James S. Ackerman, an esteemed Renaissance architectural historian and veteran of the Second World War, died Dec. 31 in Cambridge. He was 97.
Born in San Francisco and educated at Yale and New York University, Ackerman taught at Harvard from 1960 until his retirement in 1990. Colleagues in the History of Art and Architecture Department remember a “groundbreaking” and “legendary” scholar who mentored students throughout his time at Harvard.
“Jim Ackerman was notable for taking on key fundamental figures in architectural history as well as the key questions in architectural history,” said Joseph Koerner, a History of Art and Architecture professor. “He belonged to a generation of art historians who were moving away from formal descriptions of art and architecture into the social world”.
His primary area of expertise was Renaissance Italy, and his work in the field remains significant decades after his retirement. Ackerman once wrote he considered his scholarly approach “structuralist and vaguely post-Marxist.”
“His books on Michelangelo, 1960, and Palladio, 1965, are both classics, still in print, still the best way for students of any age to get into these complex and fascinating subjects,” said Joseph J. Connors, a History of Art and Architecture professor.
Ackerman, then a recent graduate, served in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II. He wrote that seeing Renaissance-era buildings in Italy taught him that “actual works of art are much better than photographs as a stimulus to research.” Koerner described Ackerman’s academic coming-of-age as in “a time of great upheaval,” adding that Ackerman “didn’t have this professional, simple pathway.”
For History of Art and Architecture professor Alina A. Payne, Ackerman’s brilliance derived from his ability to combine the history of architecture with the history of art.
She said he had an “extraordinary way of identifying problems and presenting them in a lucid and clear way.”
Payne pointed to Ackerman’s ability to find “something unexpected and interesting out of a project that other scholars had not identified.” She cited his observations about the “structural logic” behind the columns in the Laurentian Library or the fact that the curvature of the Capitoline Hill Square echoed that of the globe as examples.
Ackerman’s interests spanned far beyond the Renaissance. David J. Roxburgh, chair of the History of Art and Architecture Department, noted that Ackerman maintained an interest in the relationship between art and science and contemporary architecture. Payne recalled Ackerman, then aged 94, climbing with his cane to the fifth floor of the Sackler Library for a seminar on modern architecture.
Koerner described him as “amazingly alive” even in old age.
Ackerman’s “pursuit of important professional responsibilities was of the character of someone twenty years younger,” Koerner said. He said Ackerman used to visit him on “this amazing tricycle contraption.”
Roxburgh, Payne and Koerner all said that Ackerman was a devoted mentor to young scholars.
“He had this great warmth for young people, he supported them, he encouraged them, he wrote letters for them, he worked with them,” Payne said.
Roxburgh called him “incredibly gracious with his time," remembering “impromptu conversations in Widener, on campus, in the swimming pool, in the Sackler, about the work that we were doing.”
Koerner said Ackerman worked tirelessly to open up the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, especially to younger artists and women. He said Ackerman’s top piece of advice to aspiring art and architecture historians was to “find your voice” in both a figurative and literal sense: putting one’s voice into scholarship and getting public speaking lessons.
Ackerman’s final book, “Origins, Invention, Revision,” was published last year and included an account of his military service, as well as essays on everything from Frank Gehry to the classical architecture of India.
“He was a major force in the field right up to the end,” Connors said.
—Staff writer Archie J.W. Hall can be reached at email@example.com.