Suallemberg, Adam (translator)

Title De Justianani Imp. ædificiis libri sex...
Imprint Paris, C. Wechel, 1537
Localisation Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, 215788

Ancient Buildings

Transcribed version of the text


     The first Latin translation of the six books Peri ktismatôn (c553-555) by Procopius of Cæsarea saw the light of day in Paris in 1537, at the printshop of Chrétien Wechel.  This edition is attributed to the initiative of two humanists linked to cultural circles of the Empire, Frans van Craneveldt, the translator, and Adam Suallemberg, the author of the annotations.  Craneveldt, State advisor to Charles V, corresponded with Thomas More and was acquainted with Juan Luis Vives, for whose De veritate fidei christianae... (Basel, Oporinus, 1543) he wrote the preface. Craneveldt was thus very attentive to the religious questions which were cropping up during his period, and devoted himself to the study of texts concerning Christian history.  In 1534 he signed the dedication of the De ædificiis to Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, the father of Antoine.  In it he explains the reasons which led him to make that translation : above all, it was a matter of making the books of Procopius accessible to people beyond the very restricted circle of the Hellenists, "nec legi poterant nisi graece scientibus".  He is alluding to the princeps edition published in Basel in 1531, reissued in Paris in 1543; before that date and especially in Quattrocento Italy, the text was known only because of the wide circulation of 13th and 14th century codices.  Suallemberg's annotations, essentially philological and erudite, offer very little information of interest to art historians.  At the end of each book, he verifies the surnames and place-names, using the lexicons of Stephanus of Byzantium or of the Suda, or using texts of ecclesiastical history, from Eusebius to Socrates.  The Paris publication of the Cebetis Tabula (C. Wechel, 1539), is also attributed to Suallemberg.  It was reissued in 1547 and 1561; it is an allegorical text, in a certain sense iconological- at least from the point of view of historians of art- which attracted attention, particularly during those years of the great decorative undertakings of Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio.
Procopius glorified the figure of a Christian emperor, Justinian, whose pietas and magnificentia were vouched for by the extraordinary sacred edifices that he had had constructed in Constantinople and all the Eastern Empire.  In that way the emperor had given an example that, according to Craneveldt, should inspire all the princes of modern Europe ("utinam principes Christiani omneis his atque similibus exemplis veterum principum ad simile studium accendantur, ac aedificatores appellari malint, quam bellatores").  In truth, an affirmation of this type was supposed to start resonating with the anti-Roman polemics still circulating which called into question the paganizing temptations of the visual arts and the architecture of the Renaissance since the beginning of the 16th century.  These polemics clearly also concerned the French cultural and political world of this period.  The architectural trattistica of Vitruvius had not yet asserted itself.  It would not come about until the following decade, during the 1540s, thanks to the boost given by the artistic initiatives of Francis I.  Nevertheless the first well-known attempts at a national architectural historiography were put into place, and one will note particularly the guides to Paris published by Gilles Corrozet starting in 1532, constantly enlarged and brought up to date until the end of the 1560s.  They didn't merely recapitulate the history of the capital's monuments, from the oldest Gallo-Roman edifices to the most sumptuous, spectacular and mysterious Gothic churches; they also praised them as witnesses to the magnificence of the kings of France, insofar as they were historically linked to the personal initiative of such-and-such king of France (Occhipinti, 2001, p. XXXV-LXII).
As Craneveldt actually leads us to believe, the fame of Procopius' De ædificiis was due precisely to the fact that the book is presented like an architectural text, but without being Vitruvian.  It is not a technical text, but rather a text of celebration, with an official character, encomiastic, in which are found descriptions of non-Vitruvian architecture, concerning sacred Christian buildings.  The description, in this vision alternative to Vitruvianism, insists on praising the specifically non-classical and non-Vitruvian values, those towards which during those years of Counter-Reformation, the churchmen in Rome itself would be drawn in all honesty.  One thinks of the psychological importance of the cupola, which crowns the Christian edifice, and of its symbolic values.  The Byzantine writer tended to make manifest the most suggestive and most irrational effects that the architects of sacred buildings could produce on observers- the faithful.  Concerning buildings, in particular the Hagia Sophia, it evoked a dilated immeasurable space, a prodigious grandeur which was more the fruit of a capacity of divine conception, of celestial inspiration, than the result of rational mathematical calculations brought about consciously.  This does not mean to say that Procopius did not have the necessary technical competence to appreciate these subtle geometric devices, which, as in the case of the complex static solution implemented to install the cupolas of the vestibule in the Imperial Palace at Constantinople, would later play such an important role in Ottoman architecture.  Procopius decisively praises the ineffable, inexpressible aspect of the widths and heights, perceived subjectively (« et longissimum et latissimum non absurde dici possit : pulchritudine vero inexplicabili », p. 4). No importance is accorded to the grammar of the orders and to the antique systems of proportions and measurements, inexorably fallen into decadence at the same time as the pagan world, faced with the "horror" aroused by a cupola of such extraordinary height and width, that of Hagia Sophia, which seemed to remain suspended in the air by some prodigious effect alone, without it being possible "artis excellentiam intelligere" (p. 5).  In the same way, Procopius praises the indescribably precious building materials whose luminosity, reflecting light, contributes more to the suggestive effect, mystical even, of the whole edifice.  When all is said and done, the idea here is that of an architecture understood as a spectacle offered to one's sight, ("spectaculum videntibus", p. 3), an idea not very different, basically from that which inspired the descriptions of French Gothic churches in the Cinquecento, for example, in Corrozet's prose.  It is absolutely non-Vitruvian but descriptive and often very rich in technical comments, even concerning statics.
Procopius could only awaken a great interest in the Rome of the Council of Trent years.  Benedetto Egio, a humanist linked to the Farnese circle, believed it was absolutely necessary to translate the work into the popular language (Procopio Cesariense degli edifici di Giustiniano Imperatore, Venise, M. Tramezzino, 1547). The antiquarian Onofrio Panvinio, who worked in the same intellectual milieu, considered that Procopius' work was part of the fundamental sources of ecclesiastical history (a little as though, during a period much closer to ours, Julius von Schlosser had included Procopius among the basic sources of the history of art).  Andrea Gilio, in the dialogue Degli errori e degli abusi de’ pittori circa l’istorie (Camerino, A. Gioioso, 1564), quotes among others the passages of the De ædificiis describing the mosaics of the Augusteion in Constantinople narrating the exploits of the holy war won by Justinian against the Vandals, the Goths and the Persians: he considers that these mosaics give an admirable example of illustrated and commemorative narration.  Gilio says that Filarete should have been inspired by this example for the storie of the bronze door at Saint Peter's.  Vasari's Vite, in 1550, were also a kind of echo of the modern resurrection of Procopius.  The notion of the "horrible"- the adjective "orribile" is used in the Italian text of the De ædificiis by Egio in 1547, as an equivalent of the Latin "terribile" used in the 1537 translation- is very close to the idea of the "terribile" which appears in diverse forms in the Vite.  The Vasarian "terribile" refers among others, to the type of artistic beauty which is appreciated at a level superior to that of the spectator's capacities of rational evaluation. Just as the beauty of Hagia Sophia's cupola imposes itself beyond objective measurements and proportions, the beauty of Michelangelo's works, for example, can only be appreciated outside of any reference to rules and measurements.  Michelangelo's language, extremely painful and personal, but also divine and superhuman, can only appear sublime.  During the same years, Pirro Ligorio, the author of a huge antiquarian encyclopedia which remained in manuscript form, also led an explicit controversy against the architects and the authors of treatises guilty of reducing beauty and creativity to cold rules (the controversy was especially aimed at Palladio).  Ligorio frequently lets out all the stops in exalted moments, when the artist is confronted with the superhuman and irrational beauty, precisely defined as "horrible" of the statues and antique architecture that he admires in their ruined condition.  