Tuesday, 25 April 2006

The little things that matter

Just back from a trip to Venice to research some Podtours, and I got round to thinking what is it that makes Venice so Venetian? - Other than the canals, of course.

It's lots of little things. For instance it's the coloured marble disks used everywhere to prettify the facades of houses, churches, palaces. You see your first marble inlays on San Marco but once you open your eyes, they're everywhere. My favourites I suppose are the 'telephone dials' on the Palazzo Dario. And there are little Byzantine carved roundels everywhere, too - eagles eating lambs, lions fighting, peacocks drinking out of elegant vases - all in pure white stone. The occasional sculptures, if you look out for them, are everywhere - even a camel in Campo dei Mori (and by the way, look at the mosaics in the atrium of San Marco and you'll see more camels - clearly the Venetians knew the Middle East well, as these twelfth century camels are realistic ones, not the usual spindly-legged things out of a medieval bestiary).

It's the sottoporteghi. Lots of cities in northern Italy have arcaded streets, but few of them have as many streets that run under buildings. In Venice, it's quite normal for a street to run 'underground'. Leaving a campo you dodge under the huge beams that support the building above; then after a few metres you're out of the tunnel.

 The sottoporteghi create the effect of surprise that is typical of Venice. The only panoramas are from the water - if you're walking, you're dodging into tunnels, round right-angled corners, down streets so narrow you have to walk in single file. Cities like Rome and Turin were rationalised in the Baroque - great streets and piazzas laid out, vistas created. That never really happened in Venice. So you're left with almost a fairytale idea of the medieval city, created spontaneously, unplanned, with a surprise around every odd-angled corner.

Well, that got me round to thinking about other cities that are - or were - defined by the little things that matter. In the case of London, big red buses have disappeared - at least, the iconic Routemaster has gone though arguably the new 'bendy buses' are bigger and they're still red - and so have red telephone boxes. Is that an act of cultural vandalism? I wonder. It's certainly stripped away a layer of what many - tourists, but also Londoners themselves - identified as typical London.

Sometimes it's a local building material or style that makes a place memorable. Painswick, in the Cotswolds, derives its entire character from the creamy local stone that is used in its buildings. On a day with thunderclouds building behind the church spire and a sharp ray of sunlight glancing off it, the stone glows almost white.

In Northern Germany you have the Backsteingothik - "brick Gothic" - towns, like Lubeck, where brick is everywhere. And here, too, it's little details like the stepped gables that give the city character. The use of local materials is one of those things that is disappearing as big building materials warehouses spread the same colour brick and the same concrete blocks everywhere - but it's the local materials that created the character of the place. Perhaps if local planning offices banned the use of non-local materials we'd get more distinctive modern buildings...

Local political structures had something to do with the way cities were built, too. For instance in medieval Italy, without the strong feudal structures of France or England, noble families erected tower fortresses inside the city - in Sam Gimignano, in Bologna, in Lucca, in Florence - to which they could retreat in troubled times and, I suspect, throw things at their enemies. At completely the other extreme you have the great Georgian cities - Bath and Edinburgh - with their lines of respectable, identical, tasteful terraces. These represent quite different values - rationality, reasonableness, a certain understatement and lack of ostentation - and without the increasing stability of British society in the eighteenth century, it's difficult to believe they could have been built.

But back to those little things... for Georgian houses, the boot-scraper is one of them. If a Georgian house doesn't have the little iron bootscraper next to the door, it's lost its soul. Like those houses where the sash windows have been replaced by PVC and flat glass.

And then there are signs. Road signs, street names, street furniture, signs of businesses. In Rome, if you look around carefully you'll find painstakingly carved stone plaques from the eighteenth century forbidding waste tipping in the streets. Montpellier has fine eighteenth-century street names carved in its creamy stone. Paris, of course, has the fine Art Nouveau metro railings.

We need to save all these little things. They're so often overlooked, in favour of more impressive sights. But it's the little things that really do make the difference.

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