The Walls of San Gimignano and the Shadow of the Tower

Photo by Robert G. McInerney.
Photo by Robert G. McInerney.

“I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of consciousness.” — Frantz Fanon

I was recently in the Tuscany region of Italy exploring the ancient walled-in cities (Volterra, San Gimignano). They are astonishing for many reasons, and despite the distracting and rampant tourism in some of them (many little stores sell Pinocchio dolls), any visitor will be struck by the interconnected community the walled in city creates with its narrow stone roads and even narrower passages and alleys that all, eventually, lead to a town square or piazza. In the ancient past, as in our day, people gather in the early evening in the medieval town square, usually near the Duomo* and government buildings, watching children play, discussing the day’s events, no doubt gossiping and so on.

San Gimignano was especially intriguing. While we walked through the city past wine stores, cheese shops, gelato bars, and restaurants, I wondered about the reasoning behind it, the desire for building it. The walls, some 50 feet high, were clearly built to keep invaders out. In fact, some cities include a larger fortress for defense (e.g., the Bastione San Francesco).

But, for San Gimignano, the plague was an invader that could not be stopped. In fact, about half its population died from the plague (circa 1348). “The plague launched its most virulent attacks on those who lived, by choice or by necessity, in groups…” (Camus, 1948, p. 159). Thus, we understand that the very sequestered and enclosed space that may have provided sanctuary and community also hastened death; this was, in part, the existential absurdity underlying Camus’ novel The Plague.

The windows in each home, back then and now, have no screens; opening a window in San Gimignano and the other cities means that one can physically move beyond one’s domain and extend out to the streets below. Often somebody would be leaning out of the window speaking to those passing by. The extension of the body beyond the personal walls of one’s home is a common out-reaching and seems to blur the boundary, if not temporarily, between the communal and the private.

Community is co-created in these cities by virtue of its architecture, which provides a mandatory intimacy that reflects, as I said above, the shared existential concern of invaders, of death itself. Mortality or finitude (our implicit and mooded awareness of our mortality) is the primary existential anxiety of our lives, or shared burden of being human. We are born beings-toward-death (Heidegger, 1927), which, in turn, allows us an ethical “…dwelling-in-the-midst-of-finitude that discloses the meaning, depth, of a given existential situation” (Hatab, 2000, p. 151). Perhaps we can have an ethical, communal empathy and compassion with regard to differing ideas, beliefs, and circumstances that separate us when we return to our shared fragility of mortality and finitude?

In a way, the city itself is a resolute, tangible reminder of finite existence. In other words, each day, again by virtue of its design, the city brings human mortality near as it wards off danger. The structure breathes life into its inhabitants with every constricted corridor, every protective alcove, and every unyielding fortification; this is what Bachelard (1958) understood as a transposition of space into human virtues (see also Krell, 1997). The walls re-present the dialectic between communitas (the hospitable and ephemeral faith in being human and social) and immunitas, the inhospitable response to the dis-ease of being human and social (Esposito, 2010, 2011). Each passage was perhaps, quite concretely, a “rite of passage,” which, in effect, led to both a sense of being born in and born with others and an affirmation as acceptance into the community’s laws and practices (Turner, 1969). Therefore, the citadel materially becomes the defender, supporter, and sanctuary of the mysterious and of care for children and the elderly, of providing sustenance and companionship.

Additionally, the walled-in citadel as habitus shapes human consciousness prior to, or at least immediately with, any phenomenological account of living with others (Bourdieu, 1977). Bourdieu’s habitus shows us how materially given circumstances shape lived, social experience, putting us in a structure reflecting the sensibilities and sensualities of life, which are concurrently abiding with both the “poetics of space” and the objective presence of space (p. 72; Bachelard, 1958); specifically, walls and towers are not merely rationally conceived, they re-present the heightened tip-toe view and the climbing to the mount experience, which is soaring to the space of the divine (as a khôra—spaces, clearings, of ecstatic lovemaking with radical otherness) and, at once, a spanning of horizons here on earth (Krell, 1997).

We do not build and then dwell in our creations. We dwell as pre-serving—that is, we dwell in service and in preparation for what is inevitably to come, which is a life of hope, and death itself (Heidegger, 1954). Therefore, these walled-in spaces, cities, are dwellings that have gathered space, space that is not merely Euclidean but always already of an embodied human spatiality (as there is no reference to space without human space-making).**

The walled-in citadel as habitus is historical; it is a reflection of the historicity of being human. Ontologically understood, human being towers from birth, grows up, and crumbles; our skin becomes soft and thin, and our presence here on earth faded. We, in essence, are history, a history of strong-holding and decay, a history of bodies of composing and decomposing. Thus, habitus “…produces individual and collective practices” that are born of the shared burdens of existence (Bourdieu, 1977, p.82).

