Monday, 21 February 2011

Slippery Subject

The following review by Federico Caprotti of The Politics of the Piazza appeared in the journal Space and Polity Volume 14 Number 2 2010 pages 209-210

Eamonn Canniffe (2008) The Politics of the Piazza: The History and Meaning of the Italian Square (Ashgate: Aldershot), pp. 288, ISBN 978-0-7546-4716-4, £40.00.

Public space has always been fluid in the Italian city. Public and private spheres intermingle and intersect in myriad ways in the cities of the peninsula, from the narrow, conspiratorial calle of Venice which open up into wide, sudden piazze, to the regenerated landscapes of concrete and steel in Milan's new urban quarters. The piazza is a feature which has remained central to the articulation of public life in Italy throughout the past two millennia; it, too, has undergone transformations in form, function, and meaning. From Roman fora to the spaces used by political movements such as the girotondini in the 2000s, the piazza is deeply rooted within Italy's material and political consciousness. In The Politics of the Piazza, Eamonn Canniffe does a good job of tracing the development and transformations of urban space which have resulted in the spatially, culturally and politically multi-layered urban spaces we witness today in the Italian city.

Canniffe takes the reader on a detailed journey through time, taking the Roman period as a starting point, and ending with the piazzas of today, with their advertising hoardings, art walls, and virtual technologies. Overall, the book tries to show that in the transformation of the spaces of the piazza, 'shifts between autocratic and democratic forms of government employ subtly nuanced spatial and iconographic languages to form the self-image of the polis and project an ideology onto a wider world' (p.1).The book is articulated in four sections, comprising 14 chapters. The first section's three chapters trace the roots of Italian urban form, from Roman times, through early Christianity, and on to the Middle Ages. In the first chapter, for example, Canniffe teases out the complex, multiple urban accretions in Rome's forum, an urban space which developed in several variations over many centuries. The chapter posits a well-defined contrast between the transformed Roman forum and that of Pompeii, seen as a snapshot, frozen in ash in A.D. 79, or that of Brixia (modern-day Brescia), first excavated in the 1820s during a period of Austrian occupation.

This is followed, in the second chapter, by a fascinating analysis of the changing urban imaginary introduced by Christianity. With the waning of the Roman empire, new centres of urban public life arose within existing cities. Canniffe argues that one of the main changes to take place was the shift in urban focus to Christian sites, previously relegated to the urban periphery: the ‘paradigm which provided the model for emulation’ (p.38) was no longer Rome, but Jerusalem. In Rome itself, a ‘new holy city was created out of the carcass of ancient urban practices’ (p.39). Indeed, new Christian buildings were sometimes radically different from what had existed before, for example in the promotion of collective worship in churches: the distinction between religious and public spaces thus became less porous. Overall, the chapter convincingly argues that the public spaces of later medieval piazze can be found in embryonic form in these spaces of juncture between Christian religious buildings and the street, where believers gathered before ceremonies. This is exemplified by cases such as the Lateran; however, Canniffe also uses examples from other imperial cities, such as the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.

The early modern city forms the focus of the second section of the book, which takes the reader from the early and high Renaissance (Rinascimento would have better served the book’s purpose), to mannerism and the baroque. The fifth chapter, in particular, is a highly enjoyable study of urban space in the high Renaissance, focusing on the role of Bramante in Vigevano, but also on exemplary cases from Rome and Venice. The third section then moves on to considering the piazza and urban space during the formation of an Italian national consciousness, from neo-classicism, to the Risorgimento – Italy’s struggle for national unity – and the use of urban space, planning and architecture during the fascist era. In the tenth chapter, Canniffe deals with the thorny issue of fascism’s considerable impact on Italian urban space, and presents insightful analyses of key spaces such as Moretti’s Piazzale dell’Impero (incorrectly referred to as Piazzale del Impero throughout the book), in Rome. However, the author gets carried away arguing about the links between anthropocentrism, fascism and urban space in the Piazzale dell’Impero, stating that ‘an anthropomorphic reading of the space would feature the circular fountain as the head, with the central platform as the spine, the monolithic inscribed blocks as the ribs, and the obelisk as the penis’ (pp.200-201). As imaginative as fascist architects and planners could be, this reviewer thinks that they were probably not that imaginative.

The books’s fourth section is exciting, in that it moves into the contemporary era, considering neo-realist urbanism, Aldo Rossi’s influence on neo-rationalism, and the city of the Anni di Piombo (the ‘Years of Lead’). The Politics of the Piazza ends by delving into the still-changing role of the piazza and its intermeshing with the ‘politics of the present’ in an era in which political struggle and the commercialisation of urban space go hand in hand.

Canniffe's writing style makes the oft-complicated layering of meanings, buildings and spaces in the piazze he analyses easy to understand and follow. The book could easily have focused on Italy's 'main' urban centres as sources of examples; however, Canniffe also traces the development of the piazza through other centres too, notably smaller towns such as Brescia, or even smaller settlements such as Torcello, in the Venetian lagoon. However, the book is marred, in places, by inaccuracies in editing. For example, in the discussion of the reuse of amphitheatres in Lucca (p.34), the author refers the reader to an illustration of this example; however, the illustration which Canniffe points to is located in the following chapter, and does not show the impact of Lucca’s elliptical amphitheatre, but the space facing the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. Likewise, Novocento (p.186) should be Novecento; and political parties’ names should be capitalised (p.253). Notwithstanding these minor inaccuracies, the book is a good read and will be an ideal addition to any collection focusing on the politics of urban spaces, urban culture, and history. The richness of use of visual materials is another positive feature: the book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs, as well as plans and diagrams. Finally, The Politics of the Piazza is well-referenced, without getting bogged down in distracting debates and literatures: the focus here is always on the slippery subject at hand, the piazza in all its manifestations.

Federico Caprotti University College London

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