The Man Who Would Be Rome. Albert Uderzo (1927-2020)

Click to enlarge

Today would have been Albert Uderzo’s 94th birthday, had it not been for the unfortunate heart attack that took his life in March 2020, at the ripe old age of 92. On this occasion, I thought it would be timely to recover this column from my section ‘Arquinoir’, published in Arquine magazine last Autumn, which was intended both as an homage to the artist and his oeuvre, which had a great influence on my fascination both with comics and with architecture. The text featured here is an extended version of the published one, also originally in Spanish.


Perhaps the number has not been greater than in any other year, but the particular situation we are living in these months has possibly made us more aware of the losses that this fateful 2020 is leaving behind. In our particular corner of reality, there have been several of these that have orphaned us in one way or another, with some of them being particularly close to some of us for varying reasons. In my case, I will especially miss Vittorio Gregotti, who shaped some of my favorite corners in contemporary Venice, Michael McKinnell, whom I will always never be able to thank for creating the background for my strolls across the Boston City Hall plaza, and another Michael, Sorkin, passionate draftsman, brilliant creator of paper architecture, and, even more interestingly, architecture critic for The Village Voice in the 1980s.

Personally, however, there are two losses which, even if originating outside our airtight ecosystem, have affected me possibly even more, due to their foundational role in my life (and career). The latest, which took place in late April, was the decease of Marcos Mundstock, ‘the voice’ of comedy-musical Argentinian ensemble Les Luthiers, who stand at the top, either in a draw or even slightly above the Monty Python, in my personal Mount Olympus of humor. Marcos, whom I met through my TV set on a Summer late night while still a pre-teen opened my eyes to a world of double-entendres, word play, and obscure referents, whose comfort, for better or worse, I never managed to exit. The other one, which happened a month earlier, takes me even further back, to a time when this language that gives me so much satisfaction was still foreign to me in all its forms. By chance, the peculiar (lack of) judgment of a close relative -God bless her- made an Asterix album, Asterix and the Soothsayer (1972) reach the hands of my babysitter. In 2008, with the occasion of the Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain exhibition at the Science Museum in London, Jonathan Glancey noted the extent to which Frank Hampson’s comic had helped shape the interests and careers of an entire generation, from Stephen Hawking and Ridley Scott to Nigel Coates, Laurie Chetwood or Norman Foster. It’s difficult to overstate how many not just passions, but vocations Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny contributed raise with their series about a tiny village of indomitable Gauls who still hold out against the invaders. Their seminal influence on several generations of comic authors from multiple latitudes is obvious, but the sorrowful reactions of a multitude of historians, art historians, archaeologists, and others to the death of Uderzo suggest that his capacity to inspire career paths might be, at the very least, comparable to that of the English Pilot of the Future.

Since his sad and premature death halfways through the making of the twenty-fourth adventure in the series, Astérix Chez Les Belges, there has been a unanimous agreement on the irreplaceable shadow that the enormous creative genius of the René Goscinny (1926-1977) had cast on the series would have over it, and the unsurmountable loss that his disappearance would mean. It would be banal to insist on the brilliance of the scripts that this Frenchman of Jewish descent produced for this series: except for the first album, which, while still funny, lacks some of the depth of later ones, the series’ stories are a lesson in writing in the broadest sense of the word. Goscinny’s stories were always impeccably constructed, holding the reader’s attention through a sense of suspense which is kept all the way through. Asterix’s adventures were always agile but also eventful, action-packed but also filled with witty dialogues full of irony, replete with interesting, perfectly constructed characters whose distinctive personalities were sometimes developed in the lapse of just a couple of panels… Goscinny’s genius became particularly apparent with his ability to create stories that worked on several levels: as a thrilling adventure, full with humor and empathy, for the kid, and as sharp social satire for the adult, who could find incisive comments on reality in them: the out-of-control development of the coast and the destruction of the landscape by tourist resorts in Le domaine des dieux (1971), the free market and the perils and absurdities of late capitalism in Obelix et Compagnie (1976) perhaps stand out amongst the multitude of allusions, explicit or veiled, to an endless list of historical events and contemporary trends. Asterix is a series that can be reread on numerous occasions over the years, and the reader will get something different each time. I cannot remember how many times I have reread my collection (the latest, right before writing this text), and every single one I discover something I hadn’t noticed before.

