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The Public Life of Images: Towards a Social Ecology of the Urban Gaze. The example of Bologna’s Sacrario dei Partigiani

Olivier Gaudin


To investigate the active presence of images in urban public places, this article argues for the possibility of a social ecological perspective, revisiting the tradition of human ecology introduced by Chicago sociologists and social psychologists a century ago. Confronting this intellectual heritage to contributions of visual, cultural and memory studies, I propose to consider the ecological framing of urban experience as a method for investigating the public life of images. This approach consists in studying the perceptual environments, material devices and social activities that maintain a living relationship with public images in cities. To illustrate the proposal, the article examines a concrete example, the photographic portraits of the Sacrario dei Partigiani in Bologna (Italy), through personal observation and photographs. A third section of the text expands the scope of inquiry, in order to experiment with the social ecological approach: it addresses the contemporary flooding of advertising and mobile images in contemporary urban situations.

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1From monuments to advertising or political posters, from information screens to shop windows, the omnipresence of images in the public spaces of Western cities is self-evident, often criticized since the advent of “consumer societies” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1991, Barthes 1957, Debord 1967, Baudrillard 1970, Debray 1992). This pervasiveness has led to the constitution of areas of scholarship such as visual anthropology, visual culture studies and media studies (Mitchell 1994, 2005). Other fields of research commonly examine the stakes of representation in public: cultural anthropology (Descola 2006, 2010), the sociology of the arts (Becker 1982), or architecture and urban studies (Kossel & Sölch 2018). However, few social scientists, philosophers or art historians attempt to further connect those different perspectives to address the concrete modalities of the manifold presence of images in urban public space: that is, to consider their material supports or mediums while they are surrounded by the various social activities of reception on which the meaning of public images eventually depends. From the perspective of their location within public places and spaces, one could argue that our knowledge about the ordinary experience of visual representations is still limited, since most of the existing theoretical approaches, however rich and inspiring, tend to remain disconnected from one another.

2Which methodological tools might address, across different intellectual traditions and learning simultaneously from them, the actual place of images in public spaces? This article argues for a contextual approach inherited from early urban sociology, rather than aesthetics or geography: it investigates the presence of images in urban public places from a perspective of social ecology. Social ecology is an intellectual tradition that was progressively elaborated a century ago by sociologists, social psychologists and pragmatist philosophers at the University of Chicago. In the specific context of the growing American industrial metropolis, Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, in particular, attempted to define a programme of “human ecology” (Park & Burgess 1925), while John Dewey and George H. Mead insisted on studying the social and environmental conditions of individual experience and thought (Dewey 1925, Mead 1934). Although they did not always emphasize the phrase “social ecology”, these authors highlighted social and historical processes of interaction within given situations. Focusing on the mutual interdependency between human agents and their environments led them to investigate different yet simultaneous “layers” of experience, contesting every form of dualism.

3The prospect of examining the public life of images is interdisciplinary; by bringing Chicago's intellectual heritage of “human ecology” into dialogue with a site-specific analysis of public images, urban and visual studies can enrich each other. Shifting from “space” to “place” is a first step along that methodological line of thought. Arguably, an actual urban ecology of the public experience of images still awaits its development. This is partly due to the objective complexity of the interactions at stake but also to a relative lack of questioning about how those evolving relationships shape or transform empirical situations. The consideration of collective attitudes towards images in public requires a transversal curiosity, an open circulation of ideas and comparisons of experiences across different times and sites.

4Describing the content and location of images in public places is not enough. We should ask who brings them to life, who puts them there and who looks at them, why, how often, and with whom. In other words, as semioticians and sociolinguists have long taught us about language use: context is also content. Further, any reflection about images should start with their genesis and existence. Since these intermediate realities are both material and intentional objects, they tend to resist ontological identification (Lavaud 2001, Schnell 2007, Alloa 2011) and to escape the mere logic of place (Nancy 2003, Coccia 2011: 102-103). However, studying their being in public does not involve solving these difficult problems in abstracto. Addressing the meaning and functions of images visible in accessible urban settings, I focus on clearly identifiable visual supports that are characterized by their relatively stable material presence in definite places and over time.

Towards a social ecology of public images: methodology

5The authors who introduced the possibility of social ecology did not study images. However, other social scientists have unveiled some important factors of the public presence of images, which may serve my own ecological perspective. Especially the growing scholarship on social and collective memory, “memory studies”, now an established field of interdisciplinary research (Olick & Robbins 1998; Erll, Nünning & Young 2010; Tota & Hagen 2015), investigates public iconography, scrutinizing its ritual functions and political uses or misuses (Nora 1984-1997; François, Schulze & al. 2007). In addition to literary, photographic or cinematographic descriptions, social sciences have also learned from ground-breaking works on visual experience. László Moholy-Nagy (1927), Walter Benjamin (1989, 2005) and Aby Warburg (2012), as well as recent scholars of visual culture (Mitchell, 2001, 2005) or public performance (Schechner 1985), provide both materials and methodological resources for investigation, reaching far beyond art theory. An ecological approach to public images may elaborate on those intellectual traditions to at once address the status and content of public images as well as the activities and the spatial organization of the social life around them. Therefore, the overall methodology of this article is twofold: it traces its own conceptual framework of a “social ecology of images”, extending the tradition of human ecology towards contemporary urban and visual studies, and it aims to measure this framework against a concrete example.

