2018 SAH Annual Conference, Saint Paul, Minnesota
IAS-Sponsored Session

Thalassic Architecture: Medieval & Renaissance Italy and the Sea

Meeting Room 3
Thursday April 19, 2018, 11am-1:10pm

Organizer: Lauren Jacobi

In his seminal text, Nomos of the Earth (1950), the political theorist Carl Schmitt studied the concept of “sea-appropriations.”  He observed that such declarations of territory were powerful extensions of traditional modes of terrestrial sovereignty, which included juridical rights over land and consequently people, applied to the space of the sea.  Schmitt asserted that land and sea spatialities became relational during the late medieval and Renaissance era.  It was then, he claimed, that the earth was extensively measured, resulting in the first nomos of the earth.  Using Schmitt’s claim as a point of departure, this conference session offers a provocation to probe how Italian architecture impacted and was shaped by water bodies—including the Mediterranean, but also lakes and rivers—as they were territorialized.  How were watery borders delimited, negotiated, and even extended through architecture?  In late medieval Genoa, for example, massive earth- and sea-work transformations were undertaken to provide larger areas for anchoring vessels and for embarking and disembarking; how might such projects be thematized as thalassic architecture and infrastructure?  The session asks how we might form a framework to assess how thalassic architectures made various claims, including cultural ones.  Additionally, given present realities and politics about climate change, what ecological stakes were at play in medieval and Renaissance thalassic architecture?  Papers might investigate topics such as the architectural and spatial extension of terrestrial practices (boundary making, for instance) in liquid environments; the construction and use of ocean-inspired architecture such as boats, arsenals, and customs houses; the fortification of harbors; the architecture of ports and docks; the production of knowledge about maritime environments and their architecture; resource extraction as the built environment extended into the sea; and how monuments such as light beacons and religious maritime shrines structured Italian navigation and experience of the sea.  Furthermore, important legalistic issues were key to seafaring trade.  This session therefore might ask how forms of shared ownership (e.g. commenda) influenced the architectural form of sea-bound vessels.  Papers could also address questions such as how the littoral came to be seen in spatialized terms.  The architectural aesthetics of port cities also merit examination.  Papers thus might explore how the multiethnic and pluralistic aspects that characterized Italian port cities were inflected in architecture, or how such cities constructed and projected other unique identities through architecture.


Tamara Morgenstern Independent Researcher
"Shaping the Littoral: Urban Innovations in Early Modern Messina and Palermo"

At the crossroads of Eastern and Western Mediterranean, the newly conquered Sicilian ports of Messina and Palermo became strategic military strongholds for the Spanish Habsburgs in naval campaigns to establish primacy in the Mediterranean.  Extensive restructuring of the urban and maritime landscapes starting in the 1530s focused on the creation of perimeter fortifications, which barricaded each city from its adjacent waters; construction of arsenals, customs houses, forts, and lighthouses; and creation of a colossal molo in Palermo.  In an era of relative peace following the Habsburg victory at Lepanto in 1571, a new building phase reflecting Italian Renaissance and early Baroque planning theories, architectural aesthetics, and perspectival devices, transformed the Spanish-held ports, particularly in their interface with the contiguous aquatic realm.  Civic and imperial motives supplanted militaristic concerns, as bastioned enceintes gave way to scenographic urban façades.  Through the penetration of waterfront walls by gateways and triumphal arches, and the development of seaside thoroughfares as theatrical spaces for spectacles and processions, the littoral evolved into the equivalent of a Renaissance public square.

This examination of late-sixteenth and early seventeenth century renovations in the waterfront zones of Messina and Palermo reveals the reciprocity between political, economic and cultural conditions, and the altered material identity of these early modern ports, focusing on how transformations in maritime culture were expressed through architecture.  With Spanish invincibility as a seaborne power threatened by increased European naval prowess, the Habsburgs symbolically expressed dominion over the aquatic territory of their Mediterranean ports by engaging the waters architectonically, thereby promoting the notion of mare clausum, or the appropriation of maritime space.  A comparison of architectural and planning devices implemented along the harbors of Messina and Palermo analyzes how architects adapted to the varied topographical conditions to create innovative compositions demarcating the boundary between city and sea.

