Panoramic Synthesis – 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.

My life as an architectural historian spans 64 years; this is a longer span than the span that separates what I think was the first American book on architectural history, Charles Eliot Norton’s Historical Studies of Church Building in the Middle Ages, of 1880, from my enrolment as a freshman at Yale in a course in Italian Renaissance Art, in 1937, taught by George Heard Hamilton. A Yale Department of Art History did not yet exist (courses were listed in the curriculum of History, the Arts and Letters), but it was authorized the year before my 1941 graduation, as one of two majors in my class. The Department was staffed entirely by its recent or incipient PhDs who were then, I believe, all in their 20s or early 30s: Sumner Crosby, Hamilton, George Kubler, Carrol Meeks and Charles Seymour. They had been taught by two distinguished French scholars, Marcel Aubert and Henri Focillon, who visited New Haven in alternate years and who represented respectively the approaches of medieval archaeology and the more imaginative and personalized one hovering between history and criticism. Both taught only in French. Most of the faculty had, on the advice of their mentors, written dissertations on French medieval church architecture, and these leaned more toward the Aubertian than the Focillonian approach. Princeton also favored the Middle Ages under the regime of Charles Rufus Morey, and Harvard’s most celebrated professor was Arthur Kingsley Porter, best known for his Lombard Architecture, and his Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads, a publication with one volume of text and nine of photographs, a celebration of the eye or anyway the camera’s eye, as the chief tool of the art historian. My instruction was vague with respect to any theoretical base, though Kubler, in a course on Mesoamerican art was already incubating ideas that eventuated in his 1962 book The Shape of Time, the first extended theoretical study of art history produced in this country – I say “extended,” because Meyer Schapiro’s famous essay on style dated from 1953; significantly, both of these studies were linked to anthropology, a discipline insulated from aesthetic issues.

I did get an insight into critical thought, in a seminar on contemporary poetry that introduced us to the New Criticism of I.A. Richards, William Empson and T. S. Eliot. But also in two graduate seminars on Romanesque sculpture and architecture with Focillon, in which I was swept into a career of art history by his acuteness of vision (which he possessed only in the corner of one eye), inspirational insights and majestic articulation of them. I can’t define the philosophical basis of his approach other than by calling it the quintessential gift of the great nineteenth-century French intellectual. I tried to emulate Focillon’s scope in my senior thesis (on abstraction in Palaeolithic cave painting); the paper was rejected for honors.

On graduation I applied to the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, which had rescued a splendid group of German scholars – Walter Friedlaender, Richard Krautheimer, Karl Lehmann, Erwin Panofsky and was the obvious place to go for further training. I also had a chance to attend Meyer Schapiro’s seminar on Romanesque architecture at Columbia. Incidentally, the NYU faculty never recognized in my presence the eminence of Focillon, and never, in the six years I was there, recommended that I consult a book or article by a French scholar. Maybe France was deleted from early twentieth-century German education.

Though they were themselves soundly trained in Post-Enlightenment philosophical principles, they taught us as if “objectivity,” meaning positivism, were the fortress of freedom. There was no discussion of historical theory; we assumed that, to paraphrase Roger Chartier, there was a direct correspondence between historical discourse and the events or realities that are its objects, as if the discourse were mere cartography, a faithful copy of the events of the past. I have often asked myself why such brilliant and aware scholars did not ask us to dig deeper, and I think I have an answer. They were refugees from Hitler, and some of their colleagues in Germany had used theoretical interpretation to promote Nazism. They had a perhaps subliminal suspicion that the over-sophistication of Continental thought had failed to stem – or had even supported – the barbarism that they had mercifully escaped. They saw us Americans – correctly – as innocents uncontaminated by philosophical dogmas, and they believed we could get things right without them. Whenever in later years I sent one of my teachers a theoretical essay, I either got no response or was asked why I was wasting my time. But my mentor, Richard Krautheimer, was an ideal father, a great model of tirelessly intensive investigation and inventive energy, and generous with encouragement of any non-theoretical activity. I later wrote an essay in a memorial volume on his method – he had denied having one, but I found it.