6A first section examines and rephrases the concepts of image and public visibility from an ecological perspective. Urban studies produce precious elements for contextualization: looking in public, or publicly, does not mean looking together; it suggests the visible presence of multiple, different and interacting others, going across intentionally designed places. Visual studies emphasize that images stand there for several reasons, which people understand or apprehend in ways that greatly vary with times and places. The second part attempts a descriptive analysis of an example located in the heart of the city of Bologna (Italy). Through direct observation, attentive description, and personal photographs of the situation, I examine how the photographic portraits of the Sacrario concentrate many stakes of an anthropological and social ecology of urban gaze at public images. In the third and final section, I confront the peculiarities of this case with the multiple images visible in contemporary urban situations. Arguably, their meaning remains open-ended insofar as symbolic images are made public through shared social activities – themselves affected by the places in which they unfold.

Images and urban public places from an ecological perspective

Combining the theory of image with an analysis of public visibility

7In the West, a long philosophical tradition – from Plato to Baudrillard – approached the varying distance separating the image from reality. Among the images, most philosophers distinguished iconic representation (eikon) from self-referential simulacra (eidolon): an icon would refer to a represented thing by keeping their distance perceptible, such as between the copy and the original, while the simulacrum or the idol, pretending to be a real thing, would abuse our perceptual credulity to create illusions. In both cases, an ordinary image would be moving away from reality (Baudrillard 1981: 9-67). However, other thinkers more attentive to material history, as well as the “documentary montages” of certain artists (Didi-Huberman 2013: 77-136, Rancière 2011: 265-307), challenge this simplistic separation by scrutinizing the numerous material supports, physical traces and bodily places that make possible the very existence of images. They insist that even internal or mental images remain strongly related to external artefacts or media. In the wake of pioneers such as Warburg or Benjamin, visual culture scholars have observed a “remarkable transformation” (Mitchell 2005: 47) in the history of art as well as popular culture. Turning their attention to the contemporary proliferation of images far beyond works of art, they acknowledge their strangeness, their aura or their dialectical nature. In parallel, Descola (2006, 2010) and Belting (2005: 304-307) have emphasized the singularities of these meaningful surfaces, first sculpted, carved or painted, often directly on bodies; later reproduced at large scale through various techniques and “mediums”.

8Ever since the production of printed material reached an unprecedented mass scale during the industrial era, visible surfaces have expanded throughout urban areas – from electoral posters to advertising screens, signage, monuments, graffiti, tags, official artwork, and shop windows. This amplification requires an appropriate descriptive anthropology attentive to the ranges of uses and nuances, to evolving situations rather than broad categorizations. Therefore, the concept of image calls into question its traditional treatment in Western philosophy (Lavaud 2001). Renewing its analysis involves a close description of “sensible life”, starting from the living stuff of perceptual environments. This may lead to the linking together of a “physics” and an “anthropology” of “the sensible”, an association that echoes medieval conceptions of the visible (Coccia 2016).

9What about the relationship between images and public space? Rejecting the dualistic division between reality and appearance, or between fixed essence and moving surface, does not cancel the need to distinguish between different types of images and their respective situations of exposure. Beyond the mere specification of “space” into “places”, an ecological analysis engages with the activities of the viewers or audience – the public, irreducible to a passive and homogeneous entity. Studying the public life of images in the city contests the traditional condemnation of “spectacle”, even in the specific sense intended by Debord (1967). Such an attitude underestimates the judgemental capacities of spectators and city dwellers, reducing them to passive subjects.

This obsessive concern with the baleful display of commodities and images, and this representation of their blind, self-satisfied victim, did not arise in the age of Barthes, Baudrillard and Debord. They became established in the second half of the nineteenth century, in a very specific context. It was when physiology discovered the multiplicity of nervous stimuli and circuits in place of what had been the unity and simplicity of the soul; and when, with Taine, psychology transformed the brain into a ‘polyp of images’. The problem is that this scientific promotion of quantity coincided with another – that of the popular multitude which was the subject of the form of government called democracy; that of the multiplicity of those individuals without qualities whom the proliferation of reproduced texts and images, window displays in shopping precincts and lights in public towns, was transforming into full inhabitants of a shared world of knowledge and pleasures. […] Denunciation of the misleading seduction of the ‘consumer society’ was initially the deed of elites gripped by terror […] (Rancière 2009: 46-47).

10Urban studies did not wait for this “critique of the critique”. They already emancipated themselves from dualism by associating, for example, the iconography of built spaces (the history of urban representations, the theory of architecture and urban planning) with studying urban “imaginaries” and the viewpoints of urban dwellers (Roncayolo 1990: 176-180, Roncayolo 2014). These topics already involve a specific attention to the physical presence of images in cities, while connecting it to their interiorisation by people. Analyses of the “imageability” and “legibility” of urban forms (Lynch 1960: 1-13), semiology applied to urban studies (Barthes 1970: 43-56, Choay 1972: 11-30, Ledrut 1973), as well as historical anthropology (Bailly 2005, Belting 2001, 2005, Descola 2006) have thus together described the fabrication of images and the evolution of their social and cultural functions, without neglecting their material supports, cultural meaning and spatial contexts. The fieldwork of Kevin Lynch and his colleagues combined the modern psychology of perception with the engineers’ traditional practical knowledge about transportation and infrastructure planning. This approach has revealed the propensity of urban spaces to provide ordinary perception with coherence (structure, totality, edges, limits) and orientation (elements, paths, landmarks). Their empirical investigations across European and American cities took up the framing of experience by constructed forms and fostered its psychological, anthropological and sociological analysis (Lynch 1960: 123-159). Surveying the material and temporal conditions of the formation of urban dwellers’ mental images, analysing their movement – whether pedestrians, passengers or drivers – as well as questioning the architect's and urban planner's means of trying to “make an image” by modifying built places, to this day all remain fruitful intellectual attitudes, especially for a social ecological perspective.

