BMCR 2017.07.06

Pliny the Elder and the Emergence of Renaissance Architecture

, Pliny the Elder and the Emergence of Renaissance Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xxiii, 491. ISBN 9781107079861. $135.00 (hb).


The reflection of Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis historiae libri XXXVII in early modern culture and the visual arts is a frequently discussed topic in the discourse of the classical tradition in the last two decades. In addition to the frequently cited monograph of Sarah Blake McHam ( Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance: The Legacy of the Natural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), a number of studies devoted to various aspects of art historical reception could be mentioned. However, if we focus on the theme of Pliny’s descriptions of architectural wonders of Antiquity and its influence on the architecture of the Renaissance, the situation differs fundamentally. Only a few works enhancing the current state of research can be cited. In comparison, reconstructions of Roman villas according to Pliny the Younger as well as De architectura libri decem of Vitruvius have won much more attention and both authors remain in the focus of majority of researchers even nowadays. In the book under review here, Peter Fane-Saunders responds primarily to this apparent discrepancy and current underestimation of the impact of Pliny the Elder.

Fane-Saunders’s principal mission is to reappraise the widespread supposition that architectural theory and practice in Renaissance Italy turned for inspiration exclusively to two sources: Vitruvius and the monuments of Antiquity themselves. A fundamental obstacle to his argument lies in the impossibility of anchoring information about the most important buildings mentioned or described in Naturalis Historia in the archaeological reality of structural remains still apparent in Renaissance Rome. Pliny’s descriptions of famous mirabilia operis, whether in Rome or in the distant parts of the world known at that time, were either too fantastic or too unspecific to relate to actual remains. Nonetheless, Fane-Saunders demonstrates that the reception of Pliny can help us to discover a more complex view of the legacy of the Naturalis Historia in the early modern era.

Fourteen chapters of the book are divided into three thematic parts focusing on three major aspects of reception of Pliny the Elder’s work. Starting with the antiquarian interest in Naturalis Historia and its description of architectural wonders of Rome and exotic countries of Asia Minor, Babylonia or Egypt, the author then observes the reflection of Pliny in the contemporary Renaissance architectural theory. The final part deals with the impact on artistic practice as well as the attempts to reconstruct Pliny’s mirabilia in architectural drawings and executed artworks.

A brief introduction to the Pliny’s biography and reception of Naturalis Historia in the Middle Ages leads the reader into the first section “Pliny the Elder and Antiquarian Studies of the Roman Ruin”. Various aspects of Plinian thoughts are illustrated in the works of many Renaissance humanists and scholars – Flavio Biondo, Poggio Bracciolini, Giovanni Tortelli, Pomponio Leto and Andrea Fulvio among others. In the first five chapters, the evolving attitudes to Pliny as a source of information on ancient building in Rome and beyond are gradually sketched. For Petrarch or Biondo, the vision of “miraculous” Rome is still in the tradition of mediaeval legends and Mirabilia. Pliny and his description of impressive sights of Rome in chap. XXXVI became the authority and the proof of the extraordinary nature and brilliance of the city in antiquity.

On the example of important antiquarian studies of Renaissance Humanism such as Biondo’s Roma instaurata, Bracciolini’s De varietate fortunae libri quatuor or the works of humanists of Pomponio Leto’s Accademia Romana, the author demonstrates that the effort to identify descriptions in Naturalis Historia and to connect the text with extant archaeological remains and monuments appeared gradually and was only partially successful. The attempts of Pomponio Leto and his followers to explore and interpret the remains of so-called Horologium at Campus Martius can be mentioned. While Pomponio Leto was able to identify the object with description of Pliny, his interpretation of the structure as a sundial was not correct. Similarly, Leto’s pupil Antonio Lelio Podager, in his description of Augustan obelisk at Campus Martius, confused the term gnomon with a sphere at its top (57, 65-66).

In his systematic review of the early Quattrocento and Cinquecento, Fane-Saunders finds three different approaches to the Pliny. First, a moralistic conception of Flavio Biondo and others who shared Pliny’s criticism of Roman luxuria, but at the same time admired the size of the city and its usefulness as well as the great extent of its architecture with no hesitation (Chapter 2). The second approach treats the Plinian material to create a fantastic image of Rome’s fabled grandeur with no relation to historical reality. Yet Pliny’s own descriptions, frequently very vague and ambiguous, encouraged such an attitude. The author traces the concept of ancient Rome as dreamy and full of miraculous structures not only in Antiquae Urbis Romae by Marco Fabio Calvo (Chapter 4), but also in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the Renaissance romance full of mysterious and arcane allegories (Chapter 8).

The third interpretative line is represented by Poggio Bracciolini (Chapter 3) and Pomponio Leto and his circle. This approach exploits Naturalis Historia as a source of archaeological information and tries to identify and reconstruct the ancient monuments, both Roman and foreign, on the basis of Pliny’s descriptions. However, in addition to the growing interest of architects and more material-based antiquarians like Pirro Ligorio in archaeological study of the Roman ruins, doubts about the veracity of Pliny as an ancient authority arose. Thus, Pliny stopped being thought of as an authority capable of helping to find the key to identify the surviving ruins (Chapter 5).

In the second part of the book (“Pliny the Elder and Architectural Writings”), Fane-Saunders turns his attention to the manner in which the study of Naturalis Historia was mirrored in the contemporary theory of architecture (Alberti, Filarete, Daniele Barbaro and Andrea Palladio) and literature ( Hypnerotomachia Poliphili). Due to the nature of his work, the reception of Pliny was by no means as comprehensive as that of Vitruvius. As Fane-Saunders notes, Leone Battista Alberti’s treatise surprisingly employs the Plinian text not as a source of archaeological information, but rather as a way to construct an historical overview of architectural history and as a reference to various unusual and rare materials (Chapter 6).

Nevertheless, Pliny often provided support for architectural theory of the Renaissance in defining forms that did not have support in Vitruvius’s De Architectura (for example, the Attic column and the capital with figural decoration). The author critically examines the interaction and mixing of Vitruvian theory and Plinian tradition in Renaissance architectural theory in Chapter 9 and further in Chapters 10 and 11 dedicated to the annotated editions of Vitruvius in north-eastern Italy in the first half of the 16th century (Cesare Cesariano, Daniele Barbaro).

The third part of the book “Pliny the Elder, Architectural Drawings, and Built Monuments”, shifts attention from the domain of antiquarian studies and architectural theory to the realm of artistic inspiration. The mirabilia located outside Rome or beyond Italian soil became the leitmotif of Renaissance artists’ interpretations like that of Antonio da Sangallo. Descriptions of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Diana at Ephesus or the Tomb of King Porsenna not only stimulated artists’ imagination, but their uniqueness and peculiar characteristics also enriched the repertoire of graphic designs, architectural drawings and architectural or sculptural realizations.1 Moreover, Fane-Saunders discovers an obvious Plinian inspiration in various architectural projects emerged within Antonio da Sangallo the Younger’s circle, both in Rome and in northern Italy, where motifs such as the stepped pyramid or structure of the “ziggurat” occurred.

The concept of Fane-Saunders’s book is both fresh and elucidating, even though it makes an effort to capture perhaps too complex a historical reality of Plinian reception in a simple and clear structure of thought. Perhaps inorganic is the inclusion of Chapter 8 on to the novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in discussions on architectural theory, or the incorporation of Chapter 12 on Ciriacus of Ancona at the beginning of part three. Disregarding the sophisticated contextualization, these chapters constitute quite individual aspects of Plinian reception in the Renaissance. Another question is whether the interest in Plinian forms outside Raphael and Sangallo’s circle was motivated clearly by direct reception of Pliny, or whether in some of the later cases it could be regarded as a process of naturalization of a certain architectural motif without a direct link to its original iconological interpretation.

Regardless of this rather marginal note, Fane-Saunders’s book is undoubtedly a precise and thorough work. Its depth is apparent in the wide range of topics in which several issues presented in outline would justify further elaboration as well as studies of their own. A nearly fifty-page list of sources demonstrates the complexity of study and the author’s scope of knowledge. The text is enriched with an appropriate selection of illustrations, many of which are not generally known or commonly encountered in the literature. Even if the publication would deserve a greater extent of colour reproductions, the high-quality black and white illustrations fully complement the book.

Nowadays, with dozens of studies published annually, one seldom sees an issue that has the potential of filling a gap in the research of modern reception of ancient culture. The absence of studies on Plinian tradition focusing on the theme of architecture in the Renaissance is such a case. Peter Fane-Saunders’s monograph represents a successful attempt to correct the deficiency. Its strength lies both in a comprehensive point of view that still does not demand an exhaustive, detailed study of every aspect of the issue, and in its creation of an interpretive framework whose validity will remain for a long time. There is no doubt that the book will become an essential handbook for anyone who would like to keep being engaged in the subject.


1. For recent examination of the Tomb of Porsenna, see also: Fabio Colonnese, The Tomb of Porsenna: Textual and graphical translations of Pliny’s ‘Labyrinthus Italicus’. In: Robert Carvais et al., Traduire l’architecture: texte et image: un passage vers la création. Paris: Picard, 2015, pp. 161-172.