TOSCANO SQUARE: the biography of an idea


Cosenza and the Mayors’ movement

In the mid Nineties, I worked as City Councilor for Culture together with Giacomo Mancini, who was then the Mayor of Cosenza.  At that time, the most significant endeavor to regenerate the City, since the Kingdom of Naples annexation to the Savoy crown, had just been deployed.

One must remember that the administrative experience to which I partially contributed should be set in the cultural context of those years.  The city transformation attempted at that time was not an episode that would be limited to the City of Cosenza,  but a significant moment of a much more ample breadth that is often remembered as “the Mayors’ movement”.  In this particular case, the expression indicates a bold return of politics to its origin, i.e. to the essential dynamics of city government.  In other words, after the judges of Milan had broken the party system and showed to the Country the “worm of corruption” hidden within that system, a passion for truth and for a “common ground” began to take place in Italians’ collective imagination.   This rapidly led to the restoration of the “sovereignty” of local places –albeit partial and even unconscious- otherwise known as the ancient genius loci (spirit of the place).  In turn, this common feeling had also brought forth some legislative changes to local autonomy, thereby enhancing stability and a more real capacity to effectively take action.

At that time, in the so called Mezzogiorno  (Southern Italy), there was indeed a succession of Mayors.  There were new and rapidly ascending famous Mayors in the cities of Naples (Antonio Bassolino during his first term), Palermo (Leoluca Orlando) and Catania (Enzo Bianco), to name just a few.    Although they did not personally and properly represent the “advancing newness”, these Mayors were somehow associated with symbols of a common will and thus a transformative power.

In Cosenza, Giacomo Mancini , a nationally recognized politician (several times Minister and former Secretary of the Socialist Party), then in the last period of his life and of his cursus honorum (career), was the unexpected and brilliant interpreter of the return to the “local” and of the common effort to restore the City’s potentiality.

Moreover, the experiences of urban revival of those years were not carried out because of a real political strategy, but rather in response to the pressures of a common civic passion.  People were once again falling in love with their own City, a love which, like all true loves, brought with it a strong aesthetic dimension.

Therefore, the architectural and urban development that took place in the town of Brettio must be put in this framework. In turn, this very framework must be put in the context of the cyclical courses of decline and revival of the forms of urban life.

A few examples here are worth mentioning. Originally, before Hannibal’s war, Cosenza, nestled on Mount Pancrazio, was the capital of the confederation of the Bruttium area towns, that is of the casali (hamlets) which were the settlements on the higher Crati valley arrayed in the shape of a crown along the foot-hills of the Sila mountain range.  The town-countryside relationship eventually assured Cosenza all those traits of a real sovereignty, beginning with their resources of food and energy.  The power of the City could paradoxically be seen with the fact that there were no defense walls or ramparts.  As a matter of fact, the safety of the City was guaranteed by its network of casali.

II)  Giacomo Mancini Mayor and the Genius Loci

Going back to the Mancini’s period, when he was Mayor of Cosenza, I can say that a major civic virtue for which the town will be remembered was the attempt to take back the practice of self-government through certain urban planning and architectural decisions.  In this sense, the recovery of the town’s historic center was an archaeological recovery of collective memory.  It was a material and therefore symbolic excavation of history, an experiment realized not in order to restore lost splendored glories but to regain a genius loci which survived over the years despite numerous identities that it took through the times.  The urban planning innovations that began during Mancini’s term as Mayor – that had not been completed by the municipal administration which followed – were an effort to massage the tired heart of the local spirit of the place. It suffices to think of the idea for a light subway, of the conurbation of the casali through the reactivation of the technically impeccable railroad layout, originally completed at the beginning of the XXth Century, the recovery of the ghetto on the ancient consular road, the Roman Via Popilia, as well as the restoration and pedestrian setting of the Piazza del Duomo, Corso Telesio and the small Piazza Toscano.  We can also think of the project of placing optical holograms of Greek and Roman statues, like the “Riace” bronzes along the main street of Corso Mazzini, as well as the holograms of ancient gods of feline beauty. Moreover, there were similar representations of extinct animals and the now lost acts of religious cults.  This latter project aimed at driving away the “vilienza da Ciompi per bene” (humiliation of the good Ciompi)[1] that, since the postwar period, was gravitating along the road and favoring a breeze from “Mirabilia”, that uses the most refined technologies to recall the past and to hope for  resurrection -today that project appears in a smaller scale as an ordinary public exposure of artistic works, chosen at random, from private collections, without much aesthetic taste; it’s a sort of small town provincial  exhibition inappropriately called MAP,  Museo All’Aperto (Outdoor Museum)-.

