Aristotle once argued that outside the city there are only beasts and gods: the polis is the natural place for the human animal. And for the Greeks there was no city without an agora. When the Greek invaders reached the shores below Troy’s ramparts, Homer relates, they formed an agora amid their beached ships, a space for deliberations and the altars of their gods. The agora in the actual city was what a twenty-first-century urban planner might call a “mixed-use” space. It combined, at times very uneasily, the marketplace and the assembly place for citizens. Under the brilliant Aegean sun, the agora was the theater for the chief scenes of city life. In the most famous of agoras, that of Athens, the citizen—member of a small minority within a population of women, slaves, and foreigners—might in a day fend off a zealous merchant, feel puzzled by Socrates’ relentless questions, and deliberate in a legal case. The Roman forum borrowed heavily from Greek urban form, combining in a sense both agora and acropolis in one precinct. Yet the needs of a great imperial capital demanded a rather different kind of visibility, a public space not only where one could be both actor and spectator, but where power could display itself. Hence, that great arbiter of Roman architecture, Vitruvius, specified that the size of the forum should not be too small, lest it cramp the assembled crowd, but not too large, lest empty space should underscore a poor turnout. With the right proportions, Vitruvius advised, the forum will be “adapted to the purpose of spectacles.” At more distant removes, the piazza, plaza, grand place, and town square are all descendents of the agora and the forum.
The Christian city of the Middle Ages retained many elements of its pagan ancestors, such as the town square. But the specific organization of power in medieval society created new features in the urban scene. As enunciated in the papal bull “Unam Sanctam” in 1302, the Catholic Church claimed to wield two swords, the spiritual and temporal. The Church never successfully achieved this universal control over worldly government, however—and in actual fact, two intertwined yet distinct and frequently rivalrous powers ruled over people. This division between secular and ecclesiastical authorities inevitably shaped the topography of the city. The divided powers required two distinct centers: a church or cathedral and its associated buildings for the spiritual sword, and depending on local political arrangements, a royal residence or a city hall, or both for its worldly correlate. As in the medieval Muslim city, where the mosque dominated the visual and symbolic topography, in its Christian counterpart, the church was the most important building of all. Its glorious spires rose above all other structures, and its shining form reaching to heaven was the first thing that the approaching traveler would see. In the labyrinth of the city streets, the church might momentarily disappear from sight, but already around the next corner it would burst into view again. And those streets were frequently the theater for processions and pageants that furthered the visibility, the readability of this social and religious order. Listen to the painter Albrecht Dürer’s recollection from 1520: “On the Sunday after our dear Lady’s Assumption, I saw the great procession from the Church of our Lady at Antwerp, when the whole town of every craft and rank was assembled, each dressed in his best according to his rank. And all ranks and guilds had their signs, by which they might be known.”
The picture of medieval urbanism would be incomplete without the defensive walls that typically girded the city. Walls created a dramatic line separating the town from the surrounding territory.The city gate became a potent symbol of the inhabitants’ power to open or close themselves to the world at will. In a context where the world out there was full of threats, the old German saying, “City air makes you free,” referred not only to cities’ relative independence within feudal society, but also to the freedom that came with security behind a tall wall.
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