Listen to this article
I was sitting the other evening in one of my favourite urban spaces, nursing a glass of rather good Austrian white wine (from the aromatic grape called Gelber Muskateller), watching the world go by and reflecting on how, together, history, architecture, culture shape experience, which is always in the present. I am not going to tell you the name of this “square”, which is not a square and whose sides do not meet at right angles, on the John Donne principle. This principle comes from Donne’s poem “The Undertaking”, in which Donne claims to have found the perfect, Platonic love for a woman, based on virtue, not outward appearance, and to have done something still more brave, which is to keep that love hidden.
I can, however, try to describe it or what makes it attractive. First of all, it is small, and irregularly shaped but still in a way rather grand. The grandeur comes from the height of the buildings, with their steeply pitched and beautifully tiled roofs, some of which have double attics, and their nobly proportioned windows. There is a church on one side of the “square”, more characterful than beautiful, with an odd little pointed tower and bulgy roof. There is a statue and small fountain in the middle, neither again among the greatest examples of the genre (not Michelangelo’s “David” or the Trevi fountain), but still able to provide focus. The statue, by the way, is not of a general, admiral or emperor but of a wild, hirsute half-naked figure who turns out to be Saint Jerome. Heaven knows what he is doing there.
But the real point of the square is not any particular building or feature but the way it acts as a magnet and stage for humanity. People gather and linger here not because it is an important goal or en route to anywhere but because it accepts them in, because of its innately gathering quality.
Gastronomically, the square is very well provided for. There are two excellent restaurants, with tables outside in the summer, one delightfully homely and the other more formal, and also the splendidly eccentric and bohemian café at one of whose outdoor tables I was sitting with my glass of wine.
I suppose we are all curious about other people. Even where there are privet hedges and net curtains, the curtains twitch. I am not even sure whether excessive privacy is good for people. It certainly doesn’t prevent others from speculating about what their neighbours may, or may not, be doing. But, in a square, human curiosity about other people can be satisfied in the most natural way, quite frankly and openly and without neurotic conflict or guilt.
I was intrigued by the sight of a man in bright red trousers, wheeling a pram of exactly the same colour round and round the fountain, in a somewhat self-important manner. It was a scene from a play or an opera, the rest of which had not been written and would never be written, except in my imagination. In a way it would not have surprised me if he had broken into song (the square’s most famous inhabitant is a Russian diva). A gaggle of music students, with instruments in cases, arrived and chatted but did not stay, like the gangs of long-tailed tits that once in a blue moon come to our garden to feed at the bird-feeder.
Squares in continental cities are typically clearings in densely populated urban areas. The denseness is often the result, as here, of the city having been enclosed within walls, and forced to expand upwards rather than outwards (hence the tall buildings, the steep-pitched roofs). The irregularity I love was not designed, but happened, as different sized and shaped buildings jostled against each other.
The square is a clearing in another sense. It is a public space, open to everyone, in the midst of great private affluence and grandeur – those extraordinary palaces, like the recently reopened Winter Palace of Prince Eugen of Savoy, in a nearby street called Himmelpfortgasse (maybe now you can guess where it is). Not everyone can live in a palace but everyone and anyone can come into a square.
Sitting with my glass of wine (now needing to be refilled), I was thinking how I’d always been drawn to the more promiscuous, dramatic, operatic life in certain continental cities and spaces – the squares of Gràcia in Barcelona, and the Ramblas when people still strolled rather than paced or jogged along them, the Corso Vannucci in Perugia, the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid – as an antidote to the privacy of England. The squares in London, or at least in Kensington, are typically private affairs, with beautiful gardens open only to those who have keys. I suppose that keeps the gardens safe and beautiful, but it also destroys the public spirit of the square. Heaven help us from a little Englandism that would insulate us from the joyful promiscuity of continental squares.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published