Squaring the Circle

Newsletter 40 (26 April 2019)

Waking in Camigliano I can hear buzz-saws snarling down in the valley. A team of woodcutters, probably Albanian, is at work thinning down the trees of the macchia, mostly the tough Mediterranean holm-oaks, Quercus ilex. The logs will be left to mature and then piled up in huge lorry-loads, to make perfect firewood for pizza ovens all over Italy. Montalcino, Monte-ilcino, our local town, means hill of the ilex.

   Above me are three long travi running the length of the room, supported by a thick cross-beam, and supporting some sixty rafters or correnti, which in their turn support terracotta tiles, and above them a layer of insulation and another layer of tiles of two types, flat and curved. Exactly similar tiles are to be found in the museums of Roman and Etruscan artefacts. This room was added after the war, and it was found that one of the long beams was rotten (cut down at the wrong time of the month according to builder Mario). He found a replacement (and the cross beam) in an eighteenth-century monastery that was being demolished. All this wood is castagna, sweet chestnut, the best wood for building, from the slopes of nearby Monte Amiata. The old bedroom at the other end of the house has a cross-beam that is black with age, goodness knows how old. The way to test if a beam is rotten is to give it a whack with an axe: if the beam is good, the axe will just bounce off.

   From the old bedroom window, when you throw open the shutters, is a magnificent view of Monte Amiata, with a tiny bit of snow still on its peak, some twenty miles away. And between us and the mountain there is every kind of Tuscan scenery; straight lines of vines, olives, a valley of macchia, cypresses, a fourteenth-century castle now owned by an American winery,hill towns and villages in the far distance.

   If you go to a drawing or painting class, at some time you may be asked to take a postcard, draw lines from corner to corner and then mark and cut out a rectangle perhaps five centimetres long by four centimetres wide. If you use the diagonals as guides your rectangular hole will be a small replica of the A6 postcard, which is itself a quarter of A4, following the exact ratio of the international paper sizes used in most countries of the world. (If this interests you, there is a learned article in Wikipedia on the maths and history of ‘Paper Size’.)  Through this empty rectangle, this frame, you can view the world as if it were a picture. The world no longer sprawls continuously around, without shape or contrast, but things come into relationships with each other. There is form and pattern; there is the choice of adjustment, and the adjustment of choice. A slovenly wilderness becomes a landscape. (This way of looking is also achieved by seeing the world through the viewfinder of a camera, or on the screen of a smartphone.) Held vertically, the rectangular hole is ‘portrait’, the name used by printers to define the layout on a page.

   In an art gallery, most landscapes are ‘landscape’ and most portraits are ‘portrait’, though of course there is no necessity about this, and there are many square and even some circular pictures. Many of these last are very memorable. In the Uffizi, for example, there is Botticelli’s ‘The Madonna of the Pomegranate’, and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (his only surviving panel painting). Maybe these images are easily remembered simply because they are unusual, out of the ordinary. Or perhaps we are drawn to the perfection of their circularity, and the way this encloses the figures.

   In our homes we are surrounded by straight lines, and our windows all offer rectangular arrangements of the outside world: ‘what a lovely view of the mountain’ we say. Few of us have round windows in our houses. Building materials tend to come with straight edges, and don’t often cope well with curves. In churches the plain oculus, the eye of God, and then wheel windows and rose windows are common enough, often as spectacular features dominating the west fronts of cathedrals.

   Perfect circles and straight lines do occur in the natural world, but they have to be sought out. Our bodies have no visible straight lines or perfect circles. In Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian man, a naked man is set within a square and a circle, but his proportions are not exactly matched to the geometrical figures; nor do the square and the circle coincide with each other. The perfections of geometry and the straight lines of architecture are products of the human imagination. So also are international paper sizes.

   Trees aspire upwards towards the sun, and are sometimes remarkably straight. In the deep and quiet forests of the Amiata there are stately chestnuts, highly prized, that contain the beams and rafters of future rooms, in houses still to be built in the old ways.