Complete texts

'To the City Gates...'

On the Iconography of the City Walls

Puis il y a ceux qui connaissent ces secrets grâce auxquels le mariage de la sensibilité et du quartier fabrique du bonheur.
Léon-Paul Fargue, le Piéton de Paris, 1932

A city is a poetic construction, a creation of images that make its poetic power visible by giving it form. That form directs, and it eliminates. The complexity of a city as we experience it is irrevocably simplified. It is therefore important to be able to place the construction of that image as broadly and as deeply within its context as possible. I hope to do this in two ways: through a ‘psychoanalysis of urban censorship’ (what people show always also represents something that they do not show) and by way of a ‘phenomenology of the way the city feels’ (a consideration of the extremes of how the forms and the images of a city are experienced).

Urban images develop into a statement that serves as a witness to urbanism, a statement about building and living in a city. What did these images say about the altered perception of a city when that eminent, structuring system of city walls and gates was demolished, as happened all over Europe in the latter half of the 19th century? What was it about the walled character of cities that had become untenable (what was it that had to be refuted, censored)? How did the new space feel (what was it that the new space had snowed under), and how was this translated in the images?

To understand life in the 19th-century city – its explicit experience of freedom, as well as the repressed experiences of its frustrations – one must begin by constructing a network that connects municipal development or zoning plans with contemporary postcards, tourist guides and novels, lithographic prints and city council reports, with art history and the utopian projects of architects, with beauty and functionality, the eye and even the (suppressed) sense of smell. All of this was certainly not generated by a sterile desire for completeness. It was fuelled by the impassioned curiosity of the flaneur, a self-aware parader or show-off, who was ultimately the true – albeit anonymous – king of the new urbanism. Perceiving our investigation in this light means that we remain true to the fundamental intuition that a city can ultimately only be understood as a form of poetic logic.

The Material

The research material being considered here includes about 400 images (photographs and prints) of city walls. They show the old fortified walls and gates of Bruges, Bologna en Maastricht. There are also some marginal images of Antwerp and Ypres. Two-thirds of the material is photographic. The rest are lithographic prints. I had 140 images of Bologna at my disposal, 127 of Bruges and 103 of Maastricht. The remaining images were of Antwerp and Ypres.

Not all of the material was studied in the same way. The broadest selection was assembled for Bruges, including material from very diverse archives both in and outside Belgium. For Bologna, the selection was limited to a number of specific ensembles, with anonymous material not (yet) taken into consideration. In Maastricht, the work took place largely at a single location, at the Maastricht municipal archives.

The material covers a wide period, from the late 18th century to the early 20th. This alone produces an intriguingly broad spectrum of different kinds of images, allowing us to infer some of the diversity of urban life that criss-crossed the ‘great’ 19th century, between the French Revolution and World War I. How diverse this life was is evidenced in the respective histories of the demolitions of the old defences of the three cities. In Maastricht, it began in 1867. The dismantling of the mediaeval walls encirling Bologna was only begun in 1902. In Bruges, however, it had all happened much earlier, under Austrian rule in the late 18th century. The construction, alteration and removal of city walls were not uniform events. It was the same intervention, but in different contexts, generating different forms of images. Giuseppe Cavazza, with easily manoeuvred equipment, worked flexibly, as a reporter might, Théodor Weijnen worked with a heavy camera and glass plates, and Jan Karel Verbrugge did not even have access to a camera as such – at best, he had a camera obscura. They were different situations, different voices, different statements.

In the visual material, city walls have largely been reduced to just the gates. These were indeed complex, strongly articulated constructions that inherently possessed greater expression of form than did the massive, evenly constructed walls. They explicitly articulated what was happening with the walls that encircled the cities. The visual form of the city walls had become the visual form of the city gates.

The investigation began with two ensembles: one by Giuseppe Cavazza (1852–1934) and one by Théodor Weijnen (1835–1904), on the subjects of the walls of Bologna and Maastricht, respectively. Weijnen produced his photographs between 1867 and 1870, while those of Cavazza date from January and February, 1902. Cavazza included 57 images in his album, Porte e Mura della Città (City Gates and Walls), which he produced for the city of Bologna. Weijnen assembled 22 photographs in his series, Ontmanteling van Maastricht (The Dismantlement of Maastricht). Both series’ have been extensively studied, respectively, by Angela Trommellini [1] and Ingrid Evers [2].

What can be seen in the two collections? With what objective and frame of mind were they produced? What insights and attitudes can we perhaps discover in them? Or indeed, how were these images read by those who commissioned them, by the public of their day? Each of the two series’ in fact documents a crucial censorship in the urban history of Maastricht or Bologna. The photographers were primarily recording what was in the process of disappearing. Not a single picture was taken of the final result, the cleared space or the levelled ground. For a few of their photographs, Weijnen and Cavazza were on top of the walls as the demolition was taking place. Here we see the production of new urban space, a work in progress. Labourers, overseers and observers are all part of a great, unified social process.

We know that the photographs were produced on commission, as a kind of consolation prize for the rare nostalgic soul: after all, we still have the great walls, because we have the photographs of the walls. But when we take a walk around Bologna with Cavazza’s photographs in hand, we make a remarkable discovery. Nearly everything that the photographer recorded for posterity is still there today – not only the city gates, but also the segments of the wall in between, nearly everything that Cavazza documented so well. The theory that photographs were being taken of something that people would no longer be able to see no longer makes sense. Only a very few pictures in the series can meet that criterion. So, what then really was happening with this presumed role of preserving, through images, what people are in fact destroying? It suddenly becomes far less clear what people were in fact intending to show and what was being hidden from view.

The Iconography of the Walls

The visual images of the walls and gates during that ‘great’ 19th century give us little inspiring material. They are often intriguing images, but they are seldom inspiring. The entire body of work seems bathed in an atmosphere of despondency. As they see the very reason for their existence disintegrate, the walls and gates seem to have an ever more difficult time finding a visual identity. With the loss of their function, the gates also lose their affective meaning and their aesthetic potential.

As the photographers of the 1860s embarked on the first great photographic campaigns (Anriot and Poppi in Bologna, Fierlants, Daveluy and Goethals in Bruges), city gates – let alone the walls – simply did not appear in their inventories of cultural heritage. Anriot [3] devoted two exposures to the gates. In the Poppi work (Fotografia dell’Emilia), [4] there are twelve known pictures of the defences in a total collection of 3000 photographs, the Daveluy Album [5] has none, and Goethals took one (indeed beautiful) [6] image from the top of the wall to the right of the Kruispoort.

Only later would the enterprises of ND (Neurdein, based in Paris) and G.H. (Gustave Hermans, in Antwerp) incorporate the Bruges city gates into their own iconographic projects. By that time, the gates were no longer a part of the city’s defensive system of walls, but had evolved into monuments. A similar process seems to have taken place in Maastricht as well, with the Helpoort and the entire so-called Nieuwstad complex. Only when the gate had finally assumed its new function as a monument were the photographers able to give it form. They could find no form to fit the non-functional city gates.

This total indifference to the walls in photographic iconography stands in stark contrast to the intense interest paid to them in the older, more traditional graphic media. There are 15 aquatints by Antonio Basoli (Porte della Città di Bologna, 1817), 21 images by Jan Karel Verbrugge of the different gates in Bruges (most dated around 1780), and finally, the drawings and coloured engravings by Alexander Schaepkens, found in various collections, most notably in Maestricht du bon vieux temps (Maestricht in the Good Old Days, dated 1879, although according to some sources, it was actually produced before 1850). These represent three very different periods, each with gates demonstrating their own expressive visual forms and meanings. They were three artists, all of whom taught at the local art schools and held important posts, three artists specialized in topographical printmaking, who consequently had a keen eye and a well-developed sense of the culture of their man-made environments and the relationships inherent to those environments.

None of these three ensembles provides a strict inventory for, let us say, military authorities, for example. All three are clearly about the deterioration and decay of the gates. Visually, these prints bring the gates into a very complex and laden set of values: they are massive, yet extremely fragile (Basoli, Schaepkens), precisely defined, yet absorbed by time and nature (Verbrugge), a totem, but one that is no longer in use (Schaepkens), a thing, but most of all an evocation (Basoli en Schaepkens). In any case, there are the walls, understood as ‘history’, shimmering with suggestions and associations, recorded in the process of becoming ruins. All in all, they are a narrative, a tale in progress.

For Basoli and Schaepkens, light played a very important role in the delineations. Basoli made the image theatrical, with dramatic chiaroscuro, while in Schaepkens’ case, the walls and gates dissolve into an ethereal shadowing, equally ethereal coloration and an ever-descending sense of dusk. The three series’ demonstrate just how strongly one could still express the issues and the dilemmas that the cities faced where the walls were concerned. Indeed, they presented the walls as the weakest link in the whole urban fabric, but heavily laden with sentiment for precisely that reason. City fortifications were an outdated idea, a semantic ruin. As such, they were also deeply rich in meaning. Once again, this was a poetic quality that photography hardly even touched.

Verbrugge and Basoli laid the foundations for a number of continuing standpoints. Basoli, for example, clearly marked off the place from which he was conducting his observations, by indicating elements in the foreground – a façade along which or a gallery through which the eye is led. In his impressive Vedute Pittoresche della Città di Bologna (1833), each picture is grafted onto a specific vantage point. This is an enormous change from Bologna nel Settecento (1791), by Pio Panfili, whose images follow a logic based on the expanding city square and in which we see a summary of many houses and street facades brought together encyclopaedically in a frieze-like arrangement that makes any vantage point impossible to discern. Panfili showed more than anyone else, but he did not show where he himself might have been standing.

Basoli’s, therefore, was quite a different approach. Where Basoli marked out the position of the individual, Panfili illustrated the idea of the city. Basoli showed us that the 19th century aimed to connect the image of the city to the standpoint of the individual, so that the ‘idea’ of the city as such could no longer be visualized. It was no coincidence that ‘the city’ would primarily be looked at in cartographic terms: Napoleon, for example, in his gigantic campaigns and land registry schemes, systematized cities into urban territory. What people saw was replaced by what people measured. Volumes were projected onto flat surfaces; territory was no longer linked to points of perspective, but to internal relationships.

More than 30 years before Basoli, Verbrugge had captured the Bruges gates as separate from the wall system, as demilitarized constructions. Maastricht and Bologna would only be able to present their gates in this way a full century later. A hundred years after they were produced, Verbrugge’s visual solutions would be showing up everywhere, on printed postcards. They had become the idyllic integration of city gates into their environment, in amongst the flowers and shrubbery. The difference between inside and outside – intra and extra muros – had by now vanished. There is no line of distinction between the side that faced the surrounding fields and the side that was inside the city. What Verbrugge showed is a peculiarly harmonious integration, as a kind of enlightenment – that ruin and decay can, without fear, with no hard feelings and no nostalgia, be perceived as a self-evident product of history. Still, even if the printed postcard had now taken over the visual form, it had certainly not usurped the inner ambition of that form. The printed cards beseech and invoke. They play with nostalgic sentiment and refuse to accept the ageing process. Triumphant restoration takes precedence, in both Maastricht and Bruges.

As always, this confrontation with pre-photographic material has proven to be extremely educational and indeed, virtually indispensable. The fact that so few inspired photographs were taken of city walls certainly had nothing whatsoever to do with photographic technique. To prove the point, we refer to an underappreciated series of photographs by Florent Joostens, taken of the city walls of Antwerp, Les anciennes portes et l’enceinte espagnole d’Anvers (The Old Gates and Espagnole of Antwerp, including 26 photographs from a total of 41 Joostens photographs still in existence). [7] The photographs were produced in 1862 and 1863, and show astonishing potential and plastic strength, demonstrating the wealth of information and semantic complexity that could be achieved in a single image. Here is a visual intelligence at work, one with what was for his day a virtually unheard-of analytical capacity, one seldom encountered in photography. Joostens’ work is unique among the 400 collected images, in that it shows that the walls were a system upon which several other systems had been subsequently grafted. The importance of his work, therefore, is not only historic, but fundamental.

