Marrying Drawing to the Art of Building

All buildings are made out of other buildings or parts of buildings. An architect looking for precedents can look here. In seventeenth-century Rome, an architect had Rome’s buildings and the extensive Museo Cartacio (Paper Museum)—the modest dal Pozzo palace. The well-connected non-architect Cassiano dal Pozzo began assembling its drawings and books in the 1620s, and after his death in 1657, his brother Carlo Antonio spent another thirty years doubling the holdings. Really a compendium of what man and nature have made, roughly half was devoted to ancient arts and modern architecture and half to natural history: in all more than 7,000 drawings, watercolors, and prints, as well as 5,000 printed books and manuscripts. A publication program that began in the 1980s will reach thirty-five volumes even when excluding 1,700 drawings that may not have come from Pozzo’s museum, more than 600 drawings of ancient and modern buildings, and the Codex Coner sketchbook (now in Sir John Soane’s museum)—all accompanied by extensive scholarly apparatus.

These two handsome volumes present 306 drawings, some previously unpublished and many others buried in obscure sources. Each one receives a sharp image—many in color with detailed commentaries written by one of the project’s several knowledgeable scholars, and many with comparative images (swelling the total to 589 illustrations).

Half of the second volume presents mainly seventeenth-century decorations with wall and ceiling treatments, enframements, and nearly twenty luxuriant variations on acanthus scrollwork, all of which provide rich material to assist in emulating this taste. The other half presents a miscellany of military material—fortifications, siege and battle formations, weaponry, and armor—which reminds us that architects played a major role in war before modern warfare became mechanized just as architecture has.

The bulk of the first volume’s buildings illustrates the restored classicism that Bramante and Michelangelo brought into being. Many are familiar, extant buildings in Rome, others are unbuilt projects, a few show preliminary projects, and a few others are elsewhere in Italy and in France and Spain. About half are churches, palaces, and villas, with the balance a miscellany of parts of buildings, portals and fireplaces, and construction paraphernalia.

The choice of buildings and the museum’s use well into the seventeenth century show that the High Renaissance was not a style confined within chronological limits but a standard for the renewed classicism. A eulogy of Pozzo from 1664 explained that his collecting was “governed not by affection but by merit.” He favored the “restorers of great art, who from the measurements of Roman buildings extracted the true proportions of the most regular orders, from which no one can ever depart without error.” His interest was in the drawings’ documentary value rather than their artistic quality, and many were made by competent draftsmen, often as copies of other drawings. There are measured plans and elevations, a few sections, fewer detailed studies, and an occasional sheet studying design options. Like Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio, both of whom are well represented, he interspersed ancient works (published in three volumes in 2004) and these modern works. When merit shifted from quality to chronology, the museum’s utility diminished, and in 1762 it was sold to George III, with the bulk now residing in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

Although Pozzo’s contemporaries consulted his material, he included little of their work in his museum. His taste apparently agreed with that of the École des Beaux-Arts-trained A.D.F. Hamlin, who in 1896 characterized the Baroque as “lawless and vulgar extravagances,” “the debasement of architectural taste,” and “monuments of bad taste and pretentious sham.”

Pozzo’s collection and the graphic conventions they use illustrate the classicism that became solidified in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. It emerged from the analytical investigations recorded in sketchbooks and embodied in the vast corpus of drawings made by the assiduous and inventive architects who married drawing to the art of building and then used that offspring to make architecture like that in the projects in the Vatican, which became the school for modern classicism. Illustrated, printed books, such as those by Serlio in 1537 and Palladio in 1570, as well as Vignola’s handbook of the orders, conventionalized the representation of buildings and disseminated the renewed classicism, and the Paper Museum expanded the range of precedents to consult. Now that digital sources and the ever-dwindling range of history books seem to be increasingly antipathetic to traditional architecture and allergic to plans, sections, and details, this publication is a welcome augmentation to the resources available to those who would emulate that heroic period’s accomplishments.

Carroll William Westfall is the Frank Montana Professor at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture.  He has written extensively on the history of the city with particular attention to the reciprocity between the political life and the urban and architectural elements that serve the needs of citizens.