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Book Review: Venice & Vitruvius

Venice & Vitruvius

by Margaret Muther D’Evelyn

Yale University Press, 2012

The city the world knows as Venice was founded by terrified refugees (and their money-people) some time in the fifth century on a group of low-lying islets in a sheltered lagoon. Whole forests of pilings were pounded into the feckless silt to anchor the islets, and web-works of bridges fanned out to link them, and soil and rock and sediment were barged in to fill the gaps. Everywhere else in the fifth century, the architectures (and, it could easily be argued, the natures) of cities were dictated by their topographies. Only Venice came into being without topography – so it’s understandable that right from the beginning, Venice was obsessed with architecture. How could it not be? Architecture was its haven and sole solace against the unpredictability of the sea and the mainland. Everywhere else, you get the buildings and the background; in Venice the buildings are the background. In the days before the rampant gentrification of the late 20th Century, a person could inquire after a “For Rent” listing in a nice-sized building in the Dorsoduro and walk into a set of rooms (and, alas, a plumbing system) essentially unchanged from the days of the Italian Renaissance.

That kind of continuity is almost oppressive. It gets people writing. Of the 1,473,400 books written about Venice in the last century, for instance, a good 768,000 have focussed on some aspect of the city’s architectural heritage. A truly masterful new addition to that tottering heap comes now from Yale University Press: it’s Venice & Vitruvius by Margaret Muther D’Evelyn, and as is evident from the book’s title, D’Evelyn is concerned as much with literary architecture as the brick-and-mortar variety. She traces a more or less straight line from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius to the brilliant Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti to the duo who monopolize most of D’Evelyn’s attention, famous adoptive Venetian builder Andrea Palladio and the great Venetian humanist Daniele Barbaro, who crafted a richly intelligent and hugely influential annotated version of Vitruvius’ De Architectura, the 1567 edition of which was lavishly illustrated by Palladio and did a great deal to shape not only the Renaissance visual aesthetic but all subsequent visual aesthetics.

Neither Barbaro nor, God help us, Vitruvius is the least bit interesting to read on the subject of architecture or anything else, but you don’t necessarily need to be in order to be influential (as anybody who’s ever slogged through Admiral Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 can attest). D’Evelyn performs the essential enthusiast’s favor for both men: she makes them sound far more fascinating than they really were. She talks about the 1511 edition of Vitruvius made by the friar Giovanni Giocondo as though it were an Indiana Jones-style cavern of treasure, which of course makes it one, however briefly:

Let us open Fra Giocondo’s small folio-sized volume to the woodcut prints that illustrate Vitruvius’ definition of generic architectural drawings. No roof rises above cornice level in the elevation of the great house, as if we were standing close to the face of the building, while a large led roof with squared metal sheets secured by nails dominates the house drawn in perspective – as if we had stepped back to observe the building from a greater distance. Such swift changes in the visibility of roofs must have been common throughout Venice during the sixteenth century, for Barbaro speaks of the “exterior look of the roof” as the first part of the house to become visible.

(Of Giocondo’s charming and rigorously smart little book on the canals of Venice itself D’Evelyn isn’t immediately concerned – which is a shame, since it’s one of the best little books on the subject ever written … certainly in the top 175,000).

The persistent (and surprising? This is, after all, a very big book on the civic architecture of 500 years ago, and it’s got a full one hundred pages of end-notes, in double columns) charm and good cheer of D’Evelyn’s treatise carry the reader along even when she’s forced to admit some of the rhetorical limitations of her subject, as she does using the typically offhand and graceful ubiquitous Venetian gambit of taking all good conversations outside:

At Piazza San Marco, let us take a seat at a table in the once open-air courtyard of what was Jacopo Sansovino’s Mint, begun in 1536, now part of the Marciana Library, to consider Barbaro’s and [painter-architect Cesare] Cesariano’s views on Vitruvius’ prose. In his concluding remarks on the whole liberal education outline for the architect in Book One, Vitruvius asked Octavian to forgive his grammar, for “not as a very great philosopher, nor as an eloquent rhetorician, nor as a grammarian trained in the highest principles of his art … I have striven to write this work, but as an architect who has had only a dip into those studies.” As seen earlier, for the Latin edition of 1567, Barbaro praised the appropriateness of Vitruvius’ diction: “and all is very easy in Vitruvius, but in diction appropriate to an architect, for I do not wish here or in any other place for Vitruvius to be regarded as elegant or Latinate so much as an architect.”

The long shadow of Vitruvius (and the shorter but deeper one of Alberti) moved Barbaro and Palladio to re-shape how the West thought about its architecture; their new and specialized vocabulary became the building lingua franca we still use today. It’s refreshing to see the literary roots of that sea-change given such an extensive and thought-provoking treatment as it gets in these pages (the book is physically beautiful too, in customary Yale fashion, well-bound and lavish with illustrations).

In a more financially generous publishing environment than we currently enjoy, D’Evelyn would follow up this great performance with her own annotated version of Vitruvius – or even better, her version of Barbaro’s version, complete with the Palladio’s woodcuts. As things stand, we can content ourselves with the cheerful banquet of Venice & Vitruvius. Of the 484 Venice books that were published in the time it’s taken you to read this review, it’s quite the best. Hell, it stands up well for the whole month.