Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2001
Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks, eds. Paper Palaces: The Rise of the Renaissance Architectural Treatise New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 428 pp.; 129 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300075308)
Alina Payne The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance: Architectural Invention, Ornament and Literary Culture Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 362 pp.; 88 b/w ills. Cloth $88.00 (0521622662)

The past decade has witnessed a veritable explosion of superior new English translations of Italian Renaissance architectural treatises, as well as a new critical translation of Vitruvius, whose Latin treatise served generations of Italian architects and theorists as the yardstick for proper classical style. This bounty of treatises has broadened significantly the English-speaking audience to whom these texts are now available, and the use of these books in the classroom should increase substantially. The two books under review here should be considered essential and exemplary complements to these translations, providing both a critical framework for their understanding and a synthetic response to the entire phenomenon of the Renaissance architectural treatise.

The essays in Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks’s Paper Palaces specifically treat Renaissance responses to Vitruvius. The contributions are by some of the best-known specialists working today on this subject matter, and each is devoted to one or more of the major treatise writers, with the exception of Mario Carpo’s essay (on the technological innovations in printing that rendered possible the rise of the illustrated architectural treatise as a genre). Many of those who contributed to this volume are the same editors and translators who provided us with the critical new English versions of the Latin and Italian treatises under discussion, and their profound knowledge of these texts is evident. As in all volumes of collected essays, there are of course significant variations in scale, novelty, and style from one contributor to the next, although all of the essays maintain a consistently rigorous standard of quality.

This is not to say that every reader is going to agree with the conclusions reached by each author. I must admit to having some difficulty, for example, in making the leap of faith required to see the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as a postmodernist work avant le lettre, but that does not detract from the excellent scholarship seen in Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s essay on the text and its presumed author, Francesco Colonna. In fact, one of the nicest aspects of this collection is that authors like Colonna are given significant space, and so, for once, the big fish do not swallow the little fish. Thus, Filarete’s importance, and the fundamental differences between his and Alberti’s programs, comes through clearly, both in Hart’s Introduction to the volume and in Luisa Giordano’s beautifully written (and translated) essay. Similarly, Ingrid Rowland adds to our understanding of figures like Fra Giocondo and Cesariano—certainly less familiar to many students of architectural history than her other subjects, Bramante and Raphael—while raising (and answering) such essential questions as why a vernacular Vitruvius was necessary in Renaissance Italy, or which aspects of Vitruvius’s text were of interest to medieval scholars. Serlio, as may be expected in a book edited by his recent English translators, is given notable treatment in the Introduction and in two separate essays, one by Hart and Hicks together, and one by Hart alone.

It is indeed logical to follow the evolution of these “‘Paper Palaces’ from Alberti to Scamozzi,” as Hart has subtitled his Introduction to this book. Part 1 of the collection, entitled “Emulating Vitruvius,” which treats precisely those treatises, is the most unified section of the book; the author-architects covered here are almost exclusively Italian, with the exception of the Spanish Sagredo and the French Philandrier and De L’Orme, treated respectively in essays by Nigel Llewellyn, Frédérique Lemerle, and Jean Guillaume. These works seem integral to the narrative of the development of the Italian Renaissance architectural treatise since, for example, Lemerle makes clear that Philandrier’s works relied heavily on Serlio and subsequently served as a fundamental source for Vignola. These essays therefore seem a somewhat better fit to the volume than those that follow in Part 2 and the Conclusion, which almost exclusively consider non-Italian treatise writers: Krista de Jonge’s essay on the architectural treatise in the Low Countries, Hart’s on the English Vitruvians, Indra Kagis McEwen’s on Perrault, and James McQuillan’s on the decline of the Vitruvian treatise in France. While fascinating contributions in themselves, these essays are somewhat less well integrated into the primary content of the volume. The collection’s focus is overwhelmingly Italian and presumably it will be most useful to scholars and students of Italian Renaissance architecture.

A major theme that recurs in Hart and Hicks’s volume, as well as Alina Payne’s, is the importance of the anthropomorphic model in Renaissance architectural theory. In her book, The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance, Payne expands the discussion to include all natural forms whose imitation—from Vitruvius on—provided the primary theoretical justification for architectural invention, while also devoting attention to the specific contributions made by single architect-theorists to the development of this model. The inclusion of other types of natural models, including the dynamic responses of plastic entities to various kinds of stress, has fascinating repercussions for Payne’s argument, especially her discussion of Spini’s and Palladio’s theories of ornament.

