Aesthetics of the Threshold. Thoughts on the Morphology and Topology of Port Cities in the Post-Antiquity Mediterranean, Based on Andreas Gursky’s Photograph „Salerno“



By Hannah Baader and Gerhard Wolf (both Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices and Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut)

This text is an excerpt from the essay “Aesthetics of the Threshold. Seven Aspects of the Morphology and Topology of Port Cities in the Post-Antiquity Mediterranean”, which appeared in 2014 in “Harbors and Harbor Cities in the Eastern Mediterranean, BYZAS 19“. Based on a discussion about Andreas Gursky’s photograph “Salerno”, the following text develops four of the seven aspects. The uncut version additionally comprises case studies of the port cities Marseille, Venice, and Genoa.

In May 2006, Sotheby’s auctioned Andreas Gursky’s work “99 cent” for $2,260,000; one year later, a second print of the same picture fetched $3,300,000, one of the highest prices ever paid for a photograph. The MOMA had staged a monographic showing of the artist’s work in 2001, and Gursky has meanwhile exhibited in Paris, Wolfsburg, Istanbul, Basel, and many other places. The artist belongs to a group of aesthetically radical German photographers whose artistic beginnings lie in Düsseldorf in the 1970s-’80s and who have worked with extraordinary success in the past decades. Their pictures often have a documentary character and a monumental format and are conceived to be hung on a wall.[1]

Andreas Gursky, Salerno, 1990, C-Print, 170 x 205 x 5 cm Copyright: Andreas Gursky / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015, Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

Andreas Gursky, Salerno, 1990, C-Print, 170 x 205 x 5 cm
Copyright: Andreas Gursky / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015, Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

A portrait of the artist that was taken at the Basel exhibition of 2007/2008 shows him in front of “Salerno”, one of his most famous works from the early years of his career (Ill. 1). This work (printed at 188 x 226 cm, among other formats) is a print created in what is called the chromogenetic process (C-Print) and is one of the artist’s last analog photos that were not digitally reworked. It shows a panoramic view of the port city of Salerno, located on the coast of Italy’s Tyrrhenian Sea, about 50 km south of Naples. Ancient Salernum is today – and at the time the photo was taken in 1990 was – one of Italy’s five largest container ports with an annual transshipment of 7 million TEU. The picture, taken from a somewhat raised perspective, shows the rocky but gentle hills of the Salerno coast, with a cloudy sky, a calm sea, the city’s modern waterfront, and in the foreground the extensive area of the harbor with its piers, ships, containers, cranes, and the goods to be shipped: cars. In the complex composition, the bay’s natural setting interlocks with its industrial utilization; Gursky thereby works with the abstraction of the forms as well as with the means of color. The blue of the sky and sea, the shades of gray of the clouds, mountains, and city, which are overshadowed by a cloud, contrast with the pronounced colors of the harbor scenery: the orange of the cranes and containers in the middle ground and, on the blacktop, those of the many small cars, a box-shaped compact model from Fiat. The seriality of the mass-produced vehicles is rhythmized by sequences of white, red, and blue examples, some with their rears, some with their fronts facing the camera; this produces a carpet-like pattern with varying densities and empty spaces above the gray tarmac of the harbor grounds.

At first glance, Gursky’s photograph seems to exclude all movement and human activity. Even the sea is still, a mirror-like surface. No actor is recognizable; instead, a world of things opens up to the viewer in an environment that takes up the old theme of landscape depiction, revises it, and at the same time makes any opposition between “natural” and “artificial” seem outmoded. In this way, the picture tries to fixate the totality of a harbor as a tableau.[2] This allows a slow, attentive reading of the various components that compose the complex structure of a port city as it presents itself when the actors that make it a social space have disappeared. Only after an intense inspection of the picture does our gaze fall on two workers, each standing alone, who vanish in the mass of cars.

Asked about his artistic and aesthetic convictions, Gursky one described his photographic works with the words, “I stand at a distance, like a person who comes from another world.”[3] The tableau of the harbor of Salerno, created by Gursky as such an approach from the distance, permits us to formulate the basic problems of researching ports and port cities. It places us in the distance that enables a gaze from the distance onto the complex system of a port city and allows us to look at the intricacy of the constant and simultaneous interplay of different systems. This encompasses the historical and current relationship between humans and technology and that between culture and nature, whereby the economic, social, political, juridical, religious, and aesthetic factors that codetermine it cannot be viewed separately from each other. With the depiction of a port city from the perspective of someone coming “from another world”, Gursky’s work demonstrates this complexity even in its lacunae. Our look at Gursky’s 1990 photograph stands here, at the beginning, for a number of thoughts about the theme of the port city in the post-Antiquity Mediterranean space.

