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BOOKS Demanding search for Venetian origins

A History of Venetian Architecture by Ennio Concina, translated by Judith Landry. Cambridge University Press, 1998. 356pp. £45

This valuable and often fascinating book, by an art historian in Venice, came out in Italian in 1995. Even in English, books on Venetian architecture are not rare. They range from Richard Goy's magnificent Venice, The City and its Architecture (aj 30.10.97) at least back to Deborah Howard's Architectural History of Venice (1980), which I would still highly commend. The long list shows Concina's competition; and Goy's even newer volume, by declaring itself to be 'the first truly comprehensive history of Venetian architecture', demands the comparison be made.

So what have we here? At first glance, Howard's Batsford book looks terribly old-fashioned, while Goy's Phaidon tome is a visual feast. Concina, on heavy, glossy art paper, is generously, if more conventionally illustrated. Goy's captions are always full and useful; Concina's, never giving dates, are always minimal.

In all three, the scholarship appears secure, with prejudices virtually invisible, and no presumption expected - as, for example, is the case if you jump into Tafuri's utterly fascinating studies on Venice and the Renaissance (mit Press, 1989). Of course, flavours differ. Take the Miracoli, an early Renaissance gem: Howard has two good paragraphs (questioning accepted authorship) and one awful exterior photograph. Goy has a long paragraph, an exterior snap, a nice plan, two large, exquisite interior- detail photographs and careful attribution of authorship. Concina, in two full pages of text, gives by far the richest picture; less concerned with naming the artists, he illustrates a possible contemporary drawn source for the details, and alone illustrates the church's interior space.

Overall, Howard's is a traditional tale well-told. Goy's non-chronological structure is both novel and useful - his stress not just on Jewish buildings but on the Ghetto as a key zone of the city, for example, offers an unexpected balance. Concina, though conventionally chronological, particularly explores stories of origins. We see the city forming in his first few chapters, as the Nova Aquileia of the Venetia at Rivoalto becomes the city of Venezia centred in Rialto. Sadly, though his start is all to do with urban images, myths and forms transformed, by his final chapter (the past two centuries) that approach has largely vanished. The filling of canals, the rail link, the Strada Nuova, and so on, are barely mentioned or pictured, the interventions never seen in plan.

Howard's prose is clear and attractive; Goy's is fine, if a bit lifeless; Concina's is something else. His is not a book for the lover of language. Almost every sentence is too long and convoluted. An example of 17 lines (pp 26-7) is not exceptional; the 35 last lines of chapter two are but three sentences. For the reader, this is hard work even compared to Ruskin. And the first and almost only mention of Ruskin exemplifies Concina's odd style and extraordinary tenses: 'The spacious plan draws upon a highly sophisticated building culture, as Ruskin had already sensed.'

The recent publication (in Architectural History vol.41: 1998) of Andrew Hopkins' essay on the influence of Venetian ceremonies on church design, focusing on Longhena's design for the Salute, encourages another comparison which strengthens my general prejudices. Concina tells the tale of the Salute well and clearly. He notes that 'its functioning was conceived in terms of the solemn ceremonial to be enacted within it'; yet, offering no clue as to this ceremonial itself, we are little wiser. Goy, while similarly stressing how 'the design is based on ceremonial function', goes on briefly to explain what that means (as Hopkins' essay fascinatingly fills out further). Howard, though she doesn't even touch this issue, still offers considerably the richest iconographical and cultural context of the three.

Some of Concina's problems can be blamed on editor or translator: dukes, duchies and doges are confused; some Venetianisms are allowed, but S Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is never the 'Frari', nor is SS Giovanni e Paolo ever 'Zanipolo' (as the city's two great Gothic churches are generally known). More seriously, there are no location maps and but few building plans.

Concina's knowledgeable history will be a valuable and trustworthy reference; but it remains a demanding read.

John McKean is professor of architecture at the University of Brighton

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