14 September 2011

About Palimpsest

Palimpsest is the technical word for an ancient or medieval manuscript on which earlier writing was scraped off the animal-skin pages in order to reuse the vellum for another text. But often the earlier writing can still be deciphered, shadow-like, beneath the more recent over-writing. In fact, several ancient texts have been preserved only through their under-written traces in a palimpsest. Hence, the erasure of earlier writing represents both a destruction and a mode of survival.

In Italian, the word palinsesto is commonly used with the wider sense of any sort of historical layering in which older stages still peer through later changes or renovations, leaving fragmentary tracks and traces and echoes – as in the architecture of towns such as Orvieto where the outlines of medieval window frames may still be visible in buildings remodeled in Renaissance styles. Or in the street tabernacle on Via del Duomo where the crown and necklace are all that remain of the frescoed Madonna. Palimpsests can offer tantalizing clues and inspiration whenever people wish to reconnect with earlier moments of a tradition that seems in danger of dissolution, decay, fragmentation.