How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge

Christianity did not conquer the Roman Empire with the sword—and yet it was with the sword that the groundwork was laid, at the Milvian Bridge. Today the place is peaceful: but this not particularly impressive-seeming footbridge over the Tiber was the scene, in late October of the year AD 312, of one of the pivotal battles of Western history, where the forces of Constantine vanquished those of his rival emperor Maxentius.

Image © Anthony Majanlahti

The bridge today is not very much frequented, except by lovers, who used to come here to clip a padlock to one of the bars placed at intervals along it as a symbol of everlasting attachment. The clotted love tokens have now been removed and unimpeded you can peer over the parapet and look down on the Tiber below, watch it burbling swiftly over a shallow cataract, and imagine the clash and clamour of horses and men.Frieze from the Arch of Constantine showing Maxentius’ horses and men floundering in the water of the Tiber.

Frieze from the Arch of Constantine showing Maxentius’ horses and men floundering in the water of the Tiber.

Maxentius championed Rome. He made it his capital—he was the first emperor for a hundred years to do so—and set in motion a train of great building projects aimed at restoring the city to its central position within the empire, not just symbolically but actually. He named his son Romulus and dedicated a temple in the Forum (either to his dead son or to the great eponymous founder of the city). His sister Fausta married his co-ruler, the man whom Shelley ostentatiously called the ‘Christian reptile’. Constantine was not so much reptilian as amphibious. He was born a pagan but emerged from the water as a Christian, and so died.

And he was unable to share a throne with Maxentius. The two soon came to blows, and battle lines were drawn at the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber. In order, as he hoped, to cut off his adversary’s retreat, Maxentius had destroyed the bridge before the battle commenced. It was an action that proved his undoing. With his horses and men he was forced back into the water and there drowned, yielding the day to his rival. Constantine built an arch to celebrate his victory. It is one of the most famous of Rome’s surviving ancient monuments, standing beside the Colosseum. On its short west face is the goddess Luna in her two-horse chariot. On the long south face is a scene of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The short east face has a roundel of the sun god rising from the ocean and a depiction of Constantine’s adventus into Rome. On the north face we see Constantine in Rome distributing gifts. The inscription which appears on both the north and south faces (identical on each) contains a famously ambiguous religious reference to a ‘divinitas’, a divinity, in the singular. What or who was this god? It is an early and important witness of the slow change from the worship of many deities to the worship of a single, all-powerful one. The process by which this happened is fascinating and can be traced all over Rome in its art and architecture.

IMP·CAES·FL·CONSTANTINO MAXIMO
P·F·AVGVSTO S·P·Q·R
QVOD INSTINCTV DIVINITATIS MENTIS
MAGNITVDINE CVM EXERCITV SVO
TAM DE TYRANNO QVAM DE OMNI EIVS
FACTIONE VNO TEMPORE IVSTIS
REMPVBLICAM VLTVS EST ARMIS
ARCVM TRIVMPHIS INSIGNEM DICAVIT

“To the Imperial Caesar Flavius Constantine, the Great, Pius, Felix, Augustus: inspired by a divinity and in the greatness of his mind, with his army and by the just force of arms he delivered the state both from a tyrant and from all his faction; thus the Senate and the People of Rome have dedicated this arch in token of these triumphs.”

A compelling reason to visit Trapani province

The expressive statue of a young man in a finely-pleated linen tunic, Il Giovane di Mozia, was found at Cappiddazzu on the northeast side of the island of Mozia (the ancient Phoenician Motya) in 1979. In the stance of a victor, with hand on hip, the pose of the statue expresses great confidence in his youth, beauty and power. This remarkable work, made of white marble and dating from the 5th century BC, is thought to be by a Greek artist. It was found buried under a layer of rubble, face up in the road by the sanctuary. The face and the front are abraded, possibly from when the bronze accoutrements were torn from the statue during the attack of 398 BC by Dionysius I of Syracuse. When the statue was loaned to the British Museum in London for the duration of the 2012 Olympic Games, it was universally referred to as ‘The Motya Charioteer’. But this identification has not always been so certain. It is true that the work shares similarities with the famous charioteer of Delphi. But there have been numerous other theories: one suggests that the statue may represent Melqart, a Phoenician god and titular divinity of Tyre, identified by the Greeks as Heracles. He was probably wearing a lion’s skin made of bronze (which would have partially covered the head) and a bronze band around the chest—the holes where this would have been fixed can still be seen. Another theory suggests that the statue may represent an athlete, or an unknown Carthaginian hero. The fact that it was not recovered and replaced in a temple, in spite of its enormous value, would be explained if it indeed represented a god. The shocked survivors of the battle against Dionysius may have thought their god profaned and buried it where it was found. Perhaps. I haven’t seen any claims for Melqart recently. Certainly not since Brian Sewell, in the London Evening Standard, announced: “This standing figure, larger than life-size, broken off at the ankles, is a charioteer. His dress is no ordinary chiton, the standard male garment of the day, but one that falls full length to protect his body from the clouds of dust kicked up by horses’ hooves.” Whatever the truth, if you didn’t see it in London, get ye to Motya.

