BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE
||L’idea della architettura universale
Venice, V. Scamozzi, 1615
Heidelberg, Ruprecht-Karls Universitätsbibliothek, C 6339-9-25 Fol Res
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Transcribed version of the text
A luxurious edition of the folio Idea dell’architettura universale by Vincenzo Scamozzi was printed expensis auctoris in 1615 at the shop of Giorgio Valentino. Although the book remained unfinished compared to its author’s intention, it was the fruit of long labor : 824 pages supplemented by 84 illustrations, 45 of which are copperplate engravings. The idea that architecture is to be considered a speculative discipline, an actual “science” on every level emerges powerfully.
Born in Vicenza in 1548, Scamozzi was educated in architecture by his father. From his early years, he also manifested a certain interest in mathematics and “mechanics”, in this way attaining a very wide culture, going far beyond the limits of the disciplines which were traditionally linked to architecture and drawing him closer to the cultural ferment caused by Galileo’s presence in Padua. Scamozzi constructed a great many buildings, particularly in Venice, but for years his work suffered from significant critical misfortune which left it in the shade of his predecessor, Andrea Palladio. His greatest ambition was to write a treatise which would go back over and surpass all preceding works, from Vitruvius to Palladio. He began writing this great work in the beginning of the 1590s, and worked on it for more than twenty-five years. At first, he considered dividing his analysis into twelve books, but with time the project was reduced to ten volumes and in 1615, at the end of the author’s life (he was to die the following year) only six were published.
As Scamozzi indicates in the title, he intends to put forward a systematic reflection on architecture as a discipline. In the course of his life he had accumulated knowledge, based on in-depth studies and long trips everywhere in Europe. This gigantic effort materialized in what is considered to be the last treatise on architecture of the Renaissance, attempting to assemble all the historical and technical sources relative to the discipline. Scamozzi explicitly formulates the aims and contents of the treatise at the end of the introduction to the first part: “In the first of them [the books] we deal with excellence and its parts, and of what pertains to excellent architects; in the second, regions, areas, the nature of sites and shapes of cities and fortresses. The third is devoted to private structures, to conveniences and the pleasures they procure, the fourth to all kinds of public buildings, and the fifth to sacred buildings and those resembling them. Next, in the sixth, we will speak of all the orders and embellishments, in the seventh, building materials, in the eighth, foundations and roofing. The ninth deals with finishing touches and the tenth and last deals with repairs, restorations and the improvement of the domains” (I, p. 4). This list gives the contents of the books which were not yet at the printer’s in 1615 : the fourth, fifth, ninth and tenth, which would be partially printed in later editions using the unpublished material.
The Idea is considered to be the final attempt, nevertheless unfinished, to formalize the science of architecture according to the Vitruvian model in an organic and exhaustive way. Vitruvius had challenged the architect to become a cultured man; Scamozzi rose up to the challenge, undertaking an approach which was based as much on theoretical speculation as on practice of the discipline. This dialectic between theory and practice, which underlies each page of the work, is expressed on the title page, where we see the allegories “Theorica” and Experencia” in the foreground on either side of the author’s portrait.
As far as the account of the subject is concerned, unlike Palladio’s Quattro libri dell‘architectura, in which the theory had to be derived from practical examples (for the most part the author’s own projects), Scamozzi’s treatise is not at all a catalogue of his works, but rather a narrative, fluid and rich in content, essentially theoretical and speculative, with some examples drawn from his own realizations and reinterpretations of contemporary and older works. Up until a relatively recent period, Scamozzi’s importance as a theorist was often denigrated and misrepresented first by a series of negative judgments circulated starting in the 17th century, then by the difficulty of the work itself, very long and poorly suited to a quick and superficial reading.
The treatise begins with a long definition of the concept of architecture considered as a science. For Scamozzi, it is a discipline which is distinguished from other sciences, for its complex diversity brings substantial advantages to human society (I, p. 1; 5). Resorting to illustrious examples from the past, which he uses to give more weight to his own arguments, in agreement with the tradition seeing the major points of reference in Plato, Aristotle and Vitruvius, Scamozzi defines architecture as a speculative science. The connection between architecture and mathematics is one of the most insistant leitmotifs of the work, especially in the beginning pages, where Vitruvius’s famous passage is quoted, “Architectura est scientia pluribus disciplinis, et variis eruditionibus ornata, cujus judicio probantur omnia, quae à caeteris artibus perficiuntur opera” (I, p. 5). The convergence of numerous disciplines in architecture, and the necessity for anyone who wants to be exposed to it to possess a high level of erudition are themes dear to Scaramozzi.
