Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Paradigm Hunting: Architectural and Argumentational Decorum in Marvin Trachtenberg's Research

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Paradigm Hunting: Architectural and Argumentational Decorum in Marvin Trachtenberg's Research

Article excerpt

A doctoral student in history of architecture of Richard Krautheimer, Wolfgang Lotz and Richard Pommer at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in the 1960s, Marvin Trachtenberg published his thesis on the Campanile of Florence Cathedral, known as 'Giotto's Tower,' with New York University Press in 1971-72. This, his first book, won the Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award, given by the Society of Architectural Historians for the outstanding book on an architectural subject by a North American scholar. The citation stated:

This book is something of a milestone, both for its intrinsic merits and for its contribution to the field at large. It is visually perceptive, intellectually imaginative, and methodologically sound. Trachtenberg establishes a high standard of formal and thematic analysis in the study of late medieval Italian architecture, appreciation of which has lagged behind that of contemporary painting and sculpture. Above all, perhaps, the book is a shattering revelation that this most familiar of monuments had been nearly overlooked as architecture.

Creighton Gilbert's review in The Art Quarterly commented:

'Giotto's Tower,' the campanile of Florence Cathedral, has been unclear to us, and treated vaguely in our analyses, precisely because it is an art lover's classic (...) this has now been changed by Marvin Trachtenberg's attractive and intelligent book. Its hundreds of thoughtfully produced and well reproduced photographs are no more stimulating than its lively text. This is a book of style analysis with a good deal of excited feeling, articulated in vivid terms. We read of one architect's 'high-tension crystalline organism,' of another's 'hyperplastic and often ambiguously slick capitals', with 'slippery, impotent movements' and his 'resolutely ambiguous, leaden massiveness and tactilely abhorrent shapes,' and we know we are with someone who looks with wide-open eyes, makes sharp distinctions and is trained in a satisfying school familiar to us from the verbal tradition of [Henry Russell] Hitchcock, [Vincent] Scully and others.1

Common to these critical judgments is the perception that while Trachtenberg's early methodology is 'sound,' and its 'formal and thematic analysis' of a 'high standard,' it nevertheless offers a surprising aspect in its use of language, in its 'excited feeling, articulated in vivid terms,' despite the reviewer's conviction that Trachtenberg 'looks with wide-open eyes' and 'makes sharp distinctions' that allegedly arise from his training 'in a satisfying school familiar to us from the verbal tradition' of Hitchcock and Scully (Trachtenberg informs me that as an undergraduate he was indeed affected by the latter's 'inspiring' lectures at Yale). The final sentence of the Hitchcock citation is, however, the most revealing comment on the intrinsic novelty identified then in Trachtenberg's methodology, noting that 'the book is a shattering revelation that this most familiar of monuments had been nearly overlooked as architecture.' The implication that such a prominent building had never been studied within the discipline 'as architecture' irresistibly begged the question, what had architectural history been doing with 'Giotto's Tower' before Trachtenberg rendered it susceptible to study 'as architecture?' A provisional answer might include the facts that Trachtenberg's book offered a fresh analysis of the virtually unstudied architectural styles and careers of all three of its architects, and not just the familiar, iconic period of Giotto's intervention in the planning and partial execution; it gave a lucid analysis of the building's sculpture, and ¾characteristically¾included a sociological and socio-political analysis of the building's program. 'Giotto's Tower' was therefore far from entirely belonging to the great painter, and was a remarkable example of what Trachtenberg, in his later Building in Time came to call 'continuous redesign,' or 'slow architecture'. …

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