Poleni, Giovanni

Title Exercitationes Vitruvianaæ...
Imprint Padua, G. Manfrè, 1739-1741
Localisation Berlin, MPIWG, Rara P 765e
Subject Vitruvius, Architecture
Transcribed version of the text


Forgotten too much today, Marquess Giovanni Poleni, born in Venice in 1683 and died in Padua in 1761, known during his lifetime among his peers as Johannes Polenus, was one of the most prominent representatives of scientific culture during the Age of Enlightenment. As physicist, mathematician, founder and distributor of mechanical and experimental philosophy, he held several chairs at the University of Padua, where he created the “Teatro di filosofia sperimentale”, a prestigious collection of scientific instruments designated for teaching and research, a veritable physics laboratory, the first of its kind in Italy. In addition, he wrote three award-winning treatises on navigation, from 1733 to 1741, written in Latin, on measuring the route of a ship at sea, on the shapes of anchors and on the use of the capstan which won awards from the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris. As of 1709 he was also the inventor of a calculator made of wheels in which the number of teeth could vary. In connection with the greatest learned men of the period, Newton, Leibnitz, Euler, Maupertuis and Celsius, he was a member of the main royal academies (Paris, Berlin, Saint-Petersburg). His reputation earned him an appeal from the Republic of Venice in 1715 in the capacity of hydraulic engineer to study the local problems stemming from the lagoon environment there. Pope Benedict XIV then invited him in 1743 to examine the dome of Saint Peter’s basilica, which had some worrisome cracks. He recommended circling it with metal which was carried out by Luigi Vanvitelli between 1743 and 1747 and which is still in place. In Padua in 1748 he published an important book (Memorie storiche della gran cupola del tempio vaticano…). Among all these activities and as part of his multiple internationally recognized skills, directly useful, his Exercitationes Vitruvianæ, published between 1739 and 1741, however important it was, probably remained secondary in the eyes of his contemporaries, even if this exceptionally erudite academic had also acquired a solid reputation in humanist milieux for his books on technical literature in Latin, in this case the treatises by Vitruvius and Frontinus, but also for his writings on the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, on antique theatres and amphitheatres, and also on various French archeological discoveries, among others.
In fact it is the Exercitationes which nowadays keeps Poleni’s thinking alive and restores his creative dynamism to us. In the epistemological perspective provided by hindsight, he appears in fact to be the one to whom we owe, as early as before the middle of the 18th century, the development of the profound philological investigation which characterised the successive studies on the De Architectura for several decades. Subdivided in three parts, of which the first two were brought together in one volume published in 1739 by the Paduan editor Giovanni Manfrè, and of which the last was published separately in 1741. In fact it constituted the prologue of a complete edition of the Latin theoretician, which was only to appear after his death. The contents of parts I and II are clearly defined in the titles themselves. In the first (Exercitationes Vitruvianæ primæ…),the critical comments, extremely precise, are a resumption, on an enlarged codicological base, of Renaissance books ; on this occasion Poleni uses data from 22 manuscripts he consulted directly or which were indicated to him by faithful correspondants, thus suggesting numerous other unpublished variations. The second one (Exercitationes Vitruvianæ secundæ…) contains the author’s correspondance with Giovanni Battista Morgagni, holder of the Chair of anatomy at the University of Padua, which addresses more particularly medical questions (de quodam Vitruvii loco ad rem medicam attinente), the reprint of the Vita Vitruvii published by Bernardino Baldi in 1612, and the writings of an “anonymous scriptor vetus” with notes by Poleni. The third part (Exercitationes Vitruvianæ tertiæ...) published by the same Paduan editor, appears even more composite. After a list of the authors whose books were compiled in the present volume, Poleni reproduces Morgagni’s letter, then presents Bernardo Baldi’s Lexicon Vitruvianum, the text on the Scamilli impares by the same Baldi, Claudio Tolomei’s letter to Count Agostino de Landi in 1542 on the method to use for a new edition of Vitruvius, translated for the first time in Latin by Federico Ghisio, a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Padua. (This letter, published in 1547, in fact constituted the founding act of the Accademia della Virtù). Poleni also includes Giovanni Buteone’s dissertation on the correction to bring to the Vitruvian notes relative to the best relation between a projectile and the hole of the ballista, Jacob Ziegler’s dissertation on “the hemicyclius” by Berosus mentioned in book IX of De Architectura (IX, 8, 1), chapter 36 of Bonaventura Cavalieri’s volume entitled “Lo specchio ustorio” containing a discussion on the dimensions of theatrical vases referred to in book V, (This same question was taken up again in Athanasius Kircher’s text corresponding to the first chapter of his Phonurgia nova), the considerations of painter Giuseppi Salviati on the Vitruvian precepts of book III relative to the construction of the Ionic volute (1552), (The same question was next addressed by Nicolaus Goldmann (1649), the text on difficult or obscure passages concerning the Ionic order attributable to Giovan Battista Bertani (1558), translated for the first time in Latin. This collection, which aimed to be exhaustive, of all the discussions touching on the passages which were the most difficult to understand or to reproduce graphically, the “loca obscura et difficiliora”, resembles a story about the editing of Vitruvius’s treatise from the princeps edition. Poleni clearly wanted, before preparing his own edition, to make available to the humanist community during the first half of the 18th century a sort of overview with the expectation of remarks or compliments suggested by knowledgeable colleagues. The transcription into Latin, often difficult but always very meticulous, of texts initially published in Italian, can only be explained with this in mind : far from satisfying who knows what erudite ostentation, the transcription meets the need of spreading as widely as possible these occasionally contradictory essays in all of Europe, in order to internationalise, so to speak, the terms of discussion and so to enhance the opportunities finally to discover satisfactory solutions. An instruction manual such as this, rather clearly explained in the very dense preface of this Exercitationes tertiæ, gives the measure of the ambition of this author, who says himself he focused all his energy towards creating his own annotated edition of the treatise (“in ea Vitruvii editione, in qua contenduntur omnes industriæ nostræ nervi”...). Giovanni Poleni died before the work was finished.
Then began a long adventure during which first intervened the Dalmation Simone Stratico (1735-1834) who succeeded Poleni in the chair at Padua. After the death of Stratico, Giulio Pontedera, extremely erudite, took the reins of the process thanks to the availability of the Mattiuzzi brothers, publishers at Udine. In the years 1825-1830 the four volumes of this very fine edition (a large in quarto) called Poleni-Stratico-Pontedera were published. Containing 120 copperplate engravings and 200 woodcuts, it proved to be so extensive that it is sometimes found mentioned as an Enciclopedia Vitruviana (W. Engelmann, Bibliotheca Classicorum Græcorum et Latinorum, Leipzig, 1847). In fact, it contains, beyond the text and its commentary by Poleni, expanded by Stratico’s contributions, the reissue of Poleni’s Exercitationes Vitruvianæ, the Annotationes by Guillaume Philandrier, the Lexicon Vitruvianum by Baldi, as well as the Estratti Vitruviani by Daniele Barbaro (drawn from the 1556 edition), the reissue of Johannes de Laet (drawn from the great Elzevirian edition of 1649), of Claude Perrault (Abrégé, 1674), of Bernardo Galiani (drawn from the 1758 edition) of José Ortiz y Zana, (taken from the 1787 edition), the Estratti Pliniani by Claude Saumaise (taken from the Parisian edition of 1629), as well as some unpublished Exercitationes Vitruvianæ by Stratico. This later publication, in which a few mistakes of transcription of the Latin text remain, due to the fact that Poleni could not read the final version, had at least the advantage of permitting Pontedera to nurture the already very dense critical apparatus of his two predecessors with the acquired knowledge in the fine edition of the illustrious Germanic erudite Johann Gottlob Schneider (1807-1808). This explains why under the heading “Polenus” are found among the most complete recent editions the 1739 Exercitationes as well as the 1827 Udine edition.

