Cities as ideas

Post image for Cities as ideas

14 August 2017
Rome Airport

I am beginning to understand that great cities are always infinitely more than themselves. By this I do not mean simply that a city comprises its present existence together with all of its history: I mean, rather, that it comprises all these things plus all attempts, in the past as well as in the present, to imagine it differently – or, alternatively, to reconstruct its long-lost past.

The Baroque reincarnation of London imagined and proposed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London is part of the soul of the city, despite the fact that it was never actually built. Similarly, the attempts of the 17th, 18th & 19th centuries to imaginatively reconstruct Rome form part of that city’s soul.

Going round the Colosseum yesterday, I was profoundly struck by a technical drawing showing a cross-section of the Colosseum in its totality during its heyday. This had been produced in the late 18th century under the auspices of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris.

To fully appreciate the brilliance of this piece of imaginative reconstruction, one must call to mind the fact that the Colosseum in the late 18th century was very different from the structure we see today. It had the aspect of a noble ruin, crumbling and invaded by vegetation – a mystical sight for poets to brood over, but not the crisp, clear, busy building of today.

Today’s Colosseum, indeed, could scarcely exist but for the work of the artist who made that technical drawing, which must have involved years of research, and may in fact have been the work of many hands. I only had a few moments to look at the drawing and skim-read the accompanying explanation, so I can only speculate. But it seems to me that that drawing, and the person or persons who created it, are as much a part of the soul of Rome as is the Colosseum itself. Great cities are actualities, but they are also ideas. As long as they can be imagined, they continue to exist in some form. Just like people.

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