Urban Iconography

New Yorkers are chauvinists; wherever in the world we are we say “The City” and mean our own. This is not without precedent; Constantinople was “The City” too, and its modern name is from the Greek for “to The City” — εἰς τὴν Πόλιν (eis tên Polin) — Istanbul. Cities tend to punch above their weight; say what you will about the pastoral, urbanism is more, well, electric. In putting together this catalogue of our material relating to cities a tripartite pattern of modes emerged: for history, for strategy and for beauty. Naturally there are overlaps, and one might disagree about what belongs in which category, but the division helps to explain the depictions’ forms. The first, history, is easy enough to understand: there is a natural urge to record the appearance of cities. Against the backdrop of the great ancient cities — Athens, Rome, Istanbul (called the “New Rome”) — the modern ones could stand out by documenting their extent, splendor and uniqueness. The catalogue begins with an exception to the rule: Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1), which famously uses only a third or so as many wood-blocks as it had illustrations; the cities it chronicles are more or less interchangeable. Maps such as Valvassore’s Cita di Rodi depicting the Turkish bombardment of Rhodes in 1522 (2), Vertue’s Civitas Londinum after Agas’ Tudor view of London (3) and the Montigny portrait of the holdings of Charles de Croÿ (4) chronicle a city at a fixed point; Brölmann’s Epideigma (8) tracks a city — Cologne — from its ancient form to his own day. The pinnacle of this mode is surely Braun & Hogenberg’s decades-long project: Civitates orbis terrarum (here present in three examples: 5, 6, 7), which redeems the original sin of Schedel and depicts cities around the world (well, mostly Europe) with the accuracy born of native draughstmen. The second, strategy, is a little harder. Depictions in this category tend to be proleptic; they anticipate or project change: Capitani da Sesto’s manuscript plans for remilitarizing the Valtelline in northern Italy after the 1626 Treaty of Monzón (9), Vingboons’s painted view of Mexico City (11) — the earliest surviving — that imagines it as a tranquil city by a lake rather than as a seasonal floodplain, Pastorius’s organization of Germantown from a collection of settlements outside of Philadelphia into a thriving hub of immigrants from the Rhinelands (14), Lopez’s manuscript plan of the refortification of Veracruz (19) that he would not live to see. These images conjure brighter — or at least optimized — urban futures, whether they are counterfactual or simply incomplete. Others record the past or present for specific ends: Tassin’s Plans des villes (10) used as a diplomatic gift with important political implications, Trellund’s manuscript map of Prague (17) during the siege of 1644 — recalling the Valvassore (2) but with an eye to rebuilding, Scull & Heap’s East Prospect of Philadelphia (18) building its myth as the Athens of the New World, Ratzer’s Plan of the City of New York (20) which is all but a battle map for the crucial military and commercial hub (there’s the chauvinism again). A chronological outlier is the final item in the list: a record of Robert Moses’s Expanding New York Waterfront (30), somewhere between a boast and a hagiographic account of The City’s power broker. Beauty is perhaps the most familiar mode in the era of Google Maps and Instagram; urban iconography appeals not only to civic pride but also to the connoisseur’s eye. Beginning with Nardini’s Roma antica (12) — invoking, not accidentally, the Eternal City that was surfacing as Rome’s modern splendor grew; excavation also provided Caracciolo’s illustrations of the ruins of Pompeii (21), here present in proof — the sheer pleasure of cities drove scholars and artists to chronicle them as never before. From Oxford — Loggan’s Oxonia illustrata (13), so often broken to hang on the walls of common rooms — to Turgot’s ten-foot-wide bird’s-eye plan (15) of a Paris now vanished to Revolution and Hausmann — to Ughi’s only slightly smaller plan of Venice (16) and Muller’s Rialto Bridge (22) — the burgeoning cities of the XVII and XVIIIc proved a beguiling subject. Chauvinism must have the last word: New York, whose infinite variety animates our galleries, has proven irresistible. All the examples in this list are nostalgic: glimpses of a city that changes faster than memory can log. Capewell’s Crystal Palace (23) captures a short-lived (1853–1858) exhibition hall in what is now Bryant Park that burnt to the ground. The great sweeping views — Smith’s Brooklyn (24), Billing’s Panoramic View (25), Parsons & Atwater’s subtly-shifting visions of the City of New York in 1876 (27) and 1884 (28) — will have changed in myriad subtle and obvious ways; so, too, will have views even of iconic buildings, as with Bachmann’s 1859 view of City Hall. Perhaps most nostalgic of all is the pair of views of Pennsylvania Station (29): a lithograph from the year of its completion by McKim Mead & White (1910) and a gouache mock-up of an Angelo Magnanti mural showing the renovation of the station (also by MMW in 1946), which stood in the station-master’s office until the destruction of Penn Station in 1963, one of the city’s most lamented losses. Cities — even eternal ones — change wildly over even small periods; the volatility of humanity is magnified in them. These images invite slow looking, which we see daily here in our Madison Avenue gallery. Hopefully this list — spanning some five centuries — yields an opportunity to pause and tocontemplate the dazzling expanse of urban iconography. J.L. Rosenberg (D.Phil, Oxon.) Head of Rare Books, Arader Galleries

 

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