Elusive city! even when visited, documented, the truth of it remains uncertain. The teasing apart of travel fiction and travel fact between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries is always hard; Marco Polo in Calvino's Invisible Cities says: "if I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop." The authenticity of Marco Polo's descriptions is at the very heart of Calvino's book. And, as if there were not already enough dubious texts there has been the publication in the last few years, of a thirteenth century Italian merchant Jacob d'Ancona's description of the Chinese coastal metropolis of Zaitun. Is it a hoax? And if it is a hoax, more interestingly, why should someone have actually wished in the 1990s to fabricate a thirteenth century Polo-esque travel discourse in the first place?
Cities, most concrete and tangible of entities, yet hovering always on the brink of the immaterial, the mythic. Even when they became incontestably permanent features of the European landscape they were something other than mere physical presences. The European city in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, the mercantile city or City State, depended not only on an agglomeration of size or wealth for its importance but on Idea. It was "an Island of Freedom in a sea of feudal obligations" as Chiara Frugoni puts it.
I stand over a coffee in a bar in Bologna and watch the buses sweep past, noting that they all bear the coat of arms of the Comune di Bologna.
The Italians, philosophically, are Idealists and unembarrassed to express their Idealism in visual terms, in the coat of arms on the side of a city bus. We, the English, are Empiricists; there is no nation more empirical. We are cautious of abstractions. Clever as we are we still shrink from concepts; certainly from the City as Idea. ("London is just a collection of villages, actually!" we hear; something London very clearly isn't). The City as an Ideal? The very capital C arouses suspicion! We can cope with the word and that capital letter only if it designates the definable financial district known as 'the City'.
True, for a few precious decades, the forties, fifties, sixties, British cities did embrace a modest form of Idealism; possibly with the Idea of the walled Italian medieval city in mind, we seem to have learned the art of civic pride and its corporate expression in city facilities, especially transport. Manchester Town Hall does not look like a Flemish Hotel de Ville by chance. In London we had London Transport; buses and underground trains were red, reliable and manned by chaps in uniform.