Visiting St Paul’s in London

News has just come in that the Occupy London protesters marked their first anniversary by chaining themselves to the pulpit of St Paul’s and reading out a ‘prayer’ criticizing St Paul’s for collusion in the world domination of big bad business. Cathedral staff, says londonist.com, were happy for the protesters to do this. I can’t help feeling a bit miffed, as if cathedral staff treat protesters better than they treat ordinary visitors. This is what it was like a month ago, when I went to St Paul’s to try to admire it, not to voice disapproval or chain myself to its furniture:

“If there are any pre-paid tickets please, anyone with any pre-paid tickets at all, if you’d like to just come to the front of the queue please, pre-paid tickets come right round to the head of the line….”

It was three thirty in the afternoon, on a warm, sunny Saturday. The line was extremely long, extremely chaotic and few of its members spoke English as a mother tongue. The guard was trying to be helpful but she had made no attempt to grade her language, to speak slowly or to remove superfluities from her sentence construction. Consequently the only people who understood what she was saying were ourselves. And we didn’t have pre-paid tickets.

So we waited. And then paid £15 each, were given a content-free handout with an inadequate floor plan and were helpfully asked to be aware that the cathedral would be closing at half past four.

That gives us an hour, we thought. We won’t need more than that.

How wrong we were!

We decided to make climbing to the top of the dome the first step. Or rather steps, because there are a lot of them. (Warning: if you suffer from claustrophobia and don’t have a head for heights, are pregnant, semi-mobile or even the slightest bit unfit, do not embark on this! Once you have started, there is no turning back.) The Whispering Gallery was good. From there you have a splendid view of the Thornhill monochromes in the dome. But “Whispering” has become a misnomer. An unfortunate guard is stationed there and her only role seems to be to bellow “No photographs! No cameras!” at visitors every few seconds. Here is the photograph I took after she shouted at me. I shouldn’t have done it, but the whole thing was beginning to get my goat:

Then we set off to the Golden Gallery, right at the top. This involves a very narrow, open-tread spiral staircase which shudders under the weight of climbers. Progress was extremely slow because at the top, on the look-out balcony, space is very limited and everyone has to wait until everyone else has been round, taken their photos (and with all the bullying indoors about not being allowed to, people go click crazy at the top) and begun the descent. There is one narrow stairway up and another down. For long, long minutes we were prisoners on the iron steps, suspended in space. But at least it meant we made friends with the people above and below us, who were amused by the barrage of signs saying “Way up”, as if there were any realistic alternative.

The views from the top, of the tiny remaining Wren churches crouching among recent office blocks, are worth the long haul to get there. Tate Modern and the Wobbly Bridge are in full view, so is Tower Bridge, the Shard, the narrow green canal that the great Thames river has become. Here is a photo taken from the top, of the Monument to the Great Fire:

By the time we had made our way back down, there was almost no time left to explore the rest of the cathedral. Guards were beginning to bustle about officiously, closing off aisles and transepts with lengths of municipal tape. It was a bit like being at an airport. We managed to crane our necks over one stretch of tape to get a full-frontal view of Nelson’s monument, but it wasn’t satisfactory. It is by Flaxman and is an important work of Neoclassical funerary sculpture. Not that Flaxman’s name is mentioned on the St Paul’s website. You need Wikipedia or a Blue Guide to tell you that. Anyway, it was hopeless trying to get a decent look at it. And by this time everything beyond the crossing had been barred off too, which I was upset about, as I had particularly wanted to see the monument to John Donne, which survives from the Old St Paul’s.

