Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics

Teresa Stoppani closes her eyes and takes a multimedia tour of the Queen of the Adriatic

July 22, 2010

Don't look now. Via this book and an accompanying website at featuring plans and downloadable audio recordings, Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti take us on an aural tour of Venice, inviting us to close our architectural eyes and perceive space with our ears and imagination (and MP3 players).

Theirs is a very unusual, very specific (and specialist) tour. In it we listen to (rather than look at) a selection of Renaissance churches. We concentrate on their spaces as sites of musical performance, inextricably linked to their religious purposes and liturgical requirements, but researched, acoustically measured, tested and reactivated as sound boxes.

Owing to its varied and complex ambitions, the making of this book required, beyond the joint efforts of the two architectural-historian authors, the involvement of a vast team of music and acoustics consultants, the participation of the choir of St John's College, Cambridge and soloist singers, plus the engagement of an audience who recorded their impressions of the performances on standardised questionnaires.

From the outset, this project was both interdisciplinary and multimedia, both specialist and involving the general public. Here lie the difficulties it encounters in first untangling and then recomposing complex scenarios that needed to be analysed with different disciplinary approaches. The book does this systematically, addressing for each of the 12 churches covered first architecture (through archival research and detailed descriptions of the spaces and their designs in relation to religious requirements and visual and acoustic performance); then music (through a selection of period pieces performed in different ensemble and logistic arrangements to simulate 16th-century conditions); and finally acoustics (through a comparative analysis of the audience's qualitative sound assessment and the acoustic measurements' quantitative data).

While the aural experience (of sound and space) is one, its descriptions here are necessarily divided by discipline, and the results, for the sake of clarity, are unemotional and fragmented. How, then, to read this book? With pauses, as one takes in the different descriptions and explanations and reblends them, virtually reconstructing the spaces and their histories and events, both musical and human.

The rich selection of audio tracks on the website offer the perfect time-space to do so, as one can analytically accompany the reading with the given track discussed in the text, or use it (irreverently) as an accompaniment. Even without their soundtracks, the accounts of the choral performances in the churches are so accurate that even a lay reader can clearly follow, close her eyes and aurally "imagine", while the more technical and specific acoustic analysis for the specialist reader is offered in the book's richly detailed appendices.

The book's audio-architectural approach pioneers the systematic combination of qualitative and quantitative sound analysis of the musical performances, and, matching them with architectural history and research, offers a method for future studies. In the specifics, though, what do we learn of 16th-century Venice?

The 12 case studies are organised in book chapters according to religious and musical categories that do not always produce architectures of similar typology and scale (indeed, this is the first clue that the book is not strictly about architecture alone).

The book also progresses in a somewhat chronological order, from early Renaissance religious resistance to polyphony to its later triumph: from the exceptional space of the ducal San Marco to the island monasteries (the simplicity of San Michele and the state pomp of San Giorgio), the different articulations of the friars' choir in the mendicant friaries (from the orthodoxy of the Frari to the political spectacle of the Redentore, via the "harmonically" designed San Francesco della Vigna), a sampling of parish churches (spatially simpler but historically articulated by financial vicissitudes), and, finally, the churches of the Ospedali Grandi, true money-making ante litteram concert halls. There, design adjustments were dictated by performance and acoustic concerns.

In this chrono-aural tour of Venetian churches, we relearn them as articulated spaces of performance, of religious and social life, of charity and display.

While the multi-domed mosaic-lined San Marco proves to be a flexible multifunctional acoustic space, we discover that the geometric proportions of the Palladian churches produce a harmony that is more visual and ritual than musical, and that the more modest parish churches, for their smaller size and flat ceilings, offer a better musical experience.

In the friaries, the choir space and the singing friars fused in a human-architectural musical instrument that produced divine sounds from a screened or concealed music box. But the true musical invention was fully accomplished in the churches of the Ospedali, designed to produce beautiful sound (and consequently copious income) rather than for prayers accompanied by music.

In the end, this book and its soundtrack can perhaps be better appreciated by musicians and acousticians, but important lessons are to be learned here by architects: beyond symbolic forms and harmonic proportions, this book exposes a complex relationship between music and architecture that was dictated more by religious and political rituals, materials and budgets and empirical adjustments and experience than geometric rules.

Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics

By Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti
Yale University Press, 256pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780300148749
Published 20 January 2010

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