It became clear to me after I started to teach that if we put our faith in the search for objectivity we shall simply be unconscious vessels to be filled by the ideologies and systems of people better able to think for themselves. We remember Vasari, Reigl, Wölfflin and Panofsky because their interpretations gave structure, value and significance to the infinitely numerous and disorderly events of the past.

After a year of graduate work, I was inducted into the U.S. Army. In the spring of 1945, as my company reached the outskirts of Milan, the War stopped, and we had nothing to do. So I petitioned to be loaned to the office of the Monuments and Fine Arts Commission in Milan and was assigned daily trips to collect archival material from its protective storage in the Certosa of Pavia. This was my first extended experience with a real Renaissance building, and I learned from it that actual works of art are much better than photographs as a stimulus to research. My first article was about Renaissance architecture in Lombardy. Incidentally, architectural photographs in the 40s were atrocious, and the commercial ones today are not much better.

This stimulation from real works of art led me to my dissertation. In 1949, I got a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome proposing to work on Vitruvius in the Renaissance, a project essentially suited to an American university library. Soon after I got to Italy, I spent some time on a sort of fishing expedition in the drawing study of the Uffizi Gallery going through early sixteenth-century architectural drawings. At that time the study was still unheated and almost unbearably frigid. But the drawings themselves, brought to me loose, bundled together in butcher paper, were so rich with leads into the inventive process of the architects of the time that projects spilled forth as from a cornucopia. I dumped Vitruvius immediately. It was a moment in which the relevance of drawings to art history first began to be detached from connoisseurship, for example by Rudi Wittkower, Wolfgang Lotz, Philip Pouncey, to name only those with whom I was in contact. Because many of the drawings had to do with plans for the Vatican Palace, these became my focus; when I showed photographs of them (which, in those disorganized days of recovery from war I was allowed to shoot out on the balcony of the Uffizi study), to the Director of the Pontifical Museums, he asked me if I would like to write a book for a series on the history of the Palace. He seemed to be a rational person, but making such an offer to a foreign, Jewish, student under 30 with no record of achievement was undeniably crazy. But it happened, the Vatican Press published the book beautifully, and the Director did not lose his job.

In my first job, at Berkeley, my teaching was divided between the School of Architecture, where I was the first trained historian, and the Department of Art. The presence of makers was not only stimulating in itself, but also propelled me into awareness of what was happening in the contemporary art world. What I got from this was confirmation of a disposition to reject the conservatism of most art history. After a couple of years I was asked to become Editor of The Art Bulletin, which was beginning to publish articles by contributors who were not representatives of the Founding Fathers. The submissions were mostly solid, that is, totally resistant to methodological innovation. At a meeting of the College Art Association in the mid-fifties, the keynote speaker got sick and withdrew, and, as Editor of their journal, I was drafted to talk on how the discipline looked to someone who saw so much current writing. I spoke about how the constraints of positivism were preventing art history from becoming a serious discipline. It got a good response but nothing changed for twenty years.

In 1960 I was invited to Princeton to collaborate in writing a book on art history and archaeology for a series explaining the humanistic disciplines to the non-academic public. I suggested how American art history had started and developed and what it was like; one chapter, on style, proposed an alternative to the current biological/evolutionary historical narrative; one that incidentally had been elegantly articulated in Focillon’s Vie des formes. It lit a spark and has been used in methods courses in many colleges and graduate schools. I like the way it was written, but today it no longer seems relevant. Long after, I realized that my approach to stability and evolution in art forms was similar and precisely coeval to two other studies of cultural change, Kubler’s Shape of Time, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; all appeared in 1962.

The following decade was most memorable for the Vietnam war and the upheaval on campuses. There were two developments with radical impact: first, the radicalization of student groups with Marxist roots in Europe and, in the US, after the start of the War. Not everyone on campuses was involved; at my university, a portion of the student body and about half of the faculty. What split the faculty was not the pros and cons of the war but the issue of how to respond to student demands and sit-ins. The disciplines most disposed to dialog with student leaders were philosophy, art and art history, and architecture; those taking a hard line were government, economics and history; the sciences were split. It seemed to depend on how important a role preservation played in one’s view of one’s discipline.