I sat on one of the plastic conference-room chairs that fills the nave and looked up to admire the dome. Thornhill’s monochrome scenes from the life of St Paul are really splendid. I would have liked to spend more time on them. I found myself getting interested in the subject of how a newly-built Protestant cathedral sought to make itself look Protestant, even though the exterior is Italianate and the floorplan is identical to any of the old Gothic cathedrals, built before the Reformation. But the atmosphere isn’t conducive to thoughts like that. The assumption is that the general visitor is too gormless to care and that anyone who does care will be able to gain special access on some scholar’s permit. Not the case. I was only in London for 24 hours. And I don’t want special access. I’m happy with the hurly burly of humanity around me. As long as they seem to be getting the best out of it. Which I’m not sure any of us were. “No photographs, no photographs!” shouted the guards, as some unfortunate visitor tried to snap a view down the nave as a memento. I began to feel so cross, and even crosser because I wondered if I was just being a ghastly blimp and a snob. Out of pique I snapped the dome, and felt a sense of triumph at having done so without being yelled at. Then I felt guilty, because I am usually a rule-obeyer. Here is the photo:

Didn’t manage to see The Light of the World or the Crypt, which the St Paul’s website tantalisingly describes as containing “monuments to conflicts and other outstanding achievements. Had the merest glimpse of Wellington, aquiline nose in the air, before we were hustled out.

We sat on the steps and felt miffed. Why? I suppose because we had paid £15 each and hadn’t had time to see enough. And had felt all the time that we were being shooed through a sheep dip. I know it’s difficult when there are so many visitors. But none of us were morons. We would have appreciated more adult-oriented treatment. It was lovely and warm on the steps. I noticed that the fluting on all the paired Corinthian columns which support the west porch has been filled in, to about chest height or higher. Why? I wasn’t sure who to ask. Next time I’ll bring my chains.

St Augustine and his mother at Ostia

An extract from Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph.

When you get off the train at Ostia Antica, you will do so together with a small huddle of visitors bound for the ruins of the ancient port city. Walk with them across the footbridge from the railway station, stick with them until you reach the main road of the little town; and then leave them: instead of turning left towards the excavations, turn right towards the castle and follow the road as it skirts around its moat. The church of Santa Aurea stands in the little cobbled Piazza della Rocca, a medieval village square with a medieval village atmosphere, surrounded by neat little cottages, supplied with a public drinking fountain, a restaurant in Via del Forno, and a church, all facing the massy protecting flank of the castle itself, built by Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, when he was bishop of Ostia in 1483–1503.

The medieval village of Ostia, with the church of S. Aurea

Behind the high altar a lamp has been placed upon a slender stump of column, balanced on a pretty fluted stand. These are certainly spolia from Ostia Antica itself, whose ruins lie somnolently basking under tall umbrella pines. As you make your way along the grass-grown basalt slabs of thedecumanus, you can easily imagine St Augustine and his mother doing the same, walking out to the shore through the Porta Marina, past the synagogue, to inquire about their boat to North Africa. We do not know exactly where they were staying, but we know that it was a house with a courtyard garden and there are plenty of surviving brick-built ruins that might have been it, some of them even with traces of an upper-floor balcony. In his Confessions, Augustine describes standing at a window with his mother, leaning out and chatting, speculating about the nature of the life beyond. Together they share a brief mystic moment when they seem to touch Eternal Wisdom. Two weeks later Monica was dead, of a sudden fever. Though her initial wish had been to be buried beside her husband, she maintained at the end that she had no fear of dying in a foreign land, for God would surely know where to find her when the Day of Judgement came. Very touchingly Augustine describes how he comes to terms with his grief, examining why he feels so bereft at the death of one who wished to leave this world and who has not, in any real sense, died. Psalm 101 was read over Monica’s body:
My song shall be of mercy and judgement: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing. O let me have understanding in the way of godliness.

Fragment of the tombstone of St Monica

Augustine returned from his mother’s graveside and went to the baths. We cannot know which baths those were; there are several that survive among the ruins of Ostia. Bathing did not soothe him. He retired to bed, wept freely, recited a hymn of St Ambrose (his mentor in Milan) and found himself much comforted.

The church is small and very simple, aisleless, with a painted tie-beam ceiling and Stations of the Cross in bold white relief against a vivid blue ground placed high along the walls. In a chapel on the south side, behind glass, is a piece of the tombstone of St Monica, the mother of St Augustine, who died here suddenly in 387, aged fifty-five. Opposite the tombstone there is an Italian transcription of the full epitaph, which translates as follows:
‘Here your most chaste mother laid her ashes, Augustine, a further light upon your own merits, you, who as a faithful priest of the holy message of peace instruct by your life your faithful adherents. You are both crowned with immense glory by your works, you and your most virtuous mother, who is made more blessed still by her son.’

