In the moderately memorable 1997 movie The Edge, Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin portray characters marooned in the Alaskan wilderness. In their dramatic struggle to survive both the elements and some formidable predators, the Hopkins character takes to repeating, mantra-like, the phrase: “What has been done, can be done.” Apart from the merits of this phrase as self-encouragement, as an assertion it is self-evidently true. Nevertheless, as Peter Berger once observed, ideas do not succeed in history according to their truth but rather according to their relationship to specific kinds of social structures and processes.
Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy calls to mind Berger’s caution because the governing ambition of the book—though expressed sotto voce—is to challenge its readers to promote and build cities that aspire to equal if not surpass the most beautiful cities of the Western world—and because its author, David Mayernik, is as aware as anyone that the culture and institutions of modernity are not currently conducive to the creation of such cities. Mayernik is an American architect, painter, urban designer, educator, and webzine publisher who at the tender age (for an architect) of forty-three has already established a reputation as someone dedicated to the reintegration of the building, visual, and rhetorical arts through a series of architectural projects, frescoes, and campus plans executed mostly in Switzerland, Italy, and Great Britain. Timeless Cities is a polemic in the guise of a narrative history of five Italian cities and towns—Rome, Venice, Florence, Siena, and Pienza—and an exercise not unlike (if necessarily more visual and less prolix than) Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in its combination of acute analysis with extraordinary portions of cultural retrieval.
The primary virtue of Timeless Cities is found in Mayernik’s loving histories of these five cities. He tells us not only how these urban formal orders were shaped by shared convictions about the relationship of cities to human well-being, but also how the physical and spatial forms of these cities shaped the lives of their citizens. Out of these shared convictions and the culture of building they nourished, the architects and patrons of these cities created urban environments and landscapes that were not only extraordinarily beautiful but that also acted as theaters of memory and hope, places that simultaneously referred to and grounded citizens in their origins, the common destiny for which they longed, and the virtues necessary for success in their individual and collective journeys through life.
All the senses are touched and rewarded [in Rome]: fountains, grottos, balustrades, espaliered orange trees and frescoes were endlessly exploited for their impact on our ears, hands, noses, tongues, and eyes; not for mere delight . . . but to tap our five senses like a good rhetorician to get at our minds and souls. . . . But the real work of making Rome beautiful was driven by the desire to make her speak. It was only because there was some degree of consensus about what she should say that we have inherited the poignantly beautiful city that she became over time.
Several themes stand out in Mayernik’s accounts of these cities: the persistence of a humanist sensibility grounded in sacred order (including what can only be regarded as a sacramental sense of the relationships among the human body, the city, and the cosmos); the role of memory in the life of traditional cities; the relationship between memory and artistic action; and the city as the physical embodiment of shared aspirations rather than “reality.”
For city builders for more than a thousand years after Augustine the urban realm became a great memory theater where our best aspirations were played out, the place where we said the most substantial things about who we are and what we long for. The city at its best was nothing other than a microcosm of the world, a model of the human mind, and an image of heaven.
Mayernik’s great “cultural re-trieval” consists of numerous brief but detailed accounts of the reciprocity between the daily and—above all—ritual life of these cities and the character of the places where this life took place. To take just one example, Mayernik describes two venerable Roman processions—the Possesso, the papal coronation procession from St. John Lateran to St. Peter’s Basilica (i.e., from the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome to the most prestigious church in Rome, the site of St. Peter’s tomb and the church closest to the part of Rome continuously inhabited from the fall of Rome to its sixteenth-century rebirth); and the annual Corpus Domini procession in the Borgo Vaticano. His descriptions evoke the complex relationship between their respective processional paths, the architecture encountered along the way, the recollection of Rome’s Imperial and Christian history, the reality of Rome itself as a Christian reliquary and pilgrimage destination, and the analogy between the human body and the city. Mayernik—graphically, convincingly, but in detail too great here to recount—describes the Possesso ceremony as “procession as progression . . . a protracted revelation and recollection . . . a path toward fulfillment [and] culmination”; and the Borgo Vaticano district itself as embodying “a deliberate anthropomorphic intention.”
Similarly, Mayernik’s account of the fifteenth-century founding of Pienza by the first Renaissance- humanist pope, Pius II (born Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), is redolent with memory and hope. Pienza was created upon the small town of Corsignano in the landscape of the Tuscan Val d’Orcia, Pius II’s boyhood home. Rome was on the verge of urban revival but at that time was still more impressive as a memory, reliquary, symbol, and idea than as a built reality, existing “in the background of the whole humanist Renaissance.”
