The Mediterranean paradigm.
Port cities in the making of world history


Cristina Pallini (Milan Polytechnic - Italy)

Vilma Hastaoglou-Martinidis (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki – Greece)

A photographic project by Valentina Tamborra - "skrei - il viaggio


Mediterranean. The well-established idea of the Mediterranean encompassing a great diversity of peoples and cultures triggered Maurice Cerasi’s metaphor of Mediterranean port cities as a floating cluster of barges moving ceaselessly and linked together, each anchored by very long chains to its continental mainland, all finding a balance in their mutual connections.

Paradigm. Taking into account past and present challenges, this thematic node posits the comparability between Mediterranean port cities and other contexts, as a fruitful means of further understanding both realities.

This proves true when looking at 19th-century fast-paced modernisation, in a supranational world characterized by an increasing commercialization of the economy under the impetus of foreign investments in production and transport.

In 1841 the French writer and politician Saint-Marc Girardin considered that a number of ports, were ‘necessary and natural’ in view of their positions on world routes, concluding that, rather than depending on the fortunes of any single people, these were intended by nature as ‘havens’ for many peoples from near and far.

While François Gipouloux has drawn a “Braudelian synthesis” comparing the European and the Asian “Mediterraneans”, Jürgen Osterhammer has defined Shanghai as a “great cosmopolitan colonial metropolis of the modern age,” comparable to Alexandria, Casablanca or Singapore.

While history and the geographic context can partly explain the problems posed by the evolution/revolution of cities so vulnerable to external events, cross-disciplinary research and a comparative approach bring to light important patterns in the complex settlement processes that have shaped 19th-century Mediterranean ports.

May this be a way to gain a broader non-Eurocentric perspective?

Potential lines of research

A comparison between 19th and early 20th century Mediterranean ports and Chinese treaty ports, for example, may start by recalling that the extraterritorial privileges granted to foreigners in China were modelled after the bilateral agreements signed by the Ottoman Empire with European powers (Capitulations) and, earlier, by Byzantine emperors with merchants from Genoa, Pisa and Venice.

Harbour construction, whose common feature was management of long-distance trade, also required complementary areas for specialized functions, such as European-style business districts including new financial and trade institutions. Thus, both in Mediterranean ports and in Chinese treaty ports the seafront acted at a focal area of urban change, show-casing the symbols of the integration of these cities with the world of international trade. Yet behind and beneath the waterfront vitrines, lay technical expertise and imported knowhow of harbour construction, building materials and technologies. Which were the networks of this silent, less apparent − though financially and infrastructurally striking − power? How were the old fengshui traditions affected or adapted by these modernisation imperatives?

While port and warehouse structures were more closely linked to local and traditional building types (in China: hong, go-down; in the Mediterranean: okelle, han, verhane), most community and cultural buildings (religious buildings, schools, hospitals, theatres, libraries) were an expression of “European eclectic architecture”. Administrative and military aspects played a fundamental role in defining the general urban plan. What role was played, in this context, by national benefactors (overseas Chinese or Greek euergetes) as catalysts in this process of transition, modernization and nation building?

Finally, to what extent did the form and use of public space change through the creation of new hybrid building typologies (passage, stoa, qilou) responding to the need for new commercial and business facilities, planning interventions, and cultural modernization in both Mediterranean and Chinese port cities?

This thematic node is expected to engender different subthemes − organised around seminar cycles − relative to any of the above-mentioned topics (both through case study presentations and more theoretical approaches). A comparative method between Mediterranean and Asian Mediterranean developments will be strongly encouraged.