bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Connectivity and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 24 November, 2013

First, we shaped the city, then we constructed worship within it, and now we have given it connections. 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 stalwarts of all three, some who had been to one before, plus several new and welcome faces – re-grouped in Oxford, to talk about Connectivity.

I will admit that this was, of the three, the one I was most keen to organise, relating as it does most closely to my research. I was not disappointed by our speakers who all followed the rubric of short interventions to stimulate discussion – and how they did! The room bubbled with ideas, too many to reduce to one analysis. Perhaps that, indeed, might be appropriate in the context of discussing the well-connected city.

What provided the main themes of the day were the structures of connection and the lived experience of dealing with its impact on the city. We moved, as in the previous colloquia, across the expanse of the Middle Sea, stopping at Acre, Alexandria and Seville, with special attention to the Adriatic (Ragusa / Dubvronik and Venice). Our chronological range was, if anything, yet more expansive than in previous sessions, stretching from the ancient world through the High Middle Ages into the fifteenth century and beyond into the ‘early modern period’.

The papers allowed us to consider whether some cities were more capable of taking advantage of long-term change than others, a place having a magnetic pull created by its location and association with patterns of movement, be they economic, religious or political. Conversation also introduced the important theme of the link between technology and connectivity, allowing us to wonder whether the sea routes of the Mediterranean always had advantage over land travel. Even with those sea routes, an extended voyage would be expected to have several land-falls, reminding us that long-distance connectivity requires staging posts – one city being a gateway to another, until a Rome or a Jerusalem is reached. The human movement between the cities of Egypt was attractively described by Georg Christ as urban transhumance, with the shift of power between the settlements tempered by tradition and by this circular movement of people. We also noted in our final discussion that it may not be just the city that is well-connected: monasteries and non-urban pilgrimage sites held their attraction, their pull. That said, however, for some such sites, their very inaccessibility stimulated the challenge of reaching them, while for others, their proximity to a city made them satellites to the urban star, though perhaps at times they might shine brighter than their larger neighbour. Perhaps, indeed, there was something of this in the relationship between the Benedictine monastery of the isle of Locum with the city of Ragusa, the fascinating subject of Magdalena Skoblar’s talk to us.

Teeming though the day was with suggestive topics, my personal focus since the afternoon ended has been on the experience of these connections within the cityscape. The day began with a positively pyrotechnical display by Nicholas Purcell in which, along with many other insights, he reminded us how a city might want to act as a break on connectivity, desiring a purity which was suspicious of the presence of aliens. As Andrew Jotischky and others pointed out, the city’s layout may be structured so as to place alien communities in defined quarters, in a process of confinement that both visitor and host might find protective. Nicholas also threw in to general discussion the axiom that you cannot step into the same city twice. Quite how fluid the physical cityscape might be, and whether all lacked fixity equally were issues that remained hanging. We remembered the previous discussion at the first of these colloquia where the contrast between the stone-built and mud-brick was highlighted and where we mused on the legacy of monumentality. As in that earlier conversation, so in this, the man-made achievement was surely most often less determining of a city’s identity than its natural location – but, as the example of Seville (which, in its ancient guise of Hispalis, was eloquently introduced to us by Simon Keay) reminds us through the changing course of ‘its’ river, the Guadalquivir, even those certainties were mutable. To such gradual shifts, we should add also the impacts of natural disasters, be the earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, and those which could be the act of more than just God, like the ever-present threat of destructive, purging fire in the city.

Yet, if, as Nicholas was persuading us, cities are themselves persuasive strategies that have managed to convince of their own longevity, security and supposed fixity, the process of persuasion, it seems to me, is not only through the construction of memory but through strategies of forgetting. In other words, we do not set foot into the same city because, whatever else, each time we enter, the weight of history has provided another layer of skin to the urban body, but to comprehend the place, we necessarily peel back some of those layers to find a core which we believe – perhaps forlornly – to be familiar. I have recently commented in another context about how an all-remembering mind could surely not cope with all the horrors that live beside the positive energies of any community, and a city learns how to forget and how to direct attention. So, when we stand in the Piazza della Signoria, we wonder at Florentine order, we might even look at the ground and see the – very recent – plaque to the spot where Savonarola was burnt, but do we ever look up and think on the bodies of criminals that dangled from the Palazzo or think of the traitors thrown from its ramparts?

I am reminded of the justly celebrated passage in Michel de Certeau where he talks of how ‘we’ walk in the city, making it liveable for us in a manner far from the attempted totalising vision of those who plan and order a city. His analysis is designed for modern living, and there were no de-humanising boulevards cut across the urban environments we were discussing. There is still, though, a fundamental truth applicable to our discussions which is our tendency – as city-dwellers – to comprehend through the walked experience, defining from our own vantage-point, not with a panoptic scan. But such solipsistic living is perhaps not confined to us walkers but is the thought pattern of the city itself: through its declaration of memories and its careful silences, it intends to simplify itself, to become knowable and manageable. But connectivity, however much it is celebrated as part of its character, is a challenge to such simplification. With the welter of alien influences that it imposes on the host – however much attempt to control or confine them there might be – they are inimical to a settled definition or urban identity. It is as if the city continually strives and fails to avoid being other.

It seems to me that this theme provides – just as the previous two colloquia have done – a concept generative of the city’s identity but also destructive of it. The quintessential spaces of the city, like the piazza, are also sites of disorder; the alliance between the urban and the religious is, likewise, potentially destabilising at the same time as being creative. Similarly, if, as I suggested in my comments on the second workshop, religion deepens urban space, then connectivity broadens it, hinting at the wondrous variety of the world and simultaneously attempting to encapsulate, capture and control it within the hemmed-in limits of the city’s boundaries. The city, in other words, attempts, within its confines, to order this world and touch the next, all the time finding it nigh on impossible fully to order itself – or perhaps even to be itself.