Niall Atkinson: ‘They rang the bells at the wrong time’

Niall Atkinson is an art historian with a deep interest in the sensory world of the Renaissance city. Here, he discusses the importance of bells to community formation, civic concord and rebellion, as well as the relationship between public space, memory and movement (24-3-2011)

David Rosenthal: In one of your recent papers you ask, what exactly was the relationship between the construction of community and the fabrication of the self through the circulation of visible signs at the threshold of the Renaissance? You elaborate this in terms of Florentine experience, perhaps most originally in terms of sound rather than visual signs. You’ve done much of that, as far as I have read, in relation to the Ciompi revolution of 1378. But your wider agenda is clearly not to show the exceptional moment, the crisis, but to see what that tells us about the everyday semiotics of urban communities. Nor is it to show that Florence was exceptional but in some ways typical. Can you elaborate on this work, and the thinking that has informed it?

Niall Atkinson: The kind of dialogue I was trying to establish with Renaissance historiography was to upend it a little. For me as an art historian it’s long been about design and production, and I wanted to look at experience. In terms of community versus the individual, my interest there was bringing together the Renaissance tradition of the individual with a lot of the new scholarship on corporatism, communities, and social networks, to see how the two were negotiated at the same time.

The whole project got started when Lawrin Armstrong pointed me to Alessandro Stella’s book [La Révolte des Ciompi, Paris 1993] where he mentions that this revolution of 1378, brought about primarily by wool workers in Florence, was initiated by the sounding of bells, and what the workers were doing was sounding the call to insurrection by first ringing a series of bells in various peripheral neighbourhoods in order to coordinate themselves spatially for the insurrection. That got me thinking immediately of the relationship between sound and space. It became clear that they had been communicating already with bells, and that they understood the long tradition, and power of bells to choreograph bodies and bind people together. So they were appropriating an urban semiotic system that was already in place and upended it in a certain way.

They rang the bells at the wrong time, disrupting sonically the rhythm of the day, and I later went back to figure out what exactly was that daily soundscape, the seasonal and liturgical soundscape into which they inserted themselves. I was interested in the fact that here was a group of people who had no official identity, because they weren’t allowed to mark themselves visually or sonically in terms of relationships to processions and other forms of ritual life crucial to early modern urban communities. Here was a way, through sound, of getting at the very lowest rungs of society, to people who don’t leave textual traces the way others do. They were able to claim a voice for themselves, but it was a voice that already had the authority to speak for communities. When bells rang in Christian communities, they gathered people together, they defined neighbourhoods spatially, they were a constant reinforcement of communal bonds. That was already existent. They took the one voice that could possibly speak for them, and that was the bell. Bell ringing was a way of interpreting the very quickly changing political fortunes of various groups throughout that period of 1378 under that revolutionary regime. That, in turn, led me to look at the way people were constantly interpreting their aural environment. I found what Florentines were doing, down to the lowliest disenfranchised worker, were performing what we as art historians should be doing all the time, that is, interpreting the symbolic dimensions of their visual and aural environment in very sophisticated ways and relating them directly to historical contingencies, political movements, social structures, collective memory, and the built environment. Florentines who were living through what we now call the Renaissance, were listening to and acting upon the very monuments that we are constantly looking at, to reconfigure or recontextualise them, and they were doing that on a daily basis – as a matter of life and death, in a way. They were constantly listening and looking.