The Walk: A Working Method

By this time, the promenade of the flaneur, the photographer who liked to flaunt, no longer had a purpose. That promenade had earlier been a self-evident point of orientation. The photographer/flaneur had let himself be led by free association, had been open to a coincidental passer-by or a newly-discovered detail in a shop window. Coincidence seemed to lead the way, but it was not blind coincidence. The photographer had reacted poetically, which is to say that he allowed himself to follow associations, rather than being led by a (centralized) project. The poetry of that ostentatious photographer was susceptible to some of the relationships that were present on any given plane, but not at all to others. He followed the principle of the metaphor. There is similarity – in form or in substance – at one level, dissimilarity at all other levels. The similarity allows an exchange of paradigm: by way of a colour or a turn in the corner of the mouth, the flaneur stepped across from the erotic into the mythical, from the constructed into the narrative, from current events into history, from the practical to the poetic. This poetry is personal and private, for it was no longer supported by the articulations of power and religion. This was no longer the church doors leading the pilgrim, but a lock of hair leading the dreamer.

Understanding the city was listening to it, as a poetic construction, and taking part in its poetic production. That happened as one paraded down the street, expecting to be seen. That undirected trajectory was an invention of the 19th century, but only surrealism and the 35-mm reporting of the interbellum period (Kertész, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson) would give it visual form and a poetry of its own. In that same period, such promenading would also be radically theorized. Only then, between the wars, did all the cards that had been produced in the 19th century come together in a single overall game, the game of modern urban poetry.

Yet another 20 years later, in the 1950s, with the new photographic journalism by Frank and Klein and the films of the Nouvelle Vague, would another form be given to the poetic productivity of the modern city. By then, in fact, the contrast to the period between the wars had become immense. For Kertész, Brandt, Breton and Benjamin, the city was a choir of voices whose tale could indeed be heard. For Frank, Klein and Godard, the voices had disappeared, overwhelmed by new forms of publicity, by automobiles and objects. In these years, Debord developed his diagnosis of an urbanity that had been turned inside out by spectacle, robbing it of all inner form or substance. The poetic probe no longer descended into layers of history, but into the cacophony of the multiple voices of economic actors.

This investigation is also perceived as a kind of promenade, taking a walk. We meander through archives, images, the writings of local history and urban planning. The idea – the art – is not to achieve a utopian objective, but not to miss any encounters along the way, to respond to all the possible calls for our attention and to hear all the voices we can. We need to stand up to the programming and the methodology that inevitably develops as we walk along, in order to in turn be able to drop them again at any moment. Is it not in the actual shift from the one, formal historic field to the next that real insight in fact becomes possible, where people can move from vague awareness to understanding? Intimately understanding a city only happens in those unforgettable fractions of time when we turn a corner and, quite unexpectedly, are surprised by an entirely new prospect. My experience in this study is no different. These are moments of intellectual freedom and existential richness.

The City Wall as a View

The city walls were a tool, a segment of scopic equipment. They let the people look far and wide across their surrounding environments. They protected the city and its population from the scrutiny of the besieger. Carlo Cesari indicated that on many city maps, city defences were not depicted – they were, after all, a military secret – and that theatre troupes, like spies, would come in and draw the fortifications that people were so anxiously trying to keep secret.

Visualizing cities as walled-in entities evolved along with the character of the walls themselves as they were being built, which is to say along with changes in warfare technology. When ballistics were no longer dominated by weight and gravity, but by firepower, the perspectives of the city walls also changed. In the Middle Ages, fortified walls were an impressive vertical structure. Together with their towers and spires, they pulled the images of cities ever upward. In depictions of wartime operations, we see how everything took place in the immediate vicinity of the walls: at the feet of the beleaguers with the defenders up above, trying to keep them out with stones and arrows. In the 16th century, artillery introduced changes in the fortifications. With these immediately came new perspectives of those fortifications. Miniatures still show us the high vantage points of the walled cities, where the baroque presents us with panoramic overviews from distant vantage points. Walls were no longer stormed, but bombarded. Storming cities was about climbing up and pushing down, and was consequently a vertical phenomenon. Bombardment, on the contrary, occurred at right angles to the walls, horizontally. Bombardment pounded away at fortifications that were now constructed in order to best neutralize that horizontal firepower. The defensive girdle no longer shot upwards, but outwards, onto the terrain, with bastions placed at ever more forward positions. The defensive wall, as it were, was now laid out horizontally, in the earth. Maastricht was a good example of such a deeply encircled city. Cityscapes from the 16th to the 18th century also no longer accentuated the great height of the walls, but rather the continuity of the entire system, seen from a distant perspective. The vantage point facing the city lay alongside the artillery, at a strategic height and at a safe distance. The view of the city was through the eye of its besiegers. Cities sat imprisoned in the web of their military coordinates.

In the course of the 19th century, military logic and thinking slowly ebbed out of the fortifications. The stately vantage point for observing a city, the placement or standpoint of its attackers, also became disqualified. Cities could no longer be seen from a single vertical or horizontal point, but were a multiplicity of possible perspectives, each of which presented a partial view. If the vedute was actually a princely vantage point – above the details of a city and uniting them all into a single whole – then that form disappeared with aquatint and lithography. Neither the Album Pittoresque de Bruges (1837) nor the Vedute Pittoresche della Città di Bologna (Basoli, 1833) still retained any ambition to produce an abstract whole. They presented a concrete location, seen from a precise vantage point that eradicated all other elements of the city. This was not a synthesis, but a fragmentation. It was a bourgeois standpoint, but it was also a position that required for other standpoints, that consequently installed a route, a trajectory – in stark contrast to the princely eye that sees all from a fixed point.

