Piazza Navona’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Cinema, Peirce, Lynch, and the Dynamicity of Spatial Perception

View of Piazza Navona
Hamed Goharipour uses personal experiences at Rome's Piazza Navona and its depiction in the film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow to explore how cinema shapes our perception and experience of urban space.

How familiar it is! Wasn’t this Sophia Loren’s apartment view? This was Zhila’s first reaction when we entered Piazza Navona for the first time in May 2022 and, for a few minutes, were blown away by its glory, vitality, and beauty. My wife’s visual memory turned our physical strangeness into a little spatial intimacy. The mobile gaze of cinema indeed turned Piazza Navona into something more than an immediate object for us; maybe a dynamic one. In a fraction of a second, we felt that we now belonged to an “imagined community” whose sphere of influence has beyond Rome and even Italy become global with the pivotal role of cinema.1Benedict Anderson, Imagined Community: Reflection and the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983). The notion of the imagined community suggests that movies have been fundamental in shaping national identities and fostering a sense of belonging among the community members, despite their geographical distance, by enabling them to envision themselves as part of the same nation. I believe Charles Sanders Peirce’s dynamic conception of an object and interpretant, as will be discussed in this essay, expands the nation-based boundaries of imagined community. I also discuss how Peirce’s semiotics enables us to explore the relationship between the city and cinema.

The study of the city and urban spaces in movies and other visual mediums is a growing topic within urbanists’ work; however, how these representations affect the dynamism of the sense of space should also be taken into consideration. The third part of Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)2Original title: Ieri oggi domani unfolds during one day in the life of Mara (Sophia Loren), a prostitute who works out of her apartment located at the northern edge of Piazza Navona. She meets Umberto, a seminary student visiting his grandparents who live in the adjacent apartment, and De Sica narrates their romantic infatuation on the balconies of the two apartments, which are adjoined, where Piazza Navona in the background bears the entire burden of displaying the space, splendor, and sensual richness of the image. In the following, I illustrate the dynamicity of Peircean semiotics and incorporate an urban theory into my discussion, explaining how cinematic images augmented our sense of connection to the place and community and how our presence in the Piazza enriched our interpretation of the urban elements in the film.

Piazza Navona gives depth to and creates a spatial context for a scene in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Around one hundred years ago, American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce conceptualized a triadic semiotic model for understanding a sign, consisting of “[a representamen that] is something which stands to somebody [an interpreter] for something [an object] in some respect or capacity [the interpretant].”3Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–58). Translating and applying Peirce’s model to Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow as a cinematic text, Mara’s apartment view on the screen is a representamen, Piazza Navona is the object, and what one makes sense of the movie scenes is the interpretant (or interpretation).4To read more about the application of Peirce’s semiotics to cinema, see Hamed Goharipour and Huston Gibson, “Reading the Represented City and Society: Signs, Theory, and the Dynamic Interpretativeness of Peircean Semiotics,” Qualitative Research (2021). Peirce speaks of two levels of change to the notion of object: immediate and dynamic. The immediate object is “what we, at any time, suppose the object to be.” It, therefore, “may fail to include something that is true of the real object.” On the other hand, a dynamic object is the “object as it really is.”5Joseph Randsell, “Some Leading Ideas in Peirce’s Semiotics,” Semiotica 19 (1977): 157–178. Therefore, the level of an object’s immediacy or dynamicity depends on the spectator’s familiarity with and grasp of the context. One cinematic image may stand for a range of immediate and dynamic objects to different audiences.

Dynamicity of Peirce’s Semiotics

Imagine a viewer of De Sica’s film who has never been to Rome, acquires minimal knowledge about the city and its urban spaces (if any), and tries to share their unanalyzed impression of the technical syntax of the movie, such as shot compositions, mise-en-scène, lighting, characters, screenplay, and so on. The gray triangle in the figure above illustrates Peirce’s conceptualization of how such a viewer would grasp the immediate object and immediate interpretant in the text (movie). Accordingly, De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow represents a dynamic picture of Piazza Navona (red triangle) for one who has lived in Rome. It would be even more dynamic if they had owned a store at Piazza Navona since the 1940s.

According to Peirce, the dynamic interpretant is the effect that the sign really determines (on the mind). The feeling of love, fear, hatred, or reminiscence that the viewer who is unfamiliar with the object gets from the film is an example of this dynamicity (blue triangle). As they arrive at a better understanding of an object (e.g., Piazza Navona), that feeling deepens in them and corresponds to the physical context of the story (cyan triangle). Peirce describes the final interpretant as the effect the sign would produce on the mind after sufficient development of thought. Depending on one’s perspective, their development of thought might correspond to a different worldview than others. For urban studies researchers, for example, the urban theory would create an interpretive context, enabling them to explain the urban dimensions of a related cinematic scene, even if they are unfamiliar with the geographical context, displayed elements, or objects (yellow triangle). According to Peirce, a deep perception of something (dynamic object) AND a thoughtful conception (final interpretant) would equip one to make sense of the text (sign) and its constituent representamens.

