During our lifetime, places that are special to us either change or become abandoned, decay and disappear. Visiting places that we used to inhabit is disorienting, as feelings of absence and loss mix with poignant memories, both happy and sad.
Photographer Rebecca Bathory, née Litchfield, seeks out neglected places, capturing a sense of this disorientation on a communal scale and documenting what remains of the memories of forgotten people and defunct communities. Her work is often identified as dark tourism photography. Some of her images have a romantic element that borders on the mythological, a power equal to those of more famous buildings in ruin, but much more unique. Many of these places will not survive the ravages of time much longer and there is no one who cares to preserve them. They are structures humanity passes everyday without much thought, their windows boarded shut, languishing and rotting behind tall fences and locked gates, marked only by signs that warn us to keep out. We are conditioned not to see them, but they have stories to tell. Rebecca has gained entry to them for us, bringing back surreal images that stir up buried emotion. These images not only have much to say about our ancestors and the world in which they lived, they also help us comprehend and come to terms with our own future.
Forty miles from Rome, the ancient city of Ninfa has been overtaken by a lush garden. What stories hide here?
In the Latina province of the Lazio region of central Italy there lies a garden. No ordinary garden, but a place considered by connoisseurs to be one of the most romantic in the world. Twenty acres of landscaped beauty comprises Il Giardino di Ninfa, part of a larger Italian Natural Monument, Il Parco Naturale Pantanello. Ancient and medieval ruins are embroidered with greenery and roses make tenacious toeholds between crumbling stones weathered by centuries. Grassy meadows give way to stands of oak, cypress and poplar, while plants imported from all over the globe take advantage of an abundance of water. Beneath all of this extreme beauty, there is the story of Ninfa, a community lost and regained several times over the course of history.
Ninfa means Nymph and the original settlement (as well as the river) was named for a nymphaeum, or temple dedicated to nymphs, that once stood on a island in the small lake. The earliest known reference to this structure is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113), a famous Roman lawyer, magistrate and writer. Pliny was a survivor of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which took the life of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. He tells us the temple was dedicated to water nymphs; water is key to Ninfa’s identity and value. Early residents knew it was wise to keep the nymphs happy, as floods and waterborne illnesses were unpredictable and could quickly overwhelm a community.
Those first residents were probably the Volsci, who were driven from the Liris river Valley in the northeast to the marshy regions near Rome after 600 BC. These were water people who worshiped water gods and made their living from fertile soil watered by so many rivers and streams. They were also, at times, fierce enemies of the Romans. In 304 BC, they were defeated for good and subsequently assimilated. Famous Romans of Volscian descent included Cicero and Caesar Augustus himself.
Over centuries, Ninfa grew from a prosperous agricultural community into a more worldly town, benefiting from its location on the Via Pedemontana near Rome. This was the high road at the feet of the mountains, which proved useful whenever the marshes flooded. The Appian Way was also nearby. It should have allowed local farmers to sell their produce far to the south and brought in other merchants and artisans, but it was prone to flooding. Ninfa was situated along the most important detour in central Italy and became rich off of tolls and customs trade.
By AD 1159, Ninfa was important enough that Pope Alexander III was crowned here in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, following a disputed election that would have repercussions throughout Europe and result in decades of violence. This association with Papal politics proved deadly. A dozen years later, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, would burn the city, in an attempt to flush out Pope Alexander, who was hiding here. Ninfa had the resources to rebuild- this time, thanks to the Caetani family with their money and Papal connections.
At her height, she was a cluster of more than 150 homes, with churches, mills, two hospitals, a castle (built near the lake where the nymphaeum had once stood) and a town hall. Recognizing what was coming, the Caetanis encircled the city with a 1500 yard defensive wall and guard towers. In the 14th century, those wonderful Papal connections were to embroil Ninfa in a Civil War that would cripple the city and make agriculture and commerce impossible. Importance brought intrigue and intrigue brought corruption and violence. The city dwindled.
In the 16th century, Cardinal Nicolò III Caetani gave Ninfa its last gasp, repopulating the city and commanding architect Francesco Perugino to build a lavish garden there. The respite was short lived, as the Cardinal died in 1585 and disasters continued to mount. The marshes began to flooding again and malaria broke out. Ninfa proved too weak to face the wrath of the water spirits. She did not survive the 17th century.
The land remained in the hands of the Caetani family, unused and forgotten until the early 20th century. We’ll explore the reinvention of Ninfa next time.
Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the worlds, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love.
Last May, the Islamic State took the ancient city of Palmyra. Why should we care that it is being destroyed?
ISIS doesn’t have a good track record with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nimrud, Nineveh, and now Palmyra have been destroyed under its rule, creating a storm of publicity and engendering hate and fear. Explosives and sledgehammers have met irreplaceable works of art and left them dust, on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Yes, many of these buildings were sacred to ancient gods, gods who are largely forgotten. So why should modern humanity mourn the loss? We believe in completely different gods. Some of us believe in no gods at all.
Suppose that we were to go back in time and systematically destroy any people that worshipped or thought differently than we do. As we go further and further back, we encounter people that are more and more different from us. We find ancestors before they lost or found faith, we find brothers before they took different paths and became the patriarchs of different cultures. To destroy them would mean that we were never born.
To single out groups for obliteration is to deny part of the human story, to remove the memory of nations and their people from the tapestry of history. The human family is all connected. Believer or nonbeliever, we would not be who we are without the influence of many different peoples and faiths. We have always needed one another and continue to do so. Denying this feeds the absolute worst in our already tribal understanding of the world: that we, and people like us, contain the only viable understanding, and anyone else is worth less than we are. This lies behind every type of racism on the globe.
The scariest thing about ISIS is that they take destruction to a new level. This is not a group that will keep the art and riches of the defeated, but one that will destroy every trace of the enemy, even if the “enemy” has been dead for centuries. The destruction of Palmyra is a warning to civilizations living today that practice life differently than ISIS. A warning that they would like to kill you and then remove any trace that you have ever lived from our world. There was a culture in Europe once that had a similar dream. Thank God it is not yet within our grasp as human beings.
Want to know more about Palmyra? Check out the UNESCO entry here.
I love hands like I love people. They are the maps and
compasses with which we navigate our way through life:
feeling our way over mountains passed and valleys crossed,
they are our histories.
Some people read palms to tell your future,
I read hands to tell your past.
Each scar marks a story worth telling: each callused palm,
each cracked knuckle—a broken bottle, a missed punch,…
–Sarah Kay, Hands
You can read the entire poem here, as well as Sarah’s biography. Stunning vulnerability.
We’re constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories. Without thinking. If we tell ourselves something happened often enough we start to believe it, and then we can actually remember it.
―S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep