James Sloss Ackerman
2001 Balzan Prize for History of Architecture
James Sloss Ackerman (*1919–†2016), one of the leading historians of art and architecture, was born in San Francisco in1919. He taught at Berkeley and then at Harvard until 1990. During the Second World War he served in the US Army in Italy. This allowed him to improve his knowledge of the Italian Renaissance which will then become his major area of expertise. His books are considered classics in their field, both in terms of rigor and of method: a monograph on architecture, the biography of an artist, the study of a particular architectural style. The first is exemplified by The Cortile del Belvedere (1954). The second is well illustrated by his fundamental works in the sixties on the architectural works by Michelangelo and Palladio. Finally the third is to be found in The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses (1990). In this Ackerman analyses the common characteristics as well as the specific elements of this type of building, from the Roman villa to Wright’s Waterfall House. For all the great variety of forms that the villa has taken on over time, it appears that the underlying ideology has remained substantially unchanged from its origins to our days. In addition to these major works Ackerman has also written hundreds of essays on the history of Renaissance architecture, studies on the relation between art and science and on the intellectual, moral and social foundations of teaching.
James Sloss Ackerman is the doyen of the international community of architectural historians studying the epoch of the Renaissance. He is one of the scholars who created modern architectural history based on a systematic approach to the critical examination of all the written and visual sources. His ability to use scholarship, keen observation and responsiveness to architecture to present great architects of the past as immediate, almost contemporary figures, who are constantly present in our culture, is perhaps the greatest of Ackerman’s achievements. His work has had considerable influence on both architectural historians and practical architects.
Ackerman’s first major work, The Cortile del Belvedere, which was published in 1954, deals with the question of style, significance and the relation to the antique. It became a model for monographs on individual buildings, above all in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, critically examining all the written and visual sources and arriving at a plausible reconstruction of the original architect’s intentions. In a succession of influential learned articles, many of which were reprinted in 1991 in Distance Points: Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture, he opened up new ways of looking at the Italian Renaissance. He drew attention to such neglected areas of Renaissance architecture as the buildings of Milan prior to Bramante and the relations between the mentality of Renaissance architects and late Gothic architectural theory. His research on architectural practice in Italy in the 15th and 16th century laid the foundations for the whole modern study of architectural drawings and design methods.
A major phase of Ackerman’s work was dedicated to Michelangelo and culminated in the outstanding monograph The Architecture of Michelangelo, which appeared in English in 1961 and was later published in Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese and German. This book focuses on the relation between the ideas of Michelangelo about architecture and his built works, provides lucid analysis of the works themselves and the preliminary drawings for them and stresses the physical and mental contexts in which they had to be created. After writing on Michelangelo, Ackerman turned to Palladio, discussing him as an architect and as an intellectual, in his brilliant book Palladio, published in 1966. This is still considered the best introduction to Palladio and is available not only in English, but also in Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese and German. The influence of this book has been immense, particularly in its innovative approach to patronage and the role of clients in the creation of the cultural meaning of architecture, especially of the villas. Ackerman published his scholarly catalogue Palladio’s Villas in 1967 and developed this sphere of research up to 1990, when his book The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses appeared. This time he put the villa in broad historical perspective, from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. In recent years Italian, French and Spanish translations of this fundamental work have appeared.
James Ackerman is a very productive and original scholar, a skilful writer on architecture and a teacher who has guided many of the leading scholars in their first steps. He continues to give fruitful ideas to the development of the architectural history in America and in Europe. His work has constantly grown and developed taking account of changes in other disciplines, and in the world. It has always been inspired by a sense of the cultural role and responsibility of the architectural historian.