Author(s) Vitruvius
Perrault, Claude
Leclerc, Sébastien (engraver), et alii
Les dix livres d’architecture de Vitruve
Imprint Paris, J.-B. Coignard, 1673
Localisation Paris, Ensba, 1665 A 13 4
Subject Architecture, Hydrauli, Machins
Transcribed version of the text


     Born to a bourgeois family of rich Parisians in which there were already celebrated scientists, Claude Perrault was the elder brother of Charles Perrault, famous for his Histoires ou Contes du temps passé. First he studied medecine and physics, asserting that he was a supporter of "iatromechanism", a theory very popular at that time, advocated by G. A. Borelli among others, which earned him a post teaching physiology and anatomy from the beginning of the 1650s, then entrance into the Academy of Sciences in 1666. The author of several treatises of physics, he did not fail to attract the attention of Colbert, who would also be his brother's main protector. Well introduced at the court, and due to his knowledge of astronomy, he was given the responsibility of designing the Paris Observatory, built between 1667 and 1669. Then he was named director of the committee to elaborate the eastern façade of the Louvre before being invited to the very new Academy of Architecture created the preceding year. The essential function of this institution was to define a global doctrine of great French architecture. Founded on rational principles which were to find their historical and theoretical guarantee in the works of Antiquity (in fact in the creations of the Roman empire, the only ones truly accessible at the time), this doctrine was to ensure a universal value for the monuments of Louis XIV's reign and place France where she deserved to be among European nations. This wish to define an art in which the notion of beauty would respond to rules duly established and rendered incontestable by the prestige of writings or the edifices inspired by them, in the domain of public construction, sacred or profane, brought about several official projects. The architect Antoine Desgodets was sent to Rome, not as a resident fellow at the Académie de France created there by Colbert in 1666, but with the particular mission to make architectural plans as precise as possible of the antique monuments.
Claude Perrault's competence as a builder did not seem to be founded on specific studies but on solid experience and a deep knowledge of the treatises of Antiquity and the Renaissance. This knowledge caused Colbert to see him as a specialist of architectural theory. Since he also had the merit of mastering Latin and probably know some ancient Greek, in 1665-66, in this context, he was entrusted with the translation and the detailed commentary of Vitruvius' De architectura. This remarkable doctor-architect immediately measured the task and the responsibilities implied in the "commandement" that the powers that be had transmitted to him. The first French edition of this fundamental treatise, Jean Martin's, which came out in Paris in 1547, reedited in 1572, the only treatise to escape the almost total wreck of technical literature coming from Antiquity, had not met with much success despite the fine quality of Jean Goujon's illustrations because of the relative obscurity of its translation. For in Colbert's project, it was of the greatest importance to transmit sure and accessible knowledge of this Latin treatise to all the building trades, since it was still thought to contain the founding principles of what was not yet called classical architecture. Perrault affirms it from the beginning of his preface, "Entre les différents soins que l’on a employés en faveur de l’architecture, la traduction de Vitruve n’a pas semblé peu importante : on a estimé que les préceptes de cet excellent auteur, que les critiques mettent au premier rang des grands esprits de l’antiquité, étaient absolument nécessaires pour conduire ceux qui désirent de se perfectionner dans cet art, en établissant, par la grande autorité que ses écrits ont toujours eue, les véritables règles du beau et du parfait dans les édifices". The big word was proclaimed: authority. This essentially normative perspective implies a certain number of obligations, and Perrault was fully aware of them.
The first one is readability; he knew – and he writes – that if the preceding attempt in French met up with few readers among those who would have needed it, it was both because its author, secretary to the Cardinal de Lenoncourt, was not sufficiently familiar with all the disciplines touched upon in the De architectura, and also because the methods of transcription and translation had not been established with all necessary rigor. To attain it, taking into account the difficulties inherent in the text, where he in principle wanted to change nothing, and Vitruvius' terminology, both Greek and Latin, Perrault took some "précautions" which are often "libertés", making no mystery of it. They aim less at philological exactness from which only a few scholars, those he calls the "doctes curieux" could gain, than at the clarity of the text. Nevertheless conscious that he could not claim to resolve all the problems in the body of a translation he wished to be as limpid as possible, and that as such he needed to avoid commentary or circumlocution, equally conscious of the necessity to "laisser quelquefois des mots latins et grecs dans le texte", he took recourse in abundant notes placed at the end of each section. The reader is informed of it by numbered reminders, and these explanations mention various versions found in certain manuscripts and in books in print as well as internal contradictions in Vitruvius' work, and a reminder of other interpretations predating Perrault of such and such a passage, and even technical precisions on the nature and the use of such and such structure or of such and such monument. They often take up more space on the page than the text itself although they are printed in smaller type. One must say that it is these explanations which still provide the interest of this work for contemporary "Vitruvians".
The second obligation, a consequence of the first, is illustration. The "figures" announced in the title, like the notes, were no doubt the major attraction of the work during its period. There are two kinds: xylographs inserted in the notes and copperplates constituting the plates, 65 in the first edition, extremely detailed. Most often they are full page illustrations, sometimes even double page. Each one is accompanied by an "explication", all the more effective in that it refers to the letters on the drawing specifying the most important parts of the plan, of the section or the reproduction. The engravings were done by various artists whose names frequently appear at the bottom of the drawing.
Another requirement implied in the conditions of the contract, implicit but restrictive, was to bring the text up to date, particularly in the area of hydraulic or architectural technique. It was important to show that Vitruvius' methods were essentially applicable (even if Perrault had no hesitation in criticising certain descriptions he judged incoherent) but also that the practices of builders and inventors during the reign of Louis XIV were suggesting ingenious and possibly improved applications. This aspect of the project, which included laudatory allusions to Perrault the builder, is already visible in Sébastien Leclerc's frontispiece; in the background of the scene in which the allegory of Architecture is addressing the personification of France to present Vitruvius' work, rises the Colonnade of the Louvre under construction, and at the left an arch of triumph predominates, also created by the author, topped by an equestrian statue of the king. To illustrate the notions of ichnographia (plan), of orthographia (front elevation), of skiagraphia (cross section) and scænographia (cavalier projection or perspective), as if by chance, the choice falls on the Paris Observatory (plates II and III of I, 2). Elsewhere, in X, 12, note 3, the author is verbose in recalling the "machine" that Francini (Francine), "gentilhomme français originaire de Florence", invented and had put up in the garden of the king's library in Paris. It seems to work much better than Ctesibius' pump, and the author doubts, reasonably, that it could ever have raised great quantities of water. When it is a matter of assessing the errors due to human vision, in VI, 2, note 1, Perrault makes a detailed analysis of the problem in which he gives a glimpse of his knowledge of optics and physiology as well as his experience in perceiving volumes. This in no way prevents several plates or drawings of this book from conserving an eminent epistemological value for the comprehension of the old Latin theoretician's text; the plans of the Roman and Greek theatres (plates 42 of V, 7 and 45 of V, 8) are based on a perfectly controlled regulating line. The proportions of the Ionic capital and the drawing of the volute are witness to a remarkable comprehension of the text (plate 21 of II, 3), even if the Italian architects of the 16th century had clarified the question in their research. The magnificent plate 23 of IV, 1, a fitting opposition of the capital of the Pantheon pronaos (considered Augustan at the time) to that of Vitruvius demonstrates fully the rather condensed proportions of the latter, etc. Even the erroneous restitution of the basilica of Fano (plate 40 of V, 1), with its curious vault under a triangular framework, is interesting, especially because of the ingenuity of its representation, taken quite carefully from a precise but badly supported reading of the technical terms of one of the most difficult sections of the De architectura. In general, if Perrault's Vitruve still provides us with much useful information and remains an attractive book even for the non-specialist, it is essentially because of its graphic elegance.