However, this should not outshadow Uderzo’s essential role in the shaping of all these virtues. Again, any praise for Uderzo’s drawing is unnecessary due to its redundancy. Of course, Asterix was not the first thing he drew; in fact, the Gaul’s adventures were the last in the rather extensive production of this cartoonist, who by 1961, when the first one started its serialization in the pages of Pilote, had already produced several series. One of his longest achievements was, actually, a pseudo-realistic comic series, Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure (1959-1967), created together with Jean-Michel Charlier. Asterix, on the other hand, was the latest in a genealogy of humorous adventure comics by the Uderzo-Goscinny tandem that included Jehan Pistolet (1952-1956), Luc Junior (1954-1957), Benjamin et Benjamine (1957-1959), and, of course, Oumpah-Pah (1958-1962), a series that many of us outside France discovered with fascination later than Asterix, only to find out with horror that the success of the Gaul had forced the authors to abandon it after only five albums. Uderzo would ultimately be the main agent in making all the inherent qualities of Goscinny’s scripts shine on the comic page, with his precise and detailed drawing style, his ability to create distinctive characters and especially for caricature -what would have been of Le Domaine des Dieux without the character of Caius Saugrenus covered with the unmistakable features of Jacques Chirac?- and, last but not least, his ability to create fictional but credible historical backgrounds.

Combining a few morphological and structural elements of Celtic domestic architecture, such as the pitched roofs covered with hay, wood bearing structures and masonry or wooden board walls, Uderzo generated a well-stocked typological variety for his fictional Gaul villages and cities, ranging from the most basic one, simply covered with a gabled roof, or those one with a circular outline and an ellipsoid roof, to the open façade of Ordenalfabetix fish shop, Cetautomatix’s two-floor house/blacksmith’s workshop house-workshop, or the tree house of Assourancetourix, the bard (the tribe’s blackbird), standing somewhere in between a birdcage and a cuckoo clock. Still, it is perhaps on the urban scale that Uderzo’s mastery is truly overwhelming. It is a visual treat to behold the aerial views of the Gallic village, or some of its streets, in the half-page panels that usually open each episode, or in special pages, such as the diagram that illustrates ‘The Battle of the Village’ in La Zizanie (1970), as well as in all the variations on the Gaul village theme created by Uderzo. In this category belong fictional settlements such as the mountain village of Moralélastix in Asterix et le Chaudron (1969), or the ‘twin villages’ in Le Grand Fossé (1980), with its two halves separated by a sunken imitation of the Berlin Wall, but also the fictitious recreations of the Celtic ancestors of some present time cities. Here, the prime example would be Lutetia, in its original location in the present Île de la Cité in Paris, which Uderzo recreated with its bridges, streets and houses adapted to the language of his version of Gaul architecture. All of them vividly illustrate Uderzo’s ability both to design seductive historical speculations, and to visualize them in urban vistas that the reader could imagine him or herself strolling through.

Of course, the History and Architecture of antiquity had been prominently featured in the world of comics long before Asterix: there we have Prince Valiant (1937-), by Hal Foster (no, not the author of The Anti-Aesthetic: the original one), a paradigmatic example of the syncretic reconstruction of the past that Hollywood has accustomed us to. Postwar bande dessinée would correspond with series such as Les Timour (1953-1994), by Sirius (Max Mayeu), and especially Jacques Martin’s Alix (1948-), which would definitely kickstart the development of the historical genre in bande dessinée, a genre still in full force which would introduce an archaeological attitude in the representation of history. This is a tradition that Asterix would help to create, in which Uderzo would achieve the strange feat of making antiquity both more spectacular and more accessible at the same time. In a time with no Wikipedia, Google Images, or Movies on Demand, Asterix was the first window to classical times for many children, which they discovered through its meticulous reconstructions of great architectural ensembles: the Acropolis of Athens and the Altis in Olympia (Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques, 1968), the necropolis at Giza (Astérix et Cléopâtre, 1963-64), Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon (L’Odyssée d’Astérix, 1981), and, first and foremost, Rome.

