Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 29, 2007
Manfredo Tafuri Interpreting the Renaissance: Princes, Cities, Architects Trans Daniel Sherer New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Harvard Design School, 2006. 568 pp.; 166 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300111584)
Andrew Leach Manfredo Tafuri: Choosing History Ghent, Belgium: A&S Books, 2007. 250 pp. Paper €22.00 (9789076714301)

In 2006 Yale University Press published an English translation of Manfredo Tafuri’s last book—fourteen years after the Italian original and twelve years after the death of its author. Why? Admittedly Tafuri (Rome, 1935–Venice, 1994) was both famous and controversial in the Anglo-Saxon world. Famous because of the incredibly wide range of his knowledge and his refined scholarship, controversial because of his Marxist views and his preference for urban development over individual works of architecture. In Europe Tafuri was mainly known as a notoriously “difficult” author whose theoretical and historical essays were equally dark and impenetrable. Said an Italian architect: “Tafuri wrote in an Italian no one understood. As a student you read a page and in the end understood nothing. Then you reread it and didn’t understand anything better. You went to the next page and it wasn’t any better. Some years later you would pick up the same book and try it again and still you did understand nothing” (Stefano Mirti on “Tafuri Instant Forum” []). Others complained about his “dusty eruditism.” All this notwithstanding, Tafuri was published and republished—in Italy and abroad—during his twenty-five-year tenure (as professor, chairman, and director) at the University of Architecture’s Institute of Architectural History in Venice. Many of his books were translated during his lifetime, often within a few years of their first publication (e.g., Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, trans. Barbara Luigi La Penta, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976; Theories and History of Architecture, trans. Giorgio Verrecchia, New York: Harper & Row,1980; The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, trans. Pellegrino d’Acierno and Robert Connolly, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1987; Venice and the Renaissance, trans. Jessica Levine, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1989). And now the posthumously translated Interpreting the Renaissance has received the 2007 Royal Institute of British Architects Book Award. So what is it that makes Tafuri’s work, and particularly his last work, so special?

It is not, I would say, the brilliance of its style, for indeed it is often awkward. Though by far the most readable of Tafuri’s books and essays, Interpreting the Renaissance is by no means smooth sailing. Just try to grasp the meaning of the following three sentences:

Archetypes and schemata confer legitimacy and, in a more concrete sense, involve specific strategies of legitimation: by the same token, a certain semantic density can be ascribed to the process by which they become part of discourse while being translated into distinct idioms. The interval between the ideal model and form is specific to a process of invention (un’inventare) that is, in some sense, the corollary of a process of manifestation (un rivelare). The object-like coherence (oggettualità) of the projects conceived by Raphael and Michelangelo thus assumes a significance that exceeds their particular configurations” (114).

To understand it is feasible, but not exactly easy. Add to this the fact that Tafuri sporadically uses evocative yet void expressions like “heroic verticality” (113), that he constantly intersperses his prose with detailed references to dates, historical persons, architects, and modern scholars, and that he often reaches back to arguments or parts of arguments developed in earlier chapters, and it will become obvious why many of his European students and readers considered Tafuri a “dark” author. An average reader, and especially a non-specialist reader, will need a lot of time to work her or his way from cover to cover.

Nor can it be the clearness or coherence of its reasoning that has earned the book its laurels. Tafuri’s way of arguing is seldom straightforward; many paragraphs lead away from the book’s primary thread, devoted as they are to related, or not so very related, subjects. Moreover, Tafuri is far too often carried along by his—at least in this book—never explicitly stated theoretical stances. Take, for instance, the discussion of interventions in Rome’s urban center during the times of Nicholas V and Leo X (chapters 2 and 4), which is clearly inspired by his habit of seeing the world in terms of hierarchical orders and power structures. Or look at his treatment of Jacopo Sansovino’s design of the Moro buildings in Venice (chapter 7); it is impossible not to see behind it his preference for the blending of the individual building into the whole of a cityscape. Furthermore, Tafuri repeatedly stacks hypothesis upon hypothesis without taking care to step back and reconsider, as recommended by Ernst Gombrich in the introduction to Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London: Phaidon, 1972). As a result, his attempt to ascribe the original design of Charles V’s palace in Granada to Giulio Romano (207–17) remains very unconvincing. Even less convincing is when he attempts to demonstrate that an architect, in this case Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, did not take an existing antique building, the Pantheon, as a model for a new church, the San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome. “The manifest coherence of Sangallo’s design,” he writes, “is congruent with the ‘true’ or ‘real’ idea [scil. of a central plan church], which, in the Pantheon, is contaminated by ‘error’” (124). As Sangallo abhorred errors, the Pantheon cannot possibly have been his source of inspiration. Quod erat demonstrandum.

If not style or argumentation, then what? It is, I think, the feeling of open-endedness that makes Interpreting the Renaissance such commendable reading. What Tafuri claims he set out to do in this book is to show how princes, city magistrates, scholars, architects—how, in fact, society at large—shaped the course of Renaissance architectural design. He wanted to emphasize that exercises in power, changes in perspectives, social conditions, design traditions, and visual culture each played a part in leading fifteenth- and sixteenth-century architects to develop the various forms and concepts which have come down to us. It was a culture of competition and contradiction that prompted architects to innovative solutions. And it was local circumstances that forced them to come to terms with indigenous traditions and reinvent their individual idioms. In Tafuri’s view, the tale of Renaissance architecture and urban planning consists mainly of striving, occasional failure, and partial achievement.

Tafuri’s living, unfinished, open-ended Renaissance originates in his view of history. As Andrew Leach makes perfectly clear in Manfredo Tafuri: Choosing History, for Tafuri history was always a kind of research, and historiography nothing more than a report of that research. He was not interested in painting a finished canvas, writing down a well-ordered overview; instead, he wanted to represent history as complex and fragmented. His conclusions had to be provisional; further research could yield more as yet unknown facts and connections, which in due course would alter the story. Therefore Tafuri endlessly returned to subjects he had already researched for years—a habit fortified by the intense personal scrutiny experienced during nine years of psychoanalysis, to which Leach rightly draws attention. Tafuri also had a clear preference for fragments: loose, often tiny pieces of matter without a clear-cut, fixed meaning. Fragments are versatile; they can be combined in many formats, are easy to use and reuse, and are perfectly suited to ongoing research and unresolved hypotheses. Tafuri intentionally titled the Italian original of his last book La ricerca del Rinascimento, meaning both the activity and the result of research and interpretation. The English title Interpreting the Renaissance handsomely renders the idea.

In close reading Tafuri’s theoretical works, Leach establishes further reasons why the Italian historian chose to present his findings in a tentative way. One is Tafuri’s conviction that the task of an architectural historian is to inform the architects of his own age about the tradition(s) they are coming from and the choices their forebears were forced to make. This will provide them with a firm platform from which to leap forward. Whereas the architect is projecting into the future, the historian must serve as an analyst who represents the past in the present; as the present is in flux, the historian has to adapt her or his representations to the newest conditions. In turn, this story is inevitably subject to change. Another reason is Tafuri’s heavy leaning on Hegelian thinking. Tafuri’s view of history mostly rests on Hegel’s tripartite scheme of thesis, antithesis, and solution—with the understanding, of course, that there are parallel series whose solutions could be new theses or antitheses sparking off new solutions and again new antagonisms. These ongoing struggles engendered a culture of contradiction, as Tafuri called the burgeoning Renaissance. Obviously, he considered it impossible to definitively depict this agonistic milieu, of which not every aspect could be known. Hence its representation had to remain provisional. Finally, Tafuri had a habit of calling the individual projects of architects and patrons, and even the whole of the Renaissance, una ricerca. All tried to achieve their objectives by (re)interpreting the traditions and idioms at hand. All were looking for new solutions. Clearly, what was tentative research at the time ought to be described in equally tentative reports now. Thus, there was, again, no room for the certainty of definitive conclusions.

Leach’s survey of Tafuri’s theoretical views and stances is useful background information. It contains everything the reader of Interpreting the Renaissance needs to know about its author’s explicit and implicit choices and penchants. Through his careful readings of the master, Leach has, in fact, systematized Tafuri. He enables readers to see Tafuri’s highly personal representation of Renaissance architecture in the context of more than thirty years of research and writing on the subject. One doesn’t learn from Leach’s volume to what degree (if any) Tafuri was an exceptional historian, as it doesn’t look beyond Tafuri’s own oeuvre. It states his motives; it shows the scholars and movements who influenced his thinking (Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, the Annales school, Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory, to name a few); it also describes his methods. But it does not connect Tafuri to the historical field at large. This is a pity, for we end up with a rather lopsided view. Indeed, Tafuri was an architectural historian in the same way that Erwin Panofsky was an art historian. He wanted to explain architecture by means of the ideologies of its age, and conversely to use architecture to understand these ideologies. Tafuri’s historiographical toolkit was not especially different from that of any other historian; his difference was that he was educated as an architect and for the whole of his professional life worked as a historian in an architectural institute. There he had to defend choices—and had to theorize about choices—that in another department might be generally assumed. He had to fight.

As Tafuri was writing Interpreting the Renaissance he was an internationally renowned scholar at the apogee of his fame. Fighting was over; there was no longer any pressing need to defend his choices—apart from old habit and personal urge. As a result, the book is relatively free of theorizing. It shows Tafuri at his best: looking intensely at architects’ drawings, scrutinizing even the tiniest details in actual buildings, and bringing to task his incontestably huge knowledge of all ranges of period writing and modern scholarship in order to give an—admittedly temporary—interpretation of the Renaissance.

The translation by Daniel Sherer is a masterpiece in its own right. It approximates Tafuri’s heavily charged, idiosyncratic idiom in relatively smooth, very readable English. To better serve the reader, Sherer in many instances provides explanatory words or sentences (always between square brackets), and if necessary appends the original wording (italics between round brackets). Also, he has written an accurate, succinct introduction, which among other things encapsulates in short form Tafuri’s theoretical views, which Leach analyzes at much greater length. Given Sherer’s meticulous approach to the text, a few shortcomings of this edition are rather surprising. The first is that the Latin quotes are not always immaculate (e.g., page 35: “destantantur” instead of “detestantur”). The second—and for non-Latinists more troubling—surprise is that not every Latin and occasional Spanish quote is translated. But these small blemishes should not detract from praising Sherer’s splendid achievement.

Lex Hermans
Research Fellow, Department of Art History, Leiden University