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13.08.03, Marina, The Italian Piazza Transformed

13.08.03, Marina, The Italian Piazza Transformed

This colorful, crisply written volume traces the formation of the two main public spaces of medieval Parma: the cathedral square (platea maioris ecclesiae) and the platea magna framed by the palaces of the commune. The bulk of the text (chs. 1-2, pp. 24-103) is devoted to the explication of this history; it is followed by a brief chapter on the legislation governing the form and use of the squares, and a somewhat longer one on the cultural and political values they represented and enforced. Following a short epilogue, three appendices present information that would have impeded the flow of the text: a discussion of Parmesan units of measure; a catalogue of the (mostly destroyed) communal buildings; and a translation of a passage in the chronicle of Salimbene de Adam that describes notable building projects of the latter part of the thirteenth century.

The transformation of the "clear but amorphous open space" (26) in front of the cathedral began in 1196 with the foundation of the freestanding octagonal baptistery on its south side. Although the site was probably dictated by the canal that ran beneath it, Marina demonstrates that the octagon was positioned so that its axis intersected that of the cathedral at a point in the open space approximately 28 m. from each, a distance determined by the width of the cathedral's facade. The geometry of the space was thus established, and it was realized in 1233 by an addition to the bishop's palace at the west, which defined the third side of a square approximately 56 m. (28x2) on a side. A bell tower begun in 1284 intruded on the square from the southeast, but it also established a focal point for those entering the platea from the street at its southwest corner.

The platea of the commune was on the site of Parma's ancient Forum, where the cardo and the decumanus intersected. Beginning in 1221, the earliest communal buildings were clustered on the east side of the cardo, forming a compound that ultimately forced a rerouting of the street to accommodate the compound's expansion. These buildings made no particular address to the space of the Forum, and the platea emerged only in 1282, when the commune expropriated and demolished a large block of private buildings north of the decumanus to create, "in a single urbanistic stroke" (94), a roughly square space framed by a palatium novum de platea on its north side, by the short side of another new palace on the east, and by the pre-existing cluster in the southeast corner. Since the size of the new platea exceeded the commune's functional needs, Marina concludes that its reason for being was primarily representational and competitive: to outdo the square of the bishop.

The problematic and the method of these chapters are indebted to the work of the author's dissertation advisor, Marvin Trachtenberg, whose brilliant analysis of the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria in Florence was published in 1997 (Dominion of the Eye. Urbanism, Art, and Power in Early Modern Florence, Cambridge University Press). Like Trachtenberg, Marina made her observations on the basis of laborious empirical research, utilizing documentary and graphic sources and surveys, including laser-assisted surveys made especially for her project. Partly because she was dealing with an earlier time frame (thirteenth as opposed to fourteenth century), her results are not as consistent as Trachtenberg's nor as clean. Whereas Trachtenberg was able to base his geometric analyses almost exclusively on linear measurements expressed in Florentine braccia (1 braccio = .5836 m.), Marina found that the medieval Parmesan braccio da muro (.5452 m.) did not produce usable results, no more than the earlier pertica and pes. She identifies a 58.4-cm. "older braccio" that accounts for parts of the cathedral and the baptistery, and a 54-cm. unit close to the braccio da muro that may have been employed in the campanile. In the absence of a single historical unit that accounts for all cases, her calculations are made with modern meters.

Unlike Trachtenberg, who argued that key buildings of Florence "imprinted" themselves on surrounding spaces in order to create geometrically calculated perspectival views, Marina does not find that the optimal 45 degree viewing angle was the driving force in the generation of Parma's episcopal square, although it does occur at some points. More significant, in her view, are the proportional relationships that bind buildings and space together, like the 1:2 ratio between the height of the cathedral and baptistery and the width of the platea, the 1:3 ratio between the maximum height of the bishop's palace and the same width, and the 2:3 ratio between the maximum height of the bishop's palace and the height of the cathedral. No such relationships can be demonstrated for the platea of the commune because the dimensions of the palaces surrounding it are unknown; we learn only that the proportions of the open space created in 1282 were 16:17, effectively square. In the absence of geometric information Marina stresses the square's great size and its "panoptic" properties.

Like most contemporary interpreters, Marina takes regulated space to be a form of social control. An open space surrounded by sites of authority is almost by definition "panoptic." She tends to take the panoptic function literally (see the diagrams on pp. 132-133) and to ascribe motives of surveillance equally to the bishop and the podestà. As another reviewer has already remarked, the panopticon may not be the right conceptual tool for reconstructing the "urban imaginary" of thirteenth-century Parma, as it is tied to a totalitarian model of power quite unlike the fragmented and competitive ecclesio-communal government Marina describes (Niall Atkinson, in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 72/1 [2013]). This and the other tropes of the concluding interpretive chapter--romanitas, magnificence, courtliness--have a formulaic quality that seems to speak more to the expectations of a certain kind of reader than to the findings of chapters 1 and 2. This is not to say that they are not relevant, for they are tropes of the medieval period as much as of contemporary art history; but they are generic rather than specific to the author's empirical discoveries.

The significant contribution of the book is the discovery and clear explication of an urban "will-to-order" a century before the innovations described by Trachtenberg and previously by David Friedman. The processes involved, which are best understood in the cathedral square because of the preservation of its surrounding buildings, were typically medieval, an extension of the principle of modular, proportional design from the plan and elevation of the church to the space in front of it. Buried in an appendix is the intriguing notice that the hypothetical "older braccio" can be found in some of the dimensions of the cathedral's ground plan, and that a module of 12 "older braccia" is roughly equal to the 7-m. module used by Marina in the text (142-143). Although the author's understandable restriction of her study to space outside the buildings precluded such analysis, it would certainly be interesting to know if the underlying geometry of the platea, with sides eight times the length of the 7-m./12-older-braccia module, appeared in the plan and elevation of the cathedral or only on its facade. And what happened in 1284, when a new unit of measure appeared? Was it operative in the platea of the commune begun two years earlier? Some of these questions cannot be answered for lack of evidence, but the analysis as it stands seems somewhat restricted.

In the brief but thoughtful epilogue, the author summarizes the differences and commonalities between the squares of thirteenth-century Parma and the later piazze of Florence, Pisa, and Siena. She concludes with the hope that her study of Parma will inspire others to investigate such contemporary Lombard cities as Cremona and Modena, a wish almost certain to be fulfilled. Marina has opened the door to a promising new area of research. She has admirably modeled the effort and ingenuity that must go into such studies, as well as their considerable rewards.