The 18th Century English aristocratic craze for gardens featuring ersatz classical ruins can be traced to their enchantment with the landscape around Rome. Fashionable gentlemen of the nobility ‘scaped their gardens with impressive temples and mausoleums, but the very punctuation mark to an Augustan sensibility was the ‘ornamental hermit’ hired to inhabit a seashell-decorated grotto.
Such a hermit, by convention, was contracted to remain silent and to refrain from cutting his body hair or nails whilst living in the garden for a period of seven years. Charlatans in the main, these 18th century wild-haired ornamental hermits were often discovered to have a wife in tow, or reported to frequent the local taverns and brothels. One such had the ingenious ruse of creating a mannequin, propped up in prayer, to cover his absences.
I built a tiny shed, only just big enough to house a stool and small table, inside the British School at Rome’s cloistered, romantically-conceived court garden. The six-hour long performance began with me donning an elaborate fake ‘hermit’ outfit: knee-length wig, sheepskin bodice, false overgrown nails and sandals. Ensconced inside the shed, I posed in a ruminative, prayer-like manner.
And then another performance event would start in some other part of the School and once everyone was called away, I quickly changed into baggy shorts and shirt. Be-wigging a dummy to fill in for me, I headed out to disport, imbibe and break bread amongst the festival for a while before returning to the shed to climb into costume and ‘perform’ again. Hence my performance (with, on the one hand its derisory spectacle, and on the other my festive appetites), echoed those historic, fake and entirely ornamental, ‘hermits’.