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Florence, Siena and the ‘space of flows’

We are in Florence for a conference, in what is to my mind the most enchanting part of Italy, namely Tuscany. Because I have always been interested in art and architecture, and in principle we don’t take taxis, but walk everywhere we go, we have already seen the most beautiful buildings and urban landscapes, framed by the famed Tuscan hills, in and around the city.

A few days ago we walked to Fiesole, a village on a hill overlooking Florence, where there are stunning Etruscan and Roman archaeological remains, and were caught in an atmospheric thunderstorm that left us wet but thrilled by the experience. And yesterday we visited what is undoubtedly the most beautiful (little) city I have ever seen, Siena, plus an equally captivating medieval village nearby, San Gimignano — both architectural gems that have given me enough material to write on to make this trip thoroughly worth the cost.

There has only been one thing that has spoilt, and is still spoiling, the visit. Let me phrase it in terms of Manuel Castells’ social theory of the dominant mode of space today, namely what he so graphically calls the “space of flows”. From previous posts (see “The space of flows and the social elites of today” and “Resisting the dehumanising architecture of the space of flows” some readers will recall that the “space of flows” is the spatial mode that has become dominant in the course of the technological revolution that had its inception around the middle of the last century with the invention of the computer and television, followed later (crucially) by that of the internet, and which has still not run its course.

In a nutshell, this revolution has brought about a transformation of societies worldwide, so that, today, one can legitimately use the title of Castells’ magisterial book, The Rise of the Network Society (1996; 2nd edition 2010) to characterise what is distinct about contemporary society. Networks (actual and virtual) are everywhere, and along these networks — the internet being the basis of the vast majority of them — everything “flows”: information, communications, commodity and financial investment-flows, merchandise of the most unimaginably diverse kinds (think of the growing number of courier-services), etc even postal services are being re-imagined in terms of “post-net” images.

This is what the “space of flows” amounts to — as Castells has pointed out, all modes of space have always been the basis of what he calls “time-sharing activities”. In the Middle Ages, a village square or a Romanesque church was such a space, what he calls a space of “place” or of “contiguity”, in which social activities marked by simultaneity took place. The difference today is NOT that space is no longer the basis for simultaneous social activities, it still is, BUT because of the technological revolution it is no longer place-bound. Today social, economic, political, or intellectual activities take place simultaneously, and at locations scattered all over the globe. THIS is the “space of flows” that is the dominant spatial mode.

You may wonder why I remarked earlier that the space of flows “spoils” one’s visit to wonderful places like those in Florence and Siena. First remind yourself that the space of flows did not appear from nowhere, it was always there, but until now it was never dominant, the space of place or of contiguity (next-to-one-another space) was dominant. In other words, it was not the roads or paths that dominated the places where one was on one’s way to, but the other way around. The space of flows has always existed in the shape of paths in forests, roads linking towns, and so on. It was given a boost by the roads that the Romans built throughout the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago, and another, bigger boost by the 19th century construction of railroad connections throughout Europe, America and the colonised world. That railway system was an anticipation of what could, and did, happen when technology crossed the electronic barrier. Only then did the space of flows become the hegemonic spatial form.

Where do we encounter the space of flows today on a daily, almost continuous basis? Most conspicuously, when you are texting or talking on your smartphone, or when you see people sitting together in a coffee shop, not conversing, but engrossed in what is happening on their smartphone screens. When you are using, or surfing, the internet, you are part of the space of flows; when you enter an airport building, you are part of it, especially in the “duty free” areas where all you see around you are nauseating repetitions of Gucci, Versace, Bulgari, Dior, or any of the dominant brands that have the world in an economic stranglehold.

And, to get back to the spoiling effect of the space of flows when one is admiring unique architectural works in places like Florence and Siena (but also Paris, Prague, Rome, Vienna and all the beautiful cities of the world), picture this, or think back to similar experiences you have had: you walk down to the famous Piazza del Duomo of Florence, where one of the outstanding examples of church architecture stands, with the almost impossibly colossal “cupola” or dome designed by Brunelleschi and completed in the 15th century. When you get there, even as early as 8.30am, there is already a queue stretching the length of the huge building, waiting to go inside. And most of these people are part of tour groups — for myself one of the dreaded manifestations of the era of the space of flows.

Don’t get me wrong — tourism is as old as the hills; it probably existed in the Roman era, and not only because Goscinny and Uderzo show this to be the case in Asterix books. But again: today it is a phenomenon that overwhelms one because of its sheer magnitude. You will respond by pointing out that we (my partner and I) are part of it. Yes and no. Unavoidably you become part of this mass of rubbernecking humanity, but as a matter of principle we avoid tours — we prefer doing things like discovering beautiful places “on our own”. Involuntarily, however, you are swept along by the wave of humanity that comprises the travel-accompaniment of the space of flows.

One has no option but to live with it, which is why we often deviate from the beaten track by hiking into the hills, as we have done here in Florence, to have a different perspective on the city stretching out before us, without being suffocated by masses of tour groups around us. Where it really became almost too much to bear was yesterday when we visited the stunning little city of Siena (google it through the space of flows and you’ll see how beautiful it is), which is by far the best example I have yet discovered of a “space of place”, which, in Heideggerian idiom, creates its own singular “region”.

From the Piazza del Campo, where the annual horse races still take place every year, to the charmingly crooked little streets, with unexpected vistas unfolding as you walk further along them, and the white and black Tuscan marble Gothic cathedral atop the hill, the liberating “place” — quality of Siena is music to one’s soul. But it, too, is spoilt by the masses of people, mainly tour groups (easily recognisable by the tour guide walking in front, holding a conspicuous object of some kind).

