Monday, 10 February 2014

Board Vision: Tales From the Battlefield

Things discussed: Spatial Dysmorphia; Aliens; Coups and Ambushes; Blackboards; Emptiness; Boxes; Dinosaurs; Institutional Inertia; Vantage Points.

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

Mantua is a small town, capital and namesake of its own province in southern Lombardy, Italy.

Founded by the Romans, like manybut more than mostItalian city-states, Mantua has been an important centre of political and artistic activity since the Middle Ages. 

Like most, if not all, city-states turned small towns, it's been struggling with the management of its immense cultural heritage for centuries.

The 2012 Emilia-Romagna earthquake deeply affected its territory. It’s suffered floods, cracks, shiftsand so have many of its historical buildings and churches. 

On top of this, outsourcing, off-town shopping malls and cinemas, and the global financial crisis, have accentuated the typical institutional inertia that plagues most of the Country when it comes to cultural and historical heritage.

In some cases, intervening to patch the scars wouldn’t be enough. The need for change is palpable. It seems sensible to look at past solutions. So, what's happened before? Looking back a good one hundred years, the city has gone through only one major rethink.

Organically transformed through the centuries after its mediaeval heyday, Mantua was, by the end of the 1800s, a mostly baroque or post-baroque city. Its main buildings retained their mediaeval structure underneath, but everything else was obeying the prevalent taste of the time.

Due to a movement that spread in that area of Northern Italy in the first decades of the 1900s, Mantua was re-mediaevalised.

The thick decorative whippings and dressings on the buildings’ façades were cleared away, some of the palazzos were redesigned from the inside, windows were added and others removed, homes and shops were wiped out, entire "lost" churches rebuilt, all to match an ideal image of the mediaeval city that in turn matched the mostly anachronistic ideology of the restorers of the time.(*)

The city was, in short, turned into a stage set: arches were built with no apparent structural purposeor they stood as leftovers once stripped of the structure they supported; suggestive passageways were opened; historical-looking staircases were raised to make a view, and perspective vantage points were scattered all around town.

For what we know now, it was all done in good faith. But it was dramatic, and to a certain extent it was destructive and dismissive of the last, say, four hundred years of history. And it was a fantasy applied to the real world. Although what happened to Mantua is nothing like the real mediaeval theme park that Grazzano Visconti has become. (**)

But Mantua is, by all standards, one of the most beautiful cities in our peninsula. In short, when you think about it: they win. Also: what they've done has now become historical heritage. Also: twisted as it may look, theirs was an act of love.

This said, we could never do that to a city again. The problem is: how can we revitalize a place that is held almost immobile by institutional inertia? 

These days there's a sort of spatial dysmorphia at play. From within. 

A goodand sadexample of this is the immense central void of Sordello Square. It's one of the largest piazzas of the whole country, but, unlike other cities, whose central squares are also their touristic, institutional and commercial hubs, it has been gradually left to chew on its own emptiness.

And this is the real topic of this post. 

Some of the facts, as the jingle goes, can only happen here.
The first fact is a typical and very fortunate Italian trove: a few years ago, during maintenance works on the piazza's surface, the workers stumbled upon Roman ruins. The works were stopped and everything set still for another typical and less fortunate Italian paradox:
"Roman ruins! We should definitely peel off the whole piazza above to unveil such marvels!"
"No, wait: the piazza is itself a historical marvel. What do we do?"
And here comes to play another typical Italian attitude: nothing. We do nothing. They put a box over and around the Roman mosaic, part of a buried Domus Romana, opened it to the public for far too short a time, and left everything else as it was.

Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni is an architect. With his two associates, he runs studiopdA, an architecture firm on the side of Piazza Sordello itself.

The firm has planned and built apartment buildings and hospital wards, and is active in a series of restructuring works in private homes. Their main business and interest is, though, the maintenance, restoration and monitoring of ancient churches around the whole province. The damages of the earthquake have made their expertise particularly needed in recent times.

