Slobodan Dan Paich  Comparative Culture Papers

Presented September 26-28, 2011 at the European Regional Congress of AISV-IAVS
Lisbon, Portugal

Semiotic of Space, Space of Semiotic

Director and Principal Researcher

Artship Foundation, San Francisco, USA

Past with Poetic License

Keywords: Semiotics, Architecture, Paladio, Canopus, Artship


Three examples give an opportunity to discuss the merits and limits of architectural reconstructions and interpretations communicating a specific meaning. The plurality and multiplicity of signs in an architectural space and ambivalent reading of images are of great interest in this discourse.

Teatro Olympico

The first example of multiple and even contradictory readings of programmatic intention and special arrangement is Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1580), which was conceived of and designed by Andrea Palladio and finished after his death by Vincenzo Scamozzi. Of interest for this paper are the ramifications of an imaginative sixteenth century indoor reconstruction of the principles of ancient Roman outdoor theaters.

In 1556, Accademia Olimpica was founded in Vicenza, northern Italy by twenty-one leading citizens. It was a learned society and the architect Andrea Palladio was one of its founding members. Accademia Olimpica, as a Renaissance civic cultural institution, was inspired by the Florentine model of the Platonic Academy, itself inspired by civic institutions in ancient Athens.

Vicenza's Olympic Academy's central public endeavor was the production of theatrical performances, often reconstruction of Greek and Roman plays. The initial performances took place in the Casa Academica, the home of the learned society. It became evident that these premises were not suitable for performances evoking civic pride and communal gatherings of earlier historic periods. Following the construction of a number of temporary wooden stages at different locations throughout the town after 1556, the Olympic Academy was able in 1579 to secure space for a full reconstruction of a Roman theatre. The construction began in 1580. Paladio's plans and design were for a permanent theatre building that adopted the Roman circular theatre type to occupy the irregular site of the Castello del Territorio, an old fortification that served as a prison and gun-powder storage, and then was abandoned for a period of time. The topographical difference of actual and ideal, ancient and Renaissance notions of space and civic gathering bring out the issues of coexistence of two communicative functions of space in one building: the classical allusion and the poetic reality of the space.

Palladio studied and applied some of the principals from the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius' The Ten Books of Architecture, published in the first century BC. Paladio, a practicing architect for more than half a century, was inspired throughout his life by Vitruvius. The Roman architect's writings and ancient ruins were Paledio's anchor; he carefully studied, rendered and re-rendered both in his remarkable drawings. Palladio's study and non-verbal spatial interpretations of Vitruvius through his designs for the Teatro Olimpico are among the reasons for and the starting point of this inquiry. Beyond site restrictions that influence the tectonic solutions and spatial forming, there are also Renaissance societal values and the poetic, idiosyncratic spatial gestures of the architect. The interplay of Vitruvian principles, site restrictions, societal needs and the artist's decisions create intriguing multi-layered messages in the Teatro Olimpico's space.

Vitruvius, in Book V, Chapter VI of The Ten Books of Architecture, describes the conceptual constriction of the Ancient Roman theatre as a zodiac. He advises the builders to first draw a circle and then inscribe four equilateral triangles at regular intervals in a manner similar to astrologers drawing their circular charts. So from the start, a configuration of the Roman theater is infused with a signifier of meaning, a programmatic intention that makes the public-civic space legible through culturally shared signs and symbols: a diagram of the annual procession of constellations. In the twelve pointed ordering, seven are for the audience and five for the performance areas. Once this meaning is mapped out, the agreement of seating, performance area, acoustic properties and circulation are adjusted to the constellation's diagram. It is interesting to ask an open question: What kind of reading and ongoing relationship did ancient citizens have to the familiar public space with the knowledge that it was based on a diagram of the zodiac?

This aspect of Roman theater planning was familiar to the members of Accademia Olimpica in sixteenth-century Vicenza. Palladio's brief was to design an accurate reconstruction of the Roman theatre on the cramped and oddly shaped site of the old fortress. To accomplish this, Palladio had to transform the seven part semicircular seating area of the Roman theatre and the five-part area for the stage into an ellipse as a response to the long, but not very deep space. This acceptance and adjustment to the site is the first strong spatial signifier felt throughout the project. Even if a visitor had not read or known Vitruvius, but had experienced the archaeological remains of Roman and Greek theaters, Teatro Olimpico would dazzle by the make-believe quality of spatial arrangements that are and are not an ancient theatre. The bodily reading of the space's uniqueness is available to connoisseurs and visitors coming upon it for the first time. The idiosyncratic quality becomes its spatial signature.

