Lessons from Northern Italian Cities: Part I

Chris Lewis, our president spent 25 years in Italy, so he really appreciated this series from Steven W. Semes for Traditional Builder Magazine.

I just returned from a ten-day trip to a number of northern Italian cities, most of which I had not visited before. Each of them is very different in character, and each presents intriguing lessons for preservationists and lovers of traditional architecture. I’ll present some impressions of these towns in the next two posts.

The townscape of Ferrara is exceptionally attractive and in great condition, with a minimum of modern intrusion. The entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes buildings spanning a wide range of centuries, types and styles. The unfinished campanile is attributed to the great Renaissance architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti.

On the main square, opposite the flank of the early medieval cathedral, is a modern building designed by Marcello Piacentini and constructed in the 1950s. The new building includes a shopping mall behind its façade of brick neo-Gothic arches, with two floors of office space above. The new structure incorporates remains of two older buildings on the site that had been bombed in the war: a medieval tower and a stone loggia.

No one would mistake the new building for a medieval structure (there is no ornament and the elevation is too uniform), and we are free to regret the absence of the older fabric; but Piacentini’s facade, with its materials and details echoing local precedent, at least allows the historic piazza to retain its character and sense of spatial enclosure. It deserves respect for not ruining the place; if it had been designed more recently, the outcome would most likely have been very different.

Everyone in town seems to be riding a bicycle. The topography is flat, and the street layout is just irregular enough to make riding (or walking, for that matter) enjoyable. (The streets remind me of the curious passage in Alberti’s treatise when he says that the streets of the town should “flow like rivers.”) I saw almost no motorcycles (unusual for Italy), and the entire historic center is a pedestrian zone with few cars allowed. This makes downtown Ferrara both lively and quiet. Can we imagine the streets of an American city filled with pedestrians and bicyclists? Maybe when gasoline reaches $10 per gallon?

Cremona: The Romanesque stone cathedral façade, finished off with a Renaissance pediment, is flanked by the brick Gothic campanile and Romanesque baptistery. Renaissance arcades tie the cathedral and campanile together. Cremona: The Romanesque stone cathedral façade, finished off with a Renaissance pediment, is flanked by the brick Gothic campanile and Romanesque baptistery. Renaissance arcades tie the cathedral and campanile together.

Parma and Cremona were next on the itinerary. They, too, lie in the flat plain of the Po, and both are lovingly preserved, largely intact medieval and Renaissance centers with few modern interventions. The stores are mostly locally owned and attractive. Both towns are remarkably lively and sociable, with friendly crowds of residents taking advantage of the handsome piazzas and green prati in the centers of the towns.

Very few tourists were in evidence. Bicycles once again seem to outnumber cars in these streets. There are no better examples of what New Urbanists mean (or ought to mean) by the term “walkable” than these towns: first, walking is a pleasure because the fear factor of being killed is removed; second, it is a pleasure because everything you see was designed to be seen on foot. There is always something to see wherever you look. That is the secret to “pedestrian scale.”

Another lesson that Parma and Cremona offer (along with many other Italian towns) is the total compatibility of every historical style. Parma’s cathedral has a starkly Romanesque façade, but the interior is filled with Renaissance frescoes, including the spectacular paintings in the dome by Correggio. Cremona’s cathedral has a more richly ornamented Romanesque façade and Gothic campanile flanked by Renaissance arcades. The interior is darkly Gothic, but the walls are again covered in Renaissance frescoes.

Adjacent to both cathedrals are freestanding octagonal baptisteries, multi-columned monuments of the Romanesque. Many of the monumental sites of Italy are similar composites of styles, so one becomes accustomed to the intimate interrelationships among them, like the members of a family who are each individual – even at times competitive – and yet form a cohesive unity.

