Building and Knowledge
Contributions to an epistemic history of early modern Italian architecture
International Conference, Rome, 18th-20th September 2003
scientific coordination: Hermann Schlimme
Abstracts of Conference Papers
Maria Grazia d'Amelio
Practice and Science in Early Modern Italian Building. Towards an Epistemic History of Architecture, Schlimme, H. (ed.)
Milano: Electa, 2006
Bührig C., Kieven E., Renn J., Schlimme H.
"Towards an Epistemic History of Architecture"
"Introduction. Practice and science in early modern Italian building"
"Italian medieval building practice in contemporary visual representations"
"Modes and techniques of building on water in 16th-century Rome"
"A window on the past: what the study of historic fenestration practices can tell us about the nature of architecture"
"Architecture as mathematical science: the case of 'Architectura Obliqua'"
"Between architecture, science and technology: the Accademia della Vachia in Florence, 1661-1662"
"Eggs, turnips and chains: rhetoric and rhetoricians of architecture"
"Building accounts as architectural drawings. Borromini’s construction practice and the role of Francesco Righi"
"Building materials, tools and machinery belonging to the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro,
used for building Rome from the late 16th to the late 19th century"
"Tradition and technological innovation on Roman building sites from the 16th to the 18th century:
construction machines, building practice and the diffusion of technical knowledge"
"The Accademia della Vachia. Critical, commented edition of the unpublished manuscript Fondo
Nazionale II_46, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence", Schlimme H. (ed.)
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
1. Oktober 2003, Seite N3
Construction History Society, Newsletter
No. 67 December 2003, pages 16-17
An 18th century treatise
manuscript and the transmission of practical building knowledge
The manuscript n. 5837 in the Museo di Roma is composed of 394 pages,
numbered both on recto and verso; the last five pages contain the index and lack
numbering. A title-page is absent as is any other caption. Date, author and
ancient provenance are unknown. Its content, however, corresponds widely with
two other manuscripts, one preserved in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano in the
Borghese Fund, the other one in the Vatican Library. In her volume dedicated to
Roman architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries, Paola
Scavizzi has recognized these two codices as derivatives from a common model or
copied one from another. The compilation of the text has been dated to the 2nd
half of the 18th century. The Braschi manuscript, therefore, belongs
to this series, of which the original draft seems to be difficult to determine.
The two Vatican codices, up to now, primarily served for their most immediate
scope, which is explicitly mentioned in the title of the Borghese copy: "Raccolta
di prezzi e misure" and also of the Vatican Library copy, more difficult to
decipher as "Modo di misurare e fabbriche". They offer ample
information on prices, units of measurement and systems of measuring in Roman
Sei- and Settecento architecture.
However, the text of the three manuscripts in question could, however, be
understood as a "Manuale ad uso di muratori e misuratori", as
indicated by a later title added to the Vatican Library copy: a handbook, though
incomplete and certainly far from its final draft. The text, in fact, reveals an
underlying structure of the information collected in a seemingly accidental way.
Seen in this light, it could hold in history of architectural literature an
intermediate position between the older handbooks of prices, bold collections of
data, and late 18th-century manuals. Then the scope of this abbozzo
would be different as well, documenting the delicate and determinant phase
preceding the draft of a treatise, that is to say the collection, selection and
first organization of the material considered useful to the intent of
transmitting architectural knowledge.
In my paper I argue for this hypothesis and try to reconstruct the historical
context of this incomplete handbook, determine its addressee, detect the
intentions behind its compilation and analyze the criteria for and the procedure
of the selection of its materials.
