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The art of obfuscation.


By Manfredo Tafuri. London: Yale University Press. 2006. [pounds sterling]35

Manfredo Tafuri (1935-1994), once Chairman of the Faculty of the History of Architecture and Director of the Institute of History at the Architecture Institute, Venice, published his last book, Ricerca del Rinascimento: principi, citta, architetti, in 1992. This volume under review is an attempt to render that work (with its many perspectives on Renaissance architecture) into English. However, his translator, Daniel Sherer, tells us that his 'allusive use of language, his unexpected turns of phrase, and the rhythm and complexity of his thought all conspire to make the task of the translator arduous'. Indeed, 'readers ... may find his approach to language difficult'. As it turns out, this is a massive understatement, for, as in earlier writings by Tafuri, obfuscation is overpoweringly present, and any message the author might wish to disseminate is obscured by the pretentiousness and incomprehensibility of his ludicrously opaque language, influenced no doubt by his Marxist stance and by people such as Adorno and Foucault (which might explain, of course, why some find it profound). We are assured, for example, in 'Venetian Epilogue', that the myth 'lived by the heirs' of certain Venetians 'enjoyed an order refractory to autotelic mental experiments'. Really? One feels that an early acquaintance with the lucid and urbane writings of Sir Ernest Arthur Gowers (1880-1966) could possibly have encouraged Tafuri to adopt a tighter, more intelligible style.

Of course the Italian Renaissance was not all sunshine, sweetness, and light: it was often extremely nasty. In the chapter entitled 'Architecture and Myth in the Era of Leo X' we are treated to tales of singular unpleasantness, although they could have been far more interesting if better told, using a clarity of language of which Tafuri was obviously incapable (or consciously unwilling to use). In 'The Granada of Charles V', Tafuri was undoubtedly correct in emphasising that monarch's obsessions with symbols, mottoes, heraldry, emblems, and with 'anachronistic aspirations' focused on 'the torments of his soul': but Charles was by no means alone among his contemporaries. Indeed some who came after him (eg, Rudolph II [1575-1612]) were even more bogged down in such arcane matters. What is more contentious is Tafuri's hypothesis concerning the involvement of Giulio Romano (c. 1499-1546) at the Palace of Granada.

Yale University Press has produced many beautiful books, but this one is spoiled not only by Tafuri's impossibly impenetrable writing, but by the many dim, hopelessly distorted, and often fuzzy black-and-white photographs of which the most horrible are those of the circular courtyard of the Palace of Charles V at Granada (104), Granada Cathedral (114, 118, 119, 120), and the great chapel in San Salvador at Ubela (123): they should have been rejected out of hand and decent photographs commissioned. Somewhere in this book are potentially interesting insights concerning the Renaissance, but it is a fearful effort to winkle them out. Tafuri refers to the '"elevated", pretentious language serving as instrument of social control and disseminator of dogma' employed by the Roman Church. He should talk!
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Author:Curl, James Stevens
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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