This latter perspective is also found in Pio Panfili’s engraved vedutes (in Bologna nel Settecento, 1791), where he indeed positioned himself inside the city, but where, from the piazza, the entire city unfolded around him. Because of this, the ‘correct’ (bourgeois, because it is individualistic) sense of urban space was weakened and undermined. Even though he was standing in the city, he still employed the form of the overview, which placed him outside that city.

The camera obscura and the subsequent photographic camera supported and gave form to a new bourgeois idea of urbanity. Neither piece of equipment invented or imagined the space – each very precisely placed it in the picture. The photographer could do nothing else but go and stand somewhere. He alone bore all the consequences of where that would be. One of those consequences was the countless number of details that he unintentionally took along with him. For this reason, the photograph was also closely related to the whimsical and floating focus of the flaneur and his promenade. Each new photograph offered points of connection for the most diverse observations, associations and ideas. Each photograph is made up of indications for countless inquiries. The photograph stimulates – even accelerates – the poetic paradigm shifts of the flaneur.

This capacity of photography, the ability of the photographic image to bring about extreme poetic shifts, would only be fully realized and exploited by surrealism, which opened up its possibilities for disruption and its destabilizing incongruities. But the 19th century photographer was as yet still far removed – how could he have been otherwise – from such subsequent exploitation and development of photographic techniques. He was unable to combine that technique with the technique of the flaneur. On paper, that would only happen in the 20th century. The 19th-century photographer was not a flaneur – that was impossible with the extremely heavy, imposing, rather bourgeois-like and gaudy equipment that he had at his disposal. The poetic resolutions discovered by the contemplative, conformist photographer, who was working on behalf of progress and commerce, were never disruptive, but always affirmative and constructive. His was not the poetry of the breach or the altered paradigm, but that of the clearest possible statement. In his images, he brought harmony to contrasts and contradictions. The reverse side of this harmonizing was the inevitable censorship that it supposed and implied. One could say that censorship was a crucial part of photographic thinking in the 19th century.

Incidentally, the photographers worked increasingly frequently on behalf of the tourists, as their clients. There is no greater contrast imaginable than the flaneur rummaging around and churning up a city and the tourist using a guidebook to retrace a previously determined trajectory. If the flaneur instigated and employed a most original urban poetry, then the tourist was one who followed a route that was by definition stereotyped and standardized.

Nonetheless, from the variations and nuances we see in that standard trajectory, much can be learned about the image that people had of cities, about the way they envisioned them. The material did not reveal the crises inherent in urban living, but showed everything as if it had all already been resolved. What is visible here is not the city in conflict, but the city as consensus. An intelligent literature of consensus is in fact as enriching as a participation in disruption. It was indeed consensus that guaranteed the continuity of urban existence. And it was the tourist who drew it from the flaneur.

City Gates & Walls

A city’s identity, in particularly how each city is an incarnation of fundamental urban values, yet at the same time distinguishable from all other cities, is fundamental to how a city is imagined. A visualization of that individual character made use of two arguments: the unique skyline (the profile) and the line delineated by the walls, indicating how far that uniqueness extended. Patron saints of cities carried their cities on a scale, while the walls were depicted clenching the skyline like a baking tin embracing a layer cake. It was a city’s identity, its calling card.

Consequently, with the demolition of the walls, one of the two coordinates of that identity had disappeared. That people everywhere in the 19th century were doing just that indeed raises a lot of questions. What was it in the identity of a city that was unavoidably changed by these demolitions? What change did the removal of a city’s boundaries bring to the way people experienced it? Where would the historic city centre be now that it no longer had geometric confirmation? Of what was the centre a centre when the circle of the walls was destroyed? Behind the steady fading away of the walls lay essential choices about modern urbanity. Can the iconography of the walls give us some insight into those choices?

The majority of these photographs were being produced in the period when the concept of the ‘city ring’ was being developed. This was what the discussion was about in Adolf Duclos’s Les futurs boulevards de Bruges (1897). The rings (Duclos referred to them as the ‘Cingels’), concentric avenues that opened up an entirely new chapter in city phenomenology, also provided a new urban philosophy in the service of a previously programmed pedestrian trajectory, which in turn also generated its own puzzles (as we see in the prints by Max Klinger). A promenade along these new boulevards was something diametrically opposed to the sojourns of the flaneur.

Visual Motif, Spatial Theme

When looking at images, one primarily sees the subject matter or motif in those images purely as a physical given. A city gate is there to be looked at, to be understood from a visual perspective. Clearly, this is a reduction. The visual motif is derived from a three-dimensional object with a volume, an environment of its own, with direction, proportions, materials and textures, but it is most of all a compelling invitation to explore trajectories. What is depicted is not just a visual motif, but is in the first place a strong and very specific spatial theme.

The photographer had to arrange himself in advance – literally. He had to walk to the site, seek an angle, adjust his direction and distance. He had to carry out a complex kinetic plan [8] according to the network of routes which that gate or wall generated, as a three-dimensional theme. Because of the vantage point he took – facing the volume and in respect to the way the light falls – he was essentially absorbed into a sense of space. If we walk around the gates of Maastricht, Bologna en Bruges with the old photographs in our hands, we immediately glean a rich harvest of kinetic and spatial information from these seemingly just visual pictures. We not only see the solutions that were taken into consideration, but also countless other possible solutions that were not considered. An exclusively visual reading of the images shifts the selected standpoint to the forefront, as a sole solution. It thus casts a shadow over all the alternatives and most of all over the fact that the photographer indeed had to make a choice. Why did the photographer’s route end at that vantage, that standpoint? Was it there that for him, the majority of the possibilities for that particular subject came together? What then were the so-called possibilities at that particular moment?