III) The historical downtown and Piazza Toscano

In regard to the historical downtown of Cosenza, there have been many initiatives, starting with the restoration and the urban restructuring which have considerably contributed to control the physical decline of Renaissance and Baroque palaces and to demystify the bad fame of unlivable and unsafe conditions that was discrediting the ancient part of the City.  These buildings had been derelict for a long time due to a lack of responsibility on the part of their owners.

The project for an orderly arrangement of the archaeological ruins of Piazza Toscano must be seen in the perspective of a public attitude to care for the “living together as a cultured historical society in progress”.

My evaluations about Marcello Guido’s project are not, of course, of a technical nature, but rather of a political culture. In other terms, the experience of designing a square on the ruins discovered by the aerial bombings of the World War II, appears as an interrogation on the historical sense of Cosenza’s civil life and a useful expansion of the collective present.

The glass that paves the square allows, through its transparency, the unusual emotion of looking under one’s feet and amazingly witnessing Roman ruins. In such a way, we plunge, for a second longer than a whole day, into another sense of time and another perception of space. It is a temporality that has the rhythm of inner events, a spatiality which is calmed by the acceptance of gravity, satisfied in itself, soberly Euclidean, where the recognition of limits has become the secret of power. This way, a simple stroll through Piazza Toscano is similar to acting on stage.  The experience of estrangement in trampling on the memories of the past without hurting and humiliating them, allows the visitor as well as the unaware passer-by to simultaneously be both inside and outside of himself, as it happens with the actor-spectator in Brecht’s theater. Through Piazza Toscano, Cosenza shows its history to a disenchanted eye, as it is written upon a vertical stratification.  With just one look, this unveiling allows for the full collection of the authentic truth of urban society in its tender and unharmed nakedness.  It is an animal community that is always trying to fulfill self-realization in aiming at the good life, at a common sense that may give legitimacy to laughter and consolation to tears.

For this reason, the square gives the idea of a geologic core drilling and sampling.  Similarly, the Earth is dug in order to bring to daylight what has happened in the past so that we can understand what we once were. To cross the square brings up spontaneous questions regarding the sense and meaning of the city.

In other words, Guido’s architecture appears as an un-finished piece of work, as an open investigation that discourages any preconceived answer, and it often appears disquieting for this very reason.

In many ways, Toscano square adequately interprets the spirit of the decade of which I spoke before: a decade of singling out matters rather than presenting solutions. After all, what does the common questioning about the civil life in Cosenza really amount to?  L ong-lasting  decades of deadly desires to become wealthy in a hurry had pushed away any sense of responsible urban living and civic virtues from the public conscience.  It is not difficult to see that the prerequisite for the exercise of a public questioning is, in reality, the pride of belonging to a place and to care for it. These feelings, which were in hiding for a good part of the postwar period, reemerged as a waking up from a sleep without dreams, at the beginning of the nineties of the last century.

It is worth noticing here, incidentally, that the Cosenza renaissance, or at least the challenge of the Mancini administration, had been strongly influenced by the existence of a historical downtown.  It was in a state of degradation, for sure, but with a considerable extension, if we compare it to other cities of the Mezzogiorno. In other terms, Cosenza’s  historic downtown has been preserved almost intact, as it was at the beginning of the 20th  Century thanks to the negligence of the private citizens to whom it had been given by the public hand.  As a matter of fact, the negligence and lack of care had protected the historical downtown from being ruined by real estate speculations and from the deadly pouring of concrete. What took place here was almost the invisible hand of hazard, the healthy consequence of a deplorable habit, a sort of “shrewdness of history” that warned us all about the stupidity of surrendering or of letting up the evil to the devil.

IV) Marcello Guido’s architecture.

Going back to Marcello Guido’s architecture, I believe that, at this point, the concept of post-modernism can be introduced.  Indeed, I consider that there are many similarities between Guido’s architecture and that political trend in philosophy.

My friend Toni Negri, in a review of Rem Koolhaas’ book “Junkspace”, claims that:

«…besides postmodernism [...] there is always also the urban reformism. This has always followed the transformation of the metropolis recognizing it, for sure, but often mystifying it or making it utopian. Being this the maximum of its effort, the hypermodern reformism still makes frenzied attempts at correcting the metropolis from the inside. It is ruled by the ideology of transparency (light materials, linear figures, predominance of glass, etc.)… It is a matter of bending the complex thickness of the metropolis towards a readable axis, both plastic and formalistic at the same time.  Architectural industry thus reveals its relationship with the fashion and movie industries. This project extends itself to all sectors of architectural production. It deconstructs and recomposes them according to a logic that, in reality, hides the will to shatter every possible antagonism between subjects and knowledge.  It inundates with artificial light all spaces where exploitation and pain cannot be exposed and seen. Rationalism and functionalism have become soft, but nonetheless effective in the attempt at mystification.
Here is the post-modern cynicism rightly opposing the hypermodern reformism […] Post-modernism assaults history but it is historicizing.  It attacks the Holy Trinity “income, profit, salary” as an archaeological stratification… However, it knows that it cannot destroy it; on the contrary, by inheriting it,  it will end up reproducing it. There is a cruelty that the post-modern succeeds in showing in an exemplary way: it is the acknowledgement that man – the citizen – the worker – the nomad, in short, everybody, is absorbed by the world of the commodity and by a metropolis that exploits him. Is post-modernism also a declaration about the incapability to escape this reality ?».[2]

