Monday, 20 February 2012

Yet another review of THE POLITICS OF THE PIAZZA

The following review of my 2008 book THE POLITICS OF THE PIAZZA by Sydney Conrad University of North Carolina Chapel Hill appears in the latest volume of Annali d’Italianistica 29 (2011) pp 481-484

Eamonn Canniffe The Politics of the Piazza: The History and Meaning of the Italian Square Hampshire: Ashgate 2008 pp 288

In The Politics of the Piazza, Eamonn Canniffe explores the influence that politics played in creating architectural spaces in Italy. There is a particular focus on the piazza as a public space, but also on other architectural designs that gave way to public spaces. Canniffe’s argument centers on the relationship between various political regimes, and their influence on creating and transforming public spaces in relation to urbanism. Starting from the Etruscans to present day society, the historical perspective incorporates many of the political and architectural developments of the time. The Politics of the Piazza goes beyond the external relationship of politics and architecture to explore present day themes such as biopolitics — how political regimes sought to control populations through urban design. What becomes apparent in Canniffe’s research is that the piazza is another name for an iconographic art form that has always communicated certain ideas to its populace. It is within these subliminal messages that one arrives at a deeper understanding of politics and cultural norms. Canniffe explores these topics placing fourteen chapters into the following four parts: the roots of Italian urban form, the early modern city, the city and national consciousness, and urban expression in an age of uncertainty.
In the first part, Canniffe gives readers a point of reference in early architectural design in delineating the lasting influence that Greek, Etruscan, and Roman civilizations had on public spaces. He explains the importance of examining urbanism in ancient civilizations through their conception of the world that consisted of religious views of the natural and physical world. Roman representation of public space stemmed largely from the previous two civilizations as the Romans used the same method of the celestial order to determine construction of new cities. Canniffe points to the Forum Romanum and Forum of Trajan to demonstrate this lasting influence of antiquity (21).
The rise of Christianity, after the collapse of the western Roman empire, gave way to new motifs in architectural design and public space. The formation of the longitudinal Christian basilica, the baptistery, and the surrounding public spaces for overflow took place around 300 A.D (37). Canniffe highlights the political and religious instability of the time, which had a direct relationship on the construction of new places of worship. Often, they were constructed in enclosed spaces, and attention was placed on interior design as seen in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice and Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. The interior of these architectural spaces represented the sacred, and through time the politicization and hierarchy of the church took place with the use of walls, porticoes, and other divisions that aided in defining the Christian hierarchy (40).
By the Middle Ages, the political landscape of the Italian peninsula consisted of city-states in the North, the Papacy in the center, and monarchial rule in the South. The political schism created by the Ghibellines and Guelphs provided a constant competition for political and territorial control. This competition between territories led to unique architectural structures that would set apart competing city-states. Canniffe argues that the geographic position and political stability contributed to certain kinds of public spaces. For instance, in Padua, the Republic had a close relationship to the populace and erected structures that were inviting. An example can be seen at the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, which had the communal space next to the market. Cities that tended to have political strife designed civic edifices around enclosed areas located in geographically strategic areas; those that did not have a geographic advantage over their enemies designed municipal buildings with huge piazzas and watch towers as a way to protect the city and to separate social activities from political duties (56).
In part two, Canniffe focuses on three aspects — humanism, representation of the ideal, and linear perspective — and how they anchored Renaissance urbanism until the end of the Baroque period (76). One of the most notable political changes during this period relates to the influence of the dynastic court. Powerful people, such as the Medici and Pope Nicholas V, advanced the humanistic agenda and dictated the path of urbanism where it had been previously accomplished by free republics. Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence and Piazza della Loggia in Brescia are two examples the author focuses on because of their use of geometric shapes as a way to revive classical themes of cosmology and the ideal.
In the third section, the debate turns to the onset of the scientific revolution that scrutinized previous architectural ideas and advocated rational forms of construction. Also, the field of archeology gained popularity and established a relationship between the ancient and modern world (153). Europe experienced dramatic changes during the nineteenth century because of industrialization and the mass movement of people that put into question a national architecture. After the Risorgimento, it became important to create not only a unified culture but also a unified architectural language that would seek to rival other Europe nations. By the nineteenth century, public spaces were designed with a sense of grandeur that was the marvel of other nations, and Piazza del Duomo and the Galleria in Milan were the quintessential examples. The erection of these two public spaces brought together the use of glass, cast-iron technology, and a dome that was elongated into an under-crossing that symbolized in many ways a national destiny (173). The close relationship between architecture and national identity continued until the fall of Fascism. Political regimes, whether it was the monarchy of the Savoy or the authoritarianism of Mussolini, sought to create from above a kind of national identity.
The concluding section of Canniffe’s work takes a look at the present day use of the piazza by examining what messages are being communicated. After the fall of Fascism, the piazza underwent a slow process of transformation. In many ways, it represented a mirror into the past, clinging to various vestiges that defined urbanism for the past several hundred years. One major change that affected the piazza occurred because of Italy’s economic and cultural position since the 1980s (252). The piazza has become a public space for both political and commercial advertisement, and the topology of public spaces now communicates through the visual images of billboards, walls, and posters of various products that highlight the underpinnings of a consumer society. Canniffe concludes his discussion of the future of the Italian piazza on a skeptical note: will it always be tied to its past or will it continue to be an important political public space?

Sydney Conrad University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

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