It is striking that the logic or thinking behind most of the photographic material that we have available is limited to the visual motif: people aimed for immediate recognition of the construction. The complex and exciting three-dimensional character and theme of the gates were consequently lost in the background. This would seem to have everything to do with the fact that the walls and gates had fallen into disuse. People no longer knew what they were there for. Without their having any social function, people no longer understood their three-dimensional form, no longer knew why they had been built the way they were. Photographers and their audiences were satisfied with being able to show or see volume, a mass. They were increasingly less able to see their function.

The City Gates as a Spatial Theme (1)

So what had that function been? The wall comprised a compact and unassailable division between inside and outside. The purity of this black-and-white contrast is one of the strongest imaginary mechanisms of the walls. This makes the impurity of the countless combinations that can be attributed to the gates all the more striking. Here was endless negotiation between inside and outside, during military operations, but equally so in their function as a place for the levying of tolls. There was simultaneous opening and closing of routes going in and routes going out, of passage through and of standing still for checks and controls and then release. The affective colouration that the city gates assumed is extraordinarily diversified.

The gates crystallized people’s ambivalences towards the walls – the very fact that the city was enclosed by the wall. Because of this, it was a zone of spatial and affective turbulence. The unequivocal division between intra muros and extra muros became the ambiguous opposition of going in and going out, between being taken in and being closed out, being shut in and being let loose, between banishment and royal welcome. Countless variations can be thought of, variations that in wartime were reduced to a finite number of fundamental situations: forcing the gates or mounting a concerted attack by breaking through them from within, defending or opening the gates. [9] This is the stuff of archetypical scenes of military tactics covering thousands of years, the epitome of the idea of the walled fortress and the gateway to the city, in which extreme actions and objectives confronted one another in unambiguous, crystal-clear fashion.

In reality, the gates were a far more prosaic construction. They were a place where people supervised and kept things in restraint, a place to exact levies and enforce restrictions, where not the hero but the bureaucracy held sway. Power was always in the centre, delegated out to the gates. In the course of the 19th century, the gates to more and more cities gradually became increasingly dysfunctional urban objects: an obstacle. In photography, but indeed, also in other types of prints, we see no sign of any thrilling theatre of action, but everything that might indicate devaluation. When, in the 1860s, the gates of Maastricht were demolished, or when, shortly after 1900, the walls around Bologna disappeared and only the gates remained standing, the cities’ inhabitants felt not loss, but liberation. The pedestrians along the gigantic construction sites that such demolitions entailed, where hundreds of hectares of new ground was now being generated, were being set free. Citizens, speculators, factory directors, banks – all were elated by the development. Only an extremely small literary elite (Schaepkens and De Stuers in Maastricht; Rubbiani in Bologna) signed their names in protest, supported the taking of photographs to record the event, and mourned the inevitable, the necessary.

The walls were not intended as prison walls, keeping in their inhabitants, but as walls against intruders. It was not keeping in, but keeping out that was the first, primary force of the three-dimensional theme of the fortifications that encircled our cities. The city gate did not fatally slam shut behind your back, but slammed in your face when you wanted to come in. The dynamic of the walls aimed outwards. From the top of the walls, people did not generally look inside the city (that was an aesthetic use), but outside (this was their functional use). The outward perspective meant to keep it all out, even the view. What lay behind the walls was hidden and meant to be kept hidden, a military secret. That the walls were centrifugal is evidenced in the way they developed, after 1500, into ever more forward-thrusting fortifications, as we see in Maastricht, a very good example of an important fortified city.

The gates, in contrast, were the vulnerable beach in the defensive project of the walled city. They were constructed and expanded into massive and ingenious locking mechanisms. The two facades of the gate – facing the city and facing the fields – indicated two different agendas. The façade overlooking the fields spoke the language of defence: it was built outwards, aggressively. So what language did the city side speak? Indeed, the inside façades were not defensive, so what were they? They were a part of the city, façades alongside other façades, the solemn face of a government edifice. Twice, in the late 18th-century prints of Bologna by Pio Panfili, we see how, from the piazza, an entire street courses up to the façade of the gate. It does not permit us to see that the city stops there. It accentuates no awareness of enclosure, but of unbroken continuity. From the inside, the city can only be seen as a city. As radically as – from the surrounding fields – the walls distinguished and divided inside from outside, so radically did the city gate negate all of that from the inside, did they indeed declare that there was the city and nothing but the city. It was as though here, the city folded back on itself, like a wave. This makes crystallization possible – urban, aesthetic, intellectual, as well as political. The walls made the city conscious of itself (reflexive).

Nineteenth-century iconography preferred the views facing outwards, over the fields, and consequently the defensive, most visibly evident military side of the gates (for every three images of the façades inside the city, there are four images from the outside). From the inside, the façades of the Gentpoort and the Kruispoort, in Bruges, for example, make real urban statements. Here, the city gate is a triumphant mirror of urbanity. In Bologna, it was no different with the Porta Galliera and Porta Lame. There, the gates were an arch of triumph, a palace. But the 19th century no longer understood it that way. By then, the gates inspired people only as a military fantasy, not as integrators of urban life.

On the outside, they created discontinuity. On the inside, they generated reflexive integration, and therefore continuity. That motion also became increasingly harder to achieve during the course of the 19th century. On the contrary, the more the walled fortifications lost their military purpose, the more the spatial theme veered from defensive to oppressive. When the walls no longer protected you, you felt they were grasping and gripping on to you. The protective armour had become an oppressive straitjacket. That shift depended on a single, fundamental factor (according to Carlo Cesari): the expanding development of the city. A city that had stable or stagnant populations and industry did not feel the straightjacket and therefore kept its walls.