Secretary of the Interior, please take note: Here is “differentiation” marked by superficial variety of form and material and “compatibility” based on shared fundamental principles of space, structure, composition and ornament. The architects and builders intended the harmony-within-variety that characterizes these monumental historic centers, and we could do the same today if we gave up the knee-jerk dependence on contrast and opposition that dominates contemporary attitudes toward additions to historic settings.

Brescia: The Piazza Vittoria was completed in 1932 to designs by Marcello Piacentini, whose attempts to blend modernist and traditional languages often resulted in a compromised classicism lacking scale and vitality. The dedication of most of the space to parking, coupled with the single-use of the buildings, leaves the piazza lifeless, in contrast to the historic piazzas a short walk away that teem with pedestrians.Brescia: The Piazza Vittoria was completed in 1932 to designs by Marcello Piacentini, whose attempts to blend modernist and traditional languages often resulted in a compromised classicism lacking scale and vitality. The dedication of most of the space to parking, coupled with the single-use of the buildings, leaves the piazza lifeless, in contrast to the historic piazzas a short walk away that teem with pedestrians.

Next came Brescia, a city composed of two separate worlds: a compact historic core (the ancient Roman town of Brixium), surrounded by a large, modern industrial city of high-rise office and apartment towers, highway overpasses and industrial plants. The old core is more architecturally interesting than I’d expected – Brescia not on the tourist map – and its smaller streets of medieval houses and Renaissance palazzi are remarkably quiet. They are also largely unrestored and therefore lack the polish of Ferrara’s well-kept streets and facades.

There are two main public squares in the center: the civic Piazza della Loggia (with its Renaissance municipal palace and attractive arcades) and the ecclesiastical Piazza Paolo VI, (dominated by the Baroque cathedral and its Romanesque predecessor). Sadly, both of these squares are open to automobile traffic and parking, and the buildings do not show the standard of care that one finds in the more prosperous cities of the region.

Brescia: The Tempio Capitolino, built into the slope of the hill beyond, once dominated the Roman Forum. Twentieth-century restoration has re-erected parts of the temple portico, using original stone fragments with infill of modern brickwork. This clearly “differentiates” the new material from the ancient but renders any concept of the whole composition impossible. Brescia: The Tempio Capitolino, built into the slope of the hill beyond, once dominated the Roman Forum. Twentieth-century restoration has re-erected parts of the temple portico, using original stone fragments with infill of modern brickwork. This clearly “differentiates” the new material from the ancient but renders any concept of the whole composition impossible.

Nearby is the Piazza del Foro on the location of the Roman forum, and throughout the surrounding neighborhood one encounters odd bits of masonry jutting from plaster walls – indications of ancient Roman structures later engulfed in medieval and Renaissance buildings. The Forum space is dominated by the ruins, partially reconstructed, of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, built into the slope of the hill. The surviving bits of the temple’s white marble portico have been re-erected with brick infill so that we can see about half the original façade of the temple, although in two contrasting materials.

Here, the practice of differentiating the new material from the ancient (as required by the Venice Charter of 1964) is exaggerated, and we lose the sense of what the temple might have looked like when whole. Since Brescia is still today a center of Italy’s building stone industry, would it not be more appropriate to infill the missing pieces with new stone? This is being done at the Parthenon in Athens with splendid results.

Marcello Piacentini also designed an ensemble of buildings around a large civic square, completed in the 1920s and ’30s. The buildings, in the “stripped Classical” style we tend to associate with pre-war Italy (and immediately post-war Washington, DC) include a massive post office, a brick office tower and lower arcaded office buildings on the perimeter.

The intended effect of the grouping is hard to gauge because the entire piazza is now a parking lot, and the single-use buildings around it produce a deadening effect. What Brescia needs – both the modern and the historic parts of town – are some imaginative planning and conservation to bring vitality to a rich but ill-used and insufficiently cared-for center. The material is there, but the social, economic and political atmosphere seems to work against fruitfully capitalizing on it.

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This entry was published on September 15, 2010 at 5:11 am. It’s filed under Historic Building and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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