The Magazine

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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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.