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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.

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