One of many aspects of the Teatro Olimpico's riches is a response to the Renaissance ideal of a theatre that is not only governed by its play, but also by the rationale of a renaissance perspective.

Licisco Magagnato, in his article The Genesis Of The Teatro Olimpico, writes, "Profound historical needs lie behind that type of Renaissance stage." L. Magagnato argues that the emergence of the new type of stage scenery perfected at the beginning of the sixteenth century corresponds to a shift in the history of the drama both as literary form and as spectacle, a shift that is equally interested in the literary form of the play and in the architectural and scenic settings. L. Magagnato writes:

To the passage from sacra rappresentazione to humanist drama corresponds the passage from the medieval scene, made up of separate elements, which lasted to the late fifteenth century to the scene conceived organically in terms of perspective. [1]

The completion of the building of the Teatro Olimpico achieved the fulfilment of the vision of humanist scholars, artists, architects and architectural theorists of the Renaissance, providing the embodiment of and fascination with the form and programmatic underpinning of the building of the classical theatre.

The completed building, with its three-dimensional trompe l'oeil perspective scenery, transcends mere reconstruction and becomes punctuation for the history of theater and scenic presentations. It opens the doors for the illusionist proscenium arch of more modern theaters, but also becomes a spatial architectural performance of the Renaissance worldview with a classical building type underpinning it. The Teatro Olimpico's unmovable scenery - the illusionist three-dimensional cityscape, the painted sky on the ceiling, the fully sculpted architectural palace-like facade - serve as a background to the performance, while the elongation of the circular zodiacal program and, above all, Paladio's artistic and non-verbal poetic ability makes this building more of a spatial provocation for cultural enjoyment, a landmark of history, than a usable theatre.

In reading the space, the members of Accademia Olimpica in Paladio's time may have been aware of all the similarities and differences to the ancient prototype, the Renaissance architectural ideals and the function of rational perspective. Some of them may have lamented the difference Paladio had to make; others may have relished in the illusion achieved. The learned and educated visitors and users of subsequent pre-industrial centuries may have cherished different aspects of the theatre. One example is the acoustics afforded by the shape of the elliptical colonnade enclosing the seating arrangement and the ceiling catching the sound bouncing from the architectural backdrop on the stage. Others may enjoy the intimacy of the spectator to the stage in spite and because of the architectural backdrop. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century visitors my have marvelled at Italian Renaissance genius, and Paladio's in particular. Pre-computer age visitors, enjoying the increased ease and ability to travel, brought more exposure to the building, giving people a general sense of the sophistication, intricacy and attention to detail of previous centuries. The generation entirely bred on computers and virtual realties are given a layered experience of a real place with strong intention, but with an artful illusion of cunning quality. The history of different readings of the same space is of particular interest here for the sake of opening the discourse on history, systematic observation and documentary collection of reactions to a space as a possible contribution to the field of semiotics of space.


The audacity to reconstruct an aspect of the Nile between 131-138 AD in the vicinity of Rome is a tribute to the imagination of Hadrian, emperor/architect. The project is soaked in Hadrian's lament and grief for his friend who drowned in the actual Canopus near Alexandria in Egypt. The Canopus is also a celebration of other parts of the world as trophies of Roman Imperial possessions. The villa/palace complex, greatly plundered throughout the centuries, is still impressive. The Canopus complex and its water feature offer respite to contemporary travellers. The make-believe garden enactment of Canopus with architectural elements and its shallow body of water is a unique space representing the navigable canal in ancient Egypt that connected the main branch of the Nile with Alexandria. Herodotus refers to Canopus as a functioning port with ancient, possibly pre-classical Greek trade route connections.

