Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.15

Arnold Nesselrath, Der Zeichner und sein Buch: die Darstellung der antiken Architektur im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert. Cyriacus. Studien zur Rezeption der Antike, 5.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 9783447101936.  €58.00.  

Reviewed by William Stenhouse, Yeshiva University (

Table of Contents

Arnold Nesselrath’s new book examines the genre of the artist’s book in the renaissance, and focuses on the ways in which this type of source represents classical buildings. It is a clear, accessible, and beautifully illustrated work, on a subject about on which Nesselrath has written widely. Although its basic conclusions and contents will not be surprising to persons familiar with his research, it provides a valuable introduction to the state of the field.

Nesselrath argues compellingly that we should be very attentive to the context in which drawings of antiquities appear: they feature in codices which differ in format and material, and which were created with a range of skills and for a range of purposes. Such differences are not always apparent in reproductions in modern books or online; they should also affect how we use and interpret early modern architectural treatises and engravings of buildings. He makes his case in four chapters. The first provides an introduction to fifteenth and sixteenth century practices of drawing after the antique It includes a very useful section on what evidence we have for artists’ ability to climb, study, and measure buildings, a review of how artists reconstructed incomplete buildings, and details of how they often copied details of buildings from others’ illustrations, rather than from the originals. The second chapter focuses on Francesco di Giorgio Martini, a fifteenth-century painter, military engineer, and architectural theorist who maintained a taccuino dei viaggi, and was particularly interested in exploring new ways to communicate his ideas. Nesselrath shows that some of his drawings are from pieces that he saw – particularly valuable are his records of buildings in Campania – but he suggests that some were copies from others’ work, and may therefore preserve some record of earlier drawings from the circle of Benozzo Gozzoli, or by Filippo Brunelleschi. In turn, di Giorgio Martini’s drawings were widely copied. The third chapter looks at sixteenth-century developments, particularly in the circle of Raphael. Raphael famously wrote to Pope Leo X in the early sixteenth century with details of a project to produce a visual reconstruction of ancient Rome, based on a precise survey of ancient ruins, and suggested that in order to assess buildings properly, artists should produce a plan, elevation, and sectional drawing of each. Raphael’s letter has long been seen as having pioneering importance, but Nesselrath’s approach which juxtaposes Raphael’s recommendations with his own work as well as with contemporary sketch books, provides very useful context. Nesselrath also points to its reception among the artists and architects at work in Rome in the 1530s and 1540s, including Pirro Ligorio and members of the Accademia della Virtù. Finally, he considers how ancient architectural drawings were collected in this period, and how print technologies affected their production and reception. He examines how drawings featured in sixteenth-century accounts of antiquities and in early architectural treatises, along with the evidence we have for their preparation; he compares, for example, eighteen drawings now in the Royal Collection,Windsor, with the highly-finished copperplate engravings of plans and elevation views that appeared in Antonio Labacco’s Libro appartenente all’architettura (1559 [first edition 1552]). Architectural prints were included in books, but also published separately; collectors bought them, or detached them, and remounted and reordered them with drawings to create new opportunities for comparison. In many cases seventeenth-and eighteenth-century collectors rather than the artists or publishers, were responsible for the organization and presentation of drawings and prints that we have today.

Nesselrath has devoted much of his career to the problems illustrated in this book: in a programmatic article of 1986 he first analyzed different types of the taccuini dei viaggi, pointing out that often artists’ sketches of classical buildings depended on others’ work, and should not be taken as evidence of autopsy; he has subsequently written editions of sketchbooks, commented on individual drawings of buildings, and shown how architectural drawings can be understood within various artists’ oeuvres.1 The four chapters in this book have their origins in lectures he gave in Paris in 2002, and some of the information here has subsequently appeared elsewhere.2 But, as he points out, he has taken account of the considerable amount of material that has come to light since 1986, including some that has emerged since 2002 (like the Codex Stosch, containing drawings by Giovanni Battista da Sangallo, on which he worked with Ian Campbell).3 This is an acknowledged overview and something of a recapitulation, but one delivered with a sure hand.

For historians of renaissance artistic practice and architectural thought, Nesselrath’s work has clearly much to offer; he has made central contributions to our understanding of how architects gathered and presented evidence of buildings, to the connections between drawing, conservation and the study of the antique, and also to the relationship of drawings, single prints, and books as media for transmitting information about antiquities. His work is firmly rooted in his mostly Italian sources: he does not connect his work in detail with other studies on artists’ books (either from the renaissance, or more generally), or with more theoretical questions of medium and reception. How can classical art historians and archaeologists use his work? Centrally, he points out the risks inherent in simply taking fifteenth- and sixteenth-century representations of buildings as records of how the structures appeared at a particular time. This may seem obvious, but the temptations to extract a series of disembodied images from a database like the Census of Antique Art and Architecture known in the Renaissance (link here) are strong. Nesselrath rather reminds us that these drawings come from particular traditions, and are made with different purposes, rarely aiming to provide what we might naively call a simple visual record. More particularly, the book offers a useful introduction to a series of scholars and artists—like Giovanni Giocondo, antiquarian and editor of Vitruvius—and to various collections of illustrations from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including codices in private hands like the Codex Cholmondeley or a collection of drawings connected with Giorgio Martini’s proposed architectural treatise, both illustrated richly here. Most of the examples of buildings he mentions come, not surprisingly, from Rome, and he has valuable incidental discussions of structures that have since been damaged or destroyed, like the Temple of Minerva in the Forum of Nerva. He also remarks on individual drawings. He is doubtful, for example, that the famous early illustration of the Parthenon in Cyriac of Ancona’s papers is genuinely Cyriac’s work; so precise and competent a presentation could be the work of a merchant, and suggests that a professional architect was involved. The book has a thorough index including people, manuscripts, and sites, consequently it offers a valuable reference-point for those interested in renaissance documentation of the antique even if it does not really break new ground.


1.   “I libri di disegni di antichità: Tentativo di una tipologia,” in Memoria dell’antico nell’arte italiana, ed. Salvatore Settis, vol. 3 (Turin, 1986), 87-147 and e.g. Das Fossombroner Skizzenbuch (London, 1993).
2.   E.g. “Disegni di Francesco di Giorgio Martini,” in Francesco di Giorgio alla corte di Federico da Montefeltro, ed. Francesco Paolo Fiore (Florence, 2004), 337-367; “Il Codice Cholmondeley,” in Palladio 1508-2008. Il simposio del cinquecentario, ed. Franco Barbieri and Donata Battilotti (Venice, 2008), 140-143.
3.   Ian Campbell and Arnold Nesselrath, “The Codex Stosch: Surveys of Ancient Buildings by Giovanni Battista da Sangallo,” Pegasus 8 (2006), 9-90.

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