I know that it comes with the territory of “travelling” today, and it’s no use complaining. But it’s such a pity that one cannot experience a place like Siena as it was “meant” to be experienced. After all, it flourished in the late Middle Ages, long before the space of flows triumphed, and its inhabitants would have known what it meant as a unique space of place. Even today the charm of that spatial aspect is not wholly absent. We spoke to a woman who has lived there for 10 years, and in her passion for the place, born of her happiness to be able to live in a city with such diverse, yet qualitatively coherent spatial attributes, we could detect the irrepressible workings of the “space of place”.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. OneFlew OneFlew 19 June 2015

    The horse race is wonderful. And it shows the extraordinary parochialism, fanaticism even, of some of the locals. The space of place in Tuscany is very partisan! After which heat there is a certain comfort in rejoining the cosmopolitan tourist crowds as an anonymous and self-accepting rubbernecker.

    For me Florence is about the art, Siena about the place.

  2. Walter Köppe Walter Köppe 20 June 2015

    As you rightly point out, the space of flows and the space of place have always existed. Everything though, Siena, the Amazon, the Mona Lisa, has become more accessible and crowded in the wake of affordability and subsequently more commonplace. Stepping out of the space of overflowing and stepping back in time as it where, to walk and/or cycle is the way to go these days. Enjoy!

  3. Richard Richard 20 June 2015

    Oddly enough, rather than the architecture, the things that I principally remember about Siena are the beauty of its tiles, and the sgrafitto work of Fungai and Beccafumi, especially in relation to St. Catherine. There were mass protests years ago in London outside the National Gallery against the building of a huge new international airport in the vicinity to encourage even more tourism, which it was said would create the sort of problems you are experiencing. And that airport is not yet built! Did you manage to see the Tumulus of Montecalvacio nearby? There are speculations as to Etruscan or non-Etruscan origins or inspiration.

    Your point about the flows and interruptions of flows brings to mind the way that capitalism is the dominant flow, in the sense that money is the sine qua non of abstracted value (it has taken possession of far more than simply exchange-value), and how in some part of the world different mechanism of interruption or blocks to this flow have either been invented or entrenched, such as what we see with ISIL in Syria and events in the Ukraine. Africa, of course, set the already decaying notion of political independence above the emerging “space of flows” hypothesis, which means it now finds itself at a disadvantage. The current brouhaha with the leader of the Sudan is a case in point, where South Africa’s determination to join in the flow by joining the ICC is still seen as less relevant than its political independence. The flow of millions of migrants, however, shows the vacuousness of this position. Interesting how the human condition remains valid through all its forms of expression, whether artistic or political.

    As an aside: Etruria makes for a fascinating study, one area being the interaction between Renaissance politics and Etruscan artefacts, used to claim ancestry, and to give power. Ferdinando di Medici’s “Roman Garden” is filled with Etruscan elements, but he seems carefully to have avoided siding with Etruria in a political sense, since there are no sculptures in the garden of any of the Tarquins or Porsena (both having been the cause of problems in Rome; the first the rise of Republic after the Rape of Lucretia, and the second having besieged Rome, at a minimum). So a sanitised connection, designed to enforce legitimacy. The obelisk in the garden is instructive, since it has an inscription that reads that it was erected in the time of Tarquinius, which links it to the ancient Egyptians. You probably know that people used to speak of Hetruria, which was considered larger than Etruria, a usage that seems to have disappeared after Galileo’s trial. Some posited that the Etruscans were the heirs of the ancient Hebrews, and that Isis, Noah and King Arthur stopped off there! One of the main sources for these ideas was Giovanni Nanni, who would later become an influence on Martin Luther. In a similar way, eighteenth and nineteenth century northern Europe appropriated Roman columns and pediments to project power and continuity.

  4. Zolani Ngwane Zolani Ngwane 22 June 2015

    Interesting read, Bert. However, I still can’t tell you and your partner apart from the throngs of tourists. Perhaps it is because I do not think of space of flows as something one can or should simply live with or alongside, but as something one is already inside of – hence you can still address us from “that place.” That is also why it is possible that someone else on the same trip (perhaps one of the tourists) is posting his/her regrets that there were so many people there (including you). No?

  5. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 23 June 2015

    Zolani – Yes and no. Yes, because I have already indicated that today, when the space of flows is the dominant spatial mode, it is impossible to escape it completely. No, because, as Henri Lefebvre has argued in The Production of Space, different spatial modes are sometimes “combined”, as is the case here, in Siena – although one seems to be swept away by the crowds representing the space of flows, it is still possible to sneak out of the stream (as we did at the Siena Musical Academy), and spend a few moments in repose, enjoying the place as “space of place”.
    Walter – you appear to agree that this is possible.
    OneFlew – Agreed; I like your distinction between Florence and Siena, as long as one remembers that the architecture, which also counts as an artform, and of which both cities have splendid examples, is a major contributor to a sense of “place”.
    Richard – I lack the space and historical knowledge to offer an appropriate response to your very erudite elaboration on the history and culture of this part of Italy. Suffice it to say that the Etruscan heritage is evident not only in the places you mention, but elsewhere too, such as in Fiesole near Florence (where an Etruscan and a Roman altar stand side by side, with the latter exceeding the former significantly in size). I loved the Gothic Duomo in Siena, refraining from comparing it to the (in a sense incomparable) Duomo by Brunelleschi in Florence. Needless to say, it would be disastrous for the irreplaceable artistic and cultural heritage of this area if the international airport you mention were to be constructed near Siena. My partner also relished the beautiful tiles, and could not get enough of photographing them from different angles and at different times of the day.

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