Author(s) Perrault, Claude
Leclerc, Sébastien (engraver)
Le Pautre, Pierre (engraver)
Châtillon, Louis de (e,graver)
Ordonnnance des cinq espèces de colonnes selon la méthode des Anciens...
Imprint Paris, J.-B. Coignard, 1683
Localisation Paris, Ensba, 1273 I Fol.
Subject Orders
Transcribed version of the text


     The Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes is the most accomplished expression of Claude Perrault's theory. The work, under the patronage of Colbert, who died a few months after it was published, is in keeping with the overall artistic policy carried out by the minister. In this "supplément à ce qui n’a pas esté assez particulierement traité par Vitruve" (Épître), Perrault intends to lay down the rules of architecture. In a long preface he explains his theory of beauty which vindicates his geometrical and mathematical method of "la médiocrité moyenne" to extricate proportions "probables et vraisemblables" founded on positive reasons, without nevertheless deviating from those in use. The "excès" observed among the Ancients as among the Moderns prompted him to propose a middle ground between the extremes observed in three sorts of architecture, "l’Ancienne que Vitruve nous a enseignée, l’Antique que nous étudions dans les ouvrages des Romains, & la Moderne, dont nous avons des livres écrits depuis six vingt ans" (p. 8), in other words Vitruvius' treatise, Roman antiquities and the Renaissance theoreticians.
The first part of the work is given over to the proportions of the various members which make up the orders: pedestal, column (base and capital) and entablature; the second part deals with the particular characteristics and proportions of each of the main members defined in the preceding part. Perrault repeats a good many developments of the notes of his 1673 edition of Vitruvius. For the architectural plans of antique edifices he openly cites Antoine Desgodets, who had just published his Edifices antiques de Rome, in 1682, and Roland Fréart de Chambray for monuments such as the ruins of Albano or the baths of Diocletian. But he turned to other sources such as Serlio and Palladio, which led to some difficulties: Perrault was compelled to convert measurements expressed in different standards (diameters, radiuses, minutes or parts, Parisian foot). The modern authors he cites in pairs (Alberti and Viola, De l'Orme and Bullant, Barbaro and Cataneo...), ten for Greek orders and four for Latin orders, are the very ones pointed out by Chambray in his Parallèle. Nevertheless Perrault had to turn to the original treatises in order to complete Chambray who did not represent the pedestals of the five orders. Thus he retains the most famous theoreticians of his period, Vignola, Palladio and Scamozzi. The last mentioned appeared to him more modern than Palladio (four-sided ionic capital, Corinthian cornice without dentils and with small modillions to have coupled columns, room left for the composite order between the Ionic and the Corinthian). On the other hand he does not mention Abraham Bosse, the author of two treatises on columns published in 1664, who had aimed to define "des Regles certaines et facilles, pour trouver les plus belles proportions des Ordres de l’Architecture".
In order to characterize the five orders Perrault suggests increasing their height as they become more slender. The system is based on simple increasing geometric proportions, owing to the choice of a new standard, called "le petit module" (p. m.), which corresponds to one-third of the diameter of the column and is equal to 20 minutes or parts, to distinguish it from the "grand module" or diameter, divided into 60 minutes, and the "module moyen", half-diameter or radius, equal to 30 minutes. Thanks to the choice of the "petit module" the proportions can be expressed in whole numbers. Thus the orders are in a regular progression of 3 "p. m.", the pedestals increase by 1 "p. m." and the column by 2 "p. m.". The height of the entablature alone is the same for all the orders and equals 6 "p .m.". In an attempt at rationalization and standardization the heights are the average ("la médiocrité moyenne") between the extreme measurements stipulated by Vitruvius, observed among the antiquities or proposed by theoreticians of the Renaissance. Similarly the moulding work of the pedestals, the columns and the entablatures gain in complexity as the order gains in height and opulence. Thus the base of the Tuscan pedestal has two mouldings, that of the Doric, three, etc. ; its cornice has three, that of the Doric, four, etc. As in Vitruvius' treatise, the height of the bases is a half-diameter. As for the capitals, Perrault only makes three distinctions: the Tuscan/Doric of the same height (1/2 D), the Corinthian/composite (1D 1/6) and the Ionic for which he doesn't give an exact height since the proportion stipulated by Vitruvius is not easy to convert. But Perrault cheats with the average, for he established it from the two extremes he chose. As already noted by Wolfgang Hermann (1980, p. 91), Perrault first invented the system of proportions based on the average before selecting the measurements of the antique and modern orders which allowed him to establish it.
The only originality of Perrault's models is that they are the combination of bases, capitals and entablatures borrowed from various sources, especially Vitruvius, a few prestigious antiquities (the theater of Marcellus, the Coliseum, the arch of Titus, the baths of Diocletian...) and theoreticians (Vignola, Scamozzi...). Once these models were defined, no modification of the proportions could be imagined, not even for optical reasons, under the postulate that sight does not mislead (IInd part, ch. 7). It was the occasion to respond to his disparagers (in this case François Blondel) who might have found it amusing that he make an exception for the colossal statues which could only be put up in a very high place, which he had already supported in his edition of Vitruvius in 1673 (pp. 194-195). Perrault is himself a severe critic (IInd part, ch. 8); he condemns the merging of the supports, like Lescot's columns in the Cour carrée of the Louvre (abuse 1). He disapproves of the unevenly spaced metopes in the twinned Doric columns, as in the portal of Saint-Gervais, or the half-triglyphs in reflex angles, as in the Church of the Minimes by Mansart (abuse 4). The architrave cornice is, in his opinion, an aberration (abuse 9) – a probable allusion to Mansart who used it at Blois and then at Maisons and who as a matter of fact took his inspiration from a plate of Philibert De l'Orme (Premier tome, 1567, f. 154), supposedly representing an antique one and which is no other than the cornice of the third order invented by Michelangelo for the courtyard of the Farnese Palace. On the other hand some practices which were considered abuses such as the twinning of columns, criticized by Blondel (Cours d'architecture, 1675, p. 233 and foll.) was an "invention de grande beauté et commodité" (pp. 115-116), which he himself used for the Colonnade of the Louvre. He also advises the colossal order for great palaces like the Louvre (abuse 6) (pp. 118-119).
The Ordonnance is a manifesto in which Claude Perrault clearly asserts his superiority over the Ancients as well as his immediate predecessors. The orders he proposes are the best because they are the rational synthesis of the most beautiful models from the past. But the "médiocrité moyenne" results in stiff architecture. Like Fréart de Chambray in his period, Perrault planned to impose a French architecture bearing the stamp of his own theory. He defends his accomplishments marked by modernity and scientific progress, that is, by the rationalization of the conception of the building and by a certain idea of architectural beauty. As a matter of fact the overall theory of the doctor-architect created the gap between the amateur that he was and the practitioners, who could not accept a sterilized theory which would take away all freedom and prerogative from them. At the same time his theory indicated themes which would be developed in the 18th century. The Ordonnance was translated into English in 1708 and was reissued in 1722. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of it (Sowerby 4182).