The social life of urban public places: towards an ecology of urban experiences

11At the crossroads of so many different disciplines, the study of public images needs an intellectual reconstruction and a careful contextualization. The social ecological perspective offers one possible approach; since the visibility of images in public depends on social and historical processes, their analysis requires a contextualized “natural history” in the sense developed by the Chicago sociologists. If images are the product of a living circulation integrated into the vast array of social interactions, one must consider the diversity of places, contexts and forms of their presence. This encompasses the facades and portals of cathedrals, statues, posters and frescoes on the walls, monuments, museums and shop windows to the floors, construction palisades, advertising panels and screens that encumber the streets and public transport – not to mention theatres and cinemas, art galleries, and cemeteries. All are not equal in quality, content, depth or durability. Although many images in cities stand in specific urban places characterized by their social and historical complexity, many others, at the fringes or edges or urban nodes and infrastructures, are no less overwhelmed by contextual significance. Outdoor (and some indoor) built spaces constitute a vast “public realm” (Lofland 1998) with uncertain boundaries. This vagueness aggravates the difficulty of their categorizing; even if we were to stick to central urban places, should we not include, in addition to streets and squares, the shopping centres, cafés, waiting and transit areas, as well as stations and bus shelters? Just as the concept of image, the notion of public space, extremely labile, threatens to lose its relevance because of its very extension.

12At this point, a fine-grained ecology of experience inspired by Dewey’s and Mead’s pragmatist philosophy of perception as well as by Lynch’s work, while bringing Chicago's human ecology down to the scale of ordinary perceptions, may prove resourceful. Such an approach replaces images in the intermittent visibility and the permanent movement that characterize urban life (Whyte 1980, Sennett 1991, 1994, Quéré 1992, Joseph 1984, 1998). It tracks down affordances for action and means of organizing or preventing the mutual visibility of street life. Focusing on specific settings, it observes the spatial arrangements between bodies, the distance that separates or brings them closer to one another, and their rapid or slower movements. “Public space” is therefore redefined as the material context of the mutual exposure of city dwellers, i.e., as the changing framework of interactions in public – the places of the public (Joseph 1991). Certain areas of interaction become “public arenas” (Cefaï 2002), that is, contexts of mutual visibility and symbolic communication where various forms of practical engagement become possible – collective or civic mobilizations, demonstrations or celebrations, but also trials, conflicts and even confrontations (Hayden 1995). The close connection between this pragmatist understanding of the “public” and lively urban contexts becomes more understandable. Conditions of reciprocal visibility are quickly changing with the course of daylight as well as with the transformation of built places. Meanwhile, the urban social order is constantly being negotiated or recomposed through sequences of interactions, which embody the political meaning of those conditions of visibility.

13Further observation tools are the notions of open situations, interactional processes and flexible behaviour (Goffman 1963, Cefaï 2002, Joseph 1984, 1998). Finally, a social ecological approach focuses on the conditions of coexistence in public and urban pluralism, understood as a tension comprised of trials and misunderstandings rather than an irrevocable achievement (Joseph 2007: 111-132, 437-459, Tonnelat 2016).

Contextualizing the active presence of images: the contribution of visual studies

14From this perspective, the analysis of images shifts towards their conditions of visibility: i.e., their spatial and temporal situation, their concrete supports and their symbolic status. Contemporary visual studies enrich the analysis of those contextual conditions. W. J. T. Mitchell has shown how the word ‘image’ can indicate distinct realities: ‘images’ showing a resemblance, pattern or figure; ‘objects’, in the sense of the material supports on which the images appear, or in the sense of the elements of the world to which these images refer; and, finally, ‘media’, i.e., ‘material practices’ that link the first two senses to produce constructed pictures (Mitchell 2005: xiii-xiv, see also Belting 2005: 304-307). The latter combine different production elements and gestures, which calls for a contextual analysis.

15What does ‘material practices’ mean? The presence of images depends on their physical locations and the spatial arrangements that maintain their visibility over time: an image only makes sense in a social situation, that is, an intentional context of meaningful relationships. These include relationships with other images, but, also and above all, they involve the viewers’ gazes and memories. Visual representations in public places change meaning with their ongoing reception by city dwellers. What are, then, the ecological and social conditions of the presence of images in cities? Some constitute a cultural heritage – statues, ornate facades and public monuments are the result of an explicit intention of staging space to serve an aesthetic or political purpose (and often the conjunction of the two). Paradigmatic examples are medieval churches and cathedrals, the Louvre Palace with its successive extensions and remodelling (from Philippe Auguste to the Grand Louvre), or funeral monuments. Celebrations and ceremonies make up the public life of these images of stone. Historical changes alter their role and meaning so that figurative objects may change their symbolic or ritual function, from religion to art for instance – which gives itself place to other types of organized rituals, as orchestrated by mass tourism or cultural promotion. Elsewhere, ordinary tools may become archaeological remains of prime importance, the material footprints of a lost era: in other words, images of the past. At the other end of the spectrum, other pictorial genres only have an ephemeral presence, such as the festive arrangements of street shows, graffiti and illegal street art, or advertising, which appeal to immediate consumption.

16Thus, the overall meaning of images in public places is variable and revocable; it depends on the social and cultural context rather than on their “objective” content. This dependency is made clear by those worn out, out-dated or decontextualized monuments in former Communist countries made obsolete by ideological turnovers after the loss of the social ecological relations that gave them sense. A change of institutions transforms inscriptions or monuments attached to a specific political regime into archaeological remains within a matter of days. This phenomenon is in fact ordinary, although not always as quick and spectacular. Lee Friedlander's photographic series The American Monument provides a good overview of this uncertain destiny:​book.cfm?slug=the-american-monument. This visual inquiry through American urban squares shows both the enveloping and isolation of ancient civic monuments in their built-up contexts (Friedlander 1976):​finearts/​lee-friedlander-the-american-monument-photographs/​. Like a word, a building or a work of art, the meaning of a public image depends on its social environment, as well as the various social activities that take place around it. Its actual meaning changes with the framing that different uses and activities (or the decline of these uses) operate in the time and place where they are located, i.e., their situation. The following section confronts this general idea in a concrete situation.