Seven Aspects of the Morphology and Topology of Port Cities in the Post-Antiquity Mediterranean

Some of these ideas will be elaborated in the following. The uncut article[4] comprises a systematic of seven points, structured as follows:

1) The interaction between natural environment and human-made ports. 2) The layers of history in urban space as an interplay of longue durée and radical transformations. 3) The mutual links between seaports and machines, technologies, and goods. 4) The relationship between the port and the urban space. 5) Seaport cities as part of wider maritime and mainland networks. 6) Port towns as nodal points of commerce and seafaring with regard to their inner organization, spatial disposition, or perception. 7) The aesthetics of port cities and the dynamics of their iconization, for example as in a ship-to-shore perspective.

But these points can hardly be isolated from each other; they must be understood as being interlocked in various ways. This text limits itself to just four of the aforementioned points: 1), 5), 6), and 7). The Italian peninsula, viewed through the example of the port city of Salerno, will lie at the center of the investigation. In the uncut version of the text, these ideas are expanded by four additional aspects and by case studies of the port cities of Marseille, Venice, and Genoa. Here we will investigate neither the specific historical dynamics of colonial or colonially reshaped port cities nor their position or role in overarching territorial orders.

Natural Space and Ports

The interaction between natural surroundings and the port facilities created by humans is a fundamental aspect of any consideration of a topology and morphology of port cities. This applies not only to the Mediterranean region, but it is of special interest in relation to it. It involves, for example, the use of natural, wind-protected bays, offshore islands or promontories for the surveillance and military protection of port facilities, and the complete redesigning of landing stages, for example through excavation or heaping up, i.e., intentional human intervention in the geomorphological structure. Vice versa, the constant change in the terrain and in the built architectonic structures effected by the sea, the power of the currents, waves, storms, or silting-up processes are a constant but hardly calculable dimension in the history of most port cities.

In the case of “Salerno”, this relationship is indicated, for example, in that Andreas Gursky took the photo from a raised site so that the viewer looks down over the arc of the broadly curving Gulf of Salerno, whose crescent shape is repeated in the city’s house façade, behind which a chain of hills rises. At the same time, at the lower left-hand margin of the picture, we see a narrow stretch of empty, twisting streets and parts of the rocky subsurface with its sparse vegetation and garbage as the detritus of civilization; here, at the edge of the tableau, a stark contrast between nature and culture is expressed, which in turn problematizes our consideration of the picture.

Port Cities as Sites of Networking

Every port is necessarily part of a greater network, and this is reflected in the life and shape of a port city itself. This means, on the one hand, the system of places to which the containers in Gursky’s picture are shipped or where the commodities contained in them are produced, i.e., places on the shore or in the hinterland from which the commodities or also people come or to which they go. Only a small portion of the wares unloaded in a port city are intended for consumption in the city itself. Along with economically determined networks, other networks can equally or interlockingly form, for example religiously or politically determined ones. As Irad Malkin has shown for Antiquity, the maritime networks stand in a close relationship to cognitive mappings, affect them, and form up potentially iconically.[5] The extant early portolan charts are clear indications of this Mediterranean system of ports and port cities as sites of networking. The map of the “Books of Curiosities”, an Arabic manuscript that turned up a few years ago at an auction in London, already speaks for the cartographic perception of the networking possibilities of ports. As Emilie Savage-Smith has shown, the manuscript from the 12th or 13th century is a copy of a lost original that must have been drawn between 1020 and 1050. The map of the Mediterranean names a number of islands and 121 ports or anchorages, together with markings and winds.[6] The Carta Pisana from the end of the 13th century, considered the oldest extant Western example of a portolan chart, is similar.[7] It is constructed over two large wind roses, and here inscriptions name the larger and smaller anchorages. The production of these charts is also part of the exchange of knowledge and the migration of people from one Mediterranean port to another, because their creation would be inconceivable without the transfer of geographical and nautical knowledge from port to port. A portolan chart from the first half of the 15th century, drawn by Gabriel de Vallseca, provides an example of these forms of migration:[8] the famous cartographer came from a Jewish family in Barcelona. He was forced to convert, moved to Mallorca, and was able to establish a flourishing workshop there whose products counted among the most advanced maps. On his 1439 chart of the Mediterranean, the system of ports is indicated by a color scheme: names in red script stand for larger ports, the use of black ink for smaller anchorages. The portolan chart does mostly without mapping the inland zones of the depicted regions; their coastlines are occupied with a dense sequence of city names marking the boundary between sea and land and are thus to be understood as a cartographic arrangement of the network of Mediterranean port cities (with Vallseca, they are hierarchical). The network that emerges in the portolans is, as noted, not necessarily oriented toward economic aspects, but just as much toward religious or political ones.

