The Life of the City

by Thomas M. Dietz, appearing in Volume 18

This densely written and well-researched book is unlikely to adorn the shelves of most practicing professionals. This is unfortunate, as Politics of the Piazza offers a unique analysis of a subject that should be a matter of concern to all practitioners—the purpose and origins of the piazza, a component of urbanism that, although particularly significant in Italy, remains recognizable throughout the western urban tradition.

Canniffe surveys the history of Italian urban space and public architecture primarily as an intellectual history framed through four epochs. He begins with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the early middle-ages, moves to the Renaissance, then the Enlightenment, and concludes with our current period of relative architectural confusion.

Piazza Navona. Photo:

Canniffe contends that the principles of Roman urbanism prevail throughout Italy due to the nation’s shared remembrance of ancient Rome. The Roman forum was designed for a political purpose and its form persists in the piazza throughout Italian history and in all iterations of political life. But for Canniffe, the piazza is not, and cannot be seen as independent from a wider architectural program. Indeed, it is both the piazza as an adaptation of the Roman forum and the concurrent use of Roman imagery that have shaped the piazza as an urban expression in Italian history.

Canniffe’s account begins with an analysis of the ancient forum, followed by an account of the rise of Christianity. The dominance of the church structure in piazzas signified the political power of the Church, which represented the sole source of sacred and secular stability in an otherwise politically fractured Europe. Aesthetic theories of order derived from platonic idealism began to emerge in recognition of the piazza’s role as a place of social stability. Notably, public art programs mingled iconographic cycles with idealized urban landscapes that controlled the perspective of the viewer.

During the Renaissance, architects came to understand that the urban landscape could be ordered in a similar manner. Buildings began to be designed in relation to the piazza, simultaneously controlling the perspective of the citizenry through architecture and elevating the grandeur of these spaces. Later, piazzas became momentary nodes along the vast urban vistas of the Baroque period, shifting urban expression from isolated places toward the larger city. This shift placed a greater emphasis on individual freedom and public movement over the singular experience of the spaces themselves, a move that anticipated the Enlightenment as a precursor to contemporary city planning.

The transition to modernity proved particularly tumultuous in Italy. While the currents of industrialization and nationalism desired a pragmatic urban expression for a newly unified nation, Italians were also wrestling with a rising global interest in monumental archaeological programs. These two competing views—one toward the future of the new Italian state and the other toward the achievements of the Roman past—persisted through a succession of rapidly changing governments. Despite the ephemeral nature of the various governments in the nascent Italian nation the piazza remained an enduring urban form.

Canniffe finishes with appraisals of recent work by architects including Aldo Rossi and Carla Scarpa, before arriving at a series of concluding remarks on the contemporary Italian piazza. Though delivered as passing remarks, the author shows little love for Cesar Pelli’s Citta della Moda proposal, skewering a contemporary architect in a way seldom seen in serious academic works. Canniffe also criticizes the remnants of postmodernism.

In his conclusion, the author notes that his studies were bookended by two Achille Occhetto speeches delivered in Italian piazzas. While each speech possessed the spontaneity and immediacy of a traditional political rally, they were nonetheless well-choreographed events irrevocably tied to our contemporary multimedia culture. So, having endured another shift in human history, piazzas remained the staging ground. Canniffe ends with a few brief musings on the state of the piazza in a world of technological gadgetry and virtual landscapes that are increasingly personalized and transient; and with that, Canniffe asks us to consider whether the human experience may finally move in a direction that outstrips the need for the piazza. Given the trajectory of Canniffe’s book, one expects him to answer these questions in the negative.

This book, the first of the Ashgate Studies in Architecture series, successfully merges architecture with urbanism into a serious and refreshing academic reflection worthy of review by all professionals engaged in the creation of public space.