Archeology of The Present

For her next project, Maria took a temporary job as a chambermaid in a large midtown hotel. The point was to gather information about the guests, but not in any intrusive or compromising way. She intentionally avoided them in fact, restricting herself to what could be learned from the objects scattered about their rooms. …It was an archeology of the present, so to speak, an attempt to reconstitute the essence of something from only the barest fragments: …Paul Auster Leviathan

Their names were Carla and Roberto. I learned this from the welcome sign in the kitchen. I also knew that Moretti is their family name. That was the name on the Post-Its that I found in one of the drawers. Professor Roberto Moretti. Maybe Professor Carla Moretti too.*

A few years ago I stayed in their apartment in Florence and came to know them in this rather indirect fashion. Each day I learned something more and each time I looked at something that I thought I had seen before, I realized it was something new. One day I noticed there were psychiatric journals in the upstairs family room. Maybe Professor Moretti was a psychiatrist. Or maybe Carla was and they shared an office together.

I was not surprised that Roberto and maybe Carla were professors. The number of books in their apartment was enormous. In practically every room, there were floor to ceiling bookcases full of learned texts in music, art, philosophy, literature and several major reference sets and collections of fine editions. In the music room, there was also a grand piano. Perhaps that was Carla’s. Or maybe they both played the piano. That was more likely from the looks of things around there.

Most of the books, however, were literary masterpieces--all the classic novels, many contemporary ones from every nation, all beautifully bound in Italian editions. I looked about this place and asked: Have they really read all of this stuff? I also bemoaned the fact that I did not know Italian. Ces’t la vie.

“…it was fascinating to see the different ways people arranged themselves, and how much you could infer about their lives from a few objects.”
Peter Stamm Seven Years

What can one learn about a person from the place they live in, by looking at the objects they have put on their shelves and in their drawers, as well as the photographs and paintings that they put up on the walls? They are the traces of their life that they have left in their home, traces that reveal a great deal about anyone in any place or time. The traces are real, they are brought into their homes and put somewhere by someone. They are not secondary accounts, or someone’s recollections, or something you might be told if you asked about them.

This place clearly belonged to a learned family. I had no idea how old they were, but that was not important. I knew they had a family, or at least two children, whose beautifully framed photographs were hung on the walls of their bedroom.

Their daughter was shown at various stages of her life, from a young child, through adolescence and as mature women. She was in a reflective mood in one photograph. Her dark eyes were framed by equally dark shoulder length hair. Her wide forehead and full lips told me that she would not be easily swayed.

Nearby were three photos of what must surely was her brother. He was also shown at various stages of his life. In the most recent he had a full head of curly hair, was wearing glasses and appeared to be a most studious fellow just like everyone else in this family.

There was also a picture of a nicely dressed young man and woman, caught in an informal embrace. They were smiling and I thought was surely Carla and Roberto around the time they were married. What a handsome couple they were! They reminded me a bit of how my wife and I looked when we were setting out together.

Their apartment is in the university section of the Florence, although I thought they did not teach there. If they did, surely they would be living in the apartment. I sensed that there was more that was hidden from me.

Why didn’t they live there? Their apartment was furnished so beautifully, with a fully equipped kitchen, two bedrooms and ample space for entertaining. Perhaps they fell on hard times and had to move to more modest quarters. But then again, perhaps they simply needed a place that had more bookshelves.

* To protect their privacy, I have used fictitious names.