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Cracking the code of the Ideal City

Sabbioneta: Cryptic City by James Madge

Anyone who reads the introduction to this book is likely to be hooked. Architect and teacher James Madge recalls his first visit to Sabbioneta, near Mantua in the plain of Lombardy, on a day of dense fog in January 1988. In such conditions it was impossible to form an impression of the city as a whole: ‘Instead, each incident of its architecture appeared in succession as an isolated and memorably insistent presence.’ As Madge wound his way through the streets, the overall atmosphere seemed ‘distinctly uncanny if not bordering on the insane’. It sounds like a sequence from an Andrei Tarkovsky film. Don’t you want to read more?

Sabbioneta was built in the second half of the 16th century and is frequently seen as a Renaissance ‘ideal city’. Though Vincenzo Scamozzi designed its theatre, the architects of its other major buildings remain unknown, and there’s a general assumption that the city’s instigator, Vespasiano Gonzaga (1531-1591), had a decisive impact on its form and detail.

The AR made Sabbioneta the centrepiece of a special issue on ‘Italian Townscape’ in June 1962. Writing under the pseudonym of Ivor de Wolfe, the magazine’s proprietor Hubert de Cronin Hastings saw it as a model of the ‘picturesque townscape’ that he and AR colleagues such as Gordon Cullen were promoting at the time. He argued that much of its effect stemmed from it not being an ideal city in the sense of absolute symmetry and an exact grid. ‘No quick picture − no grasp of the masterplan or underlying rationale. On the contrary: surprise, anticipation, mystery, frustration, shock, delight.

A plan from the AR's issue on ‘Italian Townscape’ in June 1962, which made Sabbioneta its centrepiece. The urban T-traps – which ‘disrupt the grid plan and create a labyrinth’ – are marked in black.

A plan from the AR’s issue on ‘Italian Townscape’ in June 1962, which made Sabbioneta its centrepiece. The urban T-traps – which ‘disrupt the grid plan and create a labyrinth’ – are marked in black.

‘In an essay on Sabbioneta in L’Arte in 1969 (misdated as 1959 in Madge’s book), Kurt Forster, like de Wolfe, picks up on the numerous T-junctions that disrupt the grid plan and create a labyrinth. He sees this as a Mannerist trait (the system is ‘at once spelled out and broken’) but reminds us that the labyrinth is a Gonzaga emblem, which Vespasiano might be deliberately reflecting in his city.

It is this question of Vespasiano’s intentions that preoccupies Madge, who was intrigued by Sabbioneta from that first visit in 1988 until his death in 2006. In a book that becomes increasingly speculative as it proceeds, the author aims to ‘illuminate a state of mind’ and to supply ‘a more intimate and personal reading of Vespasiano and his city’ thanhas emerged up to now.

So as well as examining the form and fabric of Sabbioneta, still largely intact after four centuries, Madge draws on disparate sources: contemporary treatises, letters and diaries; the handful of poems that Vespasiano wrote; the iconography of the decorations in his Ducal palace. In recreating the intellectual world that Vespasiano inhabited, especially its focus on architecture, he also tries to determine how Vespasiano adapted prevalent ideas to his own ends in realising Sabbioneta.

Madge quotes a contemporary diarist who noted that 150 cartloads of timber scaffolding were removed on the city’s completion in 1590. The same diarist had earlier observed the arrival of nine mules from Rome with marble for Vespasiano’s funeral monument. By contrast to such seemingly solid facts, Madge admits that he is often piecing fragments together and making inferences, but his approach is systematic and judicious. It is encapsulated in the close attention to built form that he shows in tracing two distinctive motifs (oversized brackets and blind crenellation) from their appearance in Sabbioneta to earlier Gonzaga properties in the region, a deliberate atavism on Vespasiano’s part.

A photograph of Sabbioneta, also from the AR June 1962. The issue’s printed credit attributes all photography to Ivy de Wolfe (presumably Ivor de Wolfe’s companionable wife), although a scribbled note in the archive reveals Hubert de Cronin Hastings hims

A photograph of Sabbioneta, also from the AR June 1962. The issue’s printed credit attributes all photography to Ivy de Wolfe (presumably Ivor de Wolfe’s companionable wife), although a scribbled note in the archive reveals Hubert de Cronin Hastings himself as the snapper

But Madge may lose some readers with the psychoanalytic interpretations that appear towards the end of the book. ‘It is only a game to raise new walls, to give life to material things while I am so much diminished in spirit,’ wrote Vespasiano in a letter, and there is ample evidence that his life was troubled − not least in his relations with women. With this as his cue, Madge alights on a 1983 text by the French psychoanalyst André Green, ‘The Dead Mother’, which goes on to inform his pages on Vespasiano’s poetry and decorative schemes.

Where this approach really becomes contentious is when Madge later refers to Sabbioneta’s two main urban spaces, each with ‘a trio of representational structures, an arrangement for which there is no suggestion in any of the architectural treatises’. Following Green’s line, Madge sees this as the reintegration of ‘the father/mother/child triangle, now without the fear of violation’. It is a far cry from Ivor de Wolfe.

To be fair, Madge makes no great claims for his conclusions, suggesting that he has simply added ‘a few more possible explanations’ to an already long list in the literature onSabbioneta (he provides a full bibliography). Despite this self-deprecation and the recurrence of such words as ‘perhaps’, he nonetheless establishes how saturated with meaning Sabbioneta was for its creator, even if it may always be ‘cryptic’ for the rest of us.

Rather curiously, the AR called Sabbioneta ‘cosy’. That’s not a word you would find in current guidebooks. Cadogan Guides describes it as ‘a museum city of unfulfilled expectations with the air of a De Chirico painting’; Lonely Planet settles simply for ‘surreal’. While Tarkovsky never filmed there, it was the perfect setting for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem, based on an intricate story by Borges. This little city affects people in a palpable but imprecise way. For Madge, it was the source of a fecund and illuminating obsession.

Sabbioneta: Cryptic City

Author: James Madge

Publisher: Bibliotheque McLean

Price: £25

Readers' comments (1)

  • Hi. I have broken the code of the Ideal City of Scamozzi. Regards.

    https://atesgulcugil.wordpress.com/palladio/the-ideal-city-by-scamozzi/

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