Modes and techniques of building on water: Rome and Florence in the
Among the beauties with which the Medici dynasty embellished Florence,
Francesco Bocchi, in his guidebook of the city published in 1591, also included
the bridges over the Arno. Of the Ponte Santa Trinita he astutely remarked that
"... no less industry was expended on the foundations below water than on
what rises above it; they are massive and robust". Bocchi's observation
takes me to the heart of the theme I intend to explore in this paper: more
specifically, the modes, apparatus and organization that a building site over a
river involved in the sixteenth century. The paper focuses on three examples:
Michelangelo's restoration of the Ponte Santa Maria in Rome (1548-49);
Ammannati's reconstruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence (1566-1570)
and the construction of what is an anomalous kind of bridge, namely, the Vasari
corridor that crosses the Arno on top of the shops on the Ponte Vecchio
(March-October 1565). Renaissance building sites for the construction of bridges
were distinguished, from a technical and organizational point of view, by the
fact that their building proceeded by simultaneous horizontal stratifications,
whereas Renaissance land-based building sites, relating to churches or palaces,
proceeded by independent vertical sections, as spectacularly illustrated by the
famous drawings of the Palazzo Farnese during construction, preserved in the
Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples. The three examples chosen for this comparative
study are similar in sedimentation, in that all three were built over the gravel
beds of rivers with a very variable regime of seasonal water flows. But they are
very different in construction and foundation. In the first case the project
involved the re-foundation of a single pier; in the second, a total
reconstruction following an almost total collapse following the great flood of
1557. The corridor, lastly, is a kind of bridge with a square section, an
overhead covered passageway constructed over an already-existing bridge, the
Ponte Vecchio, and built between the water frontages of houses and shops: the
astonishing rapidity with which it was built adds to the exceptional nature of
what was a typological anomaly. These three examples present, in my view, the
advantage not only of being comparable due to their evident analogies, but also
of having been exhaustively studied from an archival and documentary point of
view. The documents relating to the building site of the Ponte Santa Maria have
been published by the present writer; Santa Trinita has been subjected to
detailed documentary studies by Amedeo Belluzzi and Gianluca Belli (who already
anticipated some of my findings); and Vasari's corridor has been studied in a
doctoral thesis by Francesca Funis now in its concluding stages, supervised by
the present writer, and in part already published.
Is the Italian Renaissance invention or reality?
The paper aims to reflect on the way buildings are conceived and the
knowledge needed to ensure a minimum of regularity and geometry. Even if
difficult to carry out on the Italian and European level, tackling the problem
might lead to some insight in the real character of the Renaissance.
When Loos said at the time of the construction of the Müller House that the
perception of space did not exist before the period of Kant, he was
exaggerating. In fact there is a good deal of evidence to indicate that the
geometrical knowledge of the ancient world persisted through the Middle Ages; it
was especially studied by Arabic scholars between the eighth and twelfth
centuries. The ideas of Euclid have been transmitted by many Arabic authors,
such as al-Hajjâj Yûsuf b Matar, Ihn al-Haytham or Ibn al Nadîm, and
translated by Adélard of Bath and Gherardo di Cremona in the twelfth century. A
very important role seems to have been played by Levi ben Gerson (1288-1344) who
wrote in Hebrew. It may be presumed, in any case, that "scientifical"
notions of geometry were known and applied in the architectural practice of the
West even before the close of the twelfth century, especially in the so-called
Florentine proto-Renaissance (San Miniato, Battistero di San Giovanni) and at
the court of Frederick II (tower of Enna, Castel del Monte, etc).
Design is not necessarily the pre-condition of geometrical space conception
as clearly enunciated in the 13th book of Euclid, which was largely
inspired by platonic theory. Both were slowly forgotten in the Byzantine world
about 600, although some buildings in Ravenna seem to be proof of an important
survival. Perhaps one of the most important steps in the history of
architectural conception is Pope Sylvester II's introduction of Arabic numbers
about the year 1000. They permitted arithmetical systems of measurements to be
used in a different way and the more exact translation into stone of regular
buildings conceived in the minds of the builders. It seems difficult to explain
part of the architectural and urban reality otherwise.
Many aspects of the relationship between East and West in the continuity of
history raise important questions about what the Renaissance really was and how
original its theoretical presuppositions were. Alberti's treatise on
architecture had the benefit of being printed. His Tempio Malatestiano is
perhaps no more regular than lots of buildings constructed several centuries
before. The use of geometry and perspective (applied not only in Antiquity, but
also in the medieval period, especially in religious architecture) are not an
invention of the Renaissance. Perhaps the term 'Renaissance' merely
corresponds to the tendency of the pioneering art historians of the nineteenth
century to slice up history into convenient sections or periods (if only for
didactic purposes) and to recognize the new social position of the artist in the
sixteenth century. There are many ways of examining the evidence of the
phenomenon and gauging its relevance: not only by analyzing architectural
culture, but also by looking at partly irregular northern Renaissance buildings.
Their stylistic identification is sometimes founded more on ornamental details
than on the officially recognized ingredients of the Renaissance.
Francis Bacon's "Instauratio Magna" and the birth of scientific
interest in practical building knowledge
Scientific interest in practical building knowledge is not a recent
phenomenon. On the contrary, documenting such knowledge formed a starting point
of modern science. With his well-known Novum Organum (1620), Francis
Bacon (1561-1626) launched a new experiment-based approach to the understanding
of nature. In a work far less well known today, the Catalogus Historiarum
Particularium, published as an appendix to the Novum Organum, Bacon
proposed that scientists should document and study craftsmen's knowledge,
which he perceived as a pool of ready-at-hand experience with nature. Bacon even
provided a documentation programme for just such a project comprising no less
than 130 fields of knowledge; they include almost a dozen building crafts like
the historia (description) of quarrying, carpentry, wrought iron-work and
the production of glass, bricks, mortar or cement etc.
By proposing to document the unwritten and often snubbed (vernacular)
knowledge of building practitioners Bacon enunciated four centuries ago what the
project "History of Knowledge in Architecture" is trying to
reconstruct from the historians' viewpoint. Bacon's landmark text found
immediate reception. It also reflected a more general phenomenon of that time.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and his circle also drew ideas from visits to
craftsmen's workshops. Can this viewpoint of the voyeur contribute more
authentic elements to a history of knowledge - in contrast to architectural
treatises, which aim to idealise, or dogmatise, architecture rather than to
describe its realisation? How far can we perceive differences between the
scientist's and the architect's approach? The paper proposes to look at the
treatises of the architects Giovanni Antonio Rusconi (1520-87) and Vincenzo
Scamozzi (1552-1616), which belong to the rare cases, where actual craftsmen's
knowledge is described. They will be compared with the writings of Evangelista
Torricelli (1608-47) and Cosimo Noferi (-1663), a disciple of Galileo
Galilei: Noferi studied the building site and from what was in use there he
passed to the explanation of more general problems of physics. The question is
posed whether later architectural dictionaries, like that of John Harris (1704),
which cover the sober description of craftsmen's knowledge as a matter of
course, stand for a fusion of the two positions. Endpoint of the research is the
Encyclopédie (1751 onwards), which describes itself as a fulfilment of
Bacon's documentation plan. In fact, no less than three quarters of the over
3000 plates contained in its twelve illustration volumes (1762-1777) are
dedicated to the pictorial documentation of arts méchaniques -
Managing supplies for the construction of Brunelleschi's
Cupola at Santa Maria del Fiore
The paper will deal with the problems of acquiring exceptional quantities and
special types of materials for the evolving structure. Florentine mercantile
skills joined with the technical direction of the architecture in the planning,
financing and quality control of materials required on the construction
site: stone, bricks, mortar, wood, metal, marble, etc. The limited financial
resources of the cathedral board of works, the finite storage space available at
the worksite, the necessity of have materials always at hand for the
regular progress of construction all presented challenges to the administrators
of the project. Furthermore, the success of Brunelleschi's great dome depended
upon the accurate control of the components of its self-supporting fabric:
the size, shape and quality of bricks and stones and metal work were all
the subject of special attention in contracts and at the time of receiving and
payment of the supplies.
The paper will present a first synthesis of the rich documentation on these
matters which is now becoming available in the context of the electronic edition
of the archive of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, "Gli anni della
Cupola". An attempt will also be made to confront these results with
the physical aspects of the cupola structure emerging in the context of the
recent photographic campaigns of the Soprintendenza and the Kunsthistorisches
Institut of Florence.
