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.
The fact is that the Christians not only built as soon as they had the freedom to do so, but built on a colossal scale. The great basilicas of early Christian Rome are much larger than the Parthenon or the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and even they are outdone by Justinian’s Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The Christian passion for building so many places of worship of such size is not matched by any other religion; it is hard to believe that all this has been a compromise, or a theological slip. When Sennett takes us to medieval Paris, he rightly shows us the cathedral of Notre-Dame looming over the heart of it. The interior vault of Notre-Dame is more than a hundred feet above the ground, its towers more than two hundred feet high; and even so it is not one of the largest French cathedrals. If the medieval city displays man as an economic animal, as Sennett insists, it displays him also as a religious animal. This was something new in human history—the demand of religion to occupy every moment and area of life concretely expressed in the city’s physical form—but its roots are in late antiquity.
The Christianizing of Rome may also raise again the question of how far Stone can command the Flesh. The plan of most churches was derived from the Roman basilica or law court, and Sennett thinks that this encouraged an imperial image of Christ. That can be doubted. “Any fool can see that,” Brahms said when the likeness was remarked between the last movement of his first symphony and the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth; the art for the listener was to appreciate how it diverged. Any fool in the fifth or sixth century could see what church design owed to the basilica; the point was that the old form had acquired a new meaning. The worshiper could use his eyes: above the altar in Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, just outside Ravenna, the mosaics depicted Jesus the good shepherd, not Christ the judge; the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome naturally showed the Virgin Mother. The message of the Christian basilica was surely sacramental rather than imperial: the long line of columns led to the altar where the Mass was celebrated. The baptistries built at the same epoch were consecrated to another sacrament of the faith.
Flesh and Stone is explicitly a religious book: both at the beginning and the end Sennett declares that he writes as a believer, and he is concerned to apply the insights of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to the modern city’s maladies. There seem to be two leading ideas here, distinct but related. The first is that the city is made up of diverse people: it throws us together with strangers, and it is the citizen’s duty to reach out to people who are different from himself. The other is that bodily discomfort is a necessary and valuable part of human experience: the body itself becomes alive when coping with difficulty, and by acknowledging bodily pain we become more sensitive to the pain of others.
Sennett maintains that Western civilization has had persistent trouble in honoring the dignity of the body and the diversity of human bodies. Here one may feel that he has an interesting, perhaps even a deep, idea that he has not been able fully to articulate or support. Only at a few moments does he have clear instances of the life of the city being moved by bodily unease, as in the case of the Ghetto, which was an “urban condom,” in his graphic if unlovely phrase, inspired literally by the fear of contact: it was thought that syphilis could be caught by touching a Jew. But anti-Semitism is a special case, and most of Sennett’s claims to find mistrust of the body in the past history of cities seem fanciful.
In any case, his moral gaze is fixed most intently on the city today. New developments, he argues, have heightened the city’s moral crisis. The cult of private happiness has separated people from one another. And the city has become too comfortable: the automobile (“a self-contained pleasure”), the elevator, the air conditioning—these have produced a passive, monotonous, womb-like coziness that enfeebles our responsiveness to bodily stimuli. Modern individualism and modern technology have come together, according to this analysis, both to dull the edge of experience and to fray the fabric of community. What then must we do to be saved? Sennett’s answer is obscure. Apparently we need the acceptance of bodily pain because “the body accepting pain is ready to become a civic body”; but it is unclear what this means in bald practical terms. What are we to do? Knock over a few more old ladies on the sidewalk?
As one struggles to the subway through the rain one may doubt whether the modern city is as luxurious as Sennett claims. One may also question whether the life of urban man is as atomized and sensorily impoverished as he supposes. Indeed, it could be argued that in some ways the modern city has discovered new forms of both communal and sensory experience unknown to past ages. These have been in part devised by public authorities, in part created by the spontaneous invention of the city’s inhabitants. It was a conscious decision of the French state that the Avenue des Champs-Elysées should become the theater for the nation’s enactment of its collective and ceremonial life. The Arc de Triomphe at its summit proclaims France’s greatness, by its vastness and self-confidence persuading nearly all Frenchmen (and many foreigners) that Napoleon’s wars brought glory and not, as one might more rationally suppose, disaster and humiliation. This is superb propaganda, and it has worked: the crowds in the street for the Bastille Day parade are participants in a celebration that is both authoritarian and popular.
The story in London is more haphazard. The establishment of bank holidays in the mid-Victorian period decreed certain days when everyone was entitled to time off work. Vast numbers gathered to take the all in open spaces like Hampstead Heath, and this was simultaneously private enjoyment—for families or courting couples—and a sharing in a huge communal festival. Royal ceremonials were not yet mass events in the early nineteenth century—no one minded much that the coronation of George IV was a bit of a shambles—but Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887 and, still more, the Diamond Jubilee, ten years later, drew immense crowds. These events were partly staged ceremonies, partly the unplanned ebullition of public feeling. Purely spontaneous, three years later, was Mafeking Night, when a minor success in the Boer War inspired something new in London’s history, a kind of peaceful riot in the congested streets of the West End—tipsy, half-hysterical, but with as much physical contact and communal spirit as Sennett (who does not mention it) could desire.