Such an approach in confronting architecture and works of art reappears all during the Cinquecento as soon as it is a matter of calling into question technical specialization, incapable of translating an authentic feeling of antique grandeur.  In his Essais Montaigne never fails to ridicule the authors of treatises and the technicians, specialists of Vitruvius who lose their way in rules and measurements, vainly convinced that their studies will be able to bring antique architecture back to life.  On the other hand, in his Voyage, he left some very lively descriptions of several Roman monuments, where the adjective "horrible" appears in relation to the disconcerting beauty of the ruins.
One can only advance hypotheses on Procopius' reception in France.  In a country in which the authors of guide books and the historiographers of the dynasty celebrate the myth of the rex artifex, at least one aspect of Justinian's patronage must have vividly influenced Francis I's patronage through hearing about it in Procopius' text.  It was the fact that Justinian had wished to send for the best artists and best-known masters from beyond the Empire's borders to make Constantinople a magnificent city, a "second Rome".  In the same way Francis I had invited Italian master artists to embellish the domain of Fontainebleau ; even more, through the orders put in to Primaticcio's workshop for bronze copies of the most famous statues of the Belvedere, Fontainebleau had truly become in the eyes of contemporaries, as Vasari already remarked, a "second Rome".  Now the Byzantine, or rather Constantinian origin of the myth of the second Rome did not elude the commentator of the De ædificiis in 1537 (p. 28).
In other respects, the implementation of the antiquarian program ardently desired by Francis I which made provision for bronze reproductions of the statues of the Belvedere mentioned above, planned a bronze replica of the very famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.  Only the horse was cast (although it rapidly disappeared, it gave its name to the courtyard "du cheval blanc" at Fontainebleau).  But it would not be extraordinary that as early as the 1530s Francis I was ambitious to see himself celebrated by the work of an artist capable of surmounting all the technical difficulties inherent in casting an equestrian portrait.  As a matter of fact, Giovanni Francesco Rustici received the responsibility for it in 1531, but the undertaking was not even begun.  In any case, such a monarchical ambition manifested by the desire of a bronze equestrian portrait was to find a powerful stimulus in the De ædificiis, all the more so since it was in perfect harmony with the ideology of the celebration of the Christian princeps.  In fact, Procopius describes the equestrian monument of Justinian, in bronze, with a horse moving at a leisurely pace like Marcus Aurelius', placed on top of a column erected near the Hagia Sophia.  According to Procopius, the artist was a "plastes", a caster; it is precisely with the word "plastes" that Fausto Sabeo da Brescia celebrates Primaticcio in his epigrams.  Primaticcio was responsible at the court for a program unprecedented in France, that Sabeo, the Vatican librarian, was perfectly aware of.  Moreover, Suallemberg underlines (p. 28) the symbolic and commemorative effects of the equestrian portrait in bronze dedicated to the triumphant sovereign; a little further (p. 29), the commentator lingers on the names Phidias and Praxiteles, alluding to the latter's Venus, without knowing that a little later, Primaticcio was to realize a bronze copy of the Greek prototype, which would have contributed to metamorphose Fontainebleau into a "second Rome".

Carmelo Occhipinti (University of Rome Tor Vergata) – 2009

Critical bibliography

C. Occhipinti, Carteggio d’arte degli ambasciatori estensi in Francia (1536-1553), "Rex artifex", Pisa, Edizioni della Normale, 2001, pp. XXXV-LXII.

C. Occhipinti, "Sulla fortuna di Procopio di Cesarea nel XV secolo : il ‘Giustiniano’ di Costantinopoli e i primi monumenti equestri di età umanistica", Rinascimento, 42, 2002, pp. 351-380.

C. Occhipinti, Pirro Ligorio e la storia cristiana di Roma (da Costantino all’Umanesimo), "L’‘ecfrasi’ di Procopio e la cupola cristiana (da Brunelleschi a Michelangelo)", Pisa, Edizioni della Normale, 2007, pp. 185-207.

C. Occhipinti, "L'Alberti e l’‘ecfrasis’ bizantina, tra Firenze (1436) e Ferrara (1443). Osservazioni sulla cupola cristiana, dal Brunelleschi a Michelangelo", F. Furlan & G. Venturi (ed.), Gli Este a l'Alberti: Tempo e misura, Pisa/Rome, Serra, 2010, 1, pp. 63-71.