BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE
Caramuel y Lobkowitz, Juan
||Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua...
||Vigevano, C. Corrado, 1678[-1679]
||Los Angeles, The Getty Research Institut, NA2515 .C37 1678er
The Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua (or Straight and Oblique Civil Architecture, henceforth abbreviated ACRO) has a remarkably long title even by seventeenth-century standards. In it the author, the then bishop of Vigevano in Lombardy, announced the task he set to accomplish in a rather self-promotional fashion: “Straight and oblique civil architecture conceived and illustrated in the Temple of Jerusalem, which King Solomon erected on Mount Moriah; which Nebuchadnezzar, Emperor of Babylon, destroyed; which Zerubbabel, grandson of the Jewish kings, rebuilt; which King Herod later restored; and which the soldiers of Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian, finally ground into ashes. It was promoted to utter perfection in the temple and palace of San Lawrence near El Escorial, which Philip II thought up with the help of his divine inventiveness, delineated with his royal hand and, hiring the best architects of Europe, built with lavish expenditure [...]”. As it turns out, Caramuel’s architectural treatise was a nearly lifelong project, begun as a Cistercian novice in Castile in 1624 and published in Italy more than half a century later. In fact, the publication date displayed on the frontispiece (1678) may be slightly inaccurate since the year 1679 is actually mentioned in the text (ACRO II: 48) and appears on the engraved portrait of the author signed by Giovanni Francesco Bugatti (ACRO I: 3).
Accounting for Caramuel’s intentions in writing his architectural treatise is far from a straightforward task. For one, it is often overlooked that the earliest recorded mention of an architectural treatise in fieri dates back to 1652 (see the Omnium operum Caramuelis catalogus appended to the first edition of the Theologia moralis fundamentalis). Before ever setting foot in Rome, Caramuel envisioned a treatise on civil architecture (significantly divided into “straight” and “oblique”), which he intended to complement with a treatise on fortification. The choice was probably dictated by the Spaniard’s own experience in battle; we know he helped reinforce the defences of Leuven (1635), Frankenthal (1645–6), and Prague (1648) against enemy forces laying siege. Yet his theoretical exertions were not to stop at the need to supplement civil architecture with its military counterpart. With a clearly encyclopaedic scope, Caramuel conceived of his mathesis architectonica (3) as part of a larger quadripartite cursus mathematicus comprising a mathesis vetus (1) and nova (2) and a mathesis astronomica (4). In spite of the fact that the mathesis architectonica was later published short of the planned architectura militaris and under a different title and that, furthermore, the dissertation on astronomy never reached publication stage, there can be no doubt the Architectura civilis in Latin was originally meant to be an integral part of a larger cursus mathematicus and not the independent work eventually published in Spanish (1678–9) and Latin (1681).
While in Prague (1647–55) under the protection of Emperor Ferdinand III as one of his trusted advisors, Caramuel became aware that Serlio’s bilingual Latin-Italian edition – surely referring to Jacopo Strada’s 1575 Frankfurt edition of Il settimo libro– was especially successful in northern Europe where very few understood Italian but many more could read Latin (ACRO 1: 32). This would help explain why in the early 1650s he still imagined his architectural treatise as a Latin text for a Mitteleuropean audience and why he never abandoned the hope of transmitting his ideas on architecture by means of an erudite Latin text aimed at a cultivated northern-European readership. In fact, the Mathesis architectonica (Caramuelis architectura or Templum Salomonis rectam et obliquam architecturam exhibens) was eventually published at Vigevano by Camillo Corrado in 1681, the year before Caramuel died. But the belatedness of the Latin edition and its apparently very limited print run and circulation did little to cement Caramuel’s reputation as an architectural theorist north of the Alps.
It was only in 1670 or shortly after that Caramuel decided to publish his architectural treatise in Spanish without awaiting its long-anticipated publication in Latin. His contacts with the Spanish elite in Italy (where he lived from 1655 onwards) and his wish to curry favour with the Spanish court cannot be discounted as motives for the paradoxical rushing to print of a book that had been waiting in the wings for decades. Dedicated to the Spanish prince Juan José, an illegitimate half-brother of Charles II, the Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua was first published in Spanish in 1678–9 with the avowed objective of raising the standards of ‘Spanish’ architecture. Caramuel’s treatise was written with the entirety of the Monarquía Hispánica in mind, that is, all the realms and enclaves ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs in Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. He contended that in the European territories ruled by the Spanish branch of the House of Austria, with which he had become acquainted first-hand after his move from his native Castile to Flanders in 1632, one was likely to encounter the greatest number of buildings erected in grossly inadequate locations (ACRO 2: 202). It would be easy to deduce such dilapidation of precious resources was in his view the direct result of low scientific standards. In actuality, Caramuel was well aware that most architects in Spain could read proficiently neither Italian nor Latin. Moreover, the practice of architecture was largely in the hands of master-builders (maestros de obras) lacking the necessary intellectual tools, which in Caramuel’s opinion necessarily included the latest advances in mathematics.
