Tag Archives: Italy
Cities around the world have had difficulties balancing the interests of visitors with the needs of residents, as holiday rental platforms such as Airbnb have grown in popularity and size. Evidence shows that the conversion of rented homes to short-term accommodation contributes to housing shortages, raises house prices, speeds up gentrification and erodes local communities.
Cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and London have acted to curb these negative effects, imposing new taxes or limiting the number of nights that a property can be rented out. Today, Venice is one of the worst affected cities: the resident population has fallen to its lowest level in centuries and city leaders are looking for ways to mitigate the ill effects of mass tourism.
Yet the city also has a long history of managing the pros and cons of migration and tourism, and finding ways to profit from – but also integrate – foreigners. Indeed, in Renaissance Venice, a huge influx of foreigners fuelled the rise of a large informal lodging sector, which was difficult to tax and regulate and had a major impact on the urban community. Sound familiar?
Renaissance boom town
By the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its own huge empire and a major crossroads of trade and travel between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. At the same time as painters including Titian and Giorgione were making the city a centre of Renaissance culture, the population surged from around 100,000 to nearly 170,000 in just 50 years.
Unlike today, the people drawn to Venice at the time were mostly international merchants and entrepreneurs, migrants looking for work in local industries, or refugees from war and hunger. But the first tourists also arrived in this period, such as the French writer and nobleman Montaigne, who came to explore the city’s cultural treasures. And all of these people needed somewhere to stay.
My research has shown how hundreds of ordinary Venetians at this time saw a chance to make money on the side by renting rooms or beds. Many were women who struggled to earn a living in other ways: people like Paolina Briani, who in the 1580s rented rooms to Muslim merchants from the Ottoman empire, in her home a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco.
By opening up their homes to migrants and travellers, these accommodation providers – unlike the mostly absentee Airbnb owners of today – shared intimate spaces with people who spoke different languages and practised different religions.
Regulating the informal economy
The rapid growth of this informal economy of lodging alarmed the Venetian government. Fearing the spread both of diseases and of threatening political and religious ideas, the government was anxious to regulate and monitor the presence of foreigners in their city. They also wished to minimise competition with the city’s licensed inns – a profitable source of tax revenues.
So, a bit like today, the government made efforts to register and tax lodging housekeepers, and force them to report on the movements of their tenants. Though this regulation was very difficult to enforce because of the informal nature of many lodging enterprises, Venice’s rulers did not try to eliminate this sector altogether.
While wanting to control the movement of people, they also saw that migrants and visitors were crucial to the city’s economy and its cultural power. They wanted to welcome anyone who brought valuable goods, innovative ideas or essential manpower.
At the same time, the government took into account that ordinary Venetians – especially vulnerable and poor groups such as widows – also profited from the influx. And the money that residents made by offering lodging might be essential to their survival.
A delicate balance
To be sure, Venice’s authorities did not welcome all comers. They took aggressive action to stop “undesirables” (such as beggars and prostitutes) from entering the city. They also put more and more pressure on religious minorities to live in segregated spaces – most famously the Jewish Ghetto.
But they also saw the benefits of promoting a diverse and flexible hospitality industry that could serve the interests of locals as well as visitors. Licensed lodging houses were allowed to flourish and, alongside the inns, became a central part of the city’s emerging tourist infrastructure.
Many newcomers who came to stay in residents’ homes – where they might learn something of the local language and customs – went on to settle and integrate into the community. In its regulation of the hospitality industry, Renaissance Venice struck a delicate balance between the interests of foreigners and locals, which was crucial to the city’s economic, cultural and political strength.
Today, such a compromise appears very difficult to achieve. There are differences between then and now: in the reasons people come to the city; in the nature of competing urban needs; and in the likely solutions and policies. But it seems that cities can take a lead from Renaissance Venice, and act to promote meaningful interactions between visitors and residents; for example, as Berlin has done, by banning people from renting out entire flats on Airbnb. The Venice of 500 years ago challenges people to think about “the Airbnb problem” in a more nuanced way.
On the 500th anniversary of his death, our series Leonardo da Vinci Revisited brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine his work, legacy and myth.
The artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci was once famously named a “Master of Water” in the records of the Florentine government.
