And out of these particularities, Parrott builds three sweeping theses.
First, he argues that the piazza’s overall form grew directly out of late-Antique sources in Constantinople, Venice’s major trading partner and mother city. In fact, Parrott argues, Venice experienced a kind of proto-Renaissance in the 12th and 13th century, thanks to close contact with Constantinople. At the time, that city still preserved intact a large swath of its classical urban fabric—unlike Rome, the holy grail of the Renaissance proper. “Such uniformity of design across the entire building site [of Piazza San Marco], an ancient Greek and Roman practice borrowed, in this instance, from the Augusteum complex in Constantinople, was a striking novelty in the medieval West,” writes Parrott (p. 134).
Second, Parrott makes the case that Venice’s republican form of government—extremely stable and entirely unique—is expressed in, 1) the preference for preserving older structures rather than raze and rebuild, and 2) the successful harmonizing of widely disparate parts. These principles result from the fact that architecture in Venice was driven not by a powerful autocrat but by “a flexible, overlapping network of councils, commissions, and magistracies manned by short-term office holders.” Basilica di San Marco, for example, is a riot of colors, forms, and styles, and yet like Venice’s intricate republican constitution, no single facet dominates. The same holds true for the Piazza as a whole: “a single complex artifact composed of multiple buildings in several different basic styles erected over a span of centuries.”
Finally, Parrott convincingly rebuts the long-standing bias in favor of the Florentine Renaissance that sees Venice as a conservative backwater where the Renaissance never really took hold. First, he reminds us Venice’s contact with the antique world, via Constantinople, was never really broken, so there was no urgent need for a rebirth. Then he questions the wisdom of wholesale destruction of medieval buildings to make way for “correct” Renaissance buildings, e.g. Saint Peter’s in Rome. By contrast, Sansovino, often dismissed as a toady of a reactionary regime, demonstrated his genius in an entirely different register of values. Instead of demolishing and rebuilding (as, for example Palladio wanted to do), he brilliantly harmonized his High Renaissance Marciana Library with its Byzantine, Gothic, and Islamic–infected predecessors. Venice’s historically sensitive, agglomerative approach is, for Parrott, every bit as innovative as Florentine and Roman approaches—and more useful as a model for architects today.
Besides his thorough research and wide-ranging intelligence, Parrott should be commended for the writing itself. He manages to be very lucid, even as he keeps many balls in the air. At the same time, he manages to keep his narrative moving at a compelling clip. Not easy stuff.
After reading this book, it is impossible to see the Piazza San Marco as a mere drawing room, even less as a stage set built for the delectation of tourists. For Parrott gives us the tools to understand both the piazza’s beautiful parts and as well as the strange, harmonious whole that only Venice, a place unlike any other, could have produced.