Photographic Form

Looking at hundreds of prints unavoidably means looking for means of classifying them, by location, photographer, technique, format and so on. It was my intention, however, to seek to discover the way in which an image generates a visual discourse. To put it differently, how were articulate expressions applied to a two-dimensional surface? Earlier, I noted some of the crucial choices that photographers had: the presence or lack of figures in the image, the nature of the light and finally, what I call the mise en place, or staging, the way that elements were placed in relationship to one another. [10]

In the case of the gates as a subject, I have here concentrated on the selection of the vantage point. Along which side of the wall and from which angle did the photographer or artist produce his image? The image-maker had to choose in advance between two mutually exclusive positions: would he be standing outside the city or inside it? For the identification of the images, this produced such terms as interno and esterno, city side or agricultural side, based on the dichotomy of intra muros or extra muros, so laden with spatial affect. There was, of course, a possible third position, which was in fact very seldom selected. That was the position ‘from the wall’ and ‘along with the wall’. In Antwerp, Florent Joostens made many images of this kind, and in the much more recent album, Brugge Her-zien (Bruges Re-Viewed, 1986) Georges Charlier included one such picture. Verbrugge chose that vantage point surprisingly often, where Goethals did so but once. [11] It was the fortification, the wall itself that created the vantage point and, as a consequence, the wall came into the picture. It is a point from which the circumscribing wall, the city centre and the surrounding grassland can all be seen together in a single image.

If the fortifying wall was allowed to be the prevalent sensation for the illustrator, for adventure novels and adventure films, it was not so for the visual culture of the tourist, nor for documentary inventory. Cavazza, for example, never climbed the walls, even though there were scores of demolition workers at the top, standing there in spectacular fashion. Weijnen also photographed city gates with people on top of them, but did not go up there himself. Today, this is the very first thing you want to do. Taking a position on top of the wall is again giving it some sense – albeit a purely aesthetic one. But what had lost its meaning for society was something people could not immediately perceive as beautiful. On the contrary, such lack of meaning was anti-aesthetic. The vertical axis from the top of the walls – once so crucial – was not rediscovered during the 19th century.

The second choice the photographer had to make was for either a frontal or a diagonal, more angular position. A frontal view meant that he placed himself on the axis looking down – or up – the road beneath the gate, that he took up a position along the route on which the gate had been constructed. If he was on the outside, then he looked into the city, and if he was inside the gate, he would be looking out into the fields. This now usually meant the city’s outlying neighbourhoods. It is striking that this frontal vantage point, which was most in line with the function of the gate, is in fact very seldom seen (21 examples in the entire collection at my disposal). This was no coincidental decision, but a direct censorship, a denial of the city gate as such. Instead, it was the diagonal view that dominated, making the actual structure of the gate impossible to see. The building no longer has an opening, but has become a closed mass. One could not have indicated its semantic and spatial redefinition more strongly.

The third choice was the view from the left or the right. In this respect, it is remarkable that each gate was primarily depicted from only one single angle. You see the standard selection showing up everywhere. On-site verification of this offers no definitive reason why this was the case. That the view of the Gentpoort, from the outside, is not from the left but from the right is explained by the presence of an industrial building with high chimneys on the other side, but in the case of other gates, there is nothing in the pictures or the locations today that leads us to suspect anything of a similar nature. There is a law of persistence at work in this iconography, one that is supported by an exclusively visual reading of the urban subject matter. A certain profile of the Ezelpoort, for example, was necessary to present it in a sellable fashion. A different, unfamiliar profile was not adequate, because although people may recognize the building, they don’t recognize the image – the picture. This explains my admiration for the anonymous Bruges Promenades d’un Amateur-Photographe, in which the Gentpoort has been photographed from the outside left, and half of the image is filled by the massive factory building. Given the prevailing censorship in visual form, this is the expression of an aesthetically and intellectually independent photographer.

The fourth choice that had to be made was the specific angle of the diagonal perspective in relation to the facade, on either the city or the outside of the facade. That angle is almost never greater than 45 degrees. Only in the early 20th century do we see (for example, across from the Kruispoort in Cornelius Gurlitt’s pictures for the Historische Städtebilder, or in a photograph by Henri Berssenbrugge) the appearance of a very small angle. And it was immediately a portent for the new ‘diagonal’ visual language. It was based on an elliptic culture supported by considerable advance knowledge of the motif or subject and it limited itself to a fragmentary, schematic or deformed presentation of that motif: people would recognize it anyway. The motif was thus reduced to a simplified icon and divested of its character as object or thing. It was a game played with an all-too-familiar form, not an encounter or confrontation with a compact object.

From all this, we see that the most ‘natural’ vantage point for depicting the gates, namely that which presents its use, its function and the structure associated with them, disappeared from the standard images when those functions died out. The diagonal presentation – indeed, usually from the same angle on the left, or from the right when the pictures were taken from outside – became the visual norm. It is evident here that the three-dimensional theme has been lost and that only a two-dimensional visual motif remains. ‘Striking’ a most ‘unnatural’ perspective with a very small angle created a shift from the norm and a new spatial dynamic in the image. That dynamic did virtually no justice to the spatial themes of the gate itself, but trapped them into a different optical paradigm, no longer that of military ballistics and transport, but the purely optical paradigm of a free-floating, purely aesthetic visual statement. (In its way, this was a grasping for power, the way the Baroque princes’ ballistic vantage point was also a grasp for power.)

The ‘pictorial’ photographers consequently rediscovered a number of possibilities that people had in fact been exploiting a century earlier. There was considerable attention to the placement of the gate in an environment, the accentuation of a personal vantage point in respect to the gate, the creation of visually exciting images which, certainly in the case of Verbrugge and Schaepkens, revealed very little about the gates themselves. It is moreover not insignificant to point out that the small angle implied a vantage point that was very close to the wall itself. Verbrugge and Schaepkens chose to stand farther from the axis of the road and closer to the line of the wall.