But what was it specifically about mighty Rome that Pius brought to little Corsignano? There was, first of all, his name, and therefore the name of the town. . . . Recall that it was the Trojan refugee Aeneas who founded Rome. Virgil refers to him often as “pious Aeneas,” since he evinced such deep respect for his family by saving his father, Anchises, from Troy’s flames. . . . Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was also “pious” in returning to the place where his father lived and was buried to found the town anew and to invest it with a new life. He was a new Aeneas, in the role of the Trojan who founded a new Italic city that would generate Rome. Pius also brought a pragmatic desire to realize in this small town what his papal predecessor Nicholas V desired but could not realize for Rome: the “most perfect paradise” of the Vatican district, a City of God on the Tuscan side of the Tiber. Pius . . . saw his hometown as [a] proving ground of Renaissance ideas . . . a shining light and example to the city of St. Peter.
The cities of which Mayernik writes—and I have been blessed to have spent time in all five—and others like them captivate us to this day; and whatever else can be said about such places, they demonstrate, in the author’s words, that “the costs of building great cities can’t be justified in purely pragmatic terms.” They also remind us of some unpleasant truths: that virtually all of us in the modern world are now mere consumers of great urbanism rather than its producers; and that this earlier vision of cities is now so far removed from the mindset of the modern world that the project of reviving great urbanism may be one best regarded in terms of generations if not centuries. Mayernik’s accounts of these cities also confirm a general observation by Philip Rieff: that all the marks of what we regard today as culture—books and vows, prayers and parading, law and architecture, music and the sciences, dancing and filial piety—originated as an address to sacred order from within sacred order, and apparently thrive only within such a context.
Which brings us back to the analytic and prescriptive intent of Timeless Cities, the understated polemical component that threads its way throughout the narrative. It is no accident that Mayernik has had to go to Europe to find the kinds of physical, cultural, and above all urban settings—and, not least, the institutional patrons—for the kind of work he has found himself called to do. In spite of our attraction to good cities when we see them, American culture is currently neither conducive nor receptive to the kind of architecture and urbanism that Mayernik champions. At several points he touches upon the paradoxes of modern urbanism and the tragic ironies of our cultural attitude toward cities: although we now have more individual freedom, technical ability, and, arguably, social equity, we do not live in places as hospitable to human beings as were our cities of the past; we are pragmatists who build shoddily; our current obsession with historic preservation is the flip side of our utter lack of confidence in our ability to build well; while cultures with shared ascetic ideals and transcendent orientation built great cities and produced great landscapes, modern culture’s expressive ideals, dogmatic public secularism, and privatized religiosity produce for us, even with our vast wealth, only private luxury, a spoiled countryside, and a public realm that is both venal and incoherent; above all, we simultaneously idolize nature and ruin it. For all of his intimate knowledge of and love for the Val d’Orcia landscape of his youth, Pius II
would have shaken his head at the insensitivity to the hand of divinity operating in the city . . . that William Penn evinces in his Reflections and Maxims, where the founder of Philadelphia writes, “The country life is to be preferred, for there we see the works of God, but in cities little else but the works of men.” For a Christian humanist such as [Pius] the best of human endeavor is as much infused with divine presence as the natural world. Indeed more so, since nature for him is as fallen as man and requires “salvation” by means of positive human intervention, whether in the form of agriculture or architecture.
Mayernik realizes that some of his readers will be unpersuaded and others will be made nervous by his contention that the continuous thread of humanism he describes—the thread that linked classical antiquity to the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance—was essentially religious and specifically, after the fall of Imperial Rome, Christian. But just as the Constantinian Church preserved and transformed the best of the dying civilization of classical antiquity, and planted the seeds of what became the great urban culture of the high Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance, so a post-Constantinian and ecumenical Church might preserve and transform the best features of the corrupted civilization of modernity in service to the next great culture of humanist sacramental urbanism.
Great cities are a product of skills and crafts that architects are only beginning to relearn today through the efforts of people like David Mayernik and organizations such as the Congress for New Urbanism. But great cities are no less a product of communal acts of faith, hope, and love. It is a truism of faith that the more one comes to believe in the sacred the more one recognizes its presence and effects in the world. Perhaps one of the best things Christians can do now for their contemporaries of little faith, or whose faith is private rather than communal, is to promote and make evident the public benefits, the urban benefits, of the shared faith of Christian humanism (which for a start means at least getting our own architectural and urban act together). This will require architects and patrons generally, and Christian architects and patrons in particular, to retrieve and renew our own best city-making traditions. Whether in the foreseeable future these renewed traditions will become the culture-wide possession of many or the preserved treasure of a marginal few, Timeless Cities is a good introduction for anyone who wants to begin thinking about the complexity of the task.
Philip Bessis professor and director of the graduate program in architecture at the University of Notre Dame.