The City

Thousands of years ago some of our ancestors stopped living nomadic lives and started settling in one place. They began to build cities. Today, about half the world lives in one. Art expert Helena Hunt explains more on how cities are inspiring artists...

Many of those first ancient cities were made from mud brick and wood, but now we’re often surrounded by glass and metal.

Ruins of the Temple of Gareus at Uruk (c.100 CE). Photo: Osama Alqasab, CC BY-SA 4.0

Along the way, we’ve experimented with a LOT of building styles.

Classical architecture in Ancient Greece loved columns, Modernism in Brazil broke the rules while Gothic buildings in France reached for the sky.

Another view of the remains of the Pronaos of the Temple of Concord [The Temple of Saturn with Arch of Septimius Severus in left background], from Vedute di Roma, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c.1750-78). Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain.

We’ve dabbled with domes from the Four Courts here in Ireland to St Peter’s in Rome, and from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Graffiti, Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: Dudva, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Egyptians, the Mayans and the Aztecs all put up pyramids and around the world spires have a lot of admirers - from medieval cathedrals to ultra modern skyscrapers.

Some cities look like artworks in their own right. Not just because of their buildings but because of what appears on their walls. Graffiti artists around the world breathe life into city streets and often use their images to make a statement. Just look at these examples.

The Liffey Swim, 1923, Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957). Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Cities aren’t just places where we live and work - they’re where we can come together and create. And they can inspire us too.

Just like Yeats when he painted crowds gathering in Dublin for the Liffey swim. The Dutch artist Vermeer might be most famous for his ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ but he also painted his aunt’s house in his hometown in Holland. Piranesi created prints of crumbling Roman ruins but also imaged fantastical views of what the city might once have looked like.

View of Delft (c.1661), Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Mauritshuis, Public Domain.

Cities are even the stars of some of the earliest photographs. A boulevard in Paris was captured on camera by one of the first photographers, Daguerre. But there’s something spooky about the image - Paris looks like a ghost town.

Where are all the people? The image took so long to expose that their movement made them invisible. Except, that is, for a man who kept still enough because he was having his shoes polished. He might be the first person ever to appear in a photo.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd Arrondissement, Daguerreotype (1838), Louis Daguerre. Photo: Louis Daguerre, Public Domain.

Throughout their history, cities are places of change, transformation and revolution - and an endless source of inspiration.

By Helena Hunt