14.05.14, Smith and Gadeyne, eds., Perspectives on Public Space in Rome

Main Article Content

Carrie Beneš

The Medieval Review 14.05.14

Smith, Gregory and Jan Gadeyne. Perspectives on Public Space in Rome, from Antiquity to the Present Day . Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. xxxiii, 400. ISBN: 9781409463696.

Reviewed by:
Carrie Beneš
New College of Florida

Ever since Aristotle defined man as political--literally, as someone who lives in a polis--scholars and theorists have been trying to explain the connections between people's social relationships and the space in which they occur. To Aristotle, for example, the social and political space of the agora enabled men's fullest expression of their humanity through collective discussion and participation in Athenian democracy. Since then, other models of the urban experience (based on economic, juridical, architectural, and other criteria) have been identified, but the distinction between public and private space remains a constant thread through each. The present volume both reflects and engages in ongoing debate about the definition and purpose of public space. Resulting from a seminar held in conjunction with the first Biennial of Public Space (2011, Rome), the book focuses on "the idea of public space as expressed through two thousand years of Rome's history...[according to] the conviction that no other western city could offer a showcase for the evolving character of public space over such a long stretch of time" (1). The city thus serves as a kind of longue-durée laboratory for the editors and authors of the volume to reflect not only on the nature of public space, but also on the reciprocal relationship between abstract ideas and physical reality. Rome is an ideal subject for such investigation--because of its crucial role in shaping the western idea of what a city is or should be, and also because of the sheer variety in its history over the more-than-two-thousand years of its existence.

The editors' Introduction acknowledges the "protean" nature of the concept of the "public", and identifies three potential core aspects of the idea--public ownership, public accessibility, and public assembly--to focus their investigation of Roman space (2, 5). They state their desire to create cross-disciplinary debate across a wide range of historical periods, and note the roles played--for good or ill--in the creation of public space by: political participation and claims of authority, the formation and affirmation of collective identity, economic exchange and commodification, and the experience of social diversity, including stratification and exclusion. Thus the volume's seemingly narrow focus ("public space in Rome") nevertheless encompasses a vast expanse of potential contributions, and the editors' attempts to achieve methodological and chronological diversity are not entirely successful. For example, all but one of the first nine chapters--i.e. those dealing with the pre-modern period--were written by scholars based in departments of art history (including art, architecture, and archaeology), which results in a certain sameness of approach.

Similarly, the editors separate the volume into six chronological parts, each of which contains two or three chapters. This seems fairly balanced, but closer attention reveals that the first two thousand years of Rome's history (foundation to c. AD 1000) are represented by only the first four chapters of the volume (with only a single chapter on ancient Rome), while the most recent six hundred years (c. 1400 to the present) are treated in the following ten chapters. It is true that conference organizers are at the mercy of those who choose to submit papers, but this uneven chronological balance has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating outdated historiographical stereotypes (for example, the idea that nothing interesting happened in Rome between AD 1100 and 1400).

Readers of The Medieval Review will thus find much that is interesting amid much that is frustrating in the volume. The three articles specifically on late antique and medieval topics are worthy of broad readership and dissemination, in part because they all work effectively against the stereotypes identified above. In Chapter 2, Dallas DeForest argues for the continuing importance of the imperial thermae in late antique Rome (claiming that, contrary to popular belief, most of the thermae were maintained and functioning into the sixth century). In Chapter 3, Jan Gadeyne discusses how continuous urban habitation combined with early medieval deterioration of the monumental complexes on the Campus Martius encouraged the development of "shortcuts" through previously contained classical spaces, thus creating the medieval street system in that area. In Chapter 4, Lila Yawn explores the broader shift from public (or state) ownership of classical public space to private (or institutional) ownership in the Middle Ages by focusing on public access to and action in public space in the period 1050-1100, revealing "the ways in which urban space acted as a medium of coercion, cohesion, and self-representation during the turbulent years" of the eleventh century.

Chapters 5 through 9 discuss various building projects and uses of public space in early modern Rome, generally through the lens of political display. Chapter 5, by Ioana Jimborean, analyzes the "visualization of power" involved in the construction of the loggia dei benedizioni at St. Peter's under Pope Pius II (1458-1464), effectively balancing the authority claimed by the architectural structure itself (which was based on numerous classical and medieval models) with its purpose as a dais for public appearances by the pope. The following two chapters shift their focus to the Capitoline, with Tamara Smithers (Chapter 6) focusing on Michelangelo's redesign of the piazza in the 1560s and Paul Anderson (Chapter 7) on the "triumphal ceiling" installed in S. Maria in Aracoeli following the papal victory at Lepanto in 1571. All three of these (which make up the "Renaissance" section of the book) are fairly traditional art-historical analyses of how monumental architecture reflects a ruling body's values and self-representational goals. Chapters 8 and 9, by Jasmine Cloud and Joanna Norman respectively, are more innovative in that they deal more with space, holistically defined, than with architecture. Cloud explores the Roman Forum as it was reframed from a cattle market back into a monumental space in the seventeenth century, while Norman examines the private purposes of public spectacles in Rome (particularly in Piazza Navona) in the same period.

