Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.09

John R. Senseney, The Art of Building in the Classical World: Vision, Craftsmanship, and Linear Perspective in Greek and Roman Architecture.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xv, 245.  ISBN 9781107002357.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas, Brown University (


This is an ambitious book, carefully edited and profusely illustrated. From the outset Senseney poses challenging questions: What was the impact of the art of building on ancient perceptions of the world? (p. 4) How did architectural craftsmanship condition vision? (p. 3) Did early Greek architects anticipate Plato’s concept of ideai? (Ch. 1) While many passages will excite scholars reflecting on the origins, purposes, and cultural significance of ancient architectural drawing, Senseney fails to answer the difficult questions he poses—perhaps because the existing evidence for ancient architectural drawings is insufficient to answer such broad questions.

As an alternative to recent studies of ancient architecture that Senseney terms too “solid," and that, according to him, shrink from the “immense challenge of interpret[ing]” ancient design processes (p. 25), Senseney offers a spirited account of the role of drawing in ancient architectural practice and intellectual life. He contends that architectural drawing transformed theories of vision and the representation of the universe in science and philosophy. This argument is based on the premise that “[ancient architecture] depended on drawings as its guiding ideas to create a sense of order in the built world akin to the very sense of order built into the cosmos” (p. 25). While our evidence for ancient architectural drawings is diverse and expanding, many of our extant drawings have very specific practical purposes, and the extrapolation from a column-fluting diagram to a cosmic model involves a perilous leap.

In chapter 1, Senseney deals with how some Classical and Hellenistic temples may have been designed and speculates about the use of drawings in their conception and production. He concludes that temples built before the fourth century BCE do not seem to necessitate drawings. He also establishes tenuous links between architecture, philosophy and cosmic representation and conjectures that Plato may have known of idea—“distant imitations of the underlying sense of order that […] the divine craftsman built into the universe” (p. 17)—as a label used to designate architectural and astronomical drawings. In chapter 2, Senseney theorizes about the origins of scaled ground-plans and perspectival drawings, noting “strange connections” (p. 58) between the fields of optics, astronomy, painting, and architecture. Speculations about the relationship between radial constructions and theories of vision lead him to claim that “it was the theater as the architect’s unique invention of a vessel for communal vision in the city that first brought forth a shape for the notion of order in space in the built world of the city, the sanctuary, and cosmos” (p.77). In chapter 3, Senseney turns to the evidence for ancient architectural drawings, arguing that they contributed “to the construction of order in both nature and the viewer’s perception of it” (p. 104). He also discusses the impact of the protractor on the design of monumental buildings, especially theaters, and maintains that architectural drawings determined not only the geometry of these structures, but even relationships between buildings at an urban scale (p. 141). While this chapter is heavily indebted to the studies of Lothar Haselberger, Senseney offers interpretations of his own, including a new analysis of the entasis drawings from the temple of Apollo at Didyma (Appendix A). In the fourth and final chapter, Senseney postulates that the repeated practice of architectural drawing shaped both architectural spaces and the way people viewed the world.

Senseney’s first problem is that his intended audience is so multifarious that his argumentation is prone to dispersion. The book is explicitly aimed at classicists and historians of art, architecture, philosophy, and science, as well as practicing architects who are inspired by the ruins of classical architecture (pp. xi and 22). Senseney’s description of his goals illustrates the character of his undertaking: “this study explores the relationship between drawing, seeing, and the birth of theoretical philosophy as an inward seeing associated with knowledge (‘insight’), ways of envisioning nature, and even the nature of vision itself” (p. 9). The tone may ring Plotinian, but we are spared Plotinus. Instead, Senseney invokes Heidegger, Kant, Ficino, and the author of the Tao Te Ching in the introduction alone. These various thinkers may have made important contributions to the philosophy of representation, but Senseney does not make clear why they are pertinent specifically to the study of ancient architectural drawing. A more circumscribed treatment of his topic would have benefited his purpose. Rather than mentioning Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky (1792-1856), the so-called “Copernicus of geometry,” in a discussion of Euclidean “drawings,” Senseney could have cited the work of Reviel Netz on Greek mathematical diagrams, an eminently relevant contribution to his subject, not least for Netz’s discussion of the use of diagrams in non- mathematical contexts—including architecture—and his suggestion that, among the Greeks, visual representations such as plans and maps were more frequently used to persuade rather than to inform.1