With visual signs especially there’s a negotiation between personal and communal identity formation. Bells tend to be universalising and global. Visually, for example, the church and state are separate in a city like Florence, and I think a lot of the early architectural legislation of the guild and republican regimes was about disciplining enemies, like reducing the height of private defensive towers, destroying palaces, or legislating new public streets. That was a very antagonistic kind of urbanism, and a strategic manoeuvring that was very powerful. However, what I find is the genius of these regimes is that they eventually developed a sonic regime that did exactly the opposite. So on one hand they’re fracturing communal spatial relations, but on the other hand they integrated an acoustic daily rhythm of civic sounds – from the bell towers of the Bargello and the Palazzo Vecchio – in an already sacred landscape of sound: the Cathedral, the Badia [Benedictine Monastery], the various parish and mendicant churches. Because of the way the legislation is written, the bells that sounded to organise space politically and define a community globally was integrated into the moments of silence between the calls to prayer, to mass, and the canonical hours. They understood that antagonising a certain class in urban space was very different from upsetting the aural rhythms with which an entire city marked their lives. This was precisely what the French revolutionary regime misunderstood when they tried to silence the bells of the countryside in an effort to build a republic. Florentines, on the other hand, understood that the republic had to balance political conflict with a more harmonic acoustic dialogue. For example, the statutes talk about the mass at dawn, which should be answered by six rings of the great bell of the people, called the Leone. There’s a transition from the sacred to the secular jurisdiction of the day but it’s a choreography that shows a very delicate dance between church and state. They’re announcing and answering each other in complex ways, so the republican regime was not disrupting a rhythm of sounds that reminded listeners where they belonged , accompanied them to where they ought to be going, what they should be doing and showing them how to get there. They were allowing that sound to continue and enter into a dialogue with acoustically sanctified spatial jurisdictions, which also provides different bonds through which people understood themselves. You became a Florentine with different Christian and communal bonds, with allegiances to different authorities that linked you across neighbourhoods and so on. That was what was so successful, creating a balance between an antagonistic policy and one that was very inclusive. Architectural historians in particular have maybe missed this double game that they were playing by not listening to architecture.

DR: What you’re talking about here is the creation of community at a civic level through a network of sounds coming from civic buildings. So in the case of the Ciompi, they were making disruptive sounds that would seem in the first instance anti-community, in order ultimately to arrive at a new sense of civic community into which they would be integrated.

NA: It was a way of re-orientating what I was thinking of as an elaborately constructed monologue from centre to periphery, reorienting it as a dialogue from periphery back to centre. And they were disrupting the kinds of bonds that monologue was supposed to create and maintain. At the same time they were constructing cross-bilateral communities as a new alternative, which was why it was so terrifying to some but so liberating to others. But it was already a language that had a legitimacy and that is the point. Stephen Milner argues with the Ringhiera [‘Citing the Ringhiera: The Politics of Place and Public Address in Trecento Florence’, Italian Studies, 55, 2000, 53-82] that whoever gains hold of the place from which the government performs its aural authority, is able to legitimise their speech, imbuing it with a certain authority, and I think the bells also allowed a disenfranchised people to claim a voice that demanded to be attended to. Ultimately it had to be backed up with the threat of numbers and violence, but it was important to symbolically disrupt and reorient already existing semiotic systems.

DR: It was parish bells they began by ringing. One wonders to what extent this was an instantaneous language that people from all parts of the city would understand. If I’m at Sant’ Ambrogio, for example, I hear the bell on other side of town at Santa Lucia sul Prato. I know it’s quite far away, perhaps I recognise the tone. Were Florentines that sensitive to subtle gradations of tone and distance?

NA: It seems from the evidence they were and that they had to be. One source from 1378 is in the centre of the city and he names each bell as it starts ringing. So spatially he knows exactly what is going on. He doesn’t get them all right, but he’s pretty damn close. He understands this encroaching siege precisely in all of its horrifying spatial character. So Florentines, like any pre-modern urban community, were very sophisticated that way.

Fabrizio Nevola: It’s also about ritual. There’s a standardised pattern, and the breaking or rearranging of that pattern is what gives it its particular significance. That’s how ritual, when you’re talking about processions, also operates. To go back to our conversation with Ed Muir, that day in 1378 for you is the same as that day in Buia for Muir, the thing that renders the everyday visible. They discover their voice on that day.

