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Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture

Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture

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by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, John Leeke (Translator), David Watkin (Introduction)

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One of history's most published architectural treatises, this Renaissance volume solidified the architectural canon of the past five centuries. In these pages, the distinguished architect known as Vignola identified the five orders — Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite — and illustrated them in full-page elevational detail.


One of history's most published architectural treatises, this Renaissance volume solidified the architectural canon of the past five centuries. In these pages, the distinguished architect known as Vignola identified the five orders — Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite — and illustrated them in full-page elevational detail.
Vignola's engravings have been copied countless times since their original publication in 1562. The clear images with brief captions constitute a practical rather than theoretical work, offering even lay readers a system of tools that provide accurate proportions. An essential reference for professional architects, this book has guided generations of architects, including those who rebuilt London after the Fire of 1664. This new edition features an Introduction by architectural historian David Watkin.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Architecture Series
Product dimensions:
8.10(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.40(d)

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Canon of the Five Order of Architecture

By Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, John Leeke

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 David Watkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-27864-3


"It is always necessary to know what we want our eyes to see." —Vignola, Regola 1562

The Life and Work of Vignola

Vignola, author of what has been seen as the most influential of all architectural treatises, was employed for over thirty years in the papal service, notably that of Alessandro Farnese, Pope Paul III (reigned 1534–49), and his grandsons, Alessandro (1520–89), Ottavio (1524–86), and Ranuccio Farnese (1530–65). Pope Paul III was a major architectural patron, responsible for the monumental Palazzo Farnese in Rome, and for commissioning Michelangelo to renovate and rebuild the Campidoglio. He was also a central figure in the Counter Reformation, summoning the Council of Trent in 1545, and authorising the foundation of the Society of Jesus for which Vignola was to build its mother church in Rome, the hugely influential Gesù (1568–73).

Despite attracting such powerful patrons, Vignola was himself modestly born in 1507 in the village of Vignola, hence the name he acquired. He was raised in nearby Bologna where he was trained as a painter, but turned to architecture, probably in early the 1520s under the influence of the great painter-architects, Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536) and Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554), both of whom were then active in Bologna. Serlio was preparing his life work, L'Architettura, a treatise codifying the five classical orders of architecture that profoundly influenced Vignola's own Regola delli cinque ordini of 1562.

In 1538 Vignola moved with his wife and children to Rome where, working as a painter and designer, he became involved with the Accademia della Virtù. Led by the humanist Claudio Tolomei, this academy of antiquarians, humanists, architects, men of letters, noblemen, and clerics, formed a plan to publish a multi-volume illustrated study of Vitruvius and ancient architecture, to which Vignola contributed measured drawings, now lost. There were many such academies in Renaissance Italy to which talented young men of humble birth were admitted on equal terms with noblemen who might become their patrons. One such academy was that of Count Giangiorgio Trissino in Vicenza of which Palladio's membership established his career. It is likely that Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, to whom Vignola was to dedicate his Regola, may have met Vignola through the Accademia del Virtù, where the Cardinal's secretary was a member.

Vignola now went to Fontainebleau to cast bronze replicas of classical statues in the Vatican for King François Premier. Here in 1541-3 he had further contact with Serlio, but returned to Bologna where he had been appointed architect of S. Petronio by Pope Paul III in 1541. Here, he was confronted by the task of how to complete this Gothic basilica but all attempts proved abortive. An early work by Vignola, far removed from the rigid system of his later Regola, is Palazzo Bocchi, Bologna, begun in 1545 in a bizarre and Mannerist language, but not completed to his design. It was commissioned by a learned patron who chose the emblematic sculptural programme and inscriptions that appear on its façade.

In 1559 Vignola settled permanently in Rome, continuing in the service of the Farnese family as well as becoming architect to Pope Julius III (reigned 1550-–5), a post that Vasari claimed to have obtained for him. For Pope Julius he built the Villa Giulia (1550–5), with Vasari and Ammanati, and the nearby Sant'Andrea, Via Flaminia (1550–3), with an interior featuring a revolutionary oval cornice and dome. This spatial experiment, for which nothing in his Regola prepares us, was developed more fully in his S. Anna dei Palafreniere in the Vatican (1565-76), where the whole nave was an oval, though in a rectangular shell. As the first Italian architect to build a church with an oval ground plan, he exercised a considerable influence on Baroque architecture. There is a further freedom at S. Anna in that the interior is unrelated to the exterior and the entrance façade is organised quite differently from the side façades.

Before his elevation to the papacy as Paul III in 1534, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had begun a moated, pentagonal fortress at Caprarola, north of Rome, from designs by Antonio da San Gallo and Peruzzi in the early 1520s. This gigantic powerhouse was probably only one storey high when Paul III's grandson, Alessandro Farnese, commissioned Vignola to complete it to a totally different design of his own in 1555. He changed the central pentagonal court to the more harmonious circular form inspired by Raphael's incomplete Villa Madama, Rome (c.1518–30). Built from 1559 to 1573, Vignola's Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola shows his genius as an architect, engineer, urban planner, and painter, for it was conceived in scenic and symbolic terms, dramatically approached from a specially created axial road, sixteen metres long, terminating in a composition of ramps, staircases, and a drawbridge.