The ceremonial and the spontaneous—the ego and the id of the urban psyche, as it were—came together in V-E day in 1945, when strangers kissed one another, and more, in the street in an ecstasy of relief, and immense crowds surged toward Buckingham Palace to salute the King and Churchill on the balcony. As remarkable, in a way, because it had no great event to inspire it, was the public reaction to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The authorities expected a low-key commemoration; but a million people pressed down the Mall. At a time of political and economic gloom, they seized an excuse to use the city as a space to celebrate shared experience.
Such stories could no doubt be told of many cities. Sennett shrewdly notes the difference between the grid plans of ancient Roman towns and modern New York. The Roman town was designed with two main axes, fixed boundaries, and a clearly defined center, whereas the New York grid was intended to be indefinitely expandable as real-estate development continued uptown block by block. New York is emphatically not a capital city but rather the supreme expression, along perhaps with Hong Kong, of what Kenneth Clark called heroic materialism. Manhattan might exemplify Juvenal’s image of the fig tree cracking open the sarcophagus: it seems extruded from the earth by an almost organic and irresistible energy. It lacks ceremonial spaces, but popular invention, exemplified in the ticker-tape parades of the past and the Saint Patrick’s Day and other annual parades now, can occasionally make up for their absence. The ticker-tape parade in particular used the city’s special character as naturally and authentically as did the water festival of Venice when the Doge wedded the republic to the Adriatic.
Perhaps Sennett’s largest omission in discussing the modern city is sport. The crowds that throng the stadiums weekly are there only in part to watch the game; they come too for the crush, the multitude, the pleasure of shared partisanship. Of course, mass emotion is not necessarily a good thing—Nuremberg reminds us of that—nor is it a substitute for the kindness of individuals to one another; but no city plan can arrange to make people virtuous, and the roar of the stadium does at least cast doubt on the proposition that modern city dwellers like to remain wrapped in a cocoon of privacy. Surely they can still revel, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in the noise and animation, “in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar;…what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”
This feeling for the life of great cities is bound up in what might be called their expressive effect—not the same as aesthetic effect, though it bears a connection with it. Sennett touches upon this subject at moments. He sees sensuality in the outward appearance of eighteenth-century Venice—the colored façades of the palaces reflected in the ripple of the Grand Canal, the gondolas painted in bright reds, blues, and yellows. How far, one may wonder, did the very look of the city contribute to the seduction of the flesh? When he comes to London, he remarks on the “relentless continuity of its ceremonial fabric”—a perceptive phrase. London is much inferior to Paris in both monumental scale and aesthetic quality, but no city so well conveys the sense that government is a grand, solid, and trustworthy business, the navel-stone of the national life. (In Paris and Rome the buildings housing the legislature and the administration are spread inconspicuously around the center; in Lisbon the parliament is in a suburb.)
We cling to the anthropomorphic notion that cities have characters; indeed, cities, like people, can try too hard. However handsome, there is something inert about the empty space in the middle of Washington, and its monuments seem too earnestly didactic—and too deferential to European precedent. Ancient Rome was perhaps the first didactic city. Sennett looks for what distinguished Rome from Athens, and his most satisfactory answer is that Rome said, “Look and believe,” “Look and obey.” The inscriptions, the statues, the imperial forums—all instructed the people in the literal and spiritual ancestry claimed by their rulers and the ideology upon which they rested their power. And Rome was, as it still is, an urban masterpiece.
Sennett’s concluding chapter concerns his own city. With an engaging self-deprecation he includes himself as an example of the “aging, bourgeois bohemians” who came to Greenwich Village in their youth, and who remain there still, charmed by the Village’s variegated scene, with a fondness tinged now with melancholy at the decline of community and the growth of visible deprivation. From Greenwich Village he takes up, in a kind of perambulatory meditation, Manhattan’s grid construction (which he attributes to the dominance of real-estate interests over any more civic-minded intentions); the betrayal, in the nineteenth century, of Olmsted’s conception of Central Park as “a refuge from the city”; the auto-centered and often destructive designs of Robert Moses; and the current uneasy disposition of ethnic and socio-economic enclaves. He understands these developments as amounting to a series of new ways of avoiding contact with people who are different—“the denial of a common fate,” as he terms it. “The privileged have protected themselves against the poor,” he says,
as they have protected themselves against stimulation; the needy have sought to wear a like armor, which only wards off those they need. Life in Greenwich Village exemplifies perhaps the most we have been able to achieve: a willingness to live with difference, though a denial this entails a shared fate.
There is sadness in this verdict, but it is softened by affection and hope. Whether the city has been planned or has grown by a kind of natural process, history suggests that humankind wants the places it lives in to be not only efficient but lovable. One of the greatest difficulties that the city faces today is boringly practical: how to tame the internal combustion engine. And of course most great cities have huge social problems, of crime, poverty, and drugs. Sennett’s epigraph is from Aristotle: “A city is composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring a city into existence.” There have always been the collisions of difference in the city and all too often they have been fierce and cruel struggles; but it may be an advance in civilization that people now worry about these things, and a virtue of the modern city that it can inspire a book as compassionate and inquiring as Flesh and Stone.
March 2, 1995