Learning to Read

Feats of Scholarship

The Writing on the Wall

Epigraphy and Wanderlust

Cities and Men

The Currency of the Ancients

The Visual Image of Antiquity




Cities and Man


Vitruvius Teutsch

Vitruvius Pollio, Vitruvius Teutsch

Alberti, L'architettvra

Leon Battista Alberti, L'architettvra

Tvtte l'opere d'archittetvra, et prospetiva

Sebastiano Serlio, Tvtte l'opere d'archittetvra, et prospetiva

I qvattro libri dell' architettvra

Andrea Palladio, I qvattro libri dell' architettvra

Les Údifices antiques de Rome

Antoine Babuty Desgodets, Les édifices antiques de Rome, dessinés et mesurés tres exactement

Nowhere are classical studies and modern practice more difficult to separate than in what concerned architecture. The students of ancient architecture were mostly architects themselves. They furthermore built at a time when architectural style was understood as a medium for political communication. Italian princes commissioned buildings to project an image of virtue, and the French Royal Academy of Architecture was founded expressly as an instrument of absolutist monarchy.

The idea of the five "orders," the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite, provided a basis for the modern interpretation and emulation of ancient architecture. The orders are essentially styles of building, or sets of rules regulating proportion and ornament. Although their strict codification was a uniquely modern enterprise, those who carried it out understood the orders as natural and eternal principles of design that had first been discovered in antiquity.

The modern understanding of ancient building practices was heavily influenced by one text, the De architectura of Vitruvius, a Roman architect of the first century A.D. This treatise was known throughout the Middle Ages; therefore the study of Vitruvius did not necessarily entail the emulation of classical style. In the 16th-century German translation of and commentary on the De architectura by Walter Rivius (d. 1548), the Vitruvian principle of symmetria is illustrated by the distinctly medieval forms of a Gothic cathedral.

The writer who first and most clearly rejected medieval tradition was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), author of the De re aedificatoria. Alberti borrowed the form of the architectural treatise from Vitruvius, but could be highly critical of his model. Alberti was the more systematic of the two, and he presented architecture as an exalted pursuit, a sort of incarnate philosophy that left little room for the humble stonemasons of the Gothic. He knew the ruins of ancient Rome well, and out of the creative interplay between his archaeological and textual studies formed a more internally coherent and pristine conception of architecture than any known to antiquity.

Alberti's was only the first of a spate of architectural treatises, but no later author would espouse such grand ambitions. Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) wrote his Architettura in vernacular Italian "on the assumption than not only exalted intellects could understand this subject, but that every average person might also be able to grasp it." Serlio did share Alberti's codifying spirit, and was the first author to provide a systematic stylistic and proportional account of the five orders. Despite their antique pedigree, the orders had in Serlio's hands clearly become the basis for a new, modern architecture, and he provided designs all'antica for such modern inventions as the fireplace.

The actual remains of antiquity did not lose their importance for architects. Serlio considered the Pantheon to be the "exemplar of architecture... the head of all other buildings." His younger contemporary, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), also acknowledged the primacy of the Pantheon, stating in his Quattro libri dell'architettura that "of all the temples to be seen in Rome, none is more famous or better preserved." Whereas Serlio's woodcuts had presented the Pantheon in an impressionistic manner, Palladio appeared concerned to provide precise measurements of its various elements.

Beneath this veneer of empiricism, however, Palladio possessed an idealizing temperament, and the dimensions that he published were a mixture of fact and fancy. This became apparent with the publication by Antoine Desgodets (1653-1728) of Les édifices antiques de Rome. In 1674 Desgodets was sent to Rome by the French Royal Academy of Architecture in order to produce a definitive set of measurements of that city's classical monuments. His work revealed the inaccuracies of earlier authors and set a new standard for archaeological precision. It also contributed to a new, more flexible, understanding of the orders, as the degree of variation in their ancient application became evident.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]