Shadows and Lights on the Square. Cyclical Transformations of a Public Space. The Case of Piazza Politeama in Palermo

Ilaria Ventura


Abstract The aim of this article is to show which interactions may occur be-

tween two relevant elements of the urban space, road surface and lighting, in de-

fining the sense of a place. Such elements are usually taken for granted and do not

raise particular concern, except for aspects related to their practical functionality

(especially for the road surface). In this paper they are considered as fundamental

elements of the semiotic functioning of urban space. By taking an important

square in Palermo, Piazza Politeama, as a case study, the analysis will show how

the lighting conditions and the road surface of a specific place let its main social

meanings emerge (even if these meanings may be redefined by collective practic-

es). Starting from the acknowledgment of the social relevance of Piazza Politeama

within the practices of city living, I will focus on the relation between the configu-

ration of the square and its uses at different times of day and night. It will be

demonstrated that, on the one hand, its pedestrian paving plays a central role in

defining an open, public, collective, free space; on the other hand, the lighting sys-

tem of the square reduces such universalising function in favour of other kinds of

uses. Thus the square loses its main role of socialisation (values of sociality vs.

commercial values; cultural values vs. values of safety). Every day Piazza Politeama

transforms itself from one of the most relevant places of urban socialisation into

an almost anonymous place, cyclically losing its original meaning in favour of other


Keywords semiotics; urban space; social relations; lighting; visibility.

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