Faces in the city: the Sacrario of Bologna

[…] to do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations. And anyone who did not know it was taught by the best Russian films that milieu and landscape, too, reveal themselves most readily to those photographers who succeed in capturing their anonymous physiognomy, as it were presenting them at face value. (Benjamin 2005: 519)

Situation: the public visibility of collective memory

17Let us consider a specific location – an area of just a few square metres. In the heart of the city of Bologna (Italy), a wall panel features approximately two thousand small-format photographic portraits hung in a window: simple, barely enlarged passport photos. In a number of these small frames, only the image of a partisans’ badge, instead of a photo, appears above a family name followed by an initial. The portraits are captioned twice: for each frame a surname, and above the large window, set in lead capital letters approximately ten centimetres high (recalling print typing characters), an inscription reads: BOLOGNA 8 SETTEMBRE 1943-26 APRILE 1945, CADUTI DELLA RESISTENZA PER LA LIBERTÀ E LA GIUSTIZIA, PER L' ONORE E L' INDIPENDENZA DELLA PATRIA.


Figure 1: Sacrario dei Partigiani e Caduti per la Liberazione, Piazza del Nettuno, Bologna

Figure 1: Sacrario dei Partigiani e Caduti per la Liberazione, Piazza del Nettuno, Bologna

Olivier Gaudin, 2014

19Each one of these gazes, regardless of the age, social class, profession or diploma of the persons, seems to take up the written injunction carried by certain walls of French cities: “passer-by, remember!” (see Barcellini & Wieviorka 1995). This striking album of faces composes a funeral monument, the Sacrario dei partigiani e caduti per la liberazione.

20Many similar monuments are visible throughout Italy, where the Partisans movements were so active. They constitute official support for collective memory, with commemorative ceremonies held every year. However, few of them suggest the painful complexity of Italian history between September 1943 and April 1945, as the world conflict took the shape of an actual civil war that brought bloodshed to central and northern Italy. Parks, museums, cultural centres, sites of memory or remembrance have been dedicated to these tragic events. Common post-war monuments are statues, steles, plaques or bas-relief located on public buildings, in enclosed cemeteries or on sites of battlegrounds: for instance, in the Versilia (between the cities of Lucca and Carrara, in Toscana), in Parma (the Monumento al Partigiano by Marino Mazzacurati and Guglielmo Lusignoli, 1954-1956) or in Venice, where the half-drowned statue of the Partigiana (by Augusto Murer, 1961) reclines in the Laguna, in front of the entrance of the Biennale Giardini. Another interesting example, in Bologna, is the Monumento al Partigiano e alla Partigiana of Porta Lame (by Luciano Minguzzi, 1947); the two bronzes were transferred there in 1986. Both were forged out of a melted Mussolinian equestrian statue of 1929, itself forged out of Austrian cannons captured in 1848). Most of these monuments stage expressive figures and narrative texts mentioning the suffering of victims or their “glorious” sacrifice. Others, such as the “Monumento ai Partigiani” in Segrate near Milan (Aldo Rossi, 1965-1967), are very different: rather than images, figures or narratives, the built objects suggest unanswered questions by their enigmatic presence in the midst of public squares or sites. They attempt an articulation with their environing architecture or landscape.

21Although Bologna’s memorial echoes both of these tendencies, it seems quite unique, because of its very specific use of peculiar images. Its display case, with the printers and the plaque were affixed in 1961 by the Communist municipality, providing an official framework to the spontaneous hanging of photographs that preceded it. Despite the passage of generations and the increasing distance from the traumatic past evoked by the pictures, their central location still makes them most visible by everyone, every day of the year. This monument therefore seems a paradigm of public exposure of the past through images.

22How public is the place? The wall belongs to the Palazzo d’Accursio, or Palazzo Comunale (the City Hall). The architectural complex, traced out in the 13th century and rebuilt many times since, opens onto a square of modest dimensions, built around 1550: Neptune Square (Piazza del Nettuno, named after the statue by Jean de Boulogne that has adorned its fountain since 1566). Previously, it was simple to gain access to the Piazza Maggiore, the nerve centre of the city and province as a whole.

Figure 2: Ferd. Artaria & son, Map of Bologna, 1859. The Piazza Maggiore and the Piazza del Nettuno lies at its geographical centre

Figure 2: Ferd. Artaria & son, Map of Bologna, 1859. The Piazza Maggiore and the Piazza del Nettuno lies at its geographical centre

Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya, License: Creative Commons.

23The city centre lies on the exact route of the Roman Via Emilia, the major road axis that gave its name to the administrative region of which Bologna is the capital. The modest Neptune Square, open on its north side towards the main street of the city, also remains, practically, a street providing access to the Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica of San Petronio. Until its pedestrianisation, as early as 1968, it was a street segment: it extends the major axis of the rectilinear Via dell’Indipendenza (built in late 19th century) connecting the central square to the train station, up north. In the corner formed by the Palazzo d’Accursio, just in front of the monument, a newspaper kiosk dating from before the war survived until the 1980s. Since this location roughly corresponds to the intersection of the cardo and decumanus of Roman colonization, this crossroads has been the city’s geographical and historical centre for two thousand years.

