Rome’s Appian Way (leading to the southeast to the coast)—once called Regina Viarum and today Appia Antica—was built in the 3rd century B.C. following the Roman conquest of the south and the opening towards Greece and the East. Sepulcral monuments of every social class as well as magnificent palaces were built along its way. Later, in Christian time, catacombs and Christian temples were built, often using columns and stones taken from ancient monuments. During the Middle Ages, Appia Antica fell into oblivion and decay.
In 1516 the painter Raphael complained, to Pope Leo X, of the destruction of Roman antiquities and called for the preservation of monuments, among them the Appian Way. Since the 18th century, Appia Antica has become a celebrated and visited site. Its ruins of impressive sepulchral architecture and temples have inspired many painters (Piranesi, François Morel, Giacomo Bassi, G.B. Busiri, Carlo Labruzzi, Hubert Robert, J.P. Hackert, and others) and writers (including Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Stendhal). Goethe wrote in his diary in 1786 “…today I visited the sepulchral ruins on the Via Appia and Cecilia Metalla’s Tomb…Those men truly worked for eternity and have foreseen everything except the pillage and plunder of those who followed, and who devastated all that was created before them.”
Appia Antica has survived centuries of pillage and destruction but its preservation and protection remained an unsolved problem until the Ministry of Culture made Appia Antica a protected park. To induce visitors to respect and protect the site, a committee of experts commissioned by regional governments asked contemporary artists to create works related to it.
The first complete work is by the Japanese sculptor Hidetoschi Nagasawa (who has lived and worked in Milan since 1967). Nagasawa created an installation titled Abeona Garden (1997) in the Ex-Cartiera Latina (an abandoned 19th-century paper mill). “Abeona” is the name of an ancient Roman goddess, and in Latin, abe-ire means “to depart.” The journey and the garden are constant elements in Nagasawa’s work, especially the Japanese idea of a garden, which included the cosmos.
Nagasawa has covered the inside walls with white paper scrolls which hand from the ceiling. At the juncture between walls and ceiling are seven schematic brass boats, another recurrent theme in Nagasawa’s work. Inside the building Nagasawa built an enclosure with seven walls, about 2.5 meters high and 3.5 meters long each, and one doorway. The enclosure’s shape differs according to the angle of view. The exterior of the structure is covered with bitumen and illuminated by light form the high windows, reflected from the white paper scrolls. Sides with views of the Appian way are projected against the black wall of the enclosure.
The visitor walks into the structure as into a dark labyrinth, a space which can only be felt, not seen. A path spirals towards the center, through the interior walls covered with wax, its warm gold-yellow color inspiring silence and intimacy. Seven broken black stones (from Appia Antica) reinforce the feeling of being in a Japanese Zen garden and the idea of a landscape as the projection of the cosmos.
In Nagasawa’s work the double is always present: external versus internal; shadow versus light; pause versus journey; limited versus infinite; action versus meditation. Nagasawa’s own works communicate the spell of Abeona Garden. “When you are in the inside, and then go out, or if you picture yourself in another part of the enclosure, it is not another person that goes in or stays out; you are but looking for your self.”