Therefore, according to Negri, there are two ways of conceiving postmodernism. On one side, there is a technological hyper-modernism, the new frontier of global capitalism, the space for profit, modernity brought to the extreme.  The buildings made by this architectural trend ignore the specificity of the places on which they rise; they are like rockets ready to take off and they display a desire to avoid the limits that the terrestrial gravity heavily imposes.  This is what is happening in the USA as well as in Genoa, in Abu Dhabi and in Helsinki.

There is, however, another postmodernism, which intends to carry to a conclusion a conscious criticism of modernity, of its cognitive illusions, of its mental chain, of its bad abstraction and malicious universalism.

Marcello Guido’s architecture, and especially the project of the Toscano Square, posits itself in this second direction (at least, this is the way l feel and, I believe, is the author’s intention).

According to my experience, Piazza Toscano, with its metaphysical aura, is the exact opposite of the neurotic plazas inside the huge North-American malls.  Piazza Toscano is a way of reading an unrepeatable place.  The American malls are non-places that could be poorly set everywhere, without any topological relationship with the architectural bodies that  surround them  They are grotesque, when they reproduce, on a smaller scale, almost as photocopies, the real historical squares of all parts of the world, to the advantage of the consumer’s  distracted eye, who, in this way, deceives himself and feels like an occasional global tourist.

V)  Art and social violence.

I must here clarify, in order to avoid misunderstandings, that to conceive the architectural work as a reimbursement of the common memory and a commemoration of the genius loci, is not something that can be committed to the artist so that he realizes it surreptitiously, without tears and blood. Opening the memory means to make more present time available, to live here and now the dimension of the long duration. This breakup of the common feeling, this transformation of the sense of time does not happen through a pedagogical peace preaching, even if it is an artistic one, but through semantic power. It is not enough to know the truth.  Above all, it is necessary to know how to communicate it and make it recognizable as a common good. It is through this way that collective and social violence legitimately breaks into the scene. Violence is not the fastest way to win, as unfortunately some generous “begriffi[3] think as they practice political killing.  On the contrary, it has often been demonstrated that this is the surest way to lose, exactly on this ground.   Social violence is an utmost form of cooperation in the sense that its realization has the cathartic function of associating those who inflict it as those that suffer it.  This happens because social violence (putting to risk the human body for a collectively shared idea and sacrificing  concreteness for abstraction), among all possible urban behaviors, is the one that communicates the highest semantic value, allowing to give sense to things and to rearrange time. In an ultimate analysis, the realization of the collective potentiality for violent acts is just a repossession of the common good.  It is a power granted by nature and congenital to living and inhabiting, to sharing together the same place.  In short, it is a public declaration of sovereignty, whose legitimacy is not given by an agreement but by the effectiveness with which it interprets the general will of the city, that is, indeed, the genius loci.

Social violence does not have an external purpose to its own expression.  It is realized in itself, it is a tool and a purpose at the same time. Its protagonists, more than changing the world, change their ideas about the world and they free themselves from their mental chains, from that slave ideology of idle waiting that prevents them from seeing that the future is already here as it hides itself in the wrinkles of the eternal present.

All this is to say that art, and the architecture that represents it, is not a guarantee of salvation.  It can announce or celebrate but also it calms down and it cohabits with the most inhuman aspects of dominion, with the most heart breaking forms of alienation. What would have been the streets, the squares, the buildings of the 1930′s in Berlin, those spectacular parades of the SS troops, without the Nibelungs imagined by Wagner? There was not only Nazi art; even the artists who were opposing without success were themselves accomplices, despite everything. Only when the artistic fact enters in communication with the common sense enhancing it, it appears in its violent dimension and real transformative power. Architecture is certainly, among all the arts, well over music itself, the most compromised with common sense. The monumental themes are slogans turned into stones that communicate with the distracted passer-by before just as much as with the cultured visitor.
This is what happens to Guido with the restoration of the Toscano Square. There is, on the right side, looking towards the Crati river – the name itself resonates ancient Greek -, tall and lonely, inserted in the attic of a XVI century building, an enormous metallic stinger.  It is almost the unlikely fusion between medieval armor and an outer-space motor that aims its wedged sharp point towards the Roman ruins, as if to signal what lies underneath, what Cosenza has already been. The stratified complexity of Toscano Square, disclosed by Guido’s architecture, symbolizes the authenticity of the city that has remained nestled in the same place since its foundation, through the classical period and the long medieval age, reaching up to modernity and to our present day. In short, Toscano Square now tells to those who know how to read it how Cosenza’s future and its casali should be searched in a return to the origin, entirely different from a returning back.