Figure 3: General views of Piazza del Nettuno from North-East, and from South. An inevitable meeting point for all Bolognese, the inhabitants of the region and visitors, be they local or foreign students, immigrants or tourists

Figure 3: General views of Piazza del Nettuno from North-East, and from South. An inevitable meeting point for all Bolognese, the inhabitants of the region and visitors, be they local or foreign students, immigrants or tourists

Olivier Gaudin, 2014

24After having delineated an enclosed garden attached to the communal palace, this part of the building housed the stock exchange during the 19th century. It has never ceased to be the city's busiest meeting place. In 1999, the installation of a public library around the internal covered square of 19th century Sala Borsa, freely accessible to everyone and intensely used by the population, reinforced its status as a major public place.

Facing portraits, confronting history

25The building was also a prison on several occasions, including at the end of the Second World War – which was also an extremely violent civil war in Italy. This thick outer wall has been the scene of numerous summary executions and of public exposures of resistance fighters’ and partisans’ corpses, supplicated by fascists. As soon as the city was liberated in 1945, Bolognese who had lost someone in such tragic circumstances began to hang portraits of their family members on that wall: (​blog/​tag/​the-shrine/​). A short online description of the Sacrario is available on the public-funded website “Storia e Memoria di Bologna” (​resistenza/​monumenti/​sacrario-piazza-nettuno). The meaning of these ordinary photographs became commemorative and symbolic in several ways, as Italian cities were torn apart for decades by controversial narratives about the “Resistance”, in a way that singles out the Italian case (Perona 1995; 1997; 2005). For instance, Parma’s Monumento was heavily damaged in 1961, and similar attacks have occurred throughout Northern Italy. In the specific context of Bologna, which for decades was an outpost of municipal communism, these faces would have seemed, during the postwar decades, ennobled by the ethical and political meaning of their “sacrifice”. The construction of a coherent narrative of the Partigiani’s Resistance recalled this to all, publicly. They were thus given a political function that is reminiscent of the role of the funeral mask – the Roman imago:

Far from our Vasarian tradition, where the portrait is defined as an optical imitation of the portrayed individual (at a distance) and at best a false illusion of his visible presence, the Roman notion of the imago involves a duplication by contact with the face, a process of impression (the plaster mould ‘taking’ on the face itself) and then a physical ‘expression’ of the shape obtained (the positive wax print made from the mould). Imago is therefore not an imitation in the classical sense of the word; it is not a fake and does not require any idea, talent or artistic magic. On the contrary, it is an image-matrix produced by adhesion, by direct contact of the material (the plaster) with the material (of the face). (Didi-Huberman 2000: 69).

26The simplicity of those portraits tends to balance the political role they were assigned. Most of the images of the monument in its present shape (remade in 1961) appear to be official administrative identity photographs, perhaps even for police purposes. These images were not taken for commemoration or celebration, but for identification. Each of these faces of men and women photographed under the fascist regime that had ruled Italy for two decades had been part of a civil and state order. In this respect, they bear witness to the intense use of images by all political regimes of the last century. However, a small minority of them belong to an amateur practice, i.e., the vernacular circulation of photography: they document its ordinary uses in urban societies at a time when the generalization of the medium had reached a mass scale – particularly in the form of the reproduction of works of art (Benjamin 2005: 521-522), the mass press (Freund 1980: 103-139) and amateur photography (Rouillé 1982: 192).

Figure 4: The Sacrario dei Partigiani, central panel

Figure 4: The Sacrario dei Partigiani, central panel

Olivier Gaudin, 2014

27Today, these portraits serve less to identify individuals – except of course for the relatives – than to make the viewer understand the importance of certain events. However, if they may reach us beyond the local, Italian or even European scale, it is precisely, and without paradox, because of their specific spatial anchoring. Their display on a crowded public square offers the memorial to everyone’s eyes, permanently, without intermediaries and with little ceremony. Its public visibility gives force to the display case, much more than its capital-lettered metal title. These portraits may remind every passer-by, regardless of his or her origin and knowledge of Italy’s troubled history, of the consequences of ideological confrontation and political assassination, of civil war with its executions without trial; of the injustice and violence that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. However, they may also evoke the determination, courage, sacrifice and resistance, the transmission of ideals of justice and combat, and the sufferings of civil war. Arguably, one may discuss values in the sense of ideas and life forms implying a commitment and determination to act; without prejudging the content of those controversial values nor their majority approval, the presence side-by-side of these sober black-and-white portraits suffices to provoke a feeling of seriousness and questioning. Last but not least, the monument owes its peculiarity to its assemblage of vernacular photographs; for that very reason, its formalization did not cancel the spontaneity of its spontaneous emergence. Although it was probably not unique, the presence of such pictures being more common in Italian cemeteries than in other Western European countries, the durability and especially the location of the monument makes it an exception. This use of public images even incorporates an apparent contradiction, giving permanent visibility to ordinary pictures that seem much closer to ephemeral press photographs than to marble statues.

Montage and memory

28Bologna’s Sacrario is as much a monument as a memorial: it is a place of active public memory since memory and emotions, through those ordinary images, may continue to work, disturb and move visitors. Jean Giono, for instance, did not miss this evocative force as he briefly travelled through the city in the early 1950s – that is, before the official window and plaque were installed in 1961.

Bologna has the most extraordinary memorial to the dead. Horrible but perfect. [...] I do not feel at all like pouring into sentimentality. I like this memorial to the dead very much, I say it outright. These ghosts installed at the edge of the sidewalk, in the busiest part of a city and as they were in their humble lives, are more moving than all the great architectural orders. [...] It was that good, fat, chubby, chubby cooper who stayed there when he died; it was that bank clerk, that cleric of a notary, that constipated professor with a broken collar and who died constipated despite a bayonet in his belly. It is very good that tramway travellers, cars and pedestrians do not forget it. Next to this wonderful monument, there is a newspaper kiosk. This recklessness is only possible in the land of Machiavelli. (Giono 1954: 198-200).

