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The Italian Renaissance Palace Facade: Structures of Authority, Surfaces of Sense.

Charles Burroughs. The Italian Renaissance Palace Facade: Structures of Authority, Surfaces of Sense.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xix + 289 pp. + 55 b/w pls. index. illus. map. bibl. $70. ISBN: 0-521-62438-X.

Peter Burke called Italy a theater culture, a land of facades. Charles Burroughs's study is meant to deepen this observation from the point of view of the architectural historian. He concentrates on palaces in Rome and Florence from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The buildings are well known; indeed, they are the standard chestnuts: the rusticated palaces of late Trecento Florence, Palazzo Medici and its rivals, the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, the palaces of Bramante and Raphael in the Vatican Borgo, and Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitol.

In the past generation there has been intense research on these buildings, but quite different protagonists have also emerged. The range of the present book might be seen as somewhat narrow. There is little or no mention of the porticoed palaces of Bologna, or the palaces of the Herculean addition to Ferrara, especially the unforgettable Palazzo dei Diamanti. The great population centers of Naples and Venice, each with many dozens or perhaps hundreds of palaces, are hardly mentioned; the Strada Nuova in Genoa merits a line and a photo but no analysis. Siena, the place where one might best show the passage from the feudal castellare to the facades of a civic and civilized merchant elite, is only mentioned for a drawing of the late-medieval Palazzo Sansedoni. For some reason the book concludes with a Palladian villa, the Rotunda, but there is nothing on Palladio's palaces, such as Palazzo Valmarana, with its endlessly fascinating dialogue between the architectural orders and the figurative arts. Codussi, Sanmicheli, Sansovino, Giulio Romano, Tibaldi, and Alessi, all brilliant facade designers, do not make even cameo appearances. Only a tiny fraction of the imaginary palaces in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings are mentioned. The reader must be reconciled at the outset to getting not the Italian palace facade in all its polyglot regional complexity, but a sampler from two art cities.

If anything, it is the methodology, not the selection, that is meant to be new. Burroughs reads widely in many fields outside conventional art history. The notes are a cornucopia. He wants to sensitize the reader to "a complex network of resonances and allusions." He is fully naturalized in theory and cultural studies. Anything the sources turn up that smacks of the talismanic or the semiotic is savored, as befitting a Res monograph. The recurrent metaphor is of the building as body. There are other stimulating and unconventional trains of thought, such as the analogy with the development of the title page in early printing, where triumphal arches often invite the reader to process into the book. There is a section on emblem literature and many remarks on courtly dissimulation.

The facade that is at the heart of the book is Bramante's Palazzo Caprini, the "house of Raphael," long since destroyed and known only from graphic sources. A Marxist reading is aired, overlaid by myths of primitive nature and primeval origins. Civilization, represented by the Doric order of the upper stories, stands on a rustic base, "which gives quasi talismanic strength to the realms of artifice above." All this is prepared for in late medieval Florence, with the evolution of the "binary" facade, tough and rustic below, but smooth and domestic on the upper stories. Mary McCarthy called these "bossy" facades; Burroughs speaks of massive masculine walls that enclose women's bodies, of palaces as instruments of control, symbols of the Florentine reggimento itself. He draws an extended analogy between the pot of basil that conceals a lover's head in Boccaccio's story of Lisabetta and the Florentine late medieval palace: a tough and impermeable exterior conceals its terrible secrets. Impenetrable is indeed the watchword. Burroughs closes this section with the chivalric tale of a frustrated lover galloping at top speed to break his lance against the facade of the house where his damsel is confined.

The book is a la page in theory; this is symbolized by the extraordinary notes. But it is not a very visual book; this aspect is symbolized by the murky black and white photographs. The reader does not get the sense of long hours watching facades in changing light, of visits to quarries, or of concern with color or materials. Palazzo Caprini and a few other heroes are closely studied, particularly Palazzo Medici, with the main theme being the transfer of motifs from the Palazzo del Comune to a private palace. But otherwise surprisingly few of the facades mentioned are subject to close and sustained visual analysis. For example, although there is much interesting material on the layout of Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, there are only a few lines on the facade, nothing on the problems of attribution and no attempt to reconstruct the unfinished upper story.

The book makes much of the theoretical issue of transparency, the ideal defined by Le Corbusier of the building as a bubble. In the Renaissance, we learn, transparency yields to facadism; the bubble presents itself to the world through layers of illusion and deception. But one wonders if there might be more concrete ways of thinking about this fundamental question. In the great domestic machines of the Renaissance an asymmetrical sequence of rooms associated with rank, namely, the progression from grand sala to smaller and more private antechambers, which culminates in a tiny but precious studiolo, came to be accommodated behind facades that appear completely symmetrical. When Palazzo Farnese is lit up at night for the Fourteenth of July the fundamentally lopsided quality of the room arrangement is visible from the piazza; by day all this vanishes behind Sangallo's brilliant camouflage. One could go farther with the Farnese also from the point of view of color. Now, after cleaning, what jumps to the eye are the strange diamond-shaped patterns in the brickwork of the upper stories. Perhaps these were meant to be covered with a semitransparent wash so as to feign the patterns of veined slabs of marble cut "alla farfalla"; the minute Michelangelo took over from Sangallo he suppressed such frippery.

In a recent article Yvonne Elet has investigated the stone benches at the foot of so many Renaissance facades, tracing them from the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence through the Palazzo Medici, Pienza and Urbino to the Farnese and beyond ("Seats of Power: The Outdoor Benches of Early Modern Florence," JSAH, 61 [2002]: 444-69). A whole bench culture grew around them. This bench-and-bottom study produced rather more concrete results than the more abstract approach of building-as-body, thus showing that each generation, perhaps, will have its own image of the Renaissance palace. But no one who studies the facades of Rome and Florence will have read more widely or pack his notes more intriguingly with the latest in cultural studies and architectural theory. The resonances and allusions picked up by Burroughs's detection equipment are worth having, even though it is tuned in on a relatively narrow bandwidth.


Villa I Tatti, Florence
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Connors, Joseph
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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