Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization
In 1515 the Venetians decided to take action against the Jews. As a great trading city, Venice could not expel them: they were too badly needed as moneylenders, doctors, and traders. But they could be segregated and kept out of sight, and the city’s unique topography offered a unique opportunity. The Jews were clustered into a place in a remote northwestern quarter of the city where the canals formed an island of roughly oval shape. Only two drawbridges, drawn up at night, connected it with the rest of the town. No balconies were allowed to face outward. Because of the lack of space, the buildings soon towered six or seven stories upward, sheer and blank like the walls of a fortress. The place was named, from the industry that had formerly been there, the Foundry—in the local dialect, Ghetto.
Richard Sennett’s Flesh and Stone is, in his own words, “a history of the city told through people’s bodily experience.” The way people were forced into ghettos makes a telling case study for him. From Venice he moves to Rome, where Pope Paul IV began to build a ghetto (the word may now shed its capital letter) in 1555. Since its site was in the heart of the city, it could not segregate the Jews in the same way as the Venetian Ghetto did, but in any case the Pope’s intention, according to Sennett, was different: to weaken the power of the Christian merchant class and to collect Jews together in the hope that they might thus be more easily converted.
The difference, indeed, remains discernible in the two cities today. No tourist is likely to stumble upon the Venetian ghetto; he must seek it out, and he will find it still secret, ancient and picturesque. One may pass in and out of the former Roman ghetto without being aware of it, and yet it is distinct, curiously, as being quite the dullest part of central Rome—no palazzi, no baroque façades with swirling saints above. Sennett is alert to the ironies of unintended consequences: the Ghetto of Venice, he notes, was under surveillance from without, but there was no surveillance within, and the state’s oppression created the conditions for developing a sense of community and solidarity and a kind of freedom.
In a later chapter Sennett contrasts this with the ghettos, so called, of more recent times, defined not by race but by poverty (Sennett instances the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and even Harlem as neighborhoods which are or have been ethnically mixed). The first ghettos became centers of pride and honor; the modern ghetto is tainted with failure: it is the place of those who have been left behind. Whereas the older ghetto had its sense of community but struggled to turn outward to make contact with the citizenry beyond its boundaries, the newer ghetto had to turn inward mentally if it wanted to recover or invent a communal spirit.
The growth of the newer ghettos, unlike the old, has not got much to do with the physical configuration of cities. As Sennett says, “In their nineteenth-century origins,…the New York ghettos were real-estate zones rather than places larger authority sought to endow with a particular character or identity.” But his earlier cases raise the possibility of a more complex interplay of cause and effect: individuals and governments make decisions about the building of cities, but those cities may acquire their own autonomy and shape human lives. How far is Flesh the master and how far the servant of Stone?
Sennett promises a history of “how women and men moved, what they saw and heard, the smells that assailed their noses, where they ate, how they dressed, when they bathed, how they made love in cities from ancient Athens to modern New York.” It is an enthralling subject, and Sennett has many virtues as a commentator; but his book has its flaws too. What we get is not quite the brawling, tumbling torrent of multiplied detail that one might expect from his prospectus, but something more analytic and reflective. That in itself is fine; but readers will also find non sequiturs and some confused arguments, as well as the occasional error of fact. There are some eccentric digressions and irrelevances, and a tendency to wobble off the subject on to the discussion of social problems that have little to do with the physical city as such. But there are abundant compensations. Sennett writes attractively, with verve and charm; he is widely curious, often sharp in observation, with many of his own ideas, some far-fetched but a good number persuasive.
His method is to choose several cities and observe them at particular periods of their history: Athens in the fifth century BC, pagan Rome in the time of Hadrian and the Christians in Rome during the late empire, Paris in the Middle Ages, Renaissance Venice, Paris (again) in the eighteenth century, Edwardian London, New York today. He is often most effective in describing distinctions or developments. He conveys the dynamism of medieval Paris: the jostling houses thrust themselves out into the streets, which are no longer, as in the classical city, planned arteries along which buildings grow but the bits of space left over when the buildings have been crammed in.
