- Between Science and Drawings: Renaissance Architects on Vitruvius's Educational Ideas
Renaissance architecture is less a moment of stylistic change, than a new sensibility when the writings on architecture assumed a new importance for architects and patrons. Books on architecture as practical manuals and narrative [End Page 1257] accounts rapidly grew in numbers throughout the sixteenth century, and architecture was no longer a secret knowledge of artisans but a topic in the center of learned culture. Yet artists and architects were notoriously bad guides to their own buildings, though ready commentators on the architectural scene at large. In Liisa Kanerva's most recent book on Renaissance architectural theory, the curriculum for the architect is examined through a group of the canonical books of architectural theory: Alberti, Filarete, Francesco di Giorgio, Palladio, Serlio, Cesariano, and Scamozzi. Like many of the recent studies of architectural theory, this is a profoundly textual study with little or no attention to the buildings or images that would have been assumed as part of any historical reader's knowledge.
Kanerva's study of architectural treatises must be seen in connection with the flurry of recent books on the genre, most recently by Carpo, Mitrovic, and Payne. The interest in Renaissance architectural theory is in part the effect of modern architectural theory on the study of the Renaissance, as well as the search for a methodological approach to these writings that might shed new light on their significance. Yet how often the books, in their particular approach, seem to only indicate the slipperiness of the genre. Alberti's De re aedificatoria seems to be about everything vaguely associated with architecture, yet impossible to pin down. What was Alberti actually advocating, if anything? How did he intend his book to be read, and by whom? One can feel a change in the air as scholars now are increasingly turning away from these literary, theoretical aspects of Renaissance architecture toward a more materialist understanding of the experience of building, the tangible, sensuous, and even emotional aspects of Renaissance architecture in its own time and beyond.
Kanerva's interest is in architectural education, specifically the program of study laid out in the ancient text by Vitruvius. This multipronged curriculum, famously including areas of knowledge necessary for the architect as diverse as law, medicine, rhetoric, astrology, music, and so on, has been understood by some scholars as evidence of the changing profession of the architect as more than craftsman, but yet intellectually challenged enough to require vast training in science and the arts. Other scholars have not taken Vitruvius literally, but rather read his prescription for the architect as a metaphor for the place of architecture itself within the world of learned individuals as a sign of status. In either case, as Kanerva leads us through the books written by architects, in the Renaissance architecture was no longer just a technical or craft practice but now an intellectual one as well.
The chapters on literacy, philosophy, and disegno follow the arguments of several other recent scholars in this field and are less innovative in their approach. Comparing the writings on architecture to the disciplines in these other fields is by this point a well-known interpretive strategy. What remains to be answered is why architects writing on their profession would feel the need to go to wandering into these other disciplines to justify their arguments. More interesting are the chapters by Kanerva on medicine, music, and law, topics less studied in relation to architecture and often ignored for their quasi-magical or astrological aspects. Kanerva [End Page 1258] points out some of these relationships, yet fails to follow through on their implications. All of these relationships, if approached in light of architectural practice, would give new insights into how people understood architecture, as well as how it was theorized.
There are certainly new readings of the canonical texts in this book, yet the whole enterprise...