Bertani, Giovanni Battista

Title Gli oscuri et difficili passi del l’opera Ionica di Vitruvio
Imprint Mantova, V. Ruffinello, 1558
Localisation Cremona, Biblioteca Statale, FA 24.8.29
Subject Vitruvius, Architecture
Transcribed version of the text


Giovan Battista Bertani's work, Gli oscuri et difficili passi dell'opera ionica di Vitruvio, published in Mantua in 1558, was commissioned by the highly cultured Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, who is its dedicatee and to whom the author expresses his gratitude in the introductory epistle. The treatise came into being following two trips made by the artist to Rome during the pontificate of Paul III, during one of which, probably around 1540, he met the engraver Giorgio Ghisi, thanks to whom he was able to frequent antique dealers and antique enthusiasts; he was also able to patiently measure and draw many of the surviving monuments. This book is not a commented translation of the third book of De architectura by Vitruvius, but certainly an attempt, often successful, to illuminate and interpret the most obscure passages of the text of the ancient author on the Ionic order.
The two points on which Bertani dwells the most are the "scamilli impares" and the making of the volute. The treatise subsequently enjoyed great critical success, because the question of the “scamilli impares” held the attention of many architectural specialists for four centuries; Bertani's theories on the matter were thus criticized by the learned scholar Bernardino Baldi in his Scamilli impares Vitruvianii (1612). For the tracing of the Ionic volute, a problem mentioned with emphasis by Bertani in the dedicatory epistle to Cardinal Gonzaga and in the ample epilogue which concludes the work, the author proposes a new and ingenious interpretation to draw the curve which has still today the preference of the majority of commentators on Vitruvius (ed. Paris, 1990; Turin, 1997).
But beyond that, a careful reading of the text reveals that Bertani, besides the capital, sheds light on other difficult passages in books III and IV of De architectura, about the columns, their bases, pedestals, architraves and the very structure of the temples. More generally, his objective, which competes with that of Guillaume Philandrier, is intended to be the realization of a project detailed in the famous letter of Claudio Tolomei, dated from Rome on November 14, 1542  and addressed to the Sienese count Agostino De Landi, which foresaw the creation of a comparative “lexikon” which would have made it possible to establish a direct relationship between the techniques described by Vitruvius and the archaeological remains. It should be emphasized, precisely with regard to the passage on the “scamilli impares”, that Bertani considers extremely important for a perfect understanding of De architectura to join theory to practice (“conjunger la pratica con la teoria”). As a model of a temple imposing itself on all, he mentions the Pantheon (“opera, per bellezza, & per intelligenza rare à tempi nostri”).
This is followed by a detailed analysis of the pedestals, plinths, bases – another obscure point in the Vitruvian text because of the presence of the “scamilli impares”, on which Bertani focuses his attention. These “scamilli impares” (Vitruvius, III, 4, 5) are small “joints” (“gionte”), unequal moldings, “che si aggiungono al tronco dei piedistalli della sesta parte della grandezza della colonna”, as one could see (but no longer) in the ruins of an ancient temple on the Esquiline, near Santa Maria Maggiore, in the vineyard of Domenico Bianchini. The first Vitruvian commentaries (Frà Giocondo, Cesariano, Philandrier, Barbaro) had understood the “scamilli” as balustrades, solid or openwork, located behind, between the columns. This hypothesis was not based on any ancient example, but only on the text of Vitruvius. For Bertani, the erroneous interpretations of the “scamilli” by Fra Giocondo (1511, f. 28), Dürer (1525, ff. 97-99), Cesariano (1521, f. [57]), Philandrier (1544, pp. 167 -168) and Barbaro (1556, f. 84) stemmed from the lack of connection and complementarity between theory and practice, requirements which he considered fundamental to understanding Vitruvius and which only a connoisseur of architecture could master.
Bertani then examines the fluting, the width of the columns, the mouldings of the Ionic base, the architrave, the pediment and the frontispiece and discusses the passages of De architectura on the volute, always respecting the nexus between theory and practice in arriving at a correct interpretation. To trace this volute, Bertani maintains that, according to Vitruvius, it must be reduced by the value of half an eye for each turn of the quadrant; in doing so, he criticizes Giuseppe Salviati (1552) and Barbaro, who, with the method of twelve centers arranged on the diagonals of a square inscribed in the eye, cause it to decrease in a non-constant manner. Not wanting to modify any of the measures prescribed by Vitruvius, Bertani focuses on this sentence:

Recedendum autem est ab extremo abaco in interiorem partem frontibus volutarum parte duodevigesima, et ejus dimidia. (Vit., III, 5, 5)

That is to say, “starting from the end of the abacus, it is necessary to return towards the interior of an eighteenth part and a half”. He maintains that all those who have interpreted this passage by setting the catheti back from the end of the abacus by a part and a half have been mistaken, because according to Vitruvius, this part and a half concerns the outer limit of the abacus, from which he brings down the four catheti of the volute AB, thus explaining the rest of the text:

et secundum abacum in quartet partibus volutarum secundum extremi abaci quadram lineæ dimittendæ, quae cathetoe dicuntur. (Ibid.)

