DATE: 3/18/2011 | BY THOMAS EVANS
The methodological models for urbanism are plentiful, ranging from the recent revival in cartography to the boom in infrastructure theory, but Wolfgang Scheppe’s Done.Book: Picturing the City of Society offers a wonderfully original take on the city he has made his ongoing object of study, Venice. Migropolis, Scheppe’s massive two-volume saturation job on Venice from 2010, adopted an impressive and thorough but not unfamiliar psychogeographic method for excavating the city’s layers, in which various mappings were undertaken through walks around the city. Done.Book is a more eccentric enterprise. Described by Scheppe as “an inquiry into the depth of visual archives,” it assembles a portrait of Venice through two sets of archival materials: the notebooks used by the Victorian art writer John Ruskin (1819-1900) for his legendary 1851 study Stones of Venice and the photographic archive of one Alvio Gavagnin, a Venetian market seller and non-professional photographer who bequeathed Scheppe his archive after they met at Gavagin’s stall.
Ruskin’s notebooks are filled with Ruskin’s sketches of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Venetian architecture. A part of his aim in documenting Venice’s religious architecture was to define it as a paradigmatic city for the integration of a spiritual life with the experience of citizenship—to contrast with the alienated labor conditions of Victorian England he so abhorred. When his notes were complete, Ruskin would sign each page “done” in the lower right corner. Scheppe interprets this “done” signature as indicative of Ruskin’s struggle to cohere the abundant fruits of his obsessive scrutiny of the city.
Scheppe describes his first encounter with the author of the second archive: “Many years ago I noticed Alvio Gavagnin as he sold things in the Via Garibaldi market close to his house. Following a crazed but lucid system, displayed on his wall were fragments of an obviously structured but apparently eclectic collection, including a series of carefully constructed large boxes labeled ‘Foto Vere,’ and containing many thousands of photographic prints.”
Over the past three decades, Gavagnin had created an extraordinarily dense photo documentation of Venice—particularly the working-class district of Garibaldi in which he and his wife lived—simply as a way to get to know his city better. “In a city like Venice,” he tells Scheppe in an interview in the book, “there is nothing particular. Everything is particular.” Everything, in other words, is worthy of the same attention. As the archive proliferated, Gavagnin also developed a signatory gesture of closure, stamping the backs of his photographs with “I Alvi.” The obsessive, completist character of both Ruskin and Gavagnin’s projects inspired Scheppe to compose Done.Book, in which he places Gavagnin’s photographs en face alongside Ruskin’s notebook entries to suggest formal comparisons on rotundas, plinths and other architectural structures. Done.Book allows the reader to absorb the scrutinies of Ruskin and Gavagnin, while also conveying Scheppe’s fascination with the method of close reading as the means to a method of his own.
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