Medieval Urban Design

The Art of City-Building

Piazzas Around the Cathedral

Few people notice it, but Modena's cathedral and its surroundings make up an exceptionally skilful ensemble of medieval urban design.

Don’t think for a minute there is anything accidental in the cathedral’s seemingly random placement. People in the Middle Ages built cathedrals as the maximum expression of their faith and art. They were outrageously expensive, but their designers had the ability to combine aesthetics with practicality in ways that made the investment go as far as possible to embellish the town.

Like so many in medieval Europe, and particularly in Italy, this cathedral is sited to define and dominate three separate piazzas: the small one at the end of Corso Duomo in front of the façade, the Piazza Torre to the north, where the Ghirlandina is on display, and the Piazza Grande. To reduce the total cost, one or more sides of a cathedral would usually be set into a block of buildings, as in Parma or Modena, or else a side would run along a little alley, as in Ferrara. Either way, the town would save by cutting down the costly sculptural decoration required, and at the same time their cathedral would appear more an organic part of the city, woven into its fabric, instead of just a pretty objet d’art isolated in the middle of a square.

The two keys to medieval urban design are asymmetry and surprise. Any open space in a town was conceived as an aesthetic composition in three dimensions; a good piazza presents constantly changing aspects as one walks around it, any one of which could be the subject for a painting. The dramatic effect, however, comes when one first encounters the composition. Walking towards the centre down Via Castellaro, the Corso Canal Chiaro or the Via Emilia, there is no hint of what lies ahead.

Even in the Middle Ages, the aesthetics of town design were often defeated by practical considerations. Medieval new towns were customarily laid out in simple grids, a practice proven from ancient Greece to frontier America to be the cheapest and easiest for surveyors (and for land speculators). In the Renaissance the subtleties of medieval design were forgotten, replaced by a mania for the straight line and the right angle perfected in Baroque Rome and Paris, with their broad vistas and strict symmetrical building ensembles. Medieval design reclaimed some popularity in the Romantic era, when painters and tourists learned to appreciate its ‘picturesque’ qualities without any understanding of the principles that governed them.

Those principles were rediscovered a century ago by a Viennese architect named Camillo Sitte. Sitte’s scientific method was to take a taxi from the station to the best bookstore in town, and there to ask three questions: the best map of the town, the hotel with the best dinners, and the tower with the best views.

Modena's system of piazzas

The result, after thirty years studying the cities of Italy and Europe, was a book published in 1889 called Der Städtebau nach seinem künstlerischen Grundlage – The Art of Building Cities. Sitte’s ideas were immensely popular in the decades that followed, influencing the design of new towns and suburbs throughout Europe.

Then came the Great War, and in its wake the grim cult of architectural Modernism. ‘The street must be abolished!’ declared Le Corbusier, and a triumphant new ideology proclaimed that modern people must live in tower blocks joined by motorways.

The Modernists did not completely succeed in their goal of destroying the old convivial town centres, except in parts of Britain and Romania, and both Europe and America are gradually recovering from this brief attack of madness. Now that we’re back at square one, with little notion of how to build correctly, it might be a good idea to look at Sitte’s sophisticated medieval compositions once again. Take a walk around old Modena with your eyes open, and see if there’s anything that strikes your fancy.

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