St Augustine’s own tribute to his mother is as follows:
May she rest in peace with her husband, her only one, after whom she married no other. She served him with patience and obedience, bringing forth fruit unto thee, and at the end won him also for thyself. O Lord my God, inspire thy servants my brethren, thy sons and my masters, whom I serve with voice and heart and pen, that whosoever of them shall read these words, may remember at thy altar Monica thy servant, with Patricius her husband, by whose bodies thou broughtest me into this life, though how it was done I know not. May they remember them in this failing light, they were my parents and also my brother and sister, subject to thee our Father in our Catholic mother the Church, and they will be my fellow citizens in that eternal Jerusalem for which thy people yearn all the days of their pilgrimage. (Confessions Book IX)

(NB: For a fascinating delve into early Christian Ostia, as well as for an alternative reading of Monica’s tombstone, see here.)

Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers

Hadrian is one of the most interesting and enigmatic of all the pagan emperors. He was a man of contrasts, described in the Historia Augustaas: “in the same person austere and genial, dignified and playful, dilatory and quick to act, niggardly and generous, deceitful and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable.” He was a very cultured man, interested in art and architecture. Unlike his predecessor Trajan, his interest was not in extending the boundaries of his empire but in consolidating what he had, making sure that its borders held firm. But this does not mean he was inward-looking. The Roman civilisation spread peace through uniformity. All over their empire they built semi-identical cities, each with its temples, its baths, its forum, its theatre and amphitheatre, its circus, its mosaics of Dionysus and the Four Seasons, its public latrines. But Hadrian was not a conformist. He was exceptionally well-travelled and he was interested in the diversity of the peoples he ruled. His own architectural designs flouted the rules; they were almost baroque. In fact, the things that Hadrian admired most lay outside Rome, in Greece and Egypt. At his enormous, sprawling villa near Tivoli he created a little microcosm of his empire, with miniature versions of its beauty spots, from Athens to Thessaly to the Nile Delta to Asia Minor. Some of the statuary recovered from his recreation of the canal which linked Alexandria to the city of Canopus is displayed in the Vatican’s Egyptian Museum.

Hadrian built his Tivoli villa on land that belonged to his wife, the empress Sabina. Their marriage was loveless and childless. Though Hadrian deified his wife after her death, he must have known that she detested him. It is probable that Hadrian was homosexual. The image of his favourite, the beautiful Bithynian youth Antinoüs, haunts the museums of the world like a flitting ghost, portrayed in many a portrait bust or full-length statue, with drooping head, pouting lips and downcast eyes. Antinoüs died in mysterious circumstances, drowned in the Nile in ad 130, at the age of nineteen. Immediately the disconsolate emperor deified him and founded the city of Antinoöpolis on the river’s east bank. Many theories exist about this famous death: few believe that it was an accident. Perhaps the boy was getting beyond the age when it could be seemly for him to belong to Hadrian’s entourage. Or perhaps it was a ritual suicide. The cult of Antinoüs continued well beyond Hadrian’s day. The early Church fathers were in no two minds about it: Tertullian, Origen, St Athanasius and St Jerome are united in their opinion that Antinoüs was merely a man and that his worship was not worship, but idolatry—though they differ in how they express themselves. For St Athanasius, Antinoüs is a lascivious wretch. For Tertullian he is a hapless victim, a person who perhaps had little choice. From this distance, and with our utterly different social outlook, we can have no true idea. The Vatican Egyptian collection exhibits a statue of Antinoüs in the guise of the god of the underworld, Osiris, reborn from the Nile waters. It is a most extraordinary piece, offering a small glimpse into one of the ways in which people have attempted to make sense of death and immortality.

Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo

Rome has been in the Press quite a lot recently. News about the ban on snacking around ancient monuments in the city centre has spread like wildfire across the ether’s social media platforms. The despair of Vatican officials and their cluelessness about how to handle the Sistine Chapel’s five million yearly visitors has made headlines. Any suggestion that visitor numbers should be limited provokes cries of “Snobbery! Elitism!” Alternative suggestions that nothing can be done are clearly untenable, if we want Michelangelo’s masterpiece to survive. Personally I don’t care for Michelangelo’s masterpiece (though I do want it to survive). What I love are the earlier paintings around the walls, by Botticelli, Perugino et al, which one can never see or appreciate properly because the myriad heads of the teeming crowds get in the way. In many ways it isn’t so much the number of visitors that is the problem, but their voluminousness. There are so many organised groups, disgorged from coaches or from cruise ships. This is their chance to stretch their legs, though the itinerary isn’t precisely of their choosing and they move inefficiently, plodding along with audio packs slung round their necks and a loud lady with an umbrella marshalling them from the front. I know, I know, I’m an elitist and a snob…

Detail of the pavement at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.
Early Christian sarcophagus with scenes of the vine harvest and peacocks, symbols of immortality.

But I am not going to discuss this any further here or attempt to offer a solution. Largely because there is no solution. Five years ago, Rome was not like this. The Forum was still free of charge and you could wander in at will at any time of day or night. There were no lines in front of St Peter’s snaking all around Bernini’s colonnade. St Peter’s Square wasn’t barricaded like a football stadium which dreaded a clash between particularly thuggish fans. But it is now. And you often have to wait for 20 or 30 minutes before you get to the front of the line. And the ticket staff at the Forum are rude. And the fake handbag vendors have arrived in force. The city has fallen victim to its own loveliness. And when visitors begin to find it unlovely—as they are starting to—they will go off and find another place to colonise, like aphids on the underside of a rosebud. And we can’t do anything to stop it because we’re all involved. Those who write guide books; those who sell aeroplane tickets; those who run restaurants; those who drive taxis; those who need money in the municipal coffers to mend the roads; those who want their archaeology projects funded. And those who want to travel to the place where Caesar fell.

Rome is not unique. There are places all over Europe which are no-go areas for the independent traveller. I visited St Paul’s in London two weeks ago and had an appalling experience. It cost me £15 and I was shooed out after having seen about a third of what I wanted to. It will be difficult to tempt me back. When in Venice, it wouldn’t cross my mind to try to see St Mark’s. In Paris, I avoid the Mona Lisa as if she were a leper. Rome, which was once my favourite city, is now going the same way. I used to love popping into St Peter’s or the Vatican Museums. But I’ve started to choose not to. Last time I was in St Peter’s, nerdily trying to decipher an inscription, a largish lady asked me to get out the way because I was spoiling her photograph. I obeyed and went off in search of the tomb of Pope Innocent XI. I asked a young guard, and he told me it was in the crypt. It isn’t. It’s in the north aisle. Then I tried to go to the Cappella del Sacramento to say a swift prayer. A different guard saw the Blue Guide in my hand and stopped me at the entrance, saying the chapel was not for tourists, only worshippers. “Can’t one be both?” I asked him. He thought not. I insisted, was admitted, and ended up not enjoying the experience because I felt a fraud. I didn’t only want to talk to God. I wanted to look at the tabernacle on the main altar, which is particularly fine.

I spend my life researching and writing guide books. And I know that it isn’t good enough to tell people what a horrible time they’ll have if they visit the Uffizi, the Eiffel Tower, Harry’s Bar, the Colosseum. I need to find things that they will enjoy. So here is my Rome alternative to St Peter’s: San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.

Like all the early Christian basilicas (including St Peter’s), it was built outside the city walls. It stands above the tomb of an important early martyr. Not one quite as illustrious as St Peter, but even so, Lawrence was a deacon of the early Church, martyred in Rome in 258 during the persecutions of the emperor Valerian. It is said that his body was roasted on a grid-iron. More than any of the major basilicas, it retains an aura of what these churches may once have been like. It retains its lean-to porch, supported on fluted columns. Its floor is beautiful porphyry and marble inlay. It has a venerable pulpit with Cosmatesque decoration. The mosaics of its triumphal arch are in the best tradition, a procession of saints between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In the crypt you can see the slab whereon St Lawrence’s body reportedly lay after death. Here also is the mausoleum of the longest-reigning of all the popes, the controversial Pius IX, who lost Rome to the invading national army and was confined for the rest of his life to the tiny Vatican. He lies in state in brilliant scarlet, his face covered by a silver mask. The little cloister walls are covered with inscriptions from the early burial ground, and below it is a small catacomb, which can be visited with relative ease (ask the sacristan), unlike the catacomb under St Peter’s, which requires months of emails and faxes—and even then may result in nothing. San Lorenzo also stands in a part of town which is home to large numbers of Chinese and Bangladeshis. It is out of the mainstream. The first communities of Christians would have been in just such an area, far from the disapproval of patrician citizens. It is an evocative place and a very lovely one. And you will probably have it almost to yourself.

