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The Architectural Treatise: Reading Like an Architect

While working as an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in the late 1460s and early 1470s, Leonardo trained as an artist in the most architecturally daring city of his time. In Medicean Florence, Leonardo marveled at Leon Battista Alberti’s facade for Santa Maria Novella and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti, Pazzi chapel, and, of course, the gargantuan Santa Maria del Fiore. When Leonardo moved to Milan in 1482, he advertised himself to Ludovico Sforza as an architect-engineer. Aside from assisting in the casting and raising of the gilt orb atop Brunelleschi’s lantern in 1472, Leonardo had very little actual experience in building. His collection of architectural treatises, both ancient and modern, provided an informal training in architectural history, theory, and practice.

In 1416, Poggio Bracciolini—the famous Florentine humanist and papal secretary— unearthed two major classical texts in German and Swiss monastery libraries: Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Vitruvius’s De architectura. Vitruvius’s text was the only architectural treatise to survive antiquity—its rediscovery sparked a revolution in building and inspired other Renaissance humanists and architects to produce new architectural books of their own. Leon Battista Alberti, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, and Antonio Averlino (known as “Filarete”) created their own architectural treatises while working in the courts of Florence, Urbino, and Milan. Leonardo encountered all of these works at some point in his career. On the basis of his unusually large collection of architectural drawings, scholars agree that Leonardo was likely in the process of preparing his own treatise on the art of building.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]

Leon Battista Alberti, 1404–1472

De re aedificatoria

Paris: Berthold Rembolt and Ludwig Hornken, 1512

Rare Book Collection KB1512 .A4

Bequest of Walter E. Rothman

Alberti’s De re aedificatoria was the first treatise written on architecture since antiquity. The work epitomizes the reawakening of Greek and Roman classical architecture, reimagined for the contemporary Renaissance city. Alberti was one of the most prolific humanists of the fifteenth century, completing treatises on painting (Della pittura), sculpture (De sculptura) cartography (Descriptio urbis Romae), and even one on family life (Della famiglia). Alberti distinguished himself as an architectural advisor to the most powerful leaders in Renaissance Italy—he worked primarily in Florence, Rimini, Pienza, and Mantua. Alberti envisioned architecture as a combination of art, science, and moral philosophy. His treatise is subdivided into ten books (like that of his classical predecessor Vitruvius), each with a separate topic, including the history of town planning, engineering aspects of design, and the philosophy of beauty.

Beauty, for Alberti, was defined as “the harmony of all parts in relation to one another.” This resonated with Leonardo’s own ideals of macrocosmic beauty. Both Alberti and Leonardo had an appreciation for nature, regarding it as man’s most prominent teacher. Similarly, both “universal men” built on the knowledge that came before them. In De re aedificatoria, Alberti expanded on the writing of Vitruvius, the go-to source for knowledge of ancient architecture. Whereas Vitruvius focused on how buildings were built in the past, Alberti wrote about the way buildings should be constructed for the present and future. Alberti carried on the Vitruvian trinity of architectural building: firmitas, utilitas, venustas (strength, functionality, and beauty).

[Meg Gerli]

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, ca. 80/70–15 BCE

De architectura

Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1513

Rare Book Collection NA2517 .V7 1513

Acquired on the Antoinette and Warren R. Howell Rare Book Fund

Around 25 BCE, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio—a Roman architect, writer, and engineer—presented his patron Augustus Caesar with a comprehensive treatise on architecture. Although Vitruvius was not a prominent figure during the Roman Empire, his legacy extends far beyond this period owing to his authorship of this important book. As the only surviving writing on architecture from classical antiquity, De architectura has become a principal guide and a revered text, and has influenced architects from the Renaissance to the present day. Initially intended to aid in his patron’s building endeavors, Vitruvius’s work influenced a rebirth in classical architecture beginning in the early fifteenth century. De architectura, divided into ten books, includes an extensive account of the history, technology, designs, materials, and principles of Greek and Roman architecture.

With its portable size, space for marginalia, and systematically captioned illustrations, this sixteenth-century Latin edition could have been used for both private study and field reference. While many Renaissance scholars and artists, such as Leon Battista Alberti and Michelangelo Buonarroti, studied Vitruvius, Leonardo was an eager yet critical reader. Book 10 of De architectura describes the Roman hodometer, which was used to measure distance on land or water through drums on a rotating wheel, and includes an illustration of this Roman device with enumerated captions detailing its mechanical parts. Leonardo directly addressed the fallacies of this design against moving ocean currents. Regardless, Leonardo held high respect for Vitruvius and his writing. Leonardo’s celebrated drawing of the Vitruvian Man is based on Vitruvius’s notes on human proportion in Book 3.

[Kimberly Te]

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1439–1501

Trattato di architettura

Trattato di architettura di Francesco di Giorgio Martini, edited by Luigi Firpo; introduction and translation by Pietro C. Marani. 3 vols. Florence: Giunti Barbèra, 1974

Facsimile of the Codex Ashburnham 361, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

Bowes Art and Architecture Library NA2515 .G53 1979 F V. 2

Francesco di Giorgio’s Trattato di architettura is the only book that we can definitively place in Leonardo’s library. A manuscript copy of Francesco’s treatise (the Codex Ashburnham 361 in Florence’s Laurentian Library) contains twelve annotations by Leonardo scribbled throughout the margins. Francesco, a Sienese architect-engineer who worked in Siena, Urbino, Milan, and Naples, continuously revised his treatise from 1474 to 1495. He drafted four manuscript versions, of which two remain in Florence, one in Turin, and one in Siena. The treatise was never printed, yet it was copied hundreds of times and influenced architects such as Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Giovanni Giocondo, Baldassare Peruzzi, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, and Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Alongside the works of Vitruvius and Alberti, Francesco di Giorgio’s treatise elevated the status of architecture to a noble art. This was the first building manual written in Italian. Francesco equated architecture with science and advised that architects be trained in arithmetic, geometry, and architectural theory. He urged that the architect express ideas through the medium of drawing (disegno) over writing. Copious illustrations distinguished Francesco’s treatise and made it possible for readers untrained in architecture—like Leonardo—to grasp complex passages in visual terms.

Francesco and Leonardo spent several months together in the summer of 1490, when Francesco arrived in Milan to consult on the tiburio model. They traveled together to Pavia to oversee the cathedral’s construction; while there, they likely studied a manuscript version of Vitruvius’s De architectura in the magnificent Visconti library. Leonardo’s marginalia, dated to 1506, demonstrate a lifelong fascination with Francesco’s work.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]

Antonio Averlino, called “Filarete,” 1400–1469

Libro architettonico

Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture: Being the Treatise by Antonio di Piero Averlino, Known as Filarete, edited and translated by John R. Spencer. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1965

Facsimile of the Codex Magliabechiano, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Ms. II, IV, 140

Green Library NA1115 .F5 1965A V.1–2

Antonio Averlino’s Libro architettonico instructed architects and noble patrons in the art of building an ideal city. Averlino (known as “Filarete”) was a Tuscan sculptor and architect who, like Leonardo, worked in Florence, Rome, Venice, and Milan. Filarete composed this treatise in Milan between 1461 and 1464, while serving as court architect to Duke Francesco Sforza. Filarete’s original manuscript, dedicated to the Sforza duke, was destroyed during air raids over Milan in 1944. A second manuscript, which Filarete dedicated to Piero de’ Medici in 1465, remains in the National Central Library of Florence.

Written in Italian, the treatise is structured as a dialogue between architect and patron and discusses the building of the fictive city Sforzinda and nearby port of Plusiapolis. Filarete exalts the Florentine style of architecture all’antica as a means to inspire a utopian future by reviving the ancient Greek and Italic past. The Libro architettonico synthesized the work of Alberti, Dante, and Boccaccio with the ancient knowledge of Vitruvius, Valerius Maximus, Suetonius, Virgil, Ovid, Pliny, Aesop, Plato, Plutarch, and Diodorus Siculus. The lost monuments of ancient Babylon, Rome, or Nineveh were momentarily born again in a reading of Filarete’s treatise.

When Leonardo arrived in Milan in 1482, he followed in Filarete’s footsteps by designing his own ideal plan for the city of Milan. Leonardo envisioned a two-level canalized city rooted in the practical issues of urban circulation. We can imagine Leonardo consulting Filarete’s original manuscript in the Sforza library, marveling over the two hundred illustrations, and appreciating that it was written in Italian.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]