Less earthy and primitive yet abundant with their own adventurous textures and inclines are the stairscapes of Italian hilltowns such as Sorano and Perugia, Urbino and Ostuni. Magnificent flights plunge and cascade through slots carved from a dense urban mass, each inciting a distinct gait that may unexpectedly slow or quicken, constrict or broaden, bending at times into soft curves or sharp angles or splitting into multiple streams with contrasting direction and character, some steeply rising to the dwellings above.
An ever-shifting pace of steps eliminates all routine motion and each newly emerging rhythm keeps the climber awake and involved. Each part of the leg, complementing the balancing forces of a twisting torso and swinging arms, is synchronized in a complex yet highly creative act in space, turning locomotion into a precious moment of being. The result is a kind of rapture in which the combination of ‘adventure, fun, wonder, risk and ordeal’, to apply the words of Diane Ackerman in Deep Play, elicits ‘a cyclone of intense alertness, a marginally frightening state in which I exist entirely in the tense present and feel quintessentially alive’.26
Even when appearing flat, the hilltown floor, like the earth, is generally sloped to some degree, its periphery further disturbed by folding terrain at building thresholds. Similarly, the memorable presence of an Italian piazza can derive as much from a distinguished gradient underfoot as from the shape of enclosing walls: consider the steep, fan-shaped bowl of the Piazza del Campo in Siena (p. 30), the southerly slant of the Piazza Grande in Arezzo or the inclined stone carpet of Montepulciano’s own Piazza Grande, all breaking into multiple tilts around the edge. While strolling over a floor that ‘slants down just a little, so little that it is not noticeable to the eye’, as Bachelard notes in Air and Dreams, ‘you will find wings growing, little wings on your feet, your heel will have just enough light, delicate … energy to let you fly. With a very simple movement, your heel will change the descent into an ascent, the walk into a soaring.’27
Giving an unforgettable character to each phase of stair is the unique incline and course of its steps, inviting an equally unique kinesthetic experience. One supple winding flight contains alternating counter-curves in opposite directions. Another forms a plunging cascade, gaily covered with laundry and bouquets of flowers and lined at either side with small ledges for doorsteps, whose startling pauses and syncopations slow down and disrupt movement. Nearby is a rough chasm that rips diagonally across the hillside in a series of abrupt angles, giving the climb a staccato beat. Just around the corner is an intersection of multiple stairs, whose tangle of lines spreads into faster and slower increments, while quivering back and forth in minor directional shifts. In each footpath it is not so much the steps themselves that challenge and reward human action, but their uniquely shaped vectors and evolving surprises that keep the climber engaged.
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Evidently something beyond the physical realm, and exceeding vision, has been introduced to and now pervades the inclines of this village. Unlike the inactive floors of conventional decorating, Sperlonga’s floors are permeated with heightened forces and tensions of gravity. Appearing not to the eye but to the body in motion are active gravitational currents within the air along each cascade, streams of forces into which we bodily enter and take part while travelling through them.
To borrow an analogy from quantum theory, wherever the ground is broken open and made incomplete it is, in a sense, no longer inert and static. The ground is transformed from a neutral object into a magnetic region, like an atom whose outer ‘valence shell’ has been ‘destabilized’ and ‘ionized’ by an input of energy that enlivens the element and gives it the power to move, change and interact with others. Correspondingly every juncture and cascade of ground along an indeterminate slope is suffused with its own unique gravitational currents, a voltage that may be invisible but is nonetheless so tangible we can anticipate its presence and carry its experience in the memory of our muscles. We feel currents seize hold of the body, as if entering a moving river, and sense the way it resists or transports us as we climb through its force field. We sense an accelerating tug as we plummet through air to levels below and a backward drag as we spring to higher levels above.