Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 26, 2019
Peter Fane-Saunders Pliny the Elder and the Emergence of Renaissance Architecture Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 510 pp.; 8 color ills.; 74 b/w ills. Hardcover $142.00 (9781107079861)

Peter Fane-Saunders’s book is an indispensable guide to the reception of Pliny’s Naturalis historia within the architectural theory and practice of Renaissance Italy. As a systematic exploration of antiquarian literature and treatises as well as drawn and built architecture, this volume aims to compensate for a chronic lack of attention to Pliny’s treatise (77–79 CE) by architectural historians, largely due to the dominant position occupied by another ancient authority, Vitruvius’s De architectura. Fane-Saunders gathers a broad corpus of excerpts, reuses, interpretations, and citations from a wide range of textual and visual sources referring to the Naturalis historia: from Petrarch and Biondo to Daniele Barbaro, Andrea Palladio, and Pirro Ligorio in the late sixteenth century. The book thus provides a compelling narrative of the rise and fall of the popularity of Pliny’s text among architectural practitioners and theorists. Fane-Saunders skillfully pieces together fragments of the discontinuous but still decisive influence Pliny exerted, an overlooked aspect of Renaissance architectural culture that gains, thanks to this volume, new attention.

A focus on Pliny does not mean, however, that the book denies early modern architectural practice’s increasing adherence to Vitruvius, especially with respect to the theory of columnar orders and its compelling systematization. On the contrary, the author follows a well-established historiographical pattern that describes the manuscript tradition and fifteenth-century antiquarian culture as particularly interested in wondrous representations of antiquity, and therefore opposed to the increasingly philological approach that followed the advent of print. Not by chance, the pivotal dates in Fane-Saunders’s reconstruction are the appearance of the editio princeps of the Naturalis historia, produced by Johannes of Speyer in 1469; its first Italian translation by Cristoforo Landino in 1474–75, which made the text accessible to a broader audience, including practitioners; and finally the trauma of the sack of Rome of 1527. According to this narrative, Pliny’s sensuous description of the ancient world as a built environment originating from nature could not find a place within the canons of Cinquecento architecture and its theoretical production.

Fane-Saunders’s volume comprises fourteen chapters, distributed into three sections. Each chapter focuses on a selection of early modern authors, chronologically ordered and described with a recurring and accessible structure: the necessary historical background, followed by documentary evidence for the author’s access to Naturalis historia’s text, and finally a description of the type of reuse—be it a direct citation, a number of tacit references, or a more generic inspiration. Authors are often gathered in regional groupings. It becomes clear, for instance, how the Veneto played a major role in Plinian studies, the peak of which was probably the 1492–93 Castigationes Plinianae compiled by Ermolao Barbaro. With an admirable capacity for treating complex literary and philological problems by means of concise prose, Fane-Saunders draws attention to the diverse range of ways in which Pliny’s legacy was taken up in the Italian Renaissance. A revealing example is the comparison between Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria and Filarete’s Libro architettonico—described in sequence—as examples of the fascination with opulence that the Naturalis historia offers when depicting the architectural makeup of ancient Rome. Each of them, however, had distinct intentions: in the first case, to praise mankind’s control over nature and the inherent tendency of architecture toward a common good, and in the other, to provide potential patrons instrumentally with examples of the glory achieved through architecture.

Both Alberti and Filarete seem to ignore Pliny’s condemnation of the excess of private patronage in ancient Rome. The same happens with most of the early modern receptions of the treatise. The only author maintaining such a negative judgment is Fabio Calvo: the moralizing approach of Pliny is useful in his celebration of Christianity under the reign of Eugenius IV and of the Council of Ferrara’s ecumenical ideology. The description of Calvo’s references to the Naturalis historia introduces the first section of the book, which is devoted to the writings of early humanists, including Poggio Bracciolini, Giovanni Tortelli, and Pomponio Leto and his followers, from Bernardo Rucellai to Antonio Lelio, Andrea Fulvio, and Bartolomeo Marliani with their guides on the wonders of Rome. The latter humanists also started to employ the Naturalis historia as a source for the identification of specific ruins, such as Augustus’s solar marker in the Campo Marzio, by integrating the text with supplementary information that could be found in Rome’s Regionary Catalogues. This survey concludes—quite unexpectedly, given the subject of the following section—with a handful of architectural publications that privileged the visual evidence of ruins, and thus expressed doubts about Pliny’s reliability: Sebastiano Serlio’s Antiquità di Roma, Pirro Ligorio’s Antichità romane, and Palladio’s guide, L’antichità di Roma.