My first impression of physically being in Piazza Navona reminded me of Kevin Lynch’s theory of the image of the city, enabling me to move from a placeless impression (blue or, at best, yellow triangles) closer to a final interpretation of the cinematic representation of the space.6Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960). I was familiar with Lynch’s theory when I first watched De Sica’s masterpiece several years ago. However, visiting Piazza Navona allowed me, beyond an immediate perception, to grasp a relatively more dynamic understanding of this urban space, helping me to have a deeper interpretation of its cinematic image and simultaneously enriching my lived experience of the space. I use Lynch’s five elements of city image to unpack how changes in the object’s and interpretant’s dynamicity modified my understanding of the cinematic sign and enriched my experience of the space.

The first time we watched Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow many years ago, Piazza Navona on the screen was an immediate object to us. We did not even know its name until one of the film characters mentioned it. “Mara, last night I went to Piazza Navona. I sat on a bench and looked up at your window,” says Augusto Rusconi (Marcello Mastroianni), who tries his best to resolve Umberto’s family problems as quickly as possible to pursue his own desires with Mara. The Piazza was portrayed as a bustling urban space, central to the daily life and view of the characters, so Mara’s apartment, which was located at the edge of the piazza, was accessible to her customers. The Piazza served as a backdrop for several scenes in the movie. It was depicted as a vibrant hub of urban transactions, very similar to what Lynch describes as a “node” in the city’s spatial organization. While its cinematic representation in the 1960s displays a car-oriented place where the movement of cars and busses defines functionality, its central pedestrian area injects a more human dimension into it.

Unlike in the film, Piazza Navona is a completely pedestrian space today that is designed to prioritize people’s movement and experience on foot. The square is closed to vehicle traffic, which allows for a more relaxed and pleasant atmosphere, free of the noise and pollution of cars and buses. Visitors can stroll leisurely through the square, taking in the sights and sounds of the city around them. The functional difference between the Piazza and surrounding alleys and districts was not conspicuous at the time of the movie, as the Piazza is chaotic in the background in the film’s mise-en-scène. Only inside the immediate space of Mara’s apartment, not the public space of the Piazza, could her clients get rid of the daily life of Rome sixty years ago. The functional transformation of the piazza to a pedestrian space was probably the primary reason it took us several minutes to recognize it from innumerable cinematic images in the depths of our brains. The Piazza is surrounded by various cafes, restaurants, and shops catering to pedestrians. These establishments offer outdoor seating and dining options, allowing visitors to enjoy the beautiful surroundings while indulging in some of Rome’s world-famous cuisine. In addition to its aesthetic and commercial offerings, Piazza Navona also serves as a gathering place for locals and tourists alike. Visitors can sit on the steps of the fountains or relax on benches, listen to random classical music played by a street musician, and look at art and architecture students who compete in drawing the best sketch of the Piazza.

Another meaning that we initially perceived from the cinematic image years ago had utterly been defined around the presence of the fountains (and the obelisk) and the church in the background. Although we had no idea about these urban signs’ encoded identity and significance, their depiction in different scenes indicated the focal and symbolic importance of Mara’s position and character. A more transparent and memorable image replaced the vague perception of these structures after our physical presence in the space years later. One of the most apparent ways cinematic images can help us understand a place is by providing a visual orientation. This is in line with what Lynch explains as the function of a “landmark.” These landmarks’ cinematic visual orientation coincided with the direction of our entry and movement in the piazza, becoming an essential factor in helping my wife recognize the space. These features act as visual cues that help visitors navigate the space and make it easier to remember and find their way around. While we could take a closer look at all these landmarks, their architectural details, and their visual features by spending time there, their cinematic image still dominated our perception of the structures. In contrast to the functional transformations of the space as a node, the unchanged presence and splendor of the church and fountains was an important reason that their cinematic visuality remained more solid than what we grasped by being there physically. The narrative gaze of cinema and Sophia Loren’s unforgettable character in the film have undoubtedly been the primary reasons that the reel image of these structures, more than their real presence, are engraved in our minds.

Lynch describes “paths” as the “channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves.”7Lynch, The Image of the City, 47. The 1960s Piazza Navona, beyond a simple node, is also a path. When Umberto finally agrees to return to the seminary, De Sica uses the Piazza not only to depict he is saying goodbye to his grandparents but also set the young man on the path of righteousness through the gentility of Rome’s iconic Piazza. Instead of giving us a view of the Piazza from Mara’s apartment, the camera this time takes us into the Piazza, filming a closer shot of its pavement, architecture, fountains, and other structures and people. Today, Navona is more of a pause space with several paths leading to and from it. The main paths include the Via del Corso, Via dei Coronari, and Via di Tor Millina. These paths connect Piazza Navona to other parts of the city, creating a movement network. The Piazza is also a hub that links several focal points in the city, including the Pantheon, the Vatican, and the Tiber River. Although Piazza Navona serves as a destination for most Romans and tourists, a function that empowers the human scale of the space as opposed to its mid-century car-oriented scale, many take this space as a path to get from the east to the west or from the south to the north and vice versa. The oval shape of the square indeed creates a natural path that guides visitors through the space, leading them from one end to the other.

Piazza Navona is the path that defines Umberto’s departure point
Piazza Navona

A more dynamic grasp of the Piazza as an object by navigating through the old Rome led my theoretically dynamic cinematic understanding of the space to a closer-to-final interpretant. Piazza Navona is a unique urban space in that it corresponds to all of Lynch’s five elements that give shape to the mental image of the city. In addition to simultaneously being a node and path and hosting several landmarks, Navona is an edge and a district. According to Lynch, a district is a medium-to-large area in the urban environment that is distinguished by its physical and functional characteristics. Piazza Navona is located in the heart of Rome’s historic district, surrounded by several distinct neighborhoods; therefore, it acts as a physical boundary between these neighborhoods, separating the tourist focal point from the more residential areas. Its oval shape creates an effective edge between the space inside the square and the buildings and streets outside it. Furthermore, Piazza Navona is a well-defined and distinct area in the urban environment; historic buildings, cafes, and shops surround it. This unique physical layout and character distinguish it from other city areas and help create a strong sense of place. Piazza Navona has a clear and distinct function within the city, serving as a hub for social and commercial activity in the area. Its cultural and historical significance further reinforces its status as a district in the city.

De Sica’s cinematic image, sixty years later, helped us to make sense of our surroundings that were otherwise one of those random tourist sites that we may have seen in postcards, advertisements, or on social media. We could define and locate ourselves with respect to our surroundings, as we understood what it felt like to be alive there at a particular time through a visual text several years ago. The production and exchange of meanings – the “giving and taking of meaning” — that had begun with watching the movie started again.8Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: SAGE Publications, 1997), 2. I got the first meaning of Navona from the cinema. Then, after many years, I gave meaning to that space by physically being there, moving from one corner to another, wandering in adjacent stores, pausing next to the iconic Fiumi Fountain, sitting on a bench, and listening to an itinerant musician. The perceived space (that I received through my senses) and the conceived space,9See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1974). (that De Sica’s representation of the Piazza had planted in my mind) merged at the moment. The homology between cinematic spectatorship and urban experience provided momentum for interpretations, contributing to the construction of a reality that I immediately began critically engaging with.

Which balcony was used by De Sica and the film crew? What visual codes did the Roman and religious legacy of the Sant’Agnese in Agone church add to the conversation between a seminary student and a prostitute in the film? Did the history of the Piazza and the church  assimilate into the grandmother’s character, witnessing and interrupting their conversation? Did Mara’s high-class clients signify the wealth and splendor of the Piazza? Who is living in the apartments now? Am I allowed into the building? Who owns and controls the space? Why is one’s access to adjacent buildings restricted by private owners? How did its transformation from a car-oriented piazza to a pedestrian one occur? What other changes have been made to the space in the past sixty years? What did it look like before that? All these and other questions directed my gaze throughout the space, creating an endless number of realities that, together with the realities perceived by others, constructed our lived experience of Piazza Navona during a lovely afternoon in May. Those realities are part of who we are as people. The film’s legacy has molded social, cultural, and physical experiences. Beyond one of those “must see” sites, we became a part of spatial/imagined relationships within the space. Yesterday’s gaze of cinema met with our Today’s experience of the Piazza. It will probably merge with Tomorrow’s mediated representations, memories, and narratives, including the everyday gaze of social media platforms with the help of ordinary people that will give meaning to millions of people’s experience of the space through images, hashtags, and likes. The sense of belongingness to the space bypasses locality, nationality, and citizenship restrictions and reaches a broad spectrum of audiences and users whose physical distances no longer limit their conceived understanding of the space.


1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Community: Reflection and the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
2 Original title: Ieri oggi domani
3 Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–58).
4 To read more about the application of Peirce’s semiotics to cinema, see Hamed Goharipour and Huston Gibson, “Reading the Represented City and Society: Signs, Theory, and the Dynamic Interpretativeness of Peircean Semiotics,” Qualitative Research (2021).
5 Joseph Randsell, “Some Leading Ideas in Peirce’s Semiotics,” Semiotica 19 (1977): 157–178.
6 Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960).
7 Lynch, The Image of the City, 47.
8 Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: SAGE Publications, 1997), 2.
9 See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1974).
Goharipour, Hamed. "Piazza Navona's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Cinema, Peirce, Lynch, and the Dynamicity of Spatial Perception." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 2 (June 2023)
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