In Hadrian's villa, the canal is only approximately a hundred and thirty yards or a hundred and twenty meters long. One can behold it in one glance. It is a space full of layers of meaning of its own while evoking and paying homage to the Egyptian water canal, urban space and associated sanctuary. A graceful semicircular open colonnade on one end edges Hadrian's Canopus. Today it contains remains of three fragmentary sculptures: one of a warrior sometimes referred to as the god of war, Mars; then a figure of an Amazon; and most significantly a sculpture of a Nile crocodile. When approached from the main complexes of buildings slightly higher up, the colonnade frames and contextualizes the canal. The colonnade also gives the place its signature look. At the other end of the canal is a semicircular building that may possibly allude to the sanctuary of Serapis or Serapeum, also in the district of Canopus. In earlier centuries, The Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 BC to 30 AD) already promoted the Cult of Serapis as the Alexandrian divinity of deliverance and salvation. One of the sculptures found on the grounds of Hadrian's villa is a Romanized statue of Osiris, a god that dies and rises again. Hadrian deeply understood the reconciling, inter-cultural values of the cult of the Alexandrian Greco-Egyptian God Serapis and was a strong patron and protector of the cult. The Nile flooding and its presiding deity Isis-Sothis-Demeter were celebrated in the Serapeum of Hadrian's villa with a sculpture of composite goddess and the waterfall fountain powered by a sophisticated hydraulic system. The fountain drew water from a large cistern nearby on a higher elevation than the Serapeum and Canopus, affording the generous flow of the waterfall fountain. Antony Everitt, in his book Hadrian and the triumph of Rome (2009), writes about the possible significance of the Egyptian Conopus to The Roman Emperor:

Hadrian allowed himself some free time with Antinous. He relaxed at the Canopic canal, which ran from Alexandria to the port of Canopus. Although it was well known for a temple of Serapis where the sick could sleep overnight and hope for healing, the place was mostly notable for its disreputable pleasures.

A. Everitt also quotes the remarks of Strabo, the Greek travel writer and geographer:

Some writers go on to record the cures, and others the virtues of the oracles there. But to balance all this is the crowd of revellers who go down from Alexandria by the canal to the public festivals; for every day and every night it is crowded with people on boats who play the flute and dance without restraint and with extreme licentiousness, both men and women. [2]

Hadrian, retuning from a yearlong sojourn in Egypt where his best friend Antinous drowned in the waters of Canopus, began to finalize his gardens design of the model of Canopus with a number of particular private and public meanings. The more personal meaning of the Canopus-Serapeum complex at Hadrian's villa is that they became a memorial to Antinous — Hadrian's tribute and hope for the re-vivification and other-worldly peace of his friend's spirit — and possibly housed his tomb. The other more public meaning of Canopus and other parts of the villas were intended to evoke the grandeur of the Roman Empire. A. Everitt, earlier in his text, describes the extent of Hadrian's Villa's Intentions:

The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor built his villa at Tibur in wonderful fashion, and actually gave to parts of it names of provinces and places there, and called them, for example, the Lyceum, the Academy, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poecile, and Tempe. So that he might omit nothing, he even made a Hades. [3]

This amount of programmatic content in one place, both public and private, poses interesting questions:

The physical space of Hadrian's Villa is about one kilometer long and half a kilometer wide. It is definitely large for a country retreat. Yet, it is small as a symbolic model of the selected domains it represents in comparison to the empire's geography. Although the intended signifiers, including Canopus, point to greater realties beyond themselves, none, not even Hades, can singly or collectively represent an implied abstraction of space, a meta-space without any manifest or culturally created arrangements. This may be the threshold were inter-disciplinary connections stop affording semiotics of space its own disciplinary uniqueness and speculative contribution.

Passenger Cargo Ship

Redefined a historic 1940 passenger-cargo/military ship for public peacetime use and a cultural space, 1999-2004

Bulk cargo and trade

The space we are looking at is a ship, an ocean liner C3 type passenger cargo ship, designed by the United States Maritime Commission in the late 1930s and built in 1939 by Bethlehem Steel Company, Sparrows Point, Maryland. The design was not specific to any service or trade route, but was a general-purpose ship that could be modified for specific uses. The specific ship of this type that we are looking at, a C3 passenger cargo ship, was originally name Del Orleans. Out of three initial C3 passenger cargo ships, Del Orleans is the only one still in existence. She is the last of her kind. Of interest for this paper is how the ship's rich history, infused with a number of multiple meanings at the same time, opens questions of diachronic and simultaneous readings of space. From being a general-purpose ship that could be modified for any specific use, Del Orleans was licensed to Delta Lines Company to serve the US-South American trade. The ship took its first commercial/cruise trip in 1940 when it sailed from New Orleans to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina to bring coffee, fruit, Argentinean beef and passengers back to the US.

The constituencies that respond and identify with this period and aspect of the ship are retired longshoremen, merchant sailors, old sea captains and people who had family or trade ties to South America.