The second section traces the resonances of Pliny in more specialized literary production, such as architectural treatises. After the aforementioned examples of Alberti and Filarete, it considers the unorthodox case of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Significantly, this work, the least canonical among the selected writings, which does not describe architecture as a science or discipline but rather provides a nostalgic rendering of the rich fabric of all’antica architecture, resonates most with the Naturalis historia’s sensitivity. Even though the author’s access to Pliny’s text was a mediated one—largely through De re aedificatoria and Niccolò Perotti’s Cornucopiae—the tale shows a similar sensorial perception of architecture, a keen attention to the natural properties of materials, and an idea of the ancient world as populated by mirabilia and architectural wonders. After this discussion, Francesco di Giorgio’s interest in Pliny is treated briefly, while the following chapters describe an increasingly philological approach, parallel to the fortune of Vitruvius’s De architectura after its editio princeps of 1486. In Niccolò Leoniceno, Ermolao Barbaro, and Fra Giocondo, the two ancient treatises are read in parallel, through a comparative method that tries to illuminate the most obscure passages, often a product of corrupted manuscript traditions. The case of the Attic column, interpreted as a quadrangular pilaster, is considered in an interesting survey of the fortune of this Plinian motif in Antonio Manetti, Diego de Sagredo, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and his cousin Giovan Francesco, Baldassare Peruzzi, and even Jacopo Vignola. Cesare Cesariano’s edition of Vitruvius refers continuously to the Naturalis historia in the construction of a distinctly Lombard classicism, something exceptional in an otherwise uneven comparison with De architectura in the Cinquecento. For instance, Daniele Barbaro’s edition of Vitruvius and his later translation, with their pragmatic approach, explicitly dismiss Pliny’s fantasies. The section comes to a close with I quattro libri dell’architettura, studying the Plinian inspiration in Palladio’s idiosyncratic columned courtyards, which evoke the typology of the ancient atrium.

The third and final section shifts the book’s focus from textual sources to drawn and, eventually, built examples of the reception of Naturalis historia in the early modern period. After a chapter on Ciriaco d’Ancona—whose travels in Greece and the Near East offered him the exceptional opportunity to make a topographic use of the ancient text—different cases of Pliny’s fortune are presented: from Leonardo da Vinci’s technological interest in Curio’s double theater to the wonders of the ancient world reconstructed in the so-called “Ferrara Vitruvius,” such as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the temple of Diana in Ephesus. The same subjects would become an architectural obsession for Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, whose studies on the descriptions of Greek and Etruscan mirabilia from book XXXVI of the Naturalis historia are analyzed extensively. Treated as structural entities worthy of detailed analysis, the drawings—which, unfortunately, are illustrated only in part, thus making the analysis harder to follow in some passages—speak of the new archaeological attitude and linguistic inventions that emerged in the Rome of Leo X, as do other exceptional cases taken from the corpus of the Sangallo circle, such as the lavish reconstruction of Halicarnassus presented in a sheet now at the Uffizi (240 A), or the so-called Codex Stosch. A final chapter explores the proliferation of motifs generated by these studies in Sangallo’s project for new Saint Peter’s, and especially in funerary monuments, beginning with the prototype of Raphael’s project for a monument to Francesco Gonzaga and maybe less convincingly with Michelangelo’s initial idea for the tomb of Julius II. The examples are many and mostly from northeastern Italy, thus drawing attention to what had evidently become a specific local tradition. For a handful of cases, however, like the tombs of Lavinia Thiene and Ippolito da Porto in Vicenza, or the drawings by Gianfrancesco Penni in Chatsworth and Francesco da Sangallo at the Uffizi, the citation from the model of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is less cogent. A more strict selectivity in gathering examples would not have lessened this revealing exploration of funerary typology.

Such minor flaws should not diminish the ambition of Peter Fane-Saunders’s generous study or distract from its true scope. Its systematic compilation orients the reader in the exploration of a challengingly vast topic, as one can understand from the thoughtful selectivity of the footnotes, covering an impressive number of different case studies. As the first comprehensive work on the subject, this well-informed, updated account of the fortunes of Pliny in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries succeeds in its intentions and will certainly remain a reference work, filling a gap in the study of the architecture of the Italian Renaissance.

Dario Donetti
Research Associate, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz / Max-Planck-Institut, Florence