The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel
Edited, translated and introduced by Will Stone

After the mad reading and posting for the #1944Club I hit the usual unfocused slump that usually follows an intense period of reading. I have *loads* of books I could choose to open next, but have been hit by raging indecision. After the lovely escapism of “Eve in Egypt”, something slim and non-fiction seemed the best option – so I went for this lovely little review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, which turned out to be anything but slight!

“The Art of the City” is a new volume in the Pushkin Collection range – lovely little books with gorgeous covers and French flaps – and the author, Georg Simmel is a new name to me. As the introduction by translator Will Stone reveals, Simmel (1858-1918) was an influential German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. This volume contains four seminal essays by Simmel; three discuss the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, all long considered aesthetic architectural gems, with the final one, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” taking a very timely and modern look at the effect of city living on the human psyche. It’s a slim yet intellectually complex book and one which really sets you thinking about the way cities have grown up and how we live in them nowadays, as well as what they do to us.

In his introduction, Stone rightly identifies Simmel as an early flaneur, a kind of proto-psychogeographer, who looked at these three ancient cities as works of art as well as places to live in, ruminating on the effects modernity will have on them as well as considering how some kind of equilibrium can be achieved between the human spirit, nature and art.

Of Rome, Simmel comments, “Here, countless generations have created and built structures side by side, one on top another, each having no concern for or comprehension of what went before, responding only to the demands of the hour and the mood of the epoch.” That could be said of many a city, of course, but fortuitously for Rome the result is architectural beauty, a balance between landscape and buildings old or new which seems rare. The disparate elements are somehow harmonious and the city becomes a sum of its parts. Florence has a similar effect on Simmel:

Poppies and brook, shuttered villas like locked-up secrets, children at play, blueness and clouds of the heavens – all this can be found everywhere in the world and everywhere is beautiful, but here it harbours a spiritual and aesthetic element, a quite alternative peripheral view, for nothing enchants by its beauty alone, but rather participates in an overarching absolute beauty.

However, Simmel appears to find Venice‘s falseness displeasing; its facade is something I’ve heard others railing against, and the sham nature of the place is not to his liking. That city is, of course, an artificial construct (in much the same way that St. Petersburg is, I suppose) and although all cities are *built* the process is often random, unplanned and develops over many decades or even centuries, responding to the needs of the people using it. Building a conurbation from scratch, in a planned, controlled way, seems to me a very modern conceit (look, for example, at the Garden City movement of the 20th century) and what is manufactured and looks good on paper does not always end up being something in which a human being can live happily.

The bottom line is that in the life of the metropolis the struggle with nature for the necessary food of life has turned into a conflict between human beings, and the fiercely contested reward is here bestowed not by nature but by man. Here flows not only the previously cited source of specialization, but the deeper one, where the seller must arouse in the person to whom he wishes to sell ever more novel and specific requirements.

But I digress a little. The icing on the cake in this book is the final essay; an inspiring piece of work, which considers the dehumanising effects of the modern metropolis, it apparently influenced thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Rilke (I’d also be interested to know if Marshall Berman ever read it). It’s a thoughtful, bracing and provocative piece that discusses the vast differences between the experience of living in rural areas or urban areas; and rather chillingly Simmel traces the alienation of the modern city as stemming from the gulf between producers and consumers, the dominance of the money principle and the isolation of human beings from each other.

via Wikimedia Commons

The pace of life even at the time of the essay (1903) is perceived as having a negative effect, so goodness know what Simmel would make of the modern world. The vast number of stimuli thrown at human beings on a daily basis is constantly increasing, and it could be argued that we haven’t evolved at a pace to keep up with the changes around us – which could be the source of some of our modern problems.

Money, with its colourlessness and supreme indifference, becomes the universal denominator of all values, a most terrifying leveller, hollowing out the core of things, their peculiarities, their intrinsic value, their incomparability. All swim at the same specific weight in the continuously moving flow of money, all rest on the same level and differ only through their monetary value.

As you can see by my constantly rambling off at tangents, this book really *does* punch above its weight and provides some profound insights into the difficulties of urban living. I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of Simmel before, and wondering why his work wasn’t more read and discussed nowadays – but of course that might be a lack of English versions… Which leads me on to naming and thanking the translator! 🙂

I’ve reviewed works rendered by Will Stone (who is also a poet and essayist) before on the Ramblings; I thought very highly of his defence of Stefan Zweig and also his translation of “Rilke in Paris” which he produced so wonderfully for the Hesperus Press edition, even providing photos for the book. Once again, he’s done the essays here justice with an erudite foreword exploring Simmel’s life and work; and although as a monolinguist I can’t really comment on the nitty-gritty of the translation, it does read beautifully! If you’re at all interested in considering how architecture and urban living impact on humans, or just in reading some really stimulating essays, I recommend this book highly – Simmel’s work is most definitely worth exploring.

*****

After finishing Simmel’s essays, which linger beautifully in the mind, I remembered that

a. they were translated from German
b. it’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy Siddal and Caroline at Beauty in a Sleeping Cat!

I always try to take part in German Lit Month, and so even though these essay are probably very off topic (as I believe the ladies have a particular focus this month), I’m still going to claim this post for the month’s reading!

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