Monday, September 1, 2014

Cities of the Sun

   Italo Calvino paid glorious tribute to most of the imaginable cities in the human world ("Invisible Cities", Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), and several of the unimaginable too, alas. As far as I am aware, he never made reference to any City of the Sun, though I am certain that, as a fellow Italian, he would have known the great work that bore that name.

    Tommaso Campanella, Hermetic theologian and victim of the Inquisition, wrote his “Civitas Solis” (“City of the Sun”) in 1623, in a Naples prison; a dream of light in all that darkness both physical and intellectual. An uninhabitable utopia, according to Jonathan Raban (“Soft City”, Collins, 1988):

    “Campanella starts with architecture, and to begin with he shows us a city without people, or, at least, with only the wispiest of sketch-figures, of the kind that architects like to put (merely as indications of relative scale) walking outside projected factories and town halls. It consists of seven concentric fortified circles, named after the planets, and four streets following the points of the compass. At the centre is the Temple of Knowledge and Metaphysics, an awesome and uncomfortable place which sounds darkly like the Royal Festival Hall. Each of the seven city walls is painted with representations of various aspects of human knowledge – maths, geometry, botany, physics, folklore, geology, medicine, engineering, and so on – so that living in the city would be like inhabiting a symmetrical three-dimensional encyclopaedia…”

    Voltaire redesigned the Marquise du Châtelet's house at Cirey-sur-Blaise in much the same manner. On the grand entrance door to the gallery, for example, he expressed his philosophical conviction, rooted in Maupertuis’ pre-Darwinian theory of evolution, which portrayed the sea as the source of life, by sculpting into the stone of the door-frame a set of sea-shells and the two faces of Neptune, one awake, the other sleeping. The entire door is in fact an imagistic philosophical treatise on the significance of the arts and sciences – a revolutionary statement in those High Catholic times, and precisely the sort of heresy that had put him in the Bastille in the first place (he was living at Cirey in exile). A proper building should have representations of saints not world astronomical maps, votive candles for piety not a compass, ruler and T-square for geometry, and if there must be a pen and its holder to adorn the left side of the door, let it represent the gospels, not secular, atheistic literature. But Voltaire equated literature with architecture, as Manguel did when he built his library, as Borges did when he built his, as Dante did when he constructed his Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, as Solomon did when he constructed the First Temple in Jerusalem.

   The modern city of Kyoto was architected similarly, an imitation of the Chinese city of
Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) in fact, arranged in accordance with traditional Chinese Feng Shui, with the Imperial Palace facing south, and the remainder of the city in two sectors, the Ukyō to the west and the Sakyō to the east. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the architect who completed the construction of Kyoto, equated architecture with literature, as Frank Lloyd Wright did when he built Fallingwater, as
Colin St John Wilson did when he built the new British Library in London, as Julius Caesar failed to do, when he ordered the destruction of the greatest library of the ancient world, in Alexandria, in Egypt.

   Tommaso was baptised as Giovanni Domenico Campanella, but took the name Tommaso in honour of Aquinas when, something of a child prodigy, he became a Dominican scholar at the age of just 15. He published his first book at the age of 24, so vehement in its anti-Aristotelianism that he was confined in a convent for the next five years. Released, he was unable to stay out of trouble for very long; he was accused of leading a rebellion against Spanish rule in his Italian home town, tortured, and then locked up, crippled and ill, for life, which turned out to be 27 years. Not that prison stopped him writing, and over these years he published “The Monarchy of Spain” (1600), “Political Aphorisms” (1601), “Quod Reminiscetur” (probably 1606), “Atheismus Triumphatus” (“Atheism Conquered”, 1607), “Metaphysica” (1623), “Theologia” (1624), and “The City of the Sun” (in Italian in 1602; published in Latin in Frankfurt in 1623, and then in Paris in 1638).

    Campanella also defended Galileo at his first trial, and wrote to him before his second trial, saying that “I felt great disgust upon understanding that theologians of the Congregation are to prohibit the Dialogues of yours truly, and no person will be (in that council) who knows mathematics, or about recondite things. Be warned that while yours truly does state the thoroughly-forbidden opinion of the motion of the earth, you are not obliged to believe the reasons of those who contradict you. This rule is theological, and the validity is like that of the second Council of Nicaea which decreed that angelorum imagines depingi debent, quam‘am vere corporei sunt (images of angels must be depicted as they are in the flesh): while this decree is valid, the reason is not, since all scholars in our day accept that angels are incorporeal. There are other very reasons. I doubt violence to people who do not know. The present Pope likely has not made his mind up in this case...but for my part, I will write and warn the Grand Duke of Tuscany, that if they put Dominicans, Jesuits, Theatines, and secular priests against your books in this council, they should also admit Father Castelli and me.”

    Life imprisonment turned out to be open to parole, and in 1626 Campanella was freed, ironically at the behest of Pope Urban VIII, who personally interceded on his behalf with Philip IV of Spain and then employed Campanella as his personal astrologer. When further unrest against the Spanish began in 1634, Campanella feared re-arrest and fled to France, was granted a royal pension, and lived out his last years at the convent of Saint-Honoré in Paris. His final work was a poem, “Ecloga in portentosam Delphini nativitatem”, celebrating the birth of the future Louis XIV. While so many of the works of the great thinkers of Europe lie on the shelves of prohibited literature in the Vatican, or among the ashes of the fires of the autos-da-
, Campanella’s “City of the Sun” is still available, most easily at Project Gutenberg, though there is a version for Kindle if you prefer. A must-read. 

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