How to Turn a Map into a Fable. Disorientation, Arbitrary Framing, Monochrome and Trees.

Yesterday I got fabulously disoriented at Villa Arconati, just by the town of Bollate, some 12km north-west of Milano. It happened with a map in hand, in part, thanks to the map and in part as a reaction to it.

The spatial context is not the cause, but certainly an aspect of this little travel. Considering that there is still no Wiki page about it available in English, I will write down some basic information about the Villa. It was built in the 17th century around a village nucleus and a church. Its primary author was Count Galeazzo Arconati, an illustrious art collector at the period. How Villa looks like at present day is a result of modifications and expansions implemented by Count Antonio Arconati, through works starting from year 1742. In this renewal process, the Villa got its late-Baroque façades, and its grandiose garden was remodelled from an Italian style one into a French garden of purest sort. The splendour of Villa is beyond description, even though it is in a state of relative abandon for some time, and only occasionally is open to the public. Thanks to this neglect, the charm of well conserved frescoes, combined with dusty pavements and curtains is irresistible. But, the Villa's most outstanding feature is its state-of-art garden, boasting numerous fountains, berceaux, an orangerie, an aviary, statues, disposed along three principal axis: a west-east one stretching from the east façade of the Villa, and two parallel north-south axis.

Having in mind this brief description, it is not difficult to imagine the Villa as a wondrous backdrop for a contemporary art event combined with a performative art festival, Festival UP_nea’12– Suburbian Fabula. The poetic title suited the event well, as both visual and performing artists tried to imbue fabulous atmospheres. Visual art works were created as in situ works, so all of them engage in some sort of dialogue with the Villa, mostly with its interiors, where the majority of works was exposed. Some of the works managed to blend or even to camouflage with the stately, but decaying, interiors, becoming, thus, parts of an imaginary collection from the 17th century, slightly avant-gardish for the period but still not entirely impossible. Other works were scattered around the garden, though in rather obvious places, in the middle of piazzas, around a fountain, at the very beginning of a principal lawn. On the other hand, performers, too, mostly used villa's interiors, but also the grand fountain and a handful of other, more remote from the villa, garden places. One of the pieces ingeniously nested itself in the middle of a grove using it as a womb-like architecture. At the same moment, around the central area of the garden diverse strange creatures could be noticed crawling among the bushes or appearing along the alleys. Apart from this, my overall feeling was that art works and performers could have tried to enter in closer contact with the majestic garden.

Still, there was this other object that did that kind of work. At the entrance, the spectators were given maps of the event. The function of the map was to inform the visitors about the times and to indicate the places of the performances, as well as the sites of visual art pieces. This primary scope this piece of paper performed rather well, but, it did something more subtle and subterranean, too.

Drawing based on Up_nea'12 map.

At this point I shall return to the beginning. In order to plan my voyage to the Villa, as it is well beyond Milan's urban circle, I resorted to Google Maps. As I could reach Bollate by train, I printed a map how to get from the train station to the Villa, which is a two kilometre walk mostly through open fields. Eventually, I caught up with friends and we went there by car, naturally directed by a smoothly talking GPS device. Anyway, I bore in mind quite well the disposition, or better said, the orientation, of the Villa on the map I printed, or, at least, I thought so. When we arrived, the access drive, with its two lines of trees ending at the foot of the principle west façade of the Villa, had such a strong geometric and visual impact on my perception that I assumed that this axis must be south-north line. The sheer power of Baroque geometries can really be deceiving. I interpreted the ingress in Villa as oriented south. Instead, it faces west, so I already rotated my compass for 90 degrees clockwise. At the entrance, when I was given the event's map, which you can see above and find here, it disoriented me still further. For unknown reasons, most probably merely for the sake of print layout, the vertical axis of the map is disposed in south up-north bottom direction, basically upside down, so the front façade looks eastward. Therefore, this 180 degrees declination for me happened in two steps of 90 degrees, but the result was the same. I did not consciously perceive any of these two axis displacements, but I felt subtly but decisively bewildered gazing at Up_nea map.