Art deco passenger facility

Compared to famous luxury liners of the time, such as the Normandie, Del Orleans appears as a modest example of Art Deco style. In fact, the ship's architecture was "calculated to satisfy the requirements of the most discriminating traveller." Thus, the passengers' comfort was a key architectural goal, achieved along simple, "modern" lines, from a statement by sea captain N. O. Pedrick, spokesman for the Delta Liners Company. There are two adjacent shared passengers' spaces that are of interest here:

  1. The ship's art deco lounge with its wood-panels carefully designed with simplicity to give a warm but geometric background to the large semi-circular sofas and marble fireplace. The Bakelite logs in the fireplace masked the air conditioning, which oozed cool air in the summer and hot air in the winter.
  2. The art deco salon originally, known as the Veranda Café, was a perfect example of American art-deco, with its semi-circular booths around circular tables, a small dance floor for tango, mirrors, murals and the practical use of aluminum fixtures.

Also, an art-deco staircase descended from the Veranda Café and connected it to the deck below, where there were twenty-four art-deco passenger staterooms.

The constituencies who were fascinated by and relished their time on the ship were admirers of art deco and collectors of related objects and clothing, and they would wear those clothes to come aboard the ship.

Troop carrier and combat vessel

The U.S. Navy commissioned the ship to serve in World War II from 1941 to 1948, re-naming it USS Crescent City.

USS Crescent City served as troop transport, providing logistics functions and amphibious landings and even hosting an evacuation hospital. The ship's performance in the Asian-Pacific campaign earned her ten battle stars, a Navy Unit Commendation, and an honored name in US history.

For those who served on the USS Crescent City, the ship was as much a journey through history as it was a journey through life; from 1941 to 1945, the ship helped end the Second World War, but it also shaped the lives of those serving on her, turning boys into men [4].

The primary constituencies of this phase of the ship are the USS Crescent City Association & the Reunion Group and veterans of other ships and their families.

Maritime Academy training

In 1971, the former Del Orleans/ Crescent City became the California Maritime Academy training ship Golden Bear, which served until 1995. Mark H. Goldberg, author of the book Caviar and Cargo and an expert in C3 cargo passenger ships, writes:

Sparkling white all over, she gleamed like a newbuilt in the early afternoon sun. Trim and handsome she is a most appealing vessel. She is a real survivor from another time. In our day there is nothing like her. Long may she sail [5]!

Using words like "sparkling white", "gleamed," and "trim and handsome" are signifiers of deck personnel's life-long relationship to the vessel that went beyond the upkeep and paint into the realm of pride and valor.

The obvious constituencies of this aspect of the ship are the alumni and students of the Maritime academies, merchant sailors, captains and their families, as well as the general public.

Community gathering place

Crisis Of Perseverance , as articulated by the Artship initiative members, was a response to a local need that addressed a contemporary problem, particularly among youth who have no role models or experience witnessing success through perseverance. Artist of all types are the embodiment of achievable mastery and tangible experience of completion. Hence the name "Artship," an exciting, ever changing campus surrounding hardcore job training programs, culture-making and historic research.

Parallel to running vigorous cultural programs, a number of citizens, artists and educators formed ARTSHIP Foundation in 1992 and began to look for a ship in the U.S. Reserve Fleet and in government catalogs. Through this process, the founders learned that the California Maritime Academy training ship "Golden Bear" was slated for decommissioning. After seeing it, the ARTSHIP Foundation Board of Directors unanimously voted to pursue the vessel. To acquire the ship for Oakland, it needed an "Act of Congress." Without fully knowing what they were up against, the Board accepted the challenge. The initiative members worked on this critical component of the project almost daily from 1993 to 1998, when President Clinton finally signed legislation authorizing the transfer of the ship to the ARTSHIP Foundation.

On any average day on the Artship, you could find musicians recording in acoustically unusual spaces of the ship and visual artists making things. For example, Ben Trautman created sculptures as a part of the wheelchair accessibility route throughout the ship. Schoolchildren touring the ship engaged in ship specific art and interpretive projects, and non-profits held meetings from a coalition of 30 local community-orientated groups. There were dancers, clowns, actors and musicians rehearsing, knitters knitting, poets reciting, welders welding, cameras clicking, and wood chips and plaster in unlikely places. Also quietly working or instructing were researchers, archivists, volunteers, teachers and librarians. This is a glimpse of multiple constituencies that co-existed and shared with the general public.

