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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.

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