Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.10

Antonio Corso, Drawings in Greek and Roman Architecture.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2016.  Pp. vi, 112.  ISBN 9781784913717.  £25.00​.  

Reviewed by Philip T. Stinson, University of Kansas (

Table of Contents

The study of ancient architectural representation in drawings is relatively new. Until recently, Egyptian architectural drawing practices remained better known and understood than those of the Greeks and Romans. New discoveries have rectified this situation somewhat. In 1979 Lothar Haselberger discovered and documented numerous incised architectural diagrams on the interior cella of the great Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Haselberger identified the drawings as representations of the very building upon which they were incised. This moment led to a wave of discoveries of similar incised architectural drawings elsewhere. Heisel’s volume Antike Bauzeichnungen of 1993 was the first attempt at a comprehensive study of Greek and Roman architectural drawings. 1 Antonio Corso’s book is the second.

This book, characterized by the author as an essay (1), comprises just over 50 pages of text organized in eight sections and followed by an illustrated catalogue of 55 entries. Chapters One through Six treat textual evidence for the existence of architectural drawing; Chapter Seven, material evidence; Chapter Eight, conclusions. The central strength of Corso’s book lies in the evidence he pulls together from textual sources to support his observations.

Chapter One describes the evidence, mainly from Vitruvius, De arch., for ancient treatises on specific buildings, mainly temples, written by Greek architects of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Chapter Two treats references in Vitruvius to the skill of draughtsmanship and to eight drawings originally attached to De architectura but now lost. Corso speculates throughout Chapters One and Two that architectural drawings could have commonly accompanied Greek and Latin textual descriptions of architecture, but the evidence for this claim is scant. Although it is a tantalizing idea, only the text of Vitruvius makes reference to graphic illustrations, while so many ancient works treating the subject of architecture do not survive. In Chapter Three Corso argues that the absence of references to Vitruvius’s eight drawings in subsequent architectural treatises and texts reflects a decline in the theoretical science of architecture in later imperial Roman times. Chapter Four offers a summary history of architectural representation in textual sources, beginning with Homer’s description in the Iliad of two cities on the shield of Achilles, moving on to Hellenistic ekphrastic literary descriptions of elaborate palaces and other monuments, to scattered descriptions and references to buildings in Latin texts other than Vitruvius, and finally ending with churches and other constructions promoted by Justinian. Chapter Five gives a brief treatment of the evidence for miniature plans and maps of Roman cities that may have illustrated official registries of land holdings and centuriation. Corso is in agreement with previous scholars who conjecture that the extant miniature maps of Roman cities such as Minturnum, Ispellum, and Terracina, which date from the 6th to the 9th centuries, derive from earlier cartographic sources. Chapter Six treats occurrences of Greek and Latin terms for architectural drawings (such as schema and forma, respectively) in the works of authors such as Cicero, Vitruvius, Pliny, Frontinus, Suetonius, and Tacitus, and a handful of inscriptions from the 4th c. BCE – 2nd c. CE. Chapter Seven surveys the material evidence and is illustrated with plates. Corso acknowledges the earlier Egyptian tradition of architectural drawing before moving on to the corpus from Greece and Rome, mainly works from Italy, Syria, and Asia Minor. Media mainly include ink lines on papyrus, incised or chiseled lines in stone, and mosaic. Subject matter includes columns (bases, shafts, and capitals), entablatures, pediments, arches, arcades, ceilings, buildings, tombs, aqueducts, and city plans and maps (e.g., the Forma Urbis Romae).

In the final Chapter (Eight) Corso argues that in both Greek and Roman architectural practice there was a “project drawing” such as an overall plan (e.g., of a temple) that represented in graphic form an entire architectural enterprise, and “construction yard” or “reminder” drawings, referring to graphic documents used during the building process. For the existence of project drawings, Corso draws his evidence mainly from anecdotes, such as the hypographe dedicated by the architect Hermogenes in the Sanctuary of Athena at Priene in the 4th c. BCE. He views drawings incised on stone as evidence for his construction yard or reminder drawings, citing many surviving examples, such as those from Didyma, of the 3rd c. BCE, or from Roman Asia Minor and Syria, of the 1st – 3rd c. CE. According to Corso, if we can accept that these two genres of drawings existed at least in the Roman Imperial period and perhaps as early as the Greek Classical period, then these ancient building cultures had more in common with that of modern times than has previously been recognized.

