June 18 2014

The Ethics of Reconstructing a Historic City: Florence, Italy Post World War II

During the final battles of the Second World War, the region of  Tuscany in Italy suffered great destruction. The German Army retreated in the historic cities of Florence and Pisa, significant centers for art and architecture, predicting the hesitation of the Allies to bombard them. Surprisingly, only a relatively small part of the original city of Florence was torn down, allowing us to continue to enjoy the medieval spirit of the city. However, the traces of this chapter of history on the city are not easily legible on the urban grid, as the mid-twenty first century reconstruction followed much older design standards.

The most significant and widely known wreckage in Florence was of the historic bridges. All but one were torn down for defense reasons - among them, a three-arched bridge designed by Michelangelo. The medieval Ponte Vecchio, which was supposedly respected for its artistic importance, is the only original bridge that survived.  Instead of removing it, they tore down the historic medieval buildings on either sides of the river, and they leveled their ruins, creating thus a type of fortification.

The wreckage around Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

That is the reason why the attentive observer of modern Florence comes across the paradox of newly constructed buildings in the very center of such an old city. The secret of the reconstruction is not revealed to all the visitors, but only to the ones that raise their gaze upwards, above the touristic shops, the cafes and the gelaterias of the ground floorsInstead of the medieval palaces that rule in the rest of the city, they discover modern architecture of questionable quality that tries to imitate a design style outdated for centuries, suboptimal to the engineering progress of the 1950’s.

The buildings of the river coast in the center of Florence, with architectural elements that remind much older eras, Florence, Italy

Historians, along with some of the local inhabitants, may support that this exactly was the role of architecture in such a situation: to help in “healing the wounds” of the city, by making less obvious its sufferings. This attitude may have also contributed to maintaining and enhancing tourism, to “selling” the urban product of Florence by not disrupting the medieval integrity with modern constructions. One could ask however, if this was the most moral among the possible solutions. Should architecture be used to cover the history, to create false aesthetics in order to hide the not-so pleasant past? Maybe the gaps created by the bombardments of WWII should have been filled with high-quality modern buildings, that would reveal their origins, and would make clearer this part of the city’s history.

Which side are you on? What do you think should be the role of architectural reconstruction under similar circumstances of wide zone destructions?

Credits: Images by Marilena Mela, unless otherwise linked to sources. 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, June 18th, 2014 at 9:06 am and is filed under Architecture, History/Preservation, Land Use, Marilena Mela, 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.

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