The City and the Senses, Urban Culture Since 1500
by Edited by Alexander Cowan and Jill Steward
Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire 2007, ISBN ISBN: 978-0-7546-05
245 pages, price £55
6 Black and White Illustrations
The City and the Senses came at a very opportune moment when we were just about to depart for a month in Venice, that most sensuous of cities, to record the sound of the city and produce an audio picture for listeners who are blind. It was particularly appropriate, then, that the first two essays are about that city and concern smell and touch. The title of Jo Wheeler's Stench in sixteenth century Venice will strike a cord with all visitors to the city, but the connection between stench and disease no longer applies here. The canals do still smell but nothing like they did five hundred years ago and the annual 12 million visitors are not in danger of contracting dangerous or deadly diseases, at least we hope not. However, it does us no harm to realise that these dangers were very real to our ancestors, no matter how laughable they seem to us now. Some say that in the past it was possible to tell where you were in the city by the smell of a particular canal and this essay reinforces this idea, in the sixteenth century at least, by writing about the different trades and the stench and filth they produced.
Alexander Cowan bring a whole new meaning to touch in his essay Not carrying out the vile and mechanical arts: touch as a measure of social distinction in early modern Venice. As the Dog Rose Trust researches and develops tactile materials for people who are blind, the thought of social discrimination about what was touched had not crossed our minds. It was therefore fascinating to learn that people could be accepted or not accepted in the right circles by what their fathers and grandfathers had handled in their line of work. It also gave an indication of a very sophisticated and discriminating society that could spend so much time deciding these matters. The tension generated by the investigations and the anxiety of those who wanted to be able to sit in the Great Council is very well conveyed.
Touch is also the sense featured in Touching London: contact, sensibility and the city by Ava Arndt. In this essay she refers to John Gay's Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London. Gay, of the Beggar's Opera fame, wrote this in 1716 and in the extract included in the book he describes the very real contact one might expect to have on London's street. These could be "sooty stains" from the "little Chimney-Sweeper" or tallow from the Chandler's Basket. The noise and fumes from London's modern traffic pale into insignificance in comparison. At the same period there was a vogue for narratives of objects recounting their experiences. The first appeared in 1710 in The Tatler, Joseph Addison's popular magazine, and recounted "the life and experiences" of a shilling coin. Many similar essays followed and the very nature of the objects described mean that there are many tactile experiences encountered along the way. Ava Arndt ends by saying that the view of the world changing from a "primarily visual to a primarily tactile orientation is demonstrated by the combination of interest in localised travels, the delights in walking tours, the enormous popularity of object narratives". This indicates a changing world and one that can find common ground with much of today's world.
In Engineering Vision in Early Modern Paris, Ulf Strohmayer outlines the changes taking place in that city over the centuries, in particular the 19th century redevelopment, as we would say today, of the Pont-Neuf. In this essay he emphasises the visual aspects of the changes which were "shared by many". He goes on to say that "Only the blind were excluded from the emerging spectacle that began as the city, but increasingly extended to society as a whole". Fortunately, current research being carried out internationally is now making sure that the blind will be included in future urban developments.
Smell and taste are both considered in some detail in chapters of the book and that is to be applauded as they often the more neglected senses and for our point of view the most difficult to use in actual interpretation; much has to be done by allusion. David Inglis, in Sewers and Sensibilities, writes that "Smell has become a 'hot topic' in many disciplines" and so we hope that this might be applied to the interpretative fields in heritage and other displays. Both his essay and one by Janet Stewart, A taste of Vienna, link these senses with the rise of bourgeois feelings and responses to certain actions; the first on the natural functions of the body and in the other the type of food eaten by the different classes in 19th and early 20th century Vienna. It is interesting to read about the involvement of Adolf Loos, architect and 'cultural critic', especially in his ironic 'Apricot-dumpling Derby', as we rather enjoyed these very filling but delicious puddings in Prague. They will never seem the same again! Janet Stewart also points out the early "recognition of sugar's historical position as part of the drug-food complex", and its related problems that the Western world is having to come to terms with at the present time.
This book raises many interesting and thought provoking points in relation to the city and a range of senses and its publication is a welcome one. For too long, sight has been the primary sense and the reawakening of other senses is long overdue. It is unfortunate the high price of this book, with a few rather poor black and white illustrations, might mean it will not be widely read as it should be.
The Dog Rose Trust
More information: www.ashgate.com