In this role, he explored diverting the river Arno away from Pisa so as to cut access to the city, then Florence’s enemy, from the sea. It was one of a number of jobs he held that were dedicated to controlling water as a way of wielding power.
But his notebooks reveal Leonardo’s wider preoccupations with the power of water. He wanted to understand the ebb and flow of tides, the origins of rivers and oceans and the water cycle, as well as the fearsome effects of water in erosion, floods, rain and storms. Water was a force to be reckoned with — as an idea and as a reality.
If humans could not control water, Leonardo argued, they could nonetheless work with it. Over his lifetime, he was commissioned for a range of projects to manipulate water, most often in canals, as a form of warfare.
When Leonardo wrote down his thoughts about how to depict a biblical deluge, central to his thinking was the destructive force of water: “The swollen waters will sweep round the pool which contains them striking in eddying whirlpools against the different obstacles, and leaping into the air in muddy foam; then, falling back, the beaten water will again be dashed into the air.”
His mindset was biblical but he shared with modern scientists an interest in great destructive forces such as tsunamis.
The beauty of water
For Leonardo, water could also be exquisitely beautiful in its flows, eddies and swirls. His illustrations of moving water were not really observations of a single moment in time though; they captured his thought process.
In the illustration below, of water passing obstacles, he depicted movement in time and space, as well as his conceptualisation of how fluids flow, in a single diagram.
Leonardo was depicting the inherently three-dimensional nature of flowing water, and the idea that turbulent flows consist of a range of co-existing eddies, varying in scale from large to small. This concept was mathematically formalised in 1941 by A.N. Kolmogorov, and is known as the “cascade model of turbulence”.
Visualisation of flowing water remains a powerful and essential tool in modern research today. For instance, recent laboratory studies of the three-dimensional flow around islands in coastal ocean regions, have used tiny plastic spheres to observe the fluid motion (known as particle tracking) of the evolving wake downstream of an island.
Describing the complex nature of these wakes, and the vertical up-welling of water in them, is key to understanding how the ecological productivity of these marine systems is maintained.
For Leonardo, flowing water formed parallels with curling hair:
Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair, and has two motions, of which one goes on with the flow of the surface, the other forms the lines of the eddies; thus the water forms eddying whirlpools one part of which are due to the impetus of the principal current and the other to the incidental motion and return flow.
Recently, scientists who study fluid mechanics have employed innovative ways to communicate the results of their experiments through creating a musical representation of the frequency content of the flow. These modern methods share with Leonardo a fascination with the beauty of flowing water.
He may once have held the title “Master of Water” but Leonardo realised that this was one element of the natural world over which he (like others) could only ever exercise limited control, except perhaps, in his art.
Susan Broomhall, Professor of History, University of Western Australia; Greg Ivey, Professor of geophysical fluid dynamics, and Nicole L. Jones, Associate Professor of Physical Oceanography , University of Western Australia
On the 500th anniversary of his death, our series Leonardo da Vinci Revisited brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine his work, legacy and myth.
Leonardo worked for some of the top military and political leaders in the Italian Wars, a major conflict fought on the Italian peninsula that embroiled most of Western Europe. His patrons read like a roll-call of Europe’s leading familes: Sforza and Borgia dukes and French Valois kings.
Like many other artists and technicians, he negotiated the professional and financial opportunities (as well as dangers) that war presented.
As a brilliant designer, technician and artist, he knew how to appeal to the leaders of his day. A well-known 1482 letter to Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, Duke of Milan, one of Italy’s most powerful military leaders, was in essence a job application.
In it, Leonardo promised a raft of new technological possibilities in warfare, boasting he could create an infinite variety of machines for attack or defence:
I have methods for making very light and strong bridges, easily portable, and useful whether pursuing or evading the enemy; and others more solid, which cannot be destroyed by fire or assault …
If the place under siege cannot be reduced by bombardment, because of the height of its banks or the strength of its position, I have methods for destroying any fortress or redoubt even if it is founded upon solid rock …
I will make armoured cars, totally unassailable, which will penetrate the ranks of the enemy with their artillery, and there is no company of soldiers so great that it can withstand them…
His claims spoke powerfully of a dream of invincibility for the Duke. At times, Leonardo followed the armies of his leaders as they waged war across Italy, but he did not fight on the frontline as a soldier himself. His value to his patrons was not his body, but his mind.