In 1320, when the Genoese Petro Vesconte, who usually worked in Venice, drew a map of the world, a map of the city of Acre, and the oldest extant map of the Black Sea, these different, consistently innovative cartographic views were owed to a complex mélange of political, economic, and religious, real and imagined network formations. Not least, they provide a clear picture of the scope of action of the Italian port cities with their colonies and settlements beyond the Mediterranean. If nautical charts are described here as a privileged form for depicting networks, a wealth of other forms can also be conceived in which the networks to which port cities belong can be represented or imagined.

Ports as Nodes – Sites of Moral Ambivalence

Under these premises, the Mediterranean port cities are nodes in processes of exchange, and this in turn determines not only their inner organization and spatial disposition, but also their perception between openness and closure, inclusion and exclusion. While the former is a precondition of their survival, the regulation and representative shaping of this openness remains the challenge to political and cultural identity formations. Put another way and seen from the outside: port cities are considered contagious and morally ambivalent. The topos of the moral corruption and impurity of port cities can be traced back to Antiquity, and the significance of the stereotype can be shown for a number of medieval port cities.

In 1111/1114, Doniza von Canossa writes in his biography of Margravine Mathilde of Tuscany: “Qui pergit Pisas, vidit illic monstra marinara. Haec urbs paganis, Turclis, Libicis, quoque Parthis Sordida, Chaldei sua lustrant litora tetra”.[9] “He who comes to Pisa can see the monsters of the sea. The city is corrupted by heathens, Turks, Libyans, and Parthians; saturnine Chaldeans travel along its coasts.” Ships are described as sea monsters; the language in such places is as confounded as in Babel. Three hundred years later, Pope Pius II wrote about the Venetians: “What do the fish worry about laws? Just as, among the ugly animals, the aquatic ones have the least intelligence, so among humans the Venetians are the least capable of humanity. This is only natural, since they spend their lives in the water, using ships instead of horses, and live in the company of fish between masses of sea monsters.”[10]

This displays the fundamental dialectic of the idea of the port and port city. If in ancient literature (for example in Horace or Virgil) and Christian metaphorics the port is the site of safety and rescue par excellence, indeed if the destination of the navigatio vitae can be described as the arrival in the harbor of the next life (as if seen from the ship that must maintain its course), the perspective changes if the life of a port city is imagined as being itself contagious and impure and the harbor of Paradise turns into the Hell or Purgatory of the harbor quarter.[11]

If one keeps one’s distance from this rhetoric or keeps it in mind as part of a longue durée of the imaginary of the port city, questions arise: How do these cities deal with cultural heterogeneity? Who are the local and transregional actors? What spaces of negotiation do they shape? And which aesthetic dimensions and practices are characteristic of port cities? Brought to an overarching formulation, our initial assumption is that port cities are cities in extremis. Many of the conditions and contradictions that characterize every city and every society play out in them in a more radical, if not “raw” form. This rawness of port cities, with their focus on economics and technology, on the one hand, and their interactions with physical and social spaces, on the other, can generate a specific poetry and aesthetic at the same time.

The Aesthetic of the Port City

The question of aesthetics leads to our last and most important point, the specific visibility of port cities, which at the same time corresponds with an invisibility. This is manifest not only in the ship-to-shore perspective, i.e., the view of the city as it presents itself when one approaches it from the sea, rather than the land; rather, it is connected with each of the fields developed on the basis of Gursky’s photograph.

There are indeed many ways to approach Mediterranean port cities as a field of historical research. Here we take an art-historical and at the same time transdisciplinary perspective, which the pictorial introduction of this text aimed to anticipate.