Frédérique Lemerle (Centre national de la recherche scientifique,
Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2008

Critical bibliography

G. Germann, Vitruve et le vitruvianisme. Introduction à l’histoire de la théorie architecturale, Lausanne, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 1991 (1st ed.: Darmstadt, 1987).

W. Herrmann, La théorie de Claude Perrault, Brussels/Liège, Mardaga, 1980 (1st ed.: London, Zwemmer, 1973).

F. Lemerle, "Claude Perrault théoricien: l’Ordonnance des cinq espèces de colonnes (1683)", D. Rabreau & D. Massounie (ed.), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux et le livre d’architecture en français / Étienne Louis Boullée. L’Utopie et la poésie de l’art, Paris, Monum romain, Éditions du patrimoine, 2006, pp. 18-29.

C. Perrault, Ordonnance for the five kinds of columns after the method of the Ancients, introduction by A. Pérez-Gomez, translation by I. McEwen, Santa Monica, CA, Getty Center Research for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1993.

C. Perrault, L’ordine dell’architettura, presentation by M. L. Scalvini and S. Villari, Aestetica Preprint, Palermo, Centro internazionale studi di estetica, 1991.

A. Picon, Claude Perrault, 1613-1688 ou la curiosité d’un classique, Paris, Picard, 1988.