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Centennial Celebration: An Interview with James Sloss Ackerman

An interview with James Sloss Ackerman, a member of the College Art Association (CAA) since 1945, is the second in a regular feature for CAA News. Entitled Centennial Celebration, the series consists of profiles and interviews with longtime CAA members who have had an impact on the fields of art and art history. The feature will continue throughout CAA’s one-hundredth anniversary, which begins next year.

Brief Biography

Ackerman is a renowned historian of architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Born in 1919, he earned his PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 1952, after serving for three years during World War II. During his graduate studies he was a research fellow at the American Academy in Rome between 1949 and 1952. In the 1950s and 1960s Ackerman taught at the University of California, Berkeley, near his hometown of San Francisco, before arriving at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was active from 1969 to 1990. On his retirement Ackerman was named a corecipient of CAA’s Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award in 1991, and he now is Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus at Harvard.

Ackerman is best known for his book Palladio (1966) and its related volume, Palladio’s Villas (1967). He also wrote two earlier, highly praised volumes: Art and Archaeology (1962) and The Architecture of Michelangelo (1961), for which the Society of Architectural Historians honored him with the Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award, and CAA with the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award. Later books include The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses (1989), Distance Points: Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture (1991), and Origins, Imitation, Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts (2002). In the words of one reviewer, Ackerman is “one of the outstanding stylists of art-historical literature in the English language today. His prose possesses clarity, elegance, and a gift for picking just the right pithy expression that lingers on in memory.”

Ackerman has also written dozens of articles for such journals as Artibus et Historiae, Critical Inquiry, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Daedalus, the Burlington Magazine, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. He also contributed to CAA’s College Art Journal and The Art Bulletin, of which he was editor-in-chief from 1956 to 1960.

CAA News had a conversation with Ackerman via email in early summer 2010.

Does an art historian ever retire? What have you been working on recently?

I’m very busy right now with things that survive from the past and with obligations like the Annali d’architettura, the editorial board of which is expected to read every submission. I have just finished reading three books competing for the prize I sponsor with funds from the International Balzan Foundation, and completed the writing of a couple of short pieces I was asked to do. When this lets up, I think I shall just spend some time each day with writing because it has been a lifetime habit. It’s not that I have professional ambition at this point. My fellow Harvard emeriti are keeping up their usual intensive work, though more physically limited than I.

The most ambitious project is an article coming out of a Columbia symposium on Palladio in 2008, in which I revisit his unexecuted projects for churches in his late years, and his last buildings in Vicenza. I propose that Palladio constructed an architecture, building on Michelangelo’s innovations of the freestanding portico and the colossal order, for the absolute rulers of the following centuries.

Lately I have become caught up with the World Cup. Soccer is really the best sport for television—all the action can be encompassed by one camera.

What has CAA meant to you over the years?

I admire CAA most for its public stands on professional and social issues, its efforts to control the inflation of the cost of photographs for publication, and the like. I like the way it keeps members abreast of what others are doing. CAA is well run and reliable, like a good union.

How did you get involved in the history of architecture, over specializing in fine art? And why did you study Michelangelo’s contributions to the former field instead of his painting and sculpture?

I went from Yale, where I was inspired by Henri Focillon, to the Institute of Fine Arts, which was the only sensible choice at a moment it was capturing the best of the German refugee scholars. In 1941–42, the year I studied there before being drafted into WWII, I was drawn toward Richard Krautheimer, Erwin Panofsky, and Karl Lehmann. Initially I thought I might do my MA paper for Lehmann, who was the most demanding faculty member, but he gave me a subject on Greek grave reliefs that didn’t leave room for creativity—and I didn’t know Greek. Panofsky put me onto the documents on the Cathedral of Milan that led to my first and, over the years, most-cited article in The Art Bulletin. (Maybe that was after I returned in 1945.)

But then, at the end of the Italian campaign, I volunteered to work briefly for the Monuments and Fine Arts Commission in Milan, and was assigned the job of retrieving the royal archives stored for safety in the Certosa of Pavia. The monastery buildings there intrigued me because of their problematic revival of Lombard Romanesque churches, which led me back to Krautheimer, with whom I had had a course on Renaissance architecture. So the Certosa became the MA paper. Krautheimer was a wonderful guide, a second father.

When I got the Rome prize, I discovered material in the Uffizi drawing collection that dealt with the Court of the Belvedere in the Vatican, and the prefect of the Vatican library offered to publish my dissertation in a series on the history of the palace. I was twenty-nine and had nothing to prove that I was competent to take this on, but then everyone in the Vatican is into faith.

The choice of Michelangelo’s architecture was thrust upon me by Anthony Blunt and Rudolf Wittkower (who also taught a year at the Institute), who were launching a series of monographs on Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Actually, my Palladio book was also thrust on me by editors of Penguin Books, who wanted to make a series on “The Architect and Society.” However, my Berkeley and Harvard teaching were as dedicated to the figural arts as to architecture, and they are the focus of my studies on Renaissance art and science.

How has teaching influenced your writing, and vice versa?

I try to make my writing as much like talking as possible. I’m always conscious of how a reader might react, and try to clarify my subject for those who are not informed about it and to anticipate the skepticism of those who are.

Teaching requires finding the right balance of getting across the basic content—which is a one-way proposition, necessary but not equivalent to learning—and encouraging creative thought in students. This is easiest in small classes, when exchanges are possible, though even then many students are too apprehensive of being judged by their classmates.

What have been some of the more rewarding, and embarrassing, moments for you at Berkeley and Harvard? Many professors claim that they learn just as much from their students as their students learn from them. Have you had particularly memorable experience that made you rethink your approaches to art and architectural history?

Permit me to put these questions together. Though I loved teaching the introductory courses in art and architecture, my most rewarding experiences have been in small groups. When I came to Harvard, each faculty member was expected to work with three or four undergraduate majors in a subject of his or her choice, and I often brought them into the Fogg Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings and discussed with them selections from the extraordinary collection. (Collections of Renaissance and Baroque art in the Bay Region were so weak that the finest painting I could choose for study was an anonymous fifteenth-century predella.)

Later I benefited most from seminars on challenging subjects in which I had more to learn than to expound. Examples were the occasions when I was assigned the graduate theory course. In the 1960s, the traditional repertory was torn apart by the infusion of new French and German philosophy and critical theory, and at Harvard this coincided with a coming together of several brilliant students who later played a major role in formulating new critical approaches. This was also time when women students were first able to challenge the prevailing misogyny.

My favorite seminar of all was one called “The Picturesque in America,” which was composed of both graduates and undergraduates in English, comparative literature, landscape architecture, history, and art history. Their diverse knowledge and skill made each one feel like a professor while I felt like a student.

Last year the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio established the James Ackerman Prize for the History of Architecture, which is devoted to the publication of the first book by a young scholar in any field of architectural history. How did the prize come about?

The four recipients of the International Balzan Foundation prize each year (in my case, 2001) are required to direct half the substantial funds to programs assisting younger scholars in their fields. I designated a portion to support instruction in paleography to historians at the American Academy in Rome, and a portion to the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura in Vicenza to administrate the book prize. The sixth book in this program has just been selected, the first by an American: Daniel McReynolds, a Princeton PhD, for “Palladio’s Legacy: Architectural Polemics in Eighteenth Century Venice.”

Originally published in CAA News in July 2010.