Post nº14 | How to analyse an urban representation from the 16th century?

#semiotics, #signification, #architecture, #urbanism















In this post, we will look at an “iluminura (illuminated picture) dated from the times of King Dom Manuel (1495-1521). The chosen iluminura embodies this epoch and represents a dynamic topology, which deploys diverse temporalities, as I will show later.


A panoramic view of the city of Lisbon in the 16th century is illustrated in this “iluminura” and surrounded by an architectural decoration of a late Gothic Manuelino style.


© 2022 by Isabel Marcos | This image was extracted from the “Crónica de Dom Afonso Henriques” of Henriques de Duarte Galvão, exhibit at the Condes de Castro Guimarães Museum, in Cascais.

To the purpose of this article, let us recall the notion of Urban Universals, approached in my previous post, which boils down to conceiving society as a dynamic topology of forces. This notion regroups simultaneously the spatial organisation and the social organisation.


The hypothesis to be presented along this post is that the reign of Dom Manuel (1495-1521) is simultaneously a project of monumentalising, a project of society and a project of sovereignty.


The reign of Dom Manuel marked a key moment in the process of structuring Lisbon and of new style of society, being the Great Discoveries the undoubtable starting event.


During this period, society managed to find a balance between the diverse forces in conflict, and this thanks to an urban programme of monumentalising. This king transforms his project of monumentalising into a project of forming society, which will allow him later to become the dominant actor. This seizing of power by the King was made possible thanks to a new system of positions within the space of various actors of society, which gave birth to quite notable urban transformations.


The discovery of a maritime route to India undoubtedly lead to important social, economic, and architectural upheavals, including the creation of a new style of architecture – the Manuelino. The urban transformations enable to balance out of resulting conflicts and the creation of a new system of stabilities.


In 1521, Lisbon is no longer a medieval town. We are now faced with a new urban scenario and a new concept of city, and we shall thus enter the Epoch of the Renaissance.


An empiric analysis of the iluminura allows us to say that there are several salient forms, which stand out from this illuminated picture (by definition, a form is said to be salient if it is detached from a background, Thom, 1991). The most evident and most surprising form is that of the Crusaders at the time of the reconquest of Lisbon, in 1147, whereas the image in question represents it much later, in the 16th century.


The Crusaders come forth from there, introducing then onwards a spatiotemporal movement between these two historic moments (1147 and the 16th century). One can see them on either side of the King’s Palace of Alcaçova, a very significant form of representation for the present analysis. If one follows this reasoning by a comparison of this map with the whole of the maps of Lisbon of this period, evident distortions can be seen, which consciously produce a deliberate and meaningful symmetry. Therefore, it is possible to postulate that this symmetric and pyramidal structure is the key to “read” the image as it serves to underline a limited ensemble of salient forms, the Crusaders being the salience setting off the central theme.


What elements produce the symmetric structure of the iluminura?


The Manueline (Manuelino) style frame confines the space of the representation of the city. The arc at the top of the window opening out on the landscape and the two lateral columns on the page of the book underline the symmetry of the illumination.


The symmetry is intensified by two clouds situated laterally in an ordinary light blue sky as well as by two military camps (Crusaders) disposed on each side on the two green hills. The city, centrally positioned, in a triangular form, is closed in by fortified walls. From all that, a central axis emerges around which are disposed the main actions of the narrative that the picture seems to tell us.


Which are the salient forms that stand out from this symmetric structure?


The space of the iluminura is arranged in terraces of four regions: above, the sky (light blue); in the top central position, the city (the dominant colour is light grey); in a lower central position, the port of the Ribeira (dark grey); and finally, at the bottom, a vast lower fluvial zone (dark blue). One can affirm that the space of the iluminura is horizontally structured, according to an inverse symmetry, by two backgrounds, one light and other dark.


The summit of the central axis of the image coincides with the higher angle of the triangle, which is the city, angle constituted by the Palace of Alcaçova (the King's palace). The two extremities of the base of the triangle in question represent two salient forms which are the commercial square of Rossio and the Cathedral. This well-established base is underlined by the port area of the Ribeira River, an interstitial zone between the river and the city.


If one connects the salient forms with the symmetric structure, we can affirm that the interstitial zone is not only a frontier separating the two light and dark backgrounds, but also the base of a triangle in the interior of which there is a profusion of colours.


But from this enumeration of coloured backgrounds and salient forms disposed symmetrically, it is observed that the only elements really detached from this structure are the Crusaders camped in the greenery, which justly gives them a start off position for the sought-after dynamics.


How can we interpret the colours and their topological disposition in the iluminura?


Due to the profusion of colours in the representation of the city, this is quite the centre of the narrative. It is an intensified dimension by the double presence of the Crusaders, whereas they bear its colours highlighted by the contrast of the green of the hills where they camp. It is as if this space depends on another narrative and on another period.


An attentive examination of the colours brings out the following logic: the sky, light blue; the earth, light grey; the boundary (the port of the Ribeira), dark grey, and the river, dark blue.


This suggests two groups of action: sky/earth, in two light shades; port/river, in two dark shades. One can distinguish two thematics: the internal space of the city and the external space of the movements of caravels towards the New World. The New World, which is represented by ships, the “wooden cities” (Campanella), seems to have an enormous influence on the reorganisation of the city, because the proportion of the lengthy public square of the Ribeira, disposed horizontally, is like a long boundary separating and linking the town to the river (it is precisely in this area that will be established the monumental axis of the renaissance town).

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