Monday, July 13, 2009

San Gimignano | Towers and Walls

The Historic Center of San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by virtue of satisfying the following three of UNESCO's criteria:

Criterion (i): represents a masterpiece of human creative genius.
Criterion (iii): bears unique (or at least extraordinary) testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation, either currently existing or from the past.
Criterion (iv): is an exceptional example of a type of construction or architectonic or technological or landscape-related complex that bears witness to important steps in human history.

This largely refers to the towers. At one point there were seventy-two towers in San Gimignano. The tallest, the Torre Grossa, is 180 feet, the others are shorter, at varying heights. The towers are iconic, the trademark, the brand, if you will, of the Theme Park, but it was the walls that spoke to me.

The hills are steep and the walls are crooked, at odd angles. It is extremely difficult to discern their age; some of the bricks may in fact be Roman although the bulk of the construction is medieval, built during a historically brief burst of commerce and fortune between the eleventh century and the Black Plague.

These walls represent a time when a city could keep the outside out and the inside in with brick and stone. Inside the city walls are the interior walls, the walls of the buildings themselves. They are densely textured, their colors variegated. They have been ravaged by war, disaster, and time and repaired by men's hands as often as they were ravaged. They stand today almost as capable as ever to perform their original function although the world in which that had value no longer exists. Today they are an object of admiration for the beauty of their construction and their miraculous endurance. Once we built well, for the ages.

The other day I had drinks with my friend Ann from London. She said, slyly and seriously, "I won't get out of bed unless a city is at least a thousand years old." There was no hint of snobbery in her tone. She spent her entire academic career as a classicist; her ideal of beauty is ancient Greece. When she retired she volunteered as a guide at the British Museum because she enjoyed sharing her knowledge of the Parthenon marbles and other treasures. She knows what she likes and can choose where she goes; that road leads to places rooted in the deep past.

It is not just the art of these ancient places that speaks. It is the walls themselves, the walls and arches, the towers and portals and gates which tell the marvelous story of ingenuity and artistry evolved over time in response to the specific characteristics of place.

The walls of Assisi are pink from the pink stone of Mount Subasio. The walls of San Gimignano range from deep brick red to wheat and sand. They tell the story of how a certain spot, by virtue of its natural endowments, its geological DNA, became an Etruscan settlement, a Roman camp, and then a city. These cities sat on hilltops because from there you could see the surrounding valley, the movements of downhill neighbors and the encroachment of enemies. They were walled to enclose them and crowned with fortresses to protect them.

In the shadow of these structures rose centers of culture and commerce and, in the case of Assisi, religious pilgrimage. All of these strands of history are woven into the fabric of the walls, and can be read there, like runes embroidered by time. The stories they tell are seamed with the mortar of our shared humanity. But the march of progress no longer leads through their steep rocky streets, and they are vestigial places turned into Theme Parks, tourist centers. Still, they stand as they have stood for almost a thousand years.

How will our cities fare in the future, the cities built in the nineteenth and twentieth and twenty-first centuries? How will they look in eight hundred years? Will they be as proud, ambitious, and beautiful as these walls and towers, as the Parthenon or the Pantheon or the Pyramids? Or will they be grotesque ruins of unsustainable hubris, collapsed and deserted like the homes with the mortgages that became unpayable and were abandoned the way a hermit crab abandons its cast-off shell?


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