VI) Toscano Square and Cosenza’s sovereignty.

The relationship between innovation and tradition is a crucial issue for all the great transformative experiences, as a characteristic of revolutions in general. Indeed, the revolutionary attempts that succeeded in past centuries have tried to evoke history, according to the astronomical etymology of the word “revolution”. The same has happened with religions.  It was always a matter of restoring the righteous and good that existed since the origins, a kind of return to truth or a new revelation of it.  For example, the heresies in the West, the religious “choices”, in one way or another, go back, or at least allude, to primitive communities, to the origins of Christianity in the period of the catacombs.

There, in the womb of Mother Earth, physically separated from evil, in a nocturnal, Dionysian place, the waiting finally ends and it is possible to live in a community as in the salvation announced by the Gospel. By dying, Jesus had carried out his mission and all were saved. The fullness of those simple and hidden lives was possible through the organic solidarity among the members of a sect, and especially through the autonomy of the sect itself; that is through an exodus ability which was not so much geographical as it was semantic, from the inauthentic condition in which the other world finds itself.  It is the world of evil, the one that remains unfairly in the light, above the catacombs.

I could dare say here, incidentally, that even the Piazza Toscano places itself in the track of heresy, that is of a heresy that is still pursuing its reasons.

In order to go back to the topic of discussion and to bring forth other more secular examples, it must be noted that Western Republicanism was inspired by the Rome of the ancient republican period. It happened also with medieval municipalities, with the French Revolution, with the Paris Commune and even with the Russian Revolution. This ascertainment, besides, is the same that led Marx and Engels to introduce the concept of primitive communism, that is: if something already happened it can always happen again.

Marx stated, not without a certain sarcasm, that we must refuse to design pots for the soups of the future.  Together with Engels, he showed a keen interest in other forms of life that anthropology was discovering  in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to L.H. Morgan’s studies of  the America’s Indians. These studies were to form the basis of Engels’ book The Origin of the Family,  Private Property and the State  (1884) where the logical-historical category of “primitive communism” was formulated. Marx, however, mature and free of any adolescent futurism, in his late writings about the Asiatic way of production, without hypocrisy and reservation, says that there are more elements of communism in the Mir – the self-governing farming village of Russian serfdom – than all those contained in the program or behavior of the German Social Democracy, which he himself inspired.

Piazza Toscano, as restored by Guido, can be considered by all means within this attitude. The same aura that “arte povera” generates can be perceived by walking through the square, which indicates that this return  to reality is not a hero prerogative. The evil is not satanic, it does not have the divine nature of punishment for original sin.  Rather it possesses a phony nature: it is only an error, and, as such, it cannot disappear because it would also always make the truth disappear as well. The evil, when identified, can be lead back to a minimal dimension, thus creating the possibility for the appearance of good, as when we learn from our mistakes. There is nothing in that perplexed architecture that hints to the new man, or to the humanity of the future. The reference is to another kind of man, another kind of humanity that sleeps in hiding among the ignored possibilities of the present. In short, the square is not conceived for parking cars, but for welcoming neighborhood associations, where the local dialect resonates, filled with words that come from Greek and Latin. In the ancient city, the squares are the sites of direct democracy. In order to close without concluding,  I like to think, in these times of cold and bureaucratic celebrations for the Italian Unity, that there are urban works that evoke the collective memory of the city, that of a lasting memory. Since it is in these places that we must try to confront the malaise, on the Right and on the Left, in which Cosenza and its casali today find themselves immersed. Piazza Toscano is an objective reflection about the question of urban sovereignty within post-modern civilization.


[1]  The Ciompi were the Florentine proletarians that in 1378 rose up against the ruling class for social-political reasons in one of the first revolts in Europe.

[2] A. Negri, L’esodo puo’ cominciare (Exodus can start) in Atlas, weekly supplement of Il Manifesto, October 27, 2007

[3] Begriffi: the word derives from the Hegelian concept of Begriff; in the middle of the last century, it was taken on by the Neapolitan slang to mean “students of philosophy”.