Floating University

In 1995, ARTSHIP was chosen as the US headquarters of the International Peace University. Under the patronage of more than twelve Nobel peace laureates [i], the International Peace University opened in Berlin during the fall of 1995. Laureate participants, sponsors and the committee appreciated the breath of the work, community orientated spirit and cultural sensitivities of the Artship programs and initiated a partnership. This brought different, more sophisticated and academic constituents to the ship, which merged with the artists, local youth, their younger siblings and parents.

Multiple and Simultaneous

The function of describing the constituencies and different identities and activities of the ship is to offer rare examples of how all of these aspects happened in one space at the same time when members of the specific interests, historic or current were all alive and contemporaries. The crucial issue in linking this example to a forum discussing semiotics of space is that the ship's rich history over the last 50 years, infused with a number of multiple meanings at the same time, opens questions of diachronic and simultaneous reading of space.

One experience shared by most users and visitors to the ship was imagining travelling and journeying, partially because the ship was stationary. The richness, configuration, and smell of the ship brought people to the imaginative and imagining self without having to voice it or be an artist. It was a non-verbal, spatial and associative experience that brought poetic sense regardless of age, cultural background or levels of literacy.

Psychologist James Hillman in his book Myth of Analysis has said:

Poetic language intensifies meaning by packing many implications and references into the small space of a word or phrase; that a poem miniaturizes and is like a computer chip or an optic fiber in that it carries many messages simultaneously [6].

In the case of the ship's visitors, this poetic compressing of meaning was brought about non-verbally by a sense of the space. The process of abstracting was visceral, cognitive and involved feeling experientially that needed no words. This type of experience, an aspect of reading of spaces, may offer an observable overlap of art and cultural processes and semiotics of space.


This section sums up the three main points of the discourse and gathers some open questions that were asked earlier or introduces new ones that were triggered by the examples and narratives presented in the paper.

Accurate/ Inaccurate Recreation

Rooted in the building's settings with strong spatial and cultural characteristics, the example of Teatro Olimpico provides an opportunity to discuss the merits and limits of architectural reconstructions and the fragility of non-spatial underpinnings. Of particular interest is the elusiveness of programmatic intentions when they are verbal, written or culturally implied. These programs, even when lost or misunderstood, create valid cultural contributions, particularly in the case of reconstructions and recreations. Teatro Olimpico is an example of a recreation of the principles of Ancient Roman open-air theater as sixteenth century Italian indoor space. The limitations of an oddly shaped site, the Renaissance architectural ideals and the architect's idiosyncratic qualities all contribute to the differences between and departure from the ancient prototype. Yet, the illusion created has great similarities to historic antecedents. The paper also reflects on the validity of particular misinterpretations that nevertheless triggered culturally meaningful phenomenon. This continuity/discontinuity is the reason for sharing research on histories of interpretations of the past with the forum of semiotics of space, as these misinterpretations often fall out of formal art or history.

Dimensionality Without Nameable Signifiers

Hadrian's Villa outside Rome is a complex that housed many enactments and models of the Roman Imperial possessions as trophies. One of them is Conopus, a shallow water feature representation of a navigable canal in the Nile Delta. Representation of the abstraction of space emerged in exploring Canopus and the entire complex as a large model of other geographical or imagined places. These questions articulate the findings:

Multiple Meanings at the Same Time

The Artship Initiative redefined a historic 1940 passenger-cargo/military ship for public peacetime use and a cultural space from 1999—2004. In the fifty years of its existence, a single steam ship went through four distinct identities. At the ship, a number of multiple meanings co-existed, while at the same time opening questions of diachronic and simultaneous reading of space:

The motivation behind writing this paper involves exploring the manifold interests that may come together. The elements are found in the richness of heritage, the approaches to fresh thinking, the meaningful and well-researched connections, the open questions, the sharing of insight and probing into the uniqueness of the human cognitive relationship to structured and inhabited space.

[1] Magagnato, Licisco 1951. The Genesis of the Teatro Olimpico, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, Vol. 14, No. 3/4, London, p. 209.

[2] Everitt, Antony. 2009. Hadrian and the triumph of Rome, Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House, New York, pp. 283-284.

[3] ibid, p. 264.

[4] Goldberg, Mark H. 1992. Caviar and Cargo. American Merchant Marine Museum Foundation, Kings Point.

[5] Arias, Oscar et al. Laureates endorsing peace university and its projected US campus: Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, The XIV Dalai Lama, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Frederik de Klerk, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Shimon Peres, Jose Ramos-Horta, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel and Betty Williams.

[6] Hillman, James. 1998. The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology, Northwestern University Press, Evanston.