The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice is made up of four essays that German polymath Georg Simmel wrote between 1898 and 1907, translated by Will Stone and published by Pushkin Press.
It’s a small, 89-page volume that includes Stone’s introduction and 56 pages of Simmel’s thickly reasoned, thickly written essays. In these essays, Simmel is attempting to capture what makes Rome, Rome, what makes Florence, Florence, and what makes Venice, Venice — and, in all four pieces, what makes a city, a city.
The Rome, Florence and Venice he writes of are the cities as they existed more than a century ago. Similarly, his broader and longer piece “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit,” deals with the difference of life in a city as compared with rural life, as they were in 1903 when the piece was written.
What do these essays have to say to us today?
Before addressing this, let’s look at the points Simmel makes in each piece.
“A beautiful whole”
In “Rome” (1898), Simmel argues that Rode is a work of art.
Here, then, is the heart-lifting impression Rome affords, that all the absurdity and disharmony of the world’s elements cannot prevent their integration into the form of a beautiful whole.
What makes Rome’s impression incomparable is that all the variables from one age to another, the styles, personalities, the contents of lives whose traces are left here, exist to a higher degree of tension than anywhere else, yet despite this still converge into a unity, a harmony and an affinity as found nowhere else on earth.
Despite this tension, Rome remains a unity. Put another way, Rome incorporates into itself all ages in a balanced entity. One example of this is the layout of its streets as determined by its hilly landscape.
…so all buildings are forced into an above-and-below relationship which is naturally oppositional. They therefore relate to each other in a quite different way than is the case with buildings which happen to be situated on the same level….
When the elements of a landscape all share the same level, there is a general mood of indifference among them, for each covets its own position rather than having it designated by the others.
“Woven into the landscape”
In “Florence” (1906), Simmel sees the city as a work of art in the way it fits its landscape perfectly.
But if one looks down on Florence from the heights of San Miniato, as framed by its mountains and with the Arno flowing through it like a vital artery, when the soul swells with the art of its galleries, palaces and churches, when one strolls in the afternoon among the hills with their vines, olive groves, cypresses, where each foot of ground, the paths, the villas, the fields is permeated with culture and a prodigious past, where a layer of spirit exists like an astral body of this earth enfolding all — there arises a feeling, as if the contrast between nature and spirit had been here made void.
Simmel continues that a unity, at once mysterious and also palpable, “is woven into the landscape.”
“The lying beauty of the mask”
In “Venice” (1907), however, Simmel views the city as essentially a false façade, especially in comparison to Florence.
Florence appears to us as a work of art because its character is rooted in a life that may have disappeared, historically speaking, but remains spiritually integrated with it. Venice, by contrast, is an artificial city.
Florence can never become a mere mask because its appearance was the undisguised language of a genuine life; but here in Venice, what appeared bright and joyous, light and free, was only a façade concealing a dark, violent and unremittingly purposeful life and its decline has left only a mortified stage set, only the lying beauty of the mask.
Simmel complains that the “monotony of all Venice rhythms” lulls the soul and distracts it from the real-life Venice — and “form part of the lie of Venice.”
“Intensification of the emotional life”
At 24 pages, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” is the longest of Simmel’s essays in this collection. It is also the most abstract inasmuch as it does not focus on a single specific place.
The first thing to understand, Simmel writes, is this:
The psychological foundation from which the metropolitan individual type arises is the intensification of the emotional life, resulting from the rapid and uninterrupted changes issuing from external and internal impressions…
While the metropolis creates those psychological conditions — with each crossing of the street, with the rhythm and diversity of its economic, professional and social life — it establishes, in the senory hard core of the life of the spirit and in the degree of consciousness required for our communal integrity as beings dependent on difference, a profound contrast with the gentler pace of small-town and rural life, with the slower, more familiar, evenly flowing rhythm of its sensory-spiritual take on life.
In other words, a city resident is heavily bombarded by sights, scenes, people, sounds and myriad other stimuli.
So for this reason the intellectual nature of the spiritual life of the metropolis is overt and stands in direct opposition to that of the small town, which is colored rather by feelings and emotional relationships….
So, the metropolitan type — which naturally swirls around in a thousand different variants — creates for itself a protective organ against any sense of uprooting that threatens from those endlessly shifting currents and discordances of the external world.
Instead of responding with an emotional reaction, the metropolitan type primarily reacts rationally with the intellect, thereby intensifying consciousness and at the same time imposing a higher level of mental governance.
The mind, then, is the protective organ because it is less prone to being swayed by emotions. As a result, Simmel writes, those who are deepest into the life of the mind — those who are most adept at living the life of the mind — do best in a city.
All of these essays, particularly the longest, are much more subtle and intricate than I have been able to reflect above and cover much more territory than I have been able to suggest.
I must also acknowledge that I cannot be sure that I understand all — or even much — of what Simmel is saying. For one thing, his prose is dense and densely reasoned in a very Germanic way. For another, he is writing from an intellectual framework of 1900 that is far distant from the intellectual framework I have in 2021. For a third, I have never been to the cities he focuses on.
Nonetheless, for me, there is great richness in these essays, mainly for the questions they raise about cities today, questions that are meat for further reflection:
- What does Simmel’s assertion that Rome’s hilly terrain is inherently more interesting than a flat city have to say about Chicago, perhaps the flattest large city in the world?
- Can a city be false — as Simmel says about Venice — if it presents a façade to the world? Las Vegas, for instance, is a bright, blinking, overwhelming façade, veiling, as it were, the area of the city where the residents live and where tourists rarely visit. When people talk of New York, they are almost always speaking of the glitter and pizzazz of Manhattan, not about Staten Island or Queens.
- How much of Simmel’s sense of Florence as a work of art is due to his deep knowledge of the city’s history and art? Wouldn’t an American high school science teacher or a Spanish plumber or an Irish video game creator have a different reaction, based on personal knowledge and interests?
- Is the lesson from Simmel’s essay that all individuals face and interact with a city in their own ways and from their own perspectives? Is the lesson that a city is not one thing but a different thing for each person who experiences it?
Such are the intriguing questions that I take away with me from my reading of Simmel’s four essays.
Patrick T. Reardon