Reviewed by Richard Harris (School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University)
Published on H-Urban (June, 2006)
The City in History in Maps
In the era of Google Earth and MapQuest we can so easily obtain images and maps of cities that it is hard to imagine the mystique and cultural weight that they once carried. Since the production of such images was often far from routine, they were created by artists, or at least those with serious artistic pretensions. Aesthetic achievements in their own right, they tell us as much about the values and tastes of the time as they do about the cities that they depicted. It is this dual quality of historic maps and panoramic views that intrigues Peter Whitfield and that he uses to gorgeous effect in order to illuminate the changing "spirit" of city life.
Whitfield does not elaborate his argument about urban spirit, which is roughly similar to that which Lewis Mumford articulated six decades ago in The City in History. Instead he illustrates it with maps, paintings, panoramic and birds' eye views of sixty existing cities, one vanished city (Teotihuacan) and one imaginary place (Azilia). Most places, including Calais, Cambridge, Cape Town, and Cuzco, get a two-page spread but almost as many, including New York and Naples, Venice and Vienna, get a full four pages, or even, in the case of London and Rome, six.
In each case, Whitfield includes one or more images, often extending over a double page, with a brief text that sketches the city's historical significance and captions that sometimes speak, in addition, to the character of the image. Naples, for example, is shown in a painting of 1464 in which, as Whitfield notes, "the city is the principal subject and not merely a backdrop" (p. 130), and also in a map of 1848 that combines a functional street plan with a "classic view over the city from the hill of Posillipo towards Vesuvius" (p. 133). Savannah is shown in Peter Gordon's well-known (but still stunning) panorama of 1734 that displays a raw town hewn from a forest wilderness. Isfahan, for which there are apparently no maps from the period of its reconstruction in the early seventeenth century, appears in a modern sketch of the original plan together with a watercolor lithograph published in 1849. And so on. Each entry is a unique visual feast or, more precisely, an appetizer for those who might wish to explore each place further.
An obvious question is: why these cities? Whitfield does not explain, but obviously his major criterion was that the city had historic significance: apart from those already mentioned we are shown Amsterdam, Athens, Beijing, Florence, Lisbon, Manchester, Seville, and Washington. But there is an obvious Western, and especially British bias that undercuts this logic: ten of the sixty cities are in England or Scotland (we have both Liverpool and Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge, Edinburgh and St. Andrews); we see nothing of the indigenous towns of West Africa, and indeed Africa is shown only at the margins (Cape Town, Alexandria, Tangier). Such biases may reflect the fact that Whitfield relies almost entirely on the collection at the British Library, the book's UK publisher.
Images and text are not woven together into a narrative. Cities are organized alphabetically. An illustrated introduction sketches the history of cities, but does not incorporate comments on the changing ways in which cities have been represented. Readers must make do with interesting, but disparate, comments in the captions to each city. This is, then, a work of reference, a companion to other, narrative accounts, but as a companion, it has limitations. A bibliography directs the reader to such accounts, but this is perfunctory. It includes Lewis Mumford, of course, and Peter Hall's Cities of Tomorrow, but not his more comprehensive Cities in Civilization; it has Benevolo's History of the City but not Kostof's The City Shaped . References could have been included for each city--either general histories or works featuring visual material-- but were not.
The emphasis on attractive images (even Manchester gets off lightly!) keeps hidden the darker sides to the urban past. On this issue, perhaps above all, this book is in danger of slipping into the coffee-table genre, but it is rescued by the varied character of the illustrations and the author's concise text, which is deft, intelligent, and well informed. Attractively packaged and reasonably priced, Cities of the World is directed primarily at a lay readership but can also remind the earnest urbanist, who thinks of cities abstractly as social or political milieus, of the diversity and fascination of the city scene.
. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961).
. Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization (New York: Pantheon, 1998); Leonardo Benevolo, The History of the City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1980); Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped. Urban Patterns and Meanings through History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991).
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Richard Harris. Review of Whitfield, Peter, Cities of the World. A History in Maps.
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