Analyzing cities in 1588

A newly translated into English work from an Italian observer in 1588 provides a perspective on cities:

His book called On the Causes of the Greatness and Magnificence of Cities, written in 1588, has just been translated into English for the first time in four centuries and published by the University of Toronto Press.

Funny how modern it is, once you get past the obligatory nod toward the ancients and Botero starts talking about the world he actually knows. This stretched from cities built by the Incas (he admired their engineering) to the Indian island of Goa, a vigorous trading partner of the Portuguese.

Botero doesn’t care much about fortresses and armies; he looks for trade, transportation routes, a middle class, contact with foreign states, universities, and growth, as well an an effective ruler. Not so different from our day…

Botero writes: “Someone will ask me which is of greater value for improving a place and increasing its population: the fertility of its soil, or the industry of its people?” That’s easy, he says. Industry wins over farming or other production of raw materials every time.

This article suggests Botero seems to have a more modern perspective on cities and has been called the first urban sociologist. Having never encountered his work before, I wonder if we could flip this around: perhaps Botero was living at the leading edge of the modern era in northern Italy in the late 16th century. The Italian Renaissance had already occurred. This would be around the same era in which Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism suggested modern capitalism developed. Cities were connected more than ever before and Europeans now had information about cities in the Americas and Asia. It still takes someone to notice and point out these changes but the world and big cities were changing by this point in time.

Claim: America illustrates Gesellschaft

Daniel Askt compares the more Gemeinschaft society of Italy versus the Gesellschaft found in the United States:

Still, there’s no going back. On the contrary, it seems inevitable that societies move from what the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies called Gemeinschaft, or a society more like Italy, to Gesellschaft, or a place more like America. Gemeinschaft refers to something like village (if not clan) life; what mattered was who you were and whether you belonged. In Gemeinschaft local rather than universal standards prevail, cooperation is emphasized over competition, and the goal is simply to keep this system of mutual regard and support going. The family is perhaps the ultimate example.

But the future belongs to Gesellschaft, and the decline of the family in Western nations reflects this individualistic trend. What matters in Gesellschaft is not who you are but what can you do. Gesellschaft is open, meritocratic, diverse, mobile, competitive, anxious and most of all modern. It’s the way we live now. It’s a great place, free and bursting with possibility, though fraught as well, since people are always having to prove themselves, and one’s offspring can’t assume their parents’ status.

Several thoughts:

1. I wonder how much this reflects all of Italy or an older image of the country. Birth rates are down for the whole country but particularly so in the north where life may be more closely tied to northern Europe.

2. It may be easy to paint the United States with this broad brush but there has always been a tension between individual and community life. While Americans have rightly often been portrayed as individuals, an image burnished by Hollywood and other cultural works, commentators from de Toqueville onward have noted the propensity of Americans to join civic groups (Bowling Alone notwthstanding).

3. This is a linear view of history: we have inevitably moved from Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and aren’t going back. This may be the trend since the Industrial Revolution and what piqued the attention of many of the early sociologists but it is not necessarily a process that will continue ad infinitum.

Two Italian film directors describe Roman suburbs

Two Italian film directors discussed their new film Et In Terra Pax, which is set in a “Roman council estate” in the Roman suburbs.  Here is how they described these Italian suburbs:

?MB: I was thinking a lot about a story set in the Roman suburbs…

MB: We live in part of Rome both close to the centre and the suburbs, which was useful to observe without being involved. We like Roman suburbs, and we think that in suburbs you can breathe the real Rome. The centre is great but it’s for tourists, rich people or to spend Saturday nights. Real live [sic] is somewhere else…

Can you talk about the idea of the housing complex being like a prison?

DC: A lot of suburbs in Rome are characterized by this kind of view: big grey buildings, a kind of ghetto filled with people. A city can’t grow in this way because the risk is that people can be excluded from the rest of Rome. We consider the building we chose like another character, a metaphor for loneliness. It looks like a prison but it’s full of life and ready to explode (in a good or bad way) at whatever time.

Et In Terra Pax is not an international audience’s image of Italian life. Was it important to show this side of life?

DC: Sure, we think it’s very important to show the dark side our country, not only for international audiences but also for the Italians too.

Compared to the typical American portrayal of suburbs, the land of single-family homes, lawns, and kids running around, this is a different image: large apartment buildings built away from the vibrant city center and illustrating the “dark side” of Italian life.

This discussion hints at how some European suburbs differ from their American counterparts. While most Americans see suburbs as the refuge of the wealthy, some European suburbs are where the low-income apartment buildings are built. The center of the European city is the place to be, not the outskirts of a metropolitan region as in the American case.

I am also intrigued by the idea that the apartment building is treated “like a character.” Elsewhere, they say the building they filmed in was about 1 kilometer in length, housed about 14,000 people, and features “strange, fascinating and disturbing architecture.”