Can one say the same for the translation itself? Independently from the quality of the language, clear and often elegant, in an edition with no Latin text, it is difficult to evaluate the credibility of the "lectures" retained by the author, even if he frequently gives the reasons for his choices in his notes. However it appears that he bases his work on the text of Fra Giocondo (1511 and 1513 editions), the scholarly monk from Verona, the first to give grammatical and thematic coherence to the De architectura, whose manuscripts had many mistakes. Giocondo's traces are numerous and undeniable, from the scamilli impares of III, 5, 5, (the "escabeaux qui font inégalité"), to the proportion of eight diameters and a half (instead of the unanimous nine diameters of manuscript tradition) for the height of the Ionic column in IV, 1, 8, to the "thyroréion" or vestibule of the Greek house in VI, 7, 1, etc. But Perrault retained many of the additions and corrections that Guillaume Philandrier brought to this version in his Annotationes (1544, 1552). Moreover Perrault mentions Philandrier rather often in his notes and clearly learned of Fra Giocondo's work through his commentaries. It was assuredly a matter of consulting the most reliable references for the period, and his constant although rather discreet use of them constitutes a guarantee of correction and comprehension in spite of numerous residual diffulties. But Perrault also refers more or less positively to many other editors or commentators of Vitruvius, such as Budé, Cesariano, Martin, Barbaro (possibly with allusions to the drawings that Palladio had added to his Vitruvio), Baldi and Turnebus. He also mentions, in a readily critical way but "sans marquer l’endroit de leurs ouvrages d’où sont pris les témoignages", in order to avoid, as he writes in the preface, all affectation of erudition, the works of various theoreticians, or the treatises published by a few great architects, such as those by Alberti, Serlio, Palladio, De l’Orme, Bullant, Vignola, Scamozzi, Wotton and Goldmann, all of which gives one an idea of his great European culture in this area. He adds allusions, always imprecise but verifiable, to ancient authors, the most frequently mentioned being Archimedes, Aristotle, Arnobius, Aulus-Gellius, Ausonius, Galen, Strabo, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder. Moreover he declares that he has consulted manuscripts which are diffucult to locate, but present information on the medieval tradition surrounding De architectura permits a few observations. Therefore, concerning a corrupted passage of II, 8, 19, he gives the version considered faulty from a manuscript "dont il s'est servi", and in which one recognizes the text adopted by codices of the family of G, the Gudianus 69 of Wolfenbüttel, probably more exactly a manuscript derived from U whose role in circulating Vitruvius' text in Italy is known. With just cause Perrault preferred to read "dans les livres imprimés", in this case Fra Giocondo's edition, not explicitly mentioned. In this way one catches sight of the importance of Perrault's work and the effectiveness of his method, even though he deplores the lack of time he has to complete his work, probably suggesting in veiled terms the pressure coming from his powerful patron.
It would be too long to examine here how well this edition served Colbert's political-ideological project. Let us simply say that in spite of Vitruvius' apparently precise instructions, Perrault was very aware of the random or arbitrary character of the Latin theoretician's "règles" in defining a "beauté positive", all the more so since objective criteria, solidity, salubrity and convenience are more important to him than exact proportions. At the same time, Desgodet's measurements published in 1682 in his Edifices antiques de Rome underline the absence of coincidence, already painfully noted as early as Bramante's period, but here declared in the clearest and the most solid way, between the precepts of De architectura and the proportions observable in the vestiges at all levels of the plans and elevations. All of this created the most bitter polemics among the Academicians.
In any case, Perrault's work had great good fortune; abridged editions came out very quickly in Paris (1674), Amsterdam (1681), London (1692, 1703, 1729), Venice (1711, 1747, 1794) and Madrid (1761). They were responding to an obvious demand; the translation would be transposed into almost every European language, and presented in a handier form, as a real practitioner's manual. In 1684 Perrault published an enlarged version of the 1673 integral version.

Pierre Gros (Université de Aix-Marseille-I / Institut universitaire de France) – 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, "Vitruve, Vignole, Palladio et les autres: traductions, abrégés et augmentations au XVIIe siècle", Architecture et théorie. L'héritage de la Renaissance, Tours, Cesr, June 3-4, 2009/Paris, École d'architecture de Paris-Malaquais, June 5, 2009.

F. Lemerle, "D'un Parallèle à l'autre. L'architecture antique: une affaire d'État", Revue de l'Art, 170, 2010-4, pp. 31-39.

F. Lemerle, "La face cachée du Vitruve de Claude Perrault (1673, 1684)", M. Chaufour & S. Taussig (eds.), La cause en est cachée, Études offertes à Paulette Choné par ses élèves, ses collègues et ses amis, Turnhout, Brepols, 2013, pp. 447-455.

C. Perrault, Les dix livres d’architecture de Vitruve, Préface d’Antoine Picon, Bibliothèque de l’image, 1995 (facsimile edition : Les dix livres d’architecture de Vitruve, corrigez et traduits nouvellement en françois, avec des notes et des figures, Paris, Jean-Baptiste Coignard, 1673).

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