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11 November 2010

Absence of the Past

Thirty years ago I visited the Venice Biennale while a student with the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Studies Program. That was the year of the first architecture biennale, with the theme The Presence of the Past. Next week I will be speaking at the Constructed Environment conference in Venice, my talk being “The Absence of the Past: Whither History Thirty Years After The Presence of the Past.” For all of post-Modernism’s obvious faults, it did mark a time when the past, or history, was relevant and even essential to architectural discourse, but not so today. Indeed, even classical and traditional architects are suspicious of history (and historians), which has relegated historical knowledge to a remote corner of contemporary discourse. I will be advocating the value of history—as a critical component of the “inevitable” project, as a source of poetics, as intellectual raw material generally—for both architectural design and the architect’s capacity to offer historical insights (as in my reconstruction of Alvise Cornaro’s Teatro for Venice, shown here). Much of the poverty of architectural discourse today, among Modernists and Classicists, is due to an almost complete avoidance of historical reference. History is a Muse, but she is also a ruthless judge. If we want things to get better, if we want to measure up to the past, we need to know much more about it.
If only historians weren't so bent on rendering their research trendy (enough with all the references to "self-fashioning"!), and had abandoned any sense of the narrative trajectory of their writing, they might make a more appealing case for their relevance. See an earlier post for the value of venerable historical writing.

14 October 2010

en plein air


These images of en plein air paintings done in Rome (in roughly two hours) illustrate the emulator’s task of representation (what one sees) combined with a deference to a tradition (how one sees). The modern notion of realism puts a high value on direct observation, but seemingly ignores the tradition of how others have observed the same subjects. If one emulates in the classical tradition when working en plein air, one is conscious of the tradition of plein air painting even in the choice of subject. Composition of subject, in other words, is just as important as technique.

FYI, the Columns of the Temple of Apollo next to the Theater of Marcellus in Rome owe a debt to Panini, while the Urn from the courtyard at Sta. Cecilia was a subject of Piranesi.

More en plein air work can be seen at

02 September 2010


On our return to Rome we passed through Stockholm for a few days at the end of August. I’ve wanted to see the palace of Drottningholm since Thomas Rajkovich and I won the International Competition for the Minnesota State Capitol Grounds in 1986. Minnesota, heavily populated by Nordic immigrants, has a spectacular State Capitol building by Cass Gilbert, but the grounds he reserved in front of it had never been developed. Our competition winning design projected formal terraces and gardens, along with bridges connecting the Capitol with downtown St. Paul. Despite winning (albeit by a narrow margin) we met tremendous resistance to executing our project, partly driven by a native sense that our scheme was too “Mediterranean,” somehow not connected to the reality of the Minnesota climate and landscape. Nostra culpa: we should have immediately after winning gotten on a plane and flown to Stockholm, to photograph Tessin’s Royal Palace and the gardens at Drottningholm. The latter is a spectacular sequence of spaces beginning at the water, through the palace and on to a series of terraces, parterres, and woods (where you’ll find a ‘Turkish tent’ and a ‘Chinese pavilion’). Somehow the provincialism implicit in the idea of regionalism has embedded itself in our culture, making moderns immune to influences not, seemingly, indigenous. Drottningholm is gloriously dependent on French and Italian precedents; at its marvelous theater the king imported French actors and designers and Italian opera singers. To do this was the height of sophistication, an acknowledgment that culture was absolute, and one either had it or imported it. “Too Roman” would not have been a critique; instead, it was trumpeted as a claim to a place on the cultural stage. Since then, however, even Sweden hunted for a “national style,” like so many other European cultures: anything but classical.