Alexander Harper, Princeton University
"State Building and Port Construction in the Angevin Kingdom of Naples"

This paper examines the construction of artificial ports and their constituent parts, including breakwaters, arsenals, and fortifications, in the Angevin kingdom of Naples from c. 1270 to c. 1300. Specifically, it frames Angevin port construction within the context of urban development and state building in late medieval southern Italy, arguing that the construction of artificial ports and the cities they operated served as conduits for centralization. As such, the term state building here has a double meaning. On the one hand port construction is an example of Angevin state-sponsored construction. One the other hand both the processes under which these ports were created and their end products are signs of the construction of an Angevin state in southern Italy.

The paper examines port construction overall in the Kingdom of Naples, including the expansion of the port of Naples and Arsenals of Amalfi, but focuses on port construction and repair along the kingdom’s Adriatic coast in Apulia at sites including Brindisi, Villanova, Mola di Bari, Trani, and Manfredonia. The Adriatic coast was the location of the most intense port construction and urban development in the kingdom and these projects along the kingdom’s east coast served several purposes. The construction of ports was intended to curb piracy and in general increase coastal defense; create new staging grounds for the crown’s ambitions East in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Peloponnese, and the Byzantine Empire; and ports served as nodes not only for interregional trade but also for robust intraregional exchange. Through an analysis of dozens of surviving royal documents related port construction; contemporary chronicles; and archaeological work, issues examined include building techniques for hydraulic architecture, strategic siting of ports and approaches to counteracting currents and silting, and security at Angevin ports.

Elizabeth Kassler-Taub, Case Western Reserve University
"Building with Water: Landscape Urbanism on the Southern Italian Frontier"

In April of 1533, a dispatch sent to the Habsburg court from Spanish authorities mired in a muddy North African building site made an urgent request for engineers trained in “the method of building in water.” That “method,” which was codified in both Iberian and Italian treatise literature during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, elevated the sea to an architectural material in and of itself. As such, it challenged theorists and engineers to fundamentally re-conceptualize the role of the natural topography in defensive design and urban planning alike. From our contemporary perspective, this shift in architectural culture of the period raises new questions as to the origins of the modern theory and practice of so-called “landscape urbanism.” Against the backdrop of this early modern preoccupation with the fluid boundary between a city and its maritime hinterland, this paper highlights one such radical typology of landscape intervention – the ‘island-city’ – which was widely disseminated across the Mediterranean. In key defensive outposts along the Spanish frontiers of southern Italy, engineers were tasked with fortifying cities sited on narrow peninsulas projecting into the open sea. A navigable canal was excavated through the neck of each landmass, thus fully severing the urban fabric from the mainland and transforming it into a veritable island, suspended just beyond the shore. By highlighting the currency of the island-city model in geographies such as Sicily, Puglia, and the Tuscan Maremma, this paper argues for the active participation of Italian peripheries in established networks of early modern architectural exchange.

Peter Levins, Brown University
"Maritime Modern: Technologies of Space in the Fascist Stato da Màr"

While much scholarship on Italian imperialism has focused productively on the colonization of North and East Africa, Italian territorial expansion across the Adriatic has received scant attention beyond the transience of wartime occupation. Yet from Trieste to Tirana, Mussolini’s Fascist regime incrementally reclaimed the far-flung dominions of the former Venetian Stato da Màr to reunite the scattered communities of Venetian-language speakers across the Adriatic Rim with metropolitan Italy. This paper posits maritime architecture as a medium deployed to reinforce Italian territorial claims to the Eastern Adriatic on the level of culture. Through a careful analysis of the design oeuvre of Triestine architect Gustavo Pulitzer-Finali, I trace the processual framework undergirding the maritime technology of the diesel-driven ocean liner, from carbon extraction and steel manufacture to design and operation. Between the World Wars, Pulitzer-Finali worked not only as a designer of luxury ocean liner interiors for Trieste’s famed Cosulich Line, but also as the urban planner of industrial company towns designed to facilitate the mining of coal, which physically powered the machinery of Italy’s maritime empire. As the largest mobile sovereign territories, flagged vessels themselves formed the interstitial colonial space that stitched Italy’s maritime empire together. In making the otherwise discrete sites of seafaring vessel and mining town relational by conceptualizing architecture as a network of technological and material processes, a dynamic and ephemeral spatial order of colonial governance is revealed within the spatiality of the sea itself.

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