Senseney’s ahistorical treatment of textual sources is more problematic. His marshaling of far-flung authorities such as Alkmaion of Kroton or Autolykos of Pitane (pp. 63-64) may fail to convince readers about the importance of drawings in ancient intellectual life, but it is his reactionary notion that the ancient architect conforms to the Vitruvian picture of an architect that is most disquieting.2 While Vitruvius is a key source for the study of the self- presentation of Augustan specialists, his treatise, De architectura, is rhetorically charged and idealizing and is hardly the best way to examine how Roman architects worked in general or what use they made of drawings in particular. In fact, one of the great challenges about working on Greek and Roman architecture is the variety of people who conceived, designed, erected, modeled, and, yes, even drew buildings in antiquity.3 This diversity is nowhere addressed in Senseney’s book. Before inquiring into the impact of architectural drawings in antiquity, it would be prudent to ask who the ancient people were who may have interacted with such drawings? If we concentrate on the Roman world we could turn, for example, to the relevant epigraphic sources collected by Michael Donderer. 4 If one is wary about trudging through a volume of arduous inscriptions, one could turn instead to Serafina Cuomo’s instructive chapter on the architects of late antiquity;5 if one is intent on focusing on earlier practitioners, one could study Janet DeLaine’s essay on the construction industry of imperial Rome.6 All of these studies could have added a sober sparkle to a bibliography already enlightened by Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida. More importantly, they could have served as a check to the idealized Vitruvian portrait of an architect that Senseney favors. A more surprising absence in Senseney’s bibliography is Lise Bek, whose publications explore precisely the relationship between ancient architectural practice and theories of vision and representation. 7

Underlying Senseney’s arguments are the assumptions that ancient architecture depended on drawings and that buildings reflected cosmic order. Instead of wondering whether or not Iktinos drew plans on the lost blocks of the archaic Parthenon (p. 40), we should look—as Senseney goes on to do—at the ruins of existing buildings for clues as to what role drawings played in their design and construction. But we must look well beyond the Parthenon, even while recognizing the Parthenon’s importance.8 The notion that most, or even many ancient architects used drawings to design buildings does a disservice to the study of ancient architecture and to recent advances in our understanding of ancient architectural drawings: this supposed reliance on drawings is the direct result of retrojecting later architectural practices onto classical antiquity. While theaters and amphitheaters, as well as some large baths and temples demanded drawings, models, or both,9 there is simply no evidence that ancient architectural drawings were ever afforded the importance that they have had for architects since the Renaissance. In fact, some architects did use drawings in the design process, while many others probably did not; instead they relied on personal experience, verbal descriptions, modular measurements and the occasional model. As Senseney realizes, (pp. 160-161), sometimes a single building was constructed by different teams of specialists, not all of whom had recourse to drawings.

Most buildings—both ancient and modern—are the composite result of diverse minds, wills, and talents. And yet, much of Senseney’s case rests on the premise that architectural projects reflected primarily their architects’ intentions. I doubt that many ancient buildings—even monumental ones—reflected cosmic order.10 Even if I am wrong about this point, most ancient monumental architecture was produced with far different strictures of design and facture than the Parthenon or the Temple of Apollo at Didyma and that there are clues about technical drawing in lesser monuments than those. A thorough exploration of the impact of Greek and Roman architectural drawings on the way ancient people viewed the world should have room for the sorts of lofty visions that Senseney hypothesizes about, but not at the expense of the Roman masons who used 1:1 diagrams of an entablature carved on a paving stone to cut their architraves, friezes, and cornices. Such sketches make up a significant portion of extant architectural drawings; while they may not reflect the order of the cosmos, they do tell a story about how drawing informed ancient perceptions of the world. A related shortcoming concerns Senseney’s lack of attention to architectural models; anyone interested in the role of drawing in ancient architectural design and process must tackle the tensions between two- and three-dimensional paradeigmata, especially given the relative abundance of architectural models during the Roman period.11