National Romanticism was the rather bizarre late phase of pre-Modernist culture, where a desire to detach individual nations from the unifying effects of classicism led them to some very convoluted constructs: neo-medievalism, eclecticism, proto-classicism. Sweden, where Italy and the Renaissance held sway over their consciousness even in the middle of the nineteenth century, and where there really was not much notable culture to speak of before the Renaissance, tried desperately to invent something uniquely theirs around the turn of the last century. The pinnacle of this project was Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall. I admit to being quite partial to this building in my early transition from modernist to classicist; and many who never really left that post-modern middle ground still love it. But it is, to a classicist, so odd to see the desire for a “national” style manifest itself in a highly personal pastiche of Venice: the Doge’s Palace rendered with the palette of the Frari! Neither its idiosyncrasies nor its Venetian-ness merit the term ‘national,’ and yet modern histories will be more sympathetic to its spirit than to that of Tessin’s Royal Palace—so powerfully Roman in its formal structure (and yet no pastiche of any Roman building). It draws on Bernini’s work most deliberately—the Louvre, St. Peter’s, Ariccia— and yet it is of its place and time.

What makes the Royal Palace ‘Swedish’ is a patron’s willingness to do it, something Bernini didn’t have at the Louvre. And what makes Tessin a classicist is that commitment to the Beautiful as manifest in the best of the classical tradition, wherever it is found.

18 August 2010

Following Frescoes

On August 19 the Gallery of Bond Hall at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture will host a show of David Mayernik’s preparatory drawings and paintings for his recently completed frescoes at the Palmer Performing Arts Center at TASIS Switzerland and the chapel at the church of S. Cresci in Tuscany. The show will remain on view until September 17.

Fresco painting is sufficiently rare to evoke only romantic associations with Italy and the Renaissance, but in reality there is a modest renaissance of modern fresco painting going on today, with places to study and new work available in the United States and Italy. It is this that Mayernik documents in his new website Fresco Trail, which allows travelers to find his work and eventually the work of other modern fresco artists. If you can’t make it to South Bend to see the show, keep in mind the itinerary throughout Italy and Ticino that can be followed as a modern fresco trail. If we long for the achievements of the past, we need to celebrate their recovery in the present.

10 August 2010

Buy Green

Rizzoli’s Green Living is packaged rather oddly. The cover shows exactly the kind of high-tech modernist “green” architecture that the publisher thinks the public expects, whereas the content of the book offers a compelling, systematic repudiation of that approach and a seductively wide range of traditional alternatives that anyone can love. Don’t judge this book by its cover, in other words. Scholar and architect Barbara Kenda assembled the authors for the project, and Victor Deupi, Norman Crowe, and myself, once her colleagues, owe her much for creatively fusing her own research into healthy living and buildings during the Renaissance with solutions to the modern crisis of construction. This is an important, elegant book that the publisher seems not to have a clue how to market, and it deserves to reach every architect, builder, and concerned citizen’s shelf.

01 August 2010

Rome and America

A recent drive around the East Coast brought me to a series of sites that illuminate the challenges of reconnecting American culture to its European roots. A priori this has to acknowledge the inevitable artistic provincialism of the colonies and the early United States, a subject glossed over at Williamsburg—a place at once quaint and bizarre, where the focus of the guided tours (all convincingly done, it must be said) of the most prominent buildings—the Governor’s mansion and the Capitol—virtually ignores the architecture and focuses instead on politics and social life around the time of the Revolution. A decision has obviously been made to make of Williamsburg a teaching opportunity for the history of Revolutionary America, but this has the consequence of turning its back on the whole raison d’être of having reconstructed Williamsburg in the twentieth century, which was to show what an important American small town was physically like in the eighteenth century (since so little of eighteenth century America survives). Being my first time there, I was struck by how un-urban Williamsburg is in fact, really more a loose main street collection of disparate buildings whose street width and trees preclude any sense of urban spatial definition. The adjacent college of William & Mary is in many ways more urban, but the claims for Wren’s authorship of the first building only points up the desperation of the attempt to put this humble place on the European stage, especially when one compares it to Wren’s work at Hampton Court (where the in-costume guides do, by the way, talk about the architecture) or the Chelsea Royal Hospital. We had stopped for an overnight in Frederick, MD beforehand, and here we actually found a real, vital urban environment, one that New Urban apologists should enthusiastically embrace over Williamsburg.

