by Laura Ricci, in “Saint Patrick’s Well in Orvieto”
English translation by Erika Pauli
Photo by Patrick Nicholas
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A deep well into which to lower oneself to draw the water of creation
As Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929 in A Room of One’s Own, that marvellous essay, pillar of women’s writing, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” How true. One has to be independent so that one can freely move around in an inner world of one’s own and turn what one finds into a story. The ‘room of one’s own’ that I had always longed for, that I needed, not just as a writer but to develop my individuality, if I were to become a writer, eventually became an even smaller space.
In My Father’s Suitcase, Orhan Pamuk’s touching lecture when he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm, the great Turkish novelist describes the writer intent at his table. Woolf and Pamuk, the one from the innovative early twentieth century, the other from contemporary times, bear comparison, for both identify a silent and solitary space as a premise for creation. Both begin with apparently marginal details to eventually focus on the patient deliberation required as they decant their endlessly teeming cosmos of thoughts and words into a parallel world. In evoking these spaces, I realize that another preceding space exists in the form of a deep well from which to draw the waters of creation.
Like Pamuk, wen I think of writing, my mind does not go to a literary genre, a page, a book, but I visualize the persons writing, concentrated in their room or at their table. For days, months, years. I see them sip tea or coffee or a tisane while reflecting. I follow them while they stop, get up, go to the window, return to their table, take up once more the thread of that tapestry of words. In order to patiently weave a plot, the writer has first to sink down into the region of consciousness before re-emerging into a new world. In their need for communication, writers must be careful not to lose their bearings as they cast a bridge of words and reflections between themselves and the hypothetical reader.
Descending into the depths of the self prepares us to assimilate the life within us, to calmly and impartially observe those who cross our path. It is the prelude for every inspiration. For no matter what we write about, we must first explore our own original self, remove the insidious dross that renders any conception commonplace. There is something mystical about the travail of the writer as they emerge from that well of consciousness and concentrate on those webs of words – for days months, years – seated in their room or at their table.
St Patrick’s Well, that marvellous and unique creation designed for Pope Clement VII by one of the best-known and respected architects of the Renaissance, Antonio da Sangallo, is a fitting metaphor for writing. When I think of this work of genius, perhaps on account of my habit of introspection, or afraid of rhetoric, I do not envisage it in terms of the netherworld, obscurity, threatening fears. What comes to mind is the preliminary work of excavation, as in writing, not that disquieting world of the hereafter that many chroniclers and travellers have, throughout the centuries, associated with this deep abyss in Orvieto. The well is a mirror of the uncompromising structural layout essential for a piece of writing. With its grey-green mysterious depth, the gradual slope of its counterbalanced helical ramps and those large apertures that look questioning out on the void, St Patrick’s Well is a fitting metaphor for writing.
The writer is guided by a thirst for authenticity, meticulously aspiring to achieve the crystalline fluidity that characterizes the wellhead at the bottom. The light of day that illuminates the beginning of the descent gradually fades out the further down one goes into the bowels of the earth. As a metaphor, it is into the depths of our ego, our private self, that we must go. As the reflected light wanes, the water vapour sinks into the body, draws us down to the spring, drop after drop. Descending is no easy task. Courage is required as our unmindful steps move towards unknown rifts, and we are forced to catch our breath. We cross the water – the original liquid element – and, no longer what we were, climb up another way along the opposing stairs.
There is another well that might, like the well of Orvieto, symbolize the introspection that precedes the emergence of the word. The spiral well of Quinta da Regaleira, in Sintra, Portugal, is generally known as an “initiation well.” In the eighteenth century this concept of initiation and purification had also been applied to the Well of the Rocca, when it acquired the name of the “Well of St Patrick’s Purgatory”, but with the passage of time the significance, if not the name, was lost.
The well of Sintra, consisting of a spiral staircase with nine landings, perhaps alluding to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, is clearly allegorical, located as it is in a complex marked by numerous esoteric elements and with, at the bottom, a compass over a Knights Templar cross instead of water. The Portuguese well was not therefore excavated to serve a practical function, from which to draw water, but was cabalistic, an introduction to enlightenment, alluding to a passage from death to rebirth.
In addition to being without water, the well of Quinta da Regaleira goes down into the ground for only about thirty meters, whereas St Patrick’s Well is fifty-three meters deep. Nor does it have a particularly methodical structure; quite to the contrary, it gives an impression of the disorderly and bizarre.
In Orvieto the spiral form is hidden in the double helix of the stairs that run along between the two cylinders all the way down to the spring. In Sintra the spiral is manifest, punctuated initially by one-light openings separated by columns and capitals that create the effect of a portico, then by large windows very like those of St Patrick’s Well, but asymmetrically arranged.
Therefore if I go back to my point of departure with the author in a room of his or her own– a space courageously constructed and fought-for– or to the coveted table where the author patiently and relentlessly works – it is not to the enigmatic mossy well of Sintra that my thoughts go, but to Sangallo’s imposing, carefully thought-out architectural construction in Orvieto.
Writing indeed is not enlightenment; it is not revelation, or at least not only that. It is not something esoteric, or, even less, the result of a bizarre coincidence. After that journey in depth, after the original drawing of water, just as in Antonio da Sangallo’s well, writing is a rigorous structure, with a meticulously conceived architectural layout. There is no great writer who has not painstakingly set his plots in a carefully thought-out framework. The daring experiments of the early twentieth century, for example, prevailed and renewed European literature because they were inscribed in congruent structural frames. The London day of Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, or the Dublin day of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses, circumscribe the recondite interior monologues of Clarissa, and of Molly Bloom’s even more famous disruptive stream-of-consciousness in the frame of a single day that makes them comprehensible.
The same can be said with regards to the fragmentation of the omniscient narrator or of Aristotelian time in the myriads of excellent novels of this twenty-first century. Every traditional order can be destroyed, as long as it is inserted into a new and different form. The structure must not be too apparent, and, like Sangallo’s functional creations, what counts most is the equilibrium, so that it remains harmoniously reticent. The less noticeable is the frame, the better it accomplishes its aim. A ductile structure, it must be prepared to adapt itself to whatever unexpected factors might arise, or to respond to changes in the story line. When excavation of the well of the Rocca was begun – the name, Rocca or fortress, was a reference to its location and the fact that it was to supply water to the troops lodged there – it had not been planned to reinforce and line the structure with bricks. The whole well was to be dug and given shape directly in the rock.
But the pozzolana under the surface layer of rock was too friable and Antonio da Sangallo had to modify his plans, creating reinforcement in the form of two brick cylinders, with a final result that was therefore unique and striking. For the narrator too, the appearance of personages or the development of the story can result in hitherto unplanned-for changes. The writer is the one who moves the threads of the plot, but is in turn subject to demands, pressures of various kinds, as in a play of mirrors where the real world is multiplied but remains enclosed in the labyrinth.
When writers thinks of the greatness of their predecessors and their immense literary production, there is a risk of becoming aphasic, of feeling trapped and helpless. But by dropping down into the well of that interior world, seeking and finding its unique originality, they can construct new worlds of words for situations already tried and tested.
As in the spiral – a figure of multiple cultures and structures that Sangallo chose for the two helicoidal staircases of the Orvieto well – a form without an end that can expand at any time into a further segment and perennial movement, every writer can add a distinctive feature to the expansion and coiling of the literary narration. Drawing and bringing water from that inextinguishable well of the soul that, as was said of St Patrick’s Well, “is still to be seen today, and which perhaps will be seen as long as the world lasts.” (Marc’Antonio Maltempi, Trattato, 1585).