Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2008
Hermann Schlimme, ed. Practice and Science in Early Modern Italian Building: Towards an Epistemic History of Architecture Milan: Electa, 2006. 314 pp.; 36 color ills.; 300 b/w ills. Cloth €75.00 (8837042361)

This edited volume is the initial product of a joint research project undertaken by scholars at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The “Epistemic History of Architecture” aims to promote a series of conferences on the theme of architecture as a historical form of “knowledge.” The group’s primary object of study is not the building itself but rather the process of construction, which is understood to incorporate implicit and explicit “systems” of knowledge, ranging from practitioners’ rules-of-thumb to codified theory in all its forms. The emphasis is on the former category—that part of the builder’s daily experience for which there exist few historical traces: the organization of the worksite, the tools and machines employed, and the general technical competence of the workmen and supervisors. The building, in this view, is but one of several different kinds of sources to be mined. Sketch books, construction drawings, contracts, and building accounts all might provide access to the social, intellectual, and technological aspects of building practice. To this end, the project has a dedicated website, at which the organizers have begun to compile an online collection of just such graphic and written sources.

The umbrella project is open-ended and envisions a potentially universal wissensgeschichte. The volume under review here, however, concentrates on a more limited chronological period, gathering the papers of the group’s first conference on early modern Italy, held in Rome in September 2003. The period constitutes a watershed in the larger history that the project seeks to describe, for it gave rise to the professionalization of architecture as a discipline. This process was one in which “implicit” building techniques were formalized in printed treatises and in which traditional guild structures were increasingly supplanted by the creation of local academies. In some ways, the project’s organizers might be seen as attempting to vindicate the losers of this ideological struggle. To redefine construction as a form of knowledge is, in effect, to reverse the centuries-long effort to differentiate it from design as mean, lowly, and merely mechanical act.

There is another reason to explore the process of professionalization as it occurred in early modern Italy. A powerful impetus to the codification and systematization of trade practices—architecture included—came from the burgeoning scientific movement, and this relationship is only now beginning to receive the attention it deserves. The most famous advocate of this effort was Francis Bacon, who argued for the comprehensive study and documentation of the arts and crafts as a way of developing a new empirical and experimental culture of science. The “natural history of trades” pursued by members of both the Royal Society and the Académie des sciences in the late seventeenth century was partly inspired by his example. It was arguably, however, mathematicians and engineers who contributed most to this transformation. Architecture had long been classed under the mathematical arts and sciences, and the process of design and building naturally offered an array of problems susceptible to mechanical and geometrical investigation. Indeed, interest in such matters grew considerably following the publication of Galileo’s Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze in 1638, which inaugurated the study of the strength of materials and, by extension, the science of structural mechanics.

The book’s nine essays are organized in a somewhat haphazard manner, but they can be roughly divided into two principal classes based on the project’s goals, outlined above. The majority of the essays deal with the building process. The contributions make good use of little-known or overlooked sources to reconstruct aspects of the subject. Klaus Tragbar looks at visual representations of the medieval building site—most taken from Günther Binding’s useful catalogue—for clues about tools, techniques, and the organization of workers (for the latest edition, see Günther Binding, Der mittelalterliche Baubetrieb in zeitgenössischen Abbildungen, Stuttgart: Theiss, 2001; for a handy English translation, see Medieval Building Techniques, Alex Cameron, trans., Stroud: Tempus, 2004). Claudia Conforti details the complicated realization of Ponte Santa Maria in Rome (1548–49). This project, overseen partly by Michelangelo, provides an interesting test-case for exploring the difficulties involved in building on water. Hentie Louw sketches the development of window casements in seventeenth-century France, Holland, and England, in particular the origin of the chassis à petit-bois and the vertically sliding sash-window. Vitale Zanchettin fleshes out the obscure figure of Francesco Righi, Borromini’s trusted aide and quantity surveyor. A scrupulous manager of men, money, and material, he was no less crucial to the success of his master’s projects than the architect himself. Finally, Maria Grazia D’Amelio and Nicoletta Marconi, in separate essays, delve into the economics and the technology of the Roman construction trade. The Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro plays an important part in both contributions, with special attention given to its role in lending equipment and selling building materials to private contractors.

The effort to validate construction history is welcome, for this is a field that merits more scholarly interest. It is—or should be—an important part of architectural history, and scholars can claim no compelling reason to ignore it or relegate it to secondary status. Moreover, re-characterizing building technique as “knowledge” seems a good way to correct this traditional prejudice, for it addresses the spurious grounds on which construction has historically been dismissed. That said, it is also contingent on researchers in this field to recognize that it can appear—perhaps by its very nature—pedestrian to outsiders. The contributions, although generally informative, well-researched, and well-written, are somewhat circumscribed by the limits the authors have placed on the subject. The essays are largely descriptive in nature, and few actively seek to engage with or directly intervene in current debates in either architectural history or the history of science and technology. Is construction history intertwined with these larger fields or is it to be a separate and parallel discourse? Most of the essays, perhaps inadvertently, suggest the latter.

