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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.

More than a century later, Pope Sixtus V got the job done, setting the stage for the creation, after yet another century, of Bernini's incomparable piazza. At the same time, Sixtus placed other obelisks, as well as public fountains, around the city, with a plan to connect the seven pilgrimage churches by cutting new avenues and improving existing rights of way. Implementation continued for generations, and the result was one of the supreme achievements of Western urbanism.

MAYERNIK'S CONCERN, however, is not with urban space but with the rhetoric of Italian Renaissance architecture and urban design. He emphasizes the teleology of that rhetoric, and the consequent subordination of style to content. He describes the way Rome, in particular, "reads" in a narrative sense, and the way transcendent meanings are disclosed in space and time as we make our way through the city. Mayernik cites the experience of crossing the Ponte Sant'Angelo to the Borgo Vaticano. "Bernini," he writes, "saw the bridge then as the beginning of a powerfully integrated urban narrative that takes each pilgrim on a spiritual journey." On the great bridge, Bernini's mourning angels hold the instruments of Christ's passion.

Until Mussolini's time, one continued from there along one of two narrow streets separated by a long, thin island of buildings known as La Spina. After the symbolic tension created by the tragic figures on the bridge and the spatial tension generated by a narrow street, the pilgrim's path opened, breathtakingly, onto the Piazza San Pietro, whose great colonnades Bernini conceived in explicitly anthropomorphic terms as the embracing arms of the Church. The narrative culminated at the apse of St. Peter's, with the "explosion of light and sculpture" of Bernini's cathedra. The narrative ends, in short, with a radiant glimpse of redemption. In demolishing La Spina, Mussolini's planners--harbingers of America's "urban renewers"--disrupted Bernini's spatial sequence in order to create a bloviated avenue called the via della Conciliazione.

BERNINI'S SCENOGRAPHIC APPROACH to design is no secret, and it was indispensable to his concept of urban narrative. One of his papal patrons, Alexander VII, routinely referred to his Vatican piazza as a "theater." Mayernik observes that Renaissance and Baroque Rome thought of itself, as did Venice, as the teatrum mundi, a microcosm of the cosmic stage on which the story of creation was unfolding.

The development of the Piazzetta di San Marco in Venice, facing the Doge's Palace, inspired, and was in turn inspired by, a brilliant urban stage-set reverie published by the architect and theorist Sebastiano Serlio. Facing the Piazzetta, Jacopo Sansovino's Libreria di San Marco is, as Mayernik notes, both a Roman stage-set façade and, thanks to its balustrades, a spectator's gallery for the theatrical processions that were a hallmark of the Most Serene Republic. Even the façades of Palladio's great Venetian churches, San Giorgio and the Redentore, seem two-dimensional theatrical backdrops when viewed from across the water.

Pienza's main piazza, too, was a microcosm. It included the cathedral, the bishop's and canon's residences, Pius II's palazzo, the palazzo comunale, and a humble inn--an encapsulation of the life of the town and the sources of authority within it. The communal pecking order was scrupulously articulated by means of distinct, readily legible building types, exterior surface materials ranging from the cathedral's travertine to the municipal palace's stucco to the humble brick of the inn, and widely varying degrees of decoration and ornament as well.

This articulation, Mayernik writes, was rooted in the classical rhetorical principle of varietas, controlled modulation, as well as the architectural principle of decorum or appropriateness. The teleology of the composition, however, involved more than symbolizing the town's communal life. And that teleology was musical rather than rhetorical. For his motet celebrating the completion of Brunelleschi's ingenious cathedral dome in Florence, the composer Dufay drew on the architect's proportional system. In the Pienza square, the architecture was composed of discordant elements that art brought into concord, and Renaissance humanists saw the resulting architectural harmony as a manifestation of the cosmic music of the spheres. This visual harmony was intended to nurture harmonious souls, as well as harmony within the body politic.

Mayernik notes the human body's drastic downgrading during the Enlightenment--from a figure made in God's image to a mere mechanism--which knocked Western design off its metaphysical base. As a result, he argues, architectural content gave way to style, urban "signs" (like Bernini's embracing colonnade) surrendered to mere "forms," and the urban designer became the urban planner.

But he fails to explore anthropomorphism's full significance. In "Architecture of Humanism" (1914), an English critic named Geoffrey Scott observed that anthropomorphism in classical architecture involves the projection of the human body into built form. This is one of man's most instinctive, and most profound, responses to mortality.

The anthropomorphic principle also involves the creation of spaces--architectural interiors as well as streets and public squares--that relate in a pleasing way to our embodied state. Its indispensable corollary is the concept of composition, the subordination of parts to an organic whole, of which the supreme example is the human figure. Composition makes the organized complexity of a building legible. It also underlies the integration of the private and public realms within the urban organism, whether neighborhood or city. This, in a nutshell, is why the progressive dehumanization of art since the eighteenth century has been a catastrophe for architecture and urbanism alike.

"Timeless Cities" occasionally betrays signs of the haste of its own composition. ("Florentine ritual paths," Mayernik writes, "reverberated very little concrete back to new, permanent urban construction." Ouch.) A couple of the site descriptions are confusing. The author's iconographic orientation leads in a few instances to ponderous, unconvincing, or precious exegesis. And the reader could do without such words as "perspectively" and "loggiaed." I wish, too, that Mayernik's reading of architecture were less abstract. His assessment of the Saluté in Venice as an exercise in architectural theatrics excludes the sculpture--saints perched on the huge, rolling, wave-like console brackets surrounding the drum of the great church's dome: celestial surfers without equal in the history of art. Now, that is urban theater!

Mayernik's erudition commands admiration. And his assessment, in his concluding chapter, of the Enlightenment's impact on architecture and urbanism, along with the significance of Romanticism's replacement of the City with Nature as the "model and image of Paradise," is instructive.

HE MISSES, however, more recent architecture--such as the Gothic buildings on numerous American campuses--that involves "signs" instead of "forms." Similarly, it will not do to disqualify big-city skyscrapers en masse as tokens of a commercially compromised set of societal values just because churches and city halls no longer dominate the skyline. In fact, the soaring classical and Flemish Gothic temples erected in Manhattan early in the twentieth century--to the greater glory of Standard Oil, Singer sewing machines, and Woolworth five-and-dime stores--proclaimed to the four winds that prosperity was not an end in itself but rather the bedrock of civilization.

Nonetheless, if the precipitous postwar artistic decline of America's skyscrapered downtowns resulted from modernism's advent, then it is undeniably the case that Enlightenment rationalism and Romanticism together set the stage for our ongoing catastrophe.

IN HIS CONCLUSION, moreover, Mayernik usefully raises the issue of landscape design's exaggerated role in urban design under the influence, first, of the classical garden at Versailles and, later, the Romantic longing for the dales of Arcady. His main point, however unfashionable in an age enthralled by Central Park's pastoral charms, is well taken: "In the [five Italian] cities we have visited," he writes,

Nature is wholly herself in the countryside and rarely enters the city gates; conversely urban sprawl is contained by the walls, and building in the rural [surroundings] is sporadic at best. . . . Paradoxically, [such coherence] is achieved under the umbrella of the City as a metaphor for Paradise; whereas, since Nature has supplanted the urban realm as an ideal in our collective consciousness in the last two centuries, we have set about obliterating the natural landscape on an unprecedented scale.

The builders of the Renaissance city, Mayernik observes,

even when the religion was corrupt or the learning narrow, sought to represent aspirations rather than reality. This allowed those cities to be always better than the people who made them, whereas politics and business [which shape contemporary American urbanism] rarely provide built contexts that transcend their immediate contingent reality and just as rarely equal the merits of the best people who made them. So we have the paradox today of being a generally more equitable society than, say, fourteenth-century Siena, but we have built for ourselves a far less humane environment.

This is all quite true. But what are we supposed to do about it? First of all, we need to recover the principle of anthropomorphism in architecture and urbanism. Modernists once pinned their hopes on the machine, and the result was a plague of glass boxes. And subsequent theoretical paradigms have merely bred new forms of dysfunction.

Even if the idea of man as the cosmic intersection between matter and the spirit doesn't grab you, the empirical evidence for the artistic validity of anthropomorphism and the superiority of the humanist tradition in design to any other the West has known is simply overwhelming.

IS IT FOOLISH TO THINK of an idyllic image such as the Mantuan engraving as an urban ideal for our own time? Possibly not. Such images, as Mayernik suggests, can fire the public imagination, nurturing adherence to ambitious urban designs over the course of decades or even centuries. In other words, idealism rooted in deep and instinctive human preferences can work miracles. And let us not forget that the cultural memory of many Americans embraces the historic city and town, with their legible architectural hierarchy and orderly arrangement of public spaces.

Of course, modernists will presumably continue to run amok in Gotham, as they are now doing at Ground Zero. But other cities will increasingly turn to traditional architecture as the worthiest expression of their civic identities and ideals. Nashville's ambitious project for a classical symphony concert hall, scheduled for completion in 2006, is one example of this emerging trend.

And, as a result, the urban consciousness of an increasing number of Americans will probably be analogous to that of the pilgrims who took that Roman ideogram home. The handsome neighborhoods and even downtowns will register rather as those beautiful pilgrimage churches and their cloistered settings did in the pilgrims' memories.

The throwaway urban environments lying in between will register rather vaguely, as, for the pilgrims, did the undesigned city fabric between those churches: as something much less essential--a merely phenomenal reality, devoid of ideal substance.

Catesby Leigh writes regularly on architecture for The Weekly Standard.