Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Niall Atkinson reviews Becoming an Architect in Renaissance Italy

Anne C. Huppert. Becoming an Architect in Renaissance Italy: Art, Science, and the Career of Baldassarre Peruzzi. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015. 224 pp.

Review by Niall Atkinson

As a perceptual tool, an investigative gesture, a revelatory medium, and a projective design principle,  disegno, as it was practiced by Baldassarre Peruzzi (1481–1536), lies at the heart of Anne Huppert’s meticulous analysis and extremely incisive interpretation of the Italian Renaissance architect. With a scant documentary record and the looming shadow of Giorgio Vasari’s later sixteenth-century biographical assessment of Peruzzi to contend with, Huppert presents the architectural drawing as the protagonist in a graphic narrative about looking, measuring, calculating, and thinking.

The large corpus of surviving drawings by Peruzzi represents a wide range of types, from spare on-site studies to highly rendered measured presentation drawings, and Huppert does not privilege one over the other as a mode through which the architectural historian can interrogate the creative process. And this is not an easy task. Peruzzi’s drawings are full of graphic, textual, and numeric information. They juxtapose plans, detail studies, elevations, profiles, sections, orthogonal and perspective views (which are suffused with detailed measurements), material analyses, field observation notes, and calculations of massing, costs, and scales.

Huppert has done both Peruzzi and the reader a great service in analyzing how these various modes of interrogation interact with each other. This is especially evident in her analysis of Peruzzi’s plans for rebuilding San Domenico in his native Siena. In one project that required a series of complex sail vaults across the nave, Huppert shows how his drawings calculate costs and weight through careful notation of the dimensions of pilasters, arches, and vaults. This leads to a meticulous denotation of the complex transition among structural elements: drum, pendentive, and sphere. On the recto of this sheet, Huppert traces Peruzzi’s arcs, texts, numbers, ratios, and scaled plan to see how he was calculating the area of the vaults at various points along their elevation. According to Huppert’s argument, such skill in rendering visible the economics, statics, design, massing, and beauty of a building, making it readable as structure and aesthetic form, results from specifically Sienese sources, which she uses as a deft rejoinder to Vasari’s perfunctory dismissal of Siena’s role in Peruzzi’s career. Huppert sees the abaco schools, so central to the dissemination of accounting literacy in Renaissance Italy, combined with instruction in perspective from his training as a painter, as the basic cognitive apparatus of his drafting techniques. Siena was also the place where he learned from and collaborated with Francesco di Giorgio Martini, a relationship from which he derived his method of using drawings as the principal generator and expression of architectural meaning and design.

On the other hand, his careful scrutiny of ancient sites, decorative elements, and the actual proportions of classical buildings, along with his less than dogmatic application of Vitruvian ideals, allowed him to cut to the basic structural principles that governed classical building practices. Huppert demonstrates the originality of this method in comparing Peruzzi’s graphic analysis of the Coliseum to more conventional views of the amphitheater as a monumental ruin in a landscape. Peruzzi, on the contrary, translated his careful, hands-on interaction with the building into sectional profiles, reducing the elevation to a single bay unit, and carefully recording measurements. Peruzzi made a practice of extracting ancient structures from the material accretion built up around them to lay bare their mechanics and Huppert shows how this allowed him to develop a series of representational modes that responded to Raphael’s famous letter on his intended survey of Rome’s endangered classical ruins, written with Baldassare Castiglione, and addressed to Leo X.

In this letter, Raphael laid out the technical methods of constructing a plan for an ancient site that can then be used to reconstruct what we now call elevations and sections. Huppert notes that Raphael’s letter has become codified as the model for representing architecture in the Renaissance, but she counters the primacy of this system with Peruzzi’s graphic creativity. Although Raphael had excluded the perspectival rendering from architectural representation as a distortion of measurement, Peruzzi had effectively deployed perspective views in juxtaposition to plans, sections, details, and profiles of the buildings he studied and imagined on paper.

These multiple modes then find their most integrated and coherent expression in his perspectival view of St. Peter’s, where the building emerges in a spatial sequence from plan to section. The viewer can see piers emerge from the floor plan and build themselves into fully vaulted three-dimensional space within a single view. But in an even more complex way, Huppert shows how Peruzzi’s plans for the redesign of San Petronio in Bologna also integrated cut away views that opened up spaces as if they were ruins and juxtaposed multiple perspectives in order to reveal specific spatial elements. All of this he does without breaking the integrity of a single readable image and Huppert is right, I think, to point to the barely perceptible figure that rests its upper body on a pier just emerging from the floor. Despite the overwhelming technical nature and mathematical analysis, deconstructed parts and diagrammatic characteristics of Peruzzi’s oeuvre, here was a tiny gesture toward the point of architecture as the design of humane spaces.

As painter, surveyor, set designer, civil and military engineer, and architect, Peruzzi emerges from Huppert’s analysis as a much more complex artist. And her analysis of his drawings, although in so many ways astute, seems at times to resist making more emphatic claims about one of the most sophisticated draughtsmen of his age. The book demands careful reading, and this is not least so in the transition we must undergo between reader and viewer. These are very dense drawings, and looking for the evidence in the images that Huppert presents as argument is often hard work for those not nearly as adept in analyzing drawings. Finding them is a small triumph, but I found myself wishing for mediating techniques that would highlight, focus, and guide the reader through the drawings. No doubt, however, that such graphic interventions would have spoiled their overall beauty, but there is so much to read and count in these drawings, which are sometimes scaled at the threshold of legibility. It would be unfair to ask Huppert to transcribe every drawing, but perhaps a full schematic rendering of one might have opened up the complex wonder that she intimates in this deeply penetrating and methodical study of a massively diverse corpus of architectural meditations.