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What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella

STIR looks into the reading habits of leading creatives – Italian architect Mario Cucinella reveals his favourite bits from his recent read, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.

by STIRworldPublished on : Nov 02, 2022

Name of the book you are currently reading.

Mario Cucinella: I am almost through with the Memorie di Adriano (Memoirs of Hadrian)

Who is the author? 

Mario: This is a novel by the Belgian-born French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, about the life and death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. She took 30 years to finish writing this book!

What is the genre? 

Mario: History, historical novel, and philosophical fiction.

Do you judge a book by its cover?

Mario: Sometimes, but not always. I do pick up books every now and then with attractive covers, but usually, I follow my to-be-read lists, titles recommended by people, or those mentioned in films or interviews, as well as online and zine reviews. Some are also allied reading material for research on my projects. Few books also have mentions of other books, so I try to maintain that chain on occasion.

Mario Cucinella, founder of Mario Cucinella Architects posing with his recent read | What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella | STIRworld
Mario Cucinella, founder of Mario Cucinella Architects posing with his recent read Image: Courtesy of Mario Cucinella

What made you pick it up? Can you highlight any notable aspect of the book's design aesthetics, typography, images…

Mario: Just the fact that the author took 30 years to write this book. So incredible, her labour of love written for the world to see. To write this story about the Roman emperor, Yourcenar vicariously studied document after document, transcripts, and all available information she could amass on her subject, in order to write it in first person, as Hadrian's memories and life journey, as the title suggests. As the book progresses, the reader almost feels like he is in the Roman regions and settings being described in the book, from Mesopotamia to Iran and North Africa.

Your most favourite part(s) of it? 

Mario: It all feels very personal, rather than just being a historical trajectory. The protagonist was a man who held so much power, it's almost unperceivable to us in this age, and exercised intellect and cultural growth in his reign. I was highly impressed by the way the author painted the life of a Roman emperor down to the smallest of details, the mundane everyday tasks, to give a very personal, detailed insight into his life, almost like a well-written biography.

Front cover of Memorie di Adriano (Memoirs of Hadrian) by author Marguerite Yourcenar | What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella | STIRworld
Front cover of Memorie di Adriano (Memoirs of Hadrian) by author Marguerite Yourcenar Image: Courtesy of Mario Cucinella

A lot of what the protagonist is feeling is sentimental, and ascribes to a contemporary human nature – we do feel the way we did centuries ago – feelings of power, passion, insecurity, war, leadership, personal relationships, exhaustion, love, sadness, all of it. However, our world has progressed with technology and political systems, what we are and how we feel have remained eerily related.

There are also sections of the book designated to that epoch's architecture, which was fascinating to learn. It seemed like I was reviewing a blueprint of the cities and infrastructures of today, through the approaches the Roman Empire took those many years ago. How building regions through public infrastructures and feats of engineering equated to furthering and developing societies. It wasn't just a show of authority and dominance, or politics, it was also visionary. I am not an imperialist, but it was fascinating to learn their methodologies and practises, which brought in trade and transfer of cultures, and how that evolved to modern societies. At one point, the Roman empire became so vast, with different countries and cultures and languages and religions existing as minorities under one rule.

Some of Cucinella's favourite and highlighted passages from the Memoirs of Hadrian | What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella | STIRworld
Some of Cucinella's favourite and highlighted passages from the Memoirs of Hadrian Image: Courtesy of Mario Cucinella

Another interesting part was that this emperor almost never lived his life in Rome! He spent his life in Spain, then lived in Germany for three years, before going to Egypt, then Persia, and so on. And in those times, humans were constantly migrating, finding new lands or mixing with existing cultures. It is only now that we have made a construct of settling down in one place.

Did you gain any insight or did it help you unwind? 

Mario: I don’t think this book is meant to relax you. It is quite intense. But it did provide insights. For instance, this quote that lands home because of my daily vocation – “To build is to collaborate with the earth." Think about how true it holds even today! This person said this some two centuries after Christ, and how pertinent it still is. We do need to be building structures and spaces in cooperation with our Earth. We talk so much of sustainability in the global architecture and design circuit today, of building with nature, respecting it, preserving it.