The choice of the vernacular for the Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua paid off for it was indeed read in Spain and the Spanish Americas in the late seventeenth century and for most of the eighteenth century. By way of contrast, contemporary Spanish treatises such as Juan de Torija’s Breve tratado de todo género de bóvedas (1661) and Fray Lorenzo de San Nicolás’s Arte y uso de arquitectura (1639 and 1665) reflected the emphasis on professional competence typical of Madrid’s powerful and conservative construction guild and, unlike Caramuel’s, were not circulated in ‘Spanish’ Italy (Naples, Sicily and Lombardy). The Cistercian theorist, on the contrary, was convinced that, since in Spain the passing on and certification of building know-how was the main responsibility of the various guilds involved, Spaniards stood to benefit most from a treatise aiming to raise standards according to the intellectual (Albertian) model of the architectus of whom a modicum of erudition was to be expected. This may provide a partial answer to the puzzle of why, given the importance reserved in the treatise for stereotomy, there is a single plate devoted to its methods (ACRO 3: 251) – and one, moreover, that displays the basic stone-cutting operations in diagrammatic, simplified fashion, as a sort of stereotomical shorthand. Caramuel knew well that the highly elaborate geometrical delineations used by master masons were recorded in illustrated manuscripts with which he had become acquainted in Spain in the 1620s and of which there was no shortage of copies in circulation, most of them derived from Alonso de Vandelvira (based on triangulation methods) or Cristóbal de Rojas and Ginés Martínez de Aranda (based on folding planes).
Destined to become the most extensive and ambitious architectural treatise ever published in early modern Spain, the internal structure of the Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua reflected Caramuel’s refashioning of the Vitruvian model architect at a time when the ‘new’ post-Galilean science defended by the novatores was rightly perceived as a threat to the scholastic worldview upheld by the Counter-Reformation university establishment. Caramuel’s ideal architect was to prove well versed in mathematics, rhetoric, history, and theology. Accordingly, the three in-folio volumes of the Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua devoted space to architectural history in line with the recurring model of the paragone, pitching the accomplishments of the ancients against those of the moderns (proemium and 9th tractatus); to the range of literary skills best suited for architects (2nd tractatus); and to geometry, arithmetic, logarithms, and the auxiliary sciences required for architecture (3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th tractati). The unfinished 10th tractatus, which amounts to little else than an rudimentary outline, avowedly prepared the reader for a 4th volume of the ACRO to be entitled ‘Architectura Natural’. It is not entirely clear what this never-published volume was to cover, but the few surviving manuscript fragments would indicate it was conceived as a philosophy of nature (philosophia naturalis) in which, one may surmise, Caramuel’s theological symbolism, which was rooted in late-medieval moralising readings of optics, would have also found its place.
Critics have traditionally focused on ‘oblique architecture’ as the most salient and innovative aspect of the Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua. It is true Caramuel publicised the oblique transformation of the Classical orders as a nova ars whose long-time roots were to be found in the fenestras obliquas of the Temple of Solomon quoted in the Vulgate (1 Rg 6: 4 and Ez 40: 16, 41: 16). Drawing from the methods used by late-medieval and Renaissance stonemasons in Iberia, who customarily designed as morphologically oblique any elements situated on an incline or positioned at a slant, Caramuel proposed what he believed was a comprehensive method to accurately draw the Classical (and non-Classical) architectural orders in an innovatively systematic way. This included notably three basic paradigms defined by non-orthogonal geometric configurations: inclined, curved, and curved-and-inclined. As a result, Caramuel was led to address complex morphologies such as the kind of deformation applicable to column shafts of a truly elliptical (as opposed to Bernini’s merely oval) piazza. The pedestals of such a colonnade, he argued, would no longer be square in plan; in fact, the once square contours would be transformed into mixtilinear figures, consisting of two elliptical segments and two non-parallel straight lines. Caramuel realised that inscribing a column shaft within such a figure would entail its deformation from a circular cross-section to a ‘paraspherical’ one. The paradoxes laid bare in the Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua were intended at gauging the syntactic coherence of Classicism from the standpoint of the most exigent rationality (Tafuri 1970, p. 682).
The criticisms levelled by Caramuel against Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro have contributed to his characterisation as a dilettante engrossed by geometrical fancy (ludus geometricus) but unacquainted with the architectural profession. In truth, Caramuel’s fascination with obliquity as a latent category that was actually omnipresent in architecture stemmed from a broader intellectual interest in spatiotemporal contingency, in enhancing the human ability to respond and adapt to an ever-changing environment. His parallel interest in a new logica obliqua, ambitiously conceived to supersede its ‘straight’ Aristotelian precedent, had to do with his hope of broaching relations whose soundness could not be judged according to the criterion of certainty but were either probable or dubious. In spite of its idiosyncrasies, Caramuel’s focus on contingency places him within Baroque proto-historicism (Tafuri 1986, pp. 28-32). Few theorists before him affirmed with such conviction the radical historicity of architecture thus undermining (to Guarini’s dismay) the normative value of Classicism and by extension of any form of ahistorical antiquarianism. Influenced by his nominalist training as a logician at Alcalá de Henares, the Cistercian theorist may be described as an anti-dogmatic rationalist ever ready to scrutinise the supposed superiority of the ancients in light of the latest scientific advances.
Although chronologically speaking the theoretical formalisation of ‘oblique’ architecture, aided by new mathematical tools, followed that of ‘straight’ architecture, Caramuel made a case for the ontological primacy of the former. The world’s spherical shape and human sensory limits constituted an inherently ‘oblique’ habitat. Audacious proposals such as semi-oblique columns and pilasters reflected deep-seated convictions regarding architecture’s duty to conform to pre-existing conditions rather than hide them under a neatly orthogonal cloak. Caramuel’s genuine appreciation for the Graeco-Roman legacy was qualified by his desire to heighten its plasticity and keep it as open as possible to historical improvement.
Jorge Fernández-Santos Ortiz-Iribas (ETSA Universidad San Jorge, Zaragoza) – 2016
ACRO = J. Caramuel Lobkowitz, Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua, 3 vols., Madrid, Ediciones Turner, 1984.
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