The Gate Versus the Wall (A Spatial Theme: 2)

In the process of deciphering the body of 19th-century images of the fortified walls, the opposition of the wall to the gate and vice versa becomes increasingly striking. Both belonged to the same system, but they played very different and opposing roles within that system. The wall was meant to be an impenetrable barrier. The gate was a breach in that enclosure, one which could be opened and closed. At one moment, it had to be as much a barrier as the rest of the wall, but at the next, it had to do just the opposite, allowing everything to pass through. This explains the characteristic mechanics of the gates with doors, drawbridges and iron grating. It explains the installation of the more recent gates (as in Maastricht), with a dogleg in them, so that a single shot could not knock out the whole system at once. City gates were a true machine – a regulatory machine, like sluices, or indeed a camera. The building itself was constructed around that machine.

As a regulator of transitory movements, the gates turned on all kinds of hinges. The door – the drawbridge – made 90-degree movements between open and closed, between raised and lowered. It was the source of a plethora of turbulences between opposed powers and aims, and all of this primarily took place along the axis of the road over which the gate had been built.

Fundamentally speaking, the gate was in fact part of a completely different line, as a part of the closed circle of the wall. Each gate cut through that circle in order to provide access for one of the spokes of the circle. There was very little motion in the circle itself (in contrast to the later construction at the same locations of the ‘circolares’, the belt avenues or rings). The wall blocked off the outside, and it did not stimulate any significant parallel movement. The path through the gate was economical – it was the shortest way into the centre. Along it were shops and small businesses. Through it passed the transport of goods and people, into and away from the centre. Speed had priority. It is in fact no wonder that the braking or arresting function of the gates was an irritation. The circle, on the other hand, was quite another matter. It was not a short, but a long route. It went nowhere, was not directed towards any centre. It was a route for wasting time, for taking a walk. This is how the remains of the walls are used today, in Bruges, in Maastricht, in Ferrara, in Lucca. City gates were therefore also a pivotal point between gaining time and losing time, between the economical and the uneconomical trajectories, between the connections between things that differ from one another (a city centre and its outlying villages) and the continuous connection back to the same thing (the complete circuit around the city), the ultimate something caught up in aesthetic reflexiveness.

If, in the spatial substance of the wall, we take up a position on top or alongside that wall and allow the circle to dominate, we make a very specific choice. We turn the city gate into an aesthetic object. This is what Verbrugge did in Bruges in the late 18th century, what Charlier very recently did in Brugge Her-zien, in 1986, what Berssenbrugge did during the belle époque and what Schaepkens did in Maastricht in around 1850.

The gate therefore not only negotiated between inside and outside, but was also the juncture between circle and line, rapidity and slowness. The city gates were a place of spatial, military, economic and social turbulence. Here, where everything narrowed, things were jostled together. Distinct classes, actions and systems became interwoven. This controlling, supervising space was also (or indeed, because of this) a space of disarray. Different temporalities collided together. It took on a military, bureaucratic logic, again and again. To neutralize all this, the most radical of steps was necessary: dismantlement, demolition. Understandably, many cities chose the most radical solution, mercilessly eradicating the three-dimensional theme of the fortified walls from their cities’ vocabulary. What they gained in freedom (is this an equivalent for the urbanity of Baudrillard’s disastrous ‘libérations’?) was at the same time a loss of the turbulence. In its place came the ‘viewing’ effect.

The Viewing Effect

Once the demolitions were complete, the remaining city gates (there are four in Bruges, one in Maastricht and nine in Bologna) began a new cycle. Once separated from the ring of the wall, annoying because of their construction was based on the exercise of control and perceived as a constraint, the gates remained, a non-functional leftover. With the loss of function, the spatial theme also collapsed and the buildings lost their semantics. Often right in the middle of the busiest traffic intersections (Bologna), they were shifted to the edges of the thoroughfares (Bruges). Traffic circulated more and more around them rather than through them.

The iconography of the printed (post)cards is associated with this phase. The assignment for the visual record was to redefine the gates. In fact, Verbrugge had tried to do the same thing a hundred years earlier. But at that time, the loss of function was not such an extreme phenomenon. The gates no longer had a military purpose, but they did still exert control, as movement and transport were still passing through them. Verbrugge interpreted all that by seeking out a harmonious integration of the gates between water and flora. His city gates did not shut out things rural, but were a part of the rural landscape.

The iconography of the printed cards negated the gates as things in their own right and made them the object of an entirely new perspective, that of the display (of the same order and value as Benjamin’s definition of the ‘exhibition’). The image made it abundantly clear that the gates could be looked at, observed. The vantage point was wide. It copiously showed the structures and growth around the gate. Growth around the monument (for this is what the gates had now become) became an exposition space. The recent reconstruction of the Porta Galliera in Bologna convincingly brings this museum-like presentation up to date. In the same way that a city was once presented on a scale to its patron saint, so today does a kind of museum space slide in place around the functionless gate.

In Maastricht, in an extremely radical manner for the 1880s, a comparable ‘observation’ effect was generated between the two bastions, Haat en Neydt and the Vijf Koppen. Victor de Stuers, although so sympathetic to the cause of preserving patrimony, carved a fantasy gate into the old wall. This Poort Waarachtig (The ‘True Gate’, identified on a printed card from Liege as ‘old’) became a playful (and clearly rather kitsch) mediaeval fantasy intended to brighten up the route from a well-heeled neighbourhood outside the city into the city centre. There could be no more poignant illustration of a radical disappearance of military history or the three-dimensional theme of the walls. This 19th-century fantasy is also found at the centre of one of Maastricht’s historically and semantically richest areas, the Nieuwstad. Here we also find the Jeker delta, an area where the demolition stopped, and which once housed the city’s underbelly – its slaughterhouse, pesthouse, blood pit and leather tanners. The way the firm of Werry-Beck in Liege visualized the Poort Waarachtig speaks volumes. It is a crystal-clear visual statement. The new city gate can be seen both as an empty symbol and an aesthetic pirouette. Charm was primary and their contemporaries were clearly able to give that charm visual expression. It certainly was something of a smear on the culture of conservation, but on the other hand, it gave the preservation of monuments a kind of solidity. This was not an operation carried out without a sense of values – fortunately – but was itself a cultural choice. Conservation can also be a method that violates the past: violence as a sign of vitality.


