Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics

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Publication: The Art Bulletin
Author: Pentcheva, Bissera V
Date published: December 1, 2011

DEBORAH HOWARD AND LAURA MORETTI Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 256 pp.; 20 color ills., 100 b/w. $55.00

Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti's Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice is a pioneering study of sixteenth-century architecture, music, and acoustics. Tt presents acoustic measurements of twelve Venetian churches gauiered m 2006, die in situ recording of St. John's College Choir, Cambridge, conducted in April 2007, and die subjective response of the authence and choristers to the acoustics of these interiors.1 This multifaceted research involves specialists in the humanities and sciences, choir directors, and sizable authences of listeners. Sound and Space explores the interrelation among the sixteen üVcenlury ecclesiastical architecture of Jacopo Sansovmo and Andrea Palladio; knowledge of acoustics derived from Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti, and die Aristotelian-Stoic theories of the spherical soundwave propagation (undulatory theory); and the musical innovation of choral polyphony introduced in Venice by the doge Andrea Grilli. The smooth and speedy execution of die project and its timely publication artest most highly to the vision of Howard and Moretti.

Traditionally, scholars studying the nexus of music and architecture have focused on musical ratios and architectural proportions.2 By contrast, this study centers on acoustics and the response lo the introduction of choral polyphony. As Howard and Moretti stale: "die main focus is a far more practical one, attempting to restore the aural dimension into the sacred spaces of sixteenth-century Venice" (p. 9). Since both authors acknowledge die impossibility of absolute authenticity of performance, they structure their study and in situ experiments comparatively, exploring relative values such as how a set piece of music sounds in different locations in the same church and/or in other contemporary churches of different size and materials. The book successfully correlates historical studies with qualitative (subjective) and quantitative (objective) acoustic measurements. As a result, it surpasses recent publications in the field of acoustics.3

Howard and Moretti embarked on this research in 2005 by establishing the Center for Acoustic and Musical Experiments in Renaissance Architecture (CAMERA) at the Department of History of Ait at the University of Cambridge, funded by a government grain for the arts and humanities. Its first conference, held at die Fondazione Cini in September 2005, gathered art historians, engineers, and musicologists. The synergy of this meeting, whose proceedings were published, helped the two authors define the parameters of their research in terms of the selection of churches, music, technology, and places for in situ recordings.4

Their new book, Sound and Spare in Renaissance Venice, consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. An appendix presenting the acoustic data and a Website with the recorded sound tracks round out this study. The twelve Venetian churches selected by Howard and Moretti are representative of five types: large assembly buildings such as S. Marco, island monasteries, mendicant friaries, parish churches of modest proportions, and finally the churches of the hospitals, or ospedali grandi. Their different sizes, shapes, and materials yield a range of acoustics, from the extremely resonant S. Giorgio Maggiore, S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, and the Redentore (T30 ranging between 6 and 8 seconds)·' to the extremely non reverberant interior of S. Zulian (T311 of 1.5 seconds). Each church is treated as a separate catalog entry, containing a brief architectural history involving archival research, which chronicles the stages of construction, original design, and later changes; an analysis of acoustic measurements; and, finally, the recording of St. John's College Choir in different locations, usually in the retrochoir (the space behind the altar outfitted with wooden stalls for the monks and choristers), chancel, nave, and/or a side chapel, performing polyphony and plainchant, along with pure instrumental organ music. The subsequent evaluation of the psychoacoustic experience is based on the questionnaires filled out by the authences as well as the comments of RaI' Orlowski, the acoustician collaborating on this project, According to Howard and Moretti, "the principal aim of this book has been to overcome the interdisciplinary dindes between architecture, music, and acoustics and restore the sound co 'us spatial context" (p. 196). This goal is beautifully achieved in the recorded music, presented at the cleanly designed and easy-to-iise Website, as well as the good synthesis of architectural history, acoustics, and psydioacoustics (die subjective response to sound) each church entry displays.

The architecture and music of S. Marco serve as the focus for the discussion of chapter 1. The doge's church had the largest choir, a chapel master, an organ master, and vasi resources to train and maintain musicians and choristers and to perform elaborate ceremonies. With its commitment to music, this was the ideal place to present new pieces and experiment in new directions. This desire is expressed by the hire ?G Adrian Willaeri as maestri) di cappella at the invitation of Doge Andrea Gritti.

