bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Space and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2012

It is so busy at the moment that my best chance of knowing where I am is to ask what day it is. So, if it is Saturday 24th November, it must be St Andrews, and the first of three colloquia on the Mediterranean City. The series is sponsored jointly by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature and the British School at Rome. The first event was hosted by Frances Andrews and the Institute of Mediaeval History at the University, who did a fine job in making the forty or so delegates feel welcome and ready to engage in discussion. For, that was the key point of the day: our attention was to concentrate on exchange of views rather than presentation, so had six short papers on our topic with ample space for questions, comment and debate (no fisticuffs occurred, the more pugilistic among you will be disappointed to hear). We also consciously wanted to make sure we did not confine ourselves to the north-western seaboard of the Middle Sea, which is too often taken as the entirety of Mediterranean experience, and we did not want to consider the ‘Middle Ages’ narrowly. So, for the topic for this first event, which was ‘Space’, we had papers which ranged from urbanism as ideology in the Roman empire to the dynamics of trecento and quattrocento Italian cities, via Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus.

We also arranged for two graduate students to act as rapporteurs for the day, providing not summaries but reports capturing the tenour and direction of discussion. They will be available on-line at the Society’s website very soon. What follows, then, is in no way an ‘official’ account of the day’s discussion or, indeed, an attempt to recapitulate all that was discussed. It is, rather, my own brief thoughts on a few of the issues that were at the forefront of our minds as we grappled with the topic of ‘space’ in the Mediterranean city.

One of the issues in play was how we ourselves conceptualise space – many of the talks concentrated on public buildings and high-profile, outsize ones at that. There seems to be an association in our minds between space and monumentality but that latter concept is itself so particularly culturally defined. As Hugh Kennedy pointed out in general discussion, the lasting nature of classical stone edifices was alien to some Islamic parts of the Mediterranean where mud brick was the main building material. It might also be fairly asked how far medieval cities were conscious of their own monumentality. In a culture where the cartographic imagination – by which I mean the ability to construct a mental image of a place through a bird’s-eye view – was largely absent, depictions of cities often present simply their most notable structures, as Paul Magdalino reminded us via an image of Constantinople from a manuscript of Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Liber insularum archipelagi. That two-dimensional presentation suggests how a walker would orientate themselves by the relationship between those buildings. A Colosseum or a Castel Sant’ Angelo could not but be at the forefront of a walker’s consciousness. Similarly, in depictions, a particular building often stood as a sort of synecdoche for the city, so that the Pantheon was often used in fourteenth and fifteenth century depictions as a shorthand for Rome, as (before the completion of Brunelleschi’s dome) the Baptistery was for Florence. The Baptistery, it should be remembered, was imagined to be like the Pantheon, a classical temple converted into a place of Christian worship. In such a case, its latterday function associated its present with its (supposed) past; in many others, though, the reuse of an ancient monument worked to efface its original meaning. Leaving aside the cases of pillaging and subsequent incorporation of spolia into new buildings, we can think instead of the fortunes of an amphitheatre like that of Arles in Provence.

The Arenes of Arles, as it appeared in 1686. The medieval towers remain but the interior and exterior have been ‘cleaned’ of habitations.

We can visit the empty oval shape of the Arènes in which bull fights are now staged, but only because of an early nineteenth-century clearing of its contents: the medieval space was both filled and encrusted with accretions of homes and shops, with the amphitheatre housing within it also churches, streets and squares. In making such a space useable how necessary was a process of forgetting its past? Was the place’s previous identity even as much as a ghost to its inheritors? In short, did it become liveable at the expense of losing its monumentality?

It might also be said that the monumental imposes itself upon its location, which while it does not seek to be in toto that space, it does want to assert itself as its defining element. Yet, surely more fundamental to the definition of most cities than any man-made edifice was their natural position. The Roman empire, in establishing its new towns (the subject of Louise Revell’s opening paper), may have been confident enough in its military prowess and its irrigational technology to eschew places with natural advantages but, for most earlier and later settlements, a defensible hill or a riverside location, for instance, was the most appropriate placing for a city. The advantages were often, of course, not solely practical: the sense of their being a divine presence in the springs or the glades of a location provided it with a charisma that made it suitable not just for one settlement but for repeated inhabitation. That charisma could die or, indeed, become anathema, if a location became feared, say, as a space owned by a former people’s dead; a locale, then, might be entirely abandoned but many were revived, slightly askew to their previous settlement, a process that makes the topographical history of a city often like a multiple and shifting palimpsest.