Alongside his weapons of war, Leonardo also created magnificent spectacles of his patrons’ military achievements in festivities with advanced dramatic technologies. For instance, the festival Leonardo curated in France in May 1518 for his patron François I celebrated the king’s military achievement. He staged an elaborate, multi-sensory, re-enactment of the Battle of Marignano complete with siege and capture of a castle. The watching crowd were overwhelmed with emotion, as falconets fired missiles of paper and mortars shot out balloons.
Through these displays and performances, — textual, ceremonial, multimedia — Leonardo helped to curate an elite masculine identity for a man at war, shaped and defined by new technological advancements.
Shock and awe
While Leonardo explored the power of the senses to channel emotional responses in ceremonial contexts, so too was much of his commentary on his weapons and design about shock and awe. His designs explicitly aimed to make men and horses afraid, causing maximum damage.
These interests in exploiting men’s emotional frailties in war are revealed in his 1482 letter to Ludovico:
I have certain types of cannons, extremely easy to carry, which fire out small stones, almost as if it were a hailstorm, and the smoke from these will cause great terror to the enemy, and they will bring great loss and confusion …
Of his design for a steam-powered cannon made of copper, he wrote that “the sight of its fury and the sound of its roar will seem like a miracle”.
Leonardo’s weapons were thus not just about physical damage to men, animals and buildings, but exploited the emotional experiences of those fighting at the frontline. They offer the prospect of destroying the fortitude and morale of the men facing them, emphasising warfare’s psychological element.
A turbulent mind
But Leonardo was also frustrated. In one manuscript, he discloses what seem to be ambitions as an author on war: “In order to preserve the main gift of nature, that is liberty, I will find a way to attack and defend, when being besieged by tyrannical ambition. And firstly I will speak of the positioning of walls and then how the people can maintain their good and just lords.”
This book project, if that is what it was, seems less about warfare and more a critique of the men he found himself working for. It seems to suggest his ambition to contribute to, or at least comment on, current events and ideas of good and bad government, which he witnessed at close range as the client of some of Europe’s most influential leaders.
While Leonardo’s textual record attests to his ambitions, it also documents grievances that surrounded his experiences as a participant in war. Above a picture of a scattershot cannon, an unfinished half-sentence reads: “If the men of Milan would for once do something out of the ordinary …” Perhaps this was a throwaway comment meant only for himself, but it suggests some of his frustrations.
In thinking about Leonardo now, we recognise that among his many talents, he was someone who not only made a living from, but was perhaps uniquely gifted at creating, new forms of killing machines.
On the 500th anniversary of his death, this series brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine the work, legacy and myth of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with illustrations of nature, both plants and animals, their interactions with humans and in local ecosystems. Did his deep engagement with the natural world make him an environmentalist ahead of his time?
Leonardo was a child of the Tuscan countryside, raised in the tiny village of Anchiano, although he spent most of his adult life at the courts of dukes, kings and princes.
Some of his work for these patrons involved planning interventions into nature, most often managing waterways, but his sketches suggest his attention roamed further than the projects he was commissioned to undertake.
He spent time with friends in a villa outside of Milan observing the country nearby and sketching plans for gardens there, and ended his life on a little country estate that was then on the outskirts of Amboise in France.
One of his first biographers, Giorgio Vasari, tells us that Leonardo
delighted much in horses and also in all other animals, and often when passing by the places where they sold birds he would take them out of their cages, and paying the price that was asked for them, would let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty.
Leonardo was also reportedly a vegetarian. This supposition comes from the explorer Andrea Corsali’s description of the non-meat-eating Gujarati people (from modern India) as like “our Leonardo da Vinci”.
The many notebooks and loose sheets Leonardo filled with jottings and illustrations across his lifetime reveal his close observation of nature — from cats and crabs to flowers and copses of trees – and the spirit of enquiry from which he drew many lessons.
One jotting simply states: “Ask the wife of Biagio Crivelli how the capon nurtures and hatches the eggs of the hen”.
His understandings of the habits of animals informed a series of fables and proverbs bearing witness to various emotional traits he attributed to them: gratitude, rage, cruelty and generosity among them. He suggested, for instance, that “we see the most striking example of humility” in the lamb.
