Building Foundations: Early Books on Architecture

Guest blog post by Rose Z. King, MLitt Renaissance History of Art student on placement in Special Collections.

Foundations – the underpinnings of an idea or more specifically the substructure of a building –  are necessary for support, form and invention. It is a starting point, in which plans can begin to be realised and further developed. When I started my work placement in Special Collections a couple months ago I relied on “building foundations”. I acquainted myself with the rich and diverse collection and researched specific items in order to assemble a temporary display on Level 12 of the University of Glasgow Library.

Coming up with an exhibition theme and selecting books to showcase took time, for I wanted to present an aspect of the collection little explored. Conducting keyword and subject searches on the collection database, speaking with staff members about previous displays, and consulting old display labels housed in storage allowed me to get a better sense of the collection’s holdings and ultimately helped me establish the exhibition’s theme: the development of the Renaissance architectural treatise.

Architettura (Sp Coll S.M. 1971)

Architettura (Sp Coll S.M. 1971)

I happened upon this subject during one of my database searches. I had initially indicated a very general area of interest: Venetian books printed in the 1500s. Indeed this was a broad topic. Nevertheless, it provided a basis. Whilst scrolling through hundreds of results, I came across a vaguely familiar name – Sebastiano Serlio.

Serlio has come up in my readings and research on 16th-century Venetian paintings throughout the years. I recalled that his illustrations of stage-set architecture, published in his architectural treatise, inspired the classicising architectural backgrounds depicted in a couple paintings by some of the greatest Venetian Renaissance artists, most notably Jacopo Tintoretto. In Tintoretto’s Christ Washing His Disciples’ Feet (c. 1548-1549), the artist drew directly from Serlio’s woodcut of the Scena Tragica, emulating and incorporating some of its structures like the arch, obelisk and Doric colonnade.

Serlio, Scena Tragica, woodcut from Book II, Architettura, fol. 16v (Sp Coll S.M. 1971)

Serlio, Scena Tragica, woodcut from Book II, Architettura, fol. 16v (Sp Coll S.M. 1971)

With Serlio as my new starting point, I dove into the history of Renaissance architectural treatises, setting out to see what other books on architecture existed in the collection. To my surprise, I discovered that Special Collections possesses a number of seminal early books on architecture. Many come from the Hunterian and Stirling Maxwell collections. These books are a vital resource for examining the origins, development and impact of architectural theory and design in early modern Europe.

Generally speaking, an architectural treatise is a written work containing principles and technical information on building; most systemise and theorise definitions and concepts on architectural drawing, building materials, public, domestic and church design, and the notion of beauty in architecture.

Architectural treatises were composed for the first time since antiquity in mid-fifteenth century Italy, beginning with Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria; this work was also the first printed book on architecture, published in Florence in 1485 (Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.1.15).

Written in Latin, and originally composed and distributed in manuscript form, this treatise was not a practical how-to-guide for the ordinary Renaissance builder, but rather a theoretical text, presumably for humanists and educated patrons of buildings. It is unillustrated; however, throughout Book I of our copy, a reader has drawn an assortment of lines, shapes and objects by hand. This marginalia illustrates Alberti’s references to decagonal plans, as well as curved, straight and perpendicular lines, which the author associates with a bow, chord and arrow.

De re aedificatoria with copy specific marginalia (Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.1.15)

De re aedificatoria with copy specific marginalia (Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.1.15)

Many treatises, like Alberti’s, were based on observations of Vitruvius’ De architectura, the sole surviving classical architectural treatise. Special Collections has a copy of the first printed edition, published in Rome in 1486-1487 (Sp Coll Hunterian Be.3.14). This ancient text stimulated interest in architectural theory and led to many translations and versions with commentaries including Cesare Cesariano’s Di Lucio Vitruvio Pollione De Architectura Libri Dece (Sp Coll S.M. 1978) and Giovanni Antonio Rusconi’s Della architettura di Gio. Antonio Rusconi (Sp Coll S.M. 1969). It also inspired the publication of new architectural treatises. A most noteworthy example is Serlio’s Architettura (Sp Coll S.M. 1971), a series of illustrated volumes on architecture published in installments and multiple editions from 1537 onwards. Special Collections has editions of Book I (on geometry); Book II (on perspective); Book III (on antiquities); Book IV (on the five orders of building); and Book V (on temples and church design).  Our copies are bound in a single book.

Like his predecessors and contemporaries, Serlio’s starting point was Vitruvius’ treatise; as well as clarifying and interpreting the Roman author’s doctrine, he also presented his own advice and building plans, including a design for the temporary wooden theatre at the Palazzo Porto-Colleoni in Vicenza.

What made his work distinct from others was that he pioneered the first architectural treatise that conveyed its subject matter primarily through illustrations. It contains a multitude of woodcuts of architectural details, plans and elevations, which clarify and enrich the text. It was also the first treatise to offer practical rules for building and construction, to systemise and depict the five orders (styles) of classical architecture, and to present a richly illustrated compendium of ancient buildings.

The five Orders according to Serlio. From left to right: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite, from Book IV, Architettura (Sp Coll S.M. 1971)

The five Orders according to Serlio. From left to right: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite, from Book IV, Architettura (Sp Coll S.M. 1971)

Serlio therefore shifted the content of the architectural book from a dense theoretical text towards something more accessible and inclusive. He essentially coupled the architectural treatise with the architectural pattern book. Moreover, his volumes were printed in the vernacular rather than in Latin; they were appealing therefore to a wide-ranging audience from provincial builders to educated princely patrons.

This treatise was the first to become popular and it was followed by a plethora of illustrated books on architecture, including Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini d’archittetura (Sp Coll S.M. 1911) and Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.w.15). These works enjoyed immense success; they were published in multiple editions and translated into several major European languages, contributing substantially to the dissemination of Classical and Italian Renaissance architecture throughout Europe.

Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini d’archittetura (Sp Coll S.M. 1911)

Vignola’s Regola delli cinque ordini d’archittetura (Sp Coll S.M. 1911)

In undertaking this research, I have become aware of Special Collections’ substantial holding of early books on architecture. I developed my observations and studies into a temporary display called, Renaissance Pioneer: Sebastiano Serlio and the Illustrated Architectural Treatise (Display on Level 12 from April 2016 – June 2016). This exhibition explores Serlio’s impact and traces the development of the architectural treatise from an unillustrated, highly theoretical Latin text to a richly illustrated book, as briefly discussed above. It is Special Collections’ first display to focus on architectural treatises.

Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.w.15)

Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.w.15)

To accompany the exhibition, a selection of images from ten books on architecture from Special Collections have been digitised. I encourage you to visit this display and to explore the Flickr set. Feast on the many striking illustrations of columns, city plans and ancient monuments!

Overall, these various efforts have made this part of the collection more widely known and accessible. A foundation has been set. Hopefully, it will encourage further study and discussion.

Other early books on architecture found in Special Collections

Diego de Sagredo, Medidas del Romano o Vitruuio (Sp Coll S.M. 1127)

Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, De architectura and Second livre darchitecture (Sp Coll S.M. 1908)

Pietro Cataneo, Larchitettura (Sp Coll S.M. 1932)

Vincenzo Scamozzi, Discorsi sopra l’antichità di Roma (Sp Coll S.M. 1970)


Categories: Special Collections

Tags: , , , ,

1 reply


  1. Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #38 | Whewell's Ghost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: