Author(s) Desgodets, Antoine
Title Les edifices antiques de Rome...
Imprint Paris, J.-B. Coignard, 1682
Localisation Paris, Binha, Fol Res 633
Subject Ancient buildings
Transcribed version of the text


     Antoine Desgodets (Desgodetz) (1653-1728), professor at the Académie royale d'architecture from 1719 to 1728 after François Blondel (1671-1686) and Philippe de La Hire (1686-1718), came down to posterity for his book on archeology entitled Les edifices antiques de Rome mesurés et dessinés très exactement, published in Paris in 1682 by Jean-Baptiste Coignard. "Imprimeur du Roi" and of the Académie française (active from 1658 to 1689), nine years earlier in 1673 Coignard had published Claude Perrault's translation and commentaries on the Dix livres d'architecture de Vitruve. In 1685 he published Charles-Augustin d'Aviler's translation of Vincenzo Scamozzi's sixth book of L'idea universale dell'architettura (Venice, 1615). The splendid folio edition of the Edifices antiques de Rome contains 138 plates of plans, sections and details of twenty-five antique Roman monuments engraved from the drawings of Antoine Desgodets by Louis de Chastillon, Simon de La Boissière, Nicolas Bonnard, Nicolas Guérard, Daniel Marot, Georges Tournier, Jean-Baptiste Broebes, as well as by Jacques et Pierre Le Pautre. Most of them were engravers to the King. After a short description, when it is necessary, the author notes the discrepancies with Vitruvius' text and makes a list of the errors of measurement in previous works by Sebastiano Serlio, Andrea Palladio, Antonio Labacco and Roland Fréart de Chambray. Desgodets relied on his own architectural plans of the antique monuments he measured with scientific precision, recorded to the fraction of an inch. They are known through a recently published preparatory manuscript (ms. 2718, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France; Cellauro/Richaud 2008). In this undertaking Desgodets benefited from the active patronage of Colbert, superintendent of the king's buildings, and was granted an official subsidy of 2000 pounds for this publication.
This work is the result of a sixteen-month stay in 1676-77 in Rome and elsewhere in Italy during which the author elaborated a first notebook of drawings from which was worked out the preparatory manuscript he wrote for the publication of the Edifices antiques. This manuscript, finished in 1679, still unpublished, comes from Colbert's personal library. Desgodets probably gave it to him.
It was probably Blondel – his tutor at the Académie d’architecture – who suggested to Desgodets the method to use for his architectural plans and who sent him to Italy, particularly to Rome from 1674-1677. He was not to go, it would seem, as a resident fellow at the Académie de France in Rome, but to be on a special mission. His name does not appear in that institution's archives. Desgodets left for Rome, via Marseille in September 1674 with the architect Charles-Augustin d’Aviler (1653-1701), sent to be one of the first resident fellows at the Académie de France, and Jean Foy-Vaillant (1632-1706), connoisseur of antiquities and numismatist who had just published a book on Greek medals of the Roman period. Desgodets was preparing to travel in the Mediterranean area with his friend Jacob Spon (1647-1685). During the crossing, their ship was captured by Ottoman pirates, its passengers taken prisoner as slaves in Algiers, then Tunis. After more than a year of captivity, Desgodets and d’Aviler were released on February 22, 1676 during a prisoner exchange arranged by Colbert. They arrived at Rome soon after.
Desgodets stayed in Rome until the summer of 1677. During that short period of sixteen months he devoted himself to accomplishing his mission: taking the exact measurements of the antique edifices as they existed at that date. In his obsession with exact measurements, he resembled the anonymous French author who began his Description de la Rome moderne at the same period and for whom measurements were also a sort of "idée fixe". Another Frenchman in Rome was concerned with the same question: Adrien Auzout (1622-1691), a founding member of the Académie des sciences. Withdrawing from the Académie in 1668, he settled in Rome in 1671 where it seems he lived until his death in 1691. There, he was particularly interested in antique architecture and mechanical hydraulics. The author of the Description adds that during his stay in Rome he had become one of the true scholars of his time. Auzout was part of the "culture de la mesure" which originated in Colbert's circle in Paris, reaching Rome precisely during the years that Desgodets and the anonymous French author of the Description were studying in Rome and were devoting themselves to measuring ancient and modern architecture with an obstination touching on fanaticism.
Whereas forty-eight edifices were represented in the preparatory manuscript, only twenty-five would appear in the Edifices antiques de Rome in 1682. When the architectural plans called for it, Desgodets didn't hesitate to undertake excavations or put up ladders: "J’ay vérifié le tout plusieurs fois pour me confirmer dans une certitude dont je pûsse répondre, ayant fait fouiller ceux qui estoient enterrez, & fait dresser des eschelles & autres machines pour approcher de ceux qui estoient beaucoup élevés, afin de voir de prés & prendre avec le Compas les hauteurs & les saillies de tous les membres, tant en general qu’en particulier jusqu’aux moindres parties". For the Temple of Virile Fortune he also wrote: "Ce Temple est enterré jusqu’au dessus des bazes des colonnes. L’ayant fait foüiller en la longueur de trois entrecolonnemens vers le devant où il est ruiné, j’ay trouvé que le soubassement y compris les deux socles ou marches, a de hauteur un peu plus de deux cinquièmes de la hauteur de la colonne avec la baze & le chapiteau". He also indicated the difficulties he met for example at the Temple of Vesta in Rome: "Ayant fait foüiller j’ay trouvé que ce socle ou marche a de hauteur neuf à dix pouces, & qu’au dessous il y a un mur qu’on ne voulut point me permettre de sonder ainsi que j’en avais envie". In the Edifices antiques, the monuments are presented by plans, elevations and longitudinal sections and cross sections accompanied by plates combining pedestals, bases, capitals and entablatures. Vitruvius had first made a distinction between the plan of the edifice he called ichnographia, the elevations of exterior walls orthographia and finally scænographia interpreted by most 16th century commentators to mean a rendering in perspective. Desgodets never used perspective, following the example of Daniel Barbaro who judged this technique of architectural representation less useful than the section in orthogonal projection used widely in the collection. This technique of scientific representation originated in the famous letter from Raphaël to Leon X (towards 1519) in which he announced his intention to draw in that way all the antique edifices of Rome. Desgodets' illustrations nevertheless show considerable progress in rendering ruins in comparison with previous works and appear as the beginning of the scientific illustrative tradition of antique architecture.
Unlike the works of Serlio or Palladio, as well as editions of Vitruvius among which figures Claude Perrault's, the Edifices antiques contains no reconstitutions of antique edifices. Desgodets devoted himself to an objective representation of the ruins as the visitor saw them. Moreover several edifices are illustrated in their ruined state, covered with vegetation, allowing a certain romanticism to appear which contrasts with his rigorous architectural plans. A good precocious example of this characteristic combination in the archeology of the Renaissance is the Barberini codex by Giuliano da Sangallo, begun in 1465 in Rome and kept today at the Vatican Library.
Desgodets took seven years to prepare the publication. Supported by the Academy, the Edifices antiques shows the importance of Antiquity in France and the conservative position taked by the Academy having to do with the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. In a way it constitutes the parallel to Claude Perrault's annotations and translation of Vitruvius published by the same editor in 1673.
The Edifices antiques became a reference, lasting until the 19th century. Through its attention to precise measurement, it constituted a model for the publications of archeological expeditions, more particularly those of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett to Athens. The work was reissued in Paris in 1779 by Claude-Antoine Jombert, who had just acquired the 138 original copperplates from the architect's descendants. It was translated into English by George Marshall under the title The ancient buildings of Rome (London, 1771; 1795) and into Italian under the title Gli edifizi antichi di Roma (Rome, 1822; 1843).

