Cesare Cesariano’s Di Lucio Vitruvio Pollione de Architectura was the first translation of the Latin text of Vitruvius into the vernacular. Printed in Como by Gottardo da Ponte on July 15th 1521, the folio format of the volume allowed space for translation, commentary and illustrations all on the same page, with striking graphic effect and ease of reference. In the tradition of the medieval gloss, the translated text of Vitruvius, printed in a larger font, takes up a sometimes less than a third of the page, while the densely printed commentary surrounds it, filling out the page.

In comparison to Alberti, Cesariano was quite different. First, he translated into the vernacular (not writing a new treatise in Latin), and second, the manner with which he treated antique architecture was completely different. He did not write a new treatise, but created a coherent, printed version of Vitruvius with comprehensive commentary that allowed the contemporary use of ancient methods. Whereas Alberti saw classical architecture, not only as a superior form, but a cornerstone upon which to recommence the same pursuit of beauty, Cesariano mainly sought to justify and improve current medieval practices in architecture through the integration of ancient practices. Cesariano’s task, according to Carol Herselle Krinsky, was “to reconstruct antique architecture by linking Roman prototypes with familiar buildings which appeared to have something in common with what was said in Vitruvius’s text.”

Cesariano’s commentary forms an encyclopedic and carefully crafted appendix in which he attempts to explain the selected readings from various versions of the text, and expand on their meaning. His approach seems to be the medieval and humanistic method of extracting from the text the most important points, thereby creating a collection of references necessary for the compilation of a personal system of cross-references. It contains numerous quotations from Classical authors, including Aristotle and Pliny, as well as contemporary opinions. It is also clear that Cesariano was familiar with the works of Alberti, Filarete, and Fra Giocondo. However, the commentary reveals little or no interest in the scientific investigation of actual ancient buildings. Cesariano tends to regard the past “in a medieval way, focusing on its continuity with the present, and its value as a confirmation of contemporary ideas,” rather than in the more Renaissance way, as a separate and distinct age that can provide insight into the construction of a renewed architecture.

For the most part, the translation itself can be considered “accurate, complete and free of gross misinterpretations.” There are, however, numerous areas of interpretation basic to a complete understanding of Vitruvius that remain fairly ambiguous. It is known that there were earlier partial, if not complete, translations of Vitruvius dating to the middle of the 15th century, but these were never published. In addition to consulting earlier editions of Vitruvius’ text, Cesariano relied heavily on Fra Giovanni Giocondo’s 1511 edition, and on the basis of this text, reorganized some of the work that he had already translated.

Cesariano’s updated Vitruvius gains most of its originality and independence not from its commentary, but from its illustrations. There are 119 woodblock prints illustrating his interpretation of Vitruvius. Cesariano drew heavily from Fra Giocondo’s first illustrated edition of Vitruvius as an iconographic source, altering the more ambiguous or limited solutions. He was not, however, limited to reinterpretations, but also included independent contributions, especially with regard to cities, temples and basilicas, and the explanation of individual architectural points that he found valuable or difficult to understand. He is the first to attempt a reconstruction of Vitruvius’s Basilica at Fano and the realism and care with regard to detail that is apparent in the illustrations point to the fact that Cesariano saw parts of the text such as this as the most crucial area for an increased understanding of Vitruvius. Although Cesariano’s basis for many of his drawings is in the work Fra Giocondo, who gave him some idea of Roman ruins, “he seems to have been incapable of imagining ancient temples as not resembling a church.” Thus, his illustrations of Vitruvian temples invert the structure, placing the columns on the inside with the solid wall surrounding them. “In this way the peripteral type of temple becomes a sort of basilica with nave and side aisles, with some relationship in its spatial proportions to the atrium of the Milanese basilica of Sant’ Ambrosio…The façade of the pseudodipteral temple is in every way similar to that of a Renaissance church.” Cesariano’s interpretation of the ancient treatise is full of such mistaken or intentional alterations of the Roman types to suite current understandings of building typology and religion.


Cesariano’s main addition to Alberti is, however, his development of the anthropomorphic analogy, which he gives us with a “dose of Neoplatonic eroticism.” In his illustration entitled The Measurement of the Human figure, and All Symmetries Corrected and Proportioned to Correspond with a Geometrical Program, he does just this by overlaying a sexually aroused and rather uncomfortable Vitruvian man over a 30X30 grid composed of three-fingers squares. This is significant not only in that Cesariano is attempting to reconcile Leonardo’s Vitruvian man (whose center is different for both circle and the square), “but because he makes it equally clear how impossible to follow these directions really are.” The figure’s proportions cannot be full cubic in this layout, not to mention the fact that they tend to distort the body. This aside, what is important to realize is that Cesariano attempted to fully integrate the then-current concern of the anthropomorphic analogy, and the idea of man as procreator of the building, with a literal reading of Vitruvius; and that he did so in a graphic demonstration. The grid that divides up the space surrounding the “homo ad quadrate” is the basis from which, according to Cesariano, all proportional modules are to be derived. The symmetry is all encompassing, and is generated from even the smallest parts of the body, including the knuckles and the spaces between them, and even the veins, nerves, skin, and muscles. “‘All flesh,’ even hairs and pores are modules. And they all must be numerically compatible when the body is used as the hidden structure of a building, or any form ‘built or to be built by architectural science’.” Unlike Alberti, who described the process of design as a thing “conceived in the mind, expressed in lines and angles, and realized by resourcefulness and learned talent,” Cesariano attempted a physical construction of the Vitruvian man as procreator.

Cesare Cesariano and The Renaissance Treatise

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

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