This point touches on a theme that was emphasised during the day’s proceedings: it is a theme that can be described in terms of distance, but in Trevor Dean’s characteristically suggestive paper it was also expressed as the variety of types of proximity possible within the city. He talked in terms of the relationship between individuals, as, that is, the different types of space that people would place between themselves depending on the actions they were sharing. Obviously, similar analysis could be applied to the physical structures of the city. The type of distance I have just discussed at the end of the previous paragraph is a mental or cultural one demanding a physical separation from what went earlier. At the same time, the right running of an urban community demands particular types of distance be imposed. This is particularly clear in the organisation of streets in cultures that precede Haussmann’s penchant for boulevards (to my mind, an inhuman imposition on cityscape). As Jo van Steenbergen described in relation to Cairo, there was a natural propensity for shops and stalls to encroach on the passable space, reducing a street to an alley. In other Islamic cities, as Hugh Kennedy mentioned, the sultan could decree that a thoroughfare should be no narrower than 20m. He also pointed out that the requirements of streets necessarily differed between cultures where traffic was mainly wagon-based and those were pack-animals like camels were the norm. The solutions found to the competing demands for passable and commercial space then could differ on the basis of what would actually pass through that space. Yet, what is perhaps most essential here is that tension: a city exists as an invitation to trade but an over-abundance of trade could undermine the ability to carry out that essential activity.

Nor is this the only tension at the heart of urban existence. It occurred to me listening to Patrick Lantschner’s paper comparing revolts in late medieval Verona, Bologna and Florence that elements which provide the very definition of a city and its success also breed its failure. As he reminded us in discussion, two focal points for revolt were the bridge and the piazza, locations essential to the urban identity. A city’s squares provide its most characteristic locales but they provide spaces that can also permit and perhaps encourage activities that undermine its fabric. Yet, this might be to complain about the very nature of the experience of a city. The discord that has often been said to be endemic in urban life made cities seem failed entities to some medieval and later observers, but we do not need to be Machiavelli to recognise that the inherent tensions and destructive tendencies could also be functions of the generative potential of a city’s necessarily plural identity.

From the outside, of course, cities can seem as places of excess and immorality, places from which laws were promulgated only themselves to be hives of the illicit. But one of the other issues that ran like a submerged stream through the discussion was how far it is possible to separate ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, even when a city is physically separated, as it so often was in Christendom (though not in Roman or Islamic culture), by its walls. I mused at the end whether city-living changed one’s concept of temporal space; I did so in order to hint at a problematic dynamic: the city was regulated by its human habits – the closing of its gates, the organisation of its market days – which might be seen to be an attempt to break out of the natural cycle of the seasons. Yet, for its market days, a city was dependent on outsiders, particularly on country-dwellers deigning to dirty their feet by stepping into the dusty square. The success of the city could not be created entirely within its walls but by its ability to pull in, like a magnet, the potential of its hinterland. That hinterland, though, might not be simply a contado of cultivated fields; regimes often took a mark of their own success to be their control of towns and, indeed, of subject cities. In other words, can we talk of one type of city or do we need to distinguish the metropolis and even the megalopolis from other forms or urban living? On the other hand, it is a more urgent task to attempt to reintegrate the urban environment with its immediate context, recognising that the city lived off – some might say was a parasite of – the countryside?

As you can see, the day fruitfully ended with more questions than premature answers. I very much look forward to continuing this conversation at the next of these workshops. And, so, if it is Tuesday 19th March, it will have to be the British School at Rome, where we will be discussing religion and the Mediterranean city.

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2 Responses

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  1. senm_webmistress said, on 28 November, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    And what about the city shaping the countryside? City landowners (most of them country-born to start with, or with country-born ancestors) had a very large part in shaping the Sienese or the Florentine country landscape as we see it today,

  2. […] We have just had the third and final colloquium on the Mediterranean City, a year minus a day after the first, which was held in St Andrews, on Space. We had had spring in the British School at Rome, where we discussed Religion, and now we – some […]


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