Projects XX, XXI, XXII (fols. 61v-73r)

The last three projects are characterised by their colossal dimensions and their marked quality of being ‘ideal’ and abstractly erudite. In fact this is the only time in the treatise where Serlio belies his eminently practical and empirical nature to produce something redolent of the Italian Humanist tradition, something much more rigidly Vitruvian. Although Serlio might be justified in his choices if we consider the nascent absolutism of the French royalty with its requirement of symbols to reflect this colossal central power (not to mention the practical necessity of housing an ever increasing Court), nevertheless these geometric schemes are the expression of an already out-dated, late-15th century classical erudition and are devoid of imagination. If considered thus, the severe judgement expressed by B. Lowry with respect to Serlio’s last project, the so-called ‘Louvre’ project, is perfectly correct.

[F/note: Lowry, B., ‘High Renaissance Architecture’, in College Art Journal, 1958.]

[Figure 190 - Francesco di Giorgio, Cod. Magliabechiano, fol.26v, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale]

Indeed even Palladio when presented with similar problems, as for example with early works like Villa Thiene in Quinto Vicentino (pre-1550), ‘seems strangely unlike himself, almost as if his genius was enclosed in a totally programmatic Classicism’ (Pane). And Pane’s conclusion is correct, even taking into account the high quality of the modelling of the decorative forms on the literally minimal part of the abnormal building actually built. The source of such erroneous ideas (in themselves completely extraneous to the social and human reality of the 16th century) would appear to be the only other building of the period to share such features, namely the Escorial. The Spanish palace is not, it is true, a work of great artistic merit, and its monotonous, crushing monumentality derives from its material vastness, not it must be said from any particular qualities of distribution.

The cultural root for such a problematic result is to be found (as Lowry correctly points out) in the attempts to reconstruct graphically the ancient Roman house and palace as described by Vitruvius and to propose simultaneously effective examples of ‘modern’ architecture, whilst at the same time trying (albeit superficially) to relate everything to the remains of classical antiquity (which for 15th and 16th century architects was limited to the Domus aurea and the ruins on the Palatine). These attempts find their ultimate expression in the text and designs of the Codice Magliabechiano by Francesco di Giorgio, of the last decade of the 15th century, and also in the (less schematic and less theoretical) contemporary ‘Roman’ projects by Giuliano da Sangallo for the houses of Aragon and Medici.

Such work (stifled within purely erudite limits) was surpassed almost immediately at the beginning of the 16th century by the built work of Bramante, followed straight away by that of Raphael. Their work underlines the decisive change of direction which was the result of the reversal of the cultural and intellectual position. Architects no longer tried to do violence to well-established reality in the name of classical erudition, an erudition fatally destined to remain locked within the pages of codices or sketchbooks. They used the remains of Roman imperial architecture and placed it at the service of their creative invention in the context of direct technical experience to create a new architecture. Such is the origin of Bramante’s Belvedere and Raphael’s Villa Madama.

It remains to be considered why Serlio, whose treatise for the most part provides ample and broad evidence for this historic change of direction represented by Bramante and Raphael, should for the final projects of Book VI go backwards and repeat the out-dated position of the beginning of the century. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the cultural and political atmosphere of the middle of the 16th century. There is at this period a clear neo-Vitruvian renaissance, almost a reaction to the Mannerism of Raphaelesque descent and the architectural theories of Michelangelo as revealed in his work of the period between S. Lorenzo and the projects for the fortification of Florence. Palladio’s work is one the best examples of this neo-Vitruvianism (from Villa Thiene a Quinto to the Quattro Libri and the Teatro Olimpico), and there are the examples of the foundation in Rome of the Congregazione fra I Virtuosi at the Pantheon in the fifth decade of the 16th century whose first president was Antonio Sangallo ‘the Younger’, and the fundamental edition of Vitruvius by Barbaro in 1556 with Palladio’s illustrations. Outside Italy there is the German Vitruvius by Ryff of 1543, the French Vitruvius produced by Philandrier (already author and editor of the Annotationes in 1544) in 1552 with illustrations perhaps by Serlio.

As for the political aspect, I have already mentioned several times the birth of absolutism as a historical and administrative reality even before it was a theoretical one. And such a reality conditions (or rather presupposes) specific architectural ‘types’ and forms. That this is true is proved not only by the Escorial but also by the colossal, extremely Mannerist ‘inventions’ (but abstractly Vitruvian in their plans) by Du Cerceau between 1570 and 1580. There is Charleval, founded in 1570 for Charles IX and the so-called De l’Orme project for Catherine de’Medici’s Tuileries, reproduced in Du Cerceau’s Bastiments and according to Blunt’s theory designed by Du Cerceau on an enormous scale on top of the much more modest plan by De l’Orme.

