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The City of Man

What we've forgotten about urban planning.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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Timeless Cities

An Architect's Reflections on Renaissance Italy

by David Mayernik

Westview, 274 pp., $26

IN 1575, pilgrims in Rome for the jubilee could buy a souvenir map of the city. Included in a Renaissance collection of prints called "Mirror of Roman Magnificence," the map is, in fact, radically distorted, highlighting the city's seven pilgrimage churches, with St. Peter's relocated to the center foreground. The Coliseum, the Castel Sant'Angelo, and even the Tiber are puny in scale, while the seven churches are aggrandized three-dimensionally, along with the eponymous saints and the pilgrims to whom they appear.

This souvenir map is what David Mayernik--author of a fascinating book called "Timeless Cities: An Architect's Reflections on Renaissance Italy"--would call an ideogram, an image whose principal objective is to communicate in symbolic rather than factual terms. Even this late in the Renaissance, Rome remained an underpopulated and largely neglected vestige of its ancient self. For the pilgrim steeped in a premodern consciousness, however, such ideograms "were the city," Mayernik observes. "Ready to embrace the marvelous and ignore the squalid, our model medieval visitor would have seen [Rome] exactly as the ideograms showed: scattered miraculous monuments in an indifferent sea of building."

Now, compare the Roman map with another 1575 image, a gorgeous color engraving offering a bird's-eye view of Mantua in flawless perspective. The engraving conveys a vivid sense of actuality. The enchanted island-city lies in the middle of the Mincio, which has seemingly bulged outward to accommodate it. Moles shelter two harbors. Alberti's great cathedral and its campanile dominate the skyline, while a monastery, a hospital, and public spaces are visible within the dense urban fabric. Two bridges, one of them doubling as a dam, link the city to one river bank and create a lagoon; a pair of causeways connect the city to the other bank. A fortified suburb lies on one bank, cloistered buildings on the other. A long wall extending to a distant stream encloses farmland. Close to the city the roads are thinly settled; beyond lies open landscape with hills in the background.

ALTHOUGH THEY DATE TO THE SAME YEAR, there's a huge conceptual divide between these images of Rome and Mantua. One is a medieval artifact, the other Renaissance. The Roman picture conveys essentially an idea, while the Mantua picture conveys . . . , well, an idea, too, however much the accuracy of perspective tempts us to call it factual. But the idea has changed, for in the rendering of Mantua, the city and nature coexist as what Mayernik calls the "Idea of the City as a metaphor for the Earthly Paradise."

The notion of Paradise as essentially urban, Mayernik notes, can be traced through the Bible and on to St. Augustine's "City of God." And, as was typical of the epoch, its Renaissance incarnation appeared in painting before it appeared in stone, bricks, and mortar. But once Italians began to build according to that idea, Western civilization's understanding of urban design was tied to it for centuries to come.

In "Timeless Cities," Mayernik, an architect, painter, and fellow of the American Academy in Rome, looks at the Renaissance urbanism of five cities: Rome, Venice, Florence, Siena, and little Pienza (a Tuscan town with a main square brilliantly redesigned during the fifteenth century at the behest of Pope Pius II, after whom it was renamed). Mayernik draws heavily on the scholarship of academic art and architecture historians including Joseph Connors, John Onians, and Carroll William Westfall, but the resulting synthesis is very much his own.

So much information is packed into this short volume that certain essential themes do not receive the emphasis they probably deserve, especially where the general reader is concerned. Such is the case with the development of the modern conception of urban space. The perfection of the rendering of three-dimensional space by Florentine painters of the quattrocento, as Westfall has emphasized, introduced into Western consciousness the idea of space as a continuous entity extending throughout--and even beyond--the city.

This revolution in spatial consciousness stands between the Roman map and the view of Mantua. And it was crucial to the visionary transformation of medieval Rome by a long line of popes starting with Nicholas V (1447-1455). Nicholas made preparations for the relocation of an Egyptian obelisk (which the Emperor Caligula had brought to Rome) from the south side of St. Peter's to its east front.