MARGINALIA

 

This book was written to invest our recovery of the culture of the city with its rich rhetorical past. Cities, as great works of art, were more than merely beautiful: their beauty was a means to project their image of themselves to the world. If we want to recover the form of this way of making cities we must also recover the rhetorical intentions of these still-meaningful places.

TIMELESS CITIES: An Architect's Reflections on Renaissance Italy

an excerpt

 

INTRODUCTION

 

For millennia the City was the touchstone of human achievement. Arguably, cities may still be the most important of all human artifacts, in no small part because of their enormous impact on our landscape, ecology, economy, and society. But they also say much about us as a culture--about our image of ourselves, our values and priorities, our aspirations (or lack of them)--at the same time that they actually form who we are and who we become. As Winston Churchill said, "First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us." The cities with which Leon Battista Alberti was familiar in the fifteenth century, and which he would also help to shape, were products of humanist culture; that culture gave those cities a mythology, and a self-image. Humanist cities, as much as their human inhabitants, had personas which were shaped by their history and aspirations, and it is no accident that their physical form is a direct consequence of that urban self-image. For many centuries cities in European culture shared to a remarkable degree a set of ideals and mythologies that created the remarkable living civic artifacts which their residents continue to enjoy and tourists flock to visit. The dramatic change to that self-image in the eighteenth century thereafter fundamentally changed the course of city-building, and therefore also changed the lives of city dwellers in ways we only dimly recognize today.

But of course one might ask how practically important is this Idea of a city to its actual construction? Indeed, it would seem that, in the past (just as well as now) much of the urban fabric was shaped by accident, by chance, sometimes by ideas contrary to what I will argue was the dominant cultural vision for much more than a millennium. In many ways Rome is a perfect example. For centuries virtually forgotten, left to inhabitants who would strip the marble facing from the Colosseum to burn in lime kilns, built over, within, around and on top of majestic ruins, jostled over by warring baronial families, the city of Rome has been subject to all the chaos any urban fabric could hope to endure. And yet she emerged with perhaps the richest palimpsest of a coherent story possible, one that is the envy of cities everywhere. But that is in fact the point, I would argue: the dream of what Rome could be, and the memory of what it once had been, guided a process which the architectural historian Joseph Connors has called "incremental urbanism"--establish a piazza here, design a new facade there, place a door to align with a street, straighten a street or bend it toward a monument. Those urban projects that blossomed out of localized building activity also left traces of grander visions on their immediate context. The only way by which that process, worked out over centuries, could be knit together into any kind of coherent, noble result was with a collective cultural vision: Rome is the long-term wish-fulfillment over hundreds of years of like-minded and idealist humanists, patrons, and popes. Or, more or less, anyway. There are innumerable instances of where it didn't quite happen, and no doubt Bernini's great patron, Pope Alexander VII, went to his grave feeling much was left to do. Cities as works of art are rarely, if ever, complete in any absolute sense; only the occasional town built ex novo--from scratch, and by design--or the monastery, give a glimpse of completely-realized urban ideals. But the Idea of a city can leave its mark on every incremental bit of urban design, and when the Idea is consistent, powerful, and a good stretch beyond the ordinary, the city it generates can become more than a mere background to our daily lives, it can become virtually a foretaste of paradise that, as Alberti believed, gives us the fullest possibility of living the good life here on earth.

This book will trace the continuity of the Idea of the City in five Italian cities from late antiquity through the eighteenth century, looking most deeply at the extended Renaissance, examining both the urban artifacts themselves and what the people who built them said and thought about them. The urban story that unfolds is a powerful testimony to the beauty of cities and the nobility of city-dwelling, but ultimately to the importance of coming to grips with what we want to say with our own urban legacy. Consider this book then a guide, or a mental map in its own way, to how cities were seen in the past. If the past really is a foreign country, this way of looking at cities may seem strange indeed; I can assure you it is certainly foreign to the builders of our urban landscape over the last two centuries. But the cities that were built from this point of view are still accessible to us today, and often strike visitors as oddly familiar, more like "home" than home itself. The itinerant Bordelaise essayist Michel de Montaigne observed after his first, and prolonged, visit to Rome in 1580-81 that "The pleasures of residence in this city are increased by more than half with acquaintance." This book opens a door to some of the formative ideas behind a city like Rome's pleasures, but also hopefully can inspire an understanding of what Rome can represent for us today: a living civic model that transcends both time and place."

 

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