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  • Writer's pictureDavid

Romanticizing the Stones

Some Good Things that Happened to Cities after the Middle Ages

19th century painting
Ippolito Caffi, Piazza del Popolo

There’s a substantial cadre of urbanists who think of themselves as “traditional” who are especially fond of the Middle Ages—with or without the accompanying suspicion of what came afterwards. I love a medieval hill town as much as anyone. But to romanticize those medieval stone cities and their winding streets is to implicitly reject what the Renaissance brought to urban design (some people explicitly reject it). Most of that cadre would not be so ruthless as to throw out Raphael and Michelangelo, or Josquin and Monteverdi, Petrarch and Ariosto, not to mention Copernicus and Galileo. But it may be worth a reminder of what the Renaissance and succeeding centuries brought to the city, and to question the validity of the romanticized medieval model its adherents have in mind. So here goes…

1. Designing on paper

While Florentine and Sienese new towns founded in the Middle Ages were laid out on a grid, meaning conceived on paper, and the Piazza del Campo in Siena was certainly not just eyeballed on site à la Camillo Sitte, in the Renaissance urban designers began to conceive of large cities as maps, and streets as systems that could be orchestrated. Thus emerged

2. Straight streets

Via Giulia, the outer legs of the Piazza del Popolo trident, Strada Pia, the Sistine street network. While straight streets like the via dei Servi in Florence were laid out in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance the city was conceived in terms of street networks, and streets were seen as perspectival—one-point perspective—spaces. The image of the city on paper shaped the image of the city in reality, and eventually vice versa. Not only streets, cities also began to acquire

3. Regularly shaped piazzas

Piazza del Campo is regular of a kind, but the mirroring of the splayed sides of the piazza of Pienza rationalized into a regular trapezoid what would have otherwise been an irregular space. From here it is not a long way to Bramante’s Piazza Ducale in Vigevano, or Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, and from there we gain the Places Royales of Paris, S. Maria della Pace and S. Ignazio in Rome, and Nancy’s two great places, Stanislaus and de la Carrière. Many of these involved

French Place
Nancy, Place de la Carrière

4. Coordinated fabric and monument

The evolving coordination of church and convent in Rome would result eventually in Piazza Navona’s Pamphilj complex, S. Maria della Pace, and the great urban monasteries and hospitals of Europe like the Invalides in Paris. Which is not to say that Renaissance and Baroque designers, or their patrons, were not interested in

5. Public housing

Urban fabric, whether monumental or humble, merited design attention. Pius II’s artisan housing on the northeast side of Pienza may be the first instance of designed public housing, but many of the urban religious complexes developed their neighborhoods with rental housing that was formally, if humbly, designed. This is not unrelated to the phenomenon of

6. Urban hospitals and hospices

The great pilgrimage stops like Siena had large hospitals to deal with the influx of pilgrims, but it was fifteenth century Florence that could trumpet an extensive system of rationally designed hospitals to deal with the local sick and poor. Rome would play catchup, but by Nolli’s map the city could boast 35 hospitals of one kind or another, many of them contributors to the orchestrated design of their streets and piazzas. The capitals of nation states like England and France built extensive urban hospitals for their military sick and wounded that are model urban amenities. Amsterdam took very good care of its old and sick citizens with noble buildings on some of the finest streets/canals in the city. All of these contributed to the idea of the

7. Comprehensively designed city

Incremental, “organic” growth may be fine for villages, but large cities demand a degree of comprehensive thinking that can only be done on paper, and require a kind of systematic thinking that the Renaissance developed and propagated. The process for existing cities like Rome evolved slowly in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, but by Alexander VII’s day one had a pope who could survey the whole city from the papal palace on the Quirinal and subject it to a comprehensive vision in a detailed wooden model. Christopher Wren’s unrealized plan for London would have imposed order on chaos, and Pierre Patte’s ideal plan of Paris with all of the Places Louis XV in place, represent a desire for a coherent whole as an ideal. That holistic approach to the city led patrons and architects to consider infrastructure like

8. Urban hydrology

Siena had its bottini, but Rome of the popes would reacquire its aqueducts, improving the quality of life in practical terms but also enriching the city with spectacular fountains. Paris followed suit, and soon every city paid attention to both water supply and drainage. Often hidden below grade, this attention to drinking water supply was also connected to cleanliness, which involved

9. Street cleaning and paving (not in that order)

Medieval cities often had paved major streets, and Florentine panegyrists of the Renaissance made a point of celebrating their paved, and clean, streets. But with the systematic design of streets, and the provision of water, paving of streets and piazzas became more common in the Renaissance, and went hand in hand with laws promoting the proper disposal of refuse (if often honored more in the breach than the observance). With increased attention to urban design came an increased attention to urban decorum. Which is not unrelated to the decoration of cities, or

10. Urban furniture and amenities

Fountains were present in medieval cities, but proliferated in the Renaissance and especially the Baroque. And the scenographic understanding of urban space promoted monumental stairs, triumphal arches, covered markets and loggias. The city as a work of art is a Renaissance reinvention of an ancient Roman practice. The Romans, of course, were also practical, and streets were conduits as much as celebratory spaces. But modes of transport were evolving in the late Renaissance, to the point where carriages became drivers of

Via dei Condotti and the Trinità dei Monti

11. Multi-modal streets

Leonardo developed projects to segregate pedestrian from wheeled and horse traffic. But in Paris Marie de Medici promoted the development of promenades specifically for carriages, and Richard Krautheimer says the motivation for the Piazza S. Maria della Pace was to allow for carriage turnaround. If the larger cities of Europe were able to accommodate modern modes of transportation it is because their streets and piazzas accommodated a variety of modes of transport already by the seventeenth century. In Amsterdam that meant canals flanked by streets wide enough even today for people, cars, and trees.


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