The architecture, however, is by no means determining or holding safe communal sensibilities. In fact, San Gimignano had its interior status conflicts (between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire) that resulted in building tower-houses as a demonstration of power. Therefore, “The City with the Beautiful Towers” (Fontanelli, 2001) has its dark side, so to speak, and the shadow of the tower is found in any community; but, if we are to let this possibility dissuade us from sharing common burdens, from being with others in such a way that we can, at least at times, healthfully unite, then we are doomed to nihilism (another sort of plague).

And yet, although the walls, piazza, and towers were, to be sure, romantic and perhaps facilitated a sense of belongingness, the uneasiness of their casting shadows vexes me. The shadow of the tower, of proclamations of superior heights and rights, continues to kill children, families, and hope itself, with different technological and murderous walls of armament. The walls are destroyed, again and again, because they are built. These ancient walls seemed impenetrable but our plague remains the same; we fail to welcome others, all others into our home.

And so I reject the nostalgic community as I reject the utopia. It is impossible (reprehensible) to imagine the walled in cities of my vacation and not think of separatism, totalitarianism, and endless wars. I wish now to negate the quixotic…community does not exist within walls!

Our societal walls and towers reify and differentiate assumedly essentialized and naturalized differences (and naturalized hierarchies), and at the same time reify, essentialize, and naturalize assumed sameness. But our seemingly endless search for differences and sameness with regard to being human is a binary illusion. As E. E. Sampson (1993) suggests “…rather than searching in nature for the constitution of differences, we need to direct our gaze towards the society and its practices by which different objects and their categorizations into same and different are accomplished” (p. 160).

In each citadel, I found myself wanting opened doors, as a “…open door of consciousness” and a radical openness of the porticos and gates (Fanon, 1952, p. 123). If the walls serve to demarcate natural boundaries (all about deserving and not pre-serving), what can we do, or feel, to allow “borderlands,” to allow the unnatural (Anzaldúa, 1999), if by unnatural we signify all that we cannot define, quantify, measure, predict, and control, that is to say those presumed unnatural beliefs, unnatural attractions, unnatural bodies and so on.

When we come together, we risk welcoming the extra-ordinary (those out of order) and the extravagant (the vague, vagaries, and the vagrant) of the marginalized beyond the walls we’ve built (Corlett, 1989) and then the tower gets dethroned, de-centered, and deconstructed.

I am not designating an “at-risk” population—we are at risk! Trembling, I say, the risk of radically welcoming the other is virtuous and worth it.
Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands: la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Luke Books

Bachelard, G. (1994). The poetics of space. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Camus, A. (1948). The plague. (S. Gilbert, Trans). New York, NYVintage Books.

Corlett, W. (1989). Community without unity: A politics of Derridean extravagance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Esposito, R. (2010). Communitas: The origin and destiny of community. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Esposito, R. (2011). Immunitas: the protection and negation of life. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Fanon, F. (1952). Black skin, white masks. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Fontanelli, C. (2001). San Gimignano: The city with the beautiful towers. City of San Gimignano

Hatab, J. L. (2000). Ethics and finitude: Heideggerian contributions to moral philosophy. New York, NY: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers.

Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and time (J. Stambaugh, Trans.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Heidegger, M. (1954). Building dwelling thinking (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). In D.F. Krell (Ed.), Basic writings (pp. 347-363). New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Krell, D. F. (1998). Architecture: Ecstasies of space, time and the human body. Albany, NY: State of New York Press.

Sampson, E. E. (1993). Celebrating the other: A dialogic account of human nature. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Turner, V. W. (1969). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

*In San Gimignano, I spent a good deal of time in the Piazza del Duomo at Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta.
** As Heidegger (1954) points out, the banks of a river are not already there, and we then create a bridge. The bridge gathers and demarcates the banks. But this is not to say that the dividing line is not real or not experienced primordially. I suggest it is the difference between instinct (embodied, lived, and reactionary) and distinct, which is our unique way of gathering things, others, space, and time to be as such.

— Robert G. McInerney

Today’s guest contributor, Dr. Robert G. McInerney, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Point Park University. He teaches Social and Community Psychology as well as Qualitative Methods in the Human Sciences.

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