by Roderick Conway Morris

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Architecture by the Book

By Roderick Conway Morris
VIGNOLA, Italy 13 April 2002
Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola
Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, 1559-1573



In the early days following its publication in 1562, not a few architects on leafing through the Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola's 'Regola delli Cinque Ordini d'Architettura' (Rule of the Five Orders of Architecture) must have murmured with mounting wonderment something along the lines of: 'Good Heavens, he's cracked it!'

For here, for the first time ever was a practical, boldly illustrated, do-it-yourself guide on how to get proportions right, a kind of 'Boys' Own Book of Classical Architecture.' Since then it has probably never been out of print - going through more than 500 editions - and was continuously used as an indispensable teaching tool until well into the 20th century.

Yet of the major Italian Renaissance architects Vignola's is the least widely known name. An international team of specialists has now got together in the hope of remedying this with the publication of a large, highly informative tome and an exhibition, 'Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola: Life and Works,' at the Palazzo Contrari Boncompagni in the architect's birthplace, a small town with a picturesque medieval castle about 32 kilometers (20 miles) west of Bologna.

The show continues until July 7, and arrangements have been made to open Vignola's surviving buildings in various parts of Italy to the public. But Vignola, one of whose successful undertakings was the restoration of the canal link between Bologna and the river Po, would not be amused to discover that the exhibition, conceived to put his name back on the cultural map, is far from easy to reach by public transport because the railroad line linking Bologna and Vignola is out of action.

Bologna, with its famous university and agriculturally rich surrounding plains, had been absorbed into the Papal States in 1506, the year before Vignola's birth. He was apprenticed to a painter in the city, his first known work being the drawing for an intarsia, a wooden inlay panel, for the Papal Governor there. Vignola's entrée into papal circles opened his path to Rome in the 1530s, where he undertook diverse tasks, from painting furniture and banners for the Vatican, assisting in the architectural workshop of St. Peter's and creating the sets for a play by Machiavelli, performed at the palazzo of the Farnese family, for whom Vignola eventually became the permanent in-house architect.

No less important in deciding the shape of his future career was his introduction to a private learned society, the Accademia della Virtu, that was working on a definitive, illustrated edition of Vitruvius's first-century 'On Architecture,' the only treatise of its kind to come down to us from the ancient world. The Accademia commissioned him 'to measure thoroughly all the antiquities of Rome.' The book project was never completed, but the seeds of Vignola's own publication were surely sown in this period.

By his early thirties Vignola was established as an architect in his own right and was involved in designing buildings and other engineering projects in and around Rome, Bologna and the Farnese family fiefdoms of Parma and Piacenza, until his death in 1573.

Given these decades of tireless activity, it may seem odd that Vignola is not more generally remembered for his architecture alone. But this exhibition, which gathers together a great part of the surviving drawings and other documentation from his lifetime and follows the subsequent fate of his plans, explains his relative obscurity in the realm of built architecture. Because, as we see here and in the catalogue, much of what he did was not completed as he had envisaged, or was submerged by later alterations and additions.

A telling case is his vast Gesu church in Rome, the mother church of the Jesuit Order, bankrolled by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who appointed Vignola to build it. Farnese insisted on a single nave and a roof structure calculated to maximize the audibility of those preaching to the congregation - a priority for the new-style Counter-Reformation Church in general and the Jesuits in particular. Despite limited room for maneuver, Vignola framed what became the most influential single church design for several centuries, which was carried to the four corners of the globe by the Jesuits and provided the blueprint for thousands of other churches as well. But the original, austere interior design was later buried in a riot of ornamentation, and Vignola's plan for the façade was passed over in favor of a far less felicitous design by a rival.

Meanwhile, Vignola's originality in other areas was all but forgotten. During the 1550s he built Sant' Andrea on Via Flaminia, the first church with an oval dome, and at the end of his career he took this daring bending of the traditional structure of a round dome supported on a rectangular base to its logical conclusion in Sant' Anna dei Palafrenieri in the Vatican, in which the nave is oval.

This was a fascinating solution to the challenge presented by Counter-Reformation requirements to bring the congregation closer to the celebrant of the Mass and give new emphasis to the Eucharist. But Vignola's innovations were not immediately taken up by his contemporaries, though they were enthusiastically embraced by Baroque architects, notably Bernini and Borromini, and their long-term resonance was considerable.

The first edition of Vignola's celebrated manual was completed during the last of the three marathon sessions of the Council of Trent, which had begun in 1545 and which decided the rules and regulations of the post-Reformation Catholic Church. Indeed, after centuries of more or less haphazard evolution and development in church affairs, rules and rule books had become the order of the day.

In this respect, however, architects faced particular problems. Vitruvius, the only ur-text on the subject from Roman times, was not illustrated and often difficult to comprehend. So Vignola invented a workable system derived not from mathematics, archaeological research or mystical theories of proportion, but from his own eye, intuition and experience. Thus, he made the starting point the radius of the column employed, and from this 'module' all the other components of the structure were calculated in ratio. This rule could be applied equally to all five styles or orders - the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite - the heights of the pedestal, column and entablature being invariably in a ratio of 4:12:3.

As Christof Thoenes points out in his lucid and absorbing section of the show on the 'Regola' and its impact, Vignola's publication was not strictly a book at all, but a collection of folios, even the succinct explanatory comments on each sheet not being set in movable type but engraved on the copper printing plates. The work was initially destined solely for those 'in the trade' as a practical aid to building design, but was so clearly presented and accessible that it was rapidly being sought out by all those concerned with art and architecture.

And such is the sheer beauty and elegance of the folios' layouts that they can still be studied with profit even today not only by those seeking to understand classical architecture but also by anybody with the least interest in graphic design.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023