Author(s) Albenas, Jean Poldo d’
Title Discours historial de l’antique et illustre cité de Nismes...
Imprint Lyon, G. Roville, 1560
Localisation Paris, Ensba, Les 1356
Subject Antique monuments, Nîmes
Transcribed version of the text


     The Discours historial de l'antique et illustre cité de Nismes published by the jurist and humanist Jean Poldo d'Albenas in Lyon in 1559 and 1560, at Guillaume Roville's shop (only a few copies came out in 1559), has certain similarities with numerous publications devoted to the "antiquity" of a province or of a kingdom, whose history was given from their origins up to the most recent present time, entitled Antiquité(s), Fleur des antiquités, Histoires or Mémoires historiques.  Poldo d'Albenas comes within the scope of a historiographic tradition in which "antiquité" (in other words ancientness), humanism and history entertain subtle and close connections.  In the case of Nîmes, its "antiquité" was well established: the city could be proud of a prestigious past, for the Roman imperial power had endowed it with an extremely remarkable urban unity.  The amphitheater, almost intact, and many other monumental vestiges remained (Maison Carrée, Tour Magne, "temple de la Fontaine", acqueducts...).  The Emperor Antoninus was born there.  But Poldo is set apart from the other historians by the space he granted to monumental Roman architecture.  The plans of the city, in this case the orientated plan of the antique enclosure and the high view point of the modern city, with an enhanced view of the antique edifices of the city, clear of all intruding construction, and far off the pont du Gard, are presented for the first time at the beginning of a work of this type published in France.  The large format of the book (in folio) made for perfect legibility.  The four chapters devoted to the Maison Carrée (XVI), the temple called "de la Fontaine" (XVII), the Tour Magne and the pont du Gard (XVIII), as well as to the amphitheater (XXII), are accompanied by engravings interspersed among the pages and paginated captions.  The man from Nîmes shows a completely remarkable architectural culture for an expert in antiquities during the Renaissance: he quotes Vitruvius, Alberti and Philandrier.  And he is not simply a bookworm; he himself measured the enclosure of his birthplace, surveyed its site, studied the principal monuments on the ground.  He was as fascinated by ruins as was his father, a first consul who had preserved numerous vestiges by installing them at the Porte de la Couronne, an achievement appreciated by the well-informed Italian expert in antiquity Gabriele Symeoni.
Nevertheless the four chapters on the antiquities in Nîmes stand out less by the quality of their text than by the accompanying illustrations, exceptional ones.  Only the Tour Magne is not represented because of its dilapidated condition.  In fact in question are the first architectural plans published in France, long before the treatises of Bullant and De l'Orme.  Marked off in inches, feet and toises, they present the plan and the elevation of the monuments, as well as the details of the orders (bases, capitals and entablatures), in which each moulding is represented with its measurements.  This archeological and architectural vision has no equivalent during the 1550s.  Even if Poldo d'Albenas did not do the drawings, this vision indicates an astonishing familiarity with the collections of Italian architecture, notably the Codex Coner or a copy of it, a familiarity revealed by the sections generating an oblique elevation, measurements carefully marked, such as that of the pedestal of the temple of "la Fontaine" or the entablature of the Maison Carrée.  Serlio and then De l'Orme resorted to this type of representation, but without dimensions. Palladio was not mistaken in being inspired by the Discours historial for book IV of his treatise (I quattro libri dell’architettura), in which he has the two Nîmes temples appear among the most beautiful Roman accomplishments.  The architect, who never went to France, devoted six plates to the Maison Carrée and five to the temple called la Fontaine.  This consecration confirms the interest and the modernity of the plates in the French work, which the Italian could easily take advantage of, even if it meant completing them.
All the French and foreign experts in antiquity who read Poldo d'Albenas or his intermediary, François de Belleforest, were struck by the plates.  In his Cosmographie universelle Belleforest took up again the plan of the modern city with its ruins.  In his manuscript Thomas Platter II inserted the exact copy of this same plan which he colored in pen. In 1635, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, himself, sent the book to Cassiano dal Pozzo.
For the quality of the remarks as well as for its modern illustrations, the incontestable editorial success of the Discours historial was without precedent or equivalent in Italy save for Torello Sarayna's work on Verona, with the superb plates by Giovanni Caroto (De origine et amplitudine civitatis Veronæ, 1540).  In France the work remained exceptional. L'antiquité de Bourdeaus (1565) and L'antiquité de Saintes (1571) of Élie Vinet, a humanist no less cultured and impassioned than Poldo, present a lesser degree of perfection, even if the professor at the Collège de Guyenne understood perfectly the importance of the image.  Poldo d'Albenas, through his knowledge of Vitruvius' text, his familiarity with the most modern architectural theory and a very new vision of the ruins, offered to the public the most advanced and the most remarkable account of national archeology.

Frédérique Lemerle (Centre national de la recherche scientifique,
Centre d'études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2006

Critical bibliography

H. Baudrier, Bibliographie lyonnaise : recherches sur les imprimeurs, libraires, relieurs et fondeurs de lettres de Lyon au XVIe siècle, 9, Lyon/Paris, Brun/Picard, 1912, pp. 52-53, 258.

Dictionnaire des Lettres françaises, Le XVIe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 2001, p. 42 (1st ed.: Paris, 1951).

P. Gros, "La ‘Maison Carrée’ de Palladio", R. Chevallier (éd.), Présence de l'architecture et de l'urbanisme romains: Hommage à Paul Dufournet, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1983, pp. 179-193.

F. Lemerle, "Jean Poldo d'Albenas (1512-1563), un antiquaire ‘studieux d'architecture’", Bulletin monumental, 160-2, 2002, pp. 163-172.

F. Lemerle, La Renaissance et les antiquités de la Gaule, Turnhout, Brepols, 2005, pp. 51-81.

F. Lemerle, « La réception des antiquités nîmoises (1500-1650) », V. Krings & F. Pugnière (eds.), Nîmes et ses Antiquités. Un passé présent. XVIe-XIXe siècle, Bordeaux, Ausonius, SA 53, 2013, pp. 73-88.