Gambling, Borrowing, Lewd Behavior, and the Law
When you mention gambling, the architecture that probably comes to mind is a metallic pyramid or circus tent jutting out of a desert landscape ß a capitalistic pastime gone awry. To architectural historian Kim Sexton, however, gambling and its relationship to architecture date back to 13th-century Italy. In her research and book prospectus, “Loggia Culture and the Practice of Space in Italy: 1200-1600,” she claims that the portico, a seemingly ubiquitous and utilitarian architecture, reemerged in the 13th century to legitimize gambling and its relatives, usury and gaming, and to provide a public forum for everything from socializing to sentencing criminals.
With a series of archways or colonnades, loggias are similar to covered porches and can be interchanged with porticoes. They were built on bridges, on second stories or in the midst of market places like the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Specifically, Sexton’s research addresses the “independent or free-standing loggia” as a portal through which to glimpse the cultural implications of mercantilism.
“Loggias were intimately connected by ethical, moral and intellectual dilemmas that resulted from the rise of mercantile communes,” she said. “The scope of my research is broad, both in a chronological and analytical sense, tracing a unique loggia type in Italy from its origins to its decline as a vital civic form.”
During the 13th century when loggias began to reappear, for example, Venice had already become an important port, and Italian merchants were middlemen between Muslims and what would later be dubbed the West. Yet, like today, people were conflicted between money and values: Tempted by exotic goods arriving from the East, these 13th-century Italians realized that the only way they could afford spices or ceramics would be to borrow money, the root of all evil according to a Christian world view during the early Middle Ages. Clerics warned Christians against usury by citing moral tales, one of which Sexton uses in her opening: A deceased woman can’t be placed in her casket because her dead hands are moving as if she were counting money. And if that didn’t scare them from the lure of financial gain, then a statue of a usurer in Hell might have.
Hence came the loggia in circa 1200, according to Sexton’s thesis. This semi-outdoor space allowed people to congregate, gamble, game and even hold court in the public eye. It was an archway used to frame and legitimize business and transform the justice²system from a private interrogation into a public forum. In a way, it was a medieval television or medium through which to advertise, persuade and bear witness to ß or even be horrified by ß popular culture.
“Professor Sexton’s research emphasizes the importance of both the use of space and the cultural context from which it emerged, not the architecture per se,” says dean Jeff Shannon of the School of Architecture.
For instance, she makes an important distinction between 13th-century loggias and the porticoes that disappeared after the fall of Rome in the 5th century. The loggia did not evolve from its lost Roman predecessor, but instead emerged as a new “free-standing, self-contained portico,” she says. If you look further at the etymology, loggia is derived from the Old High German laubia meaning arbor or porch. There was not a space used in this same way in antiquity. Thus by comparing and contrasting early porticoes with later loggias, she finds differences based not on the architecture, but on the intention of the space itself.
Consider the Loggia of the Merchants and the porticoed square (circa 1284) at the Rialto Market in Venice, one of her frequent examples. Although this loggia appeared at first glance to be impractical for commerce, Sexton believes that its center square may have created a forum-like arrangement, bringing history and legitimacy to trade. She points out that the vernacular character of this so-called forum did not recall Constantinople as much as the architectural forms of nearby medieval neighborhoods. Therefore, the similarities between the two spaces would put people at ease with mercantile practices.
The Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence (circa 1374-82) also faced onto a public square, according to Sexton, but it was used to induct government officials instead. Like commerce and trade, 13th-century Italian government was viewed as a necessary evil, but now that the church was losing its reign (think late Crusades and forthcoming Protestant Reformation), the success of government depended on fairness and legitimacy. So what better way to coerce the people to embrace a new judicial system than to bring government into an open venue?
For hundreds of years the loggia thrived, as commerce and government were well underway. Examples she discusses at length in her forthcoming book include the Loggia dei Cavalieri in Treviso or the Loggetta in Venice. She divides her chapters among the loggia’s origins and its use in the marketplace, for leisure activities and civic rituals and its decline in circa 1600 when it began to become scarce. Why? Trends swung toward privacy as people, perhaps paranoid about new laws, started installing glass windows and heating their loggias. What used to be a public gathering became a members-only affair. And now that lending, borrowing and gambling were popularized, she says, Italians started fleeing to the country to take out mortgages, build villas and buy land.
For example, Sexton cites the Loggia of the Merchants at the Rialto Market, which was thriving in the 1200s and then burned in 1513 but was not rebuilt. In contrast to attitudes of the so-called Commercial Revolution (circa 1000-1350), the people were beginning to snub commerce; land ownership and statecraft were the only dignified occupations for noblemen. In a sense, it was money that brought the loggia to life and money that killed it again.
So how did she devote over 15 years of research and write her first book about the rebirth and death of a piece of architecture in the midst of cultural chaos and civic transformation? Sexton’s role as culture critic may have come from her multidisciplinary background and varied interests.
Raised Russian Orthodox in upstate New York, she earned her bachelor’s degree with honors in French and German at Binghamton State University of New York. After graduating, she decided she didn’t want to teach language courses or translate, so she resumed her studies in art history at Yale, where she earned two master’s degrees and her docotrate, specializing in Italian Renaissance architecture. It was a whim that led her to Italian Renaissance, which provided a starting point for a myriad of research topics, such as “Ethni-City: Isfahan, ¬Half the World,'” “Architecture and Historicism in Communal Italy” or “Architecture and the Social Landscapes of Jefferson’s Monticello,” presented at recent conferences.
Why Italian Renaissance? She says her best courses and teachers specialized in medieval and Italian Renaissance art and may have influenced her research, but she can’t really pinpoint why or how this period became one of her primary interests. This answer is very characteristic to her world view: a complicated messy patch of gray, in which there is no one answer to any question, no blacks and whites.
“The loggia remains an ideal architectural form through which to investigate issues of power, space, wealth, class, ethnicity and even theology,” she said. “It’s also an exceptional lens through which to assess the transformation of late medieval Italy into the Renaissance. I seek to unpack the multi-layered meaning and practice of loggia culture.”
While working on her dissertation, “A History of Renaissance Civic Loggias in Italy,” she also lived in Florence, Rome, Venice and Bergamo and received two pre-doctoral research grants while at Yale: The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation Grant and the Fulbright-Hayes Full Grant. In 1998 she taught at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville before coming to the University in 1999 with her Italian husband, Roberto Sangalli.