The immobility of the central piazza is therefore, for them, a very deeply felt issue: their offices are there, their job has mostly to do with the SoprintendenzeHead Office for the Administration of Cultural and Historical Heritageand the piazza is the symbol of all they have to struggle with.

Sebastianoas he's known to friendsis also a painter, a draughtsman, and, above all, a very witty man.

His colleagues and he have a blog here. Among the last posts, Sebastiano has drawn on his wit, his art and to some extent his exacerbation with the Piazza Sordello issue.

Their blog is in Italian. With his permission, I've translated the whole of his Tales from the Battlefield, attaching his beautiful blackboard drawings. You can find everything here from the next sentence on.

(*) I want to make clear that, although the re-mediaevalisation is a fact, my tone and choice of highlights may result a little too sarcastic to some; furthermore, any mistakes in this post are entirely my responsibility. 

(**) Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni has suggested this extreme example of the re-mediaevalisation rhetoric. 

From the Battlelfield, 1

Space-archaelogy-politics. Piazza Sordello in Mantua has been object of discussion for a while now. It may be that we're not looking at things from the right perspective. Perhaps we're not even researching a method to face the theme of its complexity. Today, we'll try with cartoons. 

At the blackboard!

The piazza as it is, or was, from one of its vantage points, the Market Square.

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

This empty space was filled with monuments at the end of the 1800s. The monuments were then removed. I'm imagining a monument dedicated to the "scale" of the Duomo façade, which was apparently designed for a 4-5 metres (13-16ft) tall man. 

The Colossus of the Month is dedicated to the founder of the artificial lakeside landscape that separates Mantua from other towns.

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

Sometimeswhy not?a deeper emptiness can sit on top of the existing emptiness.

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

The Piazza hides treasures. After all, the city was founded by the Romans. 
This is the forbidden dreamor nightmare?of some soprintendente.

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

From the Battlefield, 2 

This place represents the highest point of the city. We can imagine that in ancient times is was an islet at the centre of wide swampy grounds. Before being a "void", it's been the original inhabited area.

It seems that the history of the space as a "piazza" dates back to the Gonzaga Family's coup. They took the power away from the Bonacolsi by ambushing them from calli, sotopoteghi and interstices.
To prevent these things to ever happen againbut to their detrimentthey demolished some buildings, to have the maximum visibility over the city from the Palazzos of Power.

It seems obvious, then, that we could add troves from a later eraor an earlier one, why not?to the remains from the Roman times. Who could exclude the wonderful nature of possible future finds?

Discovery no. 1 
The tip of an egyptian pyramid emerges: new reasons of pride for the town's parochialism. 

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

Discovery no. 3
Remains of the biggest dinosaur in the worldor thereabouts. The missing link with something else.

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

Discovery no. 4
Flying saucer. Alien Civilisations and evidence of extra-terrestial life. The Piazza was an ancient runway. 

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

Discovery no. 5
The ultimate find. As György Ligeti's music rises in the background, 2001's Monolith surfacesthe Sentinel, avatar of a superior entity...

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

But we're impudent and have a taste for provocation. Thus, after years of arguments about "historical centre", road network and parking spots, here's a different approach to the issue: a good ol' multistory car park. Underground. 

Excuse me, where can I park around the City Centre?
In the City Centre!

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

Going further, daring where no man has dared so far, a surreal (?) reflection on this place. Where many of the most important buildings are kept empty, showing only themselves, without any of the small commercial enterprises that, once, kept it aliveperhaps evicted in virtue of a cultural heritage policy not always easy to grasp.

What if we inverted this tendency? There's no money to reopen the Camera degli Sposi?
And what if the famous "City Centre" was a Shopping Centre?
Et voilà: 

Useless to cry with indignation and scandal: back in he Seventies the city was full of commercial neon lights illuminating the buildings. 

Big neon signs: A famous ex-vermouth, the Apfel Store, the commerical arcade Coins, the good ol' city supermarket Coopf. How can you possibly have more life!?

© Giorgio-Sebastiano Bertoni

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