Acceptance Speech – Bern, 09.11.2001


James Sloss Ackerman

2001 Balzan Prize for History of Architecture

For his outstanding work on the history of Renaissance architecture, which contributed to the modern approach to architectural history based on a systematic critical examination of written and visual sources.

Madam Minister,
Officers of the Balzan Foundation,
Members of the General Prize Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

To be with you on this occasion is an honor I had not anticipated, one that I like to imagine being conferred not just on me but on a succession of teachers and colleagues whom I have had the privilege of knowing and by whom I have been guided in my student years and later.
I was fortunate as a student to have enjoyed the guidance of exceptional mentors. The first of these, Henri Focillon, was a grand artist of the spoken word, who not only could breathe vivid life into the experience of old buildings – which we had never seen – but could read them as the exemplars of the medieval mind and sensibility. My encounter with Focillon redirected my interest from the making of architecture into history and criticism, and I moved on to New York University, which had assembled a brilliant faculty of German émigrés who came to America after the Nazis had deprived them of employment. I was particularly attracted to Richard Krautheimer and Erwin Panofsky, who brought to the New World an approach that might be called a structuralism of the superstructure, weaving the arts of the past into the culture, the ideology and the philosophy of the time.
Only later did Post-Marxist critiques emphasizing economic, political and social factors take hold in America. I think my teachers, stimulating as they were, found the American student’s innocence of theoretical and philosophical issues refreshing, and feared to corrupt us with the European sophistication that had failed to stem the current barbarism of their homeland. That left us trapped in a simple positivism, which had long been characteristic of Anglo-American art historical method.

Once I began teaching and realized how difficult it was to integrate my response to the individuality and physical presence of the object with penetrating interpretation, I became more aware of the necessity to investigate the ideological assumptions underlying the choice of subject and approach to it, and this aim was reinforced in the tumultuous years of the late 1960s. It was also given focus by another teacher, Manfredo Tafuri, twenty years my junior, who uniquely among the more innovative and philosophical historians of the past century combined a capacity to penetrate into the ideological motivations of patrons and designers with absolute integrity of method and astonishing devotion to the pursuit of evidence, while managing to enrich every examination of a building through the articulation of his visual experience, and responsiveness to the individual inventiveness of the designer.

The humanities have been losing the support of government and the interest of students in the last two decades, particularly in my country. Yet the importance of the critical understanding of human enterprises and creations that they inculcate is ever greater as much of the world descends into disorder and conflict. The commitment of the Balzan Foundation to the support of humanistic learning and teaching – and particularly to the encouragement of young scholars – helps immeasurably to reverse the decline. I thank the Foundation for this commitment, for the honor it confers upon us, and for its generosity.

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