word and polaroids by Tun Casey

I spent the summer of 1999 as a student archivist in Florence, at the Andrei Tarkovsky International Institute. What follows is an account of my time there which, for reasons both legal and moral, I was prevented from disclosing until now. 𝔐., wherever you are, consider the arrangement dissolved.


Via di San Niccolò is a crabbed, serpentine network of alleys, wandering like the handwriting of a drunken lover across the parchment of the Oltrarno quarter. It is a great favourite of locals; slyly regarding each other over their amari, they watch from neighbouring bars as the sun sets and shadows slink down the laneways and past the tower of San Niccolò, that lonely and somnolent giant emerging from the piazza Giuseppe Poggi. It is a place of secrets. Come, let me show you one of them.

Via di San Niccolò.

The Andrei Tarkovsky International Institute was situated at 91 Via di San Niccolò. I slept at the Institute, in a small room—more a closet—on the second floor, ate at I Bastioni, and drank branca menta once a week on my stipend. The Institute was opposite a perfumery. In the evenings, the maestro stirred his cauldron, and wafts of opoponax, frankincense, rose and osmanthus, of ambrette and musk, would float into the closet and colour my dreams. I have never slept so richly. But the riches of Florence would soon recede into the background and others take their place.

Still life at the Andrei Tarkovsky International Institute.

The Institute was like a scene from one of Tarkovsky’s films, cluttered as it was with his last effects—dried chrysanthemums, polyhedra in birch and argilite, etchings by Leonardo, letters to Antonioni and Bergman, his spectral polaroids—and which could be found in odd places around the house, in little stacks under the cupboards, say, or inside the fuse box, as if they were alive and exploring the house.

The Institute’s crowning treasure, however, was the “Martyrolog”, diaries spanning the period from the making of Solaris in 1970 until Tarkovsky’s death in 1986. These were carefully administered by his son, Andrei, but he was away in Mykonos for the summer with the Institute’s director, Andrea Ulivi, and they had relayed instructions through a sequence of intermediaries. I spoke with two assistants in rapidfire Florentine, a bibulous semiotician, Sven Nykvist’s son, and various dabblers and aesthetes who had no other occupation, it seemed, than to hang around Via di San Niccolò and spread gossip. Eventually, I understood I was to catalogue and assess the scholarly interest of an unpublished portion of the Martyrolog, kept in a filing cabinet in a locked room on the fourth floor. The caretaker would give me the keys, and at the end of the summer, I would share my findings with Andrei and/or Andrea, at least one of whom would be back in Florence.

The “caretaker” turned out to be a gaunt woman called Chiara Pontieri who smoked incessantly and was never to be found at the Institute. She appeared in the kitchen on the evening of a full moon, unannounced, two weeks into my stay, and wordlessly poured us two glasses of sambuca on ice. While the liquid clouded over, she stretched one leg onto the table, lit a cigarette, and smiled: “Ne avrai bisogno.” “You’ll need it.” (It.) From a leather satchel, she produced a slip of paper printed with the Institute’s letterhead and some serial numbers. Chiara watched intently as I signed and dated the slip, then stubbed out her cigarette, drained her sambuca and withdrew two keys from the satchel: a heavy, single-toothed barrel key, acid etched “C3”, and a Schlage marked “May 79” for the filing cabinet. She left as abruptly as she had arrived. I found myself alone with the smell of anise and an odd feeling that the moon was laughing at me, invisibly, far above.


I set to work enthusiastically the next morning, and after several espressi, bounded up the staircase to the door marked “Camera No. 3 - мартирология”. “Martyrology” (Rus.) I paused in awe at the threshold; after two aimless weeks in Via di San Niccolò, the curtains of the ark had parted to offer a glimpse of something forbidden, something sacred. But religious feeling is not proper to archival science, and as Jacob von Rammingen reminds us, without a registry “not even the highest rule of divine nature can exist.” Von der Registratur (1571). This was a fonds and not a shrine.

Camera No. 3: front.

I unlocked Camera No. 3 to find a state of picturesque chaos. At the front of the room, a desk covered in postcards, sketches, letters, newspaper clippings, and binders of official documents and tax reports. At the back, boxes stuffed with loose sheets of foolscap, a pair of empty cupboards, and row upon row of filing cabinets labelled by month—the reliquaries of the martyr.

Camera No. 3: back.

May 1979 is a fallow month in the English version of Tarkovsky’s diaries, Time within time (1991). with only two entries (May 12 and 22). They are mostly concerned with the promotion of Stalker and his plans to leave for Italy. I thought that, at best, the May 79 cabinet would house correspondence with the Italian authorities or Mosfilm; they might bore the average reader, but prove invaluable to the biographer, the film critic, and the cultural materialist. I would ask Chiara for more keys, draw provenance diagrams, create accession numbers and EADs, and finish my summer by changing hats and penning an editorial recommendation.

Borges states that the aesthetic phenomenon is “the imminence of a revelation that does not yet occur”. “La Muralla y los Libros”, Jorge Luis Borges (1961). Despite my archival sobriety, that moment—before the cabinet opened, in that forbidden room, with its aura of genius, of mystery, of possibilia transmuted by contact with the real—is one of the great aesthetic experiences of my life. I scanned the cabinets for “May 79”, inserted the Schlage, and turned it with a dull click.


The drawer opened to reveal—not continental travel arrangements or the drone of apparatchiks—but a few scraps of paper, some weathered keys, and a pile of ash. I removed the drawer and carefully laid it on the floor. What was I looking at?

A puzzle.

This is a work of nerdy metafiction by David Wakeham. Images were generated using Midjourney. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is either obviously intended or coincidental.