Louis Cellauro and Gilbert Richaud (Lyon) – 2008

Critical bibliography

A. Desgodets, Antoine Desgodets : Les Edifices Antiques de Rome, Édition fac-similé du Manuscrit 2718 de l’Institut de France, avec transcriptions, annotations, et reproduction des planches du volume publié en 1682, by L. Cellauro & G. Richaud, Studi sulla cultura dell’antico, 7, Rome, De Luca Editore d’Arte, 2008.

A. Desgodets, Les Edifices antiques de Rome dessinés et mesurés très exactement par Antoine Desgodets architecte, Fac-similé de l’édition de Jean-Baptiste Coignard, imprimeur du Roi, Paris, 1682, introduction and notices by H. Rousteau Chambord, Paris, Picard, 2008.

W. Herrmann, "Antoine Desgodets and the Académie Royale d’Architecture", Art Bulletin, 40, 1958, pp. 23-53 ; 41, 1958, pp. 127-128.

D. Wiebenson, "Antoine Desgodets, Les Edifices antiques de Rome dessinés et mesurés très exactement", D. Wiebenson & C. Baine (ed.), The Mark J. Millard Architectural Collection, 1, French Books, Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, Washington/New York, National Gallery of Art/Braziller, 1993, n. 62, pp. 148-151.