Moving away from the intersection of monumental architecture and political culture, the remainder of the articles in the volume, those on modern and contemporary Rome, give more of an emphasis to process--the mental processes by which people experience and interpret the urban fabric, or the consequences of particular choices of urban planning or construction. In a way, it is unfortunate that these approaches are not reflected more in the earlier chapters of the volume; in this regard, the chapters by Gadeyne and Yawn are unusual and worthy of particular note, in that they deal more with process than with representation.

Although the book is commendably equipped with supporting photographs and maps, frequent unmapped place names, complex spatial references, and specialized disciplinary terminology may discourage readers who are not already familiar with the areas of Rome and methodologies being described. The irregular formatting of the book is also distracting: the author of each chapter appears to have made his or her own decisions about such elements as documentation style and treatment of foreign-language words, and not all of these are copyedited or internally consistent. On a book-wide level, even the capitalization of chapter titles is variable.

All in all, this is a very worthy but very uneven volume. It makes a valuable point about the many and diverse ways public space has been defined, used, interpreted, and implemented over the several millennia of Rome's history, but does not succeed in providing more than a seemingly random set of examples to demonstrate this fact. Indeed, instead of creating synchronicity between scholars of different time periods with different areas of expertise, it tends to perpetuate the stereotype that the built environment of the past is the exclusive domain of archaeologists and art historians, while that of the present is the domain of architects and urban planners. This works against the editors' stated aims of methodological diversity, innovation, and cross-disciplinary engagement. It is also a missed opportunity, since space and material culture are hot topics in many disciplines at the moment, and valuable perspectives on the subject could have been offered by musicologists, theologians, historians, literary scholars, and others. Perspectives on Public Space in Rome is therefore typical of many edited volumes, in that while many of the contributions are independently worthwhile, the whole falls short of a holistic ideal. In that, perhaps, it is not unlike many public spaces.

List of Chapters:

Presentation (xvii-xxxiii): Ali Madanipour, "Crossroads in Space and Time."

Introduction (1-11): Gregory Smith and Jan Gadeyne.

Part I: Antiquity

Chapter 1 (15-41): Manuel Royo, "Omnis Caesareo cedit labor amphitheatro, unum pro cuntis fama loquetur opus (Mart., 1, 7-8)."

Chapter 2 (43-64): Dallas DeForest, "Emperors, Baths, and Public Space: The Imperial Thermae in Rome's Late Antique Landscape."

Part II: Middle Ages

Chapter 3 (67-83): Jan Gadeyne, "Shortcuts: Observations on the Formation of the Medieval Street System in Rome."

Chap. 4 (85-105): Lila Yawn, "Public Access, Action, and Display in Rome of the Later Anni Mille."

Part III: Renaissance

Chapter 5 (109-130): Ioana Jimborean, "La Loggia delle Benedizioni at St. Peter's in the Quattrocento and the Visualization of Power."

Chapter 6 (131-155): Paul Anderson, "Marcantonio Colonna and the Victory at Lepanto: the Framing of a Public Space at Santa Maria in Aracoeli."

Chapter 7 (157-183): Tamara Smithers, "'SPQR / CAPITOLIVM RESTITVIT': The Renovatio of the Campidoglio and Michelangelo's Use of the Giant Order."

Part IV: Baroque

Chapter 8 (187-209): Jasmine R. Cloud, "From Cattle Market to Public Promenade: Remaking the Forum in the Seventeenth Century."

Chapter 9 (211-229): Joanna Norman, "Performance and Politics in the Urban Spaces of Baroque Rome."

Part V: Modern

Chapter 10 (233-250): Paola Di Cori, "Public Space as Desire, Dream and History: Freud and Rome."

Chapter 11 (251-274): Vittorio Vidotto, "Political Public Space in Rome from 1870 to 2011."

Part VI: Contemporary

Chapter 12 (277-299): Gregory Smith, "Narrating Place: Perspectives on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Rome."

Chapter 13 (301-329): David Mayernik, "The Shape of Public Space: Place, Space, and Junkspace."

Chapter 14 (331-350): Marco Cremaschi, "Contemporary Debates on Public Space in Rome."

Article Details

Author Biography

Carrie Beneš

New College of Florida