Rooms of Discipline: The Palazzo as an Apparatus for Civility

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Reading the Room

Volume 7, Issue 07
April 7, 2022

Rooms are not default. The ways in which we structure our spaces reflect, reinforce, and construct the cultural milieu we inhabit. Architect and historian Robin Evans argues that the architectural plan is never a neutral space for our occupation; rather, it uncovers “the nature of human relationships.1 This can be seen in the transformation of domestic space plans between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which the singular room of the medieval home gives way to the multiple subdivided and specialized rooms found in the palazzo, manifesting the desire for the governance of life during this period. Media theorist Bernhard Siegert further elaborates on this phenomenon through his study of the grid, a cultural technique that transforms “humans into retrievable objects” by codifying empty space and distinguishing place into data and address.2 Rooms are thus complicit in this operation; by distinguishing one space from another, the relationship between a person and their location becomes a codified affair. This relationship is not merely a phenomenon of a distant past, as historian Peter Thornton argues, the Renaissance “[devised] a civilized pattern of life which still forms the basis of the good manners and social intercourse current in Western society today.”3 By closely reading the planar principles of the palazzo apartment and the conducts in the handbook of etiquette, we are able to look beyond the palazzo’s aesthetic opulence, and delve into the conscious disciplining of the modern subject—played out insidiously within its many rooms.

The Planar Principle of the Renaissance Apartment Enfilade:4
Main Hall (sala) → Private Dining-Parlor (saletta/salotto) → Antechamber (antecamera) → Bedchamber (camera) → Closet (studio)

“[Civilizing] life indoors,” the apartment constructs its civility by delineating space into discrete pockets of a specific function, scale, and position.5 Designated for a singular person in mind (and sometimes shared by the husband and wife, but not always), this domestic unit individualizes the subject from the rest of the palazzo. The architects of this individualized domain were tasked with meticulously organizing the rooms to provide their patrons with the domestic comfort of privacy.6 This methodical way of designing was formalized by Francesco di Giorgio’s writing on the distribution of rooms (“le stribuizioni delle stanza”), a notion based on having appropriate spatial relationships between programs.7 In its ideal form, the apartment’s rooms are arranged in a linear enfilade sequence, from biggest to smallest and from least to most private. With only one door in and one door out, these rooms operate as a filter, signaling where one does and does not belong. Fundamental to all this is the planar technique of division and selection, dictating a pattern of life that is then split into separate and specialized portions. Thus, rather than securing their autonomy through privacy, the inhabitants are codified as retrievable objects within a system of clearly demarcated boundaries.

This codification of how to move and where to be is also manifested in the handbook of etiquette, amplifying the spatial control of room boundaries with its set of explicit rules. The handbook was a popular medium during the Renaissance for inscribing the proper social conduct of civilized gentlemen and gentlewomen. Extending its reach into the domestic sphere, the 17th-century Roman handbook Il Maestro di Camera injects protocols of ceremony into the system of rooms. Within this context, the apartment operates as the core vehicle for diplomatic relations; the rooms serve as the stage set for a predetermined script of movements and activities to play out within. An exemplar of this is the ceremony for receiving guests, in which the conduct is aligned precisely with the rooms’ linear arrangement. The art historian Patricia Waddy elaborately illustrates this through scenarios of different guests visiting a cardinal.8 While they all undergo the generic sequence of being first greeted by the gentlemen and then by the host, the position where these events occur is conditional depending on the visitor’s rank. For example, a visiting cardinal (high ranking) should be greeted by the host at the main hall in contrast to an ambassador (lower ranking) who should be greeted by the host at the inner antechamber. A structure of power is thus enforced through the rooms’ relative distance from the private bedchamber. However, regardless of rank, these spatial conducts subsume everyone into a system of positions; like a game of chess, human behaviors are disciplined into a sequence of restricted and calibrated moves.

Rooms, those specialized boundaries with scripted protocols, operate as one of many disciplining apparatuses that make up the Renaissance way of life. This lineage of spatial and programmatic subdivision continues to be replicated today, where the home is often merely a composite of its many well-defined zones: living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and more. We are taught to expect particular behaviors in each of these differentiated spaces, internalizing a civilized normal within our minds. Yet these means of spatial division, programmatic specification, and behavioral codification are not unchanging dogmas; instead, what we define as civil is an ever-changing constellation of human relations.9 Therefore, we ought to uncover the modes of discipline, governance, and relationships we too propagate through our designs. The solution is not simply to overthrow “rooms” completely from our architectural lexicon; rather, we must pay attention to the unspoken, often unwritten rules that our normal domestic spaces obscure.

Timothy Wong is an M.Arch I candidate (‘22) at the Yale School of Architecture. He was an issue editor of Paprika! Vol. 06 Issue 01: “Default” and Vol. 06 Issue 09: “-ish,” and was a curator of the exhibition In-sync, De-sync, Re-sync at YSoA’s North Gallery.

  1. Robin Evans, “Figures, Doors, Passages,” in Translation from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (London: Architectural Association, 1997), 56. ↩︎
  2. Bernhard Siegert, “(Not) in Place: The Grid, or, Cultural Techniques of Ruling Spaces,” in Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 9 ↩︎
  3. Peter Thornton, The Italian Renaissance Interior, 1400–1600 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991), 15. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 302. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 300. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., 13. ↩︎
  7. James Lindow, The Renaissance Palace in Florence: magnificence and splendour in fifteenth-century Italy (Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 94. ↩︎
  8. Patricia Waddy, Seventeenth-Century Roman Palaces: use and the art of the plan (New York, NY: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 5. ↩︎
  9. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 07
April 7, 2022

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