Friday, January 9, 2015

Rome and Goa - at home and abroad

Hanging out with an Italian friend one evening some years ago I remarked on how there seemed to be an inordinate number of Italians in Goa those days. In response the Italian responded that it wasn’t that strange really, Goa reminded a number of Italians of how Italy used to be. Unfortunately, we never got down to exploring what he meant by that remark and I subsequently spent years trying to figure out what exactly he had meant by the similarity between the Italy of the old days and contemporary Goa.

I made some progress towards understanding what he had possibly meant when I was hosting a Portuguese friend in Goa a year ago. Once again, this friend commented on how while there was much of Goa that reminded him of Portugal, there was a lot in Goa that reminded him of Italy as well. It was then that the penny dropped for me and I was able to fathom what the Italian had probably meant.

There are a good many people who refer to the traditional architecture of Goa as Portuguese architecture. Slap the label Portuguese before a house and the house instantly commands a greater price on the real-estate market than it would without that label. The problem, however, lies in the fact that there is nothing exactly like a Goan house form in Portugal. There are elements that are similar, yes, but the form that houses in Goa take are quite substantially different from those that populate the Portuguese landscape.

The architectural historian Paulo Varela Gomes has an interesting argument that he makes in the context of churches in Goa, but could be well applied to houses in Goa too. In his book Whitewash, Red Stone Gomes argues that while many churches in Goa look Portuguese, they are in fact nothing of the sort; these churches are entirely Goan. These churches were designed by Goans, and the arrangement of their architectural elements, both within the church building and on its façade are peculiar to Goa. One does not find a similar arrangement anywhere in Europe. Calling these churches, Portuguese is to do a great injustice not only to these churches, but to the genius of the Goans who designed and erected them.

Just as with churches, so too with houses in Goa. The initial grand houses in the city of Goa may have stayed true to Portuguese forms, but the subsequent house forms in Goa are more than mere Portuguese copies, rather they are the result of an intelligent engagement with European forms and their rearticulation in the local context.

It was this engagement, not with Portugal alone, but with a larger European form that made my Portuguese friend recall Italy when he encountered the homes in Goa. He pointed out that even the most humble home in Goa had very noble proportions. While this friend may have been exaggerating slightly, since a number of the homes of poorer Goans were basic forms, there was an element of truth to his observation. Even when one is encountering the humbler forms of Goan houses, those that were built by not from rent from estates but from hard labour overseas, there is still an elegance of form. 

While still open to debate, it is my belief that these proportions come to us via the architectural forms articulated by imperial Rome, by such architects as Vitruvius. The Roman connection should not come to us as a surprise since so much of building form whether in Europe, or the city of Old Goa, took inspiration from Rome.  Just like Lisbon, the city of Goa, was designed to be another Rome. Rome’s importance lay in the fact that it was the seat of empire, and even subsequent to the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome remained a symbol for imperial power. It was not just the Portuguese João V who sought to model Lisbon on Rome, but the Russian emperor, the Ottoman sultan, who all strived to live up to the Roman model. In this sense then, long after the Empire disappeared, Mother Lupa continued to sustain and nourish her children across the globe.

It was this Roman form that Goans engaged with, either directly through imitation of extant buildings, or possibly through engagement with texts that rearticulated Roman forms. It is a common misconception that it was just Portuguese who established themselves in early modern Goa. While held under the sovereign power of the Portuguese crown, the city of Goa and the state around it played host to a wide variety of groups, some European, others not. What the native Goans engaged with, therefore, was not just Portuguese, but a number of cultural traditions. The most important architectural tradition of these was an imperial Roman tradition incarnated locally.  It is perhaps this Roman tradition that Italians probably cotton on to when they arrive in Goa. Or perhaps it could be the manic way in which life operates in Goa, a manic energy that, if one is to believe the stories, is not so different from that which animates the Italian peninsula.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 10 Jan 2015)

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