The random cruelty of nature
But Leonardo was also struck by the violence of natural processes. Nature appears to have been “rather a cruel stepmother”, he wrote. “Why did nature not ordain that one animal should not live by the death of another?”
He reflected on the random cruelty of nature in a series of riddles, created across his notebooks. For instance, in the entry on walnut trees, he writes in emotional terms of the violence wrought upon these trees as humans enjoyed their seeds: “beaten, and their offspring taken and flayed or peeled, and their bones broken or crushed.”
Still, Leonardo does not seem to have been particularly concerned about the role of humans in enacting violence against other species. His own quest for knowledge and artistic creativity demanded it.
Vasari tells a story of the young Leonardo seeking to depict a frightening creature on a shield he had “brought for this purpose to his room, which no one entered but himself, lizards, grasshoppers, serpents, butterflies, locusts, bats, and other strange animals of the kind …” “The smell in the room of these dead animals was very bad, though Leonardo did not feel it from the love he bore to art.”
Vasari talks of how Leonardo “suffered much in doing it” – but not as much as the other species whose lives were sacrificed for his art.
In other tales, Vasari tells us how Leonardo, while he was working for Giuliano de’ Medici in Rome, discovered an unusual lizard and promptly
made some wings of the scales of other lizards and fastened them on its back with a mixture of quicksilver, so that they trembled when it walked; and having made for it eyes, horns, and a beard, he tamed it and kept it in a box.
For Vasari, these stories show Leonardo’s “marvelous and divine” mind, but they could also be interpreted as showing the instrumental way in which Leonardo thought about nature, as a resource to expand human knowledge and control the environment.
His contemporaries clearly thought there was something different about Leonardo and his interest in nature. Does this make him a kind of pre-modern environmentalist?
Western environmentalism (and before it, preservationism) is often understood to have become possible when nature had been subdued by technology. With urbanisation and development of a middle class, more people could feel sentimental about nature.
Although he was raised in the countryside, Leonardo spent most of his everyday adult life in major European towns in the company of princes and kings. He was no longer concerned directly with the need to cut down wood for warmth or kill animals for food. We could say, then, that he could afford to be more sentimental about nature.
Certainly his exquisite drawings suggest a particular depth of feeling, attunement and sensitivity to the natural world. And yet it seems that preservation of nature was not on Leonardo’s mind.
He had not witnessed the speed and scale of devastation of the natural world wrought by humanity with the onset of industrialisation. Instead, he understood destruction as part of the cycle of nature. If, as he wrote, nature “seeks to lose its life, desiring only continual reproduction”, there was nothing to be protected, for annihilation and creation went hand in hand.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” asks Reg from the People’s Front of Judaea in Monty Python’s comedy classic, Life of Brian. Rome: City + Empire, now showing at the National Museum of Australia, offers visitors a clear answer: they brought civilization.
This collection of more than 200 objects from the British Museum presents a vision of a vast Roman empire, conquered by emperors and soldiers, who brought with them wealth and luxury. Quotations from ancient authors extolling the virtues of Rome and the rewards of conquest stare down from the walls. This is an exhibition of which the Romans themselves would have been proud.
Indeed, the major issue is that the displays present a largely uncritical narrative of Roman imperialism. One section, called “Military Might,” features a statue of the emperor Hadrian in armour, a defeated Dacian, and a bronze diploma attesting to the rewards of service in the Roman army. An explanatory panel informs us that resistors were “treated harshly” while those “who readily accepted Roman domination, benefited”. This is especially troubling to read in an Australian context.
The exhibition is beautifully laid out, with highly effective use of lighting and colour to emphasise the different themes: “The Rise of Rome”, “Military Might”, “The Eternal City”, “Peoples of the Empire” and “In Memoriam”. And it boasts impressive busts and statues of emperors, imperial women, priests and priestesses, gods and goddesses, most displayed in the open, rather than behind glass. This allows visitors to view them up close from many angles.
The use of imagery is one of the exhibition’s greatest strengths. Close-ups of coins and other small artefacts are projected against the wall, while enlarged 18th-century Piranesi prints of famous monuments such as the Pantheon provide a stunning backdrop.