Four phases are necessary to complete the work successfully: precognitione, edificatione, finimento (or espolizione) and ristaurazione. The last three phases are concerned with practical aspects of construction, whereas by “precognition”, Scamozzi means all the preliminary knowledge necessary for the architect to complete the project in the best conditions (I, pp. 7-8). The allegories which represent these phases of the project are also represented on the title page, above the pediment.
Still in agreement with Vitruvius, Scamozzi attributes six fundamental qualities to architectural work: dispositione, distributione, corrispondenza (Vitruvius’s symmetria), ordine, venustà (eurithmia for Vitruvius) and decoro. The ratios of proportion between the parts fall under venustà, as much the proportion of the antique buildings in Greece and Rome as that of the buildings in Italy in general, which respects better than in every other part of the world the real terms of architecture and the fine ways of decorating the buildings (I, p. 10).
The architect’s role is thus essential in the first speculative process of construction: he is the one who “invents and draws” the building, disposes and distributes its constituent elements with “corrispondenza e ordine”, in order to obtain the very desired qualities of venustà et decoro. And it is therefore in this process that Scamozzi defines the idea of the architect, which allows the success of the work. (I, pp. 11-12). The first concepts that he must assimilate, on which he will base his knowledge are related to geometry and mathematics (I, p. 29). And, in fact, Scamozzi lingers on the bases of geometric construction in the first book, with many explanations. It is only after long preliminary considerations that the first plate illustrating the construction of geometric forms appears, the way to calculate complex surfaces and squaring the circle, whereas Palladio began by examining construction materials, with brief texts and simple graphic diagrams.
An important chapter follows the theoretical explanation of the bases of geometry, “Dell’eccellenza delle forme naturali, e proportioni del corpo umano...” (I, pp. 37-43). Taking up again the pair what is theory and what is experienced through the senses, Scamozzi does his utmost to deal with the materialization of forms in nature. In this framework, the height of perfection is attained by the human body, considered under many aspects the supreme marvel (I, p. 38). The architect must create his own inventioni and make his own drawings in such a way as to imitate nature, and more particularly the human body, a miracle of proportions. Thus the building must present well-proportioned parts. Therefore there is a practical aspect of construction (the aspect that allows one to “meet the needs”, “servire al bisogno”, but also, and above all, a theoretical aspect which concerns the concept of proportion.
Book III deals with private constructions, book VI the orders and their proportions, in 172 pages, in which he inserts many detailed engravings. For him, the rustic does not constitute an order in the full sense of the term; and this is why he does not add it to the list. On the other hand, he calls “Roman” the order usually called “composite”, and unlike other authors, he gives it an intermediate proportion between the Ionic and Corinthian orders. Above all, he analyzes each constructive element, from the pedestal to the entablature; then he goes on to illustrate intercolumnations, piers, doors and windows, adding scholarly etymological essays and considerations on the forms and proportions. Next, he deals specifically with the five orders, proposing for each one four series of plates representing versions with or without pedestals, in colonnades or in series of arches resting on piers in the manner of Vignola. Concerning Vitruvius, Scamozzi bluntly affirms that the orders described in the De architectura often have defects in their proportions and their beauty, for the Latin architect lacked direct knowledge of Greek architecture and he had lived before the best examples of Roman architecture had been constructed (II, p. 14).
Scamozzi prefers to refer to the examples of Antiquity rather than to several Vitruvian norms such as the proportions of the Ionic entablature or the reduction in size of superposed orders. Scamozzi cites these antique examples with many details. The surest criterion of reference is the imitation of nature; the Doric, for example, must be provided with a base, as much to be consistent with the other orders as to be consistent with the natural fact that there exist no men without feet. This last observation, which could be cause for a smile, is corroborated by his erudition pushing him to cite many cases of antique Doric columns with a base, and also by the precedent Bramante furnished, that like Serlio he gives as an example to follow (II, p. 18). Scamozzi’s main aims are suitability, homogeneity, consistency of forms and proportions of each detail in relation to the whole, and the coherence of each order in relation to the five orders. No element, not even the smallest one, can have any arbitrary proportion.
The treatise was reissued in Italy at the end of the 17th century (1687, 1694). In spite of the rather negative judgment of Fréart de Chambray in his celebrated Parallèle (1650), Scamozzi’s forms met with a certain success in France. Architects adopted his very practical Ionic capital with volutes shaped like rams’ horns. On the other hand it was very successful in Northern Europe.
Laura Moretti (University of St. Andrews) – 2013
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