Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Required Reading

A new review of THE POLITICS OF THE PIAZZA appeared in

TOWN PLANNING REVIEW Volume 81 Number 6 2010


The Politics of the Piazza:

The History and Meaning of the Italian Square

Eamonn Canniffe, Farnham, Ashgate, 2008, 304 pp.,

Since the rise of New Urbanism in the 1990s

onwards, the Italian square – better known

as the piazza – has become a reference point

for those who advocate a return to traditional

urban form. Therefore a book dealing with

its history and meaning should be a welcome

addition for urban design practitioners and to

the literature dealing with this topic. Eamonn

Canniffe is well placed to provide this being

a former Rome Scholar, a principal lecturer

at the Manchester School of Architecture

and the author of several books dealing with


His book is a densely written account

which examines the roots of Italian urban

form, followed by a chronological sequence

from the Renaissance through Mannerism

and Baroque, neo-classicism, Fascism,

neo-realism and neo-rationalism to the

present day. The author’s text is illustrated

with his own black and white photographs,

some it has to be said of variable quality. In

addition there are 19 ‘diagrams’ of some of

the piazzas examined. Many of these are

rather dull isometric line drawings, produced

in a style reminiscent of James Stirling’s

isometrics of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of

the diagrams appear to be photographs of

coloured drawings of interesting and even

delightful spatial studies, perhaps produced

by Canniffe when he was a Rome Scholar. It

is a pity their provenance is not explained in


Undoubtedly Canniffe’s examination

of such places is thoughtful, but in many

cases the details can only be appreciated

by those readers already familiar with the

piazza concerned. A good example of this is

the description of the Piazza IV Novembre

in Perugia, where three to four pages are

devoted to a highly detailed history and

analysis supported by photographs, but with

only two indifferent isometric diagrams. This

calls out for an annotated plan so that the

author’s comments can be followed, as well

as mapping to locate the piazza in the interesting

urban fabric of Perugia.

Although the author professes to be

examining the ‘history and meaning’ of the

various squares he studies, some of the key

examples seem to be short of relevant detail.

For example, his discussion of the famous

Piazza del Campo in Siena does not explain

its establishment as a result of the struggle of

the city to exert its authority over the group

of powerful families that controlled Siena in

the mid to late thirteenth century. Instead we

are given a description of the form of the

piazza which again lacks the focus of a plan

and cross sections to aid understanding.

Parts III and IV of the book provide

accounts of less familiar more recent periods

of Italian history. Of particular interest is

Italy’s periods of Fascism and neo-nationalism.

Piazza della Vittoria in Brescia was the

culmination of the re-planning of the city in

the late 1920s and served to glorify Mussolini.

It referred back to the Roman era in its

arrangement, detail and ‘refabrication’ of

genuine remains of the period. Interestingly

the author draws out the links with Camillo

Sitte’s organic, picturesque approach to the

handling of urban fabric, due to the architect

Piacentini being a disciple of Sitte. The

author comments perceptively here that

‘Piacentini’s work enabled authoritarian

power to be validated through the appeal to

specific urban memories, resting on foundations

which were archaeologically speculative,

reconstructed for propagandistic

purposes’. Such a comment could perhaps

be levelled at some of the work by adherents

of the New Urbanism movement, which

can often have an emphasis on debatable

historic references! It is a pity that Piacentini’s

baroque-style scheme for what is now a

suburb of Rome called EUR did not form a

greater part of the account. Originally EUR

(standing for Esposizione Universale Roma) was

intended as a world fair site for 1942, which

was cancelled. The design of EUR was

controversial and only resolved by commissioning

leaders of both the ‘reactionary’ and

‘progressive’ factions in Italian architecture

and urban planning. The author’s exposition

of this scheme and its place and meaning in

the development of modernism would have

been welcome.

