It is an old adage that book learning and real-world experience are, generally speaking, two separate things. However, one of the books at the Newberry, a copy of Sebastian Serlio’s architectural treatise Tutte l’opere d’architettura (All the works of architecture) is an example of a book that has profoundly shaped the real-life experience of people in the western world for several centuries.
Sebastian Serlio (1475-c.1553), was an Italian Renaissance Architect born in Bologna. He trained first as a painter, subsequently became a student of the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, and during his time in Rome from about 1514 to 1525 was influenced by the circle of the architect Bramante. Serlio worked in many places throughout Italy, including Rome, Bologna, and Venice, before he was hired by King Henry II of France to work at Fountainbleau. Today only a few structures in Italy, a doorway at Fountainbleau, and the Chateau d’Ancy-le-Frnac near Tonnerre (c. 1541-50) survive of Serlio’s own architectural designs. However, his architectural treatise, written and published in a series of five books from 1545 to 1547—with the seventh book published in 1619 and the sixth not until 1966—became one of the most influential Renaissance architectural treatises and a foundational text for several generations of major architects who created a neoclassical style in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries and beyond.
Though the first major architectural treatise of the Renaissance was Leon Battista Alberti’s De Res Aedificatoria (1485), Serlio’s treatise quickly became an invaluable practical resource for architects in part due to the large number of illustrations that dominate nearly every page of the text. Serlio’s text and illustrations, like Alberti’s, draw extensively on Vitruvius’ De Architectura (1st century BCE) as well as his own experience of Roman ruins and the classically inspired designs of his own sixteenth-century contemporaries. The title page of Book 3 of the treatise depicting a scene of Roman ruins over which is written the Latin tag: Roma Quanta Fuit Ruina Ipsa Docet (the ruins of Rome teach how great it was), encapsulates the book’s presentation of an approach to architecture rooted in the Roman past [fig. 1].
The Newberry’s copy of Serlio’s treatise is the English translation of 1611, a handsome folio-sized book replete with beautifully executed woodcuts on both sides of nearly every one of its one hundred ninety-nine leaves. The five books in the volume provide the architect with a series of studies covering the major aspects of the inspiration for and practice of creating a classically inspired architectural style. The treatise builds from an introduction to geometry and perspective in Books 1 &and 2, [fig. 2] to illustrations of antique Roman buildings in Book 3, the rules of masonry and decoration in Book 4, and an examination of temples in Book 5. In explaining the principles of proportion, geometry, and decoration, the illustrations go beyond the scope of buildings to encompass depictions of other art objects [fig. 3] and even a sample alphabet showing appropriate letter forms for architectural edifices [fig. 4].
Paging through the Newberry’s edition of Serlio, one can see the influence, both direct and indirect, of its illustrations on buildings that still stand in Europe and the United States to this day. The 1611 English translation of Serlio directy influenced the English adaptation of the Palladian classical style of architecture, starting with the work of the early seventeenth-century architect, Inigo Jones [figs. 5 and 6]. Christopher Wren also had this edition of Serlio in hand when he designed the new Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London [fig 7]. The classically inspired work of both these architects and the continued influence of Serlio’s treatise were in turn among the important influences for the design of many of the buildings in Washington DC including the White House [figs. 8 and 9] and the Jefferson Memorial [figs. 10, 11 and 12]. The structures of the “White City” of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1894 owe their debt as well to this tradition [fig. 13]. Even the Romanesque arches and columns we see today on the front of the Newberry may be said to owe an indirect debt to the revival of interest in classical architecture that Serlio’s treatise sparked [figs. 14 and 15]. Thus, this seventeenth-century book has proved instrumental for the design and construction of real life buildings across four centuries. To take a turn through its pages is also to take a tour through the arches, domes, columns, and masonry of some of the architectural masterpieces of the western world.
Posted by Laura Aydelotte, Interim Assistant Director for the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies.