Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 4, 2014
Andrew Hopkins Baldassare Longhena and Venetian Baroque Architecture New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 372 pp.; 62 color ills.; 305 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300181098)
Thumbnail

Andrew Hopkins’s latest book is the first full-length English-language study of the great seventeenth-century Venetian architect Baldassare Longhena. It follows two recent Italian monographs, by Martina Frank (Baldassare Longhena, Venice: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 2004), along with Hopkins’s own study, revised and translated in the work under review (Baldassare Longhena 1597–1682, Milan: Electa, 2006). Despite the wealth of literature on sixteenth-century Venetian art and architecture, the Venetian Baroque has remained a relatively neglected field in Anglo-American scholarship. Only Longhena’s best-known work, the church of S. Maria della Salute, has received significant attention, most recently in Hopkins’s first book, Santa Maria della Salute: Architecture and Ceremony in Baroque Venice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Thus the new volume marks an important step toward filling this lacuna by presenting this rich subject to a wider audience of scholars and readers interested in Venetian architecture and the Baroque.

Except for a new introduction written for his Anglophone audience, the six chapters correspond to the Italian edition, dividing Longhena’s prolific and varied oeuvre along typological and thematic lines. Formalist concerns dominate the analysis, but Hopkins also offers important insights concerning Longhena’s patronage. The six years between the two versions produced important new scholarship on seicento Venice that Hopkins has incorporated into his revisions. Two of the appendices provide a list of works (appendix 3) and a biographical and documentary framework for Longhena’s career (appendix 1). The latter is a helpful addition because the main text leaves out biographical detail, and its thematic emphasis tends to obscure the basic chronology of the architect’s career. A brief essay on Longhena’s critical reception forms a third appendix. The rich complement of photographs by Alessandra Chemollo do justice to the spatial effects and sculptural details described by Hopkins and ensure a readership beyond the specialist.

What unifies Longhena’s work, according to Hopkins, is the architect’s unique “spatial intelligence” (xv), and this theme also provides continuity within the book. Hopkins presents a perceptive analysis of his plastic architectural compositions. Abundant sculptural ornament and the serial repetition of certain architectural details both encourage and respond to the spectator’s movement, and in doing so animate the structure. Longhena’s attentiveness to the moving spectator—the way his buildings continually offer up new views of themselves—can be understood as the Baroque contribution to the Venetian tradition of water-oriented urban scenography described recently by Daniel Savoy (Venice from the Water: Architecture and Myth in an Early Modern City, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, esp. 87, 109).

The title of this English edition stakes a claim, already implicit in the earlier volume though not expressed in its title, to broader historiographical concerns: not only Longhena’s career, but also Venetian Baroque architecture are treated here. Chapter 1, “Venetian Baroque,” surveys Longhena’s career and certain key works to define the character of seventeenth-century architecture in Venice. In effect, it seeks to answer the question, “Why was there no great Venetian Baroque architecture?” Several historical reasons account for Venice’s relative lack of Baroque architecture, especially from the 1630s and 1640s, when Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini, and Pietro da Cortona transformed Rome. Longhena’s position as proto (chief architect) to the Procurators of St. Mark’s demanded attention to a wide range of projects, not just prestige works. Lingering Palladianism, the conservatism of certain patrons, and the devastations of the plague of 1630 contributed to a “limited presence of Baroque architecture” (26) in the lagoon city. Yet Hopkins shows that Longhena’s approach to design and his buildings measure up well against Baroque innovations elsewhere on the peninsula, including Rome. The real problem turns out to be historiographical, not historical. There was avant-garde architecture in seicento Venice, Hopkins asserts, but Longhena’s “decisive contribution” (xv) effectively disappeared from both theoretical and Rome-centered accounts of Baroque architecture written in the twentieth century (Rudolf Wittkower’s work marks the notable exception). Hopkins presents Longhena’s church of S. Maria di Nazareth as the best new argument for the architect’s rehabilitation, blaming the lack of scholarship on the Barefoot Carmelite order for its neglect. Hopkins argues further that Longhena’s spatial, sculptural, and scenographic sensibility secures his importance as a Baroque designer.

These qualities reveal themselves most strikingly in Longhena’s long-acknowledged masterpiece, the votive church of S. Maria della Salute, construction of which occupied almost his entire career. In Hopkins’s monograph on the Salute, the themes of ceremony and scenography frame his discussion of the building competition and Longhena’s evolving design. Starting with the initial stages of site selection, the criterion of visibility governed the vision of the patrons and the architect they ultimately chose. The church would act as a permanent beacon of Venice’s triumph over the plague, not only on the annual feast day in which the Doge made his ceremonial visit. The striking domed, octagonal nave with its crown of scroll-like buttresses and triumphal arch entrance facade harnesses Marian iconography to the tradition of triumphal and ephemeral architecture. By setting this spectacular work in a chapter of its own, Hopkins does not allow it to overshadow the rest of Longhena’s varied oeuvre, to which the following four chapters are dedicated.

The theme of the ascent to knowledge (“Gradus ad sapientiam”) unites Hopkins’s discussion of Longhena’s staircases and library designs in chapter 3. Jacopo Sansovino had established the Venetian precedent for monumental staircases to a library at his Libreria di S. Marco; but at S. Giorgio Maggiore, Longhena had to contend with the legacy of Palladio, who had transformed the Benedictine complex in the second half of the sixteenth century. Longhena proved himself more than adequate to the task. Hopkins argues that the staircase and library were a unified conception, and he shows how the architect also visually integrated his staircase into the Palladian cloister to produce a space of great scenographic impact. The project was likely the fruit of discussions with erudite bibliophiles such as the Greek scholar Alexander Synklitikos and the patrician Giovanni Soranzo, whom he had encountered in earlier commissions. Such conversations led Longhena to consider local, Italian, and also Iberian models in planning the staircase and the library’s double-height carved wooden bookcases. The chapter clarifies Longhena’s contribution to the development of a burgeoning building type in Baroque Venice.

Chapter 4, “Cult and Memory,” addresses Longhena’s ecclesiastical works other than the Salute and his altar and tomb designs. The discussion is organized typologically (and somewhat confusingly) rather than chronologically. Hopkins focuses on S. Maria di Nazareth, or the Scalzi, begun in 1654. Hopkins’s assessment of Longhena’s contribution to the Baroque, as presented in chapter 1, hinges in part on the neglected example of the Scalzi, and here he elaborates on its building history and the innovations of its single-nave ground plan and sumptuous marble revetment. The newly revised discussion of the side chapels and altars introduces a second key component of the chapter and of Longhena’s work: his collaboration with sculptors in the production of a large number of altars, high altars, and tombs, in both traditional and highly inventive forms. Their variety reveals his attunement to the requirements of the commission, as demonstrated by the contrast between the staid wall tomb for the senate-sponsored tomb of Captain Bartolomeo Orsini d’Alviano in S. Stefano and the sculpturally, chromatically, and rhetorically rich monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro in the Frari.

The following chapter, “Prestige Palaces,” in contrast to the previous one, takes a straightforward, chronological approach, for it is Longhena’s domestic architecture that most clearly mirrors his stylistic development. The publication of the English edition prompted Hopkins to revise the chronology presented in the Italian edition based on recent discoveries of both drawings and notarial documents, many published by Jan-Christoph Rösler (“Nuovi documenti per palazzi attribuiti a Baldassare Longhena,” Arte veneta 65 (2008): 193–215). Unlike the first Italian edition and previous chapters, the buildings are presented under subheadings in a catalog-like format. Within this framework, however, Hopkins interweaves certain thematic threads signaled by the chapter’s title, notably patronage and the representational function of the urban palace. While a narrow analysis of stylistic development might account for the shift from the modest, planar facade of Palazzo Lollin (ca. 1621) to the opulent plasticity of the Bon and Pesaro palaces of mid-century, Hopkins ascribes the divergent styles to Longhena’s use of “carefully calibrated architectural language to express aspects of prestige and patriotism” (173). He shows the continued relevance in seventeenth-century Venice of the dialectics of frugality and magnificence, examined by Manfredo Tafuri and Patricia Fortini Brown for the cinquecento. Hopkins’s observations about Longhena’s palace facades for the aggregati—families, often foreigners or from the cittadino (citizen) class, allowed to purchased nobility after 1646—might be put into productive dialogue with Blake de Maria’s recent analysis of the patronage strategies of foreign merchant families seeking Venetian citizenship in the sixteenth century (Becoming Venetian: Immigrants and the Arts in Early Modern Venice, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Discussion of Longhena’s biography emerges only in the sixth and final chapter, entitled “The Outsider.” Here Hopkins draws a parallel between the architect’s non-Venetian origins (his father was an illiterate Brescian stonecutter) and the works usually considered marginal to his oeuvre. These include religious and confraternity buildings for foreign communities in Venice and other more modest institutional patrons, as well as his failed Dogana da Mar project and the Oratorian church in Gostyn, Poland, the design of which was based on the Salute. The chapter focuses on Longhena’s relationship with the Greek community and also assesses the degree of his involvement with the Spanish and Levantine synagogues in the Ghetto. Works like the rental houses he built for the Greeks serve as foils to the “prestige palaces” of the previous chapter, but Hopkins shows that Longhena’s early and close ties to the Greek community, especially its erudite scholars, drew him into the sphere of patrician intellectuals who would become some of his most important sponsors. The 1619 cenotaph for the Greek archbishop Gabriele Seviros and Longhena’s designs of the late 1670s for the Greek Scuola di S. Nicolo and the Collegio Flangini bookend his long career. Hopkins suggests rightly that they demonstrate Longhena’s skill in adapting monumental architectural forms to a small scale. For this reason and given his emphasis on Greek patronage, the later works and the striking urbanistic complex they form—almost a city within the city—perhaps deserve more than the cursory treatment they are given.

Longhena’s Salute, as Wittkower first noted, stands poised at the center of a theoretical hemicycle encompassing Piazza San Marco and the great Palladian churches of S. Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore, the latter being that to which it is most often compared [Rudolph Wittkower, “S. Maria della Salute: Scenographic Architecture and the Venetian Baroque,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 16, no. 1 (1957): 3]. Like Palladio, Longhena’s origins lay in the stonemason’s yard, but Hopkins asserts early in the book that he was heir rather to Sansovino and his highly ornamental treatment of architecture, on display at Piazza San Marco. What might be deemed stylistic discontinuity in Longhena’s oeuvre, Hopkins suggests, should be understood as the ability to calibrate his solution for each commission and patron. This too recalls the flexibility of Sansovino, also proto to the Procurators of St. Mark’s (see Deborah Howard, Jacopo Sansovino: Architecture and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975). Throughout the book Hopkins demonstrates, moreover, Longhena’s close study and creative assimilation of a wide range of earlier Venetian and Venetan sources: a subtle effect from a painting by Giovanni Bellini (143) or a detail such as Pietro Lombardo’s unusual column-less, water-level capitals on the church of the Miracoli (43). Yet it is a mistake to think that Longhena looked only backward, for as Hopkins’s monograph adroitly shows, his genius belongs very much to its time.

Johanna D. Heinrichs
Visiting Lecturer, Department of Art, Williams College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.