This handicap is largely rectified in the second group of papers, on the relationship between practice and early modern science. Antonio Becchi—in a somewhat meandering and under-edited contribution—traces the natural analogies used to analyze the behavior of arches and domes in pre-classical mechanics, while Filippo Camerota examines the philosophical basis of Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz’s unusual notion of “architectura obliqua.” The highlight of the volume, however, is to be found in two related contributions by the editor, Hermann Schlimme. Both concern the Accademia della Vachia in Florence, an informal gathering of mathematicians, architects, sculptors, and engineers, apparently connected to the Granducal family, particularly to Cardinal Giovanni Carlo de Medici. The study was occasioned by Schlimme’s discovery of an unpublished manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze, which describes in detail the academy’s activities during its brief existence from 1661 to 1662 (“La Risoluzione di più Problemi stati proposti nel Accademia del Sig. Abate Ottavio della Vachia L’anno 1662 con I Nomi di chi propose et di chi ha Risoluto,” MS, Fondo Nazionale, II_46). Schlimme devotes a background essay to the academy and its members and provides, in an appendix, a transcription of and commentary on the document. Together, his contributions comprise the bulk of the volume. The essay is by far the longest and the most fully documented in the collection, while the manuscript edition itself takes up almost half of the book’s three hundred pages.

The academy is noteworthy for several reasons. In the first place, the nature of the discussions was unusual. In contrast to the Accademie dei Lincei and the Cimento, the questions posed were predominantly practical. This was not a scientific academy, but rather an accademia del disegno profoundly influenced by contemporary scientific—read mathematical—culture. Of the forty-nine “problems” treated in the document, twelve deal with pure geometry, twelve with machines and inventions, and eight with construction or building-related matters. Six represent design and engineering problems involving the calculation of volumes and surfaces, and six, hydraulics, in relation to the use of fountains. Three concern fortification, and two, perspective. Curiously, there are no purely physical problems. None, for example, deal with projectiles or the “resistance of solids,” which might easily bear on the practical arts. Neither are there any on astronomy, not even calendrical astronomy or sundialing, and only one problem can be said to belong to mechanics proper (no. 48: “the laws of levers”). Schlimme could have more profitably explored the group’s relationship with Galileo and his school. The academy may have been inspired by the philosopher, but it does not appear to have emulated him.

The Accademia della Vachia is also remarkable for its composition. The academicians met in the house of the abbot and Florentine patrician, Ottavio della Vacchia, and it is his name that was given to the circle as whole. Their guiding light, however, was the mathematician-architect-artist Cosimo Noferi, who both formulated and provided solutions for most of the problems discussed. Members also included the architect, mason, and sculptor Jacopo Maria Foggini and the mathematician Domenico Fontani. Francesco Barzini was a professor of astronomy at the University of Florence, and Giovanni Andrea Albizzini taught logic at the University of Pisa. Giuliano Ciaccheri and Jacopo Ramponi were both engineers, the latter a fortification expert for the Parte Guelfa. Such an equal mix of university-trained scholars and active practitioners is, to my mind, unprecedented. In this connection, Schlimme is to be commended for taking the time to reconstruct each of the various solutions presented, for the members typically tackled them with quite different means and assumptions. Although the academicians tended to favor more rigorous geometrical methods, simpler, empirical techniques were also often proposed and, indeed, appear to have been taken seriously. Schlimme has also established the historical context for the several construction-related problems mentioned in the document. The academy’s interest in the centering of single-span bridges, for example, is convincingly related to the recent history of the Ponte di Mezzo in Pisa, as is their discussion of roof trusses to a contemporary project at the Florentine Jesuit church of San Giovannino.

Practice and Science in Early Modern Italian Building fits within a larger trend in interdisciplinary studies of early modern architecture. Recent organizations such as the Associazione Edoardo Benvenuto, the Construction History Society, and the Nexus Network all cover a similar range of topics, but if this volume is anything to go by, the Epistemic History of Architecture appears to be the most promising of these groups. “La Risoluzione di più Problemi” is a document of outstanding historical importance, and Schlimme is to be praised for recognizing its value and explicating it so deftly.

Anthony Gerbino
Senior Research Fellow, Worcester College, University of Oxford