The excellent show Ancient Rome & America at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia did (it closes today) do a remarkable job of connecting early America to Ancient Rome, from the arts and architecture to foundation myths, political culture, and even the nature of slavery. Would that students of classical art and architecture today could have seen it—there was, amazingly, no catalogue—since it makes the point of how readily Americans were once able to learn from Europe, indeed define themselves quite precisely with relationship to European culture. Philadelphia still does, in fact, retain quite a lot of its eighteenth century fabric and monuments, and Philadelphia’s John Blatteau has been one of the few American classicists to tie his work explicitly to European models, which goes a long way to explaining why his work is so much better than most American contemporary classicism.

07 July 2010

Buy This Book!

Now available in the United States, New Palladians (eds. A. Sagharchi and L. Steil) documents the work of 48 modern architects or teams whose work is in some way rooted in tradition. The value of this book lies primarily in the quality of the built work by those whose practice is most rooted in the classical tradition. It is still likely to be true that much of the public is unaware that such built work exists (partly because so much of it is private), or that there are such architects committed to building all’antica. This mission to disseminate (with all of its implications of seeding) is the book’s great merit, and it deserves as wide a readership as we can gather for it. What starts off as a polemical tract settles into a coffee table format soon enough, and while I am all for polemics the public is more likely to be convinced if seduced by beautiful buildings, and in a number of cases that could actually happen with this publication.

It is also one of the merits of this book that it affords equal space to each architect represented, regardless of status or quantity of built work. Set out on such a level playing field, it is no longer inevitable that the biggest firms offer the most compelling work, although there is an inevitable relationship between a client’s resources and the quality of building. Also inevitably, there is an abundance of private and developer work, and a small percentage of institutional—libraries, colleges, museums, etc.—work, which is unfortunately fairly representative of classical architecture’s market access today (and, in fact, tallies pretty well with the distribution of private and public in Palladio’s career).

Make no mistake, the Palladianism of this book is a somewhat artificial construct, tacking onto the tail end of the Year of Palladio a survey of modern architects whose work can loosely be described as “traditional” (see my earlier observations on that problematic word); for those not invested in the arguments put forth in the essays at the beginning of the book (none of which, tellingly, are written by the architects whose work is most obviously “Palladian”), what some of the new work and the buildings by Palladio in Carl Laubin’s rather chilly capriccio have to do with each other may be hard to grasp. No matter. I for one am comfortable with the “Palladian” label (and no doubt many of us included are also) because it implies “classical;” and if that word shows up surprisingly rarely in the book, it may be a natural consequence of a movement that still isn’t quite comfortable in its skin, or is trying hard to band together (for strength in numbers) a body of work that actually represents quite disparate points of view. It is to the credit of the British and European editors that such a catholicity of points of view is so fairly represented. This is a much-needed book, since there has been quite literally nothing else like it out there since The Classicist’s Xth Anniversary edition, and one hopes it will be followed with some regularity by similar publications.

03 July 2010

Fourth of July, Tuscany
Brendan Hart, the monks Giovanni and Giuseppe, David M.

On the fourth of July the parish of S. Cresci in Valcava (near Borgo San Lorenzo) will celebrate the feast of their little known saint, the "evangelist of the Mugello." They will also be opening to the public my recently completed frescoes of the last days of the saint and his companions, martyred in the third century under the Emperor Decius. The church, ably maintained in the face of a dwindling congregation by the Silvestrine (Benedictine) monks Giovanni and Giuseppe, has benefitted from the support of several loyal parishioners, among them Lynn Fleming Aeschliman. What is delightful for me about this year's choice of day for the celebration is that, as an American born of second-generation immigrant parents (Slovak and Italian), implicitly acknowledged on the day of our independence is the inter-dependence of Italian and American culture, by no means a one-way street. For all of our museums enriched by Italian paintings, our classical buildings built by Italian craftsman, our cuisine and our couture, Americans have given back not only our dollars to the birthplace of the Renaissance, we have invested our sweat equity--of course in the War, but also the "mud angels" of the '66 Florentine flood, the many farmhouses lovingly restored by stranieri, and now in one ancient, small, remote church a new cycle of frescoes hinting at a new renaissance. And not just there: in Florence the multitude of Anglophone realist art programs are largely American in impetus, faculty and students.

But so many places in this richest of cultural landscapes are struggling through tough economic times. So, if you want an off-the-beaten track trip to a verdant, culturally rich landscape (nearby Vicchio being the birthplace of Giotto, Beato Angelico, and Lully) for a little peace, quiet and beauty, visit the monks at San Cresci in Valcava (t. +39 055 849 5612), who can offer accommodations, fabulous simple food, and good company (although they speak very little English). Nearby Capitignano is also a lovely place to stay. It's wonderful to see the original Renaissance, but there's something to be said for keeping your eye out for the new one afoot in and around Florence. And this time America has something to offer.

19 June 2010

A Function of Time

A June day in Ariccia, south of Rome (see post from January); we went because my wife Brette has written a fabulous article on the local porchetta for Cucina Italiana, which she shared with those who helped in the research. There I met the impassioned Gino Galieti, of La Castellana (Antico Laboratorio Lavorazione Carni, or Venerable Shop for Working Meats--or something to that effect!) in nearby Genzano. What gets Gino riled up is a discussion about the industrialization of erstwhile artisan Italian meats--salumi, porchetta, etc. And what Gino has to say about the shortcuts producers have introduced into the production of cured pork--stagionato, or aged, salamis now only requiring 2 days!--could be applied to art or building. Everything we do today, it seems, with the exception of rigorists like Gino (and myself), is faking it with respect to the time and quality involved in what our culture once produced. Gino, subject to brief fits of despair, soldiers on, making his coppiette come una volta. And indeed, our only hope is combining his penchant for crankiness ("It's the chefs who don't sustain the quality producers!") with actually doing it the right way any chance we get (like painting frescoes).

Those of us involved in classical architecture lament a lot about what's missing in our culture--patronage, craft, taste--but perhaps the most fundamental thing is the value of Time. Time to draw well, time to think well, time to build well. If we can't recover the value of Time, we'll remain just faking it. And, you know, Gino's real stuff does simply taste better.

08 June 2010

Frescoes for S. Cresci

What follows is a sequence of images from the first of the last two frescoes illustrating the life of S. Cresci for a chapel next to the eponymous church in the Mugello, Tuscany; the images present the sequence of day's work, or giornate, from the sinopia underpainting through the five days required to complete the scene and its frame.

More information on the church of S. Cresci in Valcava (in Italian) from wikipedia here.
More information on the church and its frescoes from me to follow....

11 May 2010

Found in Translation

Some images, from an en plein air watercolor on the island of Ponza in 2009 to a fresco project in Lugano in 2010.

From left to right: Aldo, stucco modeler and plasterer; David, fresco painter and architect; Euterpe, Muse of Lyric and Music; Clio, Muse of History; Domenico and Andrea, decorative painters.

This is how a tradition is re-built: constant effort (even on vacation), disegno, shared skills (hoc opus hic labor est), critical standards (based on history).

29 April 2010

Know Thyself

OK, a little test for you “traditionalists” out there. How would you label this plan?

If you said “classical,” you are correct. If you said “modernist” (or even thought it) you are a crypto-Romantic neo-medievalist, or possibly a Modernist. Whatever one thinks of Ledoux, or the Enlightenment—and mind you, you don’t have to like this plan or what it represents to call it classical—it is formally ordered according to the most rigorous, and traditional, classical principles. If you see in this what Sitte saw in the Viennese ringstraße of his day, you are by nature suspicious of formal order of a geometric kind. Period. That’s of course fine, but most great architects from Bramante to Gabriel would recognize this instead as something familiar and generally desirable. Today, so many New Urbanists are suspicious of this kind of formal order that they fear it is somehow proto-Modernist. Which is probably why one of the great urban proposals of the latter twentieth century—John Blatteau’s Les Halles design—has received such scant acknowledgement for its merits; indeed, it is doubtful there has been anything better of the kind since it was submitted for consideration more than 30 years ago. And if you fancy yourself a traditionalist and don’t know who John Blatteau is, I do feel sorry for you.

29 March 2010

Old Masters

Drawing A Crowd

I have drawn in Italy since my student days almost 30 years ago. While at first I was anxious about Italians staring over my shoulder while I worked, a compliment or two went a long way to emboldening me to draw in places where crowds couldn’t be avoided. On a Gabriel Prize in France ten years after graduation I drew in the packed corridors of the Louvre, where I was jostled, filmed by Japanese tourists, and occasionally complimented. As I have grown more sure in my abilities, I have begun to relish my role as a sort of “performance artist,” since what I do is just rare enough that I see my role as partly evangelical, spreading the word about the value of drawing after the Old Masters.

In that light nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to draw a crowd of kids when I’m at work in Italy. Italian children, still largely uncorrupted by the crush of technology that buries most American kids, are instinctively fascinated by someone drawing: I can almost guarantee that Italian pre-teens will pull their parents to watch me at work, and they are not shy about expressing admiration (imagining, no doubt, that I am much more famous than I am in fact). Other kids in other places have stopped to watch me at work, but nowhere else as consistently. I believe many children, with encouragement (or at least without discouragement) from their parents, love to draw, and associate being artistic with being able to draw (i.e. represent) accurately what they see. Representational art is natural, proper to us: we have to be taught to “like” non-representational art, and since we naturally appreciate representational art we also naturally appreciate those who do it well (the Old Masters) over the moderns who mostly do not.

This anecdotal experience is related in my mind with its antipode: the hard sell of Modern art, the blockbuster push of shows like Philadelphia’s Picasso, tied in with products for sale in the shops and even the restaurant. One gets the sense that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is almost embarrassed by its pre-nineteenth century collections, so patently un-hip, stuffy, out of step with our new millennium. Taking advantage recently of a free afternoon in the City of Brotherly Love, I decided to spend it at the Museum, where the signs announced late openings on Friday evenings until 8:45pm. Paying to park in the new lot (free parking until recently was the norm), I forked over the exorbitant $16 admission fee (I skipped the special Picasso admission, to the ticket seller’s surprise), confirmed that I could leave the premises (to see the restored Waterworks) and return, and headed straight to the stairs, past Pablo and up to the Renaissance-and-after wing (the north wing, fyi). I happily drew for a couple of hours (no audience), then took a break to see the Waterworks, thinking I’d return to draw for another hour or so, then treat myself to dinner at the Museum’s restaurant. After visiting the medieval wing (top floor south) I returned to the Renaissance to draw after a terracotta bust by Benedetto da Maiano; not five minutes into it a guard stood over my shoulder, not to watch but to tell me it was time to leave the galleries—the entire upstairs closes at 5pm! This while Picasso was happily open, the great main floor lobby outside the show turned into a boisterous “cabaret” with music and drinks. No doubt covered by the dust of the past I shuffled down to the restaurant.
My server announced the menu’s special entrée was a rice dish invented for Picasso; I ordered the crab cakes.

11 March 2010

Un-Modern Architecture? The Problem with the Word “Traditional”

A friend (an academic, and not an architect) recently passed a book along to me that deserves a wider audience than it no doubt received. Hans Ibelings’ UNMODERN ARCHITECTURE: Contemporary Traditionalism in the Netherlands (NAI Publishers; from the Open Library) is a remarkably objective look at a phenomenon (or a fascination, as the series of which it’s part is called Fascinations) he posits as opposed to the subject of his previous book in the series, SUPERMODERNISM. Ibelings is certainly the only non-partisan architecture critic I’ve come across who can discuss the idea of traditionalism today in ways that are both sympathetic and properly critical (modernists and traditionalists tend to be mostly incapable of one or the other). I’ll let the author speak for himself, but suffice it to say he tackles important issues few have addressed to date, namely standards within tradition, traditionalism’s lack of historical consciousness, the problem of nostalgia, and the lack of real continuity in the tradition. Following are some excerpts:

Traditionalist architecture is like organic food. Once, there was nothing else, and the adjectives were unnecessary. Not anymore: it can no longer be taken for granted that something builds on tradition or is produced in an ecologically responsible way.

