The New Old Town

The most recent 99% Invisible podcast blew my mind. The podcast takes place in Warsaw, specifically in a part of the city called Old Town. During World War II, over 80% of the city was destroyed by German bombs. Most of the city was then rebuilt by the Soviets, in the Soviet utilitarian ideal–fast, cheap, functional, ugly. One district, however, was rebuilt with an eye to history. From 99% Invisible:

But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw—the Old Town and a long connecting     section called the Royal Route—they decided not just to rebuilt, but to restore. Builders would use the same stones, and use special kilns to make special bricks to preserve its authenticity. After six years of reconstruction, the new Old Town was opened. Poles were ecstatic to have it back. Even in the West, it was seen as a triumph of the human spirit.

Incredible, right? Well, the plot thickens:

Despite the push for authenticity, it turned out that the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto.  Bellotto was a “vedutista,” one who  specialized in the Venetian style of painting in which cityscapes are depicted realistically, with their details and documented precisely. But Bellotto had a tendency to make “improvements” on the cities he painted, relying as much on his artistic license as what he actually observed.  The paintings from the 18th Century were never meant to match reality—they were supposed to be better than reality.

So the new Old Town, isn’t a reconstruction at all. Its the manifest of an imaginary, idealized space.

This is fascinating to me in terms of creative nonfiction. Just as Bellotto improved upon reality to beautify his painting, an essayist make similar moves to capture “emotional realism.”

I’m reminded of Marianne Moore’s poem entitled “Poetry.” She writes of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Something similar is going on here in Warsaw. It’s an imaginary past with buildings in it.

I guess that’s where the metaphor ends for me. It’s an interesting thought experiment, though. What if a world was (re)created to the specifications of one of your essays? Would it be more emotionally real than the original experience? Or would it be something altogether different? It has a sort of uncanny feeling just thinking about it.

In any event, listen to the podcast. Think about it. Let me know what you think.

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2 Responses to The New Old Town

  1. Wow, what a provocative question! I’ll be mulling on that one for a while.
    I clicked on the link, but I couldn’t figure out how to listen to the podcast.

  2. koshakt says:

    There’s a little play button near the upper left corner. Hope that works!

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