The astonishing circular staircase inside the Palazzo, with superimposed columns of the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite, orders, was combined "with a wealth of balusters, niches, and other fanciful ornaments," as Vasari put it. The Palazzo was crowned by giant cornice, a highly original blend of Doric and Corinthian over Composite pilasters, which Vignola chose to illustrate in his Regola. Vasari praised the "rich and regal villa of Caprarola," explaining that the client's ambition was that "the whole work should spring from the fanciful design and invention of Vignola." It shows us the other side of Vignola's aesthetic, which is important for us to understand so that we can set in perspective the superficial dryness of his Regola. Only then we can see how this book is a means and not an end.

Vignola's colossal but never completed Palazzo Farnese at Piacenza was commissioned by Duke Ottavio Farnese and his Habsburg wife, Margaret of Austria, the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V. It was begun in 1558 by Francesco Paciotto, but Vignola immediately replaced him. After Michelangelo's death in 1564, Vignola was commissioned to complete the interiors of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome for Ranuccio and Alessandro Farnese and then for Ranuccio's son, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. Here for twenty years, Vignola designed doorframes, chimneypieces, wooden ceilings, and furniture.

His principal contribution to the Palazzo Farnese was the Sala Grande where he created the monumental chimneypiece of coloured marbles with a complex pediment and heraldic achievement. It is interesting that this closely follows in form the aedicule in the Frontispiece of his Regola delli cinque ordini. He also echoed the coffered ceiling above that aedicule on a more ambitious scale in the ceiling of the Sala Grande with its complex patterns of squares, rectangles, and ovals. This was clearly inspired by designs published by Serlio IV. Another notable survival of Vignola's contribution to the Sala Grande is his magnificent table of c.1568–73, its top inlaid with Egyptian alabaster and semi-precious hardstones, incorporating the Farnese lily, flowers, and cartouches. It rests on carved marble piers by Guglielmo della Porta, incorporating harpies, mythical beasts with the head and breasts of a woman and the wings and claws of a bird.

Vignola was also brilliant as a garden designer, as shown by his architectural gardens at the Villa Lante, Bagnaia, and the Farnese Gardens of 1567–73 on the Palatine in Rome, overlooking the Forum. The perspectival skill so clearly deployed at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola and the pavilions of the Villa Lante, recall his posthumous book, Le Due Regole della Prospettiva Practica (Rome, 1583). John Leeke was intending to translate this work, following the publication in 1669 of his translation of Vignola's Regola as The Regular Architect in which he confidently announced that he would publish "in a short time the Rule of Practical Perspective of the same Author." As published in 1583, Vignola's Due Regole contained a long and learned commentary by Ignazio Denti, so that it became what has been described as the definitive statement on Renaissance perspective and probably the earliest important book on the subject published in Italy. With its expression of Vignola's belief in the importance of the relation between the viewer and the viewed, his book was found helpful to painters of theatrical Baroque ceiling frescoes. However, a recent scholar has complained that, architecturally, his refusal to accept the "bifocal vision" exploited by Bernini in the Piazza San Pietro prevented for over a century the development of "la scena per angolo." Nonetheless, Vignola's book on perspective was so popular that there were five further editions in the first half of the seventeenth century, another five during the next century, and one as late as 1830. Meanwhile, the architect James Malton published The Young Painter's Maulstick: Being a Practical Treatise on Perspective ... Founded on the clear mechanical Process of Vignola and Sirigatti (London, 1800).

Vignola died without having achieved wealth or rank and with a reputation of being somewhat prickly by nature. However, as a measure of the immense regard in which he was held, he was buried in the Pantheon, as had been Raphael and Peruzzi, while Ignazio Denti claimed in the biography of him in the Due Regole della Prospettiva Practica, that "it seemed like the will of God that the greatest architect in the world should be buried in the greatest building in the world."

It was doubtless during the 1550s when Vignola was building his three masterpieces, the great Jesuit church of the Gesù, the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, and the Villa Giulia, that his Regola delli cinque ordini doubtless took its final form. It was first published in 1562 and, though undated, is known to be of this date because of a letter from Vignola's son ordering a copy in that year and a letter from Vignola in 1561 seeking help in obtaining copyright. The name of the engraver of the plates remains unknown.

The book was to have an astonishing publishing history of over 500 editions in 400 years in ten languages, Italian, Dutch, English, Flemish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, during which it became perhaps the most influential architectural book of all time. What is also fascinating is that the architects responsible for these later editions, including, as we shall see, John Leeke in 1669, changed its appearance so that it could serve as a base on which they could form their own architectural schemes. This was in contrast to the works of Alberti, Serlio, Palladio, and Scamozzi, which were not altered in subsequent editions in the same way as Vignola whose deceptively simple presentation was to prove timeless. Consisting of clear illustrations with brief captions and no elaborate corpus of theory, it presented a near blank canvas on which generations of architects could paint their own visions.