[Figure 191 - J. Du Cerceau, Project for Charleval]

Here lies the single interesting feature in Serlio’s last three projects. Blunt has observed that the last of them, hypothetically referred to as the Louvre, must have been known to the authors of the enlargement plans for the building under Louis XIV. However, Du Cerceau must already have known Serlio’s work well. Indeed the many points of coincidence between Serlio’s designs and the plan for Charleval cannot be explained otherwise.


The plan for Charleval is closely related to city Project XX, except that following the French tradition the relationship between the two main bodies of the building is reversed. Whilst Serlio places the palazzo proper with central courtyard first, following this with the lodgings for the soldiers with their individual stables (clearly different from the general stables placed further back) set around a gigantic military exercise yard, Du Cerceau has a giant ‘cour d’honneur’ preceding the château. However, apart from this reversal which is linked to the different situations of the two buildings (that by Serlio in the city explicitly administrative and a garrison, Charleval in the countryside and effectively for the Court) the basic plan is almost identical both in general and in particular. They both share the same proportional relationship as regards the large and small rectangles and squares, all arranged around the perimeter wall and the two courtyard (here however the dimensional relationship between the palace courtyard and the exercise yard is again inverted, Du Cerceau’s ‘cour d’honneur’ being larger than the palace courtyard, Serlio having the reverse relationship). They both share the principle of including (in-between the internal buildings and the perimeter wall) lateral gardens of varied design. And the most powerful proof of all that Du Cerceau’s project is derived from Serlio’s, is the fact that whilst in Serlio these lateral gardens are the only gardens in the project, Du Cerceau has in addition an enormous park behind the château which however finishes in an exedra similar to that in Serlio Project XXII in the city.

As for the elevations, Du Cerceau’s wild Mannerism allows no comparisons (although there are some generic similarities with the libro extraordinario) but Serlio’s effort to break the monotony of the surfaces with the Orders is similar to Du Cerceau’s approach. This is particularly noteworthy in the case of the entrance block protruding from the façade with the Rustic portal flanked by pairs of semi-columns crossed by Rustic bands and topped with a loggetta with Serliana, curiously defined as ‘renghiera’. I have already identified the lower part with the last and most imposing of the Rustic gates in the libro extraordinario, number XXX.

The derivation from Francesco di Giorgio’s geometric Vitruvian schemes is exceedingly clear in Projects XXI and XXII. These two are only distinguished by their dimensions and the addition, in the second, of a final series of rooms in a line and different solutions for the plan, culminating in the axial succession of three courtyards, one square, one octagonal and one circular.

Lowry’s objection is however crucial. Although this succession looks excellent on the design, underlining as it does the central axis, when built the result would be negative in that the three courtyard areas would be sealed and self-sufficient, giving no visual clue as to the direction of the fundamental axis. This is the fatal result of a mechanical and abstract application of pure Euclidean geometry in planning. Presented with the requirements of a royal palace, Serlio took a path completely counter to his modest and imaginative character, forgetting that a whole century separated him from Alberti and that he came fifty years after the golden period of 15th century speculation defined by Giuliano da Sangallo and Francesco di Giorgio. Serlio’s plans are too large even for the giant format of the codex and perhaps even he realised the inanity of the work, as it was subsequently broken up into a series of fragments of elevations and sections, entirely unconnected with each other, almost a resumé and re-evocation of all that had gone before. These final folios give the impression of being a bizarre catalogue of Italian ‘decorum’ appropriate to the first half of the 16th century, from Bramante to Giulio Romano and Sangallo.

In the light of such considerations, I believe the link (doubted by Du Colombier and D’Espezel but accepted by Dinsmoor and Blunt) between Project XXII and the hypothetical design for the Louvre commissioned by François I and dimensionally correspondent with the actual Louvre (subsequently abandoned in favour of the more limited plan of Lescot) can be reduced to a sort of Ciceronian oration recited by Serlio before the King, designed to validate his personal qualities as architecteur amongst maîtres maçons. In fact, Dinsmoor dates (using the watermarks) the first version of the project in the Columbia MS to 1542-43, thus proudced immediately on Serlio’s arrival at Court.

Irrespective of their immediate significance, these projects were to be an inspiration (a century later) to the architects of the most absolute of sovereigns, Louis XIV, (above all, I would say, to Perrault). I believe that the use of the adjective ‘absoluto’ attributed to the ‘Most Illustrious Prince’ in Project XXI is unique in the 16th century. Preserved in Serlio’s projects (particularly in the details which accompany the two plans) was an exceedingly rich ornamental repertory for the following half century of French architecture, up to De Brosse. Note for example in Project XXI the Rustic gate’s alternating brick and stone, typical of French taste of the second half of the 16th century.


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