Corso’s study succeeds in fulfilling its stated main goal, that is, to offer more literary, historical, and epigraphic testimonia for Greek and Roman architectural drawings than are found in previous treatments. This book will be most useful as a reference guide to these forms of evidence. I found only one obvious omission from his entries, Plutarch’s note that in 63 BCE Pompey the Great had “sketches and plans” made of a theater at Mytilene so that he might build a similar but larger and more opulent theater in Rome (Plutarch, Pompey 42.4).2 The catalogue of archaeological material in essence republishes Heisel’s 1993 catalogue, with the appropriate citations, supplementing it with more recent discoveries, all previously published. Perhaps most compelling among the newer entries, which are all of Roman date, is a black ink line drawing on a scrap of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus showing two Corinthian columns and part of an entablature with an acanthus scroll frieze, and a rare reduced-scale plan incised in stone showing part of the hexagonal court at Baalbek. To this collection can be added several recently published architectural drawings incised on stone.3

The author’s interpretation of the existence of “project” and “construction” or “reminder” drawings is appropriate. Other scholars who work on ancient drawings and who publish in English use similar terms, such as “design drawings,” “ancient blueprints,” or “on-site drawings.” The sharp distinction Corso attempts to make between project and construction and/or reminder drawings might be a bit rigid for some, and he himself speculates that the latter may have sometimes been derived from the former. However, few would argue against the notion that ancient architectural drawings needed to speak to different audiences.

This book was designed as a concise guide, and as such, it is short on argumentation or in-depth discussion. Readers interested in the wider context may wish to consult scholarship on the building contracts (syngraphai) that survive from the Classical and Hellenistic periods, on the ancient practice of supplying three-dimensional models and templates of building elements, or on perspectival architectural representation in Roman wall-painting, for which drawings first were made on preparatory wall surfaces.4 A legitimate quibble involves the poor quality of some of the reproductions of previously published illustrations. Distortion of the proportions of figures (e.g., cat. 1, 3, and 275) is inexplicable. Study of incised drawings on stone is difficult to begin with because the lines in most cases are so fine that they are nearly impossible to see and to photograph well. Thus, researchers such as Corso who do not have firsthand experience of all of the material have had to rely on drawings of the ancient drawings made by excavators and others. Therefore, it is all the more important in a book like this to take care in republishing figures.

As a coda, future students of ancient drawings incised on stone may soon have at their disposal digitally created records of excellent quality, following the example of H. Bankel, who recently re-documented drawings from Didyma using white light scanning.6


1.   J.P. Heisel, Antike Bauzeichnungen (Darmstadt 1993).
2.   The terms are eidos and tupos (περιεγράψατο τὸ εἶδος αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸν τύπον).
3.   F. Hueber, “Werkrisse, Vorzeichnungen und Mesmarken am Bühnengebäude des Theaters von Aphrodisias,” AntW 29 (1998) 439-45; S. Ahrens, Die Architekturdekoration von Italica (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern) 114-18; M. Steskal, “Konstruktionszeichnungen zweier Voluten aus dem Prytaneion in Ephesos,” ÖJh 76 (2007) 371–92; P. Stinson, “New Incised Architectural Drawings from the Basilica,” in R. R. R. Smith, J. Lenaghan, A. Sokolicek, and K. Welch, eds., Aphrodisias Papers 5 (Portsmouth, RI: JRA, Suppl. 103, 2016) 225-42.
4.   Contracts: R. Pitt, “Inscribing Construction: The Financing and Administration of Public Building in Greek Sanctuaries,” in Miles, M., ed., A Companion to Greek Architecture (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons) 194-205. Models and other architectural “likenesses”: L. Haselberger, “Architectural Likenesses: Models and Plans of Architecture in Classical Antiquity,” JRA 10 (1997) 77–94; M. Wilson Jones, Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2000) 49-59. Architectural drawings on walls of Roman houses in preparation for painting: P. Stinson, “Perspective Systems in Roman Second Style Wall-painting,” AJA 115 (2011) 403-26, at 416-18.
5.   Compare cat. 1 with Heisel 1993, 158-9, G1; cat. 3 with Heisel 1993, 170, G4; cat. 27 with Lohmann 2009, fig. 7.
6.   H. Bankel, “Ancient Construction Drawings and New Methods of Documentation: 3D White Light Scanning and 3D Modeling,” JRA 26 (2013) 383-392. ​

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