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SPRING 2005
 

Venustas Species
Pleasant Appearances and Privileged Views

One of the most rewarding aspects of walking through any Italian city or town is the abundance of carefully thought out vistas and framed perspective views offered to the casual observer. No matter what the age or background of the spectator, a great view is a delight to all and one of the special privileges of Italian city life. The same may be said of the Italian landscape, although I will focus here on the urban experience exclusively. As visitors, we tend to commercialize these instants by calling them "photo opportunities" or "picture moments," but despite our tourist tendencies for kitsch, these moments of aesthetic reflection are among the most important characteristics of urban life -- in fact they may be traced back to the "Pythagorean root" of Western civilization.


Via del Duomo, Napoli. Watercolor by Victor Deupi.

As early as Vitruvius' treatise On Architecture (1st century BC), emphasis was placed on the notion of eurythmia, which not only implied good rhythm and direction but also a structured unity to the elements of a building. The primary function of eurythmia was to arouse a pleasant sensation in the spectator through optical refinements. By making allowances for perspectival distortions one compensated for what appeared irregular to the natural eye. Vitruvius used the expressions venustas species and commodus aspectus when describing eurythmia, and these terms meant first and foremost "pleasant appearance." Both Plato and Aristotle discussed the primacy of sight extensively. Plato praised sight as the most exalted of the senses, providing a clear knowledge of the natural world and its underlying principles of order and harmony. Similarly Aristotle claimed that all men delight in sight and its capacity to differentiate between things. Vitruvius' description of eurythmia proceeded from these pronouncements, ensuring that a building, in addition to being ideal in itself, appeared ideal to the viewer. For Vitruvius the ingenuity and judgment required in exercising eurythmia were not only essential for the creation of good architecture, but were symptomatic of the gifts distinguishing the good architect.

Vitruvius gave further indication of this phenomenon in his description of perspective (scaenographia), and in particular its novel and seductive effect. Scenography was a way of "view-planning," that is coordinating the real with the visual, the rational with the painterly. This idea was also extended to the larger context of the city -- in particular urban planning and domestic architecture -- where the siting and appearance of the townscape was necessary for providing a spectacular setting for the daily life of its citizens. The Forums in Rome and Pompeii are just two examples where the townscape is presented as a panoramic arrangement: the former one is often viewed externally whereas the latter one is typically seen from within. Similar strategies for perspectival planning could be found in a Roman house or villa where the relationship between interior and exterior is organized from the point of view of optical axiality.

Eurythmia is a kind of natural judgment, a quality that enables an architect to express his or her own personal taste and direction. It relies to a great extent on aesthetic judgment; relationships that are conditioned by the judgment of sense rather than any specific rules or laws of harmonic proportion. David Summers has described this process as one that goes beyond the application of principles "by doing what seem[s] best to the eye." In fact, he insists that "these 'right' relations [can] be found in no other way," and that "[t]he deeper, metaphorical notion of point of view thus points to maniera, to personal style." The business of tempering architecture, therefore, touches on such basic axioms as how artistic creation relates to truth, and the virtue of persuading a viewer simply through delight.

"View-planning" persisted as a design phenomenon through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque periods and exists today as one of the unique qualities that distinguishes Italian urbanism. Perhaps next time you are struck by a magnificent vista or perspective view (like the ones typically found throughout Italy), you will remind yourself that the privilege you have just experienced is unique to urban life, and that you should share it with your closest friends.

Victor Deupi is currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His exhibition, "The Promise of Beauty: An Architect's Tour of Italy" is online at http://www.nd.edu/~vdeupi/promise/promise.htm