Another interesting but controversial input he shares is that of justifying wars, of how the resources and money gathered from pillaging went into building the cities they built, with designed water systems, bridges, and other structures that furthered civilisation. How building infrastructures build the people. These natural human sentiments and connections with the past were truly fascinating to unearth through this book.

Mario Cucinella pictured against his bookshelf | What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella | STIRworld
Mario Cucinella pictured against his bookshelf Image: Courtesy of Mario Cucinella

He was more than an emperor, as the book is also an ode to Hadrian the architect, the builder, who drew inspiration for buildings from his faraway travels to Babylon, Egypt, and beyond, creating plans himself, and focusing on using vernacular materials, as a contemporary architect would. He built the marvellous Villa Adriana, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tivoli, Italy, outside Rome. His retreat of retirement is designed so beautifully, focusing the built fabric around water, music, sculptures, art and his own life, which also became building materials in a way. Read this quote for instance: “In the evenings the art of building gave way to that of music, which is architecture, too, though invisible.” This villa is considered one of the most amazing architectural samples of that time, and still is, I believe. The book portrays his vision for the home, and how sensitively he built it in harmony with the natural context, it was a pleasure to read.

Your favourite lines to quote from the book. 

Mario: “To build is to collaborate with the earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby…To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future… My cities were born of encounters… Each building stone was the strange concretion of a will, a memory, and sometimes a challenge. Each structure was the chart of a dream… I have wanted to live as much as possible in the midst of this music of forms.”

Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.” ― Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

“The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead…”

At what time of the day do you read? 

Mario: I am usually exhausted after a day’s work, so I am unable to focus on reading in the evening. So I read for an hour or two in the morning, or over weekends, I am able to absorb and register the book much better this way. Work doesn’t let me do that on most weekdays, unfortunately. That’s why I am a slow reader. I also get a lot of reading done while I am travelling.

The Memoirs of Hadrian follows the life  and death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian |  What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella | STIRworld
The Memoirs of Hadrian follows the life and death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian Image: Courtesy of Mario Cucinella

Hard books, e-books or audio/video books?

Mario: I prefer paperbacks to hardcovers as they are easier to thumb through, more travel friendly and do not feel too much like an object. Having said that, I will also pick up a book to read, instead of listening to it or watching its adaptation on video —the entire experience of reading a book, for me, is sacred, of bringing alive empires and relationships and stories to life in my mind, as opposed to being spoon fed emotions and visuals through the medium of audio or video. It is wonderful how you and I could be reading the same book but imagine its characters and settings in our own way, which ceases to exist when we watch the same film, in some way. We may react to it differently, but the source material is interpreted in the same format for us. Reading books is a great exercise for our imaginations, and some also become a refuge in a way.

I am more analogue than digital. I like coming back to bookmarked pages instead of tapping a screen. We are downgrading our imaginative prowess with these minute-long clips on social media that we are bombarded with. Our attention spans have visibly reduced and we have trained ourselves to consume these short dopamine bursts that are in the long run, unhealthy. We end up wasting time instead of doing things with intention.

Cucinella shares books he plans to read next, placed on his coffee table | What Am I Reading: Mario Cucinella | STIRworld
Cucinella shares books he plans to read next, placed on his coffee table Image: Courtesy of Mario Cucinella

I am beginning to warm up to audiobooks though —they are fantastic to listen to while I am driving, or on a flight, mainly while I am travelling. It seems like less of an effort. I like the format of short stories as well as the idea of someone reading poetry to me. It’s a delicate art form, poetry, and I enjoy listening to them in a podcast format, instead of reading them in ink and paper.

One book or book adaptation as a film that you always want to go back to, and why?

Mario: I have always been a little disappointed with film or TV adaptations of books, as I mentioned before —adapting the written word to stories is personal— you would write a different screenplay for a book based on your imagination, while someone else has conjured a different aesthetic and setting altogether. So it’s tricky. Often, writers also try to simplify and distil a lot of intricate details to fit a common narrative on film, which takes away the complexity of characters and situations. I am not saying it has never been done to perfection, but it is difficult and remains subjective.

Look up more such interesting reads from the series ‘What Am I Reading’ and watch out for more.

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