29Those brief illustrating remarks echo the impressions anyone can have while visiting the monument numerous times. The photographs published with the present article contribute to establishing the context in a more empirical way: they show that the portraits, in themselves banal, owe their evocative force to the conjunction of several factors. Their number and their gathering attract the eye because it gives them the presence of a crowd yet without confusing the frames: each face looks at us separately, from the limits of each individual picture. The visitor must approach to see them, one by one: the reduced scale of the portraits forces the spectator to move sideways, since when one tries to hold one of these glances, those of the other silent faces laterally attract the eye. Their disturbing number suggests a mirror with multiple facets: a possible figuration of our own memory, with its irreducibly collective dimension and its “social frameworks” (cadres sociaux, see Halbwachs 1925, 1950; see also Joseph 2007: 295-305) anchored in urban places. However, “social memory” has different meanings and implications, eventually competing: “official memory, vernacular memory, public memory, popular memory, local memory, family memory, historical memory, cultural memory, etc.” (Olick & Robbins 1998: 112). Each onlooker operates her own montage, on behalf of the context within which she comes across the sight of the memorial, but also depending on her own shared memories and knowledge of an increasingly distant past. Each person’s socialization and biography contribute to the elaboration of different versions of this reception, which leaves open the possibility of challenging and contesting one or another of them –, i.e., the possibility of phrasing a “counter-memory” (Foucault 1977) or even envisioning a “counter-space” (Hayden 1995: 34-39. This is not to say, however, that the meaning of these public images should be considered in a relativistic way, for two reasons: every passer-by remains a participant to collective activities that make up her own socially meaningful experience of the city; moreover, the Sacrario’s layout and situation compose a frame for its perception and reception. Let us consider how our social ecological approach may throw light upon both these characteristics.

30One could not mistake Bologna's sober memorial for a fascist monument, since the simple juxtaposition of faces and the plaque are a departure from glorious celebration. Instead of imposing a hegemonic public discourse about a contested and troubled past, they remain open to different (re)interpretations through the openness of the casual photographs. The dynamic possibility of periodic new readings and interpretations remains. Additionally, if this assembly of individual faces can still bear witness to the horror of civil war and the pain of loss, rather than a cult of honour or heroic personality, it is also due to its central location in the city. The site of the Sacrario (a wall, at the city’s heart, where political assassinations took place) is crucial for its significance and its reception: instead of being cut from the ephemeral character of city life, the portraits stand in the middle of the daily activities of passers-by, who see them without always noticing them. Most of these activities are trivial, some are not: celebrations, commemorations, demonstrations, spontaneous gatherings, simple visits, daily walks. The main meeting place of the Bolognese, the square remains the point of departure or arrival of most political demonstrations or civic gatherings, the context of solemn celebrations but also of ordinary political discussions. Thus, these “ghosts” witness wedding processions, official visits, trade union delegations, schoolchildren, and all types of public events. Bologna’s display case thus constantly reflects the incessant movement of public behaviours, gestures and interactions of passers-by: the ordinary course of urban life in peacetime. It is a historical and shared reference point, more discreet than the Neptune or the nearby Basilica, yet just as important for the transmission of stories and values.

31Bologna’s memorial is not a museum, nor an ordinary commemorative monument: it neither resembles sculpted allegories nor the “unknown soldier” or the “flame of victory” of so many war memorials. It displays the individual faces of identified persons – most of them civilians. Additionally, unlike private buildings or enclosed cemeteries, images of the lost ones take part in city life: the silent faces coexist with all sorts of scenes. Therefore, their meanings are neither static nor relativistic but allow people to find a balance, as time goes by and context changes, between the “malleability and persistence” (Olick & Robbins 1998: 129) of shared memory. It may stay alive if it continues to vary, according to new interpretations and public uses of the place; i.e., with the multiple activities happening around the square.


Figure 5: Social life and public activities in front of the Sacrario

Figure 5: Social life and public activities in front of the Sacrario

Olivier Gaudin, 2014

33The current signification of the memorial’s presence is thus far from being monolithic. Its central location is strikingly public, in the most open and pluralistic sense of the term: it seems that everyone, on every occasion, may sit or stand there, to meet people around the entrance of the Sala Borsa (the public library), to rest for a while, to attend a street show, to hear the latest local news or gossip, or just to watch the flow of passers-by. I was able to observe on repeated occasions that the library and its whereabouts, including the few steps in front of the Sacrario, was a popular meeting place for immigrants.

34Between the wall of the Palazzo and the Neptune Fountain, the livelihood of that small piece of square is so remarkable that it would be difficult to assert if and how people are actually keeping an eye on the photographs. However, how could their presence be more obvious to all, and better inserted in the ordinary public life of the city? In sum, the ecological conditions of these images’ public reception highlight the constant variation of people’s views and attention, including their neglect. As long as they stand there and keep looking in the onlooker’s direction, it would be difficult for anyone to pretend to ignore them.

35These observations lead me to think that Bologna’s Sacrario remains open to several types of relationships with the past. Not only does such a traumatic event as a war imply a plurality of social shared meanings, but these meanings themselves also shift over time. I argue that beyond this case, most of the evocative force of public images emerges from such open and lively interplay with their environing social and spatial situations. Just as their sites or locations pre-exists them, public images appear amid a web of human relations and narratives, in medias res. The further task of an ecological perspective is to focus on this entanglement to describe it with the uttermost precision, for each case.

