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(Roman) Courtyards                                                  




Courtyards: a vision of light perceived as through a veil of gauze; as if, having passed beneath the arches, a curtain of shadow has lifted to reveal a veil of light, a screen upon which is projected an image at once a dream and yet so clearly a part of reality that there is nothing more behind to discover, and so beyond which there is no further seeking. The veil of light conceals nothing: the vale of light already lies before us.


Courtyards: a frame for the face of light.


Courtyards: caught between interior and exterior (not just a linguistic binary but a profound difference in space on which fundamental categories of experience have come to rest). A space forever finding itself somewhere between garden and room; occupying the same semiotic space occupied by gardens relative to the Nature/Culture opposition. As gardens are to Nature and Culture so courtyards are to the garden and to the house. Yet this is not a half moon, equally divided by light and darkness. One point of view offers a near plenitude : the other a crescent. On the waxing side of Culture there is the comfort of shelter, a sense of interiority, the presence of a room without one actually being there. Yet like an eclipse a residue of exposed exteriority remains. On the waning side of Nature there is the opening onto the sky; the portal through which comes everything that falls. The side of Nature that falls; of which foremost, the gift of light; making of the courtyard a vast skylight, open to the heavens; charting the passing cycles of sun and star; mysteriously transformed by the mercurial touch of moonlight. All are permitted entry through the portal of the sky; all come pouring down, like luminous rain, coin of the heavens, gold by day, silver by night. Unlike the world of covered spaces, where light must peer in from the outside, come slanting in from the side, as in the relation of room to window. Here the roof is of nature's making; the vault of the sky is carried by unimaginable spans beyond which the heavens are revealed. Constellations circle overhead.


Courtyards: cage of the sun; audience of shadows.


'Our' space and 'our' place. Private and open: a place of light shared by individuals or their family. Or public and closed: a space shared by small local communities, a group of families - their space. 'Our space'. Also a place symbolising that community and its demarcation from the greater 'good' (the greater community), a place symbolising their interrelation and their concord (or its absence if the space is ill-used). A space conjuring up a community - a shared identity giving spirit and taking place (genius loci). A refuge (from heat, and wind, and public noise and dirt - also from the public gaze). And if we find the presence of fountain and pool, of tree and shrub, then the courtyard becomes a garden, replete with all the meanings such a changing of mood, such a switching of the genres of space, can bring. An airy canopy of green replaces the sealed weight of the ceiling. Cracked pots pour forth red flowers. Everywhere the shadow of leaf on stone.


Courtyards; stone holds air in light. Water plays.


From the privacy of solitude to the confluence of a very particular public; open to the gathering of the some and closed to the passage of the many. Intimate and social; place of the performance of hospitality and fraternity. An 'our' space which is also the place of the Other. A palace of the Other (built on the ruins of the other). For all community rests on two foundations (each disappearing into the ether of the beyond). The law-giving meta-set, the axiomatics of the Eternal Other and the other of the limit, the other that defines the limits of the self (the soiled, abjected, taboo). Foundations invisible or built on the barrier of rejection. The golden dome and the pogrom. 'Our' place. The knot in the rope of the disappearing rope trick. A city one of whose foundations soars into the sky (the other lies in the charnel houses of the gods, where the undevoured meat of sacrifice is left to rot).


The light of the sun; the forgetting of shadows.


Courtyards: the intuition of the infinite reveals only the open ground of the temple (the sanctum, like the sewers, lies hidden in shadow).


The path to the infinite is always the same path down which return the tablets of law. The Eternal Court may lie forever out of reach on the other side of the horizon, but its law fills all and any waiting spaces this side of eternity (whose absent word alone is Law).


In the mutterings of those entrusted with the policing of exclusion, how strange to find, even here, the pale phantasms of power holding court amid the pillars and the plants.


Courtyards (quotidian, sub-lunary): place of joviality, sharing, place of secure somnambulence. If not diluted into the affectless space of passage. (Or reduced to a car park).


