Introduction fol.1r

There is a generic Vitruvian opening with the Vitruvian hut (Vitr. II.i) as well as direct references to the Vitruvian text (Vitr. I.iv and VI.i.). Reference is also made to Alberti on sites, foundations and orientation of buildings.

On a theoretical level, what is particularly interesting is the distinction between country villas and city dwellings. Here the former have to have a vaghezza…di lontano ('charm when viewed from a distance'), a clear allusion to a volumetric synthesis of the building, and the latter (where majesty is important) have to be tutta piena di proportione e corrispondentia di membri ('with complete correspondence in the proportions and members'). The force of this contradistinction is to underline the nature of the classical synthesis of the decorum of the façade. Whilst it would be forced to see this as a prefiguring of Palladian ideas, there is no doubt however that the clear distinction between the problems posed by villas and those of town houses (the latter with the different rhythms of their fronts in the scenographic space close to the road) throws up a certain community of ideas between Serlio and Palladio. The same problems are set and resolved in a 'poetic' synthesis.

Of peculiarly Serlian origin is the distinction - made here with more clarity than in any other place in the treatise - between commodity and decorum, and commodity is further defined when Serlio declares that he will use 'French commodities, which I have found really excellent'. The origin is clearly the Vitruvian triad (I.iii) firmitas, utilitas, venustas. As a clear act of 16th century pride, and reflecting the fact that Serlio was a man of the same generation as the machinisti Leonardo and Giuliano da Sangallo, firmitas (that is, the science of construction in the technical sense) is not even taken into consideration - all there is on this quality is the dry reference to Vitruvius and Alberti on matters such as geology, foundations and materials. It is true that Serlio does make reference to technical matters in Book VI (and VII) - notably, a preference for brick over cement conglomerate and timber - but the category of firmitas is now taken for granted. What is left is utilitas and venustas: i.e., commodity and decorum.

The correspondence with Palladio, who at the beginning of his treatise translates utilitas as l'utile o commodita, is perfect, but this correspondence remains only on a superficial semantic level. Palladio, the authentic, rigorous theoretician, sees the three terms in an absolute unity and aesthetic interdependency, in which the formal quality of the buildings comes from a complete satisfaction as much in terms of bellezza as of commodità and perpetuità. Serlio simply re-clothes in austere humanist vocabulary the practical and elementary distinction between the distributive characteristics, the specific function, the correlation between the rooms in the building, and the decorative mechanism of the theory of the Orders. We read in Palladio 'Commodity is achieved when each member is given: a suitable position; a site adapted to its needs; no less than what is needed for dignity; and no more than what is required by use'. This is a formulation linked to principles of eurhythmy and humanistic ideals of superior dignity. What is also significant is the perfect parallelism - even in the translation of the concept in a logical structure - with the definition of the eurhythmic beauty of the building. To understand the difference between this and Serlio, note simply the impossibility of adapting to such a formulation the national distinction between French and Italian styles.

The buildings to be considered in Book VI go, step by step, from the lowliest hut to the house of the Prince, or indeed, that of the King, since the author is in the service of the 'most Christian King' Henry. It is interesting to note that this phrase repeats almost to the letter that in the introduction to Book I (1545), whilst the general programme prefacing Book IV (1537) for Book VI speaks only of a generic progression

from the poorest hut to the most ornate palace for a Prince. It is possible to deduce, therefore, that Serlio reached his definitive concept of a speculum architecturae ('mirror of architecture') from the hut to the palace, only after his arrival in France, yet still bearing in mind that the distinction between country and town architecture was of clear Venetian origin and also planned in the programme of 1537.

As regards his relations with France, Serlio admits the utility of the technical viewpoint (inherent in firmitas) of the people of the place and the types of specific trades, but then quickly dons the Vitruvian toga (VI.viii.10) to affirm that the 'arranging of a well-conceived and well-proportioned building' is the privilege only of scholars of worthy architecture (in other words, classical), those who possess the skill of 'graphica, that is design'. The rest are 'blinder than moles'. Such a display of erudition - which in Italy would remain merely that, given that from Alberti to Palladio in such circumstances people limited themselves to paraphrasing Vitruvius as a rhetorical convention - here becomes openly used as a polemical weapon against the maçons, in parallel with De l'Orme. Thus a curious fate for Serlio was to be accused by Lomazzo thirty years later (using the same weapon) of being a sort of maçon, one of those who was 'able only as far as the material is concerned and the discussions of what to do', as opposed to the true architects who were 'skilled designers/draughtsmen'. The fact that Serlio, not for erudite but for polemical reasons (and speaking in a very precise and specific way about dispositione, that is, the general laying out of the project), insists on the term 'design' (to such an extent that he uses the Greco-Latin term graphica in order to remove any sense of conceptual abstraction), would seem to imply that such a graphic practice was entirely extraneous to that of the maçons. It is a fact that all French architectural designs of the period, up to the Serlio-De l'Orme-Lescot turning point, draw on the Italian experiences of the creators of the Renaissance in France.


Back to Index