36This claim has yet to address the larger issue of the presence of images in contemporary urban places. As a contribution of the ecological perspective, this analysis calls for counter-examples and must be balanced by observing more fugitive representations.

The constitutive role of public images in urban experiences

The most far-reaching shift signalled by the search for an adequate concept of visual culture is its emphasis on the social field of the visual, the everyday processes of looking at others and being looked at. This complex field of visual reciprocity is not merely a by-product of social reality but actively constitutive of it. Vision is as important as language in mediating social relations, and it is not reducible to language, to the ‘sign’, or to discourse. Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language. (Mitchell 2005: 47)

37The ecological perspective facilitates the observation of how the public behaviours of city dwellers, rooted in changing cultural, geographical and historical contexts, give consistency to visual representations in the city (rather than mere beliefs, norms or values that are consciously and thoughtfully shared). Just as the physical configuration of a city reflects its social organization – much more than it may become its cause – so too, the objects visible in public places are the result of processes of “making public” (Cefaï 2015). As Bologna’s case shows, the public presence of images depends on historical, political and cultural factors that deeply vary with each situation. However, the Sacrario’s peculiarities call for comparisons with the multiple images visible in contemporary urban situations.

38Elaborating a larger theoretical approach to images in urban public places requires cooperative efforts of interpretation, opening a dialogue between aesthetics and politics (Rancière 2009, 2011) but also social history (Hayden 1995), the theory of architecture and cities (Cardinali 2002, Choay 2006), and the anthropology of religion (Rykwert 1976, Mondzain 2003). These authors show that in the West, the relationship between public places and images is constitutive: the imagery of contemporary cities is rooted in a long genealogy (Choay 1978, Cardinali 2002, Boucheron & Offenstadt 2011). Under certain conditions, “the public”, in the sense of a people gathered to form a political community, may have produced representations of itself. In the communes of medieval Italy or during the revolutionary period in France, local authorities sought to organize the representation of their own unity, always partly fictional, within material urban space. Bologna, Siena and many other Italian cities of the 12th and 13th centuries, when they built monumental central squares, tried to instil in the material stuff of the city a shared civic sense, at the cost of a difficult overcoming of the dissensions and rivalries between aristocratic families. Architecture received the mission of producing and maintaining a central place for community life on an urban scale. In such places, a fragile political community could stage itself or even produce an image of itself; in some cases, doubts, concerns and social tensions could be expressed. On the walls of the Sala della Pace of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Ambrogio Lorenzetti depicted a personification of the Comune but also the deleterious and harmful effects of a bad government. One might be tempted to venture that Bologna’s Sacrario originates from this distant tradition – a hypothesis requiring more in-depth historical inquiry than can be conducted here.

39In contemporary urban public places of the West, the visible presence of symbolic representations in the form of civic, funerary or religious images have quite different meanings, which would also require further investigation. Of course, civic monuments and lieux de mémoire are still numerous, if not expanding. However, except in some exceptional cases or events, it seems they no longer strive to display the same collective belief, or hope, in the unity of a political community (Coccia 2013, Zask 2013), especially in our democratic regimes (Zask 2018). Think of the Republic Square in Paris, of Union Square in New York, of those multiple sites appearing in Friedlander’s American Monument: the remaining statues on our central squares no longer operate efficiently at the urban or metropolitan scale, even though our collective idea of public space still aims at shared beliefs, collective attitudes and habits – if not ideological expectations and a substantial ideal of community life. Surveying the role of images in a given public situation from an ecological perspective reveals the interdependence between symbolic or imaginary meaning (the figurative content of images, the presentation of self or the staging of a community) and the physical configuration of urban space (material supports of representations, buildings and roads, living bodies). Starting with material supports and definite situations, as the ecological framing invites one to do, allows one to observe which visual representations pervade contemporary social relations, and how they do so. Such an attitude gives more empirical content and argumentative strength, for instance, to “demonstrate the critical interplay between urban change and collective memory” (Loughran, Fine and Hunter 2015: 194; see also Hayden 1995: 46-62).

40One working hypothesis to examine further is the decisive role of portable technology in the current circulation of images through public places. Over the last decade, in fact, images of another type have tended to colonize in-depth urban places and to produce “publics” – this time in the sense of audiences, viewers, customers or consumers. Portable screens are everywhere in the palm of the hand of passers-by, passengers on public transport. Visual representations have extended from places of worship such as temples or churches, into urban squares and places; from private and private collections into museums, public exhibitions or cinemas; from billboards and street furniture into personal telecommunication devices. This unprecedented accumulation puts city dwellers in a situation of intense visual solicitation that echoes comments on last century’s urban condition (Moholy-Nagy 1927, Benjamin 1989, 2005). Different modes of visual communication continue to aggressively compete with one another. Crossing a contemporary metropolis amounts to navigating from one abstract representation to another.

41How does this affect public memorials or monuments? At least, these technologies interfere with their physical presence and their symbolic meaning, attenuating their strength. The diversity of images visible in cities is not as pluralistic as it could be. Recent philosophical analyses (Coccia 2013, Zask 2013) emphasize that this omnipresence in fact concerns only very few types of visual representations. In central as well as peripheral places, the visibility of advertising images exceeds or even excludes that of other possible forms – works of art, civic representations, free expression, monuments. Advertising images are produced, owned and disseminated by private companies with the sole purpose of offering commercial objects and services. Their flooding leaves little room for other types of activities and performances; thus, the challenge is political: What do we do with the visible surfaces of our cities? What type of audience, what sort of public are we? Bologna’s memorial is probably more resistant than a majority of others; however, the daily uses of the Neptune Square and the nearby Piazza Maggiore, as I have been able to observe over a half-year period, do not refute the general assessment of attenuation.

