Consider the lions

Peter Campbell

  • The House of Gold by Richard Goy
    Cambridge, 304 pp, £60.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 521 40513 0
  • The Palace of the Sun by Robert Berger
    Pennsylvania State, 232 pp, £55.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 271 00847 4

Around 1421 Marin Contarini – a member of one of the ruling Venetian families – began building a house on a site across the Grand Canal from the Rialto. This new palace replaced another, on the same site, which he had bought from his wife’s family. More than twenty years later the scaffolding came down to reveal the most resplendent domestic Venetian-Gothic façade of them all. The house was a place to live and do business. It was also, and more obviously, an advertisement for the power and wealth of the Contarini clan. It is still among the most splendid buildings in Venice. More than two hundred years later, Louis XIV built a monument to power on a much grander scale. His palace frontage is not the jolliest Classical building in Paris, but it is still the most impressive and among the most magisterially consistent.

Richard Goy and Robert Berger, in their respective accounts of the construction of the Cà d’Oro and of Louis XIV’s Louvre, remove ambiguities which hang around the word ‘built’. They ask who made decisions, who paid, and how much, and why each building took this form rather than that. Goy’s information about the building of the Cà d’Oro is extracted almost entirely from contracts and the notebooks in which Contarini kept a day-to-day account of work done and payments made. Berger uses contemporary plans, elevations, committee minutes, theoretical writings, eulogies and memoirs. The aim in both cases is to increase understanding, not change the course of architecture; despite the fact that Goy is himself an architect, this is academic rather than practical history. Neither writer engages with his subject in the aggressive spirit of those who have added to (or at least commented on) the history of architecture while, at the same time, using old buildings as inspiration, crib, justification and propaganda for new ones. Proselytising is not a minor strand in architectural history. There have been active designers – Classicists like Adam, Goths like Pugin, Hellenists like Stuart and Modernists like Venturi, as well as historians (Ruskin, Pevsner, Banham) – who have had opinions on the future as well as the past of architecture. The emulating eye may be self-serving and envious, but it is also challenging and competitive.

Goy and Berger, because they are more disinterested, are also less interested in the look of the buildings they deal with. Sometimes they seem downright indifferent. Both use (among other illustrations) photographs of their own in which converging verticals or fuzziness do the buildings they write about a disservice. There is some excuse for printing an author’s snaps when there are a lot of sites to be illustrated. One cannot, I guess, expect scholars to cart plate cameras around, obtain permissions and rise at dawn to get the right light. But to use (to take the worst examples) full-page colour illustrations of a detail of the façade of the Cà d’Oro and of the Porta della Carta which are so blurred that one must suppose them either to be over-enlarged details or bad originals, and to present the east front of the Louvre in pictures where the distortion caused by an upward-pointing wide-angle lens makes it look squat, is offensive. Architectural photography is a craft. If the author is not competent, if the publisher cannot afford two or three days’ work by a professional and if old photographs (which, as a couple of plates in Berger’s book prove, are often very good) are not available, it would be better not to illustrate buildings which are as well-known as these.

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