He particularly notices the hospitals in the center of medieval Paris: compassion has a new place at the heart of urban life. “Cities…are bound together by charity,” Abelard wrote. “Every city is a fraternity.” There were gardens in the precinct of Notre-Dame, offering a kind of refreshment to ordinary people that the classical city had not provided, and yet different also, Sennett suggests, from the urban parks of a later age: the cloister garden was a place for introspection and spiritual recreation, not the kind of “lung” for physical health that secular philanthropy has provided in more recent times. Turning to the nineteenth century, he proposes that the underground railway creates a mobility that for the first time is designed to take people out of the city; and surveying the inventions of the age he allots a special importance to the elevator, because it made possible a new kind of building type, the skyscraper.
His starting point is a splendidly vivid picture of Athens: he sees it as a naked city, a correspondence in stone to the Classical Greeks’ cult of nakedness in the flesh. Dominating the Acropolis was the Parthenon, a building offering itself to display, with the quality that Moses Finley called “out-of-doorness.” Sennett distinguishes its surface from the façade of a medieval cathedral—which, however magnificent, seems to have been generated by the form of the interior space, whereas the Parthenon’s exterior does not seem to have been pushed out from within. Like that of the Greek athlete, its body is self-sufficient.
And the civic life of Athens was lived out of doors. Sennett conducts us to the Pnyx, the bare hillside where the Assembly met, and through the Agora, the commercial center, surrounded by colonnades conceived less as independent buildings than as the edging for open space. Even the law court was an unroofed structure, surrounded by a wall which may have been as little as three feet high. These spaces were essentially for males: men’s lives were led out of doors, but women belonged inside (we hear this alike in Aeschylus’ poetry and Xenophon’s prose). Yet as Sennett shows, women found their own times and spaces in the city, in purely female festivals such as the Adonia, when they went up on to the roofs of one another’s houses by night, and laughed and chattered in the darkness. The naked and the hidden—both were parts of the city’s being.
One public act in Athens was kept private: judicial execution. Later, as Sennett observes, Europe would turn the torture and killing of criminals into a popular entertainment and the execution of great men into a drama that was, in its effect, a national catharsis. Sennett describes how in revolutionary Paris the guillotine had to be moved to larger and larger squares. Finally, the greenery of the Place Louis XV was chopped down and replaced with paving—a visible sign of the function of the city’s heart being changed from pleasure to punishment. Yet as a spectacle the beheading of Louis XVI was a failure: the rows of soldiery were so thick that hardly anyone could see it.
One might contrast the execution of Charles I in Whitehall almost 150 years earlier. Designed by the government to be a salutary example, it was transformed by the king’s courage into a heroic tragedy; he made his scaffold a stage. Marvell, the king’s admiring enemy, realized this: in his Horatian Ode he describes him, with a terrible blend of sympathy and detachment, as the “royal actor.” Pericles would have been disgusted by these later barbarities, and yet he might have understood. The Greeks had one word, polis, for both the city and the state, and Athens remains history’s best example of the fusion of popular and political life.
Virgil’s Aeneid is the story of a man seeking a city, and in this pagan conception the search for an earthly city and its institutions is the final and sufficient goal of a spiritual quest. But with the coming of Christianity this changed. In Sennett’s view, the early Christians faced a dilemma. They believed themselves to have no abiding home in this world; they were sojourners upon the earth, pilgrims in time, traveling toward the Heavenly City they would attain in the next life. God was not housed in any building made by man’s hands, and images and visual splendors were of no importance. On this account the construction of the great basilicas of Rome—and presumably of all grand churches since—was a compromise, a concession to human frailty.
But here Sennett seems to misinterpret the Christian understanding. Platonism imposes a paradox: the beauties of the perceptible world are merely imperfect imitations of the eternal beauty of the world of forms. In a way this devalues the world known to our senses, but in another way it exalts it, for the perceptible world is indeed beautiful—that is not denied—and it is also our means of access to a higher and unchanging beauty. Christianity presents a similar paradox: this world may be of less account than the one that is to come, but that does not make it unimportant; it is, indeed, the theater in which the great drama of salvation and damnation is to be played out. Already in the New Testament, the author of Revelations represents heaven as a new Jerusalem, a city with walls and gates of determinate dimensions, bejeweled with precious stones. That vision may eclipse the earthly city, but it also glorifies it, because the earthly city is a type of the divine order. That tells us something not only about Christianity but about the ancient world, with its veneration for civility and for place: however much we may admire the great cities of our own time, we would be surprised by a thinker today finding a metaphor for perfection in a transcendental version of Paris or New York.