Second, the abandonment by the figural arts of modernist assumptions and inheritance. The challenge to traditional standards of value: that the work of art be concrete, stable, that it be acquirable and preservable, that it be made by the hand of the artist, that it be original and not a copy and so on. As an art historian, one had to choose whether to claim that contemporary art was not art or accept the challenge that one’s definition of art needed radical alteration. One could hardly embrace the latter position while being conservative in academic matters.

The most impressive statement on the relevance of post-modern art for art history was Hans Belting’s 1983 book, The End of Art History, which opens with an account of an event in which an artist proclaimed the “End of Art.” Belting posed precisely the dilemma I just stated. He pointed out, as Kubler had done, that there are in any case two parallel histories of art – the first and more fundamental would exist even if there were no historians to record it: the sequence of one work after the other from the earliest to the latest, those we know about and those we don’t. There remains, however, the problem of how we know what artefacts belong in it and what do not: what is a work of art? The histories of cartography or of firearms are not bedeviled by such concerns; only a crank would argue whether an object is, or is not, a map or a gun.

The second art history is the way the first is represented. That’s where historians come in. The representation can take any form we wish so long as it retains a plausible relevance to the art that is its subject.

Plausibility is determined by the audience, which has to comprehend and accept (or be willing to comprehend and accept) the form in which the material is presented.
It was more the political tremors than those in the art world – though they were not entirely separated from one another – that helped to move me toward a more structuralist and vaguely post-Marxist approach. This occurred between writing a book on Michelangelo’s architecture, published in 1961, and one on Palladio, published in 1965. My critical approach changed from one oriented to the culture of time to one oriented to economics, social structure and politics. The chief of Penguin Books played a role in this by initiating a series of monographs entitled The Architect in Society, in which the book appeared, but I had been moving in this position in other work. It proved to be a fruitful development for me in both research and teaching, though it didn’t shield me from profound self-questioning in the really difficult days of 1969-70, when students succeeded in making all the people on my side of the divide unsure of their assumptions. In fact, I couldn’t work effectively for two or three years. I was helped out of the slump partly by reading Manfredo Tafuri, who was a lot younger than me, but was one of a handful of great historians of the last century. I was in awe of his capacity to penetrate into the ideological motivations of patrons and designers, combined with absolute integrity of method, astonishing devotion to pursuit of evidence, while he managed to enrich every examination of a building through the articulation of his visual experience, and responsiveness to the individual inventiveness of the designer.

Architecture differs from the other arts in being bound to social practice. Individuals, institutions and conventions control cost, size, disposition, style, etc. Like the other arts, it is ideologically mediated, but more bound to the ideology of its community. I don’t mean ideology in the vernacular sense of firmly held beliefs, but rather the unconscious assumption of attitudes, modes of behavior and thought tenaciously resistant to rational correction because believed to be the truth. Thus the practice of architectural history that seeks simply to reconstruct through surviving records what happened and how cannot penetrate beneath the representations of those who produced the records. It is documentation and not interpretation, a craft and not a humanistic discipline.

Unfortunately, craft has dominated the American practice of architectural history. The imaginative potential opened by the work of Lewis Mumford while I was a student was smothered in the universities. The cause of interpretation was taken up in the last quarter of the last century by theoreticians who began to be appointed to the faculties of schools of architecture and by journals initiated in these schools. But there has been little or no crossover from theoretical and critical writing to academic history. There are few equivalents in architectural history to the most stimulating American scholars in the figural arts: Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Svetlana Alpers, Linda Nochlin.

My experience in the practice of socio-politico-economic interpretation has revealed a radical weakness, which is that the approach is as indifferent to imagination and individuality as the run-of-the-mill work in economics and the social sciences. After a decade of teaching and writing in this mode, I began to be bored by student dissertations that followed my lead because they had so little to do with actual buildings and drawings. I felt that there was a disconnection between the experience of architecture or of paintings, etc. – and the interpretation of their role in society.

The dilemma has been well expressed by Michael Baxandall: “Art and society,” he wrote, “are analytical concepts from two different kinds of categorization of human experience. Each is a construct and refers to a system, and the systems are not as compatible as economy and society or science and art. “Art” and “society” are non-homologous systematic constructions put upon interpenetrating subject matters.”

In my recent thinking about history, I have been attracted to the implications of representation, and I have enjoyed reading the philosopher of history Hayden White, who characterizes history-writing as narrative, which obeys some of the rules of fiction and can be categorized in terms of rhetorical topoi (e.g., we tell a story, often of the achievement of some goal). Vasari’s narrative was based on his belief in the desirability of achieving 1) perfect mimesis through the illusion of relief, 2) effective story telling of noble subjects. On such critical grounds he divided the historical narrative into three stages, primitive (Giotto), mature (Donatello, Masaccio) perfection (Raphael, Michelangelo), proposing a quasi-biological growth that was destined to decline into old age in the author’s time. Inevitably historical narratives change as critical or social or ethical stances change; nothing is permanent.

Besides trying to track down a more nuanced approach to history, I have sought to examine how architectural history differs from other histories: buildings are present as well as past, right before and around us. We interact with the datum itself. In the words of one contemporary philosopher, Gadamer, a work of art “issues a challenge which expects to be met.” Not everyone would accept this proposition, but I find that it corresponds with my experience, and if there is such an individual interaction, it means that there can be no definitive interpretation.

What does it mean for the datum to be present, demanding our response? For me it has meant that nearly every substantial work I have done was sparked by encounters with works of art. I have called this response, a personal engagement with a work of art; the stimulation we often experience when we are in its presence. In admitting such experience, I am parting company with many contemporary colleagues. Much post-structuralist critical theory condemns the articulation of response as humanistic self-indulgence.

Humanism, as characterized by Nietzsche and Foucault, is effectively a constraint on the freedom of the artist. The humanist critic/historian is accused of being tied to tradition, and a servant of the commerce of art, elitism, and the museum mentality as formed in late capitalist power circles. This anti-humanist position has played a positive role in encouraging the study of formerly overlooked art from cultures regarded as alien, and anonymous, vernacular art and architecture. But we should remember that those involved in this study have mostly expressed a positive, even impassioned advocacy for the work they present. Anti-humanists have not persuaded me that canonical works are somehow unworthy of attention. This brings Tafuri again to mind: after his radical challenges to traditional art history, he returned to the Renaissance and Baroque artists that stimulated him to express his most imaginative ideas: Raphael, Giulio Romano, Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio, Piranesi.

There is some truth in the assault on humanism; but it is a rigid, Puritan type of truth that makes pleasure and enrichment suspect. The major heroes of post-structuralist thought urged readers to be absorbed and responsive to the text (for instance, Barthes in Le Plaisir du texte). Few anti-humanist treatments of art or architecture achieve more than the naive positivism of the art history of the long period that preceded the culture wars.

The relationship of the viewer with the work of architecture appears to be a dialog not entirely different from a person-to-person interaction. Gadamer and the phenomenologists suggest that the work addresses us, and we respond with thoughts, feelings, and perhaps writing about it. Actually, as in a conversation, we don’t really know whether what we understand to be conveyed by the work is really there and how much we are altering or embellishing it. What we receive may be in part the formal stimuli that were the focus of modernist criticism, but it can be much more. For example, what engages me most in works of art is not something referred to as its aesthetic character (aesthetic is a concept that operates in a closed circle, basically proposing that we find something beautiful because it has beauty) or its quality, a term that once distinguished the aristocracy from the hoi polloi. It is rather the experience of an exceptional achievement of imagination or invention. That is, for example, what has attracted me repeatedly to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and notebooks throughout my career.

I would like to be able to say that everything I have done has been inspired by art itself as well as with its interpretation, but for those of us whose objects of study are not at hand, that cannot be. I make do with photographs, which are liars, and rushed visits to the places where the objects are, or I shift my attention to texts or to issues, which reinforces the continuation of various sorts of social analysis. But in retrospect, it has been the works of architecture in their embodiment of the skill, the inventiveness and vitality of designers and craftsmen that have most inspired me and have made the practice of architectural history an undiminished enrichment and pleasure.

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