Author(s) Serlio, Sebastiano
Title Livre extraordinaire... Extraordinario libro...
Imprint Lyon, J. de Tournes, 1551
Localisation Paris, Ensba, Les 1745
Subject Gates


     “Extraordinary”, this book certainly is, in many respects. First, it is literally extraordinary because Serlio had not planned for it in 1537 when, in the preface of the Quarto libro, he was defining the series of books to come. It is therefore located outside of the normal order of books in the treatise, extra ordinem. But extraordinary it is, especially in the modern sense of the term, for its content is utterly astonishing. It is a collection of models of fifty doors, thirty of them “rustic” and twenty of them “delicate”, all copper plates, preceded by an annotated text (in French in the present copy, in Italian and French in the others). These doors, variable in size (some can be appropriate for the entrance to a private residence, others are scaled to an arch of triumph), are especially characterized by decoration based on lack of restraint and combinations. The constituent elements of the orders are constantly manhandled in their morphology as well as in their syntax. The “rustic” motifs, stones with their rough edges hardly knocked off, are combined with others, more refined, in order to produce striking contrasts. The annotations of some engravings are surprising in the frankness with which they report the process which probably presided over the designing of certain doors, and which really pertain to “bricolage”, in the sense that Claude Levi-Strauss uses the term. The result is very picturesque, but goes against the Vitruvian principles set out by Serlio himself in the Quarto libro and strongly reasserted in 1540 in the Terzo libro, even more orthodox. This contradiction is so obvious that some have even seen apocryphal writing in the Livre extraordinaire. Nevertheless, the author takes full responsibility for the discrepancy between rule and license; he claims his “errors” and readily explains how to reduce his models down to versions less ornate but more rigorous, true to Vitruvius’ good rules.
How are we to explain these contradictions? With a great deal of ingenuity, Marco Carpo has seen in them the expression of an attitude close to Erasmism and more particularly Nicodemism. Just as saints can hide the purity of their faith behind the mask of apparent submissiveness to the mumbo jombo of rites, Serlio apparently hid the strictness of an uncompromising Vitruvianism under the flashy disguise of grotesque decorative practice.
Rather, it is necessary to see here an adaptation to the evolution of style and taste in the French context in the middle of the 16th century. Let us not forget that the book was created and written in France during the end of the 1540s, while Serlio’s material situation was very precarious as a result of the death of François I and the estrangement of Marguerite de Navarre and the Cardinal d’Este. In addition, the accession of Henri II coincided with the appearance of a new generation of writers and artists, who upset the main stylistic themes; on one side the Pléiade, on the other De l’Orme, Lescot and Bullant who were practicing a new art founded on lofty expression, on the sublime character of a style which renounced Marot’s “badinage” as well as the ornamental trifles of the châteaux of the Loire. Now Serlio might have been able to notice the interest aroused by the portal of the Ferrare residence in Fontainebleau, but also the success of some of his models at the time of those manifestos of the new style, the triumphal entries into Lyon in 1548 (he even participated in them), and into Paris in 1549. They were opportunities to highlight antique culture and Italian know-how which were much closer to that “altiloque” writing henceforth obligatory than to the Fontainebleau style, and to therefore to bring himself to the attention of the new king to whom he dedicated his book. Thus, overcome by a “fureur architectique”, feeling himself “abonder nouvelles fantaisies en l’esprit”, he decided to publish the drawing of the Fontainebleau portal, and to compose forty-nine other models of doors of an inspiration just as lofty.
This notion of “fureur”, which makes an appearance as explicit as it is rare in architectural literature, has not received the attention it deserves. For it is precisely this notion which explains the lack of restraint, the peculiarities and the horrors of the Livre extraordinaire. Ronsard was taken with this “fureur” to find the inspiration for the Odes beginning in 1550; in 1549, in the Deffense et illustration de la langue française, du Bellay advised the poet not to “laisser passer cette fureur divine qui quelquefois agite et échauffe les esprits poétiques, et sans laquelle ne faut point que nul espère faire chose qui dure”. Such poetic inspiration, almost divine in origin, brings the poet and the architect beyond petty considerations. It authorises the lack of restraint and combinations without which the book would have no justification. On the other hand, it does not allow the poet to swerve totally from a certain high standard in meter and order which must show through the hair-raising flights of fancy. Du Bellay says clearly in the Deffense that the “naturel” part of inspiration can only come true by studying a long time, and that one must go through the austerity of the docere, in this case, the underlying Vitruvianism, that of the architects “fondés sus la doctrine de Vitruve”.
Often republished in Italy, the Livre extraordinaire rarely was in France. Two alleged Lyon editions were reported in 1560 and 1561, but no copy has been located (Vène 2007, pp. 100, 102). Nevertheless, its influence was not negligible. An arch created by Martin and Goujon for the entrance to the Notre Dame bridge, during the 1549 festivities, was probably inspired by door XIV even before the book was published. Other examples are one door of the Capitole de Toulouse (reassembled back of the entrance to the jardin des Plantes), the portal of Saint-Félix-aux-Mées chapel (Alpes de Haute-Provence), and then in 1600 for the entry of Marie de Medici into Avignon. Finally, Julien Mauclerc would use the same model XIV for the “door”, the title page of his treatise which appeared for the first time in 1600.

Yves Pauwels (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2011

Critical bibliography

M. Carpo, La maschera e il modello. Teoria architettonica ed evangelismo nell’ExtraordinarioLibro di Sebastiano Serlio, Milan, Jaca Book, 1993.

J.-J. Gloton, "Le traité de Serlio et son influence en France", J. Guillaume (ed.), Les traités d’architecture de la Renaissance, Paris, Picard, 1988, pp. 407-424.

A. Payne, "Creativity and bricolage in architectural Literature of the Renaissance", RES, 34, automne 1998, pp. 20-38.

A. Payne, "Mescolare, composti and monsters in Italian Architectural Theory of the Renaissance", L. Rotondi Secchi Tarugi (ed.), Disarmonia, brutezza e bizzarria nel Rinascimento, Florence, Cesati, 1998, pp. 273-294.

A. Payne, The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance. Architectural Invention, Ornament and Literary Culture, Cambridge, CUP, 1999.

Y. Pauwels, L’architecture au temps de la Pléiade, Paris, Monfort, 2002.

Y. Pauwels, Aux marges de la règle. Essai sur les ordres d’architecture à la Renaissance, Wavre, Mardaga, 2008, pp. 86-92.

M. Vène, Bibliographia serliana. Catalogue des éditions imprimées des livres du traité d’architecture de Serlio (1537-1681), Paris, Picard, 2007, pp. 84-85.