—p. 13

Breaking with traditions used to be evidence of radicalism. In the course of the twentieth century, however, innovation has become the norm to such an extent that it has become a new tradition. These days it requires more self-will to be a traditionalist than to surf along on the successive waves of what remains of avant-gardism.

—p. 19

The quality of something that builds on previous forms is much more difficult to gauge [than one that aspires to innovation]. For what should it be judged on if it is not innovative? If it is to be judged on what it represents within its own genre, then it is not only a question of the correct application of the rules, but also of the sense of (and talent for) composition, proportions, refinement in colour, use of materials and detailing. And this immediately sets the bar quite high. The imperfections of the unprecedented experiment can be muffled with the mantle of the love of experimentation, but anything that builds on tradition must measure up against great predecessors.

—p. 30

[F]or tradition, both to the traditionalists of that period (between the World Wars) and those of today, consists only of a vaguely identifiable architectonic past. That past encompasses on the one hand ‘ordinary’ architecture, indicated by the word vernacular, and on the other hand what can loosely be described as classic, timeless architecture.

—p. 47

The foundation of contemporary traditionalism in architecture and urban design lies in European post-modernism, which developed starting in the late 1960s. This is true not only of what is now taking place in Europe, but also of what is going on in the United States under the aegis of New Urbanism. Remarkably little attention is being paid to this in the United States. What’s more, the dominance of the United States has even led to the New Urbanism that took shape there in the early 1990s now being exported to Europe. (In this regard, New Urbanism is not much different from Starbucks, which has been trying to find a niche in the European market with an American interpretation of the European café).

—p. 55

Ibelings’ perceptive observations deserve to be read in full, but allow me to make an observation: the crux of his book hangs on the nature of “tradition,” or being “traditional” today, and the paradoxes, occasional hypocrisy, and inevitable shortcomings of that position he charts as well as its appealing aspects. I would say this: “traditional” is an essentially useless word to define what classicists like myself and a few others (Thomas Rajkovich being one) are about: traditionalism only attempts to distinguish itself from modernism, but embodies no standards or aspirations proper to itself. Instead, a humanist approach to the classical language privileges the rhetorical capacity of that language, valuing not only the rigor inherent in great past achievements but the capacity to say something new. If there is a vital cultural future in recovering our past capacity to build well, it is there and only there.

12 February 2010

A Bridge too Far: Why We Can’t Emulate the Middle Ages

Emulation distinguishes itself from Imitation in that it requires some knowledge about how the model to be emulated operated intellectually—it is not simple copying, but “working in the manner of,” which means not only matching what someone did, but how they did it (in order to exceed it). Roman architects emulated the Greeks in that they not only copied their buildings’ forms, they exceeded them in richness, organizational logic, and scale. They could do this because they knew enough (see Vitruvius), or thought they knew enough, about what the Greeks were doing, and they knew this because they still spoke their language. Similarly, the Renaissance emulated antiquity by not merely copying ancient buildings, but adapting them to new purposes while embracing their logic and refinement—again because, thanks to Vitruvius, they “spoke their language.” And thanks to Alberti and a host of other Renaissance thinkers, not to mention modern historians who have recovered their intellectual context, we can emulate the Renaissance—it is a language we can speak again, if we have the will.

Not so with the Middle Ages. There is no Vitruvius or Alberti for medieval art and architecture. Apart from Abbot Suger—whose writing on architecture ( On Saint Denis) could just as easily describe a Roman Baroque church as a medieval one—we have no substantive writing from the period that describes how medieval architects went about doing what they did. There are late-medieval treatises on painting like the one of Giotto’s follower Cenino Cenini, but these are technical manuals with little insight on what mattered in the composition of a medieval painting; and there are reports from late-medieval cathedral building committees that tell us something about proportion, but this is not composition. There is no codified medieval canon of either the human figure nor of architectural columns. There is, in effect, no medieval “language” of art or architecture, but rather a loosely coherent, evolutionary cultural habit of form-making. In other words, it’s not that the Middle Ages didn’t write down what they were doing, but rather they weren’t doing anything as coordinated or internally coherent as the Renaissance or even ancient Greece and Rome. What this means is that those who want to work today in a medieval manner must resort to copying, or collaging, since they cannot credibly think like a medieval artist or architect.

If this is true for art and architecture, how much more so is it true in urban design. There is no medieval urban design to begin with, in the sense of an orchestrated effort at organizing substantial stretches of urban terrain according to an artistic ideal, as Sixtus V or Alexander VII did in Rome. When medieval communes did project new towns, like those developed by Siena or Florence, they created grids, which tell us little about the forms of Siena or Florence in the Middle Ages. All of which makes the current New Urbanist interest in neo-medieval urban design (New Urban News) a very oddly contrived thing indeed.

31 January 2010


[Tiepolo] decided to copy, as much as he could, the elements used by Veronese in the most imposing version [of the Finding of Moses], which at that time could be seen in the Palazzo Grimani….It is as if Tiepolo made a crafty bet with himself: could he compose a variation that repeated the highest possible number of elements in a picture, while distancing it as far as possible from the original?…But Tiepolo kept faith with his bet and won it in the manner most congenial to him: by making sure no one noticed.

–Roberto Calasso, trans. A. McEwen, Tiepolo Pink, Knopf, 2009, p.47

I am nearing the end of a book the merits of which need to be celebrated far and wide. Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink is a marvel of lucid and poetic writing of which it seems only Italian intellectuals are capable of in the last few decades (like Eco and Calvino). Best of all, Calasso celebrates the artist who for me was a doorway out of the wasteland of modern painting and back to something at once more illuminating, brilliant, and accomplished. He makes Tiepolo relevant, as he did for the gods in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, in way at once modern and antithetical to modernism. Calasso, like his subject, wears his learning lightly, and while he may stretch the artist’s interests in magic per se (my own take on what is going on in the Scherzi will follow), the magical quality of those paintings and etchings finally get an ekphrasis worthy of them.

If you have any affinity for the last great fresco painter in the Renaissance humanist tradition, this book is a revelation. If you want to know what was right about Tiepolo and the artists who shaped him, and what is wrong with those who followed him, Calasso is a piercing observer.

What Baudelaire was calling up was that all-embracing air no longer present in painting after the French Revolution. And that air had a name: Tiepolo. The entire nineteenth century was branded, like a herd of cattle, by its absence. One day, without realizing it, it had forever lost the sovereign sense of sprezzatura, of facility and fluidity of movement. That grand air, on a measure with the skies, which for the last time had been perceived with Tiepolo and his family. Of whom Baudelaire knew nothing, because he had not come across their works (no other country had been as reluctant to welcome them as France, a jealous guardian of its affectations and feelings of sovereignty). But with visionary precision he called up that negative silhouette, based on what was lacking, of an air no longer breathed in the overloaded Paris of the Second Empire.

Calasso, p.9

23 January 2010

Just back from a day trip to Ariccia....

Gianlorenzo Bernini is a model for emulation as he is for so many other aspects of art and architecture. Take, for example, his relationship with the Pantheon. Since he believed it was without fault, it was a natural default for him when designing a church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary for the Chigi pope, Alexander VII, in Ariccia south of Rome. But he did not copy the Pantheon as a 19th century neo-Classicist would have done; instead, he offers not only a variation on the venerable Roman monument, but what might almost be considered a modest critique, or at least an attempt to improve some of the faults of its context, and maybe more overtly make it Christian rather than pagan.To do this he might have turned to Palladio’s chapel for Villa Barbara at Maser, if not for the apparent lack of evidence of a trip to the Veneto in his life, and the fact that the chapel is not included in the Four Books. In any event, his operation on Maser is no less radical than his transformation of the Pantheon, both of them sponsored in large measure by responding to the context.