Maria Grazia D'Amelio
Building-site materials, tools and machinery of the Reverenda Fabbrica di
San Pietro and its contribution to the construction of Modern Rome
Major building sites were simultaneously opened in the churches of San
Giovanni in Laterano, Santi Luca e Martina and Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome
in the years preceding the jubilee of 1650. These were also the years of the
construction of the Palazzo Pamphilj and the completion of the Palazzo Carpegna,
as also the building of Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers and of the
Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria. Meanwhile, frenetic building work
was still in progress in St. Peter's Basilica, in the papal palaces, and
indeed all over the city. The fact that it was all going on at the same time
created logistical problems. It put tremendous strains on the supply of building
equipment, tools and materials. It also put a premium on the services of skilled
craftsmen and increased the competitiveness of the building market. These
logistical difficulties undermined the synchronism of building operations. They
also had as their direct consequence higher building costs and the failure to
respect delivery times.
In this context, the Fabbrica di San Pietro assumed a pivotal role due to its
proven managerial capacity in the running of exceptional building projects, from
the new St. Peter's (from 1506) to the construction of Bernini's colonnades
in the Piazza San Pietro (1657-68). In fact, the Fabbrica, like many boards and
building commissions established to promote religious building in Italy's
sovereign states, was able, by intervening more or less directly on Roman
building sites, to stimulate the circulation of technical expertise between
architects, master builders and other highly specialized masters and craftsmen.
Moreover, the fact that the Fabbrica di San Pietro was willing to hire out
the building tools and large-scale equipment used in its own work, and to sell
building materials otherwise difficult to obtain, played an absolutely strategic
role in the organization of building sites in the city. This trade in building
equipment and materials, conducted according to the strictly enforced
regulations of the Congregazione della Fabbrica to avoid "thefts and
abuses", is already documented in the sixteenth century (e.g. Domenico
Fontana’s hiring of some equipment for the transfer of the Vatican obelisk to
the centre of the piazza). It was to continue right down to the nineteenth
century (e.g. the loan of provisional apparatus for the raising of the Marian
column in Piazza Mignanelli, conducted by Luigi Poletti in 1856).
The present contribution aims to investigate this hitherto little examined
aspect of the Fabbrica di San Pietro. Its role had a decisive influence on
artistic choices in the individual works of architecture, on the logistics of
the building industry and on the whole economy of the growth of building in
Tradition and technological innovation in Roman building sites between the
sixteenth and eighteenth century: building machinery, building practice and
diffusion of technical know-how
The triumphant raising of the Vatican obelisk, conducted by Domenico Fontana
under Sixtus V between April and September 1586, had a knock-on effect in the
building industry: it unleashed a process of innovation and development in
building technology. The heir of Roman imperial mechanics, this technology would
reach a level of efficiency and functionality between the sixteenth and
eighteenth century not to be surpassed for a long time. It was favoured, on the
one hand, by the new impulse registered in Roman building practice from the
fifteenth century on and, on the other, by the renewed interest in mechanics,
aimed at the invention of new and more functional apparatus for the building
industry. But alongside these mechanical supports, a decisive role was also
played by the development of a quite extraordinary organizational, managerial
and technical apparatus that had its main organ of propulsion in the Reverenda
Fabbrica di San Pietro, at once an experimental laboratory and an unrivalled
reservoir of resources, both technical and professional. In this system, the
sector of building machinery assumed a major role. It became an integral and
indispensable part of architectural practice. This was not only thanks to the
progress of the theory of machinatio, but above all thanks to the gradual
advancement of the apparatus developed to support the building industry by
technical experts in the field.
The provisional apparatus, the machines and operational procedure developed
by Fontana are an integral part of a wider operational programme, inspired by
flexibility in the use of machines and equipment and their adaptation to the
ordinary practice of building. The huge financial investment implied by such a
programme was one that only the Fabbrica di San Pietro could afford. The
investment, however, could be recouped by the hiring out of machinery to other
Roman building sites. This practice continued and is still documented in the
nineteenth century, for instance in the restoration of the portico of San Paolo
fuori le Mura or in the raising of dedicatory columns and obelisks.