One criticism of Hart and Hicks’s collection is that closer comparison could have been made between the theory of architecture presented in many of the essays and their practice during the period, although notable exceptions to this do exist in the volume. (Richard Tuttle’s excellent treatment of Vignola as theoretician concludes precisely with specific examples of the close rapport between Vignola’s written “rules” and his built work; Manuela Morresi’s study is devoted solely to the relationship between theory and practice in Venetian Renaissance architecture; and McEwen’s essay concludes with an analysis of the ways in which Perrault was not an adherent to the principles he expounded in the Ordonnance.) On the other hand, the relationship between theory and practice is one of the many topics admirably addressed by Payne, especially in her discussion in Chapter 8 of Palladio’s built works and the ornaments illustrated in his Quattro libri.

Such careful attention to built architecture is, however, not well served by most of the photographs in Payne’s book. Far too many of the images are characterized by inadequate contrast, and in some cases, the pictures simply are not in focus. The comparison between these illustrations and those in Hart and Hicks’s volume is especially striking; the latter are both beautifully reproduced and thoughtfully laid out. This disparity is presumably a reflection of the different standards for illustration currently being applied by the books’ publishers.

This should in no way deter the interested reader from Payne’s text, which is an extraordinary piece of scholarship and at times is nothing short of courageous. What other description could be applied to an author who, from the first page of her book, leaps right into one of the most vexed problems in art history, the definition of Mannerism and its specific application to architecture? She then convincingly outlines the reasons why a study of ornament is essential to understanding Renaissance architecture, given the importance accorded to establishing rules for ornament in the treatises of the day. Payne then brilliantly discusses such arguments as canon and license (their definition, evolution, and essential interrelationship), the regional character of local Vitruvian milieux, and decorum (in rhetoric and architecture). All of this is splendidly written in well-organized chapters that consistently begin with proper introductions and end with proper conclusions.

If there is a stylistic flaw in Payne’s book, it is the frequent employment of Latin or Italian words and phrases when their English equivalents would have sufficed without altering the meaning of her arguments. Using the English terms would have facilitated her reader’s ability to follow the text, which may be a bit heady for some undergraduates. In fact, both books under review reflect a rather haphazard editing of Italian words and phrases, somewhat surprising given the extent to which each is concerned with the language and its meaning. This may be considered a minor flaw by some, and such errors are frequently of little significance to the English reader (e.g., the Uffizi, twice correctly as such in Payne’s book, but also twice incorrectly as the Uffizzi). Somewhat more serious are such errors as pietra serena as the stone employed for the revetment of Alberti’s Rucellai Palace, when clearly pietra forte was intended by the author (Joseph Rykwert, in Hart and Hicks, 43), or Serlio’s Trezo libro (Payne, 15), both a typographical and a factual error, as the author meant not the Terzo but the Quarto libro (as indicated correctly in the caption to the image from Serlio’s treatise on the following page).

The most important of these linguistic problems, in my opinion, is Payne’s reading of the word palco in Chapter 7, on “Spini and Architectural Imitatio.” While the word was used in the Renaissance to mean a dais, a wooden floor, or its structure (as Payne interprets it), it was also commonly employed in reference to wooden ceilings or their structures (at least from the sixteenth century on). I believe that this is the meaning being employed by Spini in the texts cited here, especially given the close association in these passages of palchi with tetti, or roofs (see Payne’s citations in Italian, 290, ns. 62 and 66). Thus, Spini is probably referring to pitched roofs, wooden drop ceilings, and the systems of beams that linked the two together. This has some not insignificant ramifications for Payne’s argument about the derivation of entablature ornamentation from these structures since, as the author points out, Alberti is an essential source for Spini’s argument and Alberti defined the roof as the first, indeed the most important, element of architecture. The discussion that follows, regarding structure and ornament, and necessity and load bearing, makes greater sense to this reader if these palchi are ceilings rather than floors. A more minor quibble is the author’s assertion in the same chapter that Vincenzo Borghini “conceived no independent work of architecture” (147). Margaret Daly Davis has convincingly identified Borghini as the architect of at least one important building, the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in Florence (La Toscana nel ’500: Giorgio Vasari: Principi, letterati e artisti nelle carte di Giorgio Vasari; Pittura vasariana dal 1532 al 1554, ex. cat. [Florence: Edam, 1981], 172-73).

Both of these books are essential reading and will be welcome additions to the library of anyone interested in Italian Renaissance architectural theory. As Payne writes, “The image of the bookshelf is a useful reminder of the process that reading entails—that is, the need to consult, return to, and ponder over a text—in short, the kind of physical and intellectual intimacy and extended time frame that genuine appropriation demands and that only personal ownership of a book allows” (71). These two volumes are just the sort of books that warrant personal ownership for the certain rewards that will come from physical and intellectual intimacy with them.

Bruce L. Edelstein
Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti