Sebastiano Serlio’s Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma

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The Terzo libro, which came out in Venice in 1540 just before Serlio left for France, in fact comes second in the chronology that the author envisaged (from as early as 1537) for the work’s publication. It is an anthology of the most beautiful ancient Roman and Italian antique buildings, completed with some of Bramante and Raphael’s major contemporary architectural edifices. The first of its kind to bring together numerous examples in printed form, it naturally fed into the architectural apprentice’s inventio as he used it to compile a wealth of references that, as if an orator citing the best of the ancient authors, he was able to employ upon practising his profession – which thereby allowed him to enrich the decorations of his subsequent buildings. But, as the dedication to King Francis I of France demonstrates, its images equally worked to satisfy the curiosity of nonprofessional architecture lovers and potential sponsors: at first glance, the great Giza pyramid and Sphinx here serve more to spark interest than to provide models to be followed.

The ancient edifices included in the book are typologically classified: temples and religious edifices (with the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio and the plans for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome), theatres, porticos, columns and obelisks, amphitheatres, bridges and thermal baths, triumphal arches. Modern buildings (Bramante’s Belvedere palace, Raphael’s Villa Madama, Villa Poggio Reale near Naples) bring the work to a close. Serlio mostly provides direct information as he himself saw the Roman ruins, yet he does also use other sources. Peruzzi had left him many of his drawings. He equally took inspiration from a codex that is today conserved in Kassel, Germany. For other more distant cases such as the Great Sphinx and Giza pyramid, he explains that Marco Grimani, patriarch of Aquileia, had provided him with relevant first-hand documentation from Cairo (p. 94).

Serlio 1540, p. 94.
Sebastiano Serlio, Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1540), p. 94. The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56.

In the dedication to Francis I, Serlio regrets the fact that he cannot present the King with representations of the kingdom’s ancient ruins that Guillaume Pellicier, who had been appointed ambassador for Venice, had notably praised. Serlio mentions the main ruins found in the Midi (pp. 3-4), Nîmes, Frejus, Glanum, Saint-Chamas; his descriptions are so precise that we must suppose he had access to a great wealth of iconographic documents.

To complete the text providing precise measurements, Serlio proposes a graphic method inspired by Vitruvius. The edifices are initially represented as an “icnographia” (that is to say through plan views), before being represented as “orthographia” (geometrical elevations) and finally as “sciographia”, which for an architect does not only mean providing a view in perspective (as it does for Fra Giocondo in the illustrations included in his commentary on Vitruvius), but ‘the front and sides of anything’ (p. 5), that is to say a cross-section that includes both a profile view and interior aspect with certain perspective and shade effects pointing towards the third dimension (ex. Pantheon, pp. 7, 8 and 9).

Serlio 1540, p. 7
Sebastiano Serlio, Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1540), p. 7. The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56.
Serlio 1540, p. 8
Sebastiano Serlio, Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1540), p. 8. The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56.
Serlio 1540, p. 9
Sebastiano Serlio, Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1540), p. 9. The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56.

In the case of the Giza complex (p. 94) and of the triumphal arches which cannot justifiably be depicted through a cross-section, simple images in perspective with a central vanishing point can be used, as they complete the geometrical representations that are useful for architects with ‘picturesque’ images that a nonprofessional reader can appreciate (ex: arch of Constantin, p. 119).

Serlio 1540, p. 119
Sebastiano Serlio, Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1540), p. 119. The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56.

These three types of images are finished off with detailed boards showing bases, capitals and entablatures using the mixed method (an orthogonal profile view generating oblique lines allowing for the decors to be visualised) that is borrowed from the Coner codex and already used for the Regole generali di Architettura (General Rules of Architecture, 1537) (ex p.76).

Serlio 1540, p. 76
Sebastiano Serlio, Il terzo libro … nel qual si figurano e descrivono le antiquita di Roma (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1540), p. 76. The Getty Research Institute, NA2517 S56.

The didactic function of the Terzo libro is fundamental and accounts for these representational techniques far more so than any potential desire for archaeological rigour. Indeed, we can use it to explain why the general views that are presented without any decorative features are frequently dissociated from the pages that zoom in on the decorative details that are conversely isolated from their contexts. Architectural apprentices are given on the one hand ancient edifices that have been ‘reduced to the commonplace’, that is to say to pure architectural structures, and on the other hand decorative details that have been reproduced with precision; both can be used independently as modern architectural creation allows for the structure of an arch imitating the arch of Verona to be combined with a moulding echoing that of the Arch of Titus. Serlio thus provides the inventio and elocutio of architectural rhetoric alongside the organisational arguments and the ornamental motifs that can enrich it. The architects and organisers that bore witness to the solemn entry into the Renaissance were great consumers of triumphal arches – and were also stimulated by Serlio’s work; thanks to him, they resuscitated Rome in Paris, Gand or Anvers at least for a fleeting festive moment.

The Terzo libro was republished in Venice in 1544 and 1562; it was translated into Dutch by Pieter Coecke van Aalst in 1546, who also translated it into French in 1550 before it was integrated into numerous republications of Serlio’s general treaty.

Further reading

  • Hans-Christoph Dittscheid, “Serlio, Roma e Vitruvio”, C. Thoenes (ed.), in Sebastiano Serlio, Milan, Electa, 1989, pp. 132-48.
  • Frédérique Lemerle, “Serlio et les antiques: la dédicace du Terzo Libro”, Journal de la Renaissance, 1, 2000, pp. 267-74.
  • Frédérique Lemerle, “Le Terzo libro de Sebastiano Serlio (Venise, Marcolini, 1540)””, S. Deswarte-Rosa (éd.), in Sebastiano Serlio à Lyon, Architecture et imprimerie, Lyon, Mémoire Active, 2004, p. 81.
  • Hubertus Günther, “Das geistige Erbe Peruzzis im vierten und dritten Buch des Sebastiano Serlio”, in J. Guillaume (ed.), Les traités d’architecture de la Renaissance, Paris, Picard, 1988, pp. 227-46.
  • Yves Pauwels, “Propagande architecturale et rhétorique du Sublime: Serlio et les “Joyeuses entrées” de 1549”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, CXXXVII, 2001, p. 221-36.

Fully digitised item from The Getty Research Institute, available via Architectura here

Translated by Louise Ferris.