Ariccia climbs to the papal palace on the crest of a hill along the ancient Via Appia; while today most people approach it from the west across a rebuilt 19th century viaduct, in Bernini’s day the main road threaded through town from south (toward Rome) to north (toward Naples). So the first view of the church if you were coming from Rome was from below, and behind (since it naturally had to face the papal palace to the north). Bernini takes the small towers Palladio added to his Pantheon (derived from those of the Lateran?), and puts them surprisingly behind the church, calling down to the valley below and framing the approach; but he then wraps the church in apparently symmetrical fabric, leaving a remarkable slot of curving space following the round church. This fabric is his answer to the great defect of the Pantheon in his day, the fact that it was embedded in ramshackle medieval buildings. He not only corrects that, but ennobles the fabric’s main façade with an order that complements the church’s portico, weaving them together in a way that recalls the ancient building’s original context.

This is emulation at work in architecture. It requires clarity of mind, and commitment of ideals. It is rational, rigorous, and inspired. It is not “organic” urbanism as some New Urbanist might want it: it is classical in the best sense. Would that it happened more often today….

12 January 2010

All Art is Derivative

Driving across the Midwest early one morning recently I heard two perky NPR pundits critique a hit song and a movie as “derivative.” People, people: All Art is Derivative! Criticizing any work of art as derivative is just too facile, even naïve, a label deployed by people sadly subjected too early in their lives to some aesthetic authority’s pedantry. All art is derivative because, even if it is “revolutionary,” it’s inevitably reactionary, in that it depends for its novelty on what it rejects. A really interesting thing about art, instead, is how it acknowledges its predecessors, to what extent it’s consciously, knowingly derivative. The classical tradition embraced this reality and turned it into a fruitful tactic of both invention and appreciation. Artists were trained first to imitate, then emulate, and finally invent, but the traces of those first two phases remained in even the most radically inventive new work.

Emulation. It’s the critical approach missing in our modern return to tradition in the arts and architecture. Maybe it’s easier to imagine what it means for artists than architects (I’ll get to them in a minute): Tiepolo, for example, was known as a great emulator of Veronese—as was his Venetian predecessor Sebastiano Ricci. What did that mean in terms of his own “original” artistic production? Tiepolo never copied Veronese per se, but many compositions of his depend on Veronese for narrative structure, figure types, color, etc. What made him a great emulator, someone never accused of being a mere imitator as was Ricci, was that Veronese was a point of departure, a creative spark that Tiepolo fanned with his own manner and energy. He needed Veronese, in a way, as a place to begin, but it was never where he ended.

Do “realist” artists emulate today? And if so, whom do they emulate? Actually, since few make copies, and since their work is rarely inventive in the sense of imagining a narrative scene rather than painting what they see, they probably generally fall into the category of emulators. But whom, or what, are they emulating? Mostly—and this is admittedly really “broad brush”—they look to the past for painting technique; so their subjects of emulation range from Sargeant, to Bougereau, to maybe Velazquez. They seem to be mostly interested in the manner of application of paint to canvas. Looking to models from the past as Tiepolo, or Veronese himself, did—for ideas—seems not to interest many realists today. But it is fundamental, if not for realists then for classicists, to set the bar on the basis of great exemplars, not simply for the mechanical, but even more the intellectual side of art.

Do classical architects today emulate? I would say, not so much. Many copy—indeed, they wear as a badge of honor the “sources” from which they derive everything from a molding profile to a façade—and some invent. But the copies do not qualify as emulations because they do not seek to equal or exceed their models, they merely borrow some of their credibility. And the inventions are generally not very good because the authors are not trained in the rigors of emulation. What would it mean to truly emulate Palladio, or Wren, and not copy them? The answer to that question is worth puzzling over by everyone interested in the subject….