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Building and Knowledge
Contributions to an epistemic history of early modern Italian architecture

International Conference, Rome, 18th-20th September 2003
scientific coordination: Hermann Schlimme

_____________________________________________________________________________ Proceedings Volume
Conference Reviews

Abstracts of Conference Papers

Giovanna Curcio Claudia Conforti Werner Szambien Hermann Schlimme
Margaret Haines Maria Grazia d'Amelio Nicoletta Marconi Vitale Zanchettin
Klaus Tragbar Antonio Becchi Peter Russell

Proceedings Volume

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"

Schlimme H.
"Introduction. Practice and science in early modern Italian building"

Tragbar K.
"Italian medieval building practice in contemporary visual representations"

Conforti C.
"Modes and techniques of building on water in 16th-century Rome"

Louw H.
"A window on the past: what the study of historic fenestration practices can tell us about the nature of architecture"

Camerota F.
"Architecture as mathematical science: the case of 'Architectura Obliqua'"

Schlimme H.
"Between architecture, science and technology: the Accademia della Vachia in Florence, 1661-1662"

Becchi A.
"Eggs, turnips and chains: rhetoric and rhetoricians of architecture"

Zanchettin V.
"Building accounts as architectural drawings. Borromini’s construction practice and the role of Francesco Righi"

D'Amelio M.G.
"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"

Marconi N.
"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 Critical, commented edition of the unpublished manuscript Fondo Nazionale II_46, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence", Schlimme H. (ed.)


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Conference Reviews

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
1. Oktober 2003, Seite N3

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Construction History Society, Newsletter
No. 67 December 2003, pages 16-17

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Giovanna Curcio
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.

Claudia Conforti
Modes and techniques of building on water: Rome and Florence in the sixteenth century

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.

Werner Szambien
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.

Hermann Schlimme
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 - craftsmanship.

Margaret Haines
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 Modern Rome.

Nicoletta Marconi
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.

Vitale Zanchettin
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 in calculation.

Klaus Tragbar
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?

Antonio Becchi
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.

Peter Russell
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.