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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The city, both as a social reality and as an architec-
tural environment, played an important part in
Renaissance thought and art. This may be partly ex-
plained by the fact that Renaissance culture developed
in cities, and was an almost completely urban phe-
nomenon (even the newly discovered affection for the
rustic life of the villa attests to its basically urban
character). The acquaintance with ancient literary
sources further intensified the interest in the city; the
polis became an object of study and imitation. But
although Renaissance authors often referred to the
polis, they usually attributed its characteristics to the
Italian city-states of their own period. Thus Leonardo
Bruni, in his Laudatio Florentiae urbis as well as in
other writings, describes Florence as a model of an


ideal city of justice, a city well-ordered, harmonious,
beautiful, governed by taksis and kosmos. Bruni pro-
claims that Florence is rational and functional in her
institutions as well as in her architecture: “Nothing in
her [Florence] is confused, nothing inconvenient,
nothing without reason, nothing without foundation;
all things have their place, not only definite but conve-
nient and where they ought to be. Distinguished are
the offices, distinguished the judgements, distinguished
the orders.” The architectural structure corresponds to
the rationality of the social and political structure. The
city is built along a river, a module of urbanism is
consistently applied in her architecture. As in a polis,
in the center of Florence are the Palazzo dei Signori
and the “Temple,” i.e., the Duomo.

In this early stage we encounter already a character-
istic feature of Renaissance urbanistic thought: the
ideal city can, at least in part, be identified with a real
one. Historians have remarked that the fifteenth cen-
tury, instead of producing utopias, gave rise to many
laudationes of actual cities, investing them with all
the virtues of utopian settlements. Venice and Florence
were described as embodiments of the political thought
of the ancients.

Probably the earliest expression of the Renaissance
spirit in actual town planning is to be found in Leon
Battista Alberti's De re aedificatoria, written between
1450 and 1472. Alberti's civic convictions as well as
his aesthetic and moral values are clearly reflected in
his treatise. The novelty of Alberti's method is that
he proposes a scheme for the building of an entire
town. Although he carefully considers the problems of
architecture for private and for ecclesiastical purposes,
in his city plan every detail is subordinated to the
design of the town as a whole. He strongly criticizes
the medieval habit of each family's building a palace
and a tower of its own without any consideration of
its neighbors, except that of rivalry (VIII, 5).

Alberti stresses rational and “functional” elements.
The site of the town must be healthful, in temperate
climate, conveniently placed for water supply, and easy
to defend. Convenience and clarity are the ruling prin-
ciples of his city plan. The town should be clearly laid
out, and the main streets conveniently connected with
the bridges and gates; the streets should be wide
enough not to be congested but not so wide as to be
too hot (IV, 5). The predominant aesthetic principle
is that of symmetry, particularly visible in the relation
of the shapes of the two rows of houses on both sides
of the street (VIII, 6).

Although Alberti probably was the first modern
author to articulate this attitude, similar tendencies can
be discerned in actual Italian architecture of his period.
In the Piazza San Marco in Venice, a standard design
had been repeated around a square, and a similar
procedure can be found in the square in front of the
SS. Annunziata in Florence. The same spirit also
governs Pius II's plans for Pienza, and Nicholas V's
idea for linking Saint Peter's with the Castel Sant'
Angelo in Rome (but in the latter project Alberti was
personally involved).

Closely related to Alberti, and probably influenced
by him, is Filarete, whose Trattato di architettura was
composed in 1460-64. It is written in a somewhat
romantic form which, as scholars have noted, brings
it into close relation to the Hypnerotomachia polifili
(written a few years later), and on ground of which
the author has sometimes been called a “romantic.”
Part of the treatise describes an imaginary city,
Sforzinda. Filarete depicts the pageantry accompany-
ing the founding of the city, the time of which is chosen
according to astrological observation. But behind these
“romantic” details there is a rational spirit which
reaches its clearest expression in the outlining of the
town plan.

Filarete's ideal city has the overall shape of an
octagonal star with a round piazza at its center from
which a radial system of streets emerges. Filarete is
wholeheartedly antimedieval, i.e., he is a radical critic
of the city that has merely “grown.” In his treatise
great emphasis is placed on regularity and on the
importance of having large squares. To the author's
mind, however, the proposed city is no artificial struc-
ture; Filarete believes that Sforzinda, the ville radieuse
of the Renaissance, is “beautiful and good and perfectly
in accord with the natural order.” At the same time,
Sforzinda is designed to meet the economic and social
needs of the community. Moreover, the town plan of
Sforzinda, although “perfectly in accord with the nat-
ural order,” translates into stone the political and social
order of the Italian city-states of the fifteenth century.
Cosmic and religious symbolism appears in the central
buildings of Sforzinda. The dome of the Cathedral is
covered by a mosaic representation of God in the form
of a “resplendent sun that lights all the dome with its
rays of gold,” surrounded by a hierarchy of angels and
saints. On the pavement beneath the dome there is a
map of “the lands and waters,” surrounded by the
symbols of the seasons and the elements (Book IX).