The city of Bethlehem: mosaic from the triumphal arch.
Inscription from the catacombs: “Flavia Tigris, beloved daughter, lived 5 years, 3 months, 5 days, and 4 hours”.

Earliest-known image of a martyrdom

Under the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Caelian Hill in Rome are the excavations known as the Case Romane (‘Roman houses’;www.caseromane.it). What has been revealed is complex and fascinating and spans at least five centuries. Traces of a wealthy domus with a nymphaeum, a street and shops, an early Christian oratory. Many of the walls still preserve their painted decoration, some of it figurative, some in the form of faux marble cladding. The church takes its name from two mid-fourth-century courtiers of the emperor Constantine II. Under his successor Julian the Apostate, who attempted to reverse the Christianisation of the empire, Giovanni and Paolo were put to death for their faith. The so-called confessio, which is approached up an iron stairway, has a fragmentary fourth-century fresco showing three kneeling figures, apparently blindfolded and awaiting execution. They are identified as Saints Priscus, Priscillian and Benedicta, ‘priest, cleric and pious lady’, who are said to have attempted to locate the remains of Giovanni and Paolo and who were arrested and executed in about 362. According to tradition, they were beheaded. Their feast day in the Roman martyrology is January 4th. This is the earliest-known depiction of a martyrdom in Christian art.

For more on this and related subjects, see Pilgrim’s Rome, published earlier this year.

Turin, Pisa and mathematics

What is the connection between the Mole Antonelliana, the great 19th-century landmark on the Turin skyline, and Leonardo da Pisa, born at the end of the 12th century and hailed as one of the greatest mathematicians the west has ever known?

The Mole was begun in 1863 by the architect Alessandro Antonelli. He had been commissioned to build a synagogue by the city’s Jewish community, only a few months after King Vittorio Emanuele had granted freedom of worship to Italian Jews. Antonelli got carried away and instead of the modest structure he had been asked for, he produced something 167m high. The Jewis congregation found an alternative site and the Mole was turned into a monument celebrating the unification of Italy. It is now the Cinema Museum. In 1998 its exterior became host to one variation of Mario Merz’s public light installation known as Flight of Numbers. Merz (1925–2003) was a well-known exponent of the Arte Povera movement. A great part of his oeuvre is dedicated to the numerical sequence known as the Fibonacci sequence, whereby each number is the sum of the previous two. It has been observed to occur very frequently in nature, for instance in the typical number of petals of a flower. The sequence is named after the great north Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, or Leonardo da Pisa, who set himself the following problem: How many pairs of rabbits will be born in one year, beginning with a single pair, if each pair gives birth to a new pair every month and that new pair begins reproducing from the second month on? The Mole Antonelliana is not the only building to be graced with a Flight of Numbers. There is also one high on a smokestack in Finland, in the city of Turku.

Turin and the Mole Antonelliana are covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy.

Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of perspective.

Last time I bothered to update my mobile phone software, I found, included among the extra features, an option to take panorama shots with the phone’s camera. I experimented with this as I was walking to work, and came up with street views that instantly reminded me of Luciano Laurana. Here was my home town, suddenly opened up and widened out. Its streets had become ample and uncluttered, converging on a single vanishing point, just as if a Renaissance draughtsman had planned them. Its buildings looked noble and protective.

I have never been to Urbino, sadly. But I will go there one day. As i write this, I am preparing the 2nd edition of Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino for publication. And when I get to Urbino, the first thing I shall do is go to see the Città Ideale, in the Galleria Nazionale. This Utopian scene, unpeopled and unpigeoned, is thought to have been one of three panels commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, the great one-eyed warrior-prince.

Ideal City, attributed to Luciano Laurana (d.1479)

An hour or so after arriving in the office, on Facebook, I saw that the Patrimoni dell’Umanità d’Italia had posted a photograph of Florence. Perhaps it was taken with the very same telephone that I have, updated to the new software.

Florence idealized. Photo © Patrimoni d’Umanità d’Italia

Of course, we all know that the Renaissance began in Florence, but until today I had never thought of its street layout as being remotely “ideal”. How wrong I was! All you need is a panoramic camera app and suddenly the Renaissance is all around you, projecting onto your retina a world where all is order, where chaos is banished, where spaces are uncluttered, harmoniously arranged, affording wide vistas of tranquil geometry.