“They who govern must have the beauty of the city at heart, to offer delight and joy to strangers, and for the honour, prosperity and growth of the city and its citizens.”
Constitution of Siena, 1309
Writing about beauty is always a difficult task. An extensive literature already exists as the theme concerns the sense of the individual and of the community. Indeed, while its subjectivity is undeniable, there are shared codes within homogeneous social contexts, and the criteria that define it are in turn subject to temporal variables. That said, I must express a point of view of my own, and in order to do so I will try to summarise my experience as a designer. The concept of “projecting” contained in the word project conveys the idea of future promise, which gives meaning and direction to life itself.
As human beings, having satisfied our basic needs, we feel alive because we desire – but to desire entails an awareness of what is missing. Beauty is therefore the missing part of ourselves to which we aspire and which is able to amaze, surprise and, above all, make us complete.
We are forced to measure ourselves against reality, but we prefer a representation of it. Thus, our constant yearning for beauty induces us to dress our thoughts in the most appropriate words, letting the clothes we wear, and the houses we live in and their furnishings, speak for us… In other words, we ensure that giveaway signs of our identity, ones that are capable of representing us in a relationship, are either implicitly or explicitly visible on every point of contact with others.
This is our personal future promise, because it is precisely on these two things, representations and relationships, that our civilisation has been built – the latter’s most visible and concrete expression being the city. Architecture, on the other hand, is the organisation of space which is what, in turn, generates relationships.
When we look, albeit inattentively, at buildings in an urban environment, we easily grasp the intended message that its inhabitants have, implicitly, conveyed over the ages: such buildings were their future promise, and continue to be precisely that. It is no coincidence that the Latin word “civis” means both citizen and civilisation, because cities have always been the places where ideas are born, the appointed space for debating them. After all, doesn’t the word politics derive from the Greek “polis” (city)?
Our cities’ “Space/Time” (cit. Bob Wilson) allows us to read a tale spanning centuries, if not indeed (and often) millennia, a tale that has been handed down to us by our ancestors and which we must, in turn, pass on.
But alongside the “noble” notion of a city’s beauty there is another, apparently less important one; yet it is the one with which we are most directly in contact, whether we are walking or moving by means of transport. It is the city made up of streets and pavements, of horizontal and vertical signposts, of shops and their signage, of traffic lights, moving or stationary cars and public transport, of parks, flowerbeds, street furniture, doorbells and letterboxes…
This too is a narrative, albeit a fragmentary and heterogeneous one, capable of allowing us to grasp almost immediately that sense of future promise which is inherent in the yearning for beauty.
I remember the railing of a suburban apartment block, studded with some thirty letterboxes, each one different from the other and arranged in haphazard order. An episode of little importance, certainly, but which bespoke the absolute lack of communication between the hapless residents of that building: where there is no communication, there can be no relationships and, consequently, no recognition either.
As long as we are on the giving or receiving end of promise, we are at the centre of life; the elderly, the sick, the dispossessed are not, and consequently lose their longing for beauty: in the absence of promise, these people feel themselves to be in the suburbs of their own existence.
By applying this reasoning to the idea of a city, where “suburbia” (in the worst sense of the word) creeps into the downtown areas, the perception of decay becomes tangible.
In this sense, it is impossible to contradict the statement that Rome is an extremely beautiful city. Such a statement is, however, a synecdoche because the reference is limited to Rome’s historical centre, i.e. to the urban area immediately adjacent to the Aurelian walls, and to other neighbourhoods or prestigious urban “satellites”.
The monstrosities of jerry-building from the 1950s onwards have resulted in such a loss of beauty – first from the landscape and then from the city itself – that cementification has become a real disease, spreading from the suburbs to the centre.
Via Sistina, for example, is an axis that was planned by Pope Sixtus V to ideally connect the Pincian Hill and the Church of the Trinità dei Monti with the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, passing by the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. A Renaissance gem of a road, it was designed by Domenico Fontana to show to advantage the city’s orography, the latter being reminiscent of the streets of San Francisco: an uphill/downhill undulation resulting in scenic perspectives, thanks also to the beauty of the buildings and numerous monuments.
Large hotels, art galleries, jewellers and quality shops overlooked the street. Fortunately, at least in the upper part close to Trinità dei Monti, a uniformity consistent with the quality of the past has survived. But as we descend towards Piazza Barberini, the commercial activities degrade into walk-in “euro shops” (i.e. shops selling souvenirs for €1), convenience stores open until late into the night where underage customers can buy alcohol, clothes shops offering counterfeit designer labels, touristy restaurants decked out with the kitsch trappings of a phony Italian cuisine: red-checkered tablecloths, long-necked flasks of wine, and fresh pasta on display in the middle of the street…
The cause of Rome’s degradation lies in the fact that we have allowed our gaze and habits to grow accustomed to an aesthetic of ugliness which, multiplied over and over again, ends up in practice by legitimising the loss of decorum – and not only urban.
Consequently, the edifying role of beauty has also been lost: to return to the case of Via Sistina, a child today has no idea what that street used to look like and will take its current state for granted, assuming it to be the standard.
It is the city administrators’ responsibility to define future promise for the Italian capital, one that is capable of revitalising it in terms of contemporary beauty.
Otherwise Rome’s decline may become irreversible.
On the other hand, there are situations where, fortunately, contagion becomes virtuous and produces forms of contemporary beauty. Twenty years ago Milan was still struggling to make amends for the nightmare caused by the “Clean Hands” scandals of the previous decade. Thanks to the forward-looking vision of its administrators in those days, as well as to the boldness of certain entrepreneurs, the city has radically changed its skyline and, with it, the perception, behaviour and sense of belonging of its inhabitants.
The Santa Giulia, Porta Nuova and City Life projects were followed by several others, in a sort of pursuit of beauty which was globally showcased thanks to Expo 2015.
In other words, Milan has regained its future promise and has once again become the country’s steering city with a calling card that is in line with that of other important large cities.
Today, however, the theme of beauty and the city is experiencing an epochal shift, and while we are all witnessing it, we are as yet unable to read its effects.
The pandemic has not only affected our lives in health, financial and social terms, but has also acted as a catalyst of pre-existing phenomena which are now much more manifest and incisively present in our daily lives.
As Pope Francis has observed: “We are not living an era of change but a change of era.” The notion of space, for example, has been experiencing the dichotomy between real life and virtual reality for more than two decades. We have suddenly realised that we spend more than half our active time in the virtual time of our devices and we became aware during the lockdown that the distinction is being gradually wiped out in favour of a progressive integration.
In short, there exists an as-yet-to-be-explored notion of space, one that is capable of generating a previously inconceivable multitude of relationships. All this is already in itself a future promise. Let us therefore prepare ourselves for a new yearning for beauty, knowing that the best – true beauty – is yet to come.
Published in “Sulla bellezza così antica e così nuova della città”, Quaderno 14 Fondazione Dioguardi, edited by Vincenzo D’Alba, Silvana Kuhtz, Francesco Maggiore, Vanna Maraglino, pp. 100-103, 2022. ISBN 978-88-6922-184-2.