It is evident that, in their architectonic shaping, their urbanistic structure, and their spatial orders with their decorative façades, their maritime iconographies and picture/object cultures, and as themes for painting and photography, port cities are an eminent field for art-historical research. Nonetheless, there are few works that explicitly concern themselves with the city on the seashore; this is initially because of the overall neglect of urbanistic research in the field. Effective here is still the old separation between building and architectural history, on the one hand, and pictorial history, on the other; in addition, connecting architectural-archaeological research with farther-reaching questions is still a rarity in art history. The individual monument, in the best case signed, traditionally ranks higher than ensembles or built surroundings, just as the reconstruction of original aspects of the creation of a work rank higher than the biography of monuments in their interplay, the historical changes in complex architectonic configurations, or overarching constellations or interpenetrating layerings of nature and culture. The necessity for this kind of changed perspective that would take up the first point with a view to the aesthetic dimension becomes clear when, for example, one thinks of the collective art of the dikes on the North Sea, which simultaneously shaped the East Frisian landscape, or of the “artificial” Alster Lake in Hamburg’s cityscape. But it is significant also in less conspicuous environments, like the waterway controls in the Venetian Lagoon in the 15th/16th century that aimed to regulate the instability of this cultural/natural phenomenon,[12] or the land reclamation in the joining of seven islands to which Bombay’s urban corpus is owed. This approach leads to an ecological art history that takes as its theme the shaped environment in its various dynamics and aesthetics. This is an immense methodological challenge that can be advanced for art history certainly only in cooperation with other disciplines, but at the same time one that can develop its own horizon of questions and knowledge.


[1] Cf. M. Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven 2009); S. Gronert, The Düsseldorf School of Photography (New York 2010); P. Galassi – Andreas Gursky, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art (New York 2001).

[2] Cf. Galassi loc. cit. (fn. 1) 143–189. 163.

[3] Andreas Gursky in an interview with Carol Squiers, “Concrete Reality”, Ruhr Works September 1988, 29.

[4] H. Baader – G. Wolf, Ästhetiken der Schwelle. Sieben Aspekte der Morphologie und Topologie von Hafenstädten im nachantiken Mittelmeerraum, in: S. Ladstätter – F. Pirson – T. Schmidts (eds.), Harbors and Harbor Cities in the Eastern Mediterranean, BYZAS 19 (2014), 17-44.

[5] I. Malkin, Networks and the Emergence of Greek Identity, in: I. Malkin (ed.), Mediterranean Paradigms and Classical Identity (London 2005) 56–74.

[6] E. Savage-Smith, Das Mittelmeer in der islamischen Kartographie des Mittelalters, in: H. Baader – G. Wolf (eds.), Das Meer, der Tausch und die Grenzen der Repräsentation (Zurich 2010) 239–262.

[7] Cf. R. J. Pujades i Bataller, Les cartes portolanes. La representació medieval d’una mar solcada (Barcelona 2007).

[8] Gabriel de Vallseca, Portolankarte Mittelmeer, 1449, Florenz Archivio di Stato. Reproduced in an uncut version (fn. 4).

[9] Quoted after: M. von der Höh, Erinnerungskultur und frühe Kommune. Formen und Funktionen des Umgangs mit der Vergangenheit im hochmittelalterlichen Pisa (1050–1150). Hallische Beiträge zur Geschichte des Mittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit 3 (Berlin 2006) 296 (Vita Mathildis 1, 20, v. 1370–1372).

[10] Pius II, Commentarii 1, 57. Cf. D. S. Chambers, The Imperial Age of Venice 1380–1580 (London 1970) 96.

[11] In general: T. Heydenreich, Lob und Tadel der Seefahrt. Das Nachleben eines antiken Themas in der romanischen Literatur. Studien zum Fortwirken der Antike IV (Heidelberg 1970).

[12] Cf. M. Mathieu, Inselstadt Venedig. Umweltgeschichte eines Mythos in der Frühen Neuzeit, Archiv für Kulturgeschichte Beih. 63 (Cologne 2007).


Citation: Hannah Baader/ Gerhard Wolf, Aesthetics of the Threshold. Thoughts on the Morphology and Topology of Port Cities in the Post-Antiquity Mediterranean, Based on Andreas Gursky’s Photograph »Salerno«, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.04.2016


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