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Our Mediterranean Civilization

The classic urbanism of ancient patterns reminds us of what endures.

If April is the cruelest month, then January and February are the most democratic, meting out their long misery in an evenhanded gray across the Northeastern winter. For months, my usual deep pull toward nature has been held to the silence of moonlight walks through the Tudor blocks of this haunted Gatsby suburb, no other being to be seen but a deer, no other man but Orion.

Ah, but the Mediterranean! Even in dark winter, a thought of its natural gifts is enlivening. Sapphire waters stretching out from the sun-bleached pastel towns of the Côte d’Azur to vast and mysterious Africa. The not-quite-desert scrub, the landscape of wildflowers and herbs captured in a drop of Chartreuse. The palette that enchanted Monet does not retreat here in annual surrender, as its corresponding colors do in the North. With spring, it comes to life with greater lushness.

The spirit of the Mediterranean is more than climate, blue waters, or daring topography. The region’s settlement patterns express an ancient compromise between a milder mood of nature and deeply grounded traditions of land development. The long shadow cast by antiquity over our time offers a tangible counterpoint to today’s approaches.

At its best, urban planning is a fine art. The built environment has a unique power to transmit the life patterns and specific customs of a culture across time. A city, like a custom, is an artifact of generations. Studying urbanism from this perspective offers a sharp contrast to the technical, materialist approach that has prevailed since the rise of industry.

In the Mediterranean tradition, ancient and Renaissance treatises by Vitruvius and Alberti are important touchstones. Vitruvius, who lived at the time of Augustus, left us the only extensive write-up of Roman building practice that survives from antiquity. Alberti, who lived during the Quattrocento, brought Vitruvian concepts to light for Renaissance audiences.

Unlike law or literature, where texts are the primary links in the customary chain, urban planning is fundamentally a tradition composed of spatial, physical instances made real by the work of drafters and builders. One text stands out for its deference to that tradition. In 19th century Vienna, Camillo Sitte was one of the first authors to acknowledge urbanism as a set of living customs driven by unnamed and frequently unknowable contributors. He departed from the Renaissance tradition of treating urbanism as an adjunct to architecture.

His key work, The Art of Building Cities (1889), devoted more than half its pages to southern Europe. Sitte was captivated by the dynamic between buildings, monuments, and public squares. He saw that it had existed since antiquity, and that in southern Europe it had not changed much. In Roman times, the square—mainly the forum—was the focal point of a town. This remained the rule centuries later. Only the name had changed.

Those squares, now piazzas, places, or plazas, resembled parlors. Buildings formed their walls, monuments their art. Sitte saw that monuments had traditionally been placed at the edges, where passersby would encounter them closely, and therefore intimately. Michelangelo’s David, standing outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (its first location), was a famous example of a contextualized, accessible monument. Contrast this with the later practice of isolating monuments at the center of public squares, often behind some kind of a perimeter, and one immediately grasps the more human focus of traditional urbanism.

Sadly, most cities have no Michelangelo. A custom that relies on the brilliance of its agents is not long sustainable. But fortunately, the ability to adhere to memorable patterns is widespread. The urbanism of southern Europe yields countless local iterations of traditional patterns: the beautiful fountains of Rome, made by forgotten sculptors; the oval religious mosaics affixed to the corners of buildings. In the heart of Catanzaro, in hot southern Calabria, a tall Madonna stands on a pedestal by a sidewalk approaching a church, much as David once stood in Florence.

Sitte also saw the enriching qualities of irregularity. In northern Italy, open spaces took an imperfect form, narrow here, wide there, with side streets leading off. In Orvieto, in Umbria, an elongated hexagonal piazza is flanked by a palazzo and a church, while an assortment of apartment houses with restaurants at street level close off the space. In France, the Place du Palais de Justice in Nice is an asymmetrical square enclosed, like a room, by edifices.

One of the most intriguing timeless customs of the Mediterranean is small settlements at precarious locations: islands, mountaintops, slits of land, steep slopes. The Akropolis of ancient Pergamon is one of the oldest examples. Atop a high plateau, it commands a view of the sea and the countryside, a watch for unwanted visitors. More daring examples include the terraced houses of Santorini, rising like steps from the shoreline to the heights, and Amalfi, squeezed between the walls of a canyon as it falls to the sea.

Customs that abide for centuries are often supported by the less romantic scaffolding of compulsion. In the urbanism of southern Europe, law has reinforced custom and ensured compliance. Ancient Rome had building codes: height limits on apartment blocks, prohibitions on fire hazards. By the sixth century, these rules were important enough to be included in Justinian’s monumental survey of Roman law.

Justinian extended Constantinople’s building code throughout the empire in 531, but only as its provisions fit with local rules. Nine centuries later, with the fall of Constantinople, the new Muslim government let the Orthodox Church retain some rulemaking authority over private affairs of Christians, a policy that extended to property in Greek settlements. Subsidiarity outlasted Byzantium.

The urbanist Besim Hakim has organized and analyzed laws that applied to development across the Mediterranean from antiquity through the dawn of the industrial age. He found many were customized for unique locales. In the Greek Cyclades, for example, where steep hills rise from the seacoast, rules protected established views of the sea. Over time, this produced a terraced pattern of blocks that traces the topography.

Rules then were less pervasive than regulations today. After avoiding the litany of prohibited dangers and respecting the rights of their neighbors, many urban landowners enjoyed a wide berth to do as they pleased. Laws left space for customs, and customs occasionally evolved toward new laws.

In the Mediterranean, patterns follow sunlight and the sea, preferring southern exposures and views of the coast. Capitalizing on the land, towns are fitted to topography with local building materials. Houses of different widths and shapes and heights are typical, with dimensions mainly set by the limits of traditional materials and the needs of owners. Streets wind beneath overhanging rooms, allowing growth while preserving travel routes.

Over time, this mix of shared customs and clever innovations has accreted to a diversity that mirrors the patterns of nature. In the urbanism of southern Europe, we have a living counterpoint to the chaos of the industrial city and its uninspired sprawl. Deeply rooted in nature and culture, refined over many centuries, and unconsciously shaped by a more benevolent experience with the natural world, it comprises a set of practices that grew from a direct relationship between people, places, and customs.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban planning projects. He blogs at legaltowns.com. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.