Eccentric Elements in a Traditional City: Gogol'’s “Rome” from the Perspective of the Petersburg Tales

Linda Shipley Mayhew, University of Texas, Austin

In his writings on semiotic space in The Universe of the Mind, Yuri Lotman contrasts concentric and eccentric cities. A concentric city, such as Rome, embodies the traditional image of a city on a hill, separated from the surrounding territory with fortress walls for protection, and is both heavenly and sacred. An eccentric city, such as Saint Petersburg, sits on the edge of cultural space, struggles with nature and the elements, has been artifically created, and is associated with death and apocalyptic forecasts. Nikolai Gogol'’s unfinished novel “Rome” and his group of short stories referred to as the Petersburg Tales depict these opposing urban identities in terms of the atmosphere, characters and plot in each given setting. Because the themes of urban life in the Italian capital contrast and complement those of the former Russian capital, “Rome” is often considered part of his Petersburg Tales, as Gogol' implicitly contrasts the ideal with the demonic. Whereas the physical space and atmosphere of these two cities sharply contrasts, the characters’ urban experiences bear a clear resemblance. In both Rome and Petersburg, characters suffer from an emotional or spiritual distance, as is typical for eccentric cities, when interacting with the city. In this paper, I will focus on the differences and similarities in atmosphere and experience in “Rome” and the Petersburg Tales, arguing that although Rome developed in a more organic and concentric manner than Petersburg, Gogol' creates connection between the two cities by emphasizing Rome’s eccentric elements.