James S. Ackerman: a Profile


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.

In explaining their selection of James Sloss Ackerman, the Prize Committee of the Balzan Foundation announced: “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.”

James Sloss Ackerman, one of the leading historians of art and architecture, was born in San Francisco in 1919. He taught at Berkeley and then at Harvard until 1990. His extensive knowledge of the Renaissance has made him a foremost expert in the field. His works on Italian Renaissance architecture from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries form the basis for all modern studies of plans and planning methods. 

James Ackerman’s work is characterised by great originality and productivity. He is a skilled writer of architectural books and has had many students go on from his tutelage to become prominent scholars themselves. Carrying on with his research, he continues to make fruitful contributions to the advancement of architectural history in the USA and Europe. His work has continually grown over the years and has responded to developments in other disciplines and the world. Contemplation of the cultural role and the responsibility of the architectural historian distinguish his research. 

Ackerman’s bibliographical work includes several titles regarded as standards for their genre: the monograph on architecture, the biography of an artist and the study of a particular architectural typology from historical, social and economic perspectives.
The first major work by James Ackerman, The Cortile del Belvedere (1954), has become a model for monographs on individual buildings, especially for those from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It performs a critical examination of all available written and visual sources to achieve a plausible construction of the architect’s original intention. In a series of influential and distinguished articles that exhibit a remarkable communicative capacity and ability to reach beyond a strictly academic audience – a few of which were reprinted in 1991 in Distance Points: Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture – Ackerman opened up new horizons in the way of looking at the Italian Renaissance. A further collection of essays from the past ten years is planned for October of this year.

Ackerman devoted a significant phase of his work to the architecture of Michelangelo. This scholarship culminated in the outstanding monograph The Architecture of Michelangelo, released in English in 1961 followed by editions in Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese and German. The year 1966 saw the publication of his brilliant book Palladio, still regarded as the best introduction to the work of Palladio with subsequent translations from the original English into a number of languages. 
The book’s influence was immense, especially because of its innovative way of examining patronage and the role of the work’s commissioner in creating the cultural significance of architecture, particularly in the case of villas. In 1967, Ackerman published the annotated catalog Palladio’s Villas and further developed this area of research through 1990, the year of publication of his book The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses.

Past winners of Balzan Prizes for Architectural and Art History

The Balzan Foundation has awarded one prize in the field of Architecture to date: In 1980, the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy was chosen as a recipient, renowned for his extensive knowledge and efforts to preserve ancient local architectural techniques. This also makes him something of a historian, which planners certainly often have to be. 
For Art History and Architectural History in a literal sense, the Balzan Foundation awarded prizes in 1985 to Ernst H.J. Gombrich, in 1993 to Jean Leclant and in 1995 to Yves Bonnefoy.

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Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan