Sebastiano Serlio: A Peek into Renaissance

Venice, December 1540. A grey-haired man covered in a jet-black mantle gets on a smart carriage. His servant struggles with two large wooden chests that seem too hefty for him. After a deep breath he finally lifts them up.

‘Everything is loaded Master Serlio,” mumbles the servant.

‘To Fontainebleau! The King of France is waiting for me!’ commands master Serlio gravely.

The Seven Books of Architecture

Master Serlio never smiles. Don’t get it wrong: he’s not a bad man. I, Jacopo, have benefited from his generosity in the last 25 years. He’s just cranky. I am cranky too. He grouses about money, clients and his part-published-part-not-published “Seven Books of Architecture.” I’m grumping about these seven-minus-two books (one has been printed 3 years ago and other right now) because they’re turning him into an old grouch.

‘Look at the stone-cutters and carpenters who think they’re knowledgeable architects,’ master Serlio whines. ‘Mediocre, three times mediocre! Do they ever study the right examples? No! They just copy what they find nearby and paste it on. Copy-paste, copy-paste, is this really architecture?’

I dared to ask him how to choose the right model. Instead of a plain answer, he praised the ancient Greeks and Romans as if they and only they knew how to build. But even kids here in Venice know Marco Polo’s amazing stories about Khanbaliq, Kublai Khan’s new capital. ‘What about those models? Are they … wrong?’ I stammered but master Serlio didn’t hear.

‘Lines, Jacopo, slender lines are the backbone of any building. Imaginary lines of symmetry keep a building in balance. Yet, to be able to picture these lines you need some geometrical knowledge. That’s why I’ve begun my treatise on architecture with the first book On Geometry.’

‘Why then the first book to be published has been in fact the fourth one On The Five Styles of Building?’ I puzzled. (take a look here: https://archive.org/details/regolegeneralidi00serl)

‘Marcolino da Forli who owns the printing press feels the public. A stunningly illustrated book in Italian, with models to choose from would be a greater hit with the public than a geometry book, he thought. And it was true. It was the catalog of the year 1537! Sold in France and Low Countries like hot cross buns! The most recent book (88 years ago!) on architecture is Leon Battista Alberti’s “On the Art of Building” but it’s in Latin and lacks drawings.’

‘It was a luck, master Serlio. that Frenchmen found your book thrilling. You got your life job: the Architect of the King François I of France! And I’m the humble servant of the Architect!’

‘True, Jacopo, but you’re not humble at all. I like the all-inclusive package that comes with this job: a generous annual salary, professional recognition and a royal client. I just don’t like how they build. What they’ve done out of their cathedrals! Decorated cakes! This is what you get if you add and add at your own wish and others’ expense.  Are these buildings balanced? There’s no way to get a balance if you stretch the building like a rubber band just for the sake of scratching a bit the clouds.’

I didn’t argue with master Serlio, although I’ve had heard amazing stories about the French Gothic cathedrals. I’ve never seen them, but this time I’ll have a chance.

‘Jacopo, we better stop here for an overnight and continue our journey and discussion tomorrow.’

‘Yes, master Serlio. Tomorrow…’

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