NA: Right, and at the same time, they were understanding themselves as a community in the way the political rhetoric of Florence had taught them to, except they also understood that such rhetoric, which was in theory an idea of global community, was in fact excluding them. So they were really appropriating the entire system through which they were exploited and turned it back upon the government itself. At all levels they understood how the different systems of representation – of political rhetoric, of flags, of coats of arms, and of bells – worked symbolically to exclude them, and they were able to upend this.

DR: It seems to me what you’re doing is developing the kind of anthropology that comes out of Richard Trexler’s work. And at the heart of your work seems a concern with issues of power and agency. Though Trexler did not focus on sound very much.

NA: Trexler does say Florentines understood bells in an intricate way. He talks about the subtle play of diplomacy in which the ringing of bells was implicated, so that both Florentines and foreign diplomats had to listen to the subtle differences in tone and nuance in order to understand Florentine reactions to momentous events abroad. [R. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, Cornell UP, 1980, 288-9]. He does explicitly say, though, that space is not part of this issue at all. He says the sacred and meaningful are invested in buildings and objects, not in space. He’s absolutely and profoundly wrong about that, but it’s through him that I got to this place. What he didn’t do was follow through on bells to show that bells were creating space in multiple and temporal ways, so that they bound time and space together in a way, and this is very important methodologically. I recently completed a short article about Florentine sonic armatures and David Howes, who has written extensively about sensory experience, remarked upon reading it that what he was interested in is in how time and space were not understood in the Kantian sense of pre-existing general categories, but they were produced. Sound actually produced time, because it opened up spaces of time through which people understand temporal motion. It’s not as if things happened within time. Bells also opened up space that so that it was generated through practice and was not simply a container to be filled – it was produced by the very acts of daily ritual. That I think is extremely important.

In terms of ritual, what I’m interested in is the relationship between the individual and community – where you can stake the claim of the individual within the community, so you have both constructed at the same time and through the same forms, through the dialectic relationship that binds them. Some of the merchants that I’m interested in, in terms of their active engagement in writing about their city, establish their self-understanding in relationship to the communities in which they think they belong or ought to belong. There’s a freely available system of signs that you can use to mark territories and so on, but they won’t always work the way you want them to because you’re always negotiating with everyone else about what they mean. So you’re constantly negotiating with others to define yourself as an individual within and against the groups to which you belong and those that you don’t. It’s the space through which these encounters happen where identity – communal, familial, political, social, individual – is stored. And movement through spaces, I’ve come to believe at this moment, is the necessary condition for producing identities in urban communities in the past. You have to be moving, you have to be looking and listening, moving being a kind of critical practice performed on your urban environment, which includes bodies, institutions, buildings and spaces, so you’re constantly relocating your identity externally and marking it spatially, whether you do that alone or not. It’s a little inchoate right now, but something that I think promises to produce new forms of knowledge about the urban past.

With elaborate ritual, you’re with the community with which you’re negotiating, under certain customary rules, inverted or not, but you also establish community by yourself as you’re walking, because of the histories and narratives you are re-evoking, that you are overlaying on to very symbolic spaces that mean everything to you, your family, your past, other people’s pasts. When you pass different spaces you know certain things about them, so you are constantly engaged in the spaces which define that community, even when you are alone. So identity doesn’t belong to a community, or to an individual, it is produced by the act of walking and moving, linking oneself to the narratives of a collective memory stored in physical space – which is what processions do in a more formal manner. In a way it’s a counter-model to the way we learn about the perspectival model that so dominates discussions of the Italian Renaissance and its artistic production, where the individual steps back, stops, fixes vision in order to know, and such knowledge is assumed to come from the primacy of sight, from the privileged position of a subject apprehending an object. In fact, what people are actually doing, I think, is creating narratives through movement, understanding themselves as a continuous series of stories that are told by them walking and others walking against them or with them. I’ve always carried with me this idea from Maurice Halbwachs about collective memory, an anti-Freudian idea of how you remember who you are: it’s not about internally repressing the past or about something inside of you; memory exists outside you in your interaction with other people, which embeds it in the spaces you are interacting with as well [M. Halbwachs, ‘The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land’, in On Collective Memory, ed. L.A. Coser, Chicago UP, 1992]. So that in a very small way every time you move through a premodern city you are on some kind of pilgrimage, it’s not about getting anywhere, but the act of moving is crucial, encountering familiar narratives at every street corner in a manner similar to the way that familiar divinities inhabited the spaces of ancient Rome. What you’re doing is pinning narratives, sounds and meanings to certain locales, and I think you have to constantly reattach them or reengage with them. The sound element of my work has made me realise how important it is to imagine the productiveness of the fact that sounds dies very quickly, The fixity that architecture tends to have, being of stone, makes us forget that at times. The grafting of meaning onto stones is constantly petering out, and pre-modern communities have to constantly re-engage with them.

DR: You’ve talked a lot about bells. I’m wondering what we’re not hearing properly yet. What else do you think we need to listen to in early modern towns – or smell, or touch – to understand more about the relationship between self and community?

NA: Most of the premodern studies are from the 18th and 19th centuries. But there’s some work, such as that of Liz Horodowich, who is working on gossip. Gossip and the movement and the vocalisation of information, the way in which news travels, what kinds of circuits its goes through, the way the physical environment facilitates or hinders that. I’m thinking of anything that’s not music – since musicologists are working a great deal on aural landscapes. Cantastorie are a perfect example of where that comes together. In terms of community, in a fractious community like the Renaissance city, cantastorie could be found in the squares of many cities telling similar stories but modulating them to their audiences, as preachers do. They represent moments where a variety of social classes were bound to urban narratives and intellectual culture as an audience which hears stories from Dante and Boccaccio, modulated perhaps, corrupted we might say, but concretely meaningful to the people that heard them, wrote them down and retold them. There’s that funny story in Sacchetti, where Dante listens to the blacksmith singing his own Commedia, and he’s hacking the poem to pieces in the ears of Dante. This fascinates me. Dante is walking through the city, then he hears this artisan messing up his poem because he had heard it from a cantastoria in the piazza. So Dante’s texts, in a very real way, belonged to the entire community, despite what Sacchetti or Dante might have thought about that. Even Petrarch in that famous letter about walking with his friend around the ruins of Rome declares that the textual sources from which we learn history belong to us and only forgetting can take them away from us –  so much for copyright and plagiarism – and communities are also formed this way, so even the most erudite texts are part of the urban dialogue as well. There’s a creative rewriting and retelling here that would horrify us now, but which they were naturally compelled to do. Part of my dissertation was about how Boccaccio and Sacchetti dealt with issues about whether an author owned his text or not, or did it belong to the community. Did other storytellers have the right to continue to mess it up in the way they’d been doing, and to retell these stories on their own terms in ways that explained and made their own situations meaningful – stories that were oral to begin with anyway? The circulation of oral stories also creates urban communities, so the blacksmith can sing Dante in a way that is meaningful to him. I think storytellers are one of the focal points where several oral discourses collide.

DR: I guess if we’re thinking back to ideas of social capital, cantastorie created audiences bonded by something like thin trust, which Robert Putnam, and which Ed Muir had taken up, see as essential for communities to exist.

NA: Yes, it’s the deep bonds that don’t matter. But the other more casual bonds matter entirely for well-functioning community. And that thin trust is enacted within urban space, in the piazza. It lingers there in a way that it may not elsewhere – and people coming back through those same spaces have  attached to themselves again, temporarily, that thin trust. So in a way it’s part of your memory that connects you even if, or maybe especially, when you are alone. For example, I have never felt more bonded to an urban community than when I was fist-bumped during a recent banal and entirely forgettable encounter on the south side of Chicago. That is profoundly what community is about.


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