by Roderick Conway Morris

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Vincenzo Scamozzi comes into his own

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 4 October 2003


Vincenzo Scamozzi both benefited from and was overshadowed by his association with Palladio. When the master died in 1580, Scamozzi was 40 years his junior, but was nonetheless the obvious choice to complete a number of his unfinished projects. Scamozzi had a sure command of "Palladianism," but when it came to his own architecture this was only one of the sources he drew upon. Yet the distinctive features of his own work have tended to be misunderstood or overlooked.

Neither Palladio nor Scamozzi was born in Vicenza, but both spent a large part of their lives there, Palladio arriving in 1524 and Scamozzi, at the age of 7, in 1533. The two have been fruitfully united again at Palladio's Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, home of the International Center for Architectural Studies, for an admirable and enlightening exhibition: "Architecture and Science: Vincenzo Scamozzi 1548-1616." The show, which brings together all his known, now dispersed, drawings and much else, is curated by Franco Barbieri, whose 1952 monograph on the architect relaunched the study of his life and works, and Guido Beltramini, and continues until Jan. 11.

Scamozzi grew up in a town on which Palladio was beginning to make his mark. Both came from families of modest origins, but Scamozzi was one generation ahead on the social scale. Palladio had been apprenticed young as a stone mason; indeed, he fled from Padua to Vicenza to escape his contract. Scamozzi's father, Giandomenico, was a carpenter turned surveyor and builder. Living as he did in a society where pedigree still counted more than sheer talent, the son in later life styled his father an architect in his own right. There is no evidence that Scamozzi "pere" ever designed anything significant. But he lavished on his son all the educational advantages that neither he nor Palladio had enjoyed. As Franco Barbieri nicely put it, Giandomenico's "real masterpiece" was his son.

Thus Scamozzi emerged proficient in Latin, with a mastery of the full gamut of scientific and mathematical knowledge available in his day, and an ability to hold his own in cultivated company. This formation had a profound effect on his architecture and his book "The Idea of a Universal Architecture," the last of the great Renaissance treatises on the subject -- a wide-ranging work, combining theory and practice, and encapsulating his predecessors' and his own efforts to create a new architecture based on, but not simply imitating, classical models.

One of the first of Palladio's buildings Scamozzi was recruited to finish was the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. But Scamozzi did not just bring this last of Palladio's masterpieces to a faithful conclusion. He also designed the astonishing permanent "trompe l'oeil" wooden stage set of radiating thoroughfares lined with noble buildings, dubbed "The Seven Streets of Thebes," without which this gem of a Renaissance auditorium, which was inaugurated with a performance of Sophocles's "Oedipus Tyrannus," would now be difficult to imagine. As vital to Scamozzi as the construction of the set was the manner in which it was lit. As the Venetian Giacomo Dolfin recorded: "The perspectives without lighting do not amount to anything. Lighted they seem a whole world in themselves." (Some of the blown-glass lamps Scamozzi employed are on show here.)

He went on to build a complete theater from scratch for the Gonzaga Duke Vespasiano at Sabionetta, which is still generally regarded as the prototype of the modern theater.

Scamozzi's fascination with theater and his preoccupation with lighting is one of the essential keys to understanding his entire "oeuvre," built and written. He studied light with an attention unparalleled among his contemporaries. In his treatise, he defined half a dozen types of light -- from above, direct or indirect, reflected and so on. And he successfully applied his researches and insights in a variety of contexts -- religious, civil and domestic -- anticipating by several decades the use of dramatic lighting effects by Baroque architects.

One of the most instructive examples, perceptively examined by Charles Davis in the show's compendious catalogue, was his altar for a private chapel in the Doge's Palace in Venice, commissioned to contain Sansovino's sculpture of the Virgin and Child. For this Scamozzi created a deep niche flanked by columns, but through his complex manipulation of the natural light sources, including high windows concealed by pillars on either side of the chapel, he illuminated the recess, bathing the statue, with startling theatricality, in an ethereal glow.

And it was no doubt on account of Scamozzi's exceptional skills in handling light that he had previously been called upon to arrange the display of the superb collection of classical sculptures donated to the state by Giovanni Grimani, which was exhibited in the spacious antechamber of the St. Mark's Library, the first public art museum of its kind.

In his domestic architecture Scamozzi brought his love of theater and light to bear on a third element -- landscape. An outstanding representation of this symbiosis is his Villa della Rocca Pisana on a hilltop at Lonigo, southwest of Vicenza. It was inspired by Palladio's Rotonda (completed by Scamozzi), one of the most influential edifices ever built, but Scamozzi's reworking of it is perhaps the most subtle and idiosyncratic ever undertaken. On the one hand, Scamozzi orientated the building to fully exploit the villa's surrounding panoramic views; on the other, he arranged the internal spaces to transform these vistas, as seen from within, into a series of framed pictures.

"The Idea of a Universal Architecture" was only published toward the end of Scamozzi's life, and by then he had traveled extensively north of the Alps, showing an unflagging interest in all forms of architecture, including Gothic buildings, which many of his countrymen had come to regard as "primitive." He was adamant that he had no hopes of making money from his writings, only wishing through them to spread his fame and ideas. Before he died he had the satisfaction of knowing, after the finely printed and lavishly illustrated treatise had attracted attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair, that copies had reached as far as Antwerp and London. The book became especially influential in Holland and through the Low Countries, in eastern Europe and the north.

Claiming he was too busy to marry, Scamozzi did, however, have seven children by two partners, though all his children predeceased him. He left his estate to set up a scholarship to enable poor Vicentine boys to study architecture. The sole condition was that the beneficiary take his name and coat of arms.

As late as the 18th century, one such still kept his name alive: a barber's son, the architect Ottavio Bertotti Scamozzi.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016