Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: Venice Disputed

Venice Disputed: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Venetian Architecture

by Deborah Howard

Yale University Press, 2011

Ever since the first wooden pylon went down into the silt of their lagoon, Venetians have argued about their architecture. They joined their handful of little islands into one big island, interlaced it with canals, and started piling on marble like there was some sort of prize to it. And there was a prize: their city itself became a marvel, something the world had never quite seen before. In a procession that started centuries ago, millions of tourists stream into Venice every year, coursing over her innumerable bridges, gawking at her innumerable churches, making their innumerable complaints about her climate, her citizens, her coffee, taking their innumerable bad photos of her stately palazzi, and then decamping back to Akron to sigh about the lure of the Adriatic.

A touchstone of virtually all of those tourists, ranking only slightly behind the Piazza San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs, is the fabled Palazzo Barbaro, the gorgeous Gothic pile (actually two, haploidally melding into each other in the true Venetian manner) visited and loved by the likes of Henry James, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Robert Browning, and Edith Wharton.

The palace was city-home to generations of the Barbaro family, but in her new book Venice Disputed, Deborah Howard, Architectural History professor at the University of Cambridge, has one particular Barbaro in mind: Marc’Antonio (1518-1595), a nobleman who spent virtually the whole of his adult life in the service of the Republic of Venice in one capacity or other, elected or drafted into one after another committees or procuratorships whose positions were constantly filled from the ranks of Venice’s noble families. The peculiar claustrophobia of that world is something Howard evokes early in her book:

The Venetian Republic was democratic only in the sense that power was carefully spread among the ranks of the nobility, a closed oligarchy amounting to approximately 5 per cent of the population in the later sixteenth century.

In the course of her gorgeously illustrated (Yale University Press, once again doing their ancient name proud) book, Howard lays out for her readers what amounts almost to a dual biography, since any account of Marc’Antonio must perforce also be an account of his older brother Daniele, graduate of the University of Padua, correspondent with humanists, and learned translator of Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture into Italian in 1556 (Howard calls his commentary on the text “supremely intelligent”). Daniele is a figure fit to overshadow just about anybody – Howard writes, “He aimed to replace ignorance and credulity with knowledge and certainty” – and he sometimes threatens to swipe the narrative of this book right out of his younger brother’s grasp.

But it’s ultimately Marc’Antonio we’re dealing with here, not his smarter and more serene older brother – this is Howard’s decision, and it’s a wise one. Though a skilled draughtsman, it was Marc’Antonio who was often at odds with experts and professionals who consulted with his committees on such projects as building the Rialto Bridge or restoring the Doge’s Palace, and Howard wants to show us that conflict in all its details, the better to flesh out her picture of the tempestuous arena of public service in Renaissance Venice. Marc’Antonio has traditionally been revered as the quintessential public servant, but Howard is at pains to demonstrate that he was scarcely ever so revered in his own lifetime.

The book delves into his private life and his religious life, but its main focus is architecture, the buildings he either designed or helped to design. Foremost among these is the place he and his brother called home most of the time: the Villa Barbaro in the village of Macer, on the mainland. A good deal of Venice Disputed keeps bringing us back to the Villa Barbaro, with its remodelling designs by Palladio and its captivating, playful frescoes by Veronese. Windows open up onto gardens, where there are neither windows nor gardens, and people – life-sized and vividly life-like, almost caught in mid-word – greet the visitor from many walls, and the gardens and grounds are marvels of planning and vision.

Visitors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (in their innumerable hordes?) have stared at one of Tiepolo’s most stunning masterpieces, the Glorification of the Barbaro Family, which is all angels and idealization. I’ve stared at it myself, many times, but in addition to its hilarious pieties, I find I also like the more subtle glorification Howard is about. Her choleric, inventive, and entirely human Marc’Antonio is not idealized in these pages, far from it, but even so: this is one of those very rare oversized graphics-heavy monographs that readers will enjoy more for the words than the pictures. It’s a must for any Venice-themed library, but I recommend it to anybody who’s ever looked aghast at some public building and said, “What were they thinking?” Marc’Antonio would sympathize.