Visualising Urban Space: Rome’s Late Medieval Iconography from a Media Historical Perspective

Visualising Urban Space: Rome’s Late Medieval Iconography from a Media Historical Perspective

By Marco Vencato

Power and culture : new perspectives on spatiality in european history, edited by Pieter François, Taina Syrjämaa, and Henri Terho (Pisa University Press, 2008)

Abstract: With regard to the ongoing interdisciplinary debate on the “spatial turn” (Edward Soja) the present chapter provides a fresh look at the intricate relationship between ‘space’ and ‘image’ by taking late medieval Rome and its iconography as a particularly illuminating example. To adequately understand the meanings which underlie the visualisation of urban spaces in premodern societies, it is necessary to abandon the hermeneutic model of referentialism, which continues to prevail in many of the most recent studies. From a media historical perspective the main question to be addressed is how figurative town views select, organise and shape the ‘world’ they display. In particular, the specific codes and patterns that characterise the spatial order represented in the monumental fresco cycle at the Ospedale Santo Spirito will be reconstructed by taking into account the broader social-political context of the Renovatio Urbis Romae under Pope Sixtus IV. The analysis of this visualising process shows that the representations of urban space have to be read as cultural symptoms shedding light on the self-perception of Rome’s late medieval society.

Introduction: “He said to the painter of the Florentine city view: ‘This picture resembles Florence very closely, but it isn’t exactly my home town’. ‘Why isn’t it?’ asked the artist. ‘Because I can’t see either my house, nor the one of my neighbour Ser Biondo on it’.” This short dialogue reported by Cipriano Piccolpasso, the chief cartographer of Pope Pius IV for the region of Umbria, leads directly to the core of the problem that I intend to explore throughout this chapter. It raises the question of the historical pattern and codes that underlie the visualisation of urban spaces in premodern society. Urban iconographies of the Quattrocento are not comparable to simple photos or perfect one-to-one-reproductions of perceived town spaces, as many recent studies seem still to suggest. Instead, their meaning is a social construct, the result of semantic negotiations between the author of the picture and its beholder that occur within a specific discursive framework, a process in which both communicative intentions and perceptive expectations are involved. In Piccolpasso’s dialogue on perspective the making and reading of urban images are considered from the viewpoint of modern cartography and raise the purely technical question of how to transpose the three dimensional world into the two dimensions of the canvas. In this conception, city plans are regarded as delf-evident. Anybody who is looking for his own or the neighbour’s house on the picture reveals himself as not having the vaguest notion of cartographic representations: “innumerable people do not understand anything about painting, because they are not aware that the objects arranged one over the other cannot be seen in their totality, and often, not even the slightest part of them is visible”.

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