Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted his fresco of “Good Government” in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico 700 years ago. Workers run scythes over the hills outside the city walls. Orange shingles rise and fall like dust swirling in the wind. Burnt sienna roofs cut into green Tuscan hills that roll into farmland, vineyards and wineries. Lorenzetti’s landscape looks like the Siena of today. The same green hills swell into purple mountains in the distance. The cobblestone walls still snake around a city of convoluted alleyways.
I never figured out the streets. One main thoroughfare leads you through the city but to get to the monuments takes extra effort. You can’t just see a building, decide you want to go there and walk towards it. You’ll get lost in serpentine trails of cobblestone that will break the soles of your shoes and you’ll wind up going back the way you came.
The stones are immobile. Nothing grows or decays. The water flows from aqueducts built centuries ago. The feeling of your historical insignificance hovers over you when you look at Siena from a rooftop. Old palazzos, old belfries, old air. You imagine that a thousand years ago the air was just as dry, the mountains just as purple, the cobblestones just as unyielding. It’s not the kind of age I’m used to. It’s the weight of centuries, of ancient human bodies being buried under green hills and rotting and turning to soil raked by the scythes of their descendants. It’s the weight of a plague that killed half the city in the Middle Ages and a war that scarred its people seventy years ago.
I couldn’t grasp this historical heaviness. I didn’t matter to Siena. Its streets could have swallowed me up and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
But the people of Siena have made some difference. The city has headed somewhere since its founding, even if it’s unclear just where. When you talk to today’s locals, they will tell you how something like the Palio evolved to its present form. The Palio, a race held every year in the public square, dates back to the 1200s, when citizens raced their haltered cows across a grassy field. Now it’s horses that gallop around cobblestone streets matted with a layer of dirt. It took 800 years of citizens to make that change from cow to horse, grass to dirt. They counted for something.
The 118 Freeway in Los Angeles is a rich historical monument, but not for the same reasons. An outsider will find nothing in it. To him it is just a freeway, wider than most, rutted in parts. But when I drive along the 118, I discover a collection of selves: There is me when I am five in a booster seat; when I am twelve; when I am eighteen and have my own car. My memories have turned the 118 into something more than just a freeway. When I take the curved overpass and see the San Fernando Valley sprawled out before me, I feel I matter in some way. Who else would be there at that moment to see the tract homes bathed in smog? Sometimes I think that without me the 118’s leaden gray layers would dissolve into the air, stripped of any purpose.
In the absence of a historical narrative, you matter immensely. You carve out your own biographical space in a city where nothing happens. There are no military victories to celebrate or great churches to help bridge the gap between now and before. Instead, there are freeways and trees, parked cars and fences. They compose my history. I could tell you about the time I trespassed onto the Knollwood Country Club Golf Course by myself and ran in the sprinklers and felt more alone than I’ve ever felt since. I could show you the bend in Pineridge Street that leads you away from the setting sun and back to it. But I couldn’t tell you the history of my neighborhood of Granada Hills. There is only the history of myself. There is neither urgency nor inevitability to any of it. It has no epochal sweep. This history depends on whether I decide to write my name in wet cement, or pull leaves off a hedge.
In Granada Hills, you can sometimes smell a metallic odor. The collective trash of Los Angeles putrefies in the Sunshine Canyon Landfill and the odor wafts down to the people in the valley below. If it’s really bad, you can call a professional smeller who comes to your street to record the smell. “Smells like the dump all right,” he says. He takes down some notes and leaves. They say there’s going to be a class action suit and all those notes will matter to someone.
The waste will never be put to good use. It won’t be buried underground or made into fertilizer. The people of the San Fernando Valley probably can’t even make money off a lawsuit. There is only an enormous landfill situated atop a hill and its passing odor.
We have not built any burnt sienna churches or painted any grand frescos. Buildings crop up out of nowhere and get torn down again without explanation. The recurring wildfires lose their terrifying power to destroy a city’s history when there is no history to destroy.
When you drive along the 118 at 80 miles per hour, you feel light as air. You’re the only person living, the only person driving this way. You are racing the other drivers to the edge of the freeway, to the ocean. You get out of your car and face away from the waves breaking against the shore. The water recedes, the foam dissolves. The sand drips away and only your feet remain, planted on the beach as long as you can hold them there. The sand yields to the shape of your feet, yours alone, and leaves an impression. The water washes over and it disappears.