The prolonged use of this building apparatus is proof of the traditional and
pragmatic character that informed executive practice and building technology
right down to the introduction of construction in reinforced concrete. Until
then, wood, iron and rope would remain the main constituents not only of such
basic building apparatus as winches, windlasses, capstans, scaffolding, trestles
and derricks, but also of hoisting gear such as traglie and girelle
(pulleys). Each modification or innovation could be tested, and finally adopted,
only by use and direct practice.
In this situation of marked traditionalism, the diffusion of technical
know-how, almost exclusively of empirical and pragmatic character, remained in
the hands of the master builders and sampietrini (maintenance men) of the
Fabbrica di San Pietro, such as the unlettered expert ("homo sanza
Lettere") Nicola Zabaglia, or technical experts of various origin and
training. The frequent consultations between experts, the technical advice
sought from the most skilled building foremen (capomastri), and the
fruitful exchange of craftsmen between various building sites in Rome, generated
a spontaneous and immediate transmission of know-how in the technical and
mechanical field. Only rarely did this know-how avail itself of the nascent
science of mechanics, from which it long remained separated. To the precepts of
theoretical mechanics it seemed to prefer the more reassuring precedent set by
the well-tried building practices of antiquity and the Renaissance.
A perfect machine: the building accounts of Francesco Righi for Borromini
Borromini's architectural work was characterised by a continuous reflection
on the tools of design and representation. This is
most eloquently testified by his use of drawing as a means of controlling the
various phases in the progressive definition of his architectural ideas. The
continuous variations in scale that we find in his densely packed graphite
drawings attest to an indefatigable creativity that forced him to produce ever
more sophisticated solutions. Borrominian studies have often drawn attention to
these aspects. There exists however a world parallel to that of the drawing. It
can be placed between the phase in which the project was considered completed on
paper and that in which it became built architecture. The attention devoted by
Borromini to this phase was one of the reasons why his architectural works
appear "perfect machines" in spite of their complexity.
It was not only by drawings that the architect kept tight control on the
realization of his buildings: for they were complemented by a second tool,
represented by the measurements and estimates with which he planned the payment
of the workmen. Borromini's meticulous definition of the items of expenditure
turns these apparently cold and abstract documents into a kind of representation
of architecture "parallel" to the drawing. His detailed knowledge of
construction procedures led him to draw up extremely detailed and thorough
accounts of expenditure, which describe all the phases in the realization of his
buildings, also in their chronological succession. He must have been perfectly
aware of the importance of this tool. He sometimes used it to justify his own
architectural solutions. On other occasion he used it more aggressively as a
means of holding his patrons to ransom, in conjunction with the threat to
interrupt whole building sites.
Most of these estimates were drawn up not by Borromini himself, but by the
young Francesco Righi, who assisted the architect from the early 1640s to his
death in 1663. No one had a more intimate first-hand knowledge of Borromini's
buildings than he. So close was his relation with the architect that it could be
called almost one of symbiosis: he even imitated the master's calligraphy. In
the organization of a building site, the two must have represented a kind of
perfectly honed machine able to defend the master's peculiar architectural
solutions both from the claims of the patrons or from the recalcitrance of the
building workers, from whom they exacted extremely elaborate techniques and
processes. Joseph Connors has demonstrated that these processes imposed
considerable costs in their realization, even if the buildings in questions were
realized with the cheapest materials such as bricks, lime and pozzolana. These
building accounts represented the main instrument for arguing the soundness of
architectural solutions both for Borromini and for Virgilio Spada, who
throughout his life preserved a wide selection of metric calculations to compare
the costs of the buildings he controlled.
As shown by a small unpublished sketch datable to c.1640 (which I here
present for the first time), Borromini effortlessly passed from calculation to
drawing in representing his own technical solutions.
