Fifteenth-Century Architectural Drawings

Fifteenth-Century Architectural Drawings and the Codification of Practical Knowledge


Giuliano da Sangallo, Taccuino Senese, Biblioteca Comunale di Siena (codex S.IV.8)
Folio 34r – study and measures of Doric and Ionic capitals and bases
© Autorizzazione Biblioteca Comunale Intronati di Siena, 21.01.2014

The obscure definition of the early modern Italian architect is a subject of longstanding interest. That there was neither a standard of architectural training, nor a professional network of practitioners is oft noted, as is the fact that the requirements and duties of the architect varied on a case-by-case basis. The ambiguous nature of the architect’s role was particularly pronounced in the fifteenth-century – the period in which the building’s designer was gradually distinguished from its maker, yet still lacked the requisite specialization to be recognized as its sole architect. In order to clarify the multivalent character of the early modern architect, scholars have coined various terms that evoke the nature of his practice: "artist-engineer," "architect-engineer," "humanist-architect," "architect-mason," and "painter-architect." While these categories usefully describe individual sectors of practitioners, they invariably fail to provide a comprehensive definition of the "architect." In fact, such a clearly delineated, codified concept did not exist in the early modern age. However frustrating, acceptance of this reality opens the door to alternative, fruitful modes of inquiry. Moving beyond the ambiguous and selective documentary record, which only further confuses our modern understanding, we might instead consider other modes by which to examine the practice of the early modern architect, and in turn, how this work defined the role he filled. This paper does so using surviving drawing-books of fifteenth-century practitioners. In particular, I will examine the Zibaldone of Buonaccorso Ghiberti (c. 1490), Francesco di Giorgio’s Codicetto Vaticano (c. 1465 – 1475); Giuliano da Sangallo’s Taccuino Senese (c. 1480), and the codex Forster III of Leonardo da Vinci (1487 – 1490; 1493 – 1496).

These four personal drawing-books are comparable not only in date and general subject matter, but also in their pocket-size dimensions, and as a select, representative set of practitioners’ drawings, they reveal a great deal about the quattrocento architect. While these books in no way comprise a comprehensive survey of fifteenth-century architectural drawing, they do speak to the diffuse contours of the discipline, and how practitioners variously worked. They codified the knowledge of those individuals who used and referenced them, and in the sense that they were passed between generations, or conserved for posterity, they are transmitters of knowledge. That all the drawings were in some way functional to the practitioner is highly important, as is the fact that none of these served as "working" documents, as we understand them today. Unlike the detailed renderings of modern architects, which typically follow standard modes of representation (plan, section, elevation and perspective), the Renaissance plans include few annotations in regards to dimensions, materials or the realization of details, and do not maintain a consistent visual language. "Working drawings" of the Renaissance were more akin to "project drawings" – schematic plans, memory records, detailed studies and inventions – which might be referenced in the planning process, and when used on the worksite, served as a means of orientation, rather than as a blueprint. In examining the drawing-books, therefore, one must relinquish the traditional distinctions between "practice" and "theory." For the fifteenth-century practitioner, an inventive sketch of ruins might have had equal "practical" value as a scaled ground plan. But how the drawings were used in practice differed greatly.