Senseney’s analysis of existing architectural drawings, as well as of the underlying geometry of monumental buildings, is sound, but the argumentation of his larger points is frustratingly elusive and his conclusions excessively conjectural. And yet, in the end, it is hard not be stirred by the questions he raises: What were the origins of Greek and Roman architectural drawings? How did drawings determine the actual outcome of a building and a city? And, did architectural drawings affect aspects of intellectual life beyond architecture? While reading this book I repeatedly asked myself: how should we go about answering these questions? The approach is surely interdisciplinary, but rather than offering philosophical speculations, one could begin by trying to elucidate the cultural context of ancient architectural drawings. Vitruvius and the precious few ancient diagrams that we have are surely important, but so too is a wealth of archaeological information that sheds light on ancient architectural processes: inscriptions, models, and, paradoxically, the many ancient building in whose design and construction drawings do not seem to have been used.


1.   Reviel Netz (1999) The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: a Study in Cognitive History (chapter 1, “The lettered diagram”), BMCR 2000.02.17.
2.   For a succinct exposition of the risks of relying excessively on Vitruvius in the study of ancient architecture, see Edmund Thomas “Architecture” in Alessandro Barchiesi and Walter Scheidel (eds.) (2010) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies, especially pp. 844-845, BMCR 2011.04.43.
3.   The profusion of Greek and Latin terms for people “who had specialized knowledge of building” can convey a sense of the range of specialists who may have come in contact with architectural drawings. In Greek: architekton, tekton, mechanopoios, oikodomos, and technites; in Latin: structor, faber, aedificator, etc. I have taken the quotation and the lists from Serafina Cuomo (2007), Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity, p. 134, BMCR 2008.08.25.
4.   Michael Donderer (1989) Die Architekten der späten Republik und der Kaiserzeit. Epigraphische Zeugnisse.
5.   Serafina Cuomo, Chapter 5 of the book cited in note 2 above. For a discussion of the use of architectural drawings (or rather the lack thereof) among Middle and Late Byzantine architects, see Robert Ousterhout (1999) Master Builders of Byzantium (Chapter 3 “Drawing the Lines and Knowing the Ropes”). Ousterhout’s study could serve as a “blueprint” for a rigorous analysis of similar issues in Greek and Roman antiquity.
6.   Janet DeLaine (1997) “Building the Eternal City: the Construction Industry of Imperial Rome” in J. Coulston and H. Dodge (eds.), Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, pp. 119-141, also BMCR 1998.11.41.
7.  Among Bek’s relevant publications note especially Towards Paradise on Earth: Modern Space Conception in Architecture, A Creation of Renaissance Humanism (1980), whose third part “Axes and space in antiquity” deals directly with some of the issues Senseney discusses; see also “Antithesis: a Roman attitude and its changes as reflected in the concept of architecture from Vitruvius to Pliny the Younger” in Studia Romana in honorem Petri Krarup (1976) pp. 154-166 and “Venusta species : A Hellenistic rhetorical concept as the aesthetic principle in the Roman townscape” in Analecta Romana Instituti Danici 14, (1985) pp. 139-148.
8.   Senseney’s treatment of the Parthenon is anachronistic. It is true that there are no accounts of ancient reactions to “the crystalline perfection and subtle refinements of masonry in a building like the Parthenon,” (p. 21) but was this “crystalline perfection” really there to be perceived in antiquity? On the changing perceptions of the Parthenon in classical antiquity and Byzantium, see the lively account of Anthony Kaldellis’s (2009) The Christian Parthenon” (especially chapter 1 “Conversions of the Parthenon”).
9.   See e.g. Mark Wilson-Jones (1993), “Designing Amphitheaters” in Römische Mitteilungen 100, pp. 391- 442.
10.   More than half a century ago, Richard Krautheimer warned scholars of the perils involved in studying ancient architecture as a reflection of cosmic order; see his “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5 (1942), p. 9.
11.   On such models see the 1997 catalogue Las casas del alma: maquetas arquitectónicas de la antigüedad 5500 a.C.-300 d.C. ; on the tension between two-dimensional and three-dimensional prototypes, see Rabun Taylor (2003) Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process pp. 27-36, BMCR 2003.11.20.

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