The nature of Italian cities often leads us to believe that they have always been where they are today, frozen in time as if they were inside a crystal display case. Yet over a 2,000 year period, these cities were born, like primroses in spring, from a glow of life in an ancient time.
The layering of time, eras, wars and generations shaped small towns–often tiny clusters of houses or military encampments–and transformed them into modern urban machines capable of housing tens or even hundreds of thousands of inhabitants as early as Roman times.
These urban agglomerations were characterized by compact cores where main public functions took place (commercial, religious, residential, etc.)–all contained within mighty walls and fortresses which continued to draw clear boundaries between the city and the countryside.
Throughout the Italian Renaissance, there were a variety of attempts to theorize the perfect way to design a city, most of the time unsuccessful, but which nevertheless exhibits how much attention was being paid to the topic of urban development in an era when man was beginning to place himself at the center of his own world. Even the environments in which he lived had to follow this new conception of his existence.
In the 19th century, with the impetus of the industrial revolution, the Italian city began its expansion outside medieval walls and developed new streets with tree-lined avenues and an orderly geometric layout.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the problems of the contemporary city were addressed with a new focus on the psychophysical well-being of the individual. Standards of functionality, hygiene, airflow and light were established by cities for their inhabitants, standards that are still the basis of our cities today.
Here, the evolution of Italy’s ideal city through museums, cities and books:
GALLERIA NAZIONALE DELLE MARCHE, URBINO
The philosophical concept of the “ideal city”, a geometrically-patterned urban settlement, was first theorized in the late 15th century with the intent to closely relate art, architecture, urban planning and philosophy. Although the conceptualization cannot be traced back to one specific thinker, there are many paintings from the time period in Urbino’s Galleria Nazionale delle Marche exploring the topic.
Tuscany’s Pienza was the first application of the Renaissance’s humanistic concept of urban design. It owes its fame to Pope Pius II, who decided to breathe new life into his hometown by implementing a renovation. From 1459 to 1562, new public spaces and housing were constructed, including the Cattedrale dell’Assunta, Piazza Pio II and Palazzo Ammannati.
Palmanova is a fortress town in the province of Udine, erected in 1593 at the behest of the Venetian republic in an attempt to reinforce the Austrian border. The city is known for its distinctive star shape: the number three (and its multiples) was used as the unit of reference for the city’s design–three circles of walls, nine bastions, 18 streets, three entrance doors…
Piazza Grande in Palmanova
Crespi d’Adda, a working-class village near Lombardy’s Bergamo, was erected in 1876 around the Crespi Cotton Mill. Built and managed by the Crespi family for 50 years (from the late 19th century to the early 20th century), the experiment was based on the Anglo-Saxon urban planning culture of the “company town” and was a product of the 19th-century refined opinion that useful things also had to be necessarily beautiful. The aim was to address workers’ needs both physically and aesthetically: Crespi d’Adda was the first Italian town to receive modern-style public lighting and from 1892 onwards, Crespi’s workers were offered single-family homes with their own gardens.
THE NEW CITY BY ANTONIO SANT’ELIA
The ideas of urban utopia generated by the architecture of the Modern Movement led Como-born Sant’Elia to create a collection of drawings “The New City” in 1914 with which he broke away from past tradition and envisioned tall iron and glass buildings–often interconnected by bridges and aerial walkways–along with the abandonment of classical orders. Although he barely completed any physical works, his drawings were hugely influential in the Futurist architecture movement.
Built in the 1930s, Tresigallo is a metaphysical town in the province of Ferrara, characterized by rationalist architectural and urban planning style, which included a central square with a “Torre Littoria” around which the main public buildings were erected. Tresigallo is the full-scale application of German theories on the democratic design of the “città nuova” (“new town”) and a product of Italy’s period of Fascism.