Sulpizio, Giovanni

Title De architectura
Imprint Rome, s.n., c1486-1487
Berlin, MPIWG
Subject Architecture
Transcribed version of the text


     The edition called the editio princeps has every chance of being in fact the first printed version of Vitruvius’ De architectura. But since the work has no frontispiece, we have no indication of the place where it was printed, the date or the printer. On the other hand we know the name of the author, Sulpizio da Veroli, who had attained a certain reputation as a grammarian and interpreter of classic texts, Virgil’s poems for example, in Rome during the 1480s. A letter by Sulpizio to the reader precedes the treatise itself, in which he proclaims that he is the first to make this divinum opus available to all ; it is followed by an index which is really a list in Latin, attributed to Sulpizio, of the titles of the books and their content, and a preface in the form of a dedication to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the cousin of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Jules II. Cardinal Riario was chosen to receive the dedication because this prince of the church showed a passionate interest in restoring antique practices to the Rome of his period, and more particularly an interest in the teachings of Vitruvius which the cardinal would attempt to implement in his sumptuous residence, the future Palazzo della Cancelleria. Sulpizio recalls that he had staged a tragedy himself, thanks to Riario’s patronage, and he emphasizes that it is the first time that the Roman people could see one in many centuries (it was Seneca’s Hippolytus or Phaedra, in which the young prodigy Tomasso Inghirami, already a great Latinist, distinguished himself) on a stage five feet high, built according to Vitruvius’ rules (the fact that this stage collapsed during the performance is left untold here). And the author wishes for a commitment on the part of the cardinal to endow the city with a permanent theater (“Quare a te quoque Theatrum novum tota urbs magnis votis expectat”) where the student company he founded and headed might develop into a regular activity. He hopes that this commitment will reward him for the enormous philological effort necessary to produce this edition, and to vie with the pope, a great builder himself.
A few clues in the letter of dedication allow us to deduce the publishing date of the edition ; it is a question of the pontiff of the period, Innocent VIII, who would die in 1492, and a war just finished, doubtless that of the papacy against the kingdom of Naples which ended in August, 1486. It is thus reasonable to place its publication between 1486 and 1492, more probably 1486-’87. The publisher’s identity remains hypothetical : specialists hesitate between Herolt and Silber, both Roman. As for the author himself, he probably joined forces with other humanists to achieve this difficult undertaking. Among them, we usually include Giulio Pomponio Leto (Pomponius Laetus), with whom Sulpizio had worked as soon as he arrived in Rome to give prominence to antique theatrical presentations , and perhaps also Girolamo Avogadro de Brescia, know at the very same time for his “vitruviane fatiche”.
In spite of this prestigious collaboration, this first complete publication of the De architectura is generally considered to be very inaccurate, and indeed the comparison with Fra Giocondo’s edition of 1511 is hardly favorable to it. Admittedly the edition, which Sulpizio declares moreover in his headword, is based on a careful reading of several manuscripts, including one by a person named Delius (“et in primis uno nostri Delii manu”), a copyist who remains unfortunately unknown to us. It has sometimes seemed desirable to identify among the codices used, the Vaticanus Palatinus 1563 and the Corsinianus 784, both from the 15th century, but Lucia Ciapponi has shown that these hypotheses were unfounded. We must be resigned to admit, with no further precision, that the author or the authors drew on the very vast and widely distributed descendance of the the Harleianus 2767, at the British Museum (8th century), which then constituted a sort of Vulgate but which had not always retained the best part of the tradition. They corrected several obvious mistakes, but some nonsensical readings remain, making numerous passages difficult if not impossible to understand. In particular we notice that the numerical data are almost always incorrect, which prevents any attempt to reconstruct the plans or construction diagrams suggested by the theoretician. As Johann Gottlob Schneider noted in his Leipzig edition (1807-1808), most of these mistakes are due to the carelessness of the copyists, and for some of them, due to their ignorance of Latin and even more, of Greek. As litteratus, poorly informed on the demands of construction and the types of monuments, outside of those concerning theaters, Sulpizio was moreover very conscious of his limits. He declares himself that his work is a first try, which will doubtless call for numerous modifications, and says he had hoped that the printer would leave wide margins on the pages of his volume so that those wiser than he could suggest their conjectures and finally compensate for the absence of figures. This is what the Florentine architect Giovanni Battista da Sangallo called Il Gobbo would do for example at the beginning of the following century concerning the celebrated Corsini Incunabulum at the library of the Accademia nazionale dei Lincei in Rome. But we must not forget that his training led Sulpizio inevitably to respect the letter of what he considered to be the Latin archetype, and prevented him in many cases from introducing simple corrections, which would have greatly clarified the vague parts of his manuscripts. Many people before him, such as Leon Battista Alberti had not been as scrupulous, and many after him, such as Giocondo, celebrated for his audacious corrections and conjectures, would not be scrupulous either.
Such as it is, despite its obvious imperfections, this volume marked a decisive phase in Vitruvian studies. For the first time the whole text was easily accessible, which was to give a new impetus to research on the way the text was set up and on the study of his principles. All through the 16th century, many scholars in philology and archeology and practicing architects would refer to it, even after the publication of Giocondo’s Vitruvius. Even the absence of page numbering, and the more or less developed insert titles which don’t always correspond to the division into chapters that had been adopted soon after (which doesn’t make comprehension any easier), in spite of the fact that the Greek words, for which the printer clearly had no characters, are at best transliterated into Latin characters, with some mistakes in transcription rendering them unrecognizable and untranslatable, or at worst omitted as is the case for example with the Greek epigrams in book VIII, finally, in spite of the absence of any illustrations, the editio princeps, to which Frontinus’ book on aqueducts was attached, deserves its fame. We will remember however that if it was published with some variations in Florence in 1496 and in Venice the following year, it was never to be reprinted during the 16th century, whereas Giocondo’s Vitruvius, with a completely comprehensible Latin text, enlivened with numerous woodcuts, was to be published at least four times during the same period.

Pierre Gros (Aix-en-Provence, IUF/ Institut de France) – 2012

Critical bibliography

L. A. Ciapponi, “Fra Giocondo da Verona and his edition of Vitruvius”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 47, 1984, pp. 72-90 (particularly pp. 72-73, 86-88).

L. Marcucci, “Giovanni Sulpicio e la prima edizione del De Architectura di Vitruvio”, L. Vagnetti et al. (ed.), 2000 anni di Vitruvio (Studi e documenti di architettura, 8), Florence, Grafistampa, 1978, pp. 185-195.

L. Marcucci, “Regesto cronologico e critico”, 2000 anni di Vitruvio cit., 1978, pp. 29-30.

G. Poleni, Exercitationes vitruvianae primae, Padoue, Manfré, 1739, pp. 8-9.

M. Tafuri, “Cesare Cesariano e gli studi vitruviani del Quattrocento”, A. Bruschi et alii (eds.), Scritti rinascimentali di architettura, Milan, Il Polifilo, 1978, pp. 394-397.

Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture. The Corsini Incunabulum with the annotations and autograph drawings of Giovanni Battista da Sangallo, edition and introduction by Ingrid D. Rowland, Rome, Elefante/Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2003.