Thursday, April 01, 2004

Libraries, Public Places and Piazzas

I--along with a number of colleagues--have recently been studying behaviour in public libraries. While we observed a number of behaviour we expected (e.g., reading, studying, etc.) there seemed to be something else going on that is disctinct from typical commercial consumer behaviour. We're struggling for words to describe this phenomon. We do, however, have a metaphor: the Italian piazza. In searching for some good quoatations about piazza's I came across Project Gutenberg's version of Henry James's Italian Hours. I've never read James; perhaps it's about time I do:

"Piazza San Marco is the lobby of the opera in the intervals of the performance."

"Meeting in the Piazza on the evening of my arrival a young American painter who told me that he had been spending the summer just where I found him, I could have assaulted him for very envy. He was painting forsooth the interior of St. Mark's. To be a young American painter unperplexed by the mocking, elusive soul of things and satisfied with their wholesome light-bathed surface and shape; keen of eye; fond of colour, of sea and sky and anything that may chance between them; of old lace and old brocade and old furniture (even when made to order); of time-mellowed harmonies on nameless canvases and happy contours in cheap old engravings; to spend one's mornings in still, productive analysis of the clustered shadows of the Basilica, one's afternoons anywhere, in church or campo, on canal or lagoon, and one's evenings in star-light gossip at Florian's, feeling the sea-breeze throb languidly between the two great pillars of the Piazzetta and over the low black domes of the church--this, I consider, is to be as happy as is consistent with the preservation of reason."

"I must confess, however, that "feudal" as it amused me to find the little piazza of the Ariccia, it appeared to threaten in no manner an exasperated rising. On the contrary, the afternoon being cool, many of the villagers were contentedly muffled in those ancient cloaks, lined with green baize, which, when tossed over the shoulder and surmounted with a peaked hat, form one of the few lingering remnants of "costume" in Italy; others were tossing wooden balls light-heartedly enough on the grass outside the town. "

"I saw later some gentlemen of Assisi who also seemed bored enough to have found entertainment in his tray. They were at the door of the cafe on the Piazza, and were so thankful to me for asking them the way to the cathedral that, answering all in chorus, they lighted up with smiles as sympathetic as if I had done them a favour. Of that type were my mild, my delicate adventures."

"The great Piazza of Siena is famous, and though in this day of multiplied photographs and blunted surprises and profaned revelations none of the world's wonders can pretend, like Wordsworth's phantom of delight, really to "startle and waylay," yet as I stepped upon the waiting scene from under a dark archway I was conscious of no loss of the edge of a precious presented sensibility. The waiting scene, as I have called it, was in the shape of a shallow horse-shoe--as the untravelled reader who has turned over his travelled friends'portfolios will respectfully remember; or, better, of a bow in which the high wide face of the Palazzo Pubblico forms the cord and everything else the arc. It was void of any human presence that could figure to me the current year; so that, the moonshine assisting, I had half-an-hour's infinite vision of mediƦval Italy. "


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