Serlio, Sebastiano

Title Il terzo libro...
Imprint Venice, F. Marcolini, 1540
Localisation The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56

Ancient buildings

Transcribed version of the text


     To a certain extent, the succession of books, in the ideal order of the treatise desired by Serlio, reproduces his career. Starting in Bologna as a painter specialized in perspectives – and this is the subject of Livres I and II – he perfected his erudition in Rome, accompanied by Peruzzi, at the schools of thought of antiquities and of the great achievements by Bramante and Raphaël ; this is the subject of Livre III. During the following stage, in Venice, he used this knowledge as professore di architettura and formalized it while in contact with the humanist and artistic milieu of the city in the framework of the orders dealt with in Livre IV. Finally the last books, published (Livre V;  Livre extraordinaire) or written in France (Livres VI and VII), envisage edifices that he would have liked to build there while in the service of François I, taking into account the particularities of the kingdom.
Thus the Terzo libro corresponds to the last stage of Serlio’s training as well as that of architecture generally speaking, mastering techniques of depiction thanks to geometry and perspective, he nurtured his inventio with the best antique and contemporary examples that Rome and the main cities of Italy offered him. Hence the need for this collection of buildings which encompasses the quasi totality of the types of antique architecture: temples (essentially with a central plan, the Pantheon taking the lion’s share), theaters and amphitheaters, columns and obelisks, baths and arches. Also added to it are a few antique curiosities, presented as Greek and Egyptian, as well as a few contemporary constructions. Serlio had multiple sources: direct ones because he personally roamed the Roman ruins, but also book knowledge. He was inspired by several of his predecessors, in particular Peruzzi who had bequeathed many of his drawings to him and a codex kept today in Kassel, Germany. He confesses that his documentation on the sphinx and the Sphinx and Pyramid of Giza was provided by Marco Grimani, the patriarch of Aquileia, who had traveled to Cairo (f. 94). In his dedication to François I, he regrets that he is unable to give the king representations of the antiquities of the kingdom that Guillaume Pellicier, ambassador to Venice, had praised. He settles for citing the principal ruins in the Midi (ff. III-IV), of Nîmes, Fréjus, Glanum and Saint-Chamas. He would like to return to live in France, in order to see them for himself, measure them and complete the work under way. His precise descriptions allow one to think that he had at his disposal rich iconographic documentation.
The Terzo libro poses a certain number of problems when it is compared with the Quarto libro which had come out a few years earlier. One notes some contradictions, for example concerning the entablature at the top of the Coliseum, considered to be very reasonable in 1537, but very clumsy here and more likely the work of a German barbarian (f. 78). In general, the remarks seem more in-depth and the freedom taken regarding the Vitruvian rules are judged more severely. There are various methods of representation: outside of the plan and the section, Serlio also uses plane elevations and perspective elevations.
But the concern for archeological corectness was not essential. One was not interested very much in the pedagogical function of the Terzo libro. Yet it was fundamental. In fact this function explains the frequent disassociation between the overall views, stripped of decoration, and the pages focusing on the details separated from their context. It was a matter of giving apprentice architects on the one hand antiquities “reduced to commonplaces”, that is, pure architectural structures, and on the other hand accurate decorations. Thus one might decorate a structure of an arch patterned after the arch of Verona with a cornice reproducing that of the arch of Titus. Serlio furnishes the inventio and the elocutio of architectural rhetoric, the organizing arguments and the ornamental motifs to enhance it. In doing so, Serlio continued the work of collections of drawings such as the Codex Coner, in which architects at the beginning of the century recorded their experiences and accumulated antique culture from which they could take elements all through their careers. But the printing press arrived, upsetting practices: as in the case of the students’ libri locurum which were playing a similar role, printed books henceforth provided ready-made knowledge. Thus editions of Ovid and Virgil thrived, “reduced to commonplaces”, not in order to facilitate comprehension of the Latin author, but to provide the poets with examples needed to illustrate their words. The Terzo libro was the perfect equivalent of it. The architects and organizers of the solemn ceremonial entries during the Renaissance found material to stimulate their imaginations, and thanks to Serlio, turned Paris, Ghent or Antwerp into a resuscitated Rome for the time it took to stage a celebration.

Yves Pauwels (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2013


Critical bibliography

W. B. Dinsmoor, “The Literary Remains of Sebastiano Serlio”, The Art Bulletin, 24, 1942, pp. 55-91, 115-154.

H.-C. Dittscheid, “Serlio, Roma e Vitruvio”, C. Thoenes (ed.), Sebastiano Serlio, Milan, Electa, 1989, pp. 132-148.

F. Lemerle, “Serlio et les antiques: la dédicace du Terzo Libro”, Journal de la Renaissance, 1, 2000, pp. 267-274.

F. Lemerle 2005, La Renaissance et les antiquités de la Gaule, Turnhout, Brepols, 2005, pp. 47-48.

F. Lemerle, “Le Terzo libro de Sebastiano Serlio (Venise, Marcolini, 1540)”, S. Deswarte-Rosa (ed.), Sebastiano Serlio à Lyon, Architecture et imprimerie, Lyon, Mémoire Active, 2004, p. 81.

H. Günther, “Das geistige Erbe Peruzzis im vierten und dritten Buch des Sebastiano Serlio”, J. Guillaume (ed.), Les traités d’architecture de la Renaissance, Paris, Picard, 1988, pp. 227-246.