After making a tour of the Villa's ground floor with the exhibited art works, I could not help but to proceed straight into the garden, overlooking the possible splendours on the upper floor. After crossing the yard and the piazza with a fountain I turned right and then to luxurious lawns facing the south side of the Villa. (I have indicated my trajectory on the map with a dashed line.) After walking down the central alley (on the south side of the villa), after the first parterre, I turned left on the stairs which took to the higher level of garden. The stairs had a band spread from side to side, clearly saying that this was not the recommended walk path. It was not a serious obstacle, so after bending a little, I found myself at another piazza or a crossing, surrounded by trees from all sides. (On Up_nea map this clearing is the uppermost oval circle.) I followed an inscription saying Milkwood and entered the grove, where I found an installation of overlapping canvases and another grove with half a dozen of ladders disposed in circle. I passed through this area, which was the stage set for the upcoming performance, and returned on the south-north path and continued to walk versus north through what now almost had an appearance of the forest, within which little of the baroque's geometric order was kept. Maybe in the 18th century, it was much more disciplined, but now it seems left mostly to its own will. Among other surprises that you can discover for yourself, I stumbled upon a beautiful orangerie (or an aviary) that now assured me that I was back in a world of Watteau or Fragonard. During the whole walk through the forest, there was not a single person to be seen, and it really felt like a little adventure (having in mind that, for an irremediably urban person such as I am, being encircled by more than a dozen trees appears like being in a jungle.) Very soon I found out the reason for the lack of humans, as I approached the barriers dividing the forest from the long alley lying along the west-east axis extending from the backyard of the villa (the point of my arrival is the left most circle on Up_nea map). Seconds later, I was asked by the staff member what I was doing on the other side of the barrier.

In a few steps, I was back in the “allowed” area, and as I took Up_nea map out of my pocket, I understood that I was back on the map also. I was surprised to note that the entire forestal part of the garden, or better said, of the park, which contributes at least to a half of its surface, is cut out from the map's frame. Within the irregular decagon are contained only the places where the festival took place, leaving out the rest of the tenure. But, not only on the map, the festival's organisers (or the villa's staff) physically separated the rest of the garden with barriers. Even in such a benign event, a map exerted its power tacitly on paper, and the “walkable” area was being watched by some staff. What lied out of the frame, did not exist.

This discovery made me think of maps as interfaces of control and other usual things in that line. But, there was more to it. First of all, as I said, Up_nea map is rotated upside down in regard to normal north-south axis, which is a perfectly valid practice if the change of directions is indicated on the map. So, I assume that either it was neglected or there was an intent to make spatial perception somewhat surreal. The effect could be quite strong because I presume that a great majority of people had to consult a map in order to find their way to the Villa, so they maybe already were familiar with the Villa's geographical orientation. So, if they were familiar with this knowledge, the map inverted it upside down. Second, it left out a great piece of the garden, and this is somewhat comprehensible, because this area was not used by the event. (The doubt remains as to why it should not be visited? considering that Villa is not open every day, and that it is so beautiful.)

But, besides these cartographic failings, Up_nea map revealed some of the cartographic logic, albeit probably unintended so. Now, I have to correct myself, Up_nea map really is not a map strictly speaking. It is a satellite shot taken from Google Earth database. It is a photography with a series of symbols layered upon it. And, as in any Google Earth shot, there are shadows on it. The visual impact of shadows is greatly heightened by the print in a monochromatic scale of sepia tones. The backyard of the villa is partly covered by the shadow of the building. The west-east alley is half overlaid by shadows of trees and so on. This element, trees, border all the upper part of Up_nea map, and supposedly they extend for a bit, but we do not know it from this map. 

Villa Arconati with its garden as seen on Google Earth.
By looking at a more zoomed out, and cartographically correctly oriented Google Earth shot, we see that the woods are indeed an important presence in the Villa's surroundings (as I found out intuitively). But, as the woods is an important part of the garden, one should expect to see more of the garden's highly elaborate architecture even within it. Instead, in this image the tree branches hide from our gaze the possible existence of paths, furthermore, they conceal the bricked wall that marks the border of the tenure and a quite grand built structure such as orangerie is lost to our (satellite) view.

To discover these elements, one must enter the woods. And that is why Up_nea map is beautiful, as it silently, and, in this case, contrary to intents of festival organisers (or Villa's authorities), acknowledges that the part out of the map really asks to be explored (in person, and on foot). I believe that I was drawn into the unmarked area by this gravitational force, the attraction of the unknown. It reminded me of atlas maps, single sheets of paper which mark off a certain area, and, thus, at first, they limit our view, but they work also as openings, as perspectives, or as tokens for explorations. That was what exploration was all about until a century ago, to go over the frame of the map. Moreover, the opaque parts, in this case, zones in shadow cast by branches of trees, which could be normally interpreted as obstacles to geographical knowledge, challenge us to become advance in that way. There are maybe mysteries awaiting within these unseen areas. A couple of thickets, deeper shadows (maybe in grayscale print) and a tactically placed frame can make a fable out of a dry satellite shot.

What would happen to our satellite shots if we planted really great numbers of trees, in rural, and especially, in urban environments? Or, if we commenced to print and use maps of small areas, with boundaries within the reach of a short walk, maps that are not scrollable by a touch of finger ad infinitum? The maps that challenged us to move, to explore their limits. Maybe they could transform our everyday spatial experience into something profoundly mysterious, a fable in which we are the main characters? 

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