In several of his notes Leonardo da Vinci (who in
this case was interested mainly in problems of engi-
neering) sketches an interesting model of an ideal town:
the healthful city is built near the seashore or along a
river (so that the dirt may be carried away by the
water), and is constructed on two planes connected to
one another by stairs. On the upper level live the
“gentlemen” (gli uomini gentili), on the lower level
the poor (la poveraglia). Traffic and services are con-


centrated on the lower plane. The aesthetic principles
governing the town plan are largely functional. The
beauty of the city follows from its functional form and
its mathematical foundations. Thus, a given proportion
should dictate the height of the houses and the width
of the streets. At the same time, the city should be
built “according to human measure,” a well-known
concept in the Renaissance which, in the context of
urban planning, is already found in Filarete's treatise,
and was later fully expressed by Francesco di Giorgio.

In sum, then, in fifteenth-century thought the ideal
city is, first of all, a rational structure (and even in
studying ancient models the rational elements are
emphasized). Further, Quattrocento thought of the
model city, although containing some elements of cos-
mic symbolism, is mainly concerned with problems of
civil life, of how to make justice and wisdom work
effectively in the community and be clearly expressed
by urban architecture. Finally, the ideal city of the
fifteenth century is altogether on earth; it is neither
merged with, nor juxtaposed to, a “heavenly” city.

In the sixteenth century urbanistic thought under-
goes a significant transformation: different types of
symbolism acquire a greater significance in the outlin-
ing of the town plan than they had in the fifteenth
century, and the ties between the ideal and the real
city are less close. Although this process takes place
under the impact of the Counter-Reformation, there
is no return to medieval attitudes or models. Human-
istic symbols prevail, but they are often transformed,
given a new meaning and transplanted into a new
realm. The most original contribution of this period
is found in utopian town planning. The cities described
in the utopias are separated from real cities; they are
not placed in heaven, but are located in distant regions.
Geographical isolation is a persistent characteristic of
utopian descriptions. Civic functions, although de-
scribed in detail, are usually less important than sym-
bolic aspects in the outlining of the overall shape of
the utopian town plan. The architecture usually is of
an abstract regularity.

Utopian literature abounds in references to the ideal
town, but the most detailed description of the town
plan is given in Tommaso Campanella's City of the
written in 1602 and first published, in a Latin
version, in 1623. Although Campanella was a monk
trained in the Dominican convent of Naples, his
utopian city (which he locates in a distant isle) is
governed by a solar religion, and an astral cult performs
in it. For both the town as a whole and the central
building Campanella accepts the round form as the
most perfect. The overall shape of the City of the Sun
is round. The houses are arranged as circular walls,
or giri, concentric with the central circle in which the
temple is located. The temple itself, Campanella says,
“is perfectly round, free on all sides, but supported
by massive and elegant columns. This dome, an
admirable work, in the center or 'pole' of the temple
... has an opening in the middle directly above the
single altar in the center.... On the altar is nothing
but two globes, of which the larger is a celestial, the
smaller a terrestrial one.”

The round form, an old symbol of perfection, has
an interesting history in utopian town planning, and
frequently occurs both in the form of a radiating center
and as a concentric arrangement. Its immediate source
in Renaissance and baroque periods is the central plan
in religious architecture.

Campanella's City of the Sun is an encyclopedic
system with a “celestial” principle of organization. On
the walls of the temple are depicted all the stars of
heaven with their relation to things below. The walls
of the houses bear depictions of mathematical figures,
animals, and the different occupations of man; on the
outermost circle or wall are exhibited statues of great
men, moral leaders, and founders of religions. The City
of the Sun has indeed been understood (in accordance
with Campanella's intentions) as a “book” and has had
a significant influence on pedagogic thought. Comen-
ius' Orbis pictus is clearly patterned after Campanel-
la's City of the Sun.

Utopian thought in general has frequently been in-
terpreted as implying a criticism of the society in
which the utopia was written; what the author feels
as bad, or as missing, in his own social environment
is corrected, or supplied, in his utopia. This may also
hold true of the utopian town plan. The rigidly planned
and perfectly regular utopian town constitutes a criti-
cism of the “naturally grown” cities in which the
authors lived. The narrow streets and confused ar-
rangement of most medieval cities are criticized by
depicting their opposite as ideal and perfect. In this
respect, utopian town planning represents another
chapter in the history of the debate between the
planned and the grown city.

The rational and easily comprehended plan of the
imaginary town is also related to the authors' views
on the desirable structure of society as a whole. Partic-
ularly in the case of Campanella, the city plan seems
to express the perfectly regulated and completely
centralized structure of society which he envisaged.
The utopian town plan thus becomes a mirror image
of the utopian society.