That is to say "and guided by the abacus, from the line which marks its external limit, in the four sectors of the volutes, it is necessary to lower the lines called catheti". Bertani illustrates in two diagrams Vitruvius’ capital (III, 5, 5-7). This is divided into nine and a half parts, one and a half of which is for the abacus and the eight others for the volute. In accordance with the prescriptions of Vitruvius, he marks the center of the eye at the place which divides the four and a half parts, and the three and a half parts, the eye having one part for the diameter. In addition, he incorporates the results, explaining that it takes eight quadrants, or two complete revolutions, for the scroll to reach the eye.
To conclude, he establishes that the Vitruvian volute must be made with two turns from four centers arranged in the middle of the quadrants of the eye, which in fact correspond to points 1, 2, 3, 4, which Salviati had previously determined in 1552 (ff. 16-17). In his Lessico Vitruviano, Baldi writes at the entry "Voluta" that the tracing of the volute has preoccupied more than one architect: Bertani, according to him, led the way, followed by Barbaro ("Quo pacto circinaretur, diu latuit, et multos fatigavit architectos. Bertanus rem aperuit, quem secutus est Barbarus”), an assertion subject to caution since Barbaro published his Italian edition of Vitruvius two years before the publication of Bertani’s book. The latter claims to have found this method on a capital in the ruins of the Temple of Aesculapius near the Church of San Bartolomeo in Tiberina Island. At first, he limited himself to observing the traces visible on a capital of this temple, in the company of Messer Giorgio Ghisi of Mantua. Then, encouraged by Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga and thanks to the help of the famous mathematician Ludovico Ferrari, he understood that the points were used to make the revolutions of the volute, as he shows in the diagrams (n.n.) of the treatise.
This capital is no longer in situ today, but there is another very similar one not far from there, in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. In the Premier tome de l'architecture (1567, f. 162) Philibert De l’Orme says he saw a capital in this church which showed on one of its sides a volute roughly sketched with the signs of the centers where to place the fixed point of the compass to trace its shape; the other side was finished and richly decorated (in the same way as on the capital represented in the treatise and on that of the facade of Bertani's house in Mantua). From there, De l'Orme reconstitutes a method similar to Salviati's. After him, Claude Perrault in his commented translation of Vitruvius (1673, p. 89) and François Blondel in his Cours d'architecture (1683, Second part, pp. 40-41) mention the same capital.
Bertani's method of tracing the Ionic volute, which for the first time corresponded exactly to what Vitruvius said and emphasized, was implemented on the capital engraved on the facade of his residence in Mantua, corso Trieste 8, not far from Porto Catena. The building, completed in all likelihood around 1556, has in fact become a veritable treatise on architecture. The author himself mentions his house in 1558, “per dimostrar da una parte la Teorica, dall’altra la pratica; dove per tal paragone, si conoscono le belle partie proportionate l’una all’altra...”. On this facade, the two engaged Ionic columns, placed on either side of the entrance door, have no real load-bearing function; the facade has the function of showing the page of a treatise in three dimensions, materialized in stone in which the rule and the application of the rule are combined and coexist. And it is very significant that the publication of the treatise came shortly after the design of the house, which became a support for the author's theoretical research on Vitruvius, thus perfecting the works of Barbaro and Salviati. Treatise and facade complement each other, while differing in the "media" used: the treatise is reserved for an educated public, while the facade is aimed at a wider public, little or not concerned with architecture.
For the relevance of this lesson, Jacob Burckhardt classifies Bertani with Salviati, among the “tardi e singoli fanatici delle varie forme dello ionico” (1991, p. 88).

Maria Losito (Rome) – 2023

J. Burckhardt, Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien, Stuttgart, Ebner & Seubert, 1878 ; ital. ed.: L’Arte italiana del Rinascimento. L’Architettura, Venice, Marsilio, 1991.

P. Carpeggiani, “Per dimostrare da una parte la teoria, dall’altra la pratica. Giovan Battista Bertani, il trattato vitruviano e la sua casa in Mantova”,inG. Ciotta (a cura di), Vitruvio nella cultura architettonica antica, medievale e moderna,), Genova, De Ferrari, 2003, vol. II, pp. 432-438.

P. Gros, “À la recherche du stylobate, ou les origines de l’interprétation des scamilli impares aux XVe et XVIe siècles”, in L. Haselberger (dir.), Appearance and Essence. Refinements of Classical Architecture. Curvature, Philadelphia, 1999, pp. 267- 275.

P. Gros, Vitruve et la tradition des traités d’architecture : fabrica et ratiocinatio: recueil d’études, Rome, École Française de Rome, 2006.

P. Gros, “Il problema dello stilobate e l’interpretazione degli scamilli impares da Alberti a Palladio”, Palladio e l’antico, Venice, 2006, pp. 25-37.

F. Lemerle, Les annotations de Guillaume Philandrier sur le De Architectura de Vitruve: livre I à IV, Paris, 2000, pp. 156-157 ; 169-170.

M. Losito, Il capitello ionico nel Rinascimento italiano toscano, romano e veneto (1423-1570). Dissertazione di Perfezionamento in Storia dell’Arte e dell’Archeologia Classica, Pisa, Scuola normale superiore, 1993, vol. I, p. 217- 219 ; vol. IV, fig. 615-619.

M. Losito, “ La ricostruzione della voluta ionica vitruviana nei trattati del Rinascimento”, Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome, Italie et Méditerranée, 105, 1993, 1, pp. 158-159, pl. Ia and b.

M. Losito, “ La ricostruzione della voluta del capitello ionico vitruviano nel Rinascimento italiano (1450-1570)”, in P. Gros (dir.), Vitruvio de Architectura, A. Corso et E. Romano transl., Turin, Einaudi, 1997, vol. II, p. 1421.

M. Losito, “ ‘Symétrie’ de la nature dans le dessin de la volute ionique vitruvienne-archimédienne”, in R. Gargiani (a cura di), La Colonne. Nouvelle histoire de la construction, Lausanne, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2008, p. 171 ; fig. 12-13.

F. Pellati, Giovan Battista Bertani. Architetto, pittore, commentatore di Vitruvio, in Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Mario Salmi, III, Rome, 1963, pp. 31-38.

G. Vasari, Le vite de più eccellenti pittori scultori ed architettori…, a cura di G. Milanesi, VI, Firenze, Sansoni, 1881, pp. 487-488.