Marxist architectural historian of the Renaissance and modern era and architectural theorist Manfredo Tafuri studied architecture at the Scuola Superiore di Architettura at Rome. He attended courses by Giulio Carlo Argan, chair of art history at Rome in 1959 and the Marxist philosopher Galvano della Volpe. Tafuri supported the student actions that resulted in the reformist appointments of Luigi Piccinato, Ludovico Quaroni and Bruno Zevi to the faculty in 1963 and 1964. He taught as an assistant to Quaroni, maintaining an architectural practice and supporting the ‘counter-school’ Associazione Studenti e Architetti.
Architectural History, Teaching and Writing
In the mid-1960s, Tafuri moved from practicing architecture to architectural history, initially teaching at the Politecnico di Milano as an assistant to Ernesto Nathan Rogers in 1964-1966 and in Palermo between 1966-1968.
Tafuri wrote a small monograph on Quaroni and another on Japanese modernism in 1964. Early essays appeared in Quaderni dell’Istituto di storia dell’architettura, edited by Vicenzo Fasolo, Casabella-continua, Comunità of Adriano Olivetti, and the journal of Italia nostra.
In 1966 he published his first major historical monograph, L’Architettura del manierismo nel ’500 europeo, which secured him an appointment in Venice at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia in 1968. In same year he wrote the first of two books which would secure his reputation - Theories and History of Architecture. It also predicted the failure of modernism (drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin), citing modern architecture's complicity with capitalism. The book was criticized by Bruno Zevi and Paolo Portoghesi, who disputed in particular the mission of architectural historians to shape contemporary architecture. After a monograph on Florentine culture, L’Architettura dell’Umanesimo (1969) the second of his broad Marxist salvos, Progetto e Utopia (1973), a historical assessment of architecture’s relationship with capitalist development since the eighteenth century. Tafuri's innovative book subjects continued with La città americana and Via Giulia in 1973. Tafuri regularly contributed to the American journal Oppositions as well as the European journals Casabella, Domus, and L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui.
In 1976 Tafuri transitioned the Istituto di Storia dell’Architettura at IUAV into a critical entity, the Dipartimento di Analisi, Critica e Storia dell’Architettura. Appointed Chair of the Istituto di storia dell’architettura at IUAV, Tafuri hired politically active architects, historians and philosophers whose research and writing projects were akin to Tafuri’s. These included Cacciari, Giorgio Ciucci, Francesco Dal Co, Marco De Michelis and Mario Manieri Elia.
Tafuri invited Foucault to Venice in 1978 for a series of discussions, published as Il dispositivo Foucault. He again reorganized the Istituto in 1982 as the Dipartimento di Storia dell’Architettura, shifting emphasis from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the early modern period. His essays from the 1960s and 1970s were collected as La sfera e il labirinto in 1980.
Tafuri's only volume in Microstoria series edited by Carlo Ginzburg and Giovanni Levi was co-authored by Antonio Foscari in 1983. In 1985 followed polemical assessment of Italy’s architectural history since the end of World War Two, Storia dell’architettura italiana, 1944-85 (1986) in which he castigated those architects who had ensured a the trajectory from post-war ineffectuality to postmodern frivolity, particularly Carlo Aymonino and Carlo Scarpa. The work came under criticism by Aldo Rossi.
An essay on Peter Eisenman was published in Eisenmann's book of essays, Houses of Cards (1987). Tafuri’s masterwork on this period, Ricerca del rinascimento (1992) revisited the Renaissance foundations of modern architecture, addressing architecture as an institution, tradition and technique. In his final years, Tafuri became a champion for architectural conservation carried out by trained architects. He succeeded in halting the plans for Renzo Piano to modernize the environs of Palladio’s Basilica in Vincenza and was involved in the restoration of Giulio Romano’s Palazzo Te.
Tafuri was one of the first professional academic architectural historians in Italy. His opinions, always strongly argued, have been criticized for being uneven, perhaps a result of his constant revision of them. For example, he praised Le Corbusier's architecture in Algiers, but despaired Corbusier's Chandigarh work. He claimed regret in later years at the haste in which he wrote his first book, L’Architettura del manierismo nel ’500 europeo. As the head of the so-called Venice School of architectural history, he exerted a substantial influence over generations of architects, historians and theorists in Italy, Europe and North America.
Tafuri's Theories and History of Architecture stands as "a pointed assessment of historical knowledge in architecture that positioned the architectural historian as an agent of institutional and political change" (Leach). Progetto e Utopia, was a more pointed Marxist historical assessment of architecture’s relationship with capitalist development since the eighteenth century. As a theorist, he saw capitalist production and consumption eroding values, not stabilizing them, and hence the modern era was not able to create a context of belief in which architecture could flower. Tafuri insisted there was no difference between criticism and history, that the tools and tasks remained constant as distance from the subject moved in time.
As a Renaissance scholar, he was called to write essays on the retrospective exhibitions of Raphael (1984), Giulio Romano (1989) and Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1993). Tafuri accused his critics, Zevi and Portughese, as performing "operative" (or instrumental) architectural criticism using their agendas as practicing architects to frame the history of architecture, anathema to his own "critical" position.
He instead suggested that architectural criticism and history should be considered the same thing, and that practicing architects abandon criticism. The controversy distilled to the means by which architectural historians could positively affect the work of architects. Some of Tafuri's notions may have been drawn from the 1891 book, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth by William Lethaby. In addition to influences by Foucault, Volpe, Benjamin and Adorno, Tafuri's work shows the effect of the circles in which he operated.