Origins. The open courtyard of the Roman house (as today, the dream of every dweller on the block - the insula or apartment block arrived early on the urban scene). The atrium of the Christian basilica; the place of composure before the hushed entry into the shaded sanctuary. Moorish courtyards; the Alcazar gardens and the place of the faithful, the court of the mosque; the gifts of Islam. Palazzi courtyards (from the Renaissance to the Liberty style) from the intimacy of the shaded corner to the pageantry of  procession and the performance of power. The courtyard. Inviting in the entry of light in a fashion favoured for thousands of years, illuminating  the rise of the urban skyline in its inexorable creeping sky-wards, up, up-until the late-nineteenth century - when the long slow ascent of the Iron Age joined that of architecture; when, finally arriving at the doors of architecture, it promised to boost its height by exponential measures. A few decades later the need for the courtyard, insofar as maintained as a source of light for the interior, was dislodged by the timely arrival of electricity. Harsh exchange, the undiscriminating wattage of the light bulb for the gentle dance of candle light, grace illuminating the walls, and the lost presence of sun, moon, and stars in the core of every dwelling.


By dawn; the filtered light of a hidden sun, an etherialisation of matter that makes possible the brute passion of the day. The ideal is born of the morning.  The courtyard nurtures it; preparing it for the dissipation of the day to come. The day mourns the ideal. This time of reflection is also the time of looking forward. A place between private and public, fresh, unformed, the place for the performance of the self, of the dance of the ideal and the self, rehearsal for the world without.


The course of the day witnesses the triumph of the royal court of the sun; from whose beneficent dominion there must nevertheless be a place to hide.


At noon, the retreat under the arch, behind the shutters - or just the other side of a partly closed door. At cooler times one might even emerge into the full sight of the sun, directly above, caught out in the open, out in the unrelenting light: itself caught, like the taming of a god, caught in a pagan frame, a sacred geometry, the circle in a square, like the inside of a dome, its interior circle resting on four pendentives, conducting its force down through the square of four pillars... so now we find ourselves in a Byzantine place of worship, with the glow from above, the golden glow of mosaics, a reflected glory, shining down. In the courtyard the stare of Christ is replaced by that of an older god, a pagan eye that sits in majesty, the light that sees, even as it illuminates, and so makes possible the act of seeing. The art of seeing. Yet blinding too in its casual revelation: a fiery icon. The fiery angel that stands in the sky.


Courtyards; where light hangs as if caught in the spray of a waterfall; blessing of the sun, hosanna descending.


Courtyards; where darkness hangs as if caught between the glow of the city and the stars. Absence is the gift of night to the imagination.


By night the courtyard becomes a walled garden, silent, monastic - the precincts of a Moorish palace, scented with night flowers that glow milky-white in the dark; the milk of the moon fallen into a walled dark space. Night flowers: the scents of jasmine and honeysuckle, the climbers in the branches, or the smell of lemons, of their flowers and fruit refreshing the warm air (the fresher air of night accompanied by the slow sounds of water leaking from cracked ceramics). The courtyard by night; a place empty yet full; like all sacred spaces, like all sense of place; more than just itself (like all art). And all around in the near-silence, the still night air echoes with the presence of others, muted voices... the memory of sound, like the cool air one breathes... the taste of the lives of others... as the sense of sight retreats, so the others step in, smell and hearing... bearing the remains of the day and the life of the night... dropping a stone into the well of our mind... ripples of the lives of others blending with the darkness of the bed of thought (and with our sense of touch, triggered by a clarity of sound so pure we can feel the stone or the branch as we hear its rasp or whisper, just as we feel the intimate motion of throat and jaw in the absent, distant voice).


By night the shadows, exiled to a half-life beneath the arches, flow out until they reunite, flooding the courtyard like a dark ocean; enveloping with their soft forms the hard glitter of negation. (For negation still reflects both the negated and the viewer, whilst in the shadow these subsist only in the outline of the form, leaving the content open to the wash of the sublime.)


