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A Matter of Optics

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In the evening, “with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers,” Kublai Khan despairs of ever knowing or understanding the empire he has built. And in the dusk, the Venetian Marco Polo tells the great Khan of the unknown cities he rules. So begins Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, that mystifying, illuminating, bedazzling compendium of fantastical places. Among these imagined cities, Polo tells the emperor of Irene. “Irene is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on, and in the limpid air, the pink of the settlement can be discerned spread out in the distance below…Those who look down from the heights conjecture about what is happening in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they have any intention of going there (in any case the roads winding down to the valley are bad), but Irene is a magnet for the eyes and thoughts of those who stay up above.”

People love vantage points from which they can take in the city. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary does not observe Rouen from the street, but from a hilltop, where seen from above, “the whole landscape had the static quality of a painting.” William Wordsworth paused on Westminster Bridge in 1802 to observe London laid out before him:

This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Tall towers have always delighted, because they provide such visions of the city spread out before the gaze. Where towers or hills failed, medieval or Renaissance painters imagined the city from on high, in a celestial view that no human eye had yet achieved. Technology eventually caught up to this desire. A straight line can be drawn from Félix Nadar’s first aerial photographs of Paris taken from his balloon in 1858 to my ability to google views of my city, my house, or my backyard from outer space.

The god’s-eye perspective is the ultimate expression of the human desire to make the city visible, to see it in a glance, to read it as an intelligible and unified object of human making. Yet, as Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan, those on the plateau cannot know Irene, for, “If you saw it, standing in its midst, it would be a different city; Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.” City dwellers do not live in balloons or satellites, nor do they remain fixed in towers. In the streets, among the crush of people, clarity of view can yield to opacity, the distancing abstractions of vision give way to arousal of the body’s five senses through smells, sounds, sights, and surfaces. In the city’s labyrinth, invisibility can quickly trump visibility.

Much of the history of the city—its built forms and its politics, the urban experience, and the characteristic moral ambivalence that cities arouse—can be written as a tension between the visible and the invisible. What and who gets seen? By whom? Who interprets the city’s meaning? What should remain unseen?

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About the Author

Warren Breckman teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the coexecutive editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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