In the adventures of Asterix many of us discovered the Eternal City portrayed through its crowded and grimy streets, its tabernae, the Subura neighborhood (Le Cadeau de César, 1974), but also in impressive aerial views showing a historical center which, unbeknownst to us, was not that of the year 50 BC. Often presented to the reader through the buildings that stood on either side of the Palatine Hill, the Rome of Asterix introduced some of us, for the first time, to the Circus Maximus and the Flavian Palace (Le Domaine des Dieux, 1971). On the other side, we could see a crowded Roman Forum (Les Lauriers de César, 1972, Asterix chez Rahàzade, 1987), complete with the house of the Vestals and the Basilica of Maxentius -and Constantine, yes- at one end. On the other, the buildings on top of the Capitoline Hill stood in the background, with the tabularium and the three temples that complete the head of the Forum at its feet. In between these, the trained reader could identify the two basilicas, the Temple of Divus Iulius, ordered to be built by Augustus shortly after Caesar’s death, or the Arch of Septimius Severus, erected when good ol’ Julius had been dead and buried for almost two and a half centuries. On the right, behind the Curia Iulia, which César would never see finished due to some fatal health problems originated and concluded in the Curia Pompeia, one could glimpse a good chunk of the Imperial For a, of which César only knew, still under construction, the one that bears his name.

The reason behind these anachronisms is that Asterix’s Rome sprang from the most complete documentary source that Uderzo could have access to in an era -I insist- before infographic recreations, Mary Beard’s documentaries, and the History Channel: the impressive model of the Imperial Rome (Plastico di Roma Imperiale) commissioned by Benito Mussolini to archaeologist Italo Gismondi in 1933. Based in part on the Forma Urbis Romae drafted by Rodolfo Lanciani in 1901, Mussolini commissioned it for the 1942 EUR exhibition, which marked the two thousandth anniversary of the death of Augustus. Exhibited since 1950 in the Museo della Civiltà Romana, the model, which would be continuously expanded by Gismondi until 1971, showed the city as it would have been looked, approximately, in the times of Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century. Its appearance, as Frédéric Montmayeur points out, is less that of late-republican Rome than that of the Aelian-Antonine era (that of Hadrian) with all its surfaces covered in luxurious marble .

But this is, at the end of the day, irrelevant. On the one hand, because Asterix does is not intended as a treatise on classical architecture, but rather a work of fiction aimed at captivates the reader’s imagination. It is just because of the excellence of its workmanship that this has not only been achieved at a very high level, but also that it has managed to do so with several generations of them. On the other hand, because despite its historical inaccuracies, many of those (us) who today devote our working hours to teaching the architecture of this period first learnt of the configuration of a Roman Castrum, what insulae were and the fact that, apparently, they were prone to fall down, or the structure of a prototypical domus (incongruously presented, yes, as an exempt building), with its atrium, impluvium and peristyle, its cubiculae, triclinium and tablinum, in the pages of an Asterix album (Les Lauriers De Cesar, 1971, in the latter’s case). In them we saw, for the first time, the interior of a Roman theater, an amphitheater or a circus, as well as multiple and anachronistic architectural speculations: from the fictional palace of Julius Caesar (who we would later learn was never an emperor) to a ‘classical’ version of the Palace of Nations at Geneva (Asterix chez les Helvètes, 1970), archaic service areas overlooking the Roman roads, road motels, ‘drive-in’ amphitheaters… A fictional vista within a fiction, we were even presented with a glimpse of a possible but undesirable future of the Gaul village, fully surrounded by a touristic development in a beautifully terrible aerial view; well, actually two, since Uderzo took the time to draw both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages, shown in the comics as a spectacular but heartbreaking model. Reality itself.

Rest in peace, master.

“El Hombre que fue Roma. Albert Uderzo (1927-2000).” Arquine. Revista Internacional de Arquitectura. Campos de Juego. Autumn 2020. Nº 93, pp. 10-11.

Below is the shorter version of the text as originally published (in Spanish) in the magazine:

Published by klaustoon

Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist that lives in an old castle in Europe. In his other life he is also a frustrated architect and scholar who...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: