In this important publication, Margaret Muther D’Evelyn sets forth an ambitious agenda to examine the theories and writings of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio through the eyes of Daniele Barbaro and Andrea Palladio, two of the most influential architectural minds of sixteenth-century Venice. To accomplish this goal, D’Evelyn divides her text into two main sections. The first, “Composing the Commentaries,” examines the place of Barbaro’s Commentaries on Vitruvius’s TheTen Books on Architecture within the context of the genre of the architectural treatise in late fifteenth-century to early sixteenth-century Italy. Having established the literary backdrop for the Commentaries, D’Evelyn then focuses on the relationships among her three protagonists—Barbaro, Palladio, and Vitruvius—as experienced within the complex sociopolitical world that was Renaissance Venice.
Few, if any, texts from antiquity proved more thought provoking in Renaissance intellectual circles than Vitruvius’s TheTen Books on Architecture. This work also boasted notably dense Latin. As a result, a pressing demand existed for an Italian-language edition that would be useful to the growing population of architectural practitioners and enthusiasts whose facility with Latin may not have enabled them to comprehend the nuances of Vitruvius’s prose. Several authors in the early sixteenth century offered translations, but none proved as authoritative or accessible as that produced by the Venetian diplomat-cum-prelate Daniele Barbaro. As a result of his vast diplomatic experience, Barbaro approached Vitruvius from the standpoint of a humanist scholar rather than that of a cleric. He also recognized that in order to carry out his translation project he would need access to the expertise of a practicing architect, and he ultimately sought the input of Andrea Palladio, the premiere architect working in Venice and the Veneto. Together the men took up the challenge to produce a “more apprehensible and eloquent” edition of the ancient text.
Theirs was not an overnight endeavor by any means. Rather, they created at least four separate texts: two handwritten preparatory versions now in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice (CL. IV, cod. It. 152 [=4106], and Cl. IV, cod. It. 37 [=5133]), a 1566 edition published by Francesco Marcolini, and a revised version published in 1567 by Francesco de’ Franceschi. D’Evelyn’s meticulous comparison of the handwritten notes and printed versions allows the reader to understand the active dialogue that took place between the two authors and their ancient Roman predecessor.
To understand fully the implications of the Barbaro/Palladio enterprise, D’Evelyn acknowledges the influence of authors such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Sebastiano Serlio. As she outlines in chapter 1, “The Arrival of the Italian Renaissance Illustrated Architectural Book,” the printed and illustrated architectural treatise emerged as an important locus of aesthetic discourse in sixteenth-century Italy. It was di Giorgio who recognized the limitations of writing for conveying architectural ideas and thus included drawings in his treatise. According to D’Evelyn, the addition of illustrations allowed the Sienese architect to support his reinterpretation of two long-standing theoretical underpinnings: sign and signified. (It should be noted that in this very thorough analysis, D’Evelyn does not reference or cite Ferdinand de Saussure, which comes as something of a surprise given her lengthy examination of the usage of the terms signifier and signified here and in other sections of the text.) She then turns to a discussion of di Giorgio’s architectural “grandson” (via Baldassare Peruzzi), Sebastiano Serlio. Whereas personal experience was the inspiration for di Giorgio’s treatise, Serlio’s work was inspired by the stage. Serlio was profoundly influenced by the theater, going so far as to identify the architectural orders with actors on the dramatic stage. As D’Evelyn ably demonstrates, both di Giorgio and (especially) Serlio loomed large in the mind of Daniele Barbaro when he decided to write his Commentaries on Vitruvius. In turn, Palladio offered his collaborator important insights, such as the need to address archaeological evidence in support of interpretations.
Having methodically analyzed the specifics of Barbaro’s Commentaries within the genre of the architectural treatise, D’Evelyn turns her attention to the broader social, political, and, most important, architectural environment of early modern Venice. She divides the book’s second section, “Reading Venice,” into seven chapters, further subdividing these into “tesserae,” a clear reference to Venice’s fascination with pastiche and mosaic, intended to give the reader insights into the multitude of subjects addressed by Barbaro and Palladio. Throughout this section—which accounts for two-thirds of the book—D’Evelyn envisions her protagonists wandering Venice’s narrow calli and discussing the singular environment.
Often the two men had to account for those elements that distinguished Venetian architecture of the early modern period from the ancient examples studied by Vitruvius. In the first of their many imagined urban peregrinations, “Building in Venice without Proper Foundations,” Barbaro and Palladio address arguably the most important aspect of any building, and one with notoriously unique challenges in Venice: the foundation. Obviously, Vitruvius did not address building in Venice specifically, but his ideas on this most important of elements can be discerned in numerous structures in the lagoon city, including the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, San Francesco della Vigna, and the Redentore.
Renaissance architectural treatises served as more than records of stylistic suggestions and design principles. They also addressed decorum and propriety and recognized that space articulates behavior. This notion is manifested most fully in chapter 3, “Open Doors and Welcoming Atria.” This chapter likewise offers the reader some particularly important insights into the minds of Barbaro and Palladio regarding the inherent differences between the domestic architecture of ancient Rome and that of early modern Venice. For example, D’Evelyn demonstrates the ways in which Vitruvius’s notion of the tablinum was understood as comparable to, perhaps even conflated with, the mezzanine area found in many Venetian palaces.
The conflation of business activities and family life within the private palace often inspired comment from visitors to Venice. However, the permeability of public and private was not the only element of architectural intrigue. Windows constituted a subject of equal, if not greater, interest, and it is this most important feature that serves as the focus of chapter 4. This chapter has the added benefit of allowing the reader glimpses into other aspects of Barbaro’s intellectual interests, notably his fascination with scientific endeavors, especially the metaphysics of light. Similar engineering concerns are addressed in chapter 5, “The Roof.”
Chapter 6, “Bricks That Swim,” transitions from the microcosmic analysis of individual building parts and influences to consider the macrocosm of Venetian urbanism through discussion of one of the city’s most ubiquitous elements: the brick. It is considered here not merely as a building material. Rather, brick offers D’Evelyn an entrée into an analysis of the quality of building materials in general and the implications of the material decisions made by architects and patrons alike. Not surprisingly, much of this analysis focuses on one of the city’s most famous, and most controversial, marble-clad structures, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
As the meetinghouse of one of Venice’s wealthiest and most socially active religious lay confraternities, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco played an important role in the civic and spiritual life of the Renaissance city. As D’Evelyn outlines in chapter 7, “The City as Theater,” Venice was steeped in ritual and public processions. The city offered many unique spaces for public display and performance, including the altane. For Barbaro and Palladio, these platforms, found on the roofs of many Venetian palazzi, seemingly shared many characteristics with the maeniana described by Vitruvius.
Linking the maeniana with the altane offered the Renaissance authors the opportunity to provide a definable built example for a space that was often the subject of imagination and speculation. Such issues provide the thematic leitmotif for the eighth and final chapter, “Literary Light.” Barbaro and Palladio relied on a variety of sources, most notably the works of Pliny and Ovid, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (the most enigmatic illustrated book of the era), and the writings of Leon Battista Alberti. Surprisingly, it is Alberti’s work that emerges as perhaps the strongest influence on Barbaro and Palladio.
When viewed as an ensemble, D’Evelyn’s tesserae enable insightful glimpses into the minds of two of Venice’s foremost architectural thinkers and novel interpretations of structures in which they were directly involved, such as San Francesco della Vigna, and those that they certainly knew well, such as Codussi’s San Michele in Isola. The organizational principle of Venice and Vitruvius is made all the stronger by D’Evelyn’s decision to use only high-quality reproductions of original line drawings for illustration. This design allows the reader a more direct interaction with Barbaro and Palladio’s original publications and will surely appeal to scholars seeking to experience as much of the original texts as possible; it has the added benefit of offering Palladio a greater voice in the analysis. However, this decision might prove problematic for some readers. D’Evelyn makes many references to existing structures in Venice, some of which, such as the Palazzo Ducale and San Giorgio Maggiore, enjoy such acclaim as to not require illustrations. But other structures discussed, such as Palazzo Giovanelli in San Felice and the apartment blocks on the Calle del Paradiso, do not enjoy the same recognition. As a result, a reader not intimately familiar with Venetian architecture may need to undertake a modicum of independent research to understand fully the implications of the interpretive arguments presented.
In sum, Margaret Muther D’Evelyn’s extraordinarily close reading of the primary documents and multiple early editions of the Commentaries, as well as her detailed and erudite observations about the thought processes that went into the creation of the Commentaries, renders Venice and Vitruvius indispensable to scholars of architectural history and Venetian studies.