42Our current doubts about public space are also a consequence of the deep physical, social and cultural changes that have occurred since the beginning of the industrial era in late 18th century (Moholy-Nagy 1927: 120-122). The uncertain status of public images is not the mere result of market or consumer society; it also reflects the indeterminacy of urban forms and of broader social, cultural and political orientations (Kepes 1969: 12). We are now experiencing the long-term results of this cultural evolution. Most inhabitants of metropolises are scattered in built areas without limits or boundaries, because of the urban metamorphoses of unprecedented magnitude that took place since the 1950s. The spectacular development of communication networks has transformed the material conditions of proximity and distance in interpersonal relationships: the heterogeneous fragmentation of built areas now responds to the “crumbling” of urban life (Charmes 2011). Against that background, Bologna’s case appears quite exceptional and should not be generalized. In many other cases, increased dispersion and abstraction complicate the analysis of the presence of images in places whose unity and even public character have become problematic – although their visual appearance, often subject to functionalism, the market and flow-promoting design, tends to become uniform. However, that very fragmentation is not immaterial: to the contrary, the dissemination of built situations and moving images depends on the physical infrastructures of network communication; and far from having a public life of their own, images exist in public spaces to the extent that people continue to produce, transmit and observe them. Therefore, examined under the social ecological angle for each specific case, the content and status of public images originate in collective forms of life (and not the other way around). With its immediate surroundings submitted to the same pressure of advertising and retail images as other major Western urban centres, the robustness of Bologna’s memorial appears remarkable, as do the city’s robust social habits and public institutions. However, the visible distraction of most passers-by, their hands and eyes kept busy with mobile digital images, suggests that they have already turned their attention elsewhere.


Visual objects, objects invested with a figurability value, develop all of their efficacy to establish multiple bridges between orders of reality that are nonetheless quite heterogeneous. They are luxuriant agents of displacement and condensation, organisms for the production of knowledge as much as of not-knowledge. Their functioning is multidirectional, their efficacy polymorphous. Isn’t there something incoherent about separating their ‘definition’ from their efficacy? (Didi-Huberman 2005: 34)

43This article has proposed and illustrated a possible way to describe the presence of images in urban public places: I argued for the possibility of a social ecology of urban perception, in the sense of a study of the perceptual environments, material devices and social activities that maintain a living relationship with images. The method of ecological framing has clarified this relational approach by defining public situations of social interaction, through the personal direct examination of an example, Bologna’s Sacrario. Eventually, as shown in the third section of the text, further investigations may attempt to describe and interpret the contemporary flooding of advertising images, in central urban places as well as in their peripheries. Indeed, recent discussions about public space have relevantly shifted to enlarged contexts, beyond city centres (Delbaere 2011). I have focused here on a specific example anchored in an urban historic setting to show how our understanding of public images depends on the contextual meaning carried by their location or place, rather than simply generic “spatial” qualities (of images as decontextualized material objects). However, the ongoing research about the interplay of urban change, the display of the historical past and collective or public memory (Hayden 1995; Loughran, Fine & Hunter 2015) suggests that much more remains to be done by extending the issue of images in public places in the peripheries and suburban contexts. Urban and suburban landscapes are not mere scenery or backgrounds: they are physical and symbolic scenes where posters, signs and screens can guide the behaviour, nourish the imagination and orient the dispositions, dreams or desires of viewers. Public images can be intense social symbols, connecting audiences with absent people, or shared ideas. Some may become efficacious affordances on specific occasions (religious icons or statues in processions, red flags in political demonstrations). However, this relationship remains ambiguous: people may use public images to play roles just as they can get carried away by shared emotions. Although the variable presence of images affects urban activities, the gaze of individuals is neither entirely reducible to a causal mechanism, nor the mere object of a specific knowledge. The meaning that city dwellers give to their public places remains equivocal, unstable and open-ended – just as the public interactions that make up the social life of cities.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Sacrario dei Partigiani e Caduti per la Liberazione, Piazza del Nettuno, Bologna
Credits Olivier Gaudin, 2014
File image/jpeg, 6.9M
Title Figure 2: Ferd. Artaria & son, Map of Bologna, 1859. The Piazza Maggiore and the Piazza del Nettuno lies at its geographical centre
Credits Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya, License: Creative Commons.
File image/jpeg, 1.6M
Title Figure 3: General views of Piazza del Nettuno from North-East, and from South. An inevitable meeting point for all Bolognese, the inhabitants of the region and visitors, be they local or foreign students, immigrants or tourists
Credits Olivier Gaudin, 2014
File image/jpeg, 6.2M
Title Figure 4: The Sacrario dei Partigiani, central panel
Credits Olivier Gaudin, 2014
File image/jpeg, 540k
Title Figure 5: Social life and public activities in front of the Sacrario
Credits Olivier Gaudin, 2014
File image/jpeg, 8.0M
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Electronic reference

Olivier Gaudin, « The Public Life of Images: Towards a Social Ecology of the Urban Gaze. The example of Bologna’s Sacrario dei Partigiani », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 19 | 2019, Online since 06 March 2019, connection on 21 October 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.3947

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About the author

Olivier Gaudin

Olivier Gaudin, PhD in philosophy of social sciences (EHESS-Paris), is an associate professor at the École de la nature et du paysage (INSA-Centre Val de Loire) in Blois (France) and editor of the Cahiers de l'École de BloisHis research focuses on pragmatist philosophy, human ecology in social sciences and the cultural history of landscapes. He has published several papers on these issues (latest: "Pragmatist Views of Urban Experience: Sensorial Perception in Urban Studies", Pragmatism Today, 2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the online journals Métropolitiques and Pragmata. Contact:

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