There are some excellent curatorial choices. The number of images of women is commendable, enabling the exhibition to move beyond emperors, soldiers and magistrates to emphasise women as an intrinsic part of the life of Rome.
Stories of key monuments, such as the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, and the Pantheon, are accompanied by busts of the emperors who built them as well as associated everyday objects such as theatre tickets and strigils. However, there is no map of the city of Rome to allow visitors to place these buildings in context. And the evidence for the true cost of Roman conquest is not sufficiently highlighted.
Where are the slaves?
Coins show emperors subduing prostrate peoples, including one featuring Judaea, where Vespasian and Titus cruelly crushed a revolt between 66-73 CE. The accompanying plaque refers obliquely to Roman “acts of oppression”, but one has to turn to the exhibition catalogue to find the true list of horrors, including the thousands enslaved and the sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem. Nor is there any mention that the construction of the Colosseum, profiled just a few feet away in the exhibition, was funded by the spoils of the Jewish War.
The walls are covered with quotations extolling the Romans’ own imperialistic vision. “The divine right to conquer is yours”, a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, greets visitors at the start. Even more troubling is a quotation from Pliny the Elder which looms over the “Peoples of the Empire” section:
Besides, who does not agree that life has improved now the world is united under the splendour of the Roman Empire.
This section is full of objects displaying the luxurious lifestyle of provincial elites under Roman rule, from the stunning decorated spoons and bracelets of the British Hoxne treasure to beautiful funerary reliefs of rich Palmyrenes. The exhibition trumpets the “diversity” of Rome’s peoples, but this curious set of objects does not tell any coherent story beyond the comfortable lives of the privileged.
Slavery – the most horrifying aspect of Roman society – is all but absent. There are incidental references (a gladiator given his freedom, the funerary urn of a former slave), but they are presented with little context. Scholars have estimated that slaves composed at least 10 per cent of the empire’s total population of 60 million. They undertook domestic and agricultural labour, educated children, and served in the imperial household. Their stories remain largely untold.
The absence of any counterpoint to the Romans’ story in this exhibition is all the more surprising given that the catalogue contains an essay from the NMA that does show awareness of these problems. Curators Lily Withycombe and Mathew Trinca explore how the narrative of Roman conquest influenced imperial expansion in the modern age, including the colonisation of Australia.
Particularly revealing is their statement: “While the Classics may have once been in the service of British ideas of empire, they are now more likely to be taught using a critical postcolonial lens.” Yet this nuance does not make it into the exhibition itself.
A very different narrative about the Roman world could have been presented. Even in their own time, Roman commentators were aware of the darker side of imperialism. In his account of the influx of Roman habits and luxuries into Britain, the historian Tacitus remarked:
The Britons, who had no experience of this, called it ‘civilization’, although it was a part of their enslavement. (Agricola 21, trans. A. R. Birley).
The colossal head of the empress Faustina the Elder from a temple in Sardis is a spectacular object, but its overwhelming size should remind us of the asymmetrical power dynamics of Roman rule. Emperors and their family members were meant to be figures of awe to peoples of the empire, to be feared like gods. Tacitus memorably described the imperial cult temple at Colchester in Britain as a “fortress of eternal domination”.
Guide to the Classics: Virgil’s Aeneid
The Rome of the exhibition is a curiously timeless world. The grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 CE goes unmentioned, and the coming of Christianity is presented almost as an afterthought.
There are some spectacular items from the vibrant world of Late Antiquity (3rd-7th centuries CE), such as the gold glass displaying Peter and Paul and parts of the Esquiline treasure. But this section is marred by factual errors and it misses the opportunity to explore the dynamics of fundamental religious and cultural change.
Rome: City + Empire is a wonderful collection of objects, displayed in an engaging manner, which will be of interest to all Australians. The exhibition is likely to be a hit with children – there is a playful audio-guide specifically for kids and many hands-on experiences dotted throughout: from the chance to electronically “colour-in” the funerary relief of a Palmyrene woman on a digital screen, to feeling a Roman coin or picking up a soldier’s dagger.
But visitors should be aware that it presents a distinctly old-fashioned tale of Rome’s rise and expansion, which is out of step with contemporary scholarly thinking. The benefits of empire came at a bloody cost.
Rome: City + Empire is at the National Museum of Australia until 3 February 2019.