the sauce, pasta, and protein layers are what give this feast a sense of organisation and story not found in other plates of pasta that are just a mess, really.

Property has a lasagne element to it also, quite literally. We build history on top of history giving ourselves an environmental lasagne that is worth taking stock of.

My favourite property lasagne is a site, off the main tourist path in Rome, about two blocks from the colosseum. The Basilica of St Clement (San Clemente al Laterano) belongs to the Vatican and is administered by the Irish Dominican order of brothers. The current basilica (fancy word for church,) sits just below street level; as the city has been built up around the 12th Century. It is a Byzantine-style church with the most brilliant example of mosaic and symbolism.

However, in the 18th century, the Dominican brother in charge of the site was struggling to sleep (so the story goes), because he could hear running water and was becoming more and more frustrated as building inspections failed to show the source of the leak. Then they dug.

What they found underneath the 12th-century basilica was another basilica, devoted to St Clement, that had just been filled with rubble and built over. Makes sense, real estate in central Rome is limited and you have to recycle, which is why the level of the city is rising. The second basilica was built in the 4th century and once excavated was a remarkable example of 4th-century architecture with some incredible stories of its own. 

For example, there are some plaster paintings that have stayed intact and they depict St Clement’s miracles. St Clement (apparently) was a very good looking Roman and had a way of converting the pagan women of ancient Rome to Christianity. One of Rome’s husbands was very upset about his wife being converted and he went to St Clement’s house hurling abuse, swear words and blasphemy at the handsome Clement, who then turned the man mute. Miracle. The event is recorded on the walls of the 4th-century basilica and is the oldest surviving record of the Italian vernacular (the spoken language and not Latin). The best part of this story is that this significant religious and archaeological discovery is a very well preserved set of swear words. Fun.

But still, no answer to the running water issue. So the dug. Underneath the 4th century basilica was a second-century pagan Mithraic Temple, used by the male-only Mithraic cult, which made its way to Rome via Persia. Mithra was the son of a god, worshipped by the lower classes (especially soldiers), who was born on the 25th of December and honoured in a dining room style set up by sharing bread and wine. (This should be ringing some appropriation alarm bells for those of you still paying attention). No water – so they dug.

Underneath the Mithraic Temple was an ancient Roman apartment building, called an insulae. Carbon testing of the terracotta floor in the apartment building shows that the floor was laid before the great fire of Rome in 6 AD. This is where people lived as Romans when they got the news about this rebel in the colonies known as Jesus Christ. OMG, right?

Today, you can donate about 5 Euros and literally walk down through the lasagne, getting a sense of the much more epic story that existed over time in the same 400m2. 

Think about the lasagne that sits beneath our feet as you walk around town. We have one of the oldest thriving cultures in the world and whose stories fill out the natural landscape. As we have been celebrating NAIDOC week this week also, I think there is an imperative on all Australians creating a story on the current lasagne level is to do what that brother at San Clemente’s did – Dig.