The City of Ladies: Reinterpreting heroic womanhood
Created By Professor Penelope Haralambidou
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Christine de Pizan’s

The Book of the City of Ladies
is an extraordinary feat. An illuminated proto-feminist text, first published in 1405, it details De Pizan’s creation of a metaphorical city inhabited by female role models, from the Queen of Sheba to Margaret of Bavaria, with the help of the three female virtues: Reason, Rectitude and Justice. 

Professor Penelope Haralambidou’s

City of Ladies
installation explores De Pizan's allegorical spatial scheme through an embodied act of design, combining medieval illumination drawing techniques on vellum with digital craft and film. 

Illumination from The Book of the City of Ladies showing the three female virtues: Reason, Rectitude and Justice. 

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Three tables, three virtues

Each of the three tables represents one of the three virtues: Reason, Rectitude and Justice. The white cloth is actually vellum, a surface for drawing and writing made from the skin of a calf, which gives a visceral quality to the table. In the text, each virtue gives De Pizan an object: a ruler (Rectitude), a mirror (Reason) and a vessel (Justice), which are represented here from left to right.

“I tried to interpret the three objects in order to project this allegorical city into the future: where do you start thinking about the female city? Both then and now, this has never existed. It was a stark realisation that cities have always been conceived and physically built by men.” 

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Clearing the debris of misogyny

Two consecutive time periods and different spaces are shown in this illumination from the book: on the left, the author, Christine De Pizan, is visited by the three virtues; on the right, she and Reason are clearing ground and putting down foundations. The allegory around transitioning from writing to building is plain: first, she holds the pen; next, the trowel. Yet the illumination works on another level, too.

“It’s such a strong image, seeing two medieval women putting down the stones, laying bricks. When Reason speaks to De Pizan, she says: ‘You will have extra bodily powers to carry these stones and set them.’ And she describes clearing the ground from the debris of the misogynistic writing that triggered her to write this book.”

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Illuminated in 3D

This is a 3D digital model of the structure that appears in the previous illumination, created by research assistant John Cruwys. It was then 3D-printed to the scale in which it appears in the book.

“The third dimension did not exist: we had to invent it to flesh these models out. John and I worked closely together to translate the blossoming of the pictorial city into three miniature models. I wanted to try to somehow rebuild the city using contemporary technologies – looking at the past, imagining the future.”

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Bringing the city to life

This digital image, created before the objects actually came together, shows how the installation is to be compiled.

“The first table is like a dressing table because it has a mirror. The second one is a drawing table because it has a ruler. And the third one is a dining table, because it has the vessel, which is more like a jar or a jug.”

The wooden objects were designed in a digital 3D space and created using computer-controlled wood-cutting technology, while the white structures were 3D-printed. The vessel, however, was created by glassblowers Graham Reed and Kevin Doyle at Jaytec Glass, a company that specialises in chemist’s equipment. Several companies rejected the design as impossible to achieve.

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The gifts of virtue

Here we see the virtues’ three gifts: a mirror (Reason), a ruler (Rectitude) and a vessel (Justice). The wooden ruler bears the imprint of Professor Haralambidou’s fingers, playing with ideas of how we measure things. The vessel has the feel of an hourglass.

These objects are connected to the text but they are intended as questions; ways of sparking ideas and thoughts about how a female way of looking could inform the making of a city.

“My interpretation of the mirror, for example, is to do with vision. I have looked at the idea that, through perspective and single-point vision, we have somehow forgotten binocular vision. We don’t think so much about depth. I have a hunch that men tend to think in flat surfaces; women address close depth in a different way. I wanted to create an object that might bring a deeper way of looking at things much more into the foreground.”

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Weighting, reflecting

Professor Haralambidou herself is seen here in long exposure, setting the tables: a kind of performance in its own right. Drawings of gold and silver on the vellum create positions for each object, but each object can also be moved from one position to another. The round crystal half-balls are both functional and allegorical, serving as weights on the vellum, but also reflecting the objects.

“They reflect and refract the environment where the work is displayed, and they enlarge the drawings underneath them. I came upon them by accident, but they are quite magical. It is as if the room is captured in each one of them.”

Professor of Architecture and Spatial Culture, The Bartlett School of Architecture
Professor Penelope Haralambidou

Professor of Architecture and Spatial Culture, The Bartlett School of Architecture 

The Bartlett, UCL
22 Gordon Street
London WC1H 0QB
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