The Architectural History of Venice by Deborah Howard – 50 Years in 50 Books

An Architectural History of Venice by Deborah Howard was first published in 1980. A revised version was released in 2002. This book is the indispensable guide to the history of architecture in Venice, encompassing the city’s fascinating variety of buildings from ancient times to the present day. Completely updated and filled with splendid new illustrations, this edition invites all visitors to Venice, armchair travellers, and students of Renaissance art and architecture to a fuller appreciation of the buildings of this uniquely beautiful city.

In this blogpost, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Deborah looks back on her memories surrounding the time of publication, why the book continues to be relevant today, and how she feels about it some 40 years since it was first released.

My first book Jacopo Sansovino: Architecture and Patronage in Renaissance Venice (1975) was the first title commissioned by Yale University Press’s London office.  Written in two summer vacations, and illustrated by my home-drawn plans as well as photographs printed in my bathroom, it was a brave choice on the part of the press and a huge honour for me.  Working with Yale was pure delight – I was even taken by my editor, John Nicoll, to visit the press where the book was being printed.

A year later I took a break from my University teaching career when my first child was born, and soon afterwards I was approached by another publisher, to write a more general book on Venetian architecture.  My husband had already assured me that he didn’t mind how many children we had, so long as I wrote a book for each one. With Sansovino already published I was in credit, so to speak, and was delighted to have the chance to write another book on a subject close to my heart.

So, The Architectural History of Venice was published in 1980, illustrated by some classic photographs by A.F.Kersting, supplemented by wonderful images specially taken for the book by my good friend, the photographer Sarah Quill.

Eventually the book went out of print after two reprints, and I was able to reclaim the rights, so that Yale University Press could publish a new edition.  As well as some minor revisions I added a final section to extend the subject to the year 2000.  Sarah Quill kindly took wonderful new colour images and I also used some of my own photos. 

I well remember going through the design details with my editor Gillian Malpass at the press’s headquarters in Pond Street, Hampstead, on that fateful day in 2001 now known as 9/11.  As we turned over the pages, assistants would rush in with news of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and their subsequent dramatic collapse.  I shall never be able to disentangle these two momentous experiences.

Antonio Contin – Ponte dei sospiri [Image not taken from the book]

The revised, updated edition was published in 2002, two years after my book on Venice & the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture (Yale 2000), my personal favourite.  I have to admit that the continued demand for The Architectural History of Venice, first published over 40 years ago, has amazed me. I haven’t made any further revisions (sadly the digital files were all lost in a fire in the Singapore warehouse), but I am honoured that the book is still used by many university courses as well as by enthusiastic travellers.

Perhaps I should reflect on why this book has sold far more copies than all my other books put together.  It was quite a modest undertaking, written entirely from secondary sources, mainly from my personal library, while I cared for two toddlers and tended a rural garden. 

In a nutshell, this was an early attempt to put into effect my deeply felt belief that ‘Architectural History’ is not the same thing as the ‘History of Architecture’.  Buildings are not erected purely to please the eye or to fulfil theoretical ideas, but are deeply embedded in their social, political, economic, cultural and religious context.  The structures have three dimensions and are the settings for human activity.  Although I love looking at buildings for their own sake, and am often deeply moved by the experience, my insatiable curiosity always leads me on to ask questions about their roles in people’s lives. I had already explored this approach in Jacopo Sansovino, but at that time I was too young and reticent to express my views on the visual aspects of the designs.

Herique Ferreira – Unsplash [Image not taken from book]

Nowadays I would hesitate to structure a book within conventional style labels, but I remain convinced that for teaching purposes these help to provide a comprehensible sequence of development.  The name of a style such as Gothic or Baroque is also a useful shorthand for conveying a range of much richer and more complex visual characteristics.

At the time of writing, my book was the only comprehensive history of Venetian architecture in any language.  I tried to structure the Architectural History of Venice in a logical, lucid way, and to write succinctly and clearly in order to communicate its content to all kinds of readers.  Interestingly, the first Italian author to attempt the same task replicated my structure almost exactly. 

Given the enduring demand for this book, its modest aspirations have had a far greater impact than I (or the original publisher) would ever have imagined.

Read a free extract from The Architectural History of Venice by Deborah Howard

About the author:

Deborah Howard is professor of architectural history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

About the book:

An Architectural History of Venice

Deborah Howard

‘The best concise introduction to Venetian architecture in English.’

Times Literary Supplement

Find out more

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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