Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Crane

The College has gained a magnificent and striking new feature in recent weeks, which is set to remain with us for many months – a giant construction crane. Even with the panoramic view of the main quad I have from my room, the crane is too high to see directly from my desk. But every so often, when its main arm swings around suddenly, it is reflected in my glass coffee table in a rather ethereal way, a hint of activity in the sky. The crane dominates, and dwarfs, what had always seemed a spacious north Oxford college site and holds great blocks of concrete suspended over the library roof. It is there to construct the Somerville ROQ building – an abbreviation of ‘Radcliffe Observatory Quarter’, rather than a reference to the mythical giant bird in the Tales of Sinbad.

Renaissance writers were very excited by construction sites, a sentiment I am finally beginning to understand. The Florentine apothecary Luca Landucci, who lived at the height of Medicean rule in the late 15th-century and wrote a meticulous diary, kept a careful note of new building projects. When the banker Filippo Strozzi started a multi-decade palace construction project on Landucci’s doorstep, the apothecary was sometimes put out by the dust and noise, but he was more often than not gripped by crane-enthusiasm. “Princely things!”, he wrote, “Men were crazy for building at this time.” For Landucci, the rash of palace-building by bankers was a source of immense civic pride, proof positive that his city was experiencing a golden age, and that he lived in a historically and culturally significant place. In Poland, the chronicler Maciej of Miechów had similar assumptions. Summarising the reign of King Aleksander Jagiellon (d.1506) in his Chronica Polonorum, Maciej listed the monarch’s political achievements and personal virtues, but concluded his eulogy with an observation which rings with disappointment: “But because his treasury was empty, he did not build anything.” Construction projects – as fantastically expensive in the Renaissance as now – were a game for princes, but they also brought glory to the wider community.

The Somerville crane is not, I think, there to stake a claim to political power through princely splendour or to impress our neighbours with our unlimited wealth (as Strozzi’s was!). But it might well become a source of pride for the college community and, in a rather unlikely way, it’s a symbol of optimism and hope. With the UK government’s imminent Comprehensive Spending Review hanging over all British universities like a Damoclean sword, the crane says that we look forward to welcoming many generations of students to study and live in the new building, that we plan boldly for future teaching and research, and above all that we have faith in what we do as an Oxford college.

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