Yet architecturally, S. Marco, modeled on the Byzantine Apostoleion of Constantinople (the church of the Holy Apostles, remodeled by Justinian in die sixth century), posed a challenge. ILS architecture of domes, coupled spaces, and reflective surfaces of marble and gold produces a highly reverberant interior, featuring a stream of continuing sound that has the effect of muffling individual notes. Such a "wet" space is well suited to the characteristically medieval plainchanl, which also gave an advantage lo the male singing voice, because the size and materials of the space ensure longer reverberation time for the frequencies in ilie range of the male singing voice. At the same lime, the reverberant interior proved adverse to the introduction and development of polyphony in the sixteenth century, the divided choir performances of coro spezzato, which require sonic clarity and lyric intelligibility.

The solution was to use the chancel space as a miniconcert hall; with its smaller volume, it had a lower reverberation time and offered greater clarity of vocal articulation. The choir most likely was divided into two groups, each positioned in one of the two balconies (pergolî) on the north and south chancel wall. The throne ofihe doge, originally set outside the sanctuary screen, near the porphyry ambo known as the bigonzo, was moved inside the chancel in the 1530s. There, the doge could better enjoy tlie intimacy of the space and the enveloping sound it produced, as well as clarity of vocal articulation. Thus, «wo spezzata polyphony became a performance best experienced from the socially privileged position of the doge and his entourage seated inside the chancel. For the congregation in the nave, the long reverberation time compromised clarity of vocal articulation.

The authors suggest that the introduction of printed music made it possible to transcend the problematic acoustics of S. Marco and further the dissemination of polyphony. The music Willaeri wrote for S. Marco could spread widely outside the precincts of the doge's church. Perhaps this is why the acoustically much drier interiors of parish churches and the chapels of the ospedali grandi took advantage of the primed music and became centers in the experiments and development of coro spezzata polyphony. The relationship between Willaert and Sansovino also might have resulted in the less reverberant architecture of die latter. His dry interiors, S. Zulian offering an extreme case, are better suited for music exacting clarity of vocal articulation.

By contrast, great volumes, domes, vaults, and marble characterize Palladia's ecclesiastical structures. As a result, his spaces are extremely reverberant, making them besi suited for medieval plainchant and not coro xpezzalu polyphony. Yet their retrochoir exhibits the appropriate "drier" acoustics that allow for vocal intelligibility. The satisfactory listening environment of the relrochoir once again demonstrates how listening to a clear vocal articulation of faro .spezzato was a marker of social privilege in the large slate churches, friaries, and island monasteries.

The parish churches exhibit "dry" acoustics as a result of their much smaller volume and characteristic use of coffered wooden ceilings. These spaces became the public site where general authences could listen to the clear musical articulation of polyphony and dins share the very experience reserved for the elite in the siate and mendicant churches.

Finally, the churches of the four ospedali grandi provide the acoustics best suited to the musical preferences of modern listeners and concert-hall designers: sonic intimacy, clarity of detail, and envelopment. They offer the clearest musical articulation of choral polyphony. S. Maria dei Derelitti presents all these features. It was the site of a famous women's choir, whose performances in the eighteenth century drew Ui e accolades of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Ii is important to note that acoustically dry interiors propagate better higher frequencies, which privilege the female voice (as well as thai of younger boys and castrati).

Acoustics in the sixteenth century was imperfectly understood because it embraced the undulatory model of the spherical propagation of sound waves.*' It was not until Sir Isaac Newton that the geometric or optical model, which argued for the linear propagation of sound similar to that of light, became established. And acoustics did not became a science until Wallace Clement Sabine (1868-1919) presented a new measurable value, reverberation time, which was a function of die volume and materials of a given space.7 With the rise of the twentiethcentury science of acoustics, new standards have set in and new construction materials have been engineered to modify the acoustics of interiors."

Howard and Moretti'» Sound and Space in Kmftissrmre Venicf uses die ideal characteristics of today's best concert halls - sonic intimacy, envelopment, clarity, and reverberation time (T30) of about 2 to 3 seconds - as a model by which to evaluate the acoustics of Venetian churches." Understandably, the qualitative acoustic data collected from the authence carry the imprint of contemporary musical taste; the questionnaire was based on the one designed for concert halls. Is there any historical justification for using ihe modern ideal? Did sixleendi-century Venice conform to this ideal? Was there a concerted effort, recorded in the sources, dial explains the move away from the reverberant medieval spaces toward a preference for polyphony, which acquires clarity of vocal articulation in the "drier" interiors of tiie smaller parish and hospital churches?

By contrast, the huge monastic churches and friaries all exhibit very long reverberation time. It will be important in the Future to explore the internal contradictions among sixteenth-century imperfectly understood acoustic theory, the reliance on traditional materials and forms, and the rise of choral polyphony demanding less reverberant interiors. For instance, the architecture of the Redentore might signal a link with the undulatory acoustic theory in its implementation of the cupola. The dome might have been thought to intensif)' the "spherically-propagating" sound waves. Howard and Moretti rightfully observe that Palladio's prominent use of projecting enraices implements Vitruvius's recommendations for reflecting sound back to die floor, thus increasing its intensity. Yet the overall huge interior volume, vaulting, and hard reflecting surfaces result in an exceedingly reverberant interior. Thanks to Wallace Sabine, we now know that volume plays a crucial role in determining the reverberation time, yet this knowledge was unavailable in the sixteenth century.

The fragmentary understanding of acoustics in the sixteenth century often led architects to seek piecemeal solutions, such as the use of wood in the stalls of the retrochoir or the implementation of the flat wooden ceiling. In many cases, such solutions have ensured that a segment of the larger church will have drier acoustics and thus be better suited for choral polyphony. These spaces creale a "church wiihin the church," exemplified by the retrochoirs of S. Giorgio Maggiore, S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, and the Redentore. In other cases, following the recommendation of Alberti and Fra Francesco Zorzi, coffered wooden ceilings were introduced to ensure clarity of speech and vocal articulation. S. Michele in Isola and the suspended vault of S. Francesco della Vigna offer good examples of ihis type. However, die smaller hospital churches, with their much smaller volume, ensured the "drier" acoustics perfect for choral polyphony.

This research in die architecture, music, and acoustics of sixteenth-century Venice needs to acquire greater conceptual depth; it should probe the historical record for subjective response to sound (psychoacoustics). What do the sixteen th-cen tun1 sources say about the acoustic taste for clarity of vocal articulation or its opposite, verbal haze? How is the subjective experience of sound conceptualized in religious, political, and even medical terms? As a city on the sea, Venice appropriated Byzantine architectural types, best exemplified in the wet acoustics of S. Marco. Did the acoustic experience of this "wet" space shape a Venetian identity of mandine empire? And how did this identity change when one left the state and friary churches and attended services in the local parish churches? Similarly, it will be important to explore how "the background of ecclesiastical reform (Rome and the papacy)" challenged and activated Venetian architecture, music, and acoustics.

Another significant aspect mentioned in this study, but in need of further research, is the role of temporary decor such as tapestries in acoustically and optically transforming the experience of the space. Goethe defined architecture as petrified music, and this lapidifying aspect is very strong in our understanding of a building. But ancient and medieval responses to architecture frequently juxtapose masonry to textiles. In Byzantine akphrasis the walls of mosaic and marble transmute into unfolding silks. At the same time, buildings were physically decked with curtains both inside and out. These ephemeral skins have greatly affected the historical corporeal response to a space, but they have become absent from our current engagement with architecture.

This is the first completed scholarly study combining new scientific methods with traditional art history: the publication of acoustic measurements and graphs; the recording of plainchant, polyphony, and organ; the subjective acoustic response of the authence to these musical performances; the building of a computer model for the no longer extant church at the Incurabili; and the auralization (the virtual sounding of a piece of music in a particular space) of anechoidy recorded (without the imprint of a spatial matrix) music using CATT® software. Advanced technology and auralizations have been used by other projects, such as the study of historical preservation of the acoustic heritage of Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques in Istanbul conducted by Jens Rindel, Claus Christensen, and Anders Cade at the Department of Acoustics of the Technical University of Denmark in 2000-2003.'" They gathered acoustic data and used it to develop an acoustic software named Odeon® that can predict the acoustics of an interior, by which means they auralized Byzantine chant and Quranic readings."

Similarly, a project I direct in collaboration with the electrical engineer Jonathan Abel of the Center for Computer Research Ln Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, "Icons of Sound: Aesthetics and Acoustics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul," is now focusing on the cultural and historical significance of the nexus of architecture, music, and acoustics in Byzantium in the age of Justinian. It explores the geopolitical, architectural, theological, and liturgical significance of Hagia Sophia, studying Byzantine poetry and exegesis, video, acoustic measurements, the recording of Byzantine chant, and auralizations.12

Is it a mere coincidence that the current projects on historical acoustics have gravitated to reverberant interiors that challenge our contemporary ideal concert hall? The verbal haze of Hagia Sophia, produced by more than ten seconds of reverberation time, endows the sound of the human voice there with a transcendental dimension. The Byzantines combined in one word, pntnima, the designations for the Holy Spirit, fire, and breath.

Howard and Moretti's project, although focused on the early modern period when Western culture developed a new aesthetic sensitivity to music and interiors that transmit clearer vocal articulation, recovered a similar transcendental moment. In the "wet" interior of the Emiliani Chapel of S. Michele in Isola,

The motet [Jean Mouton 's Nesciens Mater] sung by fifteen voices in eight parts, brought tears to the eyes oí" the three or four listeners who were admitted to the chapel during the recording. Its hauntingly descending passages and heartrendingly beautiful modulations effortlessly filled the space and enveloped the listeners in a well of sound that transported them into an otherworldly zone of experience, (p. 58)

With Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, Howard and Moretti have charted a new ground for research, one that will inspire generations of art historians, engineers, and musicologists.

As a Byzantinist, I cannot predict how Renaissance architectural historians will respond to Howard and Moretti's research and methodology. Yet, in contrast to traditional studies, Sound and Space in Renaissance. Venice opens up to address a much larger authence. In moving away from the "museilication" of religious spaces, art history stands to gain when it restores the sound, smell, and moving light to its original spatial context. It is this interest in the senses and the subjective response that now offers a much richer conceptualization of an history, especially in the premodern period, allowing the field to go beyond the framework of "visual studies."


1. The recording of St. John's College Choir (singing polyphony and plainchant) and instrumental organ music is uploaded on a Website,

2. Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural. Principles in the Age »j'Humanisai (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1949).

3. Ettore Cirilio and Francesco MarteIIotta, WMship, Acoustics, and Architecture (Brentwood, Essex, U.K.: Multi-Science, 2006); and Jens Rindel, Claus Christensen, and Anders Gacle, "The Acoustical History of Hagia Sophia Revived through Computer Simulation," Odeon Room Acoustics Software. h[tp://www .odeon, dk/pdf/ ForumAcous ucuai2002.pdf.

4. Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti, eds., Airhilettura e musica nella Vetezia del Rinasetmento (Milan: Mondadori, 2006).

5. Standard Reverberation Time, or T^sub 30^, is the time it takes for a sound in a reverberant space to die away to inaudibility based on the rate or" decay experienced by sound after it has decayed 30 dB (decibels) from its initial amplitude. See Morset Sound Development, "Reverb Times RT-60," .coin/2004/help/reverbtimesri60,htin; and Howard and Moretti, pp. lfi, 219.

6. Patrizio Barbieri, "The State of Architectural Acoustics in the Late Renaissance," in Howard and Moretti, ArchitMura n miaira neuti Venezia liti Rinasrimenta, 53-75.

7. Emily Thompson. The Soandxcafle of Modernity: Arrhitfrlural Araustim find lite Cullwr of Listening in Atnerim (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002); and Barry Blesser atid Linda-Ruth Salier, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Kxperimring Aural Arehitecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2007).

8. Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, 169-228.

9. Leo Beranek, Ciinrfrt HnIh and OJHVO. Hauses: Music, Aroustics, and Archilei-ture (New York: Springer. 2004).

10. Conservation of the Acoustical Heritage by the Revival and Identification of the Sinan's Mosques' Acoustics, vrlab.epfl.c h /Projects /cahrisma.html.

11. "Byzantine Hymns in Churches of Constantinople," Odeon Room Acoustics Software, hup:// wwiv -churches-Constantinople.

12. "Icons of Sound: Aesthetics and Acoustics of Hagia Sophia. Istanbul," tconsofsound

Author affiliation:

BISSERA V. PENTCHEVA is asssociate professor of medieval ari. at Stanford University [Art and Art History Department, Cummings Art, Building, Stanford University,, Stanford, Calif. 94305).

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