- Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy
As a young scholar, my first introduction to the study of Italian vernacular architecture was Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects (1964) and The Prodigious Builders (1977), and Norman Carver Jr.’s Italian Hilltowns (1979). These English-language publications were in Rudofsky’s case an eclectic mix of world architectures or in Carver’s case an evocative photography collection. It was with Edward Allen’s Stone Shelters (1969), on the unique conical-roofed trulli of the Apulia region, that I found an in-depth study that piqued my curiosity for additional material on the subject. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much else in English—until now. Michelangelo Sabatino’s Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy offers the Anglophone scholar a rigorous and nuanced analysis not of Italian vernacular architecture per se but instead of the intellectual and creative engagement architects, engineers, and other proponents of modernist trends had with everyday architecture in Italy during the twentieth century.
Sabatino’s purview covers a wide range of political, economic, and social conditions spanning the nascent Italian state in 1861, the fascist period, and the post–World War II economic boom; he also engages intellectual and artistic trends such as neoclassicism, rationalism, and futurism. The author introduces his study by outlining several key considerations for understanding Italian architectural history. His attention to the distinct regional traditions of “Italian” vernacular architecture that developed in the country’s diverse environments helps the reader appreciate concerns about localism and national identity for the new state, the role of “Italian” styles in relationship to a more inclusive “Mediterraneità” style, and the historical tensions along the North–South divide. The authority of classicism within Italian national discourse—commonly referred to as the Stile Nazionale—cannot be overstated, as seen by its adoption by Mussolini’s fascist regime “as the dominant vehicle of propaganda and self-aggrandizement” (14). It is the author’s premise that modernist architects’ engagement with the vernacular provided opportunities for creatively undermining this hegemonic classicism, and, in particular, fascism’s dogmatic and ideologically-infused exploitation of it. One of the book’s most refreshing propositions is the notion of a “hybrid modernity” that looked to vernacular traditions for new ideas and innovative approaches that could challenge “avant-garde radicalism” and its urge to abolish the past.
Sabatino’s ambitious, interdisciplinary enterprise is revealed in the book’s first chapter, which deals with the discovery of the vernacular by Italian ethnographers and other scholars; this was part of the country’s larger intellectual and political search for and creation of a national identity. Exhibitions and publications that presented the folklife of peasants and other agrarian laborers, including architecture and other aspects of their material culture, began to be seen with increasing frequency in the first decade of the twentieth century. Ethnographers like Raffaele Corso, Lamberto Loria, Giuseppe Pitrè, and Paolo Toschi, and the launch of the ethnographic journals Folklore and Lares, are properly credited with introducing the study of vernacular architecture in Italy. It is interesting to note that a single term for vernacular architecture does not exist in Italian as it does in English. Instead, as the author observes, multiple terms were coined during the twentieth century: fabbricati etnografici (ethnographic buildings), architettura minore (minor architecture), architettura naturale (natural architecture), architettura rurale (rural architecture), architettura popolare (popular architecture), and architettura spontanea (spontaneous architecture).
Vernacular traditions were debated among those who viewed their relatively static nature as a positive expression of cultural continuity as well as those who interpreted them negatively as not innovative and ultimately inferior to art-centered approaches to buildings. The class-based prejudices of those pejorative assessments of peasant architecture are glaringly evident in a society that racialized southern Italians as savages. The prevailing tensions around the architecture of the rural laboring poor, as Sabatino suggests in a later chapter, reveals government officials’ and ruling...