Venice Disputed: Marc'Antonio Barbaro and Venetian Architecture, 1550-1600

November 17, 2011

By focusing on one of Venice's 16th-century patricians, Marc'Antonio Barbaro, his political career and patronage, this book analyses the debates that fuelled international diplomacy and Venice's urban development. Deborah Howard's longstanding interest in the complex relationships between religion, politics and urban growth is here distilled into a rich narrative of the Venetian Renaissance world.

This is an intricate book, and demands some commitment on the part of the reader to explore how and why Venice developed as it did during the late 16th century. However, sustenance is offered throughout in the form of a great number of illustrations and photographs brought together from archives throughout the world. Howard's text gives rise to a broad range of questions about the representational role of architecture in cultures. Although the point is not made here, one might ask how much of the developing language of architecture emerged as internal to disciplinary and artistic processes of practice and how much occurred, instead, as a result of the instabilities of power relations in individual contexts of design and building.

The bringing together of Venice's architectural development, the context of one individual's working life and the archive of political transcripts has proved especially engaging for Howard, and offers new levels of interpretation for the reader. In many ways, the political transcripts point to the story of a failed politician, given Barbaro's propensity for unsuccessful debates and proposals. Although his cause was not often supported, his name has been strengthened by the legacy of his brother Daniele's architectural scholarship, and their fraternal patronage of Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi, and so it has become linked to the emergence of architectural modernity.

Howard narrates this intricate story by deftly moving between political transcripts and building archives to explain the complexity of urban renewal and development. Her work suggests that the completion of buildings and urban infrastructure is frequently a testament to truly remarkable perseverance on the part of the designer, client and/or political protagonist. The most telling moment in this book deals with Barbaro's defence of strict Roman classicism. It is then that Howard raises the paradoxical relationship between Venetian and Roman classical pasts. Venetian leaders desired the use of antique Roman principles of order for urban renewal; yet they continuously undermined the protagonists of strict Roman classicism in their political debates and processes, reluctant to give the impression of overt links to Rome. Having meticulously articulated the perplexity of Venice's architectural situation, Howard suggests that there is no simple answer. Venice remains enigmatic.

Rather than retell the myths surrounding Venice that are common to the more novelistic approaches of authors of recent popular works, Howard questions more thoroughly the role of diplomatic relations, architectural procurement and work practices in the city's development. In considering the diplomatic missions of Barbaro in Constantinople, she traces the Ottoman Empire influences seen in the churches of Palladio, and hints that the relationship between patron and architect was intellectual as well as substantive. In addition, she documents important developments of Venice's understanding of the modern through changing work practices and status between the proti (what we would know as a project manager), the architect and other experts (periti) in the contestation for control of single projects. The story of how control was achieved, crossing boundaries of religious patronage and factionalism, and in spite of Venetian patricians posturing for political power, is compelling.

It is the transcriptions of political debates found in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia that have permitted Howard's painstaking verification of the positioning of Barbaro in relation to the Venice of his age. Yet knowing the debates of our own political settings, we may hesitate to give too much credence to the idea that political transcripts can be privileged over other conflicting evidence. While the political rhetoric of Venice's patricians may be interpreted as indicating specific attitudes, their actions were often more cautiously aimed at a continuance of the Venetian past. It was a past that has often been typified as "classical", despite being locally derived from idiosyncratic sources.

Venice Disputed: Marc'Antonio Barbaro and Venetian Architecture, 1550-1600

By Deborah Howard. Yale University Press, 320pp, £45.00. ISBN 9780300176858. Published 29 September 2011

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