Pierre Gros (Paris, Institut de France) – 2023

Critical bibliogaphy

A. Cavallari-Murat, G. Poleni e la costruzione architettonica, Padova, s.n., 1963.

L. Vagnetti, 2000 anni di Vitruvio, Studi e documenti di Architettura, 8, Firenze, 1978, pp. 113-115 and 136-137.

S. Di Pasquale, “Giovanni Poleni tra dubbi e certezze nell’analisi della Cupola Vaticana”, Palladio, 14, 1994, pp. 273-278.

E. Granuzzo, “Le Exercitationes (1739-1741) di Giovanni Poleni : questioni filologiche e ipotesi critiche sul testo vitruviano”, Proceedings of the Symposium Architekturtheoretisches, Einsiedeln, Bibliothek Werner Oechslin, 2013, forthcoming.

P. Dubourg Glatigny, L’architecture morte ou vive. Les infortunes de la coupole de Saint-Pierre de Rome au XVIIIe siècle, CEFR 514, 2017.

P. Dubourg Glatigny, Réduire en art : la technologie de la Renaissance aux Lumières, Paris, MSH, 2018.

C. Le Gall, Giovanni Poleni (1683-1716) et l’essor de la technologie maritime au siècle des Lumières, Brepols, Turnhout, 2019.