History Etched in Stones of Venice

Scholar Manfredo Tafuri draws links between buildings and politics of the time.

VENICE AND THE RENAISSANCE by Manfredo Tafuri, translated by Jessica Levine, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 296 pp., $35 CANALETTO by Katharine Baetjer and J.G. Links, With essays by L.G. Links, Michael Levey, Francis Haskell, Alessandro Bettagno, and Viola Pemberton-Pigott, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Harry N. Abrams Inc., 387 pp., 167 color, and 13 black-and-white illustrations, $60

MANFREDO Tafuri's ``Venice and the Renaissance'' will probably be considered one of the boldest architectural publications of 1990. The premise of the book, first published in Italian in 1985, is that behind every realized building lie innumerable invisible suggestions. These may have come from an architect or from what in Venice was known as a proto, an often talented and adaptable foreman, in competition with the ``learned'' architect.

Since the buildings Mr. Tafuri chooses to discuss - he's arranged them chronologically as thematic studies - are all products of group patronage, he uncovers alternative opinions that come from changing political alliances within the commissioning groups during the design and building processes. If this theme has 20th-century parallels, so do issues Tafuri explores concerning the ``restoration'' of the waters of the lagoon, a subject that was vigorously debated through the 16th century and partially acted upon during the final decade.

Tafuri's volume engages the reader's historical imagination by hypothesizing links between architectural tastes and political factions. The author interprets behind-the-scenes but documented ``battles'' over the character of areas adjacent to the Campanile - the height, form, and alignment of the famous three-storied, richly sculptured government building that now runs along the right side of Piazza San Marco (as one faces the church).

He attributes delays in building to disturbances caused by Pope Clement VIII's censorship of books. Clement's edict of 1596 would have required 400 to 500 Venetian booksellers to take an oath of loyalty to the Vatican as a political power. Among the senators who protested were those who also resisted Scamozzi's three-story design that brought the ancient Roman architectural forms too close to the heart of a republic struggling to maintain its autonomy.

Tafuri's bold approach - he emphasizes that he is constantly testing hypotheses - is based on a remarkable command of documents and of literary and scientific texts written by the Venetian patricians and their friends. His dialectical analysis may lead him to exaggerate conflict. But as cultural history, his text spans many fields and intelligently unites architecture with developments in the recovery of ancient science and with the penetration of Protestant thought into Venetian intellectual and artistic circles. In particular, Tafuri associates the thought of Erasmus of Rotterdam with the simplicity of the small Renaissance Venetian churches, the Venetian practice of active public charity, and the lack of Venetian iconoclasm.

Tafuri praises the productive joining of humanist studies and mathematical/scientific research in the mid-16th century. He sees this successful ``dialogue'' in a ``manifesto'' of architectural culture, Daniele Barbaro's ``Commentaries'' on Vitruvius.

Barbaro's interpretation of the ancient Roman architect's ``Ten Books on Architecture'' was published in 1556 with illustrations by Andrea Palladio. (Tafuri edited the facsimile of the second edition of this volume in 1987). Palladio would receive his first major commissions in Venice in the early 1560s, and during that decade and the '70s he gave Venice the innovative and beautiful church designs that embrace the lagoon across from San Marco today.

Studying architectural decisionmaking in Venice in terms of changing ``mentalities'' of groups, Tafuri finds that the flexibility of Palladio's type of design ``dialogue between the sciences and architecture'' diminished by the time of Scamozzi's projects (after Palladio's death) at the end of the century. But among Palladio's friends who considered Scamozzi to be Palladio's artistic heir can also be found friends of the young Galileo Galilei.

Tafuri's analysis is far more than a history of architecture as the development of knowledge and technology in the 16th century, but this thread connects all his explorations.

MIT Press undertook a heroic task in translating Tafuri's avant-garde text. The complex use of the Italian language by the director of the University Institute of Architecture in Venice is well known (and the minor problems in the translation will surely be corrected in the expected paperback edition). MIT also has translated three of Tafuri's studies on modern architecture into English.

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