Perrault, Claude

Title Abregé des dix livres d’Architecture...
Imprint Paris, J.-B. Coignard, 1674
Localisation Heidelberg, Ruprecht Karls Universität, 64 D 6 Res
Subject Architecture, Hydraulic, Machines
Transcribed version of the text


     After the unabridged edition of the Dix livres d'architecture (1673), annotated and illustrated, the next year Claude Perrault offered an Abregé of Vitruvius, also published at the presses of Jean-Baptiste Coignard, intended more exclusively for professionals, the "apprentifs" but also the "maîtres".  This time it is not a luxurious folio, but a small book in a 12mo format, sold for only three livres, illustrated with eleven plates transposed to the end, optional if we believe the privilege ("et mesme sans figures"), with their explanations facing them on the reverse side of the preceding page.  This handy manual also contains a glossary "des mots difficiles" following the plates, actually the basic architectural vocabulary (abacus, metope, rustication, triglyph, etc.).
Perrault's Abregé is very different from the traditional compendium.  In 1556/59 Jean Gardet and Dominique Bertin had published an Epitome in Toulouse for building professionals, which freed the Vitruvian text from its mythological hodgepodge and superfluous antique allusions and included copperplates which were out of sync in their modernity, like the one of the composite order (not described by Vitruvius), a proof that they had carefully inspected Goujon's plates in Martin's Vitruvius (Paris, 1547).  Whereas Gardet and Bertin followed the order of the De architectura, Perrault completely reworked the text by replacing the previous organization of the material in ten books by a text in two parts, themselves subdivided in chapters and articles, the first "contenant l'Architecture qui [...] est commune avec les Anciens", the second "contenant l'architecture qui étoit particulière aux Anciens".  In this he was inspired by the antique abbreviator of Vitruvius (known later by the name Faventinus) who had reorganized, completed and brought up to date, even corrected Vitruvius' discourse on private architecture by the light of other sources for a wide public.  The inspiration is probable, given the Herculean bibliography gathered by Perrault for his edition of Vitruvius.  Perhaps he was the one who annotated the copy of the editio princeps drafted by Guillaume Postel (Paris, Vacosan, 1540) that Colbert owned (Medvekova 2008, p. 44).
Thus Perrault proceeded to sort out subject matter which had been treated in a confused and disorganized way, as attests the very detailed table of contents which follows the brief foreward.  In the preface, which he peppers with rare indications furnished by Vitruvius himself, he presents the antique treatise and extols the virtues of its author.  The first part of the Abregé deals with architecture in general (chap. 1), with the solidity of buildings (materials, foundations, walls, floors, wall coatings) (chap. 2), with the convenience of buildings (location, orientation) (chap. 3), and with the beauty of the buildings (intercolumniation, orders) (chap. 4).  The second part deals with the public buildings (chap. 1) and private (chap. 2) of the Ancients, finally what belongs to the two types of buildings (fountains, wells, cisterns, civil and military machines) (chap. 3).  Mechanics, which interested Perrault so much in 1673 is here reduced to a strict minimum.  The eleven plates are only essential ones: types of masonry (pl. I), layout of the buildings (pl. II-III), a hexastyle temple (pl. IV), Tuscan, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders (pl. V-IX), a theatre (pl. X) and catapults (pl. XI).
Perrault presents the five modern orders including the composite, according to the Serlian terminology and progression, that is, from the simplest to the most detailed (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and composite).  It is a significant addition, for Vitruvius describes only four types (genera) of columns.  Goujon had already opened up the way in his plates in 1547, followed by Gardet and Bertin.  In this case Perrault goes far beyond the simple reorganization that Philibert De l'Orme, his precursor and to whom he pays homage in the first lines of the "Avertissment", would have liked to do "avec l'ayde de Dieu" and "moiennant l'ayde & le labeur des doctes" (1567, III, f. 62). For paradoxically he enlarges the text with remarks, often long, set off in the margin with quotation marks which give the Vitruvian text all its coherence thanks to pertinent connections or necessary explanations which seem to be lacking to him.  In this exercise Perrault steps aside for Vitruvius, and this deserves mentioning.  In fact in 1674 we find none of the severe criticisms on contemporary practices and those of the previous century, nor the laudatory digressions on the creations of the Perrault clan or on the ingenious inventions of the Moderns in the areas of mechanics or hydraulics.  In case something is not clear, Perrault sends the reader to his unabridged edition of Vitruvius.
The modernity and the effectiveness of the discourse guaranteed international success for the Abregé. It was published in Amsterdam in 1681 [1691].  An English translation appeared in 1692 in London; it was re-issued in the 18th century.  The book was also translated into Italian (Venice, 1711), into Spanish (Madrid, 1761) and into Russian (1789).

Frédérique Lemerle (Centre national de la recherche scientifique,
Centre d'études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2011

Critical bibliography

Catalogue des livres imprimez à Paris, chez Jean-Baptiste Coignard..., [Paris, J.-B. Coignard, 1687].

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.

O. Medvedkova, "Un Abrégé moderne ou Vitruve selon la méthode", La construction savante. Les avatars de la littérature technique, Paris, Picard, 2008, pp. 43-63.

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