March 19 2014

The Creation of the Italian Commune: Architecture as a Tool of Politics

Out of the darkness of the Middle-Ages, helped by the extreme economic power of commerce, and taking advantage of the turbulence caused by the constant fight for control between the church and the Holy Roman Empire, there emerged in Italy an urban form forgotten since Antiquity: the city-state.

These states, also known as Communes, gained the rights and liberties that marked their independence between the late eleventh and the thirteenth century, and some of them obtained significant power and wealth. We could claim that their formation helped to open the way for the Italian Renaissance.

Panoramic view of Florence, where the emphasis in public buildings and squares is obvious,

In the realm of urban planning, the independent governance brought great change and development. Some of the most famous elements of the Italian cities, the squares, the cathedrals, the city halls, have their origins in this period, and mark different political decisions of the era. For example, the creation of the piazza marked the intention to create a safe environment for citizens, eliminating the dangers and unhealthiness of the dense medieval urban fabric. The construction of city halls meant the obvious need to house the local government centrally, to confirm their power. And the replacement of the old with new cathedrals was a symbolic way to compare the grandeur of the cities.

But apart from the addition of the above urban spaces, there was an occasion when governments ordered the elimination of a characteristic form of the Italian architecture: the tower. They realized that the rivalry between families, which found its spatial expression in their effort to construct the highest tower, would weaken the central power. Hence, in some cities all the towers were demolished; as in Siena, their marks on several buildings are still visible to an attentive observer.

The most rich and powerful among the many independent states were undoubtedly Venice and Florence, cities that continued to flourish commercially, as well as artistically and architecturally throughout the whole Renaissance period. But one of the best examples of a well-organized city-state is that of Siena. Its development ceased unexpectedly in the 1350s because of the Black Death, and the city remained since frozen in the period of the Commune creation.

The central square and the impressive city hall of Siena.

The urban and architectural development, due to a change in governance, is a common result throughout history. The formation of the city-state is a political change that not only created a large number of beautiful and worth-visiting cities in north Italy, but also influenced the architectural achievements of the whole European continent. It also marked a significant, still visible today, difference in the local spirit between the north and the south of the Italian peninsula, overstating the impact of the political scene to the city environment.

In what ways do you believe that the governance systems affect the cities of today?

Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.

Marilena Mela

Marilena Mela is an Architecture student at National Technical University of Athens, and is spending a semester abroad studying in the Architecture Faculty of the University of Florence, Italy. She is especially interested in the history of buildings, and the manners in which monuments affect the growth of the city. Also, her participation in restoration projects in traditional settlements has introduced her to the the significance of locality. She considers the past as a base we should fully understand before taking step towards the future. Along with studying urban history, the fact that she speaks several languages, including Greek, English, Italian, Spanish, French and Chinese, gives her an extra advantage in understanding rhythms and the local spirit of the places she visits.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 at 9:58 am and is filed under Architecture, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “The Creation of the Italian Commune: Architecture as a Tool of Politics”

  1. Bruno Tonelli Says:

    Architecture surely shapes our lives more than we think. And the urban realm is the place where this happens more deeply. Both the words city and civilization originate from the latin word civitas. Is it really possible to separate the civic values of a community from the urban quality of the cities where it lives? Or the two things are inextricably bound and inter-dependent? One of the roles of architecture is to build and reinvigorate the civic values of human life through a strong influence on the quality of the spaces where human actions take place. Good architecture has to try to integrate with the existing city, to build it, to connect and physically interrelate with it. The epoch of urban iconic/spectacular and isolated buildings has to be left behind.
    A great lesson we can learn from the italian ‘Comuni’, communes in english, is their ability to shape the urban realm through the act of design. Through the act of determining the dimensions, materials, quality of light of each public space.
    It’s been too a long time that urbanism has actually forgotten this art, as it’s too a long time that we limit ourselves to planning different areas in our cities instead of designing in detail our urban realms, leaving too often to developers the act of architecture design.
    There are of course some good exceptions even in the modern period, but since WWII things have surely worsened, and we have lost the ability to create pleasurable public spaces comparable with the urban quality of historic cores of our towns and cities.
    Public space has since almost never been framed to form an urban fabric of a quality comparable to that of ancient cores. It’s thus not fortuitous that urban quality, richness of spaces and not least tourism have always been outside 20th century urban developments.
    Post-modernism has been a reaction to modern architecture but has limited itself to a window-dressing operation that has never addressed the real issues. At the same time modernism has failed in shaping new towns and residential zones as true places for good living.
    A new approach is needed for architecture and for governance systems that regulate architecture. A new and authentic architecture for the 21st century has to become something different both from modernism and post-modernism.
    Without mimicking the past we should try to learn from the great lessons of urbanism the past teaches us.

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