Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How old is a city?

Americans have an idea that Europe is impossibly old. I went to Epiphany Mass (to hear Schubert's Mass in B Major) in the Salzburg Cathedral, which is a 1959 reconstruction of a 1628 Baroque masterpiece, replacing the original church from 774, which itself may very well have been built on an older Roman or Celtic religious site. That number 774 can be powerfully distracting. But 1959 is important, too. The Salzburg Old City, inhabited since prehistoric times (that's pretty old!), is dominated by a dramatic crag with a medieval fortress at one end and what anyone could guess is a museum of contemporary art at the other.

Salzburg is a lovely reconstructed tourist town, easily worth a stay of several days. I'm just saying that sometime it was a little hard to know just what I was looking at.

In the architecture chapter of Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo, in 1830, laments the destruction of medieval Paris, which he recreates in the novel. Only a few monuments were left, and when Hugo was writing, even those, even Notre Dame, were wrecks. Not to mention Roman Paris, or Celtic Paris, gone with almost no trace.* Note that this is all before Hausmann's massive modernization, laying out the parks and boulevards and train stations. Paris as it exists now is really a 19th century city.

I felt the same way about Vienna and to some degree about Munich. Their current layout really dates fom the 19th century - those central train stations required a lot of demolition and urban renewal. The feel of these cities is greatly complicated by their destruction in World War II. Even some of the oldest buildings are substantially rebuilt. And some of the old buildings aren't that old at all - the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (1836), or the glorious Kunsthistorisches Museum (1888),** are contemporaries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1872) and the Art Institute of Chicago (1892). Museums, like train stations, are 19th century phenomena.

This is all impressionistic enough that I sympathize with anyone who thinks its nonsense.*** I'm interested in how others have felt about cities they have visited.

* One Sunday morning, wandering around in the Latin Quarter, I was startled to find myself in the center of a tiny Roman amphitheater, now the center of a little park.

** Really, such a beautiful museum, even aside from its contents, which include a room of Breughels that is surely one of the great museum galleries in the world.

*** I could add this caveat to every post.


  1. I have shared your observations and feelings about the true age of "old" buildings, areas, etc. It is possible that it is most satisfying to merely forget the facts and say, "Wow, this is 750 years old. There's nothing like this back home!"

  2. I love the layering in European cities. If you pay attention, which I try to do although not always successfully, you can flip back through several periods.

    I remember my disappointment when I first moved to Japan and couldn't find the "old stuff" that I wanted to look at. It's there of course but not obvious, so much of Japan was destroyed in the War, but so much of it was/is also not built to last (what with typhoons and earthquakes) so its harder to find.

  3. Thanks for the note on Japanese cities. Istanbul is the most "layered" city that I've visited (Classical Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, modern). A different era around every corner. Rome must have this feel as well.

  4. My experience in Rome matches your description of your experience in Istanbul. I was expecting it for Rome (but did really feel challenged to question what I thought constituted "old" as I never had before) but was more surprised to find the layering in the Tunis/Carthage area.

  5. I suppose I sort of feel the same way, but somehow I always let myself get psyched out by the age of European cities, and it all collapses around me in a fit of white noise. The exceptions are strange: the Houses of Parliament in London, for example. I feel very grounded in Western Enlightenment there. I touch the walls and feel immensely grounded. Also: Dublin and Edinburgh. I feel very comfortable and at ease there -- the age of the settlements engenders absolutely no time-disconnectedness for me. Elsewhere, I don't get that. No, wait -- Florence. The age and importance of Florence does not undo me; it makes me feel part of something important.

    Where I really feel the age and presence of things is, oddly, America. I can go to the Midway Plaisance in Chicago and the overwhelming weight and burden of history comes crashing in on me: here was the Columbian Exposition. The peristyle was over there. This is our history, and it's kind of short, and it was JUST HERE. But I missed it. I feel the same in New York, drinking at McSorley's, or in Boston, at the Old North Church. But then, I'm odd.