Nocturne.  Night passage (a visit to the Oslavia district of Rome after sunset). Entering and leaving the closed space of courtyards, window lights above, stars up when not drowned by the omnipresent urban glow, street lamps and windows blazing-out the presence of their occupants, like the sound of a radio or television transformed into light... the white noise of sight. The mute blackness and colossal appearance of trees in the courtyard by night, towering above, accentuated by the frame of the walls around, a space channelling vision upward to the sky, channelling the tree also; it rears up as it reaches overhead...  And then the amazing presence of people, lots of people, some in groups, some alone, all invisible accept for the odd trace of light and some occasional noise; invisible yet present behind the walls and windows of the courtyard. A space enclosed by people. Invisible people. In boxes, like a mausoleum, or catacomb, sepulchral, sacred, as the burial ground or underground chamber, a final resting place, or the shared site of this world and the next, the waiting room of the netherworld. All around, concealed from sight, eternity's ghosts wait in their rooms to pass on. The courtyard reminds us that no-one is ever more than a step away from a glimpse of the infinite perspective. The courtyard, sacred as only a framed piece of sky can be...

   an infinite perspective, courtyards finally resemble all religious forms in their homage to the sky; hypsosis does not require a spire, only an opening. Present in every courtyard are - not only the mosque or the cloister - but also the cleft rocks opening to the sky, as in the oracular shrine of the Hittites in archaic Boazkale (Turkey) and in the sanctuaries and oracular sites of classical civilisations...

                                                                        ...walking in and out, exchanging public and private space, making private, public, and public, private, dipping in and out of light to dark, and dark to light (feeling like Dante and Virgil traversing the spheres of the human condition, finding our way through strange grottos and experiencing the diverse levels of human mythology). Moving on tip-toe from one wall of tombs to another, at times (at this time) courtyards are like Italian graveyards where the dead are found slotted into shelves in a wall, attended by candles and flowers; and where a red light burns for so long as someone remembers, for as long as some one is left to remember. The filtered light from curtained windows and the flickering glow of televisions, our candles, the red light of alarms our marker of blessed memory, protector from night's alarms, and all around, indistinct yet present like the hand held out before one in darkness, or glittering with reflected light like a crystal carving of black sapphire, the coal-black silhouettes of bush and shrub, our night flowers of negation - silently, invisibly, beckoning the blind moths of the human soul...

            ...and so we move on, as from one flower to another, and always we are aware of others... of other presences. For our own is an illegal presence, as if we were walking in the graveyards of night, dreading the presence of phantoms, or lost in the darkened halls and precincts of the priests' high sanctuary where walk the souls of those sacrificed, whose sombre features flit-by as we pass through this sombre space, barely imprinting themselves on our memories (a shallow organ, little suited to recording the faint emanations of the dead). And perhaps we too ourselves are such, believing ourselves to be visitors, but doomed to repeat our passage nightly. Each time forgetting the time before. Each time afresh; eternally present in eternal repetition. Ghostly passers-through of a space dedicated to others... Passers-through of a passage through space now dedicated to the prayers of the sleeping, the whispered orisons of night. 


Night prayers: from the closing ritual of Compline to the dead time between sleep, the dream world of Vigil, the delirium of the void, the watch of the soul. For this is the time of the time opened out in the time between the closing of light and the waking of thought; the time that is opened up in the dead of night, from the dead of night, for the dead, parting the heavy veils of night with a chasm deeper than prayer itself...


  ...just as the courtyard frames and reframes an absence whose significance gains in value with each frame. Like the Russian Doll of ritual; the staggered repetition of a liminal threshold. Or the infinite regress in the mirror; the Golden Sections of the soul. The absence at the end of the final frame carrying all meaning (and none).




The star in the drop of water (the star in the pool), the tear of heaven (the tear in the eye of heaven); transfiguring a leaf with a bejeweled droplet (or making the pavement glisten with the presence of rainwater) as the constellations of the Milky-way seem to hover just above the flagstones.


The star in the drop of water, the tear of heaven; transfiguring a leaf with a bejeweled droplet as the constellations of the Milky-way seem to hover just above the flagstones.





                                                                        Copyright 2003 Peter Nesteruk