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The City Walls as Research 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.

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