Leeke's Translation in 1669 of Vignola's Regola

The key promoters of this edition of Vignola were John Leeke, its translator; William Sherwin, the distinguished engraver and pioneer of the mezzotint technique; and the bookseller, Rowland Reynolds. Described on the title page as a "Student in the Mathematicks," Leeke was the learned editor of The Elements of Geometry(1661) and Master from 1673 of the Mathematical School at Christ's Hospital. He also published New and Rare Invention of Water-Works (1659), his own translation from the French of a work of 1644 by Isaac de Caus, architect, garden designer, and hydraulic engineer, whose work included the celebrated garden at Wilton House, Wiltshire. Leeke was, in addition, one of the six land surveyors appointed in 1666 to survey and map the ruined City of London after the Fire, working under the supervision of Robert Hooke, Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, and architect associate of Christopher Wren.

One of the practical aims of Leeke's translation of Vignola's Regola was thus to educate in the classical language the builders, designers, and craftsmen, who were needed to rebuild London after the Fire of 1664. This was made clear in the expanded title that Leeke gave to the book, explaining that it was "For the Use and Benefit of Free Masons, Carpenters, Joyners, Carvers, Painters, Bricklayers, Plaisterers." His aim of presenting the book as a practical rather than a theoretical work is also clear from his dedicatory preface, "To the Readers," in which he explains how, finding that writers on architecture provide various accounts of "the ornaments of the five orders," he decided to formulate a canon based exclusively on his own first-hand study of "the antiquities of Rome." He explains that in establishing this canon "taking them purely altogether from the ancients, and not mixing any thing of my own," which, he adds cryptically, was "not as Zeuxis did of the virgins among the Crotoniacks."

Vignola's purpose in studying the antique models was "To draw from thence some Rule to reduce the said five Orders or Architecture under one brief Rule, easie, and which might readily be put into practice." He believed that, "by this means I have so facilitated this part of Architecture (otherwise so difficult) that any [one of] mean understanding, if he have but only some taste of the Art, may comprehend the whole at one view; and easily use the same, without taking too much pains in reading." This stresses the important role of the book as educating the untutored, a point Vignola further explains by stating that, "[I] Consider that those things are easiest retained in the memory, which is taught by the fewest precepts."

In giving his edition of Vignola the shortened title of The Regular Architect, Leeke explained that "[I] have styled him the Regular Architect, because he sets down one general Rule for the Principal Numbers of all the Five Orders." The rule is based on the module, which is the diameter or half the diameter of a column, at its base. The height of the column will be x times this measurement, varying according to the different characters of the Tuscan, Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite orders. Vignola's important forerunner, the architect Sebastiano Serlio, was the first to set out such a rigid proportional system for all columns in his Regole generali di architettura (1537), the fourth volume in his treatise of which the last appeared in 1575. Since such a system was unknown in the ancient world and alien to the freedom enjoyed by Greek and Roman architects, Serlio and Vignola have been criticized as restricting the rich diversity open to classical architects. However, it can be argued that, as in language, it is important to have a grammar so that the poetry of freedom can be measured against it.

Vignola based his canon on a module that, unlike Serlio's, was half, not the whole, diameter of the column. The smaller size made it easier to apply to the small component mouldings of the order, while even more importantly he extended the module to include all features of the order, not just the columns. Since Vignola was an architect, he brings his presentation of the modular system alive by following the detailed plate of each order with a representation of it applied as engaged columns to an arcade of round-headed arches. The columns stand on pedestals that, perhaps surprisingly, were regarded at that time as an integral part of the orders.

The Frontispiece to Vignola's Regola, Adapted in the Edition of 1669 by Leeke and Sherwin

The dramatic frontispiece, dominated by a pedimented aedicule flanked by columns, bears the inscription, "The Effigies of Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. W Sherwin sculpsit et excudit" in a tablet between the pedestals of the two columns. The richly ornamented and inventive aedicule shelters a portrait bust of the author-architect, sober, bearded, and holding a pair of dividers. In the first edition of Vignola's book in 1562, brackets on either side of the aedicule support female statues probably representing architectural theory and practice, holding respectively diagrams and instruments including dividers and a T square. These figures have unaccountably been omitted in the Leeke/Sherwin edition.

The aedicule is flanked by columns with fanciful Composite capitals incorporating birds in the place of the caulicoli (acanthus stalks) and the central flower of conventional Composite capitals. These recall the winged Pegasus pilaster capitals in Augustus's Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome, dedicated in 2 B.C., and a similar capital at the Baths of Caracalla. In the center of the frieze between the capitals in the frontispiece is an oval tablet flanked by rich garlands of fruit, tied with ribbons, which are inspired by the garlands flanking the pilasters in the portico of the Pantheon.


Excerpted from Canon of the Five Order of Architecture by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, John Leeke. Copyright © 2011 David Watkin. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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