To this process of growth in the importance of the estimate Francesco Righi
made an essential contribution. In spite of the fact that he took no part in
determining the master's architectural solutions, his disciplined management
of building sites played a decisive role in large-scale buildings such as the
Lateran basilica. Without Righi's involvement, the often strained relations
between architect and patron would no doubt have been even more problematic (and
perhaps without his assistance, the quarrelsome architect would have pulled out
of even more building sites than he actually did).
The systematic control of the building site represented one of Borromini's
great aspirations. He demanded the right to dominate his own creations right
down to the last detail so that they should accurately reflect his logical
conception of architecture. As we know, this perfectly controlled and logical
architecture was not always accompanied by equally rational forms of behaviour.
Perhaps in architecture alone Borromini found it possible to be
"rational". That's why he tried to transform his own idea of Reason
into architectural forms. To do so he used all the means that his world placed
at his disposal. One of these was Francesco Righi whom he transformed into a
kind of professional calculator. To remain faithful to his master, Righi
renounced becoming an architect himself: perhaps this was his one fatal mistake
Italian medieval building practice in contemporary visual representations
In addition to their main theme, medieval and early modern visual
representations like paintings or mosaics often contain detailed information not
only about contemporary daily life but about contemporary building practice.
Especially biblical themes like the construction of the Tower of Babel or the
building of the ark, but also dedication and consecration scenes, show detailed
equipment of construction sites, different kinds of scaffolds or craftsmen using
historic, which often means traditional tools.
The paper examines a selection of visual representations to show whether they
present a more general view of building practice or describe a specific
historical situation and furnish detailed information about craftsmanship and
craftsmen's knowledge. Other questions could include: Are there differences
between the regions of Italy, e.g. between the Byzantine-dominated South and the
French-influenced North? Are there clusters of Roman building tradition? And
finally: can a growth of knowledge, a refinement of craftsmanship in building
practice, be ascertained in visual representations between the Middle Ages and
the Early Modern period?
Eggs, Veils, Chains: Rhetoric and Construction on Building Sites
The paper focuses on the solutions proposed from the fifteenth to the
eighteenth century for tackling the problem of the static interpretation of
construction, with reference to those parts of a building that required
particular precision in the definition of their constructional geometry. A
review of the architectural treatises of the period and of some significant
manuscripts will help to define a cultural context in which mechanical
interpretation was often transformed into a fanciful semantic shift, in an
attempt to overcome the difficulties of rendering architecture in mechanical
terms easily whittled down to calculation and demonstration.
In this context, eggs, veils and chains became key elements of a rhetoric of
construction that transformed gaps in knowledge into the seductive clarity of
analogy: the demon analogy was the privileged medium between actors,
spectators and patrons in architectural mise-en-scène. It offered a
formidably persuasive instrument for the treatment of static problems that had
not yet found a reliable scientific explanation.
Modern Architectural Information and the Myth of Precision
It all started out harmless. Evan and Sutherland's idea of a virtual
sketchpad gave way to computer aided architectural design (CAAD). Computer
drawing and modelling software has become integral to any architectural office.
The double floating point precision of computer-based drafting applications contain, however, no natural friction
against useless levels of precision. The designer can specify bricks and
concrete to the micrometer. The advent of modern management techniques and the
introduction of integrated information technologies have foddered management's
thirst for information. CAAD (coupled with databases and project management software) has created a myth of precision.
Anecdotes of construction drawings with measurements to the millimetre only
scratch at the surface of an overburdening drive for total knowledge of the
building and its construction. In the past, the planner was expected to have a broad overview of the building and its
inception. Exact details of each carving were left to the craftsmen and this
fuzziness or imprecision of the planner's knowledge was accepted by the client.
Today, the planner is expected to know every detail of every element, their cost, their assembly and maintenance schedules over the
building's lifetime. The client expects this in part, because the planner has
promised it to the client (just as the software company promised this power of
knowledge to the planner). These expectations are difficult to meet.
Complications among the planning partners arise as soon as conflicting
information is available (which often negates the original reasons for initial
design decisions). It should also be noted that the mass of information that has
been generated in planning an building is itself ephemeral. Most methods for
storing digital information (short of printing it) have a much shorter life span
than the building or even its first cycle of use until renovation.