The author acknowledges that neorealism

produced few significant new urban

spaces in the post-war period and his account

here relies more on publications (and even

Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita)

than spaces. However he does use Stazione

Termini, Rome, as an example, although

the related Piazza del Cinquecento is hardly

the designed or evolved space that is the real

object of the book. (This is a large space

devoted to a bus station and a traffic roundabout

opposite where Diocletian’s Baths once

stood.) He makes much of the incorporation

of the fourth-century BC Severan Wall into

the Terminus as it passes through the façade

at an oblique angle. Perhaps the cantilevered

vaulted roof reflects the shape of the Severan

Wall? However, the wall appears more like a

fly encapsulated in amber – a curiosity from

the past devoid of meaning rather than a

treasured cultural artefact.

The most significant urban theorist of

the neo-rationalist movement was Aldo

Rossi, who published the influential book The

Architecture of the City in 1966. While Rossi’s

book refers to historical examples (Piazza

dell’Antifeatro in Lucca built around the

remains of a Roman Amphitheatre), most

of it concentrates on buildings rather than

spaces. Canniffe does use Rossi’s incomplete

La Nuova Piazza, Fontivegge, as an example

to discuss for this period. Despite four pages

being devoted to this building complex (and

three large photographs showing the overscaled

buildings in Rossi’s rather primitive

style), it is impossible without knowing this

scheme to gain any real idea of the form of

this ‘piazza’.

Despite the author’s attempt to describe

the ‘piazza’ without an actual plan, this is

actually a public building complex (centro

direzionale) with a large ‘E-shaped’ block

standing to the side of a rectangular space in

which a double wall encloses a staircase-like

fountain stands. In this reviewer’s opinion it

hardly justifies its description as a piazza as

the term is normally understood – that is, a

public square surrounded by buildings. This

‘piazza’ relates well neither to the railway

station nor to the rest of the urban fabric of

Perugia, even accepting the piazza’s incompleteness

and Canniffe’s frank description

of the surroundings as being chaotic and


The penultimate chapter of the book deals

with the work of Carlo Scarpa in designing

memorials – notably for Piazza della Loggia in

Brascia. Here Scarpa proposed reconfiguring

the entire piazza, although this scheme was

then sharply reduced in scope. The author

makes a fascinating link between Scarpa’s

use of the ancient symbol of the labyrinth

and Italy’s confused political scene; polarised

between communism and capitalism, fascism

and democracy and what he calls ‘The

monster at the heart of Italian society – political

violence’. Canniffe devotes a lot of space

to an exegesis of the ‘labyrinth’ as a motif

of Scarpa’s conception of city space. He also

Book reviews 717

places a lot of emphasis on the ‘meaning’ of

Scarpa’s enigmatic memorial in the Piazza

della Loggia. How this abbreviated memorial

relates to the ‘labyrinth’ is unclear, although

the proceeding more elaborate scheme with

low walls around the site of the bomb blast

could be so interpreted.

The final pages are focussed on the

threat to traditional urban spaces from the

encroachment of commercial material –

notably the use of giant advertising screens

to cover restoration projects and even new

buildings. The impact of permanent giant

hoardings or projection screens on public

spaces is well illustrated; Canniffe notes there

has been a ‘collapse of conventional issues

of scale’ involved and that a city’s contemporary

appearance is being determined by

‘branding’. He ends by posing questions on

whether the piazza has a long-term future:

will the collective experience of sharing

images and information in the public realm

still be significant? Will the piazza remain the

appropriate location for political discourse?

Or will it be seen only as a repository of the

‘rich legacy of the past’? The author would

surely give positive answers, even if the piazza

as a form will involve further transformations

and adaptations.

Without doubt this book is impeccably

researched and has a rich nine-page bibliography

worthy of follow-up study by interested

professionals. There are few books that tackle

the subject with the depth of knowledge and

insights displayed by the author. While short

on plans of the piazzas described, it can be

welcomed as one of a short list of reference

works that are required reading for students

of urbanism and practicing urban designers


Derrick Hartley

University of Liverpool

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