Efrossyni Tsakiri

Visual palimpsests: city atmosphere in cartography, city planning and painting

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Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / June 2017 4(1)


Atmosphere is a mysterious property of urban space that can be sensed only by personal experience. People describe it as a particularly intense and imposing emotion. The concept was born in the ‘50s, together with the distinction between space and place. Place, a meaningful space, is discussed in the context of human psyche, perception, feeling, attachment, in psychology and philosophy. By extension, atmosphere in psychogeography is an important factor of urban place that reflects people’s feelings about it. But although atmosphere for Situationists is an experiential property that can be attributed only to the lived and not to the represented space, geographer E. Relph argues that an individual can also connect to places and develop feelings about them through fantasy and artistic representations in a state that he defines as ‘vicarious insideness’. In Urban Visual Culture, all images that represent the city and its multifarious content are mediums for the experience, perception, understanding of the urban, the development of feelings and attachment to it, in other words, they can create an atmosphere. This study will follow with the examination of atmosphere in European city representations.

In the paper, I will use semiotics to illustrate the mechanism an individual experiences the atmosphere of a European city representation with artworks from city planning, cartography, and painting. I will analyze: a) View of Florence with the Chain by Francesco Rosselli (1480), b) Römische Ruinenlandschaft by Paul Bril (1600), c) City of Truth by Bartolomeo Del Bene (1609), d) Via Appia by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1756), e) Evening on Karl Johan Street by Edvard Munch (1892), f) New York City by Piet Mondrian (1942) and g) London functional analysis map by Patrick Abercrombie (1944). I will argue that while the viewer elaborates consciously the theme and the graphic motifs, unconsciously he/she receives sensual, emotional, and ideological data, carried by the expressive means of the representation. Geometric shape, line, colour, layout, etc. create senses, feelings, ideas, related to the wider historic and philosophical context, the worldview of the representation. An encrypted impression is then created, a palimpsest that consists of superimposed layers of meaning. The ‘emotional aura’, of that impression is ‘atmosphere’, which enriches the perception of the represented theme and graphic motifs. Because atmosphere is a cryptogram, I describe the representation of cities as ‘visual palimpsest’.

Keywords: urban visual culture, city planning, cartography, painting, semiotics, atmosphere, palimpsest

Biographical note

Efrossyni Tsakiri. PhD student (final stage) at the Laboratory of Urban Design, Division of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture, NTUA (National Technical University of Athens). Academic scholar at the School of Architecture, TUC (Technical University of Crete), teaching subject: architectural design. Architect (Diploma, School of Architecture, NTUA 1998), urban designer (Town Planning and Urban Design, The Bartlett, UCL, 1998–2002), visual artist. PhD Thesis Title: The City Image. Representation mechanisms in architecture, urban design, cartography and painting.