Visions of cities– the multisensory city

Umberto Boccioni's (1911) 'Futurist' painting, The Noise of the Street Penetrates the House attempts to reproduce the multisensory experience of the modern city, with its noise and endless movement, within the frame of a two-dimensional work, with a fracturing of the traditional Renaissance fixed-point perspective. (The way in which this is also a painting about 'a view' somehow reinforces the point that perspectival representation is inadequate for conveying this multisensory experience).

Literature is a medium well capable of conveying this multisensory experience of the city.

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Charles Dickens achieves this in this excerpt from Great Expectations (first published 1860-1), Pp 163-4, describing Pip's experience of the City of London:

'When I told the clerk that I would tke a turn in the air while I waited, he advised me to go round the corner and I should come into Smithfield. So, I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So, I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of Saint Paul's bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles; and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on.'

An earlier example, from the Romantic era, is to be found in William Blake's poem 'London' (Songs of innocence and of experience, 1794), which, as in Dickens, includes appeals to the ear and touch as well as the eye, along with an embodied feeling of walking in the City.

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness,
marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues
the marriage-hearse.