- Urban Poetics in the French Renaissance
The Renaissance rediscovery of Ptolemy’s second-century Geography provided artists and scholars with a means to reimagine their place in a rapidly changing world. Confronted with competing demands of scale—one, universal, concerned with the heavens and the movement of the [End Page 134] planets; the other, local, centered on human activity and the minutiae of topography—Ptolemy identified two corresponding sets of geographic practice: geography proper and chorography. In her elegant study of what she calls urban poetics, Elisabeth Hodges traces the impact of the latter practice on concepts and literary representations of the self in sixteenth-century France.
As Hodges demonstrates, city view engravings, derived from the Ptolemaic principles of chorography, not only increased the value of the atlases and cosmographies in which they were included, but were also pictorial manifestations of a growing concern among artists and writers with the city as a legitimate object of reflection upon human relations to the physical world. In detailed readings of literary texts and urban guidebooks from the late fifteenth century through the late sixteenth century, Hodges brings together recent scholarship on early modern urban identity on the one hand and the emergence of modern subjectivity on the other to show how “the turn to urban poetics, that is to say the city as a new aesthetic form, participate[s] in conjuring a discrete inner self from with the urban environment” (5).
Hodges begins her discussion with François Villon’s Grand Testament and the anonymous Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris de 1405–1449, two works that construct the city as the place where competing ways of being in the world collide. She goes on to consider in more fully historical and theoretical terms the relation of textual and pictorial depictions of urban space in the guide books of Gilles Corrozet. A third chapter shows how Maurice Scève’s eclogue Saulsaye formulates an image of place that blurs conventional distinctions between city and country. The study culminates in a reading of Montaigne’s depiction of landscape in his Journal de voyage and ambivalent reflections on the problem of fixity and situatedness in the textual presentation of subjectivity in the Essais.
Hodges’s discussion of Montaigne exemplifies the central strength of this insightful book. The tension Hodges identifies in Montaigne’s writing between the confining enclosure of the study and the unfolding itineraries of travel not only describes a notion of subjectivity that is relational with respect to place, but also underlies the features of the many subject positions that emerge, in each of the works she discusses, out of an engagement with the environment. The writers Hodges examines lived in a period when geographers and city planners wrestled with new relations of the global and the local, the knowable and the literally unfathomable. Hodges’s careful attention to the gaps, interstices, contradictions, and alternatives that necessarily interrupt any writerly attempt to fix the subject in place reminds us that the expanding early modern world yielded selves at once geographically singular and chorographically multiple.