At the end of the 19th century, city gates – and not only the gates – were embalmed. The walled fortifications had once been built and later expanded as a part of the cities’ defensive military infrastructure. Policing, customs and toll collection were easily affixed to that system. In Italy, the demolition of the walls was only contemplated after an alternative tax collection system had been created. Until then, the city boundary was still the ideal place for levying taxes. But when military, police and financial authorities released their connections to the walls, there was no longer any resistance to the city’s desire to be free of them. The modern city was growing, and it no longer chose (pre-modern) concentration and densification to achieve that growth. The modern city opted for expansion and thinning out. The walled city was diametrically opposed to such expansion, for it stimulated ever more densification.

The gates themselves – images of Bologna and Maastricht taken from inside the city clearly show this – were the ultimate location for concentration and accumulation, with additions built on everywhere for the personnel inside the building and for the travellers who had to pass through it. Dubious transactions seemed to be objectified by those additions. The city gate was a restless space, the acme of the Romanesque structure. This was not only because of the fantasies of the ‘boys in armour at the city gates’, but later also because of the fantasy of freedom and escape that had developed in association with the gates. And it was this freedom that in turn generated crime and corruption. All of this lies in the imaginary pool at the foot of the gate.

Monumentalization presupposed demolition of the walls. The gate was freed from the system that had created it. What had once been a dangerous breach in the wall was now the only part of the wall that remained standing. The breach had become a construct. The fragile lock is a compact thing. All the added structures lost their meaning, for now, people wanted to keep the edifice as compact as possible. Bridges across the water, the advance gate on the other side of the water, the guard houses – everything was now cut away. What remained was a central mass that revealed nothing of the complex articulations that had once existed between the wall and the road. The density around the gate dissolved itself into spacious city plazas. The gates suddenly found themselves in open space, a kind of space that completely contradicted their essence. (The Helpoort in Maastricht is a single, powerful exception).

Monumentalization therefore had to do with isolation. People simplified, made overviews possible, cut away the trivialities of life. They constructed urban plazas, which is to say that they created open spaces at the behest of undisturbed visibility, places where nothing distracted one’s attention. They eliminated the semantics until almost nothing remained except something one could look at. This mental restriction and impoverishment was in fact also a form of miniaturization; the postcard was the ideal medium for this trend. It is not without consequence that we preserve something that no longer has a purpose.

The Phenomenology of Urban Space

In the course of the 19th century, there was a change in the way cities produced themselves – their territory, their trajectories, the way they divided themselves from the non-urban, as well as in their personnel, their decision-making and the complex techniques (from legal to aesthetic and material techniques) that needed to be put in place in order to make the production of the city possible. This shift, which can be seen at all levels of policy and read in all the statistics, had far-reaching consequences for the way people experienced urban life. We can see how the experience of this change was interpreted in literature, painting and urban iconography. These interpretations can be read anew in our search for the eidos of modern urban life. The iconography gives us some of the keys, but certainly not all of them. This changing essence of the cities helped determine how those cities produced themselves. The flaneur and the boulevard promenades were also political entities, because they were aesthetic entities. Policy may have generated the everyday poetry of the city, but that everyday poetry also generated policy.

The 19th century recalibrated its immobile patrimony to the view – the eye – of the tourist, an outlook that was of course not thought up by the tourist, but by local culture. What was the city that we would like to see when we come here to visit? What was the history that we would like to write if we could rewrite our history? From a given point in time, historicizing and tourism became perfect extensions of one another.


[1] Marco Poli, In Nome del Progresso, 1902-1904. L’abbattimento delle mura di Bologna, Bologna, Costa Editore, 2002

[2] Ingrid Evers, Geslechte Vestingwerken in Maastricht, Maastricht, Stichting Maastricht Vestingstaad, 2005

[3] In the Archivio dell’ Archiginnasio, Bologna

[4] In the collection of the Cassa di Risparmio, Bologna

[5] In Royal Archives, Brussels

[6] In the Courtrai Municipal Museums

[7] In the Antwerp Museum of Photography

[8] Mark Klett’s Rephotography workshop, as part of the symposium ‘reactivated’ the trajectories once followed by the photographers. Seeking the most precise possible reconstruction of the photographers’ vantage points for earlier photographs exemplifies the theme of the spatial quality of photography.

[9] It is the ultimate in adventure stories, the highlight of adventure films. Think of the most recent version in Lord of the Rings.

[10] See Dirk Lauwaert, Stadsfotografie in het negentiende-eeuwse Brugge. Deel I: Tussen toerisme en restauratie, in: De Witte Raaf nr. 104, juli-augustus 2003, pp. 15-20; idem, Stadsfotografie in het negentiende-eeuwse Brugge. Deel II: De mentaliteit van de beelden, in: De Witte Raaf nr. 105, September-October 2003, pp. 19-24.

[11] In Les futurs boulevards de Bruges (1897), Duclos wrote, ‘Il faut se placer sur le Cingel pour se rendre compte de l’attrait de ce terrain.’ (p. 10) The preposition ‘sur’, on top of, is crucial here.

Dirk Lauwaert

This article was written in association with the Nineteenth-Century Urban Photography research project, with the support of Sint-Lukas College in Brussels. Nineteenth-Century Topographic Photography of Maastricht in an European Perspective, an international symposium held at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht on June 4th and 5th, 2004, preceded the final editing. My thanks to speakers Ingrid Evers (historian, Maastricht), Toon Jenniskens (urban culture historian, Maastricht), Carlo Cesari (Director of the European Centre for the Conservation of Architectural Heritage, San Servolo, Venice) and Mark Klett (photographer, Tempe University, Arizona, USA).

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