The late Manfredo Tafuri came of age just as the Modernist program in architecture, formulated in the aftermath of World War I, completed its collapse. Paradise had not been attained by producing buildings that celebrated new technologies, served the new social vision, and purged traditional forms and their attendant ornament.
Tafuri was trained as an architect, but he shunned practice in favor of shaping the field as a historian. His vast scholarly output has nourished the solipsistic, narcissistic program that now dominates architecture, the most public of the arts. A building is no longer the form given to shared assumptions about the current understanding of goodness, truth, and beauty. Instead, it is the architect's personal expression; his novel forms validate his unique interpretation of architecture, and his building's appearance is a mere mask over an object void of all content other than the architect's intentions.
Tafuri's later interests turned increasingly to a project common among architectural historians ever since the Enlightenment, namely, identifying the origins of present-day positions. The result is this book, his last, from 1992, now translated into English, which historians have welcomed as a springboard for an enriched understanding of Italian Renaissance architecture.
This would seem to be an odd place to look for the origins of Modernism. Renaissance merchants, popes, and princes wanted buildings representing their authority and the basis on which they exercised it. As the book's loosely connected studies show, they accomplished their ends with brilliant innovations that architects made to traditional forms in collaboration with their patrons. Architecture emerges as a collaborative art intended to convey content and produce a beautiful urban realm, even though, in Tafuri's view, the architects were cynics who provided crass patrons with the imperial imagery they sought while they searched for an architecture more to their liking. The result was a culture of contradiction seeking a "fusion of extremes, the reference to solid foundations and the appeal to subjective choice." Tafuri's stance calls to mind the contemporary interpreters of The Prince chided by Harvard University's Harvey Mansfield: "Instead of challenging our favorite beliefs and forcing us to think, Machiavelli is enlisted into a chorus of self-congratulation." But Tafuri's text, with its obvious appreciation of architects' ability to innovate within tradition in order to serve traditional ends, suggests that his heart is closer to traditional architecture than to the Modernist mask he insists buildings wore then and must wear now.
His first chapter traces the present-day "end of representation" back to a practical joke by the first Renaissance architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi and his friends persuaded the hapless butt that he was someone other that who he actually was. Here Brunelleschi demonstrated that architecture lacks any necessary linkage to truth and can be manipulated, falsified, and made self-serving. Architecture can become anything the architect thinks it is.
The other chapters focus on principalities, which waxed as republics waned. In Rome, an updated version of ancient imperial Rome became the model for a new political, architectural, and urban order. Nicholas V initiated the program in order to pacify the city and quell the Concilaiarists' ongoing challenge to Petrine supremacy. He produced little to look at, but his well-known intentions inspired emulation by later popes and Christian princes as they became less ambulatory and settled into capitals that dominated nation states. The result would be the Rome we know today and capital cities from St. Petersburg to Washington.
Interpreting the Renaissance skips several popes who took up Nicholas' program to reach the its principal actor: Leo X, the first Medici pope, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who occupies the two central chapters. Elevated to the papacy six months after the Medici's restoration in Florence, he launched a princely program in Rome that complemented the one his family had just initiated in Florence. In seeking to join the Arno to the Tiber and return Florence to its ancient subordinate position relative to Rome, Leo presented himself to Florence as Augustus, ruler of the universe, and Trajan, the most just emperor. The Medici church of San Lorenzo would receive a Roman façade. A new church for San Marco based on Roman precedents would annul that monastery's associations with Savonarola and the popular tumult that helped expel the Medici in 1494. And a new, grand imperial-scaled and inspired villa-palace on garden land inside the city walls-a design allied to those formulated earlier for the King of Naples and the Duke of Milan-would replace the imposing palatial republican seat Cosimo had built, a paradigm other Florentines had quickly imitated and would now spurn.
Leo claimed to have Roman standing because he was both pope and the son of an Orsini mother , one of the most "ancient" of the Roman noble families. Marking this status would be a new Medici family complex. The Piazza Navona would serve as a forecourt, the Pantheon as a neighbor, a newly housed and improved university as an outbuilding, and various street openings and amendments to the ordinances concerning Rome's infrastructure would amplify this newly established Medici presence in Rome. Elsewhere, a project for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini would present the Florentines in Rome as more Roman than Florentine.
But the money and the political power necessary to carry out these grand, self-serving, dynastic building plans were lacking. Leo had overreached, and in a quest for reform, a Dutchman was elected pope. The last non-Italian pope until John Paul II, Adrian VI proved tiresome, and so he was replaced by another Medici, Clement VII, who tried to restore the status quo ante but instead unhappily provoked the Sack of 1527, which receives its obligatory chapter.
Tafuri does not see the Sack in its usual guise, as a reaction to recent events embroiling State and Church, Lutheran Reformers and Papal loyalists. Instead, he presents a collision between a recrudescent medieval culture that might have made something genuine and Erasmian, both spiritually and religiously, out of what Alberti adumbrated, and an overweening, and ultimately triumphant, princely imperialism. Dismissing the architecture and urbanism of post-Sack Rome as mere empty spectacle, Tafuri finishes the book with two chapters presenting two quite different aspects of the "European reception of the new language." One concerns Charles V's palace at Grenada, which, unsurprisingly, embraced its imperial content. The other traces the ingenious ways Jacopo Sansovino, the architect and sculptor who was born in Florence but trained in Rome, adapted the lessons of Julius's and Leo's Rome to commissions from noblemen in the Venetian republic.
Tafuri's detailed studies, rich and provocative in themselves, never bring the period into focus as one in which an architecture representing medieval regional, communal particularism was displaced by one proclaiming the nation states' Renaissance triumph. That narrative did not interest Tafuri. In endorsing Jacques Le Goff's position that the period including the Renaissance constitutes the "long Middle Age" that culminated in the modern age's liberation from feudal authority, he views the Italian Renaissance as an episode in the revolution that laid Modernism's foundations. He believes that the certitude supporting the events he chronicles is now gone. And he places the architect in the senior position in any building enterprise, allowing him to shun history and go his own way in making buildings that willy-nilly generate their own meaning, as Brunelleschi's stunt had suggested. Because buildings are no longer examples of architecture that can embody truth, albeit always imperfectly, the historian can devote himself to unraveling the ever changing problems buildings solve.
In doing so, Interpreting the Renaissance presents some of the best analysis available of the intense interaction occurring between stunningly talented architects, between their designs and the paradigmatic ancient monuments, and between the inevitable and necessary gap between their designs' forms and the fundamental principles of architecture they embody, all intended to represent the political, religious, and dynastic ambitions of their patrons. But then we find Tafuri felled by the Achilles heel of Modernist historians and architects, which is the failure to distinguish between imitating paradigms and cpying models.
Renaissance architects imitated paradigms as they drew on and modified formal conventions sanctioned by tradition to represent metaphysical ideas. Tafuri's penetrating formal observations repeatedly demonstrate that imitation is the wellspring of their innovative designs. But he also reproaches them for copying models, that is, letting old forms dictate the particular appearance of new ones, which is something they never did. In his view, to allow traditional forms to remain visible is to stifle invention, to betray one's art, and to retain the belief that there is something true and enduring for architecture to represent. Architects and clients, especially those engaged in the current renewal of traditional architecture, will be handsomely rewarded, as will the general reader, with new insights from Tafuri into how new buildings are made from old ones, how buildings are good to the extent that they make cities, and how buildings can achieve beauty by giving form to enduring truths. They can ignore the rest.