The development of the architectural treatise in Renaissance Europe has become a popular area of research, drawing on scholarship in the history of publication, printing, reading, and a host of allied disciplines. Yet only a handful of books have received the lion’s share of attention: Alberti’s De re architectura, Serlio’s multi-volumed treatise, Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura and various editions of Vitruvius. This lopsided scholarship may be due to the availability of English translations of these works. Yet, the choice of texts suggests a more general bias toward publications that had a profound effect on the built architecture of later generations. This collection of essays on Rubens’sPalazzi di Genova, produced in 2 volumes, and published in Antwerp from 1622, confounds such a simple formula.
In a two day symposium, and now in this publication, Piet Lombaerde brought together leading European scholars to ask the question: what was the influence of Rubens’s publication? These essays offer varied and, for the most part hesitant, answers. By examining contemporary building in Genoa and Antwerp, the general conclusion is that even when Rubens was directly involved in the building project, no direct line of influence can be shown between the book and the buildings. Joris Snaet looks at the Jesuit churches of Antwerp and Brussels, and concludes that while the Jesuit architecture of Genoa was relevant for the Low Countries, Rubens’s publication seems to have had no direct relevance. The illustrations did not show, or contain enough details, for them to be used in the design process. If this is the case, then should Rubens’s treatise be catalogued a publishing failure and relegated to the artist’s minor works? The resistance to the direct use of the book in the Southern Netherlands may have been due to the difficult economic conditions that curtailed private building, as Konrad Ottenheym points out in his insightful essay. In the Northern Netherlands, however, the book had a wider effect and more immediate appeal to Huygens, Van Campen and Pieter Post who drew on the Rubens’s models for plans as well as architectural details.
The limited moments when it is possible to trace the direct borrowing from Rubens’s treatise into built architecture, however, misses the greater importance of this publication in the history of the architectural treatise. As Rubens writes ‘Al Benigno Lettore’ (translated into English in this collection of essays), Genoa is a worthy model of architecture because it is a ‘Republic of noblemen, which has resulted in the extraordinarily beautiful character of their buildings.’ He includes the houses of the Genoese professional classes, bankers and merchants, because this type of building will have the greatest relevance to his readers in cities north of the Alps, particularly in Antwerp where a rebuilding was underway. Throughout the treatise Rubens stresses the practical and functional role of palaces within the city. Their general layout, therefore, is more important than the details of their ornament. As a painter Rubens emphasized the general effect of the faade rather than any precise measurements or specifics on construction. He does not include the names of the owners because, as he points out, all these elements can change; and he is not interested in glorifying the patrons of Genoa but constructing a useful model for his Netherlandish cities.
Given Rubens’s aim at widening the architectural horizons of Northern readers, it is not surprising that the book did not make an immediate impact on architectural design. Ottenheym makes the point that Rubens intended to show design models, and that the specifics of the materials used or the size of the rooms did not matter. Yet the essay does not fully explore what is implied here: that for Rubens design was as much about political and national schemes as architectural plans. The significance of Rubens’s treatise does not lie in its usefulness as a pattern book but its explicit belief that the architectural traditions of Genoa would be of civic as well as aesthetic use to northern builders.
Builders in France were no more eager to use the book as a guide for design, as Claude Mignot shows in his all-too-brief essay. Yet the book assumed an important role as a diplomatic gift, and thus made its way into the collections of major architects and patrons.
This is the first volume of the series, Architectura Moderna, dedicated to architectural exchanges in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The publication of this volume on Rubens’s treatise, and its reception, marks an auspicious beginning to studies that examine the interactions across national boundaries. The extensive bibliography, illustrations of all the plates from Palazzi di Genova, and translations of primary texts ensure the volume’s importance for architectural historians and Rubens scholars alike.