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Walking in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Mobilizing the Early Modern City
By Filippo de Vivo
I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Volume 19, 2016
Introduction: Like breathing, walking is an unconscious act that we accomplish without consideration, at least as long as we are free to move. We feel our muscles only when we trek a long way; otherwise we just advance one foot after
the other, reflexively. Walking is also universal: humans have walked and learned to walk in much the same way since they became erect.
And yet cultural critics, anthropologists, and geographers have shown how footwork has meanings and functions that change across space and time. In the modern metropolis, walking has long been associated with intense sensual and intellectual stimulation. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Georg Simmel famously reflected on the psychological effects of crossing busy roads or encountering new environments around every street corner. Later, Walter Benjamin and Michel de Certeau both described walking as a distinctive learning experience. These thinkers have greatly influenced the cultural history of early modern cities, yet walking has attracted relatively little historiographical attention, despite the fact that it was by far the most widespread form of urban mobility.
Fascinating recent studies have shown how streets and squares acted as conduits for social transactions, arenas for the display of personal or civic honor, and settings for elaborate practices of sociability. Yet people experienced this cultural vibrancy not by standing still but mostly by and while moving—they heard, listened, felt, watched and were watched, talked, sang, and sometimes even read, while their feet took them around. Recently, art historians and historians of cartography have also emphasized how walking was regarded as a means of representing the early modern city, from New Spain to the Ottoman Empire.
As other essays in this volume also suggest, for historians more generally the time may have come to venture another step beyond the spatial turn, to bring pace back into space: the hurry of business in some areas, the slower tempo of leisure in others. By studying physical motion, we can capture the dynamism of early modern cities and, drawing on all the rich meanings of the Italian verb movimentare, move, mobilize, invigorate, and enliven the history of early modern urban society and culture.