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The wayward critic

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Italian Architecture of the 16th Century By Colin Rowe and Leon Satkowski. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 331pp. £24.95

Based on students' lecture notes, tapes from a more recent set of talks, and sessions between Colin Rowe and a former student, this many not sound like a promising project. But the result is an invigorating and idiosyncratic take on its subject.

Leon Satkowski has done us all a great favour in getting Colin Rowe to sit down near the end of his life and help put these materials in order. I doubt if the book would have happened without him, so I hope he will forgive me if I talk from now on as if it were all Rowe.

The subject had long been a favourite of the author, and most of the ideas here were hatched long ago, so that this is not really his last book, except in a technical sense. He announces in the preface that it will be based on first-hand examination of concrete examples, and a little later says crossly that architectural history is limited in its appreciation of works of art. He does not want or need to articulate the theory on which his practice is based much further than that. Pleasure is the root of the whole enterprise, and once he is in full flood, Rowe forgets to be defensive about this.

His favourite architects defy convention, offering 'provocations' which Rowe finds 'inexpressibly poetic' - this in reference to Giulio Romano's dropped triglyphs at the Palazzo del Te. The shape of his book defies it too. His heroes are Bramante, Raphael, Giulio Romano and Vignola.Michelangelo is hardly heard of here, and Florence is absent until near the end. Rome holds centre stage and, as a counterweight, Venice.

The book proceeds building by building, but lest this sound dull I should explain that Rowe is the most wayward of critics, as likely to adduce a painting to explain an architectural example as another building. Raphael's Fire in the Borgo is rated an important piece of architectural thought and Bramante's Ruined Temple (an engraving) looms larger than some of the things he built.

All of this is in line with Rowe's liking for odd angles of approach and of perception.

When he gives a historical disquisition it is likely to be on such building types as the private urban passageway (in reference to Vasari's Corridoio connecting the Palazzos Vecchio and Pitti) or the ghetto.His learning is impressive, but often deployed for some ulterior purpose; gossip about one of his favourite Popes contributes to the vision of the Villa Giulia as a more intimate and neurotic kind of theatre than the Villa Madama.

These are two of his touchstones; the Palazzo del Te and the Uffizi are two of the others, each in its own way extreme, the most extreme provoking the most lyrical response. He is ready to put Giulio up against Michelangelo, Giulio with his 'tragic vision of antique ruins' and his profound ambivalence, concocting altarpieces and pornography with equal conviction, extending and denying Classical principles at the same time.

The long concentrations on key buildings are almost invariably rewarding, even when you do not agree. It is one of Rowe's main contentions about Bramante that he was the conduit for Leonardo's influence on architecture. So in the Tempietto (pictured), Rowe sees Leonardo's sfumato in the relation of columns to central cylinder, and his chiaroscuro in the niches. I cannot follow him there, but it seems a brave effort, and his point about how the columns engage, even invade, the rest of the building, brings real insight.

The lectures must have been full of throwaway lines, some so sly I wonder if all the listeners noticed, like Villa Madama as a precursor of Fonthill and Strawberry Hill, and the Uffizi presaging Napoleon, while the view from it toward the Piazza calls up ideas of the great epics of the cinema. Often Rowe deploys a bit of information or an artefact in a wonderfully unexpected way, so an oil sketch by John Singer Sargent takes the place of a photograph to show Vasari's highest intention at the Uffizi.

Satkowski talks of pruning the personal asides and relaxed moments from the lectures, but some of them remain, like the fancy that Raphael's Disputa shows an apse with the architecture removed, or the tolerant view of 'seriously frivolous' Popes or the progeny of the Gesu as the Church Belligerent.

Perhaps I have lingered too long on the mischievous side of this writer. But perhaps not, because heretical questioning of received ideas is one key to his thinking, along with sensuous involvement in the physical presence of buildings and cities, which seems just as rare in learned writers now as Colin Rowe feared it was. Finally, it should be pointed out that this book was proofread by computer, which made hundreds of mistakes in English which Rowe (or almost any other human speaker) could never have made.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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