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c h o r a: Intervals in the Philosophy of Architecture

Managing Editor: Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Volume 1 (1994)
Edited by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell
Volume 2 (1996)
Edited by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell
Volume 3 (1999)
Edited by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell
Volume 4 (2004)
Edited by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell
Chora 4: Intervals in the Philosophy of Architecture
Intervals in the Philosophy of Architecture
v o l u m e f o u r

Edited by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell

McGill-Queen’s University Press

Montreal & Kingston • London • Ithaca
ch o r a is a publication of the History and Theory of Architecture
graduate program at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

manag i n g e d i to r
Alberto Pérez-Gómez

e d i tors
Alberto Pérez-Gómez, McGill University
Stephen Parcell, Dalhousie University

advi s o ry b oa r d
Ricardo L. Castro, McGill University
Jose dos Santos Cabral Filho, Universidade Federal De Minas Gerais
Dirk de Meyer, Ghent University
Marco Frascari, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Donald Kunze, Pennsylvania State University
Phyllis Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture
David Michael Levin, Northwestern University
Katsuhiko Muramoto, Pennsylvania State University
Juhani Pallasmaa, University of Helsinki
Stephen Parcell, Dalhousie University
Louise Pelletier, McGill University

s e creta r i a l as s i s ta n t
Kathleen Innes-Prévost
Susie Spurdens
For author information and submission of articles please contact

© McGill-Queen’s University Press 2004

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Chora: intervals in the philosophy of architecture

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Preface ix

1 Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint: The Anonymous

Architect Of Euclid’s Retreat
Caroline Dionne 1

2 The Breath on the Mirror: Notes on Ruskin’s Theory

of the Grotesque
Mark Dorrian 25

3 Alberti at Sea
Michael Emerson 49

4 The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

Marc Glaudemans 83

5 The Colosseum: The Cosmic Geometry

of a Spectaculum
George L. Hersey 103

6 On the Renaissance Studioli of Federico da Montefeltro

and the Architecture of Memory
Robert Kirkbride 127

7 Architecture, Mysticism and Myth: Modern Symbolism

in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby
Joanna Merwood 177

8 Gordon Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle of the

Caribbean Orange
Michel Moussette 197

9 Geometry of Terror: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Juhani Pallasmaa 211

10 The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Alberto Pérez-Gómez 245

11 Simplex Sigillum Veri: The Exemplary Life of an Architect

David Theodore 287

12 Ranelagh Gardens and the Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

Dorian Yurchuk 313

About the Authors 339


this fourth volume of chora continues a tradition of excel-

lence in open, interdisciplinary research into architecture. While the
basic editorial interests and questions remain unchanged, a shifting
emphasis reflects the concerns of a new generation of architects and
scholars. The chora series has sought to articulate alternatives to a
facile formalism in contemporary architecture, while rejecting nostalgic
or reactionary solutions. The question of how to act responsibly in
architecture remains paramount. In the first years of the new millenni-
um, however, this question must take account of our increasingly more
powerful electronic tools for formal innovation. Computers are now
able to generate new forms that are totally “other” from our tradition-
al orthogonal building practices. This can lead to projects and buildings
of complex and novel shape that may be oblivious to their cultural con-
text, intended programs, historical roots, ethical imperatives, and the
experiencing body.
In recent years we have witnessed an accentuation of gnostic tenden-
cies with respect to history. This suggests that what we have made has
nothing to teach us, particularly if it is older than the Second World War,
and that only rational models or an introspective pseudonaturalism
could be a legitimate (instrumental) methodology for design. Perhaps
arising from desperation due to difficulties encountered in practice, this
historical gnosticism has become almost fanatic. Even in arguments put
forward under the guise of critical theory, one senses a disturbing
myopia that disregards the historical origin of issues that supposedly
have surfaced only recently. Yet only history in its broad sense – as the
“shifting essence” of architecture, within the larger context of our inher-
ited spiritual and philosophical tradition – can help us distinguish
between significant innovation and fashionable novelty.
The essays in this volume are driven by a genuine desire to seek archi-
tectural alternatives to simplistic models based on concepts of aesthetics,
technology, or sociology. Their refreshing readings of our tradition
acknowledge both the continuity of our philosophical and cultural land-
scape and the differences encountered in diverse spaces and times. In the


absence of a living architectural tradition, these “stories for the future”

reveal possibilities in places that are often ignored by conventional his-
toriography and science. While avoiding the dangerous delusions of
absolute, transparent truth represented by a single master narrative, they
recognize the need for histories to guide ethical action in architecture.
The growing impact of the internet and other light-based media con-
tinues to create problems for architecture. Society remains suspicious of
the importance of lived space, with its uncanny weaving of spatiality,
temporality, and light. Light, like space and time before it, may soon
become a commodity; even its absolute speed has now been successfully
modified. Nevertheless, chora, as a crossing of the human and the more-
than-human worlds, remains the space of human communication, of
communion, of Eros and dreams: the space of architecture. Architecture
affects us deeply, despite our predilection for the screen of our Power-
Book, and not surprisingly, mental pathologies are on the increase.
The architect’s work issues from the personal imagination, and an
appropriate mode of discourse is needed to prevent this work from
becoming a simplistic formal play or an irresponsible will to power.
chora continues to pursue a reconciliatory architecture that respects
cultural differences, acknowledges the globalization of technological cul-
ture, and points to a referent other than itself. As in previous volumes,
these eleven essays explore concrete historical topics within a critical
framework that suggests possibilities for action. This selection includes
Marc Glaudemans’s original speculation on the nature of urban space,
beyond a dualistic concept of nature versus culture or bounded versus
unbounded. Exploring the relationship between the Greek chora and the
hinterland of modern (seventeenth-century) Amsterdam, Glaudemans’s
conclusions are provocative in our age of megalopolis. In a topic related
to the crucial theatrical dimension of chora (prominent in the first vol-
ume of this series), George Hersey also addresses the origins of our tra-
dition. In his interesting study of the Roman Colosseum he articulates
the importance of a cosmic geometry in the place for spectaculum in
Rome. Echoing Hersey’s concerns in the eighteenth century, Dorian
Yurchuk’s analysis of Ranelagh Gardens examines the theatricality asso-
ciated with architectural meaning during the early modern period. This
detailed case study demonstrates the cultural relevance of spaces for
play-acting, which are often disregarded in our quest for the “tectonic”
aspects of architectural precedents.


Three essays in this volume examine early Renaissance subjects.

Michael Emerson, in his study of Alberti, with particular reference to
Cusano, attempts to redefine Renaissance architectural space with
respect to cosmography and geography. Emerson admirably accom-
plishes the difficult task of describing its otherness, without resorting to
concepts of ancient, medieval, or modern. Robert Kirkbride offers a
reading of the Umbrian studioli as a crossing of medieval memory prac-
tices and the new emerging philosophical interests of the Renaissance.
While the Urbino and Gubbio studioli embody knowledge, Luca Paci-
oli’s architectural writings demonstrate how this capacity of architec-
ture is concentrated in the hands of the craftsman. Alberto Pérez-
Gómez’s exhaustive reading of the treatises of Luca on architecture
demonstrates the nature of the craft as the epiphany of theological wis-
dom, akin to alchemy.
Three essays in this volume discuss the work of nineteenth-century
British figures. Joanna Merwood and Caroline Dionne both articulate
possibilities for architecture emerging in the wake of the final disinte-
gration of a Western cosmological picture. Merwood examines the true
possibilities of modern symbolic intentionality in the writings of
William Lethaby, often misleading in his self-expressed purpose. Dionne
discusses architectural lessons to be found in the works of the poet and
mathematician Lewis Carroll. The writer of Alice never accepted (like
Edmund Husserl) the final demise of Euclidean geometry and its substi-
tution by non-Euclidean geometries. Mark Dorrian’s perceptive essay on
Ruskin’s theory of the grotesque raises the issue of mimesis in relation
to the “new subject” which emerges in Europe after the demise of the
ancien regime. Ruskin, who questioned the power of the reductive cam-
era lucida to reveal anything of substance about reality, was neverthe-
less fascinated by mirrors and by the capacity of the daguerreotype to
reveal monstrosity – the “other side” of reality – through its “index.”
This awareness opened up strategies, later developed by Walter Ben-
jamin, for the engagement of new forms of representation in architec-
tural endeavours.
Two of the three essays devoted to twentieth-century topics pursue spa-
tial poetics in architecture by invoking other artistic disciplines. Michel
Moussette eloquently describes the accomplishments of Gordon Matta-
Clark, whose architectural interventions and literal deconstructions have
defied categorization. Continuing the series of reflections on dramatic,


cinematic, and architectural spaces that have appeared in previous vol-

umes of chora, including his own work on Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia in
volume 1, Juhani Pallasmaa offers a reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear
Window, a film that has now attained cult status in some architec-
tural circles. Closing this trilogy on twentieth-century “architects,” David
Theodore explores ethical/formal questions in the work of Ludwig
Wittgenstein, the philosopher of language whose concerns have often
been regarded as naturally kindred to those of architects. Theodore pays
careful attention to Wittgenstein’s involvement in actual architectural
tasks and draws some unexpected and fascinating conclusions.

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of
Joint: The Anonymous
Architect of Euclid’s Retreat

Caroline Dionne

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

a V E RY narrow wall

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it
means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many
different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all
… They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs, they’re the proudest –
adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage
the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”1

Humpty Dumpty is sitting on a very high, narrow wall. It is indeed a

precarious situation that nonetheless allows him to claim a kind of
mastery over words. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, we shall never com-
pletely restrain the words’ plurality of meanings; the words will always
evoke much more than what we want them to say – or much less.
Because language is polysemic, there is an ambiguity that cannot be
resolved. A language is a system. Any system, no matter how complex
it may appear, always circumscribes a certain field or realm – a world.
The rest is left outside, rejected or not addressed. It is the beauty of sys-
tems to be self-sufficient. In our “modern” attitude there is a tendency
to step outside a system in order to build, just beside it, another one
that is antagonistic to the former. The union of those two systems then
constitutes another system. However, there may be a way to avoid
delusion. It is possible to enter a system, work within its limits (pre-
cisely at the limit) and create a new component (a critique) that induces
a slight movement. In the mind, in the imagination, all antagonistic
systems can coexist, and it is the attribute of poetry to reveal such
paradoxes. The paradox (para-doxai) is an image of “reality.”2 It is an
ambivalent and somehow disturbing expression of the real. Language
and geometry may be more than systems, and there may be a link,
however oblique and tenuous, between art and science that coincides
with the land of geometry. In our world, space and time are paradoxi-
cal notions; their geometrical behaviour is perplexing. By looking at
the transformations of Euclidean geometry in the work of Lewis Car-
roll and focusing on the border as a place to dwell, we shall investigate
the “making” of space.

Caroline Dionne

a nonsense in movement

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things

– but the oddest part of it was that, whenever she looked
hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it,
that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the
others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.3

In the realm of nonsense and absurdity, Lewis Carroll was a pioneer.4

His work reveals the paradoxical nature of meaning, the actual coexis-
tence of unrelated or antagonistic notions. Nonsense should not be
understood as an absence of meaning but rather as a surplus of sens, a
combination of opposite directions (sens) and meanings (sens) that coex-
ist. Between these opposites there is necessarily a limit – a point, a plane,
a body; a certain Humpty Dumpty sitting on a very narrow wall – that
separates both. It is in between and therefore cannot be fixed; it moves,
it transforms itself, or else it appears to be fixed, but only for a certain
time, because the mind always oscillates between the two sides. In a
sense, this is Humpty Dumpty’s tragic end. The limit is always becom-
ing; it is the site of events. A pure becoming can never be achieved,
because it would then be.5 Nonsense expresses this coexistence of oppo-
sites but also reveals the opposition, and therefore, presents the dicho-
tomy. Nonsense, approached in such terms, would be the linguistic
expression of our paradoxical encounter with the world. Paul Valéry

Geometric behaviour:The dancing

ostrich. From “Lewis Carroll logicien,”
a postface by Ernest Coumet to Lewis
Carroll, “Logique sans peine,” Oeuvres
(Paris: Robert Laffont 1989)

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

evoked this encounter in similar terms. The soul of man follows the
movement of an irreal dance. The beautiful dancer represents both form
and idea and can be perceived only in movement.

Phaedrus: She is dancing yonder and gives to the eyes what you are trying to
tell us … She makes the instant to be seen … She filches from nature impossi-
ble attitudes, even under the very eye of Time! … And Time lets himself be
fooled … She passes through the absurd with impunity … She is divine in the
unstable, offers it as a gift to our regard! …
Eryximachus: Instant engenders form, and form makes the instant visible.
Phaedrus: She flees her shadow up into the air.
Socrates: We never see her but about to fall.6

There is an immense distance, yet a wonderful proximity, between the

realm of Ideas and our perception of the world. There is a land in
between that Plato would call “space.” The limit is a space – an inter-
stitial space. The space of the limit has no magnitude, yet it is a space, a
land, the land of geometry. This space does not exist, it becomes – or
else, it allows for things to happen. It is between the words and the
things, yet it is what constitutes both. In essence? In fact? It is hidden
inside the things and at the surface of things. Through language –
through speech – this entre-deux is uttered at a certain moment and
becomes real. Geometry participates in that utterance. It evinces a com-
mon desire to describe, to reveal, to order.

the land of geometry

“While you’re refreshing yourself,” said the Queen, “I’ll just

take the measurements.” And she took a ribbon out of her
pocket, marked in inches, and began measuring the ground,
and sticking little pegs in here and there.
“At the end of two yards,” she said, putting in a peg to
mark the distance, “I shall give you your directions.”7

Geometry occupies a central position in the development of Western phi-

losophy, both in the way it tends to be related to the expression of ideas
– its inextricability from language – and in the way we construct mean-
ing and understand these ideas, somehow, in geometrical (or mathemat-

Caroline Dionne

ical) terms.8 Virtually, we tend to organize fragments of thoughts, to give

a shape to an idea or to “build” a structure around it. We make our
point, we follow a line (of thought), and eventually we get caught in a
circular argument. In this process the participation of the geometrical
and mathematical realms is implicit. Numbers and geometric figures
were understood from the time of the early Greek philosophers until the
nineteenth century as mediators between the world of man and higher
instances: they constituted a way to access knowledge. This strange
interference of both the geometrical and the mathematical realms in
human thinking led the most ancient philosophers to believe that man’s
soul could be a number moving itself.9
Geometry has a privileged status in the history of architectural theory
and practice. From Vitruvius until the end of the eighteenth century,
geometry is discussed prominently in all architectural treatises. Its status
gradually changes until it becomes, in the late eighteenth century, a mere
instrument of applied technology, as it appears in the work of Durand.10
From a conception that posits geometry as an art – something that
mediates between the human and the divine – we then come to an under-
standing of geometry as a tool for the use of the architect. In the mind
of the engineer/architects who followed Durand’s précis, geometry
became a design mechanism, an extremely simplified geometrical object:
a grid on which plans, sections, and elevations could be drawn with effi-
ciency. In the realm of our contemporary architectural practice, ambigu-
ity of language – in drawings and in written forms – is generally avoided
and architects tend to accept, uncritically, the rules of systematic geo-
metrical descriptions as part of the design discipline; they use geometry
as a tool regardless of its relation to philosophy and language. The archi-
tectural “grid” continues to be used as a tool for design in most archi-
tecture schools.
“Geometry is the Science of Measuring the Land.” In his Mathemati-
cal Praeface to the Books of Euclid, published in 1570, John Dee gives
us a definition of this Arte Mathematical. But what land, exactly, does
geometry measure? Dee refers to remote times and places and to the
wars and injustices that took place when man started to measure and
divide the earthly ground, creating frontiers and naming pieces of land
that became his property or the property of a nation. “Till, by Gods
mercy, and mans Industry, The perfect Science of Lines, Plaines, and
Solides (like a divine Justicer) gave unto every man, his owne [land].”11

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

Dee defines both the mathematical and the geometric entities. His defin-
itions reveal the paradoxical interval occupied by Euclidean geometry.

For, these beyng (in a maner) middle, betwene thinges supernaturall and natu-
rall: are not so absolute and excellent, as thinges supernatural: nor yet so base
and grosse as things natural: But are thinges immateriall: and neverthelesse, by
materiall things able somewhat to be signified. And though their particular
Images, by Art, are aggregable and divisible: yet the generall Formes, notwith-
standyng, are constant, unchangeable, untrãsformable and incorruptible. Nei-
ther of the sense, can they, at any tyme, be perceived or judged. Nor yet, for all
that, in the royall mynde of man, first conceived … A merveylous newtralitie
have these thinges Mathematicall and also a strãge participatiõ betwene
thinges supernaturall, immortall, intellectual, simple, and indivisible: and thyn-
ges naturall, mortall, sensible, compounded and divisible.12

The three realms of “things” are different and remain distant, even
though they constantly interact. It is precisely in this “in between” con-
stituted by geometry that man can reach the idea of infinity.

All Magnitude, is either a Line, a Plaine or a Solid. Which Line, Plaine or Solid,
of no Sense, can be perceived, nor exactly by hãd (any way) represented: nor
of Nature produced: But, as (by degrees) Number did come to our perceiver-
ance: So, by visible formes, we are holpen [helped] to imagine, what our Line
Mathematical, is. What our point, is. So precise, are our Magnitudes, that one
Line is no broader than an other: for they have no bredth: Nor our Plaines
have any thicknes. Nor yet our Bodies, any weight: be they never so large of
dimensiõ. Our Bodyes, we can have Smaller, than either Arte or Nature can
produce any: and Greater also, than all the world can comprehend.13

In the modern era, geometry was gradually transformed by the devel-

opment of infinitesimal calculus in the seventeenth and eighteenth cen-
tury and ultimately by the new geometries that developed in the
nineteenth century and began to be “applied” in Dodgson’s time.14 The
notion of geometric infinity was gradually appropriated by modern man.
As the possibilities of knowledge became infinite, the world of man was
also extended to infinity. Once infinity became part of the world, the
geometrician sought to describe not only the simple ideal figures of
Euclidean geometry but all possible figures in the conic sections between

Caroline Dionne

these ideals. In the mind of the scientist the mathematical formulas

became accurate “models” of reality: the whole of creation could be
described in algebraic terms.15 The universe, according to this concept,
is there to be deciphered and understood through mathematics and sci-
entific experiments. The language of science attempts to resolve the dis-
tance between the words and what they describe; geometry undergoes
instrumentalization. In the scientific milieu of the nineteenth century,
Euclidean geometry was not rejected outright. Rather, it became a par-
ticular instrument, one of many, within a broader and more generalized
geometry that claimed to explain every phenomenon. Euclidean princi-
ples have also tended to be misconceived. Today they are understood as
stiff, instrumental, and systematized explanations of reality, while non-
Euclidean geometries are seen as new formal realms that describe reali-
ty and the universe more accurately.
In the nineteenth century the scientific utopia became reality. Scientists
in specialized and autonomous disciplines participated with great enthu-
siasm in the scientific endeavour; for them it was the only way to find
the true nature of the world. The episode of the “Map of the Ocean” in
Lewis Carroll’s famous poem The Hunting of the Snark is quite telling
in this regard:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,

Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,

Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,
“They are merely conventional signs!”

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he bought us the best –
A perfect and absolute blank!”16

The man of the industrial revolution, this man of science, ventured

into unknown territory, leaving behind all points of reference from the

“Ocean Chart.”
From Lewis Carroll,
The Hunting of the
Snark: An Agony in
Eight Fits (London:
Macmillan 1876)

past. The scientific endeavour became frightening once its abstract con-
cepts were equated to or supplanted lived experience. The real that we
know through mathematical models is an approximation of reality, but
it claims to be more real than experience itself. In Sylvie and Bruno, Car-
roll’s intricate novel, a certain German professor entertains the children
with a map of his town on which everything was marked down. The
map measured one mile on each side, and reading it was quite problem-
atic, because the map, when totally open, would cast a shadow over the
farmers’ crops. It was then decided that the land itself would serve as a
map: indeed an ingenious idea. The “image” thus acquires a value equiv-
alent to the reality it was intended to evoke. The industrial revolution
was a theatre of technological innovation in which machines were devel-
oped at a disorienting pace: utensils that would simplify the lives of men.

Caroline Dionne

As this new status of technology reached architecture, buildings also

became utensils.
As a result of this direct link between words and things, the language
of poetry loses its value of truth. Myths and poetry – story-telling
through works of art – are no longer understood as means of rendering
the world habitable. But, as Borges explains,

There is no basic [essentielle] dissimilarity between the metaphor and what sci-
entists call the explanation of a phenomenon. They both constitute a link
established between distinct things … Hence, when a geometrician asserts that
the moon is a quantity that develops in three dimensions, his means of expres-
sion is no less metaphorical than that of Nietzsche, who prefers to define the
same moon as a cat walking on top of the roofs.17

If we follow Borges’s argument, the scientific truths are equally decep-

tive and, like myths and poetry, remain temporary and fragile; they are
continuously shaken by the new problems that appear to the scientist.
The archaic meaning of the word “truth” indicates an ethical dimension:
to be true in one’s action, character, or utterance; to be sincere.18 But the
modern scientific mind is concerned more with whether a statement is
true or false, even though this may be irrelevant to a deep comprehension
of things. Hypotheses must find proofs. Observed effects must have cor-
responding causes. All of this could have started when geometricians
decided to prove Euclid’s axiom about parallel lines. Some Euclidean
principles, regardless of how paradoxical they may appear to the modern
reader, had not needed to be proven. The definitions of the point and the
line, for example, were “given.” In our tactile experience, in which hands
follow the edges of a table, parallel lines do not meet. For the eyes, look-
ing toward the horizon, they do meet. For the painter, willing to create
an image that would convey a sense of the real, they do meet on the can-
vas. For Euclid, in this entre-deux occupied by geometry, parallel lines are
parallel, and therefore they do not meet. “But who would need parallel
lines to meet,” wrote Dodgson in Euclid and His Modern Rivals. For
some nineteenth-century geometricians, they meet somewhere at infinity,
and because infinity has become part of the world, they meet somewhere
in the thickness of the trace left by the pen – or at the South Pole.
From a chosen angle, from a certain point of view, either they meet or
they don’t, but the mind, the imagination, is able to travel very fast,

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

encompassing all imaginable points of view. Valéry wrote, “And is not

the true the natural frontier of the intelligence?”19 In the work of the
poet the two opposite situations can coexist at this frontier and “touch”
each other. Might it be the task of the artist to reveal such paradoxes,
allowing us to seize their evocative beauty? The word “task” suggests an
ethical dimension that remains outside the “good or bad” dichotomy.
For poetic language to escape from methodological application, it must
speak about something common. Poetry does not follow a linear path
but one that is discontinuous and fragmented. Poetry is not limited to lit-
erature and art. Even modern technology has this potential for poetic
expression, rather than being strictly a burden.20
Carroll’s work expresses the scientific dependence on this mode of
thought. Both sides of his work come together in the way he criticizes
the pragmatism of Victorian society with its scientific mind-set and fal-
lacies.21 Created through nonsense and humour, his work is resistant to
a complete analysis or demystification and cannot be exhausted by any
literary movement. It oscillates within the thin line that connects
Romanticism and Surrealism and separates art from science.22 His work
unhinges a concept of time that reduces it to quantity (associated with
money) and a concept of space as a homogeneous set of coordinates. It
participates simultaneously in the modern scientific debate and the realm
of fiction and poetic imagination. Lewis Carroll’s work demonstrates the
tight link between these two modes of thought – the “art-science” inter-
dependence – and this is also a key to understanding the transformations
of architectural thinking since the beginning of modernity.

a big revolving door

Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something bet-

ter with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking rid-
dles that have no answers.” “If you knew Time as well as I
do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it.
It’s him.”23

Since the Hatter and the March Hare quarreled with Time, he won’t do
a thing they ask (with the clock). Since then, it has always been six
o’clock – tea-time – and the trio is constantly moving around the table.
Alice then ventures to ask, “But [what happens] when you come to the

Caroline Dionne

beginning again?” “Suppose we change the subject,” the March Hare

interrupts, yawning.24
Space and time are intricate notions. Our concept of such notions has
undergone successive transformations within the tradition of Western
philosophy. Changing interpretations of the Euclidean principles may
have something to do with these transformations.
In some ancient mythologies, space and time were gods that could not
be separated: they were two expressions of the same order.25 In their
concept of the world, space was not a preexisting and autonomous enti-
ty. It had to be ordered and created, but mostly it had to be kept alive
and recreated now and then.26 Space and time were works of art.
So-called Cartesian space has lost this qualitative aspect; it is a homo-
geneous, infinite set of combinations of coordinates. It is a quantity that
can be measured and reduced to horizontal and vertical planes and inter-
sections. Cartesian time is a quantitative and autonomous notion that
is no longer dependent on – or predicated on – space. In homogenized
space, horizontality, verticality, and depth are equivalent, with no par-
ticular qualitative aspect.27 A tower is the same as a tunnel. In The
Vision of the Three T’s, Dodgson criticizes the modern concept of space
as homogeneous, removed from time and without gravity. In the story
an architect arrives at a construction site dressed in an outfit that he
claims is atemporal, completely outside the transience of fashion, with
ribbons that defy gravity. He can find inspiration in a piece of stilton; the
materiality of the building is irrelevant. Cheese or stone, it is all the
same; only form matters.28 In a concept of space as something that pre-
exists, the wall becomes a denuded limit that subdivides space. Notions
of temporality and the evanescence of things are eclipsed. When time is
removed from space – as in basement spaces lit by artificial light (the first
space into which Alice advances after falling down slowly in the tunnel)
– space becomes frightening, as if it were created by something over-
whelming and horrifying, something entirely other.29
The cyclic nature of archaic times cannot be retrieved. In order to
express this transformation of the concept of time, Gilles Deleuze writes,
using a verse from Shakespeare’s Hamlet,

Time is out of joint, time is unhinged. The hinges are the axis on which the
door turns. The hinge, Cardo, indicates the subordination of time to precise
cardinal points, through which the periodic movements it measures pass. As

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

long as time remains on its hinges, it is subordinated to extensive movement;

it is the measure of movement, its interval or number. This characteristic of
ancient philosophy has often been emphasized: the subordination of time to
the circular movement of the world as the turning door, a revolving door, a
labyrinth opening onto its eternal origin.30

In the modern era, the geometric figure of the concept of time changes,
or else it is observed from a different point of view. Time and movement
remain in a close relationship, but the roles are inverted.

It is now movement which is subordinated to time … Time thus becomes uni-

linear and rectilinear, no longer in the sense that it would measure a derived
movement, but in and through itself, insofar as it imposes the succession of its
determination on every possible movement. It ceases to be cardinal and
becomes ordinal, the order of an empty time … The labyrinth takes on a new
look – neither a circle nor a spiral, but a thread, a pure straight line, all the
more mysterious in that it is simple, inexorable, terrible.31

Deleuze makes a reference to Borges; the labyrinth is inexorable

because it is “the labyrinth made of a single straight line which is indi-
visible, incessant.”32 Today, the big revolving door of time is out of its
joints, off its hinges, fragmented, dislocated, no longer following a cir-
cular path in space. The time is out of humour – out of himself. Time as
we now tend to conceive it is the linear time of modern history. The time
line extends infinitely in both directions. But there can be a double read-
ing of time. Time can be conceived as both linear and cyclical. On the
one hand, time is a constant repetition of the same present. On the other
hand, there is nothing but the past, always subsisting, and the future,
always insisting. In between is the same limit, the geometric space of the
event. Meaning consists precisely in this event; it is always becoming:
always so close and yet so remote. This site of action may be the logos
of the encounter of space and time.
Both the linear and the cyclical dimensions are expressed in the time-
space fragments in the Alices. Alice falls into the depths of the earth but
progressively returns to the world of the surface, reconquers space and
time, and creates spaces that allow for things to happen: in-between
spaces. The spaces that Alice experiences are always different expres-
sions of the same space. These spaces oscillate between worlds that are

Caroline Dionne

different but equally real. The limit, the borderline between these
worlds, contains – or becomes, itself – another world. The limit cannot
be reduced to a plane; it expands into a zone. This limit is actually where
things happen, where the passage of time is traced.
The perception of space is not impassive, it implicates one’s sur-
roundings and one’s state of distraction or concentration. But mostly it
involves the postures that the body adopts in movement, mood, bodily
humours, and humour. The perceiver is not in space. Space does not pre-
exist. The perceiver, like Alice, is actually creating spaces: a succession
of time-space fragments that cannot be isolated but constitute a contin-
uous becoming.

Alice is caught in space. From

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures
under Ground (London:
Macmillan 1886)

If time is conceived through movement and rhythm and is rendered

visible by light and shadows, then light is not simply another material
for instrumental use by the architect. Light is the life of objects. Even
though space is bound to time and human perception, the materiality of
the building does not disappear: it is what one perceives. Things come
together in a kind of nonfixity, a flow, a tide. The rhythm is created by
a succession of material aggregates and silences. The rhythmic matter is
continuously transforming itself.
In Lewis Carroll’s work the characters of the books are continuously
transforming themselves, successively becoming other. The same phe-
nomenon happens to the reader. As Octavio Paz notes in The Bow and
the Lyre, Lewis Carroll’s prose becomes poetry through its rhythmic

Illustrations by Max Ernst for the French translation by
Henri Parisot of The Hunting of the Snark show the frequent
transformations of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s work:
the hyperbolic Bellman appears differently in each of these
illustrations. From Lewis Carroll, La chasse au Snark (Paris:
L’age d’or aux Éditions premières 1950)

The Mock Turtle and the Griffin re-
enact the “Lobster Quadrille.” Drawing
by Lewis Carroll for the manuscript of
Alice’s Adventures under Ground (London:
Macmillan 1886)

sequences of images. The reader is continuously recreating these images,

following the rhythm of the poem that not only invokes his imagination
but puts his whole body into a different posture. According to Paz, this
enables the space of the book to emerge into the world. Even though
Lewis Carroll’s work expresses almost everything through nonsense, the
spatial-rhythmic quality of his writing conveys a deeper meaning. We
comprehend it; we are comprehended by it.33 If the construction of the
story is good, it calls for a real participation of the reader-speaker who
builds, in a rhythmic and corporeal manner, a meaning. This can be
called a ritournelle.34
Our perception of built space has to do with the common activities
that it shelters; with that ritournelle whistled by our body, every day, in
the successive depths of this rhythm-space. We inhabit and tame archi-
tecture in order to make it belong to us, who belong to it. We render it
familiar and eventually construct a meaning dancing a ronde within the

Caroline Dionne

Now we are at home. But home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a
circle around that uncertain and fragile centre, to organise a limited space …
Sonorous and vocal components are very important: a wall of sound, or at
least a wall with some sonic bricks in it … From chaos, milieus and rhythms
are born. This is the concern of very ancient cosmogonies … Every milieu is
vibratory, in other words, a block of space-time constituted by the periodic
repetition of the component.35

Space is not perceived in a homogeneous way. Some stanzas of a poem

become more familiar, while others remain obscure. We bring together
these perceived spatial fragments, but not in a rational way. Instead we
follow a logic of nonsense, as in the oneiric creation of a story. It is the
alternation of “known” territories and “less-known” spaces that creates
a rhythm.36 It is this difference that possesses the primary rhythm,
although repetition is also rhythmic.37 The difference is again this “in-
between,” this limit. It is again the land of geometry.

Dum and Dee, drawing by Franklin Hughes. From Lewis Carroll,

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (New York:
Cheshire House 1931).

Max Ernst, Lewis Carroll’s
Wunderhorn (Stuttgart: Manus
Press 1970).

inhabiting the limit

Working within the limits of language, Lewis Carroll creates a new lan-
guage in order to express lingering questions of humanity. They sound,
they appear completely new, new-born. Language ceases to be a fixed
system but is conceived as growing continuously into something else: a
language that is alive. Words enter into a dance, they play, and some-
times they eat each other: Snark!
Lewis Carroll wrote for children, or to be more precise, on behalf of
children, putting into words their fascinating vision of the world.38 In
the same way, we could say that Lewis Carroll wrote for Euclid, on his
behalf, trying to express the essence of geometry, its unquestionable
truths. In the Alices, geometric figures become characters. Space and
time also become characters; they speak to us, revealing to the reader
their paradoxical nature. Euclid finds, in Wonderland, a retreat where he
can escape from his modern rivals and possibly enter into a dialogue
with the new geometries. Between fiction and the real, between day and
night, in this space of ambiguity, opposites come together and our per-
ception becomes what it always was: a hallucinatory experience. The
limit, the border, is a world of possibles.

Caroline Dionne


This essay is based on a speech I gave at The Lewis Carroll Phenomenon

– An Interdisciplinary and International Centenary Conference for the
Centenary of the Death of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, at the University of
Wales, Cardiff, in April 1998. The text suffered substantial modifications
due to the distance – both spatial and temporal – that separates me from
this event.
1 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,
in The Annotated Alice, with introduction and notes by Martin Gardner
(London: Penguin Books 1960), 269.
2 The Latin doxai can be translated into English as “opinion.” In that sense
a paradox can be understood as being contrary to common sense or com-
monly accepted opinions, or at least as questioning the common sense.
3 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 253.
4 The work of Lewis Carroll follows a logic of nonsense that is expressed
through different means. The nonsensical particle can be a word that cir-
culates and connects odd notions. It can also be a portmanteau (a word
created from the meanings of different words, such as “mimsy,” which is
“flimsy” and “miserable”). In some texts, the whole structure of the tale
follows a logic of nonsense: two stories move in different rhythms on each
side of an odd limit. On these literary processes, see Gilles Deleuze, The
Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (New York: Colum-
bia University Press 1990).
5 Plato emphasizes this dualism between being and becoming when he
writes in the Parmenides, “the younger becoming older than the older, the
older becoming younger than the younger – but they can never finally
become so; if they did they would no longer be becoming, but would be
so.” See Plato, Parmenides 154–5, trans. F.M. Cornforth, in Plato: The
Collected Dialogues, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (New York: Bollin-
gen Foundation 1961), 946.
6 Paul Valéry, “Dance and the Soul,“ Collected Works, vol. 4 (New York:
Pantheon Books 1956), 58.
7 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 211.
8 Michel Serres, Les origines de la géométrie (Paris: Flammarion 1993).
According to Serres, geometry remains outside cultural differences and
dogmas, and in the same way, outside singular scientific moments. In this

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

sense, geometry is common to humanity. But the logos it measures remains

mysterious and somehow original to all origins.
9 John Dee, The Mathematical Praeface to the Elements of Euclid (of
Megara) (London: John Day 1570), 4. In this passage Dee expresses the
primordial status of mathematics and geometry in human affairs; he refers
to the most ancient philosophers but unfortunately does not give more
precision to the identity of these thinkers.
10 As Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise Pelletier explain, “Durand’s mécan-
isme de la composition supported his new rational and specialized theory,
free from metaphysical speculations … In his précis, Durand expressed the
notion that architects should be unconcerned with meaning; if the archi-
tectural problem was efficiently solved, meaning would follow … The aim
was to represent the project objectively; the subjective observer we associ-
ate with perspective’s point of view was consistently ignored.” Architec-
tural Representation and the Perspective Hinge (Cambridge, ma, and
London: mit Press 1997), 298–9.
11 Dee, The Mathematical Praeface, 14.
12 Ibid., 2.
13 Ibid., 13.
14 Even though infinitesimal calculus was important for the development of
non-Euclidean geometries, the changes remained at the level of ideas until
the end of the eighteenth century. The link between infinitesimal calculus
and metaphysical notions is explicit in the work of Leibniz. We perceive a
kind of transposition in his work of the paradoxical notion of time (both
linear and cyclical) to a more general notion of space, or to be more pre-
cise, of our perception of space. His work also evinces how ideas create
images in the mind: it illustrates how geometry participates in our under-
standing of complex notions. See Leibniz, Monadology, in G.W. Leibniz:
Philosophical Essays, ed. and trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indi-
anapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing 1989), 213–15.
15 Algebra is an absolute language, and its signs no longer refer to reality. It
is an abstract language in which numbers do not have symbolic values.
Even infinity (∞) becomes a number for the mere end of solving mathe-
matical problems.
16 Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, in The Complete Illustrated
Lewis Carroll (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth 1996), 683.
17 Jorge Luis Borges, “La métaphore,” in Autour de l’ultraïsme: Articles non

Caroline Dionne

recueillis (Paris: Oeuvres complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard

1993), 843–4. My translation.
18 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (1993), s.v. “true.”
19 Paul Valéry, “Dialogue of the Tree,” in Collected Works, vol. 4, 168. In
this sentence, intelligence should be understood not strictly as the intellec-
tual capacity but rather as the possibility to distinguish, to perceive, to
understand. In that sense what is true is always what separates opposites
and cannot be found on either of the sides; it lies in the acknowledgment
of the difference.
20 It is not surprising that scientists currently interested in quantum physics
might see Lewis Carroll as a precursor. Physicists are now acknowledging
the inevitable temporality of phenomena. The notion of time becomes
essential once their aim is not only to describe an instant (a picture or a
model of reality) but to comprehend a phenomenon (which cannot be
described with the same equation in two temporal directions). Poetic lan-
guage, the language of metaphors, is needed to describe the qualitative
aspects of the successive transformations of matter. These physicists are
trying to describe phenomena that are not very large or infinitesimally
small but phenomena that occur in between, in the world of everyday life.
These phenomena cannot be idealized; their appearance and tangibility are
unavoidable, and therefore, their temporality becomes part of the equa-
tion; even the formula or algorithm is time-bound and always in transfor-
21 C.S. Peirce (1839–1914), Lewis Carroll’s contemporary, formulated the
first principle of pragmatism: “One’s concept of the effects of a thing are
equivalent to one’s concept of the thing itself.” This maxim is the method-
ological basis of conceptual analysis. The eventual analysis of these con-
cepts (intellectualized consequences of action) can be confronted with
reality through experience (intellectual and practical experimentation);
this reasoning is called abduction. Peirce formulated the triadic relation of
the sign to its object, where every concept of being is mediated through
the intellectualization of the interpreting consciousness. In the end, truth
is what is accepted by a community of scientists after careful experiments
and abductions. (What I tell you three times is true.) Throughout his
work, Carroll tries to show the inherent circularity of such logic. See C.S.
Peirce, Collected Papers, vol. 5 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press
1934), 1, 90–3, 186.

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

22 Paz expresses this idea of a romanticism that is not merely nostalgic for
the past or a reactionary attitude against the industrial revolution and the
scientific mind-set but a romanticism that is trying to reconcile the mythos
and the logos. Such movements as Romanticism and Surrealism are visions
of the world that can travel underground, through history, and reappear
when they are least expected. Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre (Austin,
tx: University of Texas Press 1973); see chapter 8 and especially 154–5.
23 “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” The famous riddle was never
answered in the story itself or by its author. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adven-
tures in Wonderland, in The Annotated Alice, 97.
24 Ibid., 99–101.
25 In Greek mythology, Hermes and Hestia are gods that form a strange cou-
ple, or as Jean-Pierre Vernant says, “a problematic couple.” They are often
depicted together, tightly associated with each other, but unlike the other
divine couples, “they are not husband and wife … or brother and sister …
or mother and son … or protector and protected.” Rather, they seem
bound together through their common friendship (philia) with mortal
human beings. Hermes and Hestia, unlike the other gods who have their
own realm in Olympus, are gods that dwell on earth amongst men, and
for that reason are tightly linked to “earth.” Hestia is associated with the
centre of spaces, with the circular fireplace (hestia) at the centre of the
house. She is the symbol of stability, of immutability, of unity: the central
point, the one, from which all points of the sphere of the celestial bodies
– the cosmos – are equidistant. On the other hand, Hermes is the god that
symbolizes movement. “If he manifests himself at the surface of the earth
and, with Hestia, dwells in the houses of mortals, Hermes does so in the
fashion of a messenger.” He is everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous and
ungraspable, associated with doors and roads, with all the spaces and
actions that exist outside the stability of the house. “If they make a cou-
ple … it is because the two divinities are situated on the same plane,
because their actions are applicable at the level of the real, because the
functions that they fulfill are connected … It can be said that the couple
Hermes-Hestia expresses, in its polarity, the tension that can be read in the
archaic representation of space: space necessitates a centre, a fixed point
that possesses a specific value and from which directions can be oriented
and defined, all qualitatively different; but space presents itself, at the same
time, as the place for movement which implies a possibility for transition
and passage, from any point to any other point … Hestia is able to ‘cen-

Caroline Dionne

tralize’ space … Hermes is able to ‘set space in movement’ [‘mobiliser’ l’e-

space].” See Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les grecs (Paris:
François Maspero 1969), 97–101. My translation.
26 The earthly ground remained somehow chaotic and unpredictable com-
pared to the visible order of the celestial bodies.
27 As Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains in Phenomenology of Perception, our
experience of height is very different from that of horizontal distances, and
depth is perceived (in movement) not just through vision but also through
touch, smell, hearing, and taste. The link between perception and reason
(body and mind) and between man and the world involves our temporal
existence. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans.
Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1962), 255.
28 It is interesting to read here the influence of John Ruskin, for whom the
encounter of the human sensibility and the work of art was of great impor-
tance. Ruskin was defending such an attitude against pragmatism. For him
the materiality of architecture was primordial: one should ask the stone
what it has to say. A stone could tell the story of how it was crafted and
could reveal the passage of time upon its face. But what we make of this
story is itself another story. See John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (Lon-
don: Collins 1960).
29 On this notion of “same, different and other,” see Paul Ricoeur, The Con-
flict of Interpretation: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde (Evanston, il:
Northwestern University Press 1974).
30 Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and
Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis, mn: University of Minnesota Press 1997),
31 Ibid., 28.
32 The ancient labyrinth is a vivid demonstration of this union of time and
space. It is circular and is bound to the space created by the dance and its
rhythm. There is an entry and an exit, a beginning and an end, but it
expresses the constant “being lost” of life itself. The modern labyrinth can
be imagined as an infinite line, as is admirably described in Borges’s Fic-
tions. See Borges, “Death and the Compass,” in Labyrinths (New York:
New Directions Books 1962), 87.
33 Merleau-Ponty uses this sentence from Pascal’s Pensées: “Je comprend le
monde et le monde me comprend.” In the English version to which I am
referring, the translator uses the word understanding: “I understand the
world … it understands me.” The French meaning of the word is double:

Lewis Carroll, A Man out of Joint

it can mean “understanding” in an intellectualized way, but it can also

mean “to comprehend” in a physical way, that is, “to circumscribe” or “to
encompass.” The rhythmic aspect of our perception of spatio-temporal
fragments is similar to the rhythm involved while reading a story, a rhythm
that affects our bodily postures and generates the “space” of the book. See
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 408.
34 The ritournelle is a round or a nursery rhyme; in the translation of Mille
plateaux the word “refrain” is used. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari,
A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, mn: Universi-
ty of Minnesota Press 1987), chapter 11; in French, Mille plateaux: Capi-
talisme et schizophrénie 2 (Paris: Minuit 1980).
35 Ibid., 311–13.
36 It is in such territories that we can walk at night and find our way with-
out seeing anything. It is in such space that we happen to know every
detail of a wall, the very disposition of each object.
37 On this notion of rhythm in the ritournelle, see Deleuze and Guattari, A
Thousand Plateaus, 314.
38 As Gilles Deleuze remarks, “To write is not to recount one’s memories and
travels, one’s loves and griefs, one’s dreams and fantasies … The ultimate
aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium, this creation of a health or
this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life. To write for this peo-
ple who are missing.” See Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 4.

The Breath on the Mirror:
Notes on Ruskin’s Theory
of the Grotesque

Mark Dorrian

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

this paper has its origins in an extended footnote to an essay

that attempted to theorize the historical relationship between the terms
“monstrous” and “grotesque.”1 Its focus is on certain metaphors (it is
concerned specifically with references to the breath, to the mirror, and to
the Fall) that Ruskin deploys in his theory of the grotesque, as expound-
ed in volume 3 of The Stones of Venice.2 The paper emerges from two
basic questions: what is the relationship between monstrosity (and, more
generally, “form”) and the breath as it appears in Ruskin’s account of
the grotesque, and how does the “monstrous” operate within the system
of categories that structures Ruskin’s text? It concludes by sketching a
connection between Ruskin’s metaphorics and his early enthusiasm for
the daguerreotype photographic process.
A peculiar trait that writers often display is a tendency to describe
their books as children. An interesting and not uncommon variant
occurs when they consider these children to be in some way bad-born:
perhaps defectively conceived, wayward, ill-starred, or even monstrous.
So, for example, David Hume, reflecting upon the commercial failure of
his Treatise of Human Nature, described it as falling “dead-born from
the press”;3 and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in an interview
with Paul Ricoeur, confessed, “It seems to me that a book is always
something of a prematurely born child and mine strike me as quite
repugnant creatures compared with what I would have liked to have
brought into the world, and of which I do not feel too proud when they
are exposed to the sight of others.”4
Probably the best-known statement of this kind, however, is in Mary
Shelley’s 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, written for a reprinting of
the novel: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and
prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days,
when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my
heart.”5 This introduction was produced by Shelley in answer to a
request from her publisher for an account of how her book came to be
written. In it she recalled the events of that wet summer spent by Lake
Geneva, when Byron challenged the four of them (Mary Godwin, Percy
Shelley, John Polidori, and Byron himself) to write a ghost story. She
describes how, in the days leading up to the nightmare that prompted the
writing of the book, she had read from a collection of German ghost sto-
ries. One of these in particular had gripped her: the tale of a ghostly

Mark Dorrian

patriarch who was fated to destroy the younger sons of his descendants.
He came to them as they slept in their cots and, bending over, kissed
them, and “from that hour [they] withered like flowers snapped upon
the stalk.”6
In this story there is something of the vampire, the creature who,
through the kiss, sucks away the sap, the blood, the life-force. In his
study of the vampire myth in Romantic literature, James Twitchell has
noted that while tales of the blood-sucking monster may have appeared
in England by the eighth century, the word “vampire” is not evident in
English writing until the early 1700s.7 In fact, the first British vampire
novel was to be John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), published three
years after that summer in Switzerland. We should note at this stage the
character of the vampire as a liminal figure who has a special relation-
ship with the mirror (which tells the “truth” of the creature): it is both
alive and dead and neither alive nor dead. It is a creature that both col-
lapses and lives between categories. The imperative is not to kill it
(which is impossible as it is not alive) but to resolve it. Venice has a sim-
ilar liminal status (between death and life) and a similar vampiric char-
acter. Twitchell stresses the extent to which narratives of the female
vampire (or “lamia”) turn on seduction: usually a young man encoun-
ters “an older supernatural temptress who somehow drains his energy,
leaving him weak and desperate.”8 Certainly to Ruskin writing in his
later years, it seemed that this city (to which he had devoted so much of
his life and energy and which he had once wanted to draw, as he wrote
of St Mark’s, “stone by stone – to eat it all up into my mind – touch by
touch”) had seduced and distracted him.9 He wished, he wrote in his
1883 epilogue to Modern Painters III, that he had never seen Venice,
“seen her, that is to say, with man’s eyes” (4:352). I regard it, he said in
the autobiographical Praeterita, “more and more as a vain temptation”
(35:296). His closing words on the sea-city recall his reflections on the
sirens, who, he had earlier argued, were, in the Homeric conception,
“phantoms of vain desire,” demons of the imagination (and hence of the
desire, not of the ears, but of the eyes) whose song, whose breath, poi-
sons and withers (17:212–14).10
With the kiss we are within a thematics of the “breath,” a pneuma-
tology (where pneuma is “breath” or “spirit”). If the breath is the medi-
um by which something “foreign” passes into the body (whether

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

inspiration or contagion), it is also the means by which something might

be drawn out or confiscated. The phantom that Shelley described acts
out a demonic inversion of divine “inspiration,” the breathing-into that
animates base material (“clay” or, as St Augustine described it, “slime”)
and that reappears as motivated and intentional speech. When the
breath is withdrawn, the body falls to putrefaction, decay, and, to asso-
ciate it in advance with an aesthetic category, decadence. In some ways,
then, this seems aligned with the Judas-kiss that betrays, that consigns
to death, and that appears, as we shall see, as a “species of monstrosity”
in its perversion of the divine kiss.
In his historical study of the kiss, Nicholas Perella stresses its rela-
tionship to the idea of the unification or fusion of two within one: this
hinges, he argues, on the set of concepts and values associated with
breath. Breath is not just a point of connection between one human
being and another; it is also the point of communion between mankind
and the divine. In the Symposium Plato mentions “that courage which,
as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of
his own nature infuses into the lover.”11 As Perella puts it, “we are led
to consider with sympathy that theory which holds that the kiss has its
origins in the magical idea of the infusion of a power or the exchange or
union of ‘spirits’ or ‘souls’ carried by or even identified with breath and,
sometimes, with saliva.”12 Thus the belief, known to the Romans, that
the soul of someone at the point of death could be drawn back by a kiss.
In the Christian tradition, there are two great kisses bestowed by God
upon man. The first, described in Genesis (2:7), is of the vivifying of man
by God’s breath (which, according to St Augustine, instilled within man
his rational soul). The second is Christ’s bestowing of the Holy Spirit
upon the apostles when he appeared to them for the first time after the
resurrection: “He therefore said to them, ‘Peace be with you! As the
Father has sent me, I also send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed
upon them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21–2).
Commenting on this passage, St Augustine writes, “For he in some way
placed his mouth to their mouth when he gave them the Spirit by breath-
ing upon them.”13
This insufflation of the Spirit could be thought of as an insemination
(which, in turn, hyperbolizes the character of the breath, in its alternate
guise, as a possible contaminant).14 Perella writes, “Paul taught that a

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union between the soul and God could take place on the level of transcen-
dent Spirit, but only insofar as a man has been pneumatized, impregnated
by the divine Spirit.”15 The gnostic Gospel of Philip (second or third cen-
tury ad ) explicitly links the kiss, the Spirit as logos, and impregnation:

… out of the mouth

… the logos came forth thence
He would nourish … from the mouth
And become perfect. For the perfect
Conceive through a kiss and give birth. Because of this
We also kiss one another.
We receive conception from the grace which is
Among us.16

Thus, the breath as Spirit unites with the Word. Indeed the breath is
the very substance of the spoken word and the voice. As Ruskin put it,
“The air [is] the actual element and substance of the voice, the prolong-
ing and sustaining power of it” (19:342). The breath, through the voice,
is thus associated with the ontotheological notion of what Derrida has
called the “transcendental signified” – the ultimate and final source of
meaning, the Voice of Being. Derrida writes of the privilege accorded to
the voice in Western thought: “[It] is heard (understood) … closest to the
self as the absolute effacement of the signifier … [it does] not borrow
from outside of itself, in the world or in ‘reality,’ any accessory signifier,
any substance of expression foreign to its own spontaneity. It is the
unique experience of the signified producing itself spontaneously, from
within the self, and nevertheless, as signified concept, in the element of
ideality or universality. The unworldly character of this subject of expres-
sion is constitutive of this ideality.”17
Perhaps the clearest counterpart to Shelley’s hoary German knight,
clad in armour, stooping over the infant’s cot, comes from Dante’s Pur-
gatory. (The Divine Comedy is, of course, a constant reference through-
out Ruskin’s writings.)18 Here, Statius is describing the development of
the human embryo. Through the natural, physical process, two souls
develop: the vegetative (that lives) and the sensitive (that feels). When
this occurs, God bends over the infant and breathes into it the intellec-
tive, contemplative soul that fuses with the others:

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

Open your heart to what I now reveal:

when the articulation of the brain
has been perfected in the embryo

then the First Mover turns to it, with joy

over such art in Nature, and He breathes
a spirit into it, new, and with power

to assimilate what it finds active there,

so that one single soul is formed complete,
that lives and feels and contemplates itself.

(And if you find what I have said is strange,

consider the sun’s heat that turns to wine
when it joins forces with the juice that flows).19

The kiss that destroys or dissolves life is then to be understood as a

monstrous act insofar as it is a deviation from, or even inversion of,
the “natural” and sacred teleology of the kiss. In his Hexaemeron, St
Ambrose said of the kiss of Judas: “Hence the Lord, condemning His
betrayer as a species of monstrosity, says: ‘Judas, dost thou betray the
Son of Man with a kiss?’ That is to say, changing the emblem of love into
a sign of betrayal and a revelation of unfaithfulness, are you employing
this pledge of peace for the purpose of cruelty? And thus by the oracu-
lar voice of God reproof is given to him who by a bestial conjunction of
lips bestows a sentence of death rather than a covenant of love.”20
Although the contents page of the third volume of The Stones of
Venice gives the mild appellation “Third, or Renaissance Period,” we
have to get there by way of the ominous title page, severely labelled
“The Fall.” Ruskin’s elaboration of a theory of the grotesque comes in
the third section of this volume (entitled “Grotesque Renaissance”). His
account is highly nuanced and thematically rich and is structured by a
proliferating series of categories organized by a primary, “vertical” oppo-
sition between what he calls the noble grotesque and the base grotesque.
He tells us at the start that he had not intended to consider this most
painful period, but (and here he opens the theme of the mouth) “I found
that the entire spirit of the Renaissance could not be comprehended
unless it was followed to its consummation” (11:135–6). It is as if the

Sculpted heads, Palazzo Corner
della Regina

late, base grotesque of Renaissance Venice has, in some sense, swallowed

what has gone before. Here the Fall becomes the gulp, the slide from
head to belly, from the sublime to the disgusting.
Ruskin introduces his discussion of the Grotesque Renaissance
through a complex rhetorical gesture that is analogous to covering one’s
eyes and then opening the fingers to see through: that is to say, an act
that speaks of both protection and fascination. Although he is unwilling,
he says, to pollute the book by illustrating any of its worst forms, he at
the same time advises visiting them and even provides the reader with an
itinerary and commentary for a walking tour. Starting at the church of
Santa Maria Formosa, we visit, in turn, San Moisè; Santa Maria Zobe-
nigo (whose rebuilding in 1678 was financed by the Barbaro family);21
San Eustachio (known as San Stae); the heads on the bases of the Palaz-
zo Corner della Regina and the Palazzo Pesaro (Ca’Pésaro); Longhena’s
church of the Ospadaletto; and finally the Bridge of Sighs.
Let us now recall the ghost story that Mary Shelley read and surmise
that in some sense the bad kiss (or “bad breath”) of which the story
speaks, is at the beginning of, or even inaugurates, monstrosity. The kiss
in the ghost story comes, in fact, to be about two children: the horrific
image of the withered child and Mary Shelley’s own “hideous progeny,”
to which the story gave birth through the “womb” of the nightmare.

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

Church of the Ospadeletto (Santa

Maria dei Derelitti)

Ruskin starts his walking tour of grotesque Venice at Santa Maria For-
mosa, and he devotes special attention to it. He recounts at length the
story of the festival commemorating the rescue of the brides of Venice,
in which the Doge, accompanied by twelve maidens, annually visited the
old church. We are to picture this, Ruskin says, as we approach the
tower of the church built upon the site. Into this scene erupts the mask
carved on the base of the tower: “A head – huge, inhuman, and mon-
strous – leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or
described, or to be beheld for more than an instant; for in that head is
embodied the type of evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the
fourth period of her decline; and it is well that we should see and feel the
full horror of it on this spot, and know what pestilence it was that came
and breathed upon her beauty, until it melted away like the white cloud

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Sculpted head,
Santa Maria Formosa

from the ancient field of Santa Maria Formosa” (11:145; my italics).

Here at the (mythic) beginning – both of Ruskin’s account (start here! he
says) and of the grotesque phenomenon – in this paradigmatic, almost
absolute instance of the base grotesque, the breath enters. It is a pollut-
ing, contaminating breath before which form itself withers. Later, in an
aside, he notes that even the teeth on the sculpted head are represented
as decayed (11:162). This deforming miasma, emitted in Venice, whose
issue is monstrous and which inverts the morphological powers that
Ruskin later ascribed to Athenian insufflation, seems to drift through his
subsequent thinking, perhaps to reappear as the ominous “plague-wind
of the eighth decade of the nineteenth century” of his later writings, the
symbol, as Raymond Fitch puts it, “of a power opposed to the cohesive
and vital energy he invoked in his uses of the term ‘purity.’”22 The

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

plague-wind’s hiss suggested its serpentine character, and the wind itself
was linked by Ruskin, cryptically, to “an evil spirit, the absolute oppo-
nent of the Queen of the Air” (34:68).23
At many points in Ruskin’s writing, such as in his frequent insistence
on and defence of inspiration, a pneumatology is evident. His most elab-
orate treatment of the topic is contained in his eulogy to the myth of
Athena, The Queen of the Air (1869). This text allows us to delineate a
series of related ideas within which the theme of the breath is, for
Ruskin, conceptually located and expounded and which seems retro-
spectively to govern, at least in outline, the metaphorics of the breath in
his writing on the grotesque contained in The Stones of Venice sixteen
years before.
As queen of the air, Athena extends her sovereignty over physical and
spiritual realms: physically she has power over the atmosphere, over
calm and storm; spiritually “she is the queen of the breath of man, first
of the bodily breathing which is life to his blood … and then of the men-
tal breathing, or inspiration, which is his moral health and habitual
wisdom” (19:305). The placing of this bodily breathing and mental
breathing together under the spiritual might make us suspect that the
distinction between them is less clear than it may seem at first: this is
later confirmed, for “whenever you draw a pure, long, full breath of
right heaven, you take Athena into your heart, through your blood; and
with the blood, into the thoughts of your brain” (19:328–9).
Ruskin’s ostensible focus in the second section of The Queen of the
Air, entitled “Athena Keramitis,” is on Athena as a life-giving power.
His approach is circumspect, but in a passage that he later claimed
defined the use of “spirit” in all his writings, he observed the translation
of the Greek pneuma (wind or breath, he tells us) into spirit or ghost,
while stressing that the “spirit of man” in all “articulate” languages
means his “passion or virtue” (19:352). Acknowledging the dependence
of life on the chemical action of air, yet concerned to defend against any
thoroughgoing scientific materialism, he attempts to construct a distinc-
tion between the mere “chemical affinities” of matter (which can pro-
duce only “indefinite masses”)24 and the transcendent presences of air
and sunlight, upon whose kiss (we might say, looking back toward
Dante) the formative process is initiated: hence, as Ruskin puts it, the
“Myth of Athena, as a Formative … power” (19:354). Seen in this way,
insufflation is first and foremost a matter of morphology: spirit (which

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Ruskin equates with “life” or “breathing”) leads to form and is thereby

to be distinguished, via the moment of air and light, from what is sim-
ply force: “For the mere force of junction is not spirit; but the power that
catches out of chaos, charcoal, water, lime, or what not, and fastens
them down into a given form, is properly called ‘spirit’” (19:357). Our
delight in form and colour in nature bears witness to the presence of the
same spirit as our own in nonhuman life and thus allows Ruskin’s exem-
plar of formal beauty, the flower, an unlikely element of a pneumatology,
to take a central place within it.25
In the final volume of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin had referred his
work on Venice to a theological language of Types in which the world
was written; and in the chapter “Grotesque Renaissance” he had com-
mented on the snake in such terms.26 In The Queen of the Air, he extend-
ed his discussion of this “Word of God,” this “divine hieroglyph of the
demoniac power of the earth” (19:359, 363). Here the characteristics
and meaning of the serpent, in its opposition to that of the bird, are
placed under the sign of its breathlessness: in it, we are told, “the breath
or spirit is less than in any other creature” (19:360). “It scarcely breathes
with its one lung (the other shrivelled and abortive)” (19:363). As “the
symbol of the grasp and sting of death” it is also the earthly creature
whose deathly and withering kiss presents the most persuasive and bib-
lically resonant inversion of divine insufflation (19:363). Often conflated
in Ruskin’s iconography with the woman as seductress,27 the serpentine
kiss was a Judas-kiss, “or, in one word, treachery” (7:399). This kiss was
more than venomous; it was leech-like, a strangely vampiric kiss – one
that sucked, that withdrew, that emptied out, that possessed. Shortly
after the publication of The Queen of the Air, Ruskin recorded a dream
in which he battled with a woman-snake only to have “another small one
[fasten] on my neck like a leech, and nothing would pull it off.”28 Dur-
ing the previous year, when he had been assailed frequently by serpent-
nightmares, he had dreamt of a beautiful snake that, he told a young
companion, was an innocent one but that when he touched it, “became
a fat thing, like a leech, and adhered to my hand, so that I could hardly
pull it off.”29 For Ruskin the snake, presenting an image both terrifying
and sensual, with a strange obsessive beauty that slides easily into
obscenity, seems, of all natural forms, to have had an essential relation-
ship with the grotesque.30 It is no surprise to find the character of bird
and serpent myths acting for him as a point of discrimination regarding

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

“the moral state and fineness of intelligence of different races” in a way

almost identical to the presence or absence of the “noble grotesque” as
he had described it in The Stones of Venice (19:366; 11:187).
For Ruskin the grotesque is closely related to the concept of the Fall
and is even, in the last instance, identified with it. The date of the fall of
Venice is put at 1423, when Foscari became Doge. The decline in ques-
tion was not just in the moral character and pursuits of Venice’s inhabi-
tants, the compost in which the base grotesque roots and blossoms as a
kind of fleur du mal; it was also a fall in the vigour, power, and conse-
quence of the Republic. This association between, on one hand, luxury,
licentiousness, and the pursuit of pleasure and, on the other, the atrophy
of the nation was by no means new. Jeanne Clegg suggests that in the
case of Venice this linkage begins with Gilbert Burnet’s report on the city
after his visit in 1685 and continues in Pope’s Dunciad, which “links dis-
soluteness with naval, and hence economic and political impotence.
There is no energy, no fertility in this sexuality, only languor and aban-
don.”31 While the base grotesque emerges and flourishes cancerously
within the city during its Fall, the grotesque is, at the same time, embed-
ded by Ruskin in a broader argument in which it becomes figured as the
key characteristic of all lapsarian art.
In Ruskin’s schema it is the main purpose of the faculty of imagina-
tion to, as he puts it, apprehend “ultimate truth.” This truth is not some-
thing that can be sought out by a human being but is presented or given.
It comes of its own accord and is not mastered but masters. “The vision,
of whatever kind, comes uncalled, and will not submit itself to the seer,
but conquers him, and forces him to speak as a prophet, having no
power over his words or thoughts” (11:178). Ruskin, drawing an explic-
it connection with Pauline pneumatology, thus defends the Platonic
opposition between inspiration and art as set out in the Phaedrus, and
the privilege accorded to the former. This breathing-in, this insufflation,
even manifests itself as a madness (the famous “madness of God” of the
Phaedrus) that properly marks the irreducible division between the high-
er and lower worlds. The vision presented by the imagination is figured
as in a mirror that is (as a plane of symbolization) interposed between
the human viewer and the divine.
Now Ruskin seems to suggest that a clear and calm mind can recap-
ture “as in a perfect mirror” what is presented to it, through it (11:179),
but before an inconstant and ill-educated mind, the image fragments

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and warps under the passions. As he elaborates this trope, however, the
possibility of the perfect mirror seems to recede. Onto the mirror of the
fallen soul, he tells us, the Devil breathes, misting and polluting it,
obscuring, in a kind of pneumatological play between divine inspiration
and its other, the truth that flickers upon it. We must “sweep the image
laboriously away,” but still we arrive at an image that is necessarily dis-
torted, given the human condition: “the fallen human soul, at its best,
must be as a diminishing glass, and that a broken one, to the mighty
truths of the universe round it; and the wider the scope of its glance, and
the vaster the truths into which it obtains an insight, the more fantastic
their distortion is likely to be, as the winds and vapours trouble the field
of the telescope most when it reaches farthest” (11:181).
It is precisely this play of the sublime image of divine truth upon the
agitated surface of the fallen soul that gives rise to the grotesque. Thus,
at its most elevated the grotesque merges into the sublime, that is to say,
the faithful apprehension of the image. Ruskin calls the sublime rare,
and in fact we are led to suspect that it is more a regulatory ideal than
an actual possibility. The sublime, in short, would be the magical union
of the specular image with its referent: in Platonic terms, a union of the
“copy-child” with its “Father.” It would be the effacement of the plane
of symbolization taking place on the plane of symbolization. Indeed,
Ruskin speaks a little later of the time when “that great kingdom of dark
and distorted power, of which we all must be in some sort the subjects
until mortality shall be swallowed up of life … and neither death stand
between us and our brethren, nor symbols between us and our God”
(11:186). The “mirror stage” described by the psychoanalyst Jacques
Lacan is a point in the development of the child when it constructs,
through identification with the image in the mirror, the phantasm of a
coherent self in what Lacan calls the “jubilant assumption of his specu-
lar image.”32 The “mirror-stage” of the Ruskinian grotesque is the oppo-
site: here the mirror fragments, warps, and morcellates what is presented
to it. For Baudelaire the “monstrous phenomenon of laughter” was the
index of man’s fallen condition;33 for Ruskin it is the enduring presence
of the grotesque.
The account of the grotesque that Ruskin sets out is coordinated
by two asymmetrically positioned dualities. The first, the “vertical”
opposition already mentioned, distinguishes the noble and ignoble
grotesque. The nature of the distinction between these two categories

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

(which carry a clear metaphysical charge, with the noble grotesque

being described as “true” and the ignoble “false”) is the main subject
of Ruskin’s investigation. Whereas the former is the product of a
healthy and well-proportioned mind (“I believe,” writes Ruskin, “that
there is no test of greatness in periods, nations, or men, more sure than
the development, among them or in them, of a noble grotesque”
[11:187]), the latter is the poisonous flowering of a degraded and abject
humanity. Its most base forms are “evidences of a delight in the con-
templation of bestial vice, and the expression of a low sarcasm, which
is, I believe, the most hopeless state into which the human mind can
fall” (11:145). The second duality is introduced through Ruskin’s claim
that in almost all cases the grotesque is composed of two elements: the
fearful and the ludicrous. Depending on the relative dominance of these
elements, the specific character of the grotesque phenomenon becomes
defined as either terrible or sportive (11:151).
There is no straightforward correspondence between the categories
that constitute each duality (noble/ignoble; terrible/sportive); rather
Ruskin’s text suggests that the terrible and the sportive terms operate
across the noble/ignoble distinction. But while this is asserted, it is at the
same time problematized by changes that occur in the character of the
terrible grotesque as it shifts across the divide from noble to ignoble. In
the realm of the noble grotesque, fearful elements receive adequate
expression, but insofar as they appear in the domain of the ignoble, they
seem to have devolved into something that evokes only “disgust.”
Consequently, the ignoble workman, we are told, “may make his crea-
tures disgusting, but never fearful” (11:170). Again, the ignoble gro-
tesque has “no Horror. For the base soul has no fear of sin, and no
hatred of it: and however it may strive to make its work terrible, there
will be no genuineness in the fear; the utmost it can do will be to make
its work disgusting” (11:176). Thus, while the sportive grotesque tra-
verses the noble/ignoble distinction and lodges in both locations, the ter-
rible grotesque seems primarily to find purchase in the noble, its fearful
aspect tending to disqualify its appearance within the ignoble.
If we look now at where Ruskin’s text touches on the question of mon-
strosity, we will find that it is a characteristic associated primarily with
the ignoble grotesque and therefore also with the ludic. For example, the
degraded architecture erected during the final period of the Fall of Venice
is characterized by “deformed and monstrous sculpture” (11:135), as in

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Ruskin’s illustration of
the ignoble grotesque
(from Ca’Rezzonico?)

the carved head at the base of the tower of the church of Santa Maria
Formosa: “huge, inhuman, and monstrous – leering in bestial degrada-
tion, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more
than an instant” (11:145). Unwilling, even for didactic purposes, to pub-
lish such an abomination, Ruskin substituted another image, described
as “utterly devoid of intention, made merely monstrous,” to illustrate the
ignoble late Renaissance grotesque of Venice (11:190).34 The ignoble
grotesques produced by “Inordinate Play,” we are told, will be forms
“which will be absurd without being fantastic, and monstrous without
being terrible” (11:161). Raphael’s grottesche in the Vatican are precise-
ly the result of such play: “an unnatural and monstrous abortion”
(11:171). Finally, the ignoble workman, incapable of drawing upon mod-
els that nature presents, is satisfied when seeking to express vice “with
vulgar exaggeration, and leaves his work as false as it is monstrous”
(11:177). On one occasion only is monstrosity admitted to the noble
grotesque, and here it is ultimately grounded in fearful phenomena pre-
sented by nature (11:169). In Ruskin’s account, then, the ludicrous, and
not the fearful, is the primary locus of monstrosity: to understand this
we must pursue the implications of his system of categories.
In Ruskin’s view, grotesque phenomena are to be understood as
arranged in a hierarchy at whose upper limit the grotesque is surpassed
and the absolutes of divine beauty and terrible sublimity are revealed

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

(11:165–6). Through the beautiful and the terrible, the fundamental

conditions of man’s existence gain expression: their presence in nature
sets a constant demonstration before man of the existential choice with
which he is confronted. The terror in man that is provoked by nature
springs from his interlinked fears of death and sin. Through this cou-
pling, nature’s destructive phenomena gain a moral effect. Faced with
the terrifying convulsions of nature that announce the strike of the thun-
derbolt, the human soul is appalled; and, even beyond this “there is an
occult and subtle horror belonging to many aspects of the creation
around us, calculated often to fill us with serious thought, even in our
times of quietness and peace” (11:164). Now the terrible grotesque, ulti-
mately grounded in the truth presented through nature, emerges with the
apprehension and expression of the awful imminence of death and sin.
From this, from its sensitivity to the truth of man’s existential condition,
it gains Ruskin’s commendation. However, the apprehension that con-
jures the terrible grotesque is defective: it fails (or refuses) to plumb the
full horror and truth of what it contemplates, and so it falls short of the
sublime. The grotesque is produced through this lack, but what is absent
is, at the same time, discerned. The master of the noble grotesque feels
the resonance, senses the depths, of what is withheld from him. This pre-
sent absence is not evident to the workman of the ignoble grotesque: he
“can feel and understand nothing, and mocks at all things with the
laughter of the idiot and the cretin” (11:167).
We can now see that the double movement of the “monstrous” in
Ruskin’s text, upward to the heights of the noble grotesque and, much
more notably, downward to the most abject ignoble grotesque, involves
a curious inversion whereby the ludicrous, by its very nature, becomes
terrible. This is because the ludic, as manifested in the ignoble grotesque,
must become, in the last instance, an object of fear: where the trace of
the monstrous within the noble grotesque comes as an expression of the
presence of sin in the world, the bloated monstrosity within the ignoble
grotesque is both the symptom and the actualization of sin. With the
monstrous ignoble grotesque we are no longer witnesses to representa-
tions of representations: instead, the object has advanced into actuality,
this movement producing, out of its ludicrousness, its fearful character.
In Ruskin, this effect is produced by the supposedly indelible link
between the deed and the moral condition of the doer. Thus, too, the
connection between the monstrous and the disgusting in Ruskin’s dis-

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Pilaster, Ospadeletto

course, insofar as we take disgust in its Kantian sense as what cannot be

held back by representation and advances upon the viewer, “insisting, as
it were, upon our enjoying it, while we still set our face against it.”35
Indeed the open mouths, lolling tongues, and slavering chops of the
sculpted heads to which Ruskin points suggest this advance in another
way: the polluting breath’s overcoming of the prophylactic distance
associated with the purely optical. The base grotesque, as the result of a
disregard for what is propitious, linked to hubris, bestiality, luxurious-
ness, sarcasm, and mockery, for the theistic imagination does not mere-
ly record but calls down an imminent retribution. Indeed, a biblical fate
hung over the Venice of the ignoble grotesque, and Ruskin, echoing the
dying speech of the Doge in Byron’s play Marino Faliero, closes: “That
ancient curse was upon her, the curse of the Cities of the Plain … By
the inner burning of her own passions, as fatal as the fiery rain of

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

Gomorrah, she was consumed from her place among the nations; and
her ashes are choking the channels of the dead, salt sea” (11:195).
In conclusion, I would like to speculate, in a very conjectural way,
about Ruskin’s enthusiasm for the photographic process known as the
daguerreotype during the period when he began to work on The Stones
of Venice.36 In his brilliant essay “Likeness as Identity: Reflections on the
Daguerrean Mystique,” Alan Trachtenberg has analyzed the singular
power of these strange images and the complex discourse that grew up
around them and within which they were embedded. The daguerreotype
process produced no negative, so each plate was unique and irreplace-
able. Yet, as Trachtenberg puts it, the positive /negative nexus was
embodied on the face of the plate, the image shifting between these poles
as the plate was tilted with respect to the viewer’s eye. The image upon
the copper plate was polished to a high shine and was usually set below
a gold-plated mat. According to Trachtenberg, “Daguerrean portraits
lend themselves to a discourse in which atavistic fascination with images
as magical replicas, as fetishes and effigies, mingles with sheer pleasure
in undisguised technique, in the rigours of craft.”37
The discourse on the daguerreotype that flourished in the 1840s and
1850s was, as Trachtenberg puts it, a mixed discourse of science, tech-
nique, art, and magic. What I want to focus on in the context of Ruskin’s
metaphysics of the grotesque is the contemporary popular rhetoric on
the daguerreotype as a mirror with a memory. In the period of its pop-
ularization, the daguerreotype seemed to capture something beyond the
mere “image” of the referent; it seemed “too real to be understood as
just another copy of the world.”38 Instead, the process seemed to capture
something essential about the sitter, the very essence or identity of a per-
son, fastened down and suspended within the tain of the mirror. The
daguerreotypes conjured animistic notions of “life” in the image; some
of the popular fiction of the 1840s and 1850s imagined that one might
fall in love with a daguerreotype or that daguerretypes might fall in love
with one another. In short, the daguerreotype seemed to realize the
uncanny union or fusion of the image with the referent in a way sugges-
tively in accord with Ruskin’s clear seeing, as implied negatively in his
metaphysics of the grotesque. The daguerreotype reproduced most closely,
albeit in the “fallen” world, the optical and cognitive event upon whose
terms Ruskin figured his regulatory ideal, the prelapsarian mirror of the
soul that unites with the divine truth (to which might we say, the “cam-

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era” of the imagination is witness?). The mechanical apparatus, through

its apparent transparency before the referent, effects something like a
prosaic version of the ecstatic effacement of self that Ruskin had experi-
enced in 1842 before the mountains at Chamonix (4:364).39
Although Ruskin’s comments on the daguerreotype are resolutely
down to earth, certain moments in his writing suggest more: in a letter
written to his father from Venice in 1845, dated 7 October, he says, “I
have been lucky enough to get from a poor Frenchm[an] here, said to be
in distress, some most beautiful, though small Daguerreotypes of the
palaces I have been trying to draw … It is very nearly the same thing as
carrying off the palace itself – every chip of stone & stain is there.”40 In
some senses the daguerreotype was more than “carrying off the palace”:
it seemed to disclose the real to perception with a finer grain than did the
reality it recorded. Thus we have the image of Ruskin, as described in
another letter to his father eight days later, stumbling around St Mark’s,
his eyes fixed on a daguerreotype: “I have been walking all over St
Mark’s Place today, and found a lot of things in the Daguerreotype that
I never had noticed in the place itself.”41 The only way one might make
sense of the great prosyletizer of the visual, walking around Venice, eyes
fixed, like a modern tourist, on an interpretative document, is if that
document, here the daguerreotype, is more than interpretative.
(We should note here that the daguerreotype, through its very fidelity,
always contained an aspect that was somewhat monstrous. In Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851,
as was the first volume of The Stones of Venice, we are introduced to a
daguerreotypist, Holgrave, whose ancestors practised witchcraft. His art
is a modern technico-magical variant of the black arts practised by his
forerunners. At one point he confesses a sin of the same order as Shel-
ley’s Victor Frankenstein: “I misuse Heaven’s blessed sunshine by trac-
ing out human features, through my agency.”42 This is an impeccably
monstrous moment: the trapping, or deviating, or turning of Nature’s
power against itself through art. We are almost invited to see his pecu-
liarly animated daguerreotype portraits as little monsters.)
The curious closeness of the photograph and its referent is a recurring
theme in histories and theories of photography. It is usually framed in
terms of the ontology of the photograph: its status as the record of an
emanation from an object (whose real existence is therefore presup-
posed). It is the force with which the photograph returns us to, or better,

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

instantiates the referent that underpins Roland Barthes’s comment that it

produces that “rather terrible thing … the return of the dead.”43 How-
ever, this “return of the dead” is not a straightforward return to life; like
the liminal creatures of which we spoke at the beginning, it is more a con-
dition of both life and death, neither life nor death. The photograph oper-
ates both between and on the outside of the conceptual opposition. As
Derrida wrote on the occasion of the death of Roland Barthes, “The ver-
sus of the conceptual opposition is as substantial as a camera’s click.
‘Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separat-
ing the initial pose from the final print.’ Ghosts: the concept of the other
in the same … the dead other alive in me. The concept of the photograph
photographs all conceptual oppositions, it traces a relationship of haunt-
ing which perhaps is constitutive of all logics.”44 Thus, one feels that the
photograph has always had a strange affinity with Venice, that city
between life and death that travellers in the early nineteenth century
described as a phantasm, a dream, or a city of sleepwalkers and that
Ruskin called “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet – so
bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched
her reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which
the Shadow” (9:17).


I am grateful to the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal for the

award of a visiting scholarship from May to August 2000, during which
this essay was completed, and to Zoe Quick for conversations.
1 “On the Monstrous and the Grotesque,” written in 1996 but published in
Word & Image 16, no. 3 (2000): 310–17. See also Mark Dorrian, “Mon-
strosity Today,” Artifice 5 (1996): 48–59. Versions of the current paper
were presented at the annual conference of the Association of Art Histori-
ans held in Edinburgh on 7–9 April 2000 and at the Canadian Centre for
Architecture in Montreal on 7 July 2000. For some comments on the
“formless” in Ruskin’s Lamp of Beauty see Mark Dorrian, “Surplus Mat-
ter: Of Scars, Scrolls, Skulls, and Stealth,” in Architecture: The Subject Is
Matter, ed. J. Hill (London: Routledge 2001), 193–206.
2 For interpretations of Ruskin’s grotesque, see George P. Landow, The Aes-
thetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton: Princeton Univer-

Mark Dorrian

sity Press 1971), 370–99; Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the
Beholder (Cambridge, ma, and London: Harvard University Press 1982),
111–39; Raymond Fitch, The Poison Sky: Myth and Apocalypse in Ruskin
(Athens, oh, and London: Ohio University Press 1982), 197–202; Lindsay
Smith, Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The Enigma of Visi-
bility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press 1995); Paulette Singley, “Devouring Architecture: Rus-
kin’s Insatiable Grotesque,” Assemblage 32 (1997): 108–25; Lucy Hartley,
“Griffinism, Grace and All: The Riddle of the Grotesque in John Ruskin’s
Modern Painters,” in Victorian Culture and the Idea of the Grotesque, ed.
Colin Trodd, Paul Barlow, and David Amigoni (Aldershot, Hants., and
Brookfield, vt: Ashgate 1999), 81–94.
3 David Hume, The Life of David Hume, Esq: Written by Himself (London:
W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1777), 7–8; “Never literary attempt was more
unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the
press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur
among the zealots.”
4 “Il me semble qu’un livre, c’est toujours un enfant né avant terme, qui me
fait l’effet d’une créature assez répugnante en comparaison de celle que
j’aurais souhaité mettre au monde, et que je ne me sens pas trop fier de
présenter aux regards d’autrui.” Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Reponses à
quelques questions,” Esprit (November 1963): 629.
5 Mary Shelley, introduction (1831) to Frankenstein, or the Modern
Prometheus: The 1818 Version, ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf
(Broadview Literary Texts 1999), 358.
6 Ibid., 355.
7 James B. Twitchell, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Roman-
tic Literature (Durham, n c: Duke University Press 1981), 7.
8 Ibid., 39.
9 Jeanne Clegg, Ruskin and Venice (London: Junction Books 1981), 3–4; on
Venice as seductress/bride see John Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A
Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius (New York: Columbia University Press 1961),
10 Bracketed references in the text refer to The Works of John Ruskin
(Library Edition), ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London:
George Allen, and New York: Longmans, Green 1903–7). On the sirens
see also 19:177–9 and 29:262–72.

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

11 Cited in Nicholas J. Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane: An Interpretive

History of Kiss Symbolism and Related Religio-Erotic Themes (Berkeley:
University of California Press 1969), 5.
12 Ibid., 6
13 Ibid., 18.
14 On semen as a pollutant, see William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust
(Cambridge, ma, and London: Harvard University Press 1997), 103–5.
15 Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane, 45.
16 The Gospel of Philip, trans. R.M. Wilson (London 1962), 34–5, cited in
Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane, 20.
17 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
(Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), 20.
18 In their General Index Cook and Wedderburn give almost four double-
columned and minutely printed pages of references to The Divine Come-
dy alone (39:150–4).
19 Dante’s Purgatory, 25.67–78, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington, in: Indi-
ana University Press 1981), 271; Perella, The Kiss Sacred and Profane, 19.
20 Hexaemeron, 6.9.68, in Hexaemeron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel, trans.
John J. Savage (New York 1961), 278; cited in Perella, The Kiss Sacred
and Profane, 29.
21 As far as Ruskin was concerned, this church was the epitome of the hubris
and impiety characteristic of the period when the Venetian base grotesque
flourished. It was, he said, “entirely dedicated to the Barbaro family; the
only religious symbols with which it is invested being statues of angels
blowing brazen trumpets, intended to express the spreading of the fame of
the Barbaro family in heaven … A huge statue of a Barbaro in armour,
with a fantastic head-dress, over the central door; and four Barbaros in
niches, two on each side of it, strutting statues, in the common stage pos-
tures of the period” (11:149–50).
22 Fitch, The Poison Sky, 2.
23 Ibid., 6, 573–4.
24 Cf. the case of Frankenstein and his creation, which was vivified not
through “inspiration” but through “chemical” processes; as such its con-
dition failed to escape that of the “dark, shapeless substances” of which
Shelley spoke in her introduction (Shelley, introduction (1831), 356).
25 “The Spirit in the plant – that is to say, its power of gathering dead mat-
ter out of the wreck round it, and shaping it into its own chosen shape –

Mark Dorrian

is of course strongest at the moment of its flowering, for it then not only
gathers, but forms, with the greatest energy” (19:357).
26 On typology and allegory in Ruskin, see Landow, The Aesthetic and Crit-
ical Theories of John Ruskin, 329–56. In The Stones of Venice Ruskin
writes: “Now the things which are the proper subjects of human fear are
twofold: those which have the power of Death, and those which have the
nature of Sin. Of which there are many ranks, greater or less in power and
vice, from the evil angels themselves down to the serpent which is their
type, and which, though of a low and contemptible class, appears to unite
deathful and sinful natures in the most clearly visible and intelligible
form” (11:166).
27 See Marc A. Simpson, “The Dream of the Dragon: Ruskin’s Serpent
Imagery,” in The Ruskin Polygon, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Faith M.
Holland (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1982), 21–43.
28 The Diaries of John Ruskin, 1835–1898, ed. Joan Evans and John
Howard Whitehouse (Oxford: Clarendon 1956), 685.
29 Ibid., 644; for an interpretation of these dreams as phallic-autoerotic see
Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass, 169.
30 For example, “in the religions of lower races, little else than these cor-
rupted forms of devotion can be found; all having a strange and dreadful
consistency with each other, and infecting Christianity, even at its strongest
periods, with a fatal terror of doctrine, and ghastliness of symbolic con-
ception, passing through fear into frenzied grotesque, and thence into sen-
suality. In the Psalter of S. Louis itself, half of its letters are twisted snakes;
there is scarcely a wreathed ornament, employed in Christian dress, or
architecture, which cannot be traced back to the serpent’s coil” (19:365).
31 Clegg, Ruskin and Venice, 17–19.
32 Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as
Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan
(New York: W.W. Norton 1977), 2.
33 Charles Baudelaire, “Of the Essence of Laughter and Generally of the
Comic in the Plastic Arts,” Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists,
trans. P.E. Charvet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 145.
34 Although Ruskin states this sculpted head is from the Palazzo Corner della
Regina, it is more likely to be from the base of Longhena’s Ca’Rezzonico.
35 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith
(Oxford: Clarendon 1961), 174.

Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque

36 On Ruskin and the daguerreotype, see Stephen Bann, The Clothing of

Clio: a Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century
Britain and France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1984),
132–4; Michael Harvey, “Ruskin and Photography,” Oxford Art Journal
7, no. 2 (1985): 25–33; Smith, Victorian Photography, Painting and Poet-
ry; Karen Burns, “Topographies of Tourism: ‘Documentary’ Photography
and The Stones of Venice,” Assemblage 32 (1997): 22–44.
37 Alan Trachtenberg, “Likeness as Identity: Reflections on the Daguerrean
Mystique,” in The Portrait in Photography, ed. G. Clarke (London: Reak-
tion Books 1992), 173.
38 Ibid., 175.
39 See the description in Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder,
40 Ruskin in Italy: Letters to His Parents, 1845, ed. Harold I. Shapiro
(Oxford: Clarendon 1972), 220.
41 Ibid., 225.
42 Trachtenberg, “Likeness as Identity,” 181.
43 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans.
Richard Howard (London: Vintage 1993), 9.
44 Jacques Derrida, “The Deaths of Roland Barthes,” in Philosophy and
Non-Philosophy since Merleau-Ponty, ed. H.J. Silverman (New York and
London: Routledge 1988), 267.

All photographs © the author.

Alberti at Sea

Michael Emerson

Alberti at Sea

I live on a sea. At my window the street ends in the blue

infinity. All that water is coming on, and I wonder that it
graces to stop, just there. It does not have to stop, you know.
Have you seen what happens to houses on the shore when
the water reclaims a few feet? The shoreline does not limit
the sea. The sea makes the shoreline by stopping.
Eugene Gendlin, “Nonlogical Moves and
Nature Metaphors”1

the sea is traditionally the site for a wide range of practical,

theoretical, and ethical investigations concerning motion and construc-
tive spatial practices. The manner of their collation, like the sea itself, is
not fixed and responds to time and place. Three nautical terms – water,
navigation, ship – are the shifting objects of this essay’s investigation of
spatial practice and fluidity in the early Renaissance works of Leon Bat-
tista Alberti (1404–72). This investigation poses the following questions:
what sort of place was Alberti’s sea? what traditions informed his
aquatic investigations? and what were the difficulties of constructive,
spatial engagement that water posed to the possibility of rational order.
Responses are explored in three parts. The second part discusses the
navigational influences in Alberti’s works of cartography and surveying,
Descriptio Urbis Romae (c. 1450) and Ludi Rerum Matematicarum (c.
1450–1), within the context of the speculative cartography of his con-
temporary, Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64). Finally, a reading of the ship-
building scenario in Alberti’s allegory Fatum et Fortuna (c. 1430–40)
suggests architecture’s role in navigating the contingencies of the early
Renaissance world.2

the material issue of water

Leon Battista Alberti had a fondness for maritime imagery and a lively
interest in the practical arts of navigation and naval and aquatic con-
struction. Several of his early architectural and engineering projects were
associated with water, including an early design for the Trevi fountain
and a reconstruction project for the Bridge of Hadrian, both in Rome.3
In the “anonymous” autobiographical sketch Vita Anonima (1437) he
notes that he often questioned shipbuilders and other craftsman “to learn
what rare and hidden special knowledge they might hold.”4 Traces of

Michael Emerson

these activities can be discerned in De Re Aedificatoria’s scheme for right-

ing the walls of St Peter’s using nautical rigging and the inclusion of
sailor’s lore on the properties of certain winds (10.17.362; 4.2.99). Such
nautical issues would have been treated more extensively in De Navis
(On Ships), a short work on shipbuilding and navigation, now lost,
which was to have been appended to the treatise. Water itself was a
recurring concern, with the most lengthy consideration occurring in book
10. This interest is foreshadowed in Vitruvius’s first-century bc treatise
De architectura, the acknowledged guide and foil for De Re Aedificato-
ria, and indeed much of Alberti’s tenth book follows closely Vitruvius’s
book 8.5 However, the respective authors’ approaches to this material
were conditioned by very different concerns, traditions, and worldviews,
differences that define the possibilities of Alberti’s aquatic interventions.
Over the course of his Ten Books, Vitruvius gives considerable atten-
tion to each natural element, but only water is singled out for a discrete
investigation, with book 8 devoted solely to descriptions of different
waters and the methods for their detection and control. The length and
quality of this discussion has led to speculation that his professional
career included time spent with the Roman cura aquarum, the public
works office responsible for the construction and maintenance of the
city’s aqueducts and sewer systems, a claim further supported by a pas-
sage from Frontinus’s De aquis urbis romae (100 ad), where Vitruvius is
credited with standardizing plumbing pipe sizes.6 However, to justify his
watery interests, Vitruvius looked beyond the profession itself, noting
that “naturalists, philosophers, and priests alike judge that all things
consist of the power of water.”7 This ontological argument for the
primacy of watery substances Vitruvius borrowed from early Greek
thought, especially that of the Presocratic philosopher Thales of Miletus
(active sixth century bc), who is mentioned at the beginning of book 8
as having “declared that water was the first principle of all things.”8
Thales himself was something of a “universal man” to the Greeks, often
cited as a paradigmatic sage, albeit with a distinctly aquatic bent –
among other feats, he is credited with diverting a river, devising a
method for measuring distance from land to ships at sea, and authoring
a work on celestial navigation.9 Vitruvius’s observation that water nour-
ishes, grows, and sustains all creatures is again traceable to Thales,
whose arguments concerning a watery first principle were physiological
rather than meteorological in nature.10 In book 9 this focus on water’s

Alberti at Sea

animating qualities underscores Vitruvius’s delight in the machines of

Ctesibius, some of which, when driven by water, could “produce effects
borrowed from nature,” such as birdsongs, or animated statues.11 Indeed,
throughout books 9 and 10, Vitruvius’s many designs for machines that
use water as a power source or regulator evidence his notion of water as
not only a generative principle but a benevolent prima materia that lends
itself generously to the architect’s skillful manipulations. The attention
Vitruvius gave to water, then, is explained as the result of a generative
ontological condition that is revealed across a wide range of endeavours,
in which architecture is implicated both as a discrete discipline and as one
performed for and informed by the others.
Despite his fascination with the early Greeks’ fluid ontology, Vitru-
vius’s confidence in the architect’s ability to manipulate water was pred-
icated on his faith in the closed cosmology that defined the classical
Greek order of the world and the elements that constituted it, an order
that in the fifteenth century was increasingly problematized. The risks
that water posed to the cosmos’s rational armature were well known to
Aristotle, who remained the primary source of Western cosmology well
into the Renaissance: “None of the natural philosophers made fire or
earth the one infinite body, but either water or air or that which is in
between them, because each of fire and earth has clearly a determinate
place, but these others are ambiguous between up and down.”12 For
Aristotle, water’s difficulty is determinacy (horismos), which would be
obscured if the material confusion of the sublunar realm were not orga-
nized into discrete, concentric regions. However, the late medieval
attacks on these aspects of his world machine would come not from
material speculation but from the theological need to reconcile pagan
learning and Christian truth.
Particularly apt is the example of the Spaniard Paul de Burgos who in
1429 offered an Aristotelian exegesis of the biblical account of the third
day of creation, when God gathered the waters and the dry land was
made to appear (Gen. 1:9). For Burgos, this act is accomplished by mov-
ing the centre of the watery sphere, which was coincident with the ter-
restrial sphere’s centre, to an eccentric position, leaving the terrestrial
sphere partially revealed – a neat feat, but one accomplished at the
expense of the cosmos’s concentric symmetry.13 And yet Burgos’s for-
mulation is quite restrained compared to some of the speculations being
offered at this time. Conjectures concerning divine omnipotence and the

Michael Emerson

way God’s infinity could be manifested in the cosmos had become com-
mon, if not quite orthodox, during the late middle ages and had led a
small but vocal minority to question, if not refute, notions of centrality
and finitude.14 Such theological difficulties were exacerbated by increas-
ing participation in the observation and recording of nature, which was
the cause of an increasing frustration with the earth-centred world sys-
tem’s inability to account for celestial phenomena and with the difficulties
this posed to the accuracy of the church calendar, with its astronomically
determined cycle of feast days.
Recent scholarship has done much to dismiss the previous image of
Alberti as theologically indifferent.15 Nevertheless, it is evident that
Alberti was less given to explicit theological speculation than he was to
its appropriation and transformation within the forms of the classical
humanist tradition. As with Burgos, this resulted in difficulties not reme-
diable within the conventions of late medieval thought. Alberti, like Vit-
ruvius, recognized water’s many useful and delightful qualities and went
to great lengths to define those that were especially propitious for the
health and good order of human settlements. Book 10 of De Re Aedifi-
catoria, “in which the restoration of buildings is described,” is dedicat-
ed to the identification, description, and regulation of various waters as
they bear upon architecture, with brief digressions on the problems of
fire, temperature control, insect infestation, and wall maintenance. In
this context, Alberti too mentions Thales (10.1.320), but Alberti’s phys-
iological interest in water presents a metaphorics of disease rather than
generation. Of two types of building faults described in book 10, both
are framed by this medical concern: human failings are remediable by
human means, as “physicians maintain that once a disease has been
diagnosed it is largely cured”; however, against the faults wrought by
Nature, which in book 10 are primarily aquatic, “the body has no
defense” (10.1.320). Indeed, Alberti recognizes no relationship between
humanity and the sea based on physiological or ontological presump-
tions: “Others claim that the sea breathes in and out naturally, and so
remark that no man ever breathes his last except when the tide is going
out, as though this were proof of some affinity and sympathy between
our human life and the movement and spirit of the sea” (9.12.349). Sim-
ilarly, Alberti introduces his discussion of water in book 10 by noting
that he is not interested in “philosophical questions” of whether or not
the sea is water’s place of rest or the moon the source of tides and instead

Alberti at Sea

urges that we “not neglect what we see with our own eyes“ (10.3.325).
Such advocacy for the direct observation of nature is a touchstone for
much of Alberti’s work and constitutes a clear break with the more spec-
ulative naturalist traditions of both Vitruvius and the Middle Ages.
However, this empirical turn does little to ameliorate water’s difficulties
and in fact reinstates watery problematics passed over or easily resolved
by Vitruvius.
For Alberti, Vitruvius’s watery first principle comes to be understood
as Nature. This Nature is, of course, a creative entity, but its principles
of generation consistently elude Alberti. In book 10 he weighs evidence
as to whether bodies of water are the result of continuous accumulation
of rainfall or atmospheric condensation: “Some maintain that perpetual
springs are not poured out, as though contained in some vessel, but that
wherever they appear, they are continually generated by air” (10.3.327).
Alberti is here rehearsing a debate found in Aristotle’s Meteorology con-
cerning the origin of rivers; Aristotle notes that rainfall alone cannot
possibly account for all standing water and believes that mountains may
act as sponges, absorbing moisture from the air and thereby making up
the difference.16 Citing the lack of rivers in arid climates, Alberti is at
first sympathetic to the rain hypothesis, but he notes condensation of
dew and a sponge’s ability to absorb humidity as evidence to the con-
trary (2.8.47). A similar prevarication occurs in his treatment of stone,
as he ponders “whether it was derived from a viscous mixture of water
and earth, which hardened first into mud and then into stone; or whether
it is composed of matter condensed by the cold or, as is said of gems, by
the heat and by the rays of the sun, or whether in fact stone is formed
like everything else, from a seed that Nature had implanted in the earth.”
As with water, Alberti debates elemental generation as the result of either
condensation from a material matrix or a more basic material accumu-
lation. Significantly, where Vitruvius too raised these issues, they
occurred as an entirely descriptive exercise of received knowledge and
gave rise to no questioning or doubt.17 For Alberti, however, the debate
ends without resolution, his having decided only that “Nature is not at
all easy to understand and very perplexing” (10.3.327).
For Vitruvius water’s formlessness made it a suitable image of pri-
mordial substance. For Alberti water is not only genetically illusive but
also presents an adversary to the architect, who is responsible for im-
parting material order to the world. In Alberti’s treatise the experience

Michael Emerson

of aggressive waters is subject to the same rage he feels toward the dis-
solution and decay wrought by time and human ignorance, forces
that are themselves described as participating in the “vast shipwreck” of
ancient culture from which few buildings or architectural writings,
except those of Vitruvius, were spared (6.1.154). Architecture and the
waters become adversaries in this scenario, with bridges, buildings, and
bulwarks not just erected on or for the sea but directed at it as if they
were weapons: “The greatest diligence and utmost care is demanded to
restrain the fury and power of the sea. For the sea will often defeat all
art and workmanship, nor will it be conquered easily by human effort”
(10.12.350). Such violent imagery is common in Alberti’s discussions of
water, as when he uses Propertius’s verse to make a point concerning the
care that must be given to harbour construction, for here one must
“Conquer or be conquered / Such is the wheel of love” (10.12.351). This
martial analogy was already explicit in book 1, where he noted that “in
buildings the covers [i.e., roofs] are the weapon with which they defend
themselves against the harmful onslaught of weather” (1.11.26).18
For Alberti, then, material order is secured by force of arms, as he
recasts architecture from victim of the sea’s aggression to weapon and
instrument of restraint. Neither theory nor judicious use of material nor
sheer labour is itself sufficient in this conflict, as aquatic place-making
activities in De Re Aedificatoria become agents of order within an antag-
onistic relationship with a malevolent prima materia. This formulation,
though quite apart from Vitruvius’s classical calm, was certainly not
unprecedented. Alberti’s problematics of generation and security suggest
a recovery of Old Testament notions of the sea as an ambiguously gen-
erated and perilous semidivine force, whose restraint requires architec-
tural intervention. For the ancient Hebrews, as for Alberti, water’s
difficulty can be traced back to its obscure origin; the book of Genesis
(1 and 2:4–25) indicates that the watery Deep coexisted with God in a
primordial state, and thus was not created ex nihilo but “separated.”
The earth, too, has a claim to precosmogenetic existence, as it is not the
result of the sort of divine will that brought forth light or the dome of
the heavens but rather “appears” from where the seas had been gathered
(Gen. 1:9).
Although the watery Deep eventually submitted to divine control, it re-
tained its chaotic power. This rage for disorder figured in the deluge, which
was not itself the direct result of God’s anger but rather of His utilizing

Alberti at Sea

Noah building the ark. Bodleian Library, Ms. Barlow, f. 53

the waters’ inherent destructive power for His own ends, for when “the
fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens
were opened” (Gen. 7:11) the waters relentlessly moved to erase cre-
ation from above and below. The waters’ jealousy of their ontological
primacy and their desire to return to this condition required divine vigi-
lance, a situation that Job, like Alberti, phrased in martial terms: “Am I
the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?” (Job 7:12).19 Cre-
ation, then, was enacted through a divine generative power that both
constructed and restrained, as God secured places for both the terrestri-
al and the aquatic in the material order of the world. And while the con-
structive process was typically identified as an architectural mode of
production, it necessarily relied on the clearing of a foundational ground
that the limiting process enacted. As such, the two were habitually cast
together, as when the writer of Proverbs states, “When he assigned the
sea to its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him,
like a master worker” (Prov. 8:29–30).

Michael Emerson

Water’s difficulties, then, refuted Alberti’s attempts at rational deliber-

ation of the processes of material generation and architectural produc-
tion, precisely because, as he acknowledged, the sea’s formlessness and
irregularity offered no tangible link to the human body or its architec-
tural correlate, nor was it comprehensible to the mind. However, if the
material forms of architecture were destined to succumb to the waters
and their ambiguous motions, a more cooperative spatial order could be
realized through the experiential geometries of a body at sea. In the early
Renaissance, such geometries occurred in the instruments and cartogra-
phy of navigation.

charting motion

Aristotle recognized a world of experience quite apart from the logical

stability and regularity of geometricians’ and philosophers’ deductive
truths. This was a world of opinion, deliberation, and variable degrees
of probability, rather than demonstration and truth, a world known inti-
mately but never predictably by physicians, farmers, judges, and naviga-
tors.20 For the Greeks, these were the stochastic arts, from stokhos, “to
aim at.”21 While both architecture and navigation were categorized as
arts, they were distinguished according to their ends: architecture had as
its end material production, whereas navigation and its related arts had
their end in the completion of the act itself (the ship brought safely to
port, the verdict justly handed down, and so on).
Early Renaissance humanists and ancient Greeks, architects and
sailors alike, alleviated the contingent expectations of these ends by
relating their disciplines to the demonstrable truths of geometry. How-
ever, a difference between the architects’ and the navigators’ geometries
can be determined from their “celestial” figures, the Vitruvian man and
the mariner’s “sky clock.” Like the Vitruvian figure, the sky clock used
the image of the human body to bring regularity to an unstable sublu-
nar world. But while the Vitruvian illustration chiefly represents a for-
mal celestial harmony, the sky clock subordinated such concerns to the
moving body’s relationship with celestial time. In Pierre Garcie’s book of
sailing instructions, Le grant routier (1520),22 the figure’s centre remains
the navel, but here is placed the pole star, the mariner’s celestial guide
since antiquity.23 Around him spins the dome of the heavens, whose stars
are depicted between windpoints in the figure’s outer ring. Mariners

Alberti at Sea

Illustration from Le grant routier, 2 ed. (1521)

committed to memory the midnight position of the pole’s “guard” stars

in Ursa Minor relative to the human figure for various times of the year.
The guards then became the “hour hand” for a twenty-four hour celes-
tial clockface. At midnight in mid-July, for example, the guards were
found at the figure’s right arm, due west of the pole; if during that time
the sailor spied the guards at the head, or above the pole, he knew it to
be 6 a.m.; if at the feet, 6 p.m. Without such knowledge of time, the pilot
could not adequately determine the speed and distance on which the
possibility of his knowing his position relied.

Michael Emerson

During the period he was preparing his architectural treatise, Alberti

took up the related issues of surveying and cartography in two short
works, Descriptio Urbis Romae (Description of the City of Rome) and
Ludi Rerum Matematicarum (Mathematical Games). In Joan Gadol’s
influential interpretation, these works are seen to have drawn upon the
cartography of medieval navigation to align themselves with a new
perspectival visuality and its geometrized modes of representation.24
Despite much recent interest in medieval and Renaissance cartography,
this interpretation has been virtually unchallenged.25
The geometrical speculations of Alberti’s contemporary, Nicholas of
Cusa (1401–64), suggest nautical and cartographic processes in which
the interests of mathematical accuracy, instrumental utility, and spir-
itual activity coincide. Cusanus, too, was one of the period’s carto-
graphic innovators, having directed the construction of a map of
central Europe exhibiting such novel features as Ptolemaic projections,
scales, copper plate engraving, and punch-type lettering.26 Among these
innovations, it was the map’s proportional precision that occasioned
both physical and spiritual motions. In his Compendium (1463),
Cusanus ascribed these motions to homo cosmographus (man the cos-
mographer). From the centre of a city, the cosmographer dispatches
messengers through five gates to gather information of the world
beyond. The image hinges on Bonaventure’s medieval body metaphor:
the city walls are the extent of a human body, the five gates the five
senses.27 Upon the messengers’ return, the cosmographer compiles their
information and from it produces a “well-ordered and proportionally
measured map.” He then “turns toward the map; and, in addition, he
dismisses the messengers, closes the gateways, and turns his inner sight
toward the Creator-of-the world, who is none of those things about
which the cosmographer has learned.”28
In medieval maps, formal elements such as cities and topographical
features received value through their symbolic relations to otherwise
invisible spiritual realities. What the activities of homo cosmographus
suggest is less an eschewal of traditional value than a reconfiguration of
the valuation process, so that it was at once more immediate, as it orig-
inated in an active sensual engagement with the world, and delayed, as
that experience was then channelled inward and upward, following a
Pythagorean notion of divine proportion. In Cusanus’ use of Ptolemaic
projection, it was the actively perceived mathematical relations among

Alberti at Sea

the various terrestrial cartographic features that both determined their

position and occasioned the ascent to the divine. Cartography, then, was
impetus and an aid to both physical and spiritual motions.29
For Cusanus the value of proportion and metaphor lie in their holding
fundamentally distinct and irreconcilable phenomena in relation to one
another. This third, proportional term was conditioned but never entire-
ly determined by the objects it held together. Proportion could then be
manipulated to weave together a world of difference and disjunction into
looser configurations. For example, in De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned
Ignorance, 1440), Cusanus understood the significance of the principle
of learned ignorance to be a function of its openness to proportional
scaling procedures: “This learned ignorance I have, in the one who is the
truth, now set loose in these books, which on the basis of this same prin-
ciple can be compressed or expanded.”30 In book 1, these procedures
were, like the map, relational and geometrized: “If we want to use finite
things as a method of ascending to the simply maximum [i.e., the divine],
we must first consider finite mathematical figures along with their attrib-
utes and relations; then we must transfer these relations to correspond-
ing infinite figures; and finally we must, at a still higher level, apply the
relations of the infinite figures to the infinite simple” (1.12.102).
Such thinking bears the marks of the aquatic displacements that occa-
sioned it; decades earlier, Cusanus had grown weary of his attempts to
come to terms with the “ways” (via) of medieval thought, attempts that
were unproductive “until returning by sea from Greece when by what I
believe was a celestial gift from the Father of Lights, from whom comes
every perfect gift, I was led to embrace incomprehensibles incomprehen-
sibly in learned ignorance, by transcending those incorruptible truths
that can be humanly known” (Dedicatory Epistle, 205–6).31 Cusanus,
the son of a boatman on Germany’s Moselle River, received the illumi-
nation on a return trip from Constantinople, where he was among a
group of Papal emissaries sent to bring the Eastern patriarchs to the
Council of Farrera. The most evident textual trace of that experience
occurs during a discussion of the relativity of place:

How would a passenger know that one’s ship was being moved, if one did not
know that the water was flowing past and if the shores were not visible from
the ship in the middle of the water? Since it always appears to every observer,
whether on the earth, the sun, or another star, that one is, as if, at an immov-

Michael Emerson

able center of things and that all else is being moved, one will always select dif-
ferent poles in relation to oneself … Therefore, the world machine will have,
one might say, its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, for its cir-
cumference and center is God, who is everywhere and nowhere.32

For Cusanus, a body at sea is a perceptual centre within a horizon that

is revealed again moment by moment. To fix his position within it, the
navigator abstracted elements of the horizon through measures, logs,
and charts to create a textual or figural memory of a moment that briefly
defined his place. Because of this literal self-centredness and the contin-
ual displacements that produced it, taking measure of where one was at
sea reversed terrestrial means of finding place. Terrestrial surveying
began with the assumption that the surveyor occupied a primary posi-
tion from and by which he would determine other positions. The navi-
gator, however, assumed the stability of a series of distant positions in
order to determine his own. In a later work, Idiota de sapientia et de
mente (The Layman on Wisdom and the Mind, 1450), Cusanus stated
that to locate oneself among such variability, the mind (mens) operated
as a “living” compass (circinus) whose expansions and contractions
determined the measure (mensura) through which the proportions
between one thing and another were known. In this way, the propor-
tioning activities of homo cosmographus allowed a mediation of the
aquatic and terrestrial worlds, whereas De Re Aedificatoria‘s homo
faber (man the maker) did not.
The relational epistemology of Cusanus’s cartography in fact refigures
a long line of nautical speculation concerning the nature of place. In his
Physics, Aristotle identifies two places: the first is the cosmos itself; the
second is specific to individual bodies. The former is a general and
shared place that can accommodate the movements of both itself and the
bodies contained within. To establish that the cosmos can be both finite
and perpetually moved, he imagines a cosmic body composed entirely of
water: “Hence, a body is in place if, and only if, there is a body outside
it which surrounds it. So, even if such a thing [a body with no sur-
rounding body outside] were to come to be water, its parts will be
moved, since they are surrounded by one another, but the whole will in
a sense move and in a sense not. For considered as a whole it does not
alter its place altogether, but it moves in a circle.”33
Cosmic motion is rotational, not rectilinear, as the latter would

Alberti at Sea

necessitate a further level of containment within a super-cosmological

place, which would then logically fall within another, and so on. If the
hierarchical distinctions linking the earth to the heavens are to be main-
tained, the ultimate containment must occur at the final celestial sphere,
beyond which is no-place. The bodies within this singular cosmological
place occupy their own places, as well. Water functions to define a par-
ticular body’s immediate place in two ways. First, water’s ability to move
into a vessel and displace completely the air previously there is an impor-
tant illustration of place’s ability to tightly adhere to and define even
ambiguous bodies. This point is important, for if the placeful cosmos
provides room for and embodies being in a general sense, it is this place-
as-vessel that orients such beings within the vertical structure of Aristo-
tle’s cosmology: “Every place should have ‘above’ and ‘below’; and that
each body should naturally move to and remain in its proper places, and
this it must do either above or below.”34 Second, to define place as “the
first unchangeable limit of that which surrounds,” he presents the image
of a river-borne ship: “Just as the vessel is a place that can be carried
around, so place is a vessel which cannot be moved around. So when
something moves inside something which is moving and the thing inside
moves about (e.g., a boat in a river), the surrounding thing functions for
it as a vessel rather than as a place; place is meant to be unchangeable,
so that it is the whole river, rather, that is the place, because as a whole
it is unchangeable.”35
The example reveals the limits of Aristotle’s inquiry: the problem he
sees is ontological, not locatory, and he worries himself about defining
how a body can be in place, not about how to discern where that body
and its place may be. To the extent that place can locate a body, it does
so as natural place, the qualitatively distinct location where a body finds
stability and regularity. How place carries this orientation is puzzling:
while Aristotle acknowledges that place occurs only where a body is pre-
sent, he is very clear that place, unlike body, has no matter, extension, or
form, although all these things seem to contribute to it. He also states
that place remains when a body moves on, but how it might endure or
prefigure another body’s emplacement is not explained. Removed from
such material associations, place in Aristotle’s understanding cannot be
a metrically determined phenomenon; the reciprocities that obtain in his
placeful situations occur between a body and its immaterial container,
and not in the measurable relations among bodies themselves.

Michael Emerson

The indeterminate place of water, however, disturbs this immaterial

notion of place, and after Aristotle has taken great care to separate place
from body, place in the example of the ship nevertheless relies on the
material stability of the riverbank for its definition, due to a sort of
“uncertainty principle”: no flowing river can confidently be said to be
unchangeable, and therefore by Aristotle’s definition it cannot be a
boat’s place. One could argue that the river responds in a similar way to
the example of the cosmos composed entirely of water; the river’s parts
would rotate around themselves and establish the finality of place. How-
ever, the watery cosmos is a unique situation, as its final containment is
the result of there being nowhere else for it to go. For the ship the inde-
terminate nature of water place seems to require a more material, and
therefore potentially metrical, mode of relation.
And this, at last, brings us to Alberti. The Descriptio itself is a short
work and includes a scant several hundred words of explanation, fol-
lowed by several tables of coordinates for his sightings of the various
buildings and landmarks of Rome. No map has ever been traced to it.
Nevertheless, it looms large in accounts of the development of Renais-
sance spatiality, primarily because such rigorous measurement was not
a commonplace occurrence in late medieval Europe. Surveying itself
remained a textual rather than a cartographic art, as the task of defining
and describing property was most often carried out in written reports.36
Of the exceptions to this situation, the best-known and most widely dis-
cussed, prior to the reintroduction of Ptolemaic mapping in the early
fifteenth century, was the medieval portolano, a nautical chart and typ-
ically the most geographically precise representations of land mass and
shore detail available. Most of the extant portolanos have survived
because they were safe from the deterioration of the sea within the
libraries of shore-bound scholars who were covetous of the cartograph-
ic accuracy navigators imparted to their charts, but there is no doubt
that their primary purpose was to serve ships at sea.
The portolano’s most evident formal characteristic is its network of
windlines, a series of straight lines radiating from sixteen points in cir-
cular distribution around the map. It was neither necessary nor intend-
ed that the lines refer to actual courses between specific ports of call, for
the exigencies of actual navigation made sailing along a single course
rare, if not impossible; tacking into the wind or adrift in currents, navi-
gators were continually updating their course against their heading.37

Alberti at Sea

Pisan chart, showing the coast of Italy (late thirteenth century). Bibliothèque Nationale

Michael Emerson

The windlines, then, did not themselves determine course but, rather,
allowed headings and courses to be figured. Using his dividers and ruler,
the navigator found among the dense distribution of preprinted lines the
one parallel to his heading. To ameliorate the process, windlines were
color-coded: the main winds in black, half winds in green, and quarter
winds in red. The navigator then transferred the distance he had made
on that wind to the chart, using scaled rulers printed along the chart’s
edges. Having determined distance and direction from the point of his
last calculation, the navigator could then prick his new location on the
chart, from which he could then determine what changes were necessary
to achieve his desired course.
The techniques used to construct portolanos are less clear. The earli-
est extant portolano, the carte pisane (c. 1290), shows a grid at the
periphery of the radiating windlines, although what role it may have
played in locating topographical features is unclear. A description of the
geometrical process for constructing the network of windlines survives,
but it is doubtful that such lines were active determinants of coastal
form, due to the same lack of alignment with major ports and headlands
mentioned above. Intriguingly, maps of various times and places show
much standardization of information and gradual increase in both
breadth and precision. This has led some to speculate about the exis-
tence of a “master” map. However, it is usually assumed that the por-
tolanos were initially produced with information provided by ship’s
captains and their logs and then expanded and revised over time.38
Alberti himself may have hinted at such a process in his architectural
treatise when he notes that “sailing too, as almost every other art,
advanced by minute steps” (6.2.157).
The development of map-based medieval navigation, nautical histori-
an E.G.R. Taylor notes, established an affinity between the new geomet-
rical instruments of navigation and those of terrestrial place-making:
“The pilot was now required to furnish himself with the two instruments
that always lay to the hand of the practical geometer – hitherto only the
architect or master-mason and the surveyor – namely, the ruler and pair
of dividers or compasses.”39 The compass in both cases allowed scaled
translations between actual material conditions and their representa-
tions: from stone to template, from landform or sea to map.40 However,
Alberti did not simply copy the techniques used to create portolan charts
but appropriated the way they were used. The mapping in Descriptio

Alberti at Sea

Alberti’s horizon and radius. From Joan Gadol, Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Early
Renaissance (1969)

Urbis Romae was performed using a “horizon,” an instrument of Alber-

ti’s design consisting of a flat, circular disk marked along its edge with
forty-eight primary degrees (gradus) and three more marks (minuta)
between each degree, with a similarly marked rotating radial arm on top
that also served as sight guide. He set the horizon atop the Capitoline
hill, oriented it north, and sighted the city walls, the river’s course, and
architectural elements such as churches and civic buildings. After noting
the position of each object relative to the horizon, their distances were
most likely walked off and scaled to the radial arm. It is, in fact, a
process similar to that of the mariner’s traverse board, a navigational aid
developed by sixteenth-century English pilots. Drawing on compass and
chart techniques learned from the Italians, the English sailors would peg
the wind-rose board with the wind followed over the previous half-hour,
with the temporal regularity performing the standardizing function of
Alberti’s minutes.
Similar though the two techniques appear, there are substantial differ-
ences. Alberti’s great advantage over the navigator was the benefit of a
stable, central position to perform his sightings, which allowed him to
confidently establish many peripheral positions/courses from a single
spot. Furthermore, Alberti directly sighted his peripheral places from
atop the Capitoline hill, whereas the portolan existed precisely because
points of departure and arrival were not mutually observable. Thus, the
scope of the portolanos, although certainly not on the order of a mappa

Michael Emerson

mundi, was broad, with even the smaller maps operating on a regional
level. One may instead want to consider the Descriptio’s relation to the
portolan to be a second-order relation.
The isolario, or island atlas, was a nautically derived map form whose
scope and surveying process closely matched Alberti’s. Like the portolan,
it was an Italian innovation. While there is some evidence that such
books were in fact taken to sea, the isolario’s origins lie as much in quat-
trocento humanism’s renewed fascination with Greek culture as in the
functions of late-medieval navigation. In 1420 Cristoforo Buondelmonti
finished the manuscript and maps for the first of such works, Liber Insu-
larum Archipelagi, which combined geographical and historical descrip-
tions of Aegean islands in Latin prose with maps of each island. In the
1480s, Bartolomeo dalli Sonnetti produced the first printed isolario, ren-
dering Buondelmonti’s prose descriptions in his own Italian verse, along
with a woodcut chart for each island. Sonnetti reveals his mapping pro-
cedure in the preface to his work, claiming that he will “demonstrate
with true effect how I have searched the Aegean sea, and how with com-
pass to the wind, I have stepped repeatedly upon each isle, its ports and
bays, its rocks both bare and filled with growth, and with a stylus
marked their true position on the chart.” True to his stated method,
compass roses are inscribed under and around each island’s coastal out-
line.41 However such maps could easily have been taken from high
ground without instrumentation, and indeed they exhibit the sort of
conventionalized outlinework that Alberti’s Descriptio, with its strict
coordinate system, consciously seems to avoid.
So then why did Alberti insist on such strict mathematization? He was
fascinated by the aesthetic qualities of highly geometrized cartography,
referring to such maps, in a passage later excised from Musca, as “beau-
tifully depicted in triangles, rectangles, hexagons, with intersecting par-
allels drawn perpendicular to one another.”42 To give the reader a better
sense of the possibilities of Alberti’s cartographic procedures, the map-
ping exercises he put forth in his Ludi Rerum Mathematicarum offer
related interests within a different mathematical and authorial context.43
Sighting again through the horizon, he noted the positions of various
objects in the landscape. As in the Descriptio’s exercise, this allowed one
line of position to be drawn from the initial observation point to the
points observed. However, the sightings described in the Ludi are per-
formed with a plumb line rather than a radius and sightings were taken

Alberti at Sea

through the plumb line, for rather than simply walking off the distances
to fix final positions, the surveyor is now instructed to “go to a place
which has been seen from the first one and place your instrument flat
and in such a position that it lies on the line of that same number
through which you first saw it on your instrument. That is, place it so
that a ship which had to navigate from the first to the second place could
go along the same wind-line.”44 Alberti then sights back not only to the
first point, but through to one of the other peripheral points, thus effect-
ing for that point two lines of position. In a second exercise, Alberti
establishes a baseline by taking careful measurement of the distance
between the first two points. Following the angular determinations from
each of these two points to the third, he could determine their distances
by simple trigonometry.
Triangulation’s “promise of perfection” is predicated on the fact that
each position is mathematically dependent on other geographical phe-
nomena for its positioning.45 However, these methods of triangulation,
which Gadol describes as principles “long familiar to navigation and
nautical surveying”46 and which Alberti himself appears to acknowl-
edge, were nothing of the sort. Triangulation of a ship’s position against
a coastline was not possible until the development of mathematically
precise coastal maps, which did not occur with any regularity or success
until well into the eighteenth century.47 Within the circumscribed world
of Mediterranean navigation, the medieval navigators’ familiarity with
coastal elevations would have rendered such techniques superfluous.
Alberti, it seems, was addressing prospective applications as well as
practical realities, and thus, although not given over to Cusanus’s inten-
sive manner of geometrical conjecture, Ludi Rerum Mathematicarum
can be seen to open onto a similarly expanded field of meaning. Indeed,
the very title of the work evidences this notion. The mathematics of pro-
portional triangles was neither new nor terribly complicated, even by fif-
teenth-century standards, and this is perhaps the reason he titled these
exercises ludi (games). The book’s purpose, however, was not trivial, as
Alberti originally sent the work to Meliaduso d’Este, brother of his late
friend Leonello, then on monastic retreat for training in the administra-
tion of abbeys. Alberti urged the young cleric to both “contemplate and
put into practice” the principles contained therein.48 Such instructions
are consonant with Renaissance neoplatonism’s interest in serio ludere,
or serious games. Cusanus, for whom games were primarily an ethical

Distance measurement. From Abel Foullon, Descrittione et uso dell’Holometro (1564)
Alberti at Sea

endeavour, states concerning his own De Ludo Globi (The Game of

Spheres, 1460), “In fact some branches of knowledge have their instru-
ments and games; arithmetic has its number games, music its mono-
chord – nor is the game of chess or checkers lacking in the mystery of
moral things. Indeed I do think that no honest game is entirely lacking
in the capacity to instruct.”49
Hugh of St Victor’s twelfth-century treatise Practica Geometriae
posited two realms of geometrical operation: “The entire discipline of
geometry is either theoretical, that is, speculative, or practical, that is
active.”50 Alberti’s work contains problems typically found in the prac-
tical treatises, such as taking measurements across rivers or of tower
heights, but he playfully disrupts such distinctions by hinting at anoth-
er, contemplative dimension. That Alberti intended his geometry to be
the subject of contemplation in the rigorous manner of Cusanus is
doubtful. Nevertheless, by setting out his cartographic method within
the contemplatively charged rhetoric of games, Alberti acknowledged
that navigational practices and instruments presented, beyond pragmat-
ic chartings, an opportunity to contemplate a different sense of place,
one informed by the relations between bodies occupying a mobile, rather
than a static, place. After the initial sightings, the starting position was
no longer of primary concern, as it became only one of many points that
might prove useful in determining further positions. Thus, in proceeding
from point to point, Alberti’s mapping technique made operational
Cusanus’s maxim – the centre could, indeed, be anywhere – a notion that
itself arose from at-sea experience. And, as in the navigational geometry
that defined such experience, each potential centre and the person occu-
pying it were relationally determined.

raising ships

Aquatic situations have so far been seen to offer both destabilizing and
stabilizing possibilities for Alberti’s understanding of architectural bod-
ies; if the material problematics of water frustrate his attempts at con-
structing place, the geometries of the sea offer better opportunities. It is
widely known that Alberti considered architecture an ethical project;
what is it that allowed him to think so? What were the conditions with-
in which the relational space of ethics was achieved? And what role did
architecture play in establishing this place?

Michael Emerson

In the book of Proverbs, a wise man measures the limits of his mind
against the perplexing motions of creation: “Four [things] I do not
understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a girl”
(Prov. 30:18–19). How does the constructed, architectural body of the
ship and its navigations figure in this catalogue of natural motions? A
tentative answer is suggested by the movements of the text itself, which
are twofold. First, particular motions are effected within and condi-
tioned by spatial relations; the eagle’s motion takes place within the sky,
the snake’s on the rock, and so on. Second, as the passage moves for-
ward, these relations map out a spectrum of generative reciprocities
defined at one end by the material instinct of the animal world and by
the erotic motions of humanity at the other. Occurring at the limits of
these, the ship occupies a unique position in the order of creation, as the
possibility of its navigation (its “way”) is derived from both the basic
material contingencies of water and the (re)productive powers of
humanity. Neither self-activated nor solely manipulated from the out-
side, through its ambiguous motions the ship is revealed as the architec-
tural collation of matter, reason, and desire.
Alberti brings these concerns together in his Intercenales (c. 1430–40),
where a consideration of the ethical status of construction appears in the
short maritime allegory “Fatum et Fortuna.” The allegory opens with
Alberti up late at his desk, studying the ancients’ notions of fate. Feeling
dissatisfied with their remarks, he dozes off and falls into a dream,
whereupon he arrives in a dreamworld atop an impassably steep and
rocky mountain populated by countless shades. At its base he observes
a turbulent river “which flowed into itself,” into which the shades
descend by a narrow pass. Upon entering the river, the shades take the
form of children, gradually progressing toward old age as they make
their way to the opposite shore, only to become shades again when it is
reached. Alberti asks a shade the river’s name and is told it is Bios, or
“in Latin, the river is called Life (Vita) and the age of mortals, and its
bank is called Death (Mors).”
The shade then instructs Alberti in the various manners of crossing the
river, each with an allegorical association. Larger ships are empires and
are especially prone to difficulty: “They are dashed amid the rocks by
buffeting waves, and often capsize, so that even the most skilled and sea-
soned are scarcely able to swim through the wreckage and the throng of

Alberti at Sea

Isidorean T-O map (1472).

British Library

endangered shades.” However, with a worthy helmsman/ruler and dili-

gent practice of virtue among the crew, such manner of navigation is of
benefit. More praiseworthy are those shades who “from the beginning
rely on their own strength in swimming to complete their passage
through Life.” Most fortunate of all are those who help others in their
crossings by constructing for them the planks on which are inscribed
names of the liberal arts. With wings and winged sandals they walk god-
like across the waves, removed from the tumult of the sea below. Second
to them are those whose wings and sandals are not perfect and who thus
do not fully escape the water, but who have expanded and brought
about new planks with fragments salvaged from the many unfortunate
wrecks. Alberti closes the allegory with the wish that some day he too
will achieve the fame given the worthiest of shades.
Alberti’s description of the dreamscape presents a figure well known
to the cartographers of his day. Up through the fifteenth century, ancient
representations of the world as a relatively flat, rounded body sur-
rounded by an encircling ocean survived in t-o maps.51 The name refers
to the map’s representational conventions: a circular earth of three con-
tinents, Africa, Asia, and Europe, one for each of Noah’s three sons, sep-

Michael Emerson

arated by the t of three great rivers flowing into a surrounding ocean.52

For Alberti, such overtly symbolic conventions as the t-o map presents
had given way to a more mathematically rigorous mapping system. But
the traditional figure remained for him a significant literary device and
contemplative figure. The encircling ocean in such representations lies at
the edge of the earth. It is such a liminal position between the earthly
and heavenly realms that contemplative activity seeks. Raphael Patai has
given direct evidence of Hebrew borrowings of Greek marine/architec-
tural terminology. Some are as inconsequential as the word for “bilge
water,” but among them is the Talmudic appropriation of the Greek
Okeanos as Oqyanos, the “green line that surrounds the whole earth,”53
a definition that corresponds to the Greek concept of a watery circum-
ference to the world.54 But the shoreline, the terminal point of the sea, is
especially appropriate. The sea shifts with waves and tides, with storms
and seasons, its surges and recessions are observable, its tides somewhat
predictable,55 but its boundlessness frustrates precise measuring. This
resistance to measure defines the lifespan of Alberti’s shades when made
human by the vivifying waters and underscores both the inevitability
and indeterminacy of mortality.
Alberti’s interest in shipwrecks and shipbuilding was more than
metaphorical. In 1446 he supervised the attempt to raise an ancient
Roman ship from the bottom of Lake Nemi, south of Rome.56 In choos-
ing Alberti for the task, Cardinal Prospero Colonna praised him in suit-
ably humanist terms as “an excellent geometer and the author of very
fine books on the art of building.”57 Alberti’s solution was to use empty
casks strung across the lake as a floating base for a series of hoists and
winches that imported Genoan divers attached to the submerged wreck-
age with ropes and large iron hooks. Although in the end only a small
part of the wreckage was raised, the project garnered Alberti much
acclaim.58 Information obtained in the endeavour regarding the con-
struction of ancient ships appears in book 5 of De Re Aedificatoria, but
in a cursory manner. Alberti instead refers readers to his more extensive
treatment of shipbuilding in his treatise De Navis (c. 1446), a short
work, now lost, which was to be appended to an early edition of the
book (prologue, 6).59
A second book pertaining to the operation, De Motibus Ponderis,
ostensibly treating the mechanical principles of weights learned during
the operation, has also been lost. In the Vitruvian tradition, nautical

Alberti at Sea

motion results from the application of mechanical force, with the action
of the wind on a sail and a pilot on the rudder described by the princi-
ples of the fulcrum.60 The glimpse of De Navis that Alberti provides
focuses on naval applications of military technology and corresponds to
the general consideration of military camps in book 5. But he does pro-
vide an outline of shipbuilding theory, in which he extends his physiog-
nomic metaphor of construction, noting, “In building a ship, the
ancients would use the lineaments of a fish; so that its back became the
hull, its head the prow; the rudder would serve as it tail, the oars as its
gills and fins” (5.12.136). For Alberti, the Old Testament mystery of a
ship’s vivification is explicitly mathematized according to a set of ideal
proportions: length-to-breadth ratio of a cargo ship, 3:1; of a clipper,
9:1; height of mast to ship length for all ships, 1:1. If these lineaments
were laid out correctly, with the proper flaring and tapering from bow
to stern, the ship would indeed be fish-like, moving through the waters
“as if of its own accord” (5.12.137). Alberti previously dismissed the
idea of a connection between humanity and the sea precisely because the
sea presented itself as an entity of disordered motion. Now, the propor-
tionally derived ship establishes the possibility of humanity’s inhabita-
tion. These ratios of the ship, then, like those of Cusanus’s map, offer an
alternative response to the violent character of Alberti’s static aquatic
But if Alberti’s body presented no inherent connection between him-
self and the sea, it does not present such a connection with other such
bodies either. Such relationships are established only through the prod-
ucts of constructive endeavour. His is not yet an ethics of intimacy with
those around him; it is an investigation of the mediated condition of
intersubjective encounters. If the sea is an especially propitious place for
ethical inquiry, it is the objects manufactured for, and sometimes against,
this setting that allow such inquiry to occur. But at the core of each of
these is the larger question of the ethical function of architecture in the
early Renaissance.


Architects and theoreticians have recently expressed a fascination with

the sea. Case in point: Jeffrey Kipnis, who has declared himself “obsessed
by a spatial sensibility that geometry in and of itself is inadequate to

Michael Emerson

engender … the geometry of the vast, hushed, viscous, deep space of the
ocean,” an obsession he believes pervades architectural discourse.61
Those given to this sub-marine sensibility seek to engender new modes
of architectural behaviour by opposing lingering essentialist, realist, and
determinist strains in architecture (associated with Euclidean geome-
tries) with a structural metaphorics of fluidity that draws upon recent
Continental philosophy, especially the work of Gilles Deleuze.
This paper has been concerned less with Deleuzian thought per se than
with his observation that the geometries of the sea (“smooth spaces”)
and those of the built environment (“striated spaces”) exist within each
other, become each other, and do so in a complex series of interactions
between subjects and architectural objects that, despite attempts at gen-
eralization, always occur as historically specific, embodied events. These
events, when given over to reflection, do not lose the traces of their
respective geometries, but rather become inscribed in new ways, in
thinking, in writing, and, possibly, in building and mapping.62 The pos-
sibilities and frustrations of aquatic place in the early Renaissance pro-
mote a way of thinking and acting that recognizes the world’s surfeit of
meaning, approaching it not as an ineffability or an insurmountable
obstacle to understanding but rather as an opening for places, built,
written, or otherwise, in which shifting horizons of experience are
acknowledged and vigorously explored.


1 Eugene T. Gendlin, “Nonlogical Moves and Nature Metaphors,” Analec-

ta Husserliana 19 (1985): 383–94.
2 Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph
Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge: mit Press 1988).
Further notes will be given in the text. Descriptio Urbis Romae, ed. and
Italian trans. Giovanni Orlandi, in Convegno internazionale indetto nel V
Centenario di Leon Battista Alberti, Roma-Mantova-Firenze, 25–29 aprile
1972 (Rome: Accademia Nazional dei Lincei 1974): 129–37; Ludi Rerum
Mathematicarum, ed. Cecil Grayson, in Opere volgari di Leon Battista
Alberti, vol. 3 (Bari: Laterza & Figli 1973); “Fate and Fortune,” in Dinner
Pieces, trans. David Marsh (Binghampton, ny: The Renaissance Society of
America 1987), 23–27.
3 On the fountain, see Charles Burroughs, “Alberti e Roma,” in Leon Battista

Alberti at Sea

Alberti, ed. Joseph Rykwert and Anne Engel (Milan: Electa 1994),
134–57. Alberti describes the bridge in dra 8.6.262.
4 Renee Watkins, “L.B. Alberti in the Mirror: An Interpretation of the Vita
with a New Translation,” Italian Quarterly 30 (1989): 5–30.
5 Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Ingrid D. Rowland (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press 1999).
6 See Rowland’s introduction to Ten Books on Architecture, 5–6n41.
7 Ibid., 8, preface, 96.
8 Ibid.; also 2.2.35.
9 G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2d
ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1983), 76–99.
10 Ten Books on Architecture, 8, preface, 96; Kirk, Raven, and Schofield,
Presocratic Philosophers, 91.
11 Ten Books on Architecture, 9.8.116–18, on water clocks; and
10.3.122–9.128, on drums, wheels, screws, pumps, organs, and an
12 Aristotle Physics 3.5:205a30–35. Translations from Aristotle’s Physics
Books III and IV, trans. Edward Hussey (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983).
13 See W.G.L. Randles, “The Evaluation of Columbus’ ‘India’ Project by Por-
tuguese and Spanish Cartographers in the Light of the Geographic Science
of the Time,” in The Globe Encircled and the World Revealed, ed. Ursula
Lamb (Aldershot, England: Variorum 1995), 12–26.
14 The history of this development is treated extensively in Alexandre Koyré,
From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press 1957); also, Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scien-
tific Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1986).
15 Important in this regard is Mark Jarzombek, On Leon Battista Alberti:
His Literary and Aesthetic Theories (Cambridge: mit Press 1989). Jar-
zombek traces Alberti’s use of medieval theological sources to argue his
relation to mystical humanism.
16 W.E. Knowles Middleton, A History of the Theories of Rain (London:
Oldbourne 1965), 9–10.
17 Vitruvius, De architectura 8.23.98–103.
18 In Profugiorum ab Aerumna (c. 1442), a temple’s roof symbolizes virtue’s
battle against vice. For a discussion of this work, see Christine Smith,
Architecture and the Culture of Early Humanism (New York: Oxford Uni-
versity Press 1992), 3–18.
19 The splitting of the Red Sea is recounted in similarly militaristic terms

Michael Emerson

(Exod. 14:22–15:18). See Thomas B. Dozeman, God at War: Power in the

Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press 1996), 158–9.
20 Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics 1112a18ff. On the role of deliberation
in the development of Western thought, see A.C. Crombie, “Contingent
Expectation and Uncertain Choice: Historical Contexts of Arguments
from Probabilities,” in The Rational Arts of Living, ed. A.C. Crombie and
Nancy Siraisi (Northampton, ma: Smith College Studies in History 1987),
21 Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press 1986), 302–3.
22 Facsimile reproduction in Waters, Rutters of the Sea.
23 Thales of Miletus is reputed to have identified the Little Bear constellation,
in which the pole star is located, in the sixth century bc. See Kirk, Raven,
and Schofield, Presocratic Philosophers, 86–7.
24 Joan Gadol, Leon Battista Alberti: Universal Man of the Renaissance
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1969), 168–95.
25 John Pinto sees the medieval nautical chart as a precursor to Alberti’s
“ichnographic” map but defers the analysis of such connections to Gadol,
“The Renaissance City Image,” in The Rational Arts of Living, ed. Crom-
bie and Siraisi, 205–54. For Robin Evans, such maps as Alberti’s are symp-
tomatic of a change in geometry’s function from formal generation toward
description, in The Projective Cast: Architecture and its Three Geometries
(Cambridge: mit Press 1995), 44–6. Liane Lefaivre is more speculative in
likening the Descriptio’s map to both nautical charts and the Hynero-
tomachia’s island map of Cythera, in Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnero-
tomachia Poliphili (Cambridge: mit Press 1997), 126–31. Most closely
aligned with Gadol is Robert Tavernor, who praises the maps for their
accuracy and laments the continued use of “impressionistic” and “sensa-
tional” maps such as the Mirabilis Romae Urbis, in On Alberti and the Art
of Building (New Haven: Yale University Press 1998), 13–18.
26 Michel Destombes calls Cusa “une grande influence pour la promotion
des études géographiques et astronomiques en Italie et dans le Sud de
l’Allemagne.” His astronomical instruments are extant in his library in
Kues. See “La diffusion des instruments scientifiques au haut moyen age
au xve siécle,” in Marcel Destombes: Selected Contributions to the His-
tory of Cartography and Scientific Instruments, ed. Günter Schilder, Peter
van der Krogt, and Steven de Clercq (Utrecht: hes Publishers 1987), 242.
On the controversial history of the map, see Dana Bennett Durand, The

Alberti at Sea

Vienna-Klosternburg Map Corpus (Leiden: E.J. Brill 1952), 252–66; and more
recently, Tony Campbell, The Earliest Printed Maps, 1472–1500 (London:
British Library 1987), 35–55. Campbell notes the similarity between Baltic
coastal outlines on nautical charts and those on Cusanus’s map.
27 Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God, trans. Ewert Cousins in
Bonaventure (New York: Paulist Press 1978), 69: “It should be noted that
this world, which is called the macrocosm, enters our soul, which is called
the smaller world, through the doors of the five senses as we perceive,
enjoy and judge sensible things.”
28 Nicholas of Cusa, Compendium, trans. Jasper Hopkins in Nicholas of
Cusa on Wisdom and Knowledge (Minneapolis, mn: Arthur J. Banning
Press 1996), 409–11. I have amended Hopkins’s translations to retain the
original cosmographicus where he has it as “geographer.”
29 For Pauline Moffitt Watts, Cusanus’s homo cosmographicus marks a pro-
found shift in Christianity’s notion of spiritual journey, from that of the
pilgrim (viator) to the hunter (venator). See her “From the Desert to the
New World: The Viator, the Venator, and the Age of Discoveries,” Renais-
sance Studies in Honor of Craig Hugh Smith, vol. 1, ed. A. Morrogh et al.
(Florence: Giunti Barbèra 1985), 519–30.
30 Nicholas of Cusa, De Docta Ignorantia, trans. H. Lawrence Bond, in
Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings (New York: Paulist Press
1997), Dedicatory Epistle, 206. Emphasis added. Further references are
given in the text.
31 On the circumstances surrounding Cusanus’s voyage, see H. Lawrence
Bond, “Nicholas of Cusa from Constantinople to ‘Learned Ignorance’:
The Historical Matrix for the Formation of the De Docta Ignorantia,” in
Nicholas of Cusa on Christ and the Church, ed. Gerald Christianson and
Thomas M. Izbicki (Leiden: E.J. Brill 1996), 135–43. For Marjorie
O’Rourke Boyle the experience of place in Cusanus’s illuminative event is
an example of epideictic rhetoric: “Place may be a geographical fact. It is
also a rhetorical topic,” and “the reference, even if fundamentally literal,
is more significantly symbolic.” See her “Cusanus At Sea: The Topicality
of Illuminative Discourse,” Journal of Religion 71 (1991): 180–201. That
Cusanus’s illuminative event may be significant as a fundamentally geo-
graphical and literally embodied experience of place is precisely what I
intend to address.
32 Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, trans. H. Lawrence Bond, in

Michael Emerson

Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings (New York: Paulist Press

1997), 2.12.160–1.
33 Physics 5.5: 212a31–35. Trans. Edward Hussey in Aristotle’s Physics,
Books III and IV (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983).
34 Ibid., 4.4: 211a1–10; also, 212a21–5.
35 Ibid., 4.4: 212a14–20.
36 P.D.A. Harvey, “Local and Regional Cartography in Medieval Europe,” in
The History of Cartography, vol. 1, ed. J.B. Harvey and David Woodward
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1987), 495.
37 The process of attaining the desired course from a deviation was called
“resolving the traverse” and required the use of two trigonometric tables.
The operation is described in Taylor, Haven-Finding Art, 117–21.
38 P.D.A. Harvey, Medieval Maps (London: British Library 1991), 39–49.
39 Taylor, Haven-Finding Art, 111.
40 Marco Frascari, “The Compass and the Crafty Art of Architecture,” Mod-
ulus 22 (1993): 3–15.
41 For a general history, see Cartographical Innovations: An International
Handbook of Mapping Terms to 1900, ed. Helen M. Wallis and Arthur H.
Robinson (St Albans: Map Collector Publications 1982), 320–3. On
Buondelmonti, see Hillary Louise Turner, “Christopher Buondelmonti and
the Isolario,” Terrae Incognitae 19 (1987): 11–28. There is a reprint of
Sonnetti’s Isolario, intro. Frederick Goff (Venice, 1485; Amsterdam: The-
atris Orbis Terrarum 1972). Frank Lestringant sees sixteenth-century
French interest in the “singularities” of the island as part of the develop-
ment of a scientific world view, in “Fortunes de singularité à la Renais-
sance: Le genre de l’‘Isolario’,” in Écrire la monde à la Renaissance (Caen:
Paradigme 1993), 17–48.
42 Quoted in Anthony Grafton, Commerce with the Classics: Ancient Texts
and Renaissance Readers (Ann Arbor, mi: University of Michigan Press
1997) 66n47.
43 Opere volgari 3, 163–9.
44 Ibid., 164: “Fatto questo, andrete altrove in luogo pur simile e veduto de
questo primo, e porrete il vostro instrumento, e statuiretelo che proprio
stia sulla linea medesima di quel numero per quale voi prima lo vedesti al
diritto sul vostro instrumento, cioè che se da quella torre prima sino a qui
una nave avesse a navicare, verrebbe per quel medesimo vento segnato.”
Translation by Gadol, Alberti: Universal Man, 175.

Alberti at Sea

45 Matthew H. Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction

of British India, 1765–1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1997),
46 Gadol, Alberti: Universal Man, 175.
47 Paul Carter, “Dark with Excess of Bright: Mapping the Coastlines of
Knowledge,” in Mappings, ed. Denis Cosgrove (London: Reaktion 1999),
125–47. See also E.G.R. Taylor, The Geometrical Seaman (London: Hol-
lis & Carter 1962), 85–6.
48 Gadol, Alberti, 168. The translation is hers.
49 Nicholas of Cusa, De ludo globi, trans. Pauline Moffitt Watts (New York:
Abaris Books 1986), 55. On serio ludere, see Edgar Wind, Pagan Myster-
ies in the Renaissance (New York: W.W. Norton 1958), 222, 236.
50 Cited by Shelby, “Geometrical Knowledge,” 395–421.
51 On Anaximander, see Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, The Presocratic Philoso-
phers, 104–5. See also Indra Kagis McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor (Cam-
bridge, ma: mit Press 1993), 25–32.
52 Leonardo Dati coined the term “t-o map” in 1422 in his widely distrib-
uted book of geographical lore, Della sphera.
53 Raphael Patai, The Children of Noah (Princeton: Princeton University
Press 1998), 112.
54 On okeanos, see Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, Presocratic Philosophers,
55 Tidal charts are known from the fifteenth century on.
56 The ships are now thought to have been extravagant pleasure barges built
by the emperor Caligula (37–41 ad), but evidence at the time pointed else-
where, as lead pipes found with the wreckage were inscribed with the
name of his precursor, Tiberius (14–37 ad). Even then, Alberti attributed
construction to the later emperor Trajan (91–118 ad) at 5.12.136, pre-
sumably because his reign’s extensive building program created a more
palatable association for Alberti’s patron than either of the earlier, infa-
mous emperors. Many of the details of the raising and additional infor-
mation regarding the lake and its environs are found in Pope Pius II’s
commentaries, in Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, trans. Florence A.
Gregg, ed. Leona C. Gabel (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1959), 16–19.
See also Gustina Scaglia, “Alberti e la meccanina della tecnologia descrit-
ta nel ‘De Re Aedificatoria’ e nei ‘Ludi matematici’,” in Leon Battista
Alberti, ed. Joseph Rykwert and Anne Engel (Milan: Electa 1994),

Michael Emerson

57 Girolamo Mancini, Vita di Leon Battista Alberti (Florence: G.C. Sansoni

1882), 314; passage translation from Franco Borsi, Leon Battista Alberti:
The Complete Works, trans. Rudolf G. Carpanini (New York: Rizzoli
1989), 27.
58 Further archeological attempts at Lake Nemi met with similarly dubious
results. In the 1930s, Italian engineers extracted the remains of Caligula’s
two pleasure barges by draining the lake. The recovered hulls, although
missing their superstructure, were on display in a lakeside museum until
destroyed in a skirmish with retreating German forces in 1944. See Lionel
Casson, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times (Austin, tx: University of
Texas Press 1994), 137–40. Alberti’s description of the ships’ materials
and construction techniques matches that given by Casson.
59 For a brief discussion of the history of this lost work, see Gadol, Alberti:
Universal Man, 204n78, and more fully in Franco Borsi, Alberti: The
Complete Works, 213–15.
60 Ten Books on Architecture, 10.3.123.
61 Jeffrey Kipnis, “(Architecture) after Geometry – An Anthology of Myster-
ies,” Architectural Design 67, nos. 5–6 (May–June 1997): 42–7.
62 “What distinguishes the two kinds of voyages is neither a measurable quan-
tity of movement nor something that would be only in the mind, but the
mode of spatialization, the manner of being in space, of being for space.
Voyage smoothly or in striation, and think in the same way … But there are
always passages from one to the other, transformations of one within the
other, reversals” (emphasis added). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A
Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi
(Minneapolis, mn: University of Minnesota Press 1987), 482.

The Rediscovery
of the Hinterland

Marc Glaudemans

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

La photo accoutuma les yeux à attendre ce qu’ils doivent

voir, et donc à le voir; et elle les instruisit à ne pas voir ce qui
n’existe pas, et qu’ils voyaient fort bien avant elle.
Paul Valéry1

It’s a misty autumn day, and the scenery is lost in fog. Later
in the morning the fog disappears and it slowly becomes
possible to perceive the world around as the silhouettes of
trees and houses appear. Around noon, the sun finally breaks
through, the clouds drift apart, and the horizon widens into
the distant line that unites all things in a grand coherence:
the world has become a landscape.
Ton Lemaire2

with the above quotation the Dutch philosopher Ton Lemaire

started his essay “The Appearance of Landscape,” which describes the
evolution of a neutral space into a meaningful landscape. Apparently
“landscape” is not an a priori category; it has to emerge from the disor-
dered elements of the world. This arrangement of things into a new,
coherent order called landscape follows not only the rhythms of the day
or the seasons but also the course of every human life.3 Consequently,
the epiphany of landscape should be understood as a process that is
largely mental, not only for every individual but also for the collective
culture.4 Every culture has to become familiar with its landscape and
even with the category of landscape itself. However, the awakening to
this new phenomenon often occurs at the moment of its supreme disap-
pearance, when it loses its autonomy and becomes integrated into the
urban space of the city. To recognize and to understand this process is
the main issue of this essay.
Lemaire’s fundamental argument about the appearance of the land-
scape invokes phenomenology: What is the meaning of landscape and
nature? What do time, space, and experience signify with regard to
landscape? In this context, what is the significance of the historical
dimension of our landscapes? Phenomenology, derived from the Greek
phainomai (appearing), seeks the essence of things, their being. Whatev-
er this essence may be, much can be learned from the etymology of the
words, from how things are given names in language. The first part of
this essay is an etymological enquiry. All of the terms mentioned in this

Jakob van Ruysdael, View of Haarlem (1628–82). Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 62 cm.
Mauritshuis,The Hague

brief introduction are historically and culturally defined constructions.

They do not possess the neutral objectivity, the mathematical precision,
that modern science demands of its concepts and terms. Few terms have
been more manipulated or more widely defined than “landscape” and
“nature,” but also “city” and “culture.” Before these various terms can
be defined in relation to one another, it is important to stress that their
“differences” are mental in the first place. This was evident in the
Lemaire quotation: the world became a landscape to the spectator, the
observing individual. The architectural theorist Mark Wigley pursues
this mental aspect of perception: “A building,” he states, “can no longer
be separated from the gaze that appears to be directed at it. Before hav-
ing a certain look, the building is a certain way of looking.”5 This is an
important observation. Moreover, we may substitute other terms for the
term “building.” Using almost the same words, Simon Schama was able
to describe the perception of landscape: “Before landscape can ever be a
repose for the senses, it is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as
much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”6

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

Landscape, consequently, has become a cultural phenomenon, a men-

tal construction. In the introduction to his book Landscape and Memo-
ry, Schama illustrates this statement with an example from the visual
arts. He quotes a passage from a lecture by the Belgian artist René
Magritte, in which Magritte discusses La condition humaine, a fascinat-
ing painting of a painting that has been placed in front of the view that
it portrays, so that neither painting nor view are clearly distinguishable.
“This is how we see the world,” says Magritte, “We see it as being out-
side ourselves, even if it is only a mental representation of what we expe-
rience on the inside.”7 Schama interprets this statement as an illustration
of mental projection. Whatever exists beyond the windowpane of our
understanding needs a design before we can discern its form and identi-
ty and eventually “enjoy” what we see. Culture, convention, and cog-
nition enable this form to appear on our retina and perhaps to be
experienced as beauty. Culture, convention, and cognition: these are the
filters that enable the mind to turn the world into a landscape.
In this very short overview four similar points of view ascribe a fun-
damental effect to our perception of things. Seeing is a form of projec-
tion, coloured by the observing subject itself. Moreover, this projection
not only regards the passive transformations within the mind of the
spectator; we should also ascribe a transforming impact to our look: the
look itself changes what is being looked upon. This certainly applies to
landscape, especially as it is viewed from the city. Lemaire repeates the
notion that landscape is an urban view of the world, an engagement of
culture and nature. All landscapes are the result of the mutual perme-
ation of man and environment, of nature and culture, he writes, follow-
ing Oswald Spengler’s observations from his Decline of the West
An integrated understanding of the phenomena of city and country,
nature and culture, could lead to a refined conception that would bene-
fit many of the current issues in architecture and urban design. This
understanding would imply, in the first place, that we regard the city in
its territorial appearance. The word “territory” refers to landscape in
two ways: as it appears to us in reality and as it is imagined by the mind.
The term is introduced because it is a basic concept in the disciplines of
architecture, urban design, and building. To mark the ground is one of
the most fundamental acts of architecture. It is precisely what trans-
forms a piece of land into a territory (from terre and terra; soil, earth).

Marc Glaudemans

René Magritte, La Condition

Humaine (1934). Oil on
canvas, 100 x 81 cm.
Private collection

Architecture and urban design are essentially territorial, and the city, as
their communal product and project, could be understood as landscape,
territory.9 The question, of course, is what we would gain from this per-
spective. It is certainly not meant to deny the difference between city and
country but to understand this difference in light of their resemblance.
To attain this goal, several concepts and terms have to be redefined,
anticipating the understanding of the city as territory.
To return to phenomenology, its modern founder, Edmund Husserl,
stated that each term and each system derives its meaning from two
dimensions: the formal dimension, corresponding to the structure or the
form of the system itself, and the transcendental dimension, the ref-
erence of each element to the reality of what Husserl called the
Lebenswelt.10 In architecture one of these dimensions often remains
absent. Architecture is then either reduced to a purely formal exercise
without the symbolic (in Husserl’s terms, “intentional”) content that

F. de Wit, Map of Amsterdam (1482).The bailiff walked the dotted route (added by the author)
three times without interruption, then twice, divided into four pieces spread out over four
days. Gemeentearchief Amsterdam

used to be its very essence, or it becomes an impenetrable metaphysical

or philosophical argument, devoid of the praxis of an applied science.11
I would propose a phenomenological approach that studies the dual
phenomenon of city and country with regard to both dimensions: the
formal and the transcendental. The main question here concerns the dif-
ference between understanding the city as a “territory-city” and main-
taining the traditional image of the city. To begin to answer these
questions, a few detours will contribute to a phenomenology of the city,
each from a different point of view.

the idea of the city: the etymology of the greek

P O L I S and the concept of territory-city

To consider the idea of the city, I shall first revert to the (alleged) origin
of the phenomenon, how the city revealed itself both in language and in
reality. The Western idea of the city is often derived from the Greek

Marc Glaudemans

polis, the political community that originated during the eighth century
bc. Although cities existed before that time, the Greek polis introduced
the notion of a contrast between city and country, between culture and
nature. On the Greek mainland this contrast had not been clearly evi-
dent before the eighth century. The nomadic communities had been part
of their natural environment; they didn’t profoundly change the land-
scape that provided them with their means of life. The contrast appeared
with the genesis of the sedentary space of the city, and it has dominated
thinking and doing up to the present.12 Historically, the relation of city
and landscape has always been problematic: each has been understood
as the other’s antagonist. This is even evident in etymology: the English
word “country” is derived from the Latin contra, meaning “opposi-
tion.”13 There is, however, an older, perhaps more fundamental, reading
of city and country in which this contrast is not an issue, at least not in
such a dialectical manner. This reading originated not in the discipline of
“urban design,” which dates only from the nineteenth century, but in the
fundamental and often religiously based act of grounding a city.
In two recently published studies this understanding of the city has
been explicated.14 In Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-
State, François de Polignac states that the phenomenon of the Greek
polis is not convertible to the traditional modernist concept of “city.”
The significance of the polis was more general and rather vague, like our
notion of “site” or “place.” In ancient Greece it referred to the “space”
for the politeia, the civil society. This immaterial space was symbolized
by material, spatial objects, such as statues and sanctuaries. This is de
Polignac’s main thesis. The polis could be conceived as a new type of
space, the (religiously based) territory of the city. The genesis of such a
territory was associated with a change in the execution of rituals. In the
eighth century these rituals began to be performed in a well-defined, per-
manent place. The undefined space of the former landscape – the land-
scape of the Iliad and The Odyssey – was becoming organized to
distinguish sacred and profane places. This “territory” – a term used
explicitly by de Polignac – was clearly different from the untouched
nature outside the polis. Still, it was much more extended than the inner-
city itself, the Greek asty.
This city-territory was defined by three zones, each with a different
kind of sanctuary. De Polignac distinguishes the urban (within the inner-
city itself), the suburban (asty-geiton, just outside the inner-city borders),

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

and the extra-urban territory, in Greek, chora, some six to twelve kilo-
metres outside the city.15 The extra-urban sanctuaries served as both
signposts and frontier-guards. They signified the space of human pres-
ence in general and the city’s own territory in particular. The fact that
these two zones were identical indicates an inseparable unity between
the city and its hinterland, its territory. Rilke poetically clarifies this
notion of the city-territory in an essay called Über die Landschaft (On
Landscape): “That was the landscape in which one lived. But strange
was the mountain, where the gods roamed, of inhuman identity, the
headland, without a statue to be seen from afar, the abysses, never even
discovered by a herdsman. They were unworthy of words, an empty
stage, until man intervened and filled the decor with pleasure or tragedy.
Wherever man appeared, all things stepped aside to provide mankind
with the space it needed.”16
Insofar as these sentences need any explanation, the “statue to be seen
from afar” signifies the extra-urban sanctuary that was often dedicated
to the city’s most important hero. From the elevated viewpoint of the
acropolis, the distant sanctuaries and statues often could just be seen,
making the entire space of the city perceptible and clearly differentiating
it from the wild and unspoiled space of nature beyond the polis. De Poli-
gnac argues that the Greek polis is to be regarded as a polycentric city.
The term polis used to refer only to the acropolis, but from the eighth
century onward it referred to the city as a whole. This is important. The
architectural theorist Indra Kagis McEwen draws from de Polignac’s
argument that the city used to be understood (before Aristotle) as a ter-
ritory. She concentrates mainly on the importance of religious and cul-
tural acts for activating the space of the polis and emphasizes that this
territory was to appear by a permanent “re-making” or “re-weaving” of
its surface.17
This is where the term “epiphany” – in Greek, epiphaneia – returns to
our argument, in its double significance as both “appearing” and
“appearance,” surface. This process of “making visible” was part of the
mental understanding of the city. The religious and cultural space of the
polis could continue to exist only if its residents regularly re-confirmed
or re-generated it (from the Greek genesis, meaning birth or origination).
This was done through regular acts of agriculture, but also by visiting
the widespread sanctuaries and executing the appropriate rituals. Deter-
mining the right spot, building the sanctuary, and visiting it to execute

Marc Glaudemans

rituals was a means of “letting appear” (in Greek techne), which is sub-
sequently related to the Greek word for “creating,” poiesis.18 To create,
to make, was understood as a “letting appear” that could make some-
thing visible. This “something” is to be understood as a certain “order,”
as we shall soon see. Plato defined the term poiesis in his Symposium:
“the cause of everything that arises from the non-being into being is cre-
ation, poiesis.”19 For Plato, this order is made visible not only by the cre-
ative action of the artist or the expert; the making of anything generates
a certain order, makes this order visible (Heidegger speaks of Her-vor-
bringen). By creating a city, it is the order – the kosmos – of the polis
that is being made visible.20
Although these etymological readings may seem rather hard to grasp,
it is clear that the Greek “city” was understood as a concept rather than
a material object, a formal appearance, or a concrete site (the topos).
This abstract concept was personified by the eternal fire of the city’s
gods. Remember the legend of Aeneas, who carried with him the fire and
the “soul” of Troy: Considere Teucos Errantesque Deos agitataque
numina Trojae. The city and the gods are with Aeneas; they cross the
seas, and seek a country where it is permitted them to stop.21 Conse-
quently, it is hardly surprising that, according to the Greek historian
Thucydides (460–399 bc), the Athenian commander Nicias told his
army that they would be a city wherever they settled, because “men are
the city, not the walls and ships without them.”22 From the mother-city
– the metropolis – this concept was spread, enabling a new polis to be
founded, or better, made to appear. As in the later case of the Romans,
a distinction was being made between the city as a collection of archi-
tectural objects (urbs) and the city as a “way of life” (civitas).23 Togeth-
er, they defined the domain of the polis.

from the greek P O L I S to renaissance amsterdam:

extrapolation of an obsolete theory

There is, of course, much more to be said on the subject of the polis and
its territorial aspects, but here it has been a detour in support of our main
issue, the coherence of city and country. From de Polignac and McEwen
we learned that the city always generated a much more extensive space
than it covered physically. The city claims a territory by cultivating it,
by making maps of it, and by dominating it in a military, economical,

Detail of The Renewed Map of North Holland and West-Friesland by Jan van Jagen
(1778), after Joost Jansz Beeldsnijder’s map of 1557. Gemeentearchief
Amsterdam.The banpalen drew a circle around the city

juridical, and cultural sense. In fact, the city not only claims a territory,
it is one. This knowledge is not new, but recently it has received renewed
attention, not only in archaeology (de Polignac) but also in architectural
history (McEwen). Preceding this new attention, Joseph Rykwert pro-
posed an understanding of the city as a conceptual model, based on a
detailed reading of complex cultural, social, and societal processes, as
well as a precise study of specific topographic situations.24
For an understanding of these ideas in the light of the territory-city
concept, two recent studies of Amsterdam are illuminating.25 In the first,
Agnes Schreiner considers the meaning of certain processions, mainly
those made by the city’s schout (chief of police), which were governed by
a very strict protocol. Schreiner regards these processions as a means
to “let appear” – in this case – a juridical “order”: “The procession is an

Rembrandt van Rijn, de Obelisk (1650), etching. Amsterdam Historisch Museum

appearing, an appearance, not a phenomenon.”26 It is a way of giving

appearance to something that has no appearance of its own. The law, the
religion, and the city itself are not substantial objects. As Schreiner
writes, “During the procession of the Stedemaagd and as long as it last-
ed, the city could be experienced.27 Only in the circular movement of the
procession we experience the presence of the city. What counted for the
city also counted for the law, religion, the fair. They were not; they
became during the procession and only as long as it lasted.28
In my opinion, these rituals, which were still being executed during
the eighteenth century, were also a manifestation of Heidegger’s Her-vor-
Bringen, the “letting appear” of something, as in techne and poiesis.
This is shown even more clearly in the second study, by Anne van
Dooren, who reconstructs the juridical territory of Amsterdam in the
sixteenth century. Like the chora of the Greek polis, this was an area of
some five miles around the city marked by statues placed out in the field,
in this case, six so-called banpalen.29 The city was permitted to render
justice throughout a certain area, also outside the city-walls. Where the
chief of police (the schout) or his servants appeared, “there appeared the
city,” as van Dooren emphasizes.30 But even without their personal
appearance, the law of the city was indicated by the banpalen, which
were placed alongside the major arterial roads. As the map clearly
shows, these stone obelisks defined a circle around the city, and as with
the polis, there was no clear boundary, such as customs stations: just

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

The garden of Prince Maurits in The Hague. From Hendrick Hondius, Onderwijsinge in de
perspective conste (The Hague, 1623)

signs in the open field. These signs, however, were understood by every-
body. In case of a banishment, they indicated the forbidden area, the
space of the law. Because of juridical reorganization, these banpalen fell
out of use. This is partly why the Rembrandt etching Landscape with
Banpaal (1650) has long been regarded as an imaginary landscape. Peo-
ple simply couldn’t imagine this stone obelisk in a typical Dutch land-
scape.31 The studies of both Schreiner and van Dooren seem to prove
that a territory is related to a specific feature of the everyday world, be
it religious, juridical, political, or otherwise. The statues of Apollo and
Hera in the extra-urban territory of the polis and the banpalen, in the
open fields of Amsterdam, both express the essentially territorial char-
acter of the city: they are both signs of the city’s space, and in Husserl’s
terms, are connected to the Lebenswelt.

the analogy in the landscape: the garden

as a symbol of an “earthly paradise”

As with van Dooren’s study of the juridical territory, it is possible to

reconstruct the “leisure-territory” of the city. This emphasis on leisure
and pleasure is important because it may illuminate aspects of the land-
scape in relation to the city. Otium, literally “empty time,” always was
an important feature of city life. Farmers often regarded the city mis-

Marc Glaudemans

takenly as a place of endless leisure time,32 but the city’s wealth often
was manifested most strongly in the countryside. There are famous
examples: Rome had countless suburban villas, described by Pliny (who
owned two large villas himself) and Virgil (who glorified country life in
his Bucolica and Georgica). Florence, in the fifteenth century, was dom-
inated by the Medicis, who built wonderful villas and gardens over-
looking the city. Venice saw a real villeggiatura in the sixteenth century,
with Palladio’s villas as a classical masterpiece of architecture. In Eng-
land, the love of the countryside beautifully coincided with an obses-
sion for classical Italy, resulting in Chamber’s Palladianism and the rise
of the Jardin Anglo-Chinois, even though these gardens were inspired
more by the landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain, Poussin, and
Dughet than by the real landscape of the Roman campagna.33 Amster-
dam could also be included as a historic example. In the late seven-
teenth and early eighteenth century, Amsterdam saw the rise of an
extensive villa landscape, which has never before been studied from the
perspective of a territory-city relationship.34 In this essay I would like to
investigate only a few phenomenological implications of such a per-
spective through a single (but not atypical) example. The main suppo-
sition is that the garden or the villa is comparable to a sanctuary or a
banpaal, both as a body of knowledge and as a phenomenon of a high-
er order that represents something else: in this case, the city. Of course,
the garden has always been understood as a representation of the land-
scape, but here the city and landscape are very much connected, both
substantially and conceptually.
It is well known that “garden” is related (through etymology and
history) to paradise. The word “paradise” is derived from the Greek
paradeisos, from the Old Persian pairidaeza, which denoted an “en-
closed garden.”35 The oldest gardens, including those in the Netherlands
up to the eighteenth century, were clearly fenced or even surrounded by
a garden-wall. The garden was considered a microcosm, a representation
of the supposed order of the universe, and was different from nature,
where that order usually was not perceptible. Knowledge manifested in
the garden was understood by most learned contemporaries. The
baroque garden, with its formal layout, had to be understood – just like
the city – as the representation of a specific worldview. A well-known
Dutch example is the seventeenth-century Hofwijck, the country-house of
Constantijn Huygens, secretary of the stadholder Frederik Hendrik.36

Hofwijck, projected upon the Vitruvian body
(from the 1547 edition of Martin and
Gouljon). Courtesy of Robert Jan van Pelt.
First published in Art History 4, no. 2
(June 1981): 150–74

The design of the country-house and its garden represented the archi-
tectural theory of Vitruvius, which had been closely studied by Huygens
and his friends, the architects Pieter Post and Jacob van Campen. The
layout of the garden followed the anthropomorphic principles outlined
in Vitruvius’s De architectura. The various parts and characteristics of
Huygens’s body guided the composition of the extensive poem Hofwijck
(1653). In the layout of the garden the house itself occupied the place of
the head, and like the human head it represented reason and thinking
and was the site of Huygens’s famous library. The orchard represented
the chest and the heart of the Vitruvian body. Whenever Huygens, in his
poem, strolled in the garden, he travelled simultaneously through a
depiction of himself. “The key to my heart is the same as the key to this
garden,” Huygens wrote, indicating that he identified his own body with
the universal body in the garden design. Whenever Huygens walked
through his own image, which encompassed the universe of his garden,
he simultaneously experienced and invoked the supposed universal geo-

New Map of Loenen, C.C. van Bloemswaerdt (1726?), 62 x 92 cm. North is on the right side.
Utrechts Archief

metrical order of the universe.37 This simultaneity is not only metaphor-

ical but can be reconstructed in the proportions of the garden layout.
When we observe the garden and the poem side by side, it becomes even
clearer that both garden and poem describe the body of the aging Huy-
gens. Moreover, they represent a strong humanist morality. One may
conclude that this garden is not only an individual work of art but also
a major cultural phenomenon that has to be understood in its historical
context. When Huygens, for example, uses the image of the human body
as a microcosm, this has to be understood within the micro/macrocosm
debate of the 1650s. This garden, but also the garden in general, must
be understood as part of culture, as one of its representations. This is
why Johan Huizinga pleaded in the 1920s for a cultural history of the
garden.38 Whenever the worldview – the Weltanschauung – changes, the
gardens also change, as is demonstrated convincingly throughout his-
tory. The garden as a sign is an essential part of the conceptual model of
the city.

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

pan oramic vista

“È dalla finestra del presente che noi osserviamo il passato,” as Benedet-

to Gravagnuolo wrote in his history of urban design: it is through the
windowpane of the present that we observe the past.39 “This is how we
see the world,” as Magritte noted, “We see it as being outside ourselves,
even if it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the
inside.”40 Both observations can be regarded as illustrations of my argu-
ment. Trying to describe a phenomenon in language – bringing together
les mots et les choses (Michel Foucault) – is itself a cultural activity. Our
perceptions of city and landscape are always grounded in culture and,
moreover, as Wigley demonstrates, even have an evident impact on the
objects themselves. The main hypothesis here is that “landscape” was
defined, recognized, and created by the city (understood, as Thucydides
did, as its citizens); it is an engagement of culture and nature. This, how-
ever, is not a generally accepted perspective. In the history of architec-
ture (but even more so in the history of urban design) the territorial
dimension of the city is often underestimated.41 This misunderstanding
has led to the present situation, in which the city is both the stage and
the perpetrator of a paralyzing dialectical opposition between culture
and nature. This opposition is paralyzing because it is unjustly connect-
ed to the phenomenon of the city. In the ancient definitions – as dis-
cussed in this essay – the city provided a means of reconciliation between
culture and nature. Through creative making – from cultural artifacts to
the city itself – a strong link was established between the people and
their environs.
Alberto Pérez-Gómez proposes that this creative act – in Greek,
poiesis – was a form of reconciliation between man and the world.42 He
also proposes that this was explicit until the end of the Renaissance and
remained influential until the eighteenth century. This unity between
man and the world, between theory and praxis, number and symbol,
subsequently disappeared in favour of a polarization. The lonely wan-
derer from the Romanticist paintings of Caspar David Friedrich appears
against the background of a grand and hostile nature of which human-
kind is no longer a part. This, then, is the paradox: although scientific
development has resulted in a huge expansion of specialized knowledge
about the world, we have become more and more estranged from it,
while apparently losing the capacity to know nature from within. The

Marc Glaudemans

quest for “nature” has been a common nineteenth- and twentieth-

century phenomenon; however, the search has always been in vain. “It
is no use to dream of an unspoilt wilderness far away,” as Thoreau
wrote at the end of his life, “there is none.”43 After a life of searching in
vain, he reached the conclusion that he would not find in the wilderness
of Labrador a greater savageness than in the back of beyond Concord.
This longed-for savageness was a state of mind, completely dependent
on the spectator. This attitude would have been completely out of place
before the Cartesian split of the seventeenth century. One didn’t think of
nature as an état d’âme, a state of mind, because it was the permanent
background of everybody’s life and because it had no absolute value. As
we have seen, nature had to be defined, ordered – in other words culti-
vated – in order to have any significance at all, and this was an assign-
ment for art. Nowadays, when the mutual infiltration of city and
landscape is no longer a choice but a fact, this might be a more fertile
attitude. The city itself, both as an artifact and as a conceptual model –
the two dimensions of Husserl – is a cultural and historical configura-
tion, as well as the habitat in optima forma in which we all live. The
activities of both thinking and building the city must reassess this
inevitable observation.


1 Paul Valéry, Vues (Paris, 1948), 366: Photography has trained the eyes to
expect that which they should see, and therefore to see it, and has instruct-
ed our sight to disregard that which doesn’t exist and which our eyes were
well capable of seeing before its time.
2 Ton Lemaire, Filosofie van het landschap (Baarn: Ambo 1970), 7. All for-
eign quotations are translated by the author unless stated otherwise.
3 In this sense, Lemaire defines adolescence as a “spatial crisis.” Ibid.
4 Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, which signifies “appearing” but
also “appearance” and “surface.”
5 Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern
Architecture (Cambridge, ma, and London: mit Press 1995), 2. Italics are
6 Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: Harper Collins 1995),
7 Ibid., 12.

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

8 Lemaire, “Between Wilderness and Wasteland,” in Wasteland: Landscape

from Now On, ed. F. Giersberg (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers 1992), 11–14.
9 “La ville est un territoire particulier ou une combinaison de territoires.”
Marcel Roncayolo, La ville et ses territoires (Paris: Gallimard 1990), 19.
10 Edmund Husserl, Formale und Transzendentale Logik (1929), quoted in
Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science
(Cambridge, ma: mit Press 1983), 5.
11 Pérez-Gómez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, 5. A con-
vincing study of these (intentional) origins of architecture is Indra Kagis
McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor: An Essay on Architectural Beginnings
(Cambridge, ma: mit Press 1993).
12 I think this is an important remark, even though M.I. Finley pointed out
the “unbridgeable divide” in the history of cities created by the Industrial
Revolution. “The Ancient City: From Fustel de Coulanges to Max Weber
and Beyond,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 19 (1977):
13 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto & Win-
dus, 1973), appendix.
14 François de Polignac, Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-
State, translated by Janet Lloyd (Chicago and London: University of
Chicago Press 1995); McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor.
15 De Polignac, Cults, Territory, 21–2.
16 Rainer Maria Rilke, Het landschap (‘s-Gravenhage: Stols 1944), 8–9.
Originally published as Über die Landschaft (1902).
17 McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor, 81.
18 Martin Heidegger, Die Technik und die Kehre (Tübingen, 1962), 12–13.
For an English translation see The Question Concerning Technology and
Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row
1977), 10–11.
19 Ibid., 11: “Jede Veranlassung für das was immer aus dem Nicht-Anwe-
senden über – und vorgeht, ist poiesis ist Her-vor-Bringen.” Plato Sympo-
sium 205b.
20 This supposition of both Heidegger and McEwen is confirmed in Greek
etymology, as the word nomos means not only “to take possession of” or
“to inhabit” but also “arrangement” or “order.” Consequently, ”to dwell”
is a form of “letting appear” of an order, of poiesis. This is also the start-
ing point of Heidegger’s philosophy of dwelling; see “Bauen Wohnen

Marc Glaudemans

Denken” in Vorträge und Aufsätze (1954), translated into English as

“Building Dwelling Thinking.”
21 Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (New York: Double-
day 1955), 145.
22 Thucydides Peloponnesian War 7.77.
23 “The urbs of the Trojans, the material part of Troy, has perished, but not
the Trojan civitas” (Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, 145). The dis-
tinction is still alive in modern language: in both French and English the
word for a sophisticated, urban etiquette is derived from the Greek polis:
politesse and politeness.
24 Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town (Princeton: Princeton University
Press 1976), 23–5.
25 Both are published in Agnes Schreiner, Henny Bouwmeester, and Anne van
Dooren, In de ban van het recht (Amsterdam: 1001 Publishers 1991).
26 Ibid., 24.
27 The Stedemaagd, the “City-virgin,” a sculpture of the goddess of the city,
was comparable to Athenia polia, the goddess of the (Greek) city in gen-
eral and Athens in particular.
28 Schreiner, Bouwmeester, and van Dooren, In de ban van het recht, 24.
29 Like “banishment,” the “ban” was an autonomous juridical area from
which one could be expelled, or banned.
30 Schreiner, Bouwmeester, and van Dooren, In de ban van het recht, 58.
31 Ibid., 64–9.
32 André Corboz, “Le territoire comme palimpsest,” Diogène 121 (1983):
33 For a comprehensive overview, see James S. Ackerman, The Villa: Form
and Ideology of Country Houses (London: Thames & Hudson 1990).
34 This was the subject of my phd research at Eindhoven University of Tech-
nology, Theory and History of Architecture.
35 For a comprehensive etymology, see Erik de Jong and Marleen Dominicus-
van Soest, Aardse Paradijzen: De tuin in de Nederlandse Kunst,
1500–1800 (Gent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon 1996), 20.
36 Frederik Hendrik (1584–1647) was the chief of state during the last part
of the Eighty Years War. Hofwijck was not part of the Amsterdam city-
territory but was located in the vicinity of the city of The Hague.
37 Robert Jan van Pelt, “Mens en kosmos in Huygens’ Hofwijck,” OASE 41
(1994): 11–31. The garden as a cosmological representation is still a

The Rediscovery of the Hinterland

common theme in literature. An example is the novel by Hector Bianciot-

ti, La Busca del Jardin (1976). When the central figure of the novel finds
out that the garden – his world – was merely a spitting image of famous
gardens elsewhere, his perception of the world was shocked: “The exact
moment at which the image of the garden stopped being personal and was
projected [in a book] at unknown places, was when the garden itself
stopped being the universe and became a temporary reality” (10). It is
striking that the garden is often where one either loses or recovers one’s
innocence: for example, in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the Czech
movie The Garden (1995).
38 Erik de Jong, Natuur en Kunst: Nederlandse tuin- en landschapsarchitec-
tuur, 1650–1740 (Amsterdam: Thoth 1993), introduction. The book is a
Dutch thesis on garden and landscape architecture between 1650 and
1740. It contains a summary in English.
39 Benedetto Gravagnuolo, La progettazione urbana in Europa, 1750–1960
(Milano: Editori Laterza 1991), xii.
40 See note 5.
41 This observation may seem most applicable to the European context,
where many historic cities still retain their vestigial closed form. However,
this considers only the formal dimension of the city and can be mislead-
ing. Corboz was quite right when he stated that “l’espace urbanisée est
moins celui où les constructions se suivent en ordre serré que celui dont
les habitants ont acquis une mentalitée citadine” (“Le territoire comme
palimpsest,” 17; translation: Urbanised space is better defined by the
(mental) space of residents that acquired an urban mentality than by the
close arrangement of buildings). In this sense, the European continent,
even more than other parts of the world, is fully “urban,” and seemingly
remote areas, such as the Alps and almost the entire coastline, are part of
the urban territory, the hinterland of the large metropolitan areas.
42 Pérez-Gómez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, 10.
43 Henry David Thoreau: An American Landscape, ed. Robert L. Rothwell
(New York: Shooting Star Press 1991), 126–7.

The Colosseum: The Cosmic
Geometry of a Spectaculum

George Hersey

Fig. 1 The Colosseum today. Photo: McGill University, School of Architecture

the colosseum was begun by Vespasian in the year 70 and com-

pleted by Domitian in 82.1 Erected on the site of a marshy artificial lake
in the gardens of Nero’s palace, the building received its name, we are
told, from a huge statue of that emperor that once stood near. In its hey-
day the structure was subject to several rebuildings. Then, from the
eighth to the nineteenth century, it endured a long, often painful after-
life. During this millennium it was variously despoiled as a quarry for
building stone, shunned (or frequented) as a playground for demonic
forces, and venerated as a world-famous ruin. In early descriptions it is
billed as the Flavian emperors’ gift to the people, a recompense for the
crimes of Nero that would replace his monuments and his memory.2
So it is ironic that in more recent times the Colosseum has been known
by that Neronian name rather than by its proper one, the Flavian
Amphitheatre. It is equally ironic that it has been seen, par excellence
and in its own right, as a theatre of crime, a monument to the martyr-
dom of Christians, but doubtless it was this role as a martyrs’ memorial
that helped assure its survival.

George L. Hersey

The building proper is a tall, four-storey, masonry oval – a great bowl

slung from outer rings of stacked barrel vaults. The seats were simple
stone or concrete benches erected on the tops of ramped barrel vaults
that radiated outward from the building arena core. The seats ran con-
tinuously around the caveae, or seating sections, exactly as in many
modern stadia. For the emperor, the senate, and other privileged persons
there were special tribunals, called suggesta, with more comfortable
seats, located at what one might call the fifty-yard line. Women, except
for those in the upper classes, who could sit in the suggesta, were segre-
gated into the topmost seats in the cavea summa.
Figure 2 shows some of the main subdivisions of the seating areas. All
were named and coded so that a ticket-holder would know, at least
approximately, where to sit. Some seats were inscribed with the names
of their permanent occupants.
Around the upper storey, above the last set of seats, was a colonnade
with a heavy entablature and outer wall. This supported one of the
Colosseum’s wonders, its fabric ceiling or velarium. On rainy days and
days of hot sun the great canopy was unfurled across the entire cavea.
Down below, in the centre, the arena consisted of a wooden floor, often
covered with sand, garden elements, or theatrical scenery. Underneath
were corridors and rooms for animal and human actors, props, and the
like. A plumbing system drained the whole building and supplied each
floor with drinking-water and bathroom facilities.

Fig. 2 Section of
Colosseum, restoring the
interior. From Banister
Fletcher, A History of
Architecture on the
Comparative Method,
17th ed., revised by
R. A. Cordingley (New
York: Scribner’s 1963).
Labels added
The Colosseum

In contrast to Greek theatres, which were scooped out of hillsides, the

Colosseum is a freestanding building. While it had long been possible to
erect masonry buildings of comparable size and height, the construction
of such a building was probably possible only after the invention of con-
crete. But the Colosseum is only partly of this material. The walls and
piers are travertine-faced brick and tufa, and while the vaults themselves
are mostly concrete or cement conglomerate, stone was also used for
vaulting – mostly lightweight pumice.3 Nonetheless, the sheer amount of
concrete used in the Colosseum was unprecedented.


The Colosseum is one of a series of large, thick-framed civic structures,

the so-called imperial fora, that the early emperors opened up within the
dense urban tissue of ancient Rome. As Greg Wightman has recently
shown, these public places were designed in accordance with strict geo-
metrical principles – a relative novelty at the time – though the relation-
ships from one forum to another did not accord with the overriding axes
and symmetrical alignments that later architecture inspired by these
Roman projects – neoclassicism, Beaux-Arts – would insist on.4

Fig. 3 Part of a
modern model of
Rome in the early
fourth century CE.
The Forum of Trajan
is in the lower left-
hand corner. Museo
della Civiltà Romana
George L. Hersey

The Colosseum’s oval geometry distinguishes it from most Greek and

Roman theatres, though other oval Roman theatre structures – all of
them amphitheatres – do exist. But theatre buildings, both Greek and
Roman, normally were circular or semicircular. Indeed, quite apart from
theatrical structures, the circle and half-circle were favourite Roman
forms. They appeared as exedrae in baths and fora, in huge tombs such
as those of Hadrian and Augustus, in small tombs, and everywhere in
temple plans.
And how would an ancient Roman go about laying out a plan like the
Colosseum’s? Let us assume, for the moment, that he was planning to
create an ellipse – a well-known and beautiful oval that, unlike many
other such shapes, has a continuous curve. Ellipses have been known
from the time of Archimedes and Apollonius of Tyana.5 If the people
who laid out the Colosseum intended an ellipse, they would first estab-
lish two foci on the central horizontal x axis. These must be reflectively
symmetrical across the central vertical y axis. At the two foci the ellipse-
maker then drives stakes into the ground. Each end of a long rope is
attached to one of the stakes. Then a workman takes another stake,
sharpened so as to mark a groove in the ground. Moving the stake all
the way round, outside the two foci, he draws the largest shape that the
rope will permit. In other words, the rope travels through the three posi-
tions in the diagram, plus all their other possible positions, in a 360-
degree rotation.
The result will be an ellipse. The nearer the foci are to each other, the
more nearly circular the shape will be; the further they are apart, the
longer and narrower the ellipse becomes. (A circle may be defined as an
ellipse whose two foci are coincident at the circle’s centre.) At the small-
er scale of an architectural drawing, one could do the same with a pencil,
string, or thread and a pair of tacks. Until very recently, when comput-
er software could automatically draw ellipses of every size and shape,
this was one of the main ways in which these forms were laid out.
However, it has recently been claimed that the Colosseum is not an
ellipse. The scholar making this claim, Mark Wilson Jones, says that the
Colosseum, like most (but not all) other Roman amphitheatres, is a
nonelliptical oval formed from the arcs of overlapped circles. Jones soon
plans to publish on the subject, so meanwhile I will simply believe him
when he says, “I have been able to establish this [fact] without a shad-
ow of doubt.”6

Fig. 4 An ellipse, with f1 and f2 as the
foci. Any line from f1 to f2 that also hits
the perimeter must be the same length
as any other line that does so.
Therefore, the three lines shown here
are all the same length

Fig. 5 An oval formed from two

circles and from arcs of large circles
below and above

Figure 5 shows such an oval, shaped approximately to the Colosse-

um’s footprint. It is laid out as a perimeter of arcs from a pair of circles
joined together by arcs of much larger circles. There are several ways to
lay out such a shape at the scale of a building. One is to find the centres
of the two circles from which the large arcs are taken (figure 6). Note
that an oval shaped like the Colosseum, with its very large upper and
lower arcs, would require an enormous space of clear ground on which
to construct the circles. The radii of these two arcs would be almost dou-
ble the Colosseum’s width of c. 574 Roman feet (512 English feet), so
the total amount of clear space would have to be about 1,000 Roman
feet wide – almost a tenth of a modern mile. Oval amphitheatres erect-
ed in the countryside would, of course, have fewer problems finding
clear space than one like the Colosseum, in the middle of a city.
Alternately, one could construct a chubbier oval (figure 7) with short-
er radii, but if the site were crowded and urban, as was the Colosseum’s,
there would be no space to lay out the shape. Finally, one could lay out
the arcs in a convenient out-of-town field and then make a template of
that part of the circle one wished to copy – or even half of this curve,
since it is bilaterally symmetrical. I show the curve with a horizontal
baseline and a set of vertical lines, called “normals,” perpendicular to it
(figure 8). The normals meet the arc’s curve from the inside and map out
its shape. Such a map would then be easy to transfer and reproduce at
the building site using taut ropes, rulers, and set squares.

Fig. 6 Plotting the arcs of
the Colosseum with full circles

Fig. 7 Plotting a chubbier oval with full circles

Fig. 8 Plotting an arc using normals

Fig. 9 An Egyptian
hieroglyphic fragment
plotting a curve using
normals, as in the pre-
ceding diagram. From
Jean-Philippe Lauer, La
Pyramide à degrés:
L’architecture (Cairo:
Imprimerie de l’Institut
français d’archéologie
orientale 1936)

Fig. 10 Ptolemy of Alexandria’s system for a
planet’s orbit around the sun

It is worth noting, by the way, that just such a diagram was discov-
ered by Jean-Philippe Lauer at the site of the Step Pyramid of Zoser at
Saqqara in Egypt (figure 9). This curve was for a vault profile, not a
plan, but the same system would work for a plan such as the Colosse-
um’s. The characters inscribed between the normals on the Egyptian
fragment would be the measures of their respective lengths. This system
of laying out very large arcs would date from around 2800 bce. How-
ever, laying out an ellipse, with its interior foci, is much easier than the
multiple-arc system, and provides fewer opportunities for mistakes.


We need not pursue the question of ellipse versus oval as if they were
two mutually exclusive shapes. One reason is that all ellipses are ovals.
Shortly after the Colosseum was built, Ptolemy of Alexandria was to
prove that, with proper manipulation, overlapped circles can produce
absolutely any closed curve, including every sort of true ellipse.7
Figure 10 is my reconstruction of Ptolemy’s theory that planets travel
around the sun in large, circular orbits (cycles), while at the same time
revolving in smaller circular orbits (epicycles). I have shown one pair of
epicycles with the planet at its outer limit and another pair with the same
planet (there is only one) at its epicycle’s inner limit. The ellipse indicates
the position that the planet would seem to have, revolving in its cycle
and, simultaneously, in its epicycle, at the four positions used by a
putative astronomer in making observations of the planet’s position.
Oval planetary orbits were proven by Kepler, but they had been pro-
posed for centuries. Philolaos the Pythagorean (fifth century bce), for

George L. Hersey

example, held that the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon all moved through
what he called “oblique circles,” i.e., ellipses, unlike the other planets.8
Undoubtedly, these thoughts came about because astronomers made
highly selective, rather than nearly continuous, observations of a plan-
et’s position. But my interest here is simply to show that overlapping cir-
cles, whether or not they are planetary orbits, can easily map out oblong
closed curves. In other words, the epicyclic theory is one more way of
making ovals – including ellipses – out of overlapping circles.
Whether or not the Colosseum was constructed as an ellipse or as a
set of arcs, most modern drawings do show it as an ellipse. In plan (fig-
ure 11), the Colosseum is shown not as a single ellipse but as a set of
concentric ellipses.9 That is, the successive closed curves of the various
parts of the cavea, from interior to exterior, seem to become gradually
more circular, being 6:5 on the perimeter. The ellipse, which follows the
back of the cavea ima, is 5:4 in proportion, and the innermost ellipse,
that of the arena proper, is a very elongated 7:4. A definitive discussion
of all these questions will come, presumably, with Jones’s article.10
The Colosseum seems to embody some of the ideal dimensions and
ratios that Vitruvius proposes for public buildings and that we are told
were used in Greek architecture as well, though modern measurements
suggest that site errors may have distorted some of the values. Jones
thinks that these “wrong” numbers are not errors but simply that ideal
dimensions were never intended. Thus he writes that “the width of the
arena at the Colosseum is 163 [Roman] ft, not 160,” which means that
its length-width proportion, 163 3 318 Roman feet, is 1:1.95, not quite
a 1:2 ratio. However, 163 versus 159 (the “correct” width for a 1:2 ratio)
is only about a 1 percent error. That seems acceptable when one consid-
ers that the builders worked with stakes and ropes (which stretched and
shrank according to weather and handling). Indeed, comparable site
errors occur today, despite all the benefits of modern technology.
In addition, the height of the Colosseum to its main cornice is exact-
ly 163 Roman feet, which puts it in a 1:1 ratio to the arena’s width. The
cavea proper, meanwhile, excluding the exterior arcades, is 639.9 feet
long and 530.4 wide. This would approximate a 6:5 ratio with about a
2 percent error. The outer walls, which measure 694 3 574 Roman feet,
might be rounded off to 700 3 575 (giving respective errors of 1 percent
and .1 percent). These latter values imply that the Colosseum’s basic
planimetric footprint was constructed on a 25-foot module, though, of

Fig. 11 The Colosseum, Rome (70–82 CE), plan. From Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture
on the Comparative Method, 17th ed., revised by R. A. Cordingley (New York: Scribner’s 1963)

course, given the oval shape, all sorts of other, irrational values would
have to be used for measurements during actual construction.
There is a reason for going on at length about ovals, ellipses, epicy-
cles, and ideal ratios. We have just seen that Ptolemy proved that almost
any closed curve could be produced with arcs of circles, and we saw that
he did this because he wanted to map out planetary orbits. Indeed,
almost all the mathematical work that was done on closed circular and
spherical forms, ancient and early modern, was done by astronomers.11
This was even more evident in ages when armillary spheres (models with
planetary orbits shown as movable rings) were the main ways of under-
standing the actions of the cosmos.12 And that, in turn, seems to explain
why we often portray the heavens as spheres and hemispheres and why

George L. Hersey

domes (hemispheres) are decorated so frequently with heavenly symbols

and personages such as suns, moons, and the houses of the Zodiac.
Roberto Luciani informs us that in this spirit the Colosseum’s velarium,
its sky, was painted blue and ornamented with images of the firma-
ment.13 Lightning, thunder, and other cosmic events were also frequent-
ly produced in the Colosseum by the scenic technicians.
The building became even more cosmic in the middle ages. The legend
grew that it had been a temple of the Sun. The whole building, it was
said, was once covered with a bronze dome. Under that dome stood a
colossal statue of Phoebus holding a celestial orb (this would have
been the “colossus” of the “Colosseum”).14 In the fifteenth century
Leone Battista Alberti wrote that all circuses (the word essentially means
orbit or circle), not just the Colosseum, were constructed with twelve
entrances to honour the twelve houses of the Zodiac, and with seven
metae or race-markers in honour of the seven planets. He adds that char-
iots raced around the arena in imitation of the orbits of the heavenly
spheres and that participants wore colours symbolizing the cycle of the
four seasons.15


The Colosseum’s postclassical reputation as the site of hundreds, thou-

sands, of Christian martyrdoms only increased its cosmic associations.
Luciani notes that not a single ancient author or contemporary witness
speaks of the building as the site of specifically Christian martyrdoms.16
Yet it probably owes its survival, ruinous as that survival was, to this
pious opinion. It is a belief that has reigned for centuries, and reigns still.
Who can forget St Augustine’s vivid picture of the howling spectators
drunk with cruelty, with the spouting blood, with the dismembered
Christian bodies, with the sense of the whole great bowl as an open
maw?17 Or Prudentius’s picture in the year 658 of the delicate Vestal,
seated on high in her upper tribunal and commanding, thumbs-down,
that the killers impale yet another holy martyr?18
This belief in the Colosseum as a place of Christian martyrs fuelled the
Roman trade in relics. The trade – one could almost call it an industry –
flourished during late antiquity and the early middle ages. One reason
was the Church’s rule, in the Second Council of Nicaea of 787, that no

The Colosseum

altar could be consecrated in Catholic Christendom without a valid relic

being lodged in it.19 If Christian bones were not so thick in the Colosse-
um’s entrails as once was thought, bones in general were plentiful there,
due to the games.20 (And, I hardly need add, Christians were often mar-
tyred outside the Colosseum.)
The Church’s obsession with the Colosseum often crops up in Chris-
tian literature and hagiography. There was a tale that the building’s
original architect was a Christian named Gaudentius, whose epitaph is
preserved in the basement of ss Luca e Martina in Rome. It states that,
having built the Colosseum, and with all the glory that it gave to Rome,
Vespasian rewarded Gaudentius with death. But, the inscription adds,
Christ has prepared a better theatre for Gaudentius in Heaven.21 Anoth-
er ancient example of Colosseum martyrology, this one non-Christian, is
the story in Josephus that, like the walls of Babylon and the pyramids of
Egypt, the Roman arena had been erected by Israelite slaves (twelve
thousand of them, says a later commentator, none other than the Mar-
quis de Sade). Their foreman, we read, was thereupon offered as a sac-
rifice at the inaugural games.22
The deaths of Gaudentius and the unnamed Israelite accord well with
the Colosseum’s role as a place of sacrifice.23 It was the very fact that
they were sacrifices that made the games so grisly. According to Seneca,
in the morning events, men (usually prisoners, but in later times profes-
sional gladiators) would be thrown to hungry wild animals, usually lions
or bears, who were encouraged by the crowds to devour their human
victims. If a gladiator had the luck or skill to survive, he would then face
further opponents – animal, human, or both. The fights almost always
continued until one of the participants died. By evening, the arena was
piled with corpses.24
These deaths were sacrifices to the gods whose statues and altars stood
all round the arena.25 The poet Martial emphasizes the Colosseum’s reli-
gious role. He describes the whole of it, in fact, as “an altar wrought of
many horns,” i.e., decked with the trophies of animal sacrifice.26 The
sacrifices also belonged to the cult of the divine emperor, to which all
Roman citizens had to pay reverence (and to which the Christians took
such exception). Other divinities who were particularly worshipped in
the games were Hermes, Jupiter, Apollo, Ceres, Charon, and the Dioscuri.
As a religious event, each game was preceded by a pompa circensis in
which statues of the gods were carried. The sacrifices all had individual

George L. Hersey

Fig. 12 Roman medal of

Domitian awarding prizes for the
Colosseum games, 88 CE. British
Museum, London

status – as “solemn games,” “state games,” “votive games,” and the like.
There were the Ludi Magni dedicated to the Capitoline Jupiter. Some
games lasted one day only; others continued for a week or two. By the
end of the Empire the Colosseum was being used for these purposes fully
177 days each year.27
The sacrificial nature of the Roman games came from the Greek funer-
al games that were their older cousins. One early Greek liturgy, for exam-
ple, consisted of slaughtering prisoners on the tombs of recently dead
heroes. The Romans did the same. The purpose of the deaths was to pla-
cate the Manes, the soul of the person whose funeral was being held. The
Manes were thought to inhabit his remains and his tomb. Livy mentions
sacrifices involving human victims as early as 216 bce. He records great
increases in the number of these contests over all the years bce.28
These game-sacrifices were normally accompanied by banqueting, a
tradition that held good at the Colosseum. At the conclusion of a fight
the spectators would toast the victors as well as the gods of the fight.
Very large numbers of victims, especially animals, could be sacrificed. At
the Colosseum’s inauguration, according to varying accounts, either five
thousand or nine thousand animals were killed. During the venatio (ani-
mal sacrifice) held in the year 106 in honour of his Dacian triumph, Tra-
jan had eleven thousand animals killed.29
In the medal of the year 88 (figure 12), Domitian receives victors in
the imperial suggestum. The inscription reads, “Domitianus Augustus,
when he was consul for the fourteenth time, founder of the sacred

Fig. 13 Mosaic from ancient Thysdrus, now El Djem.Third century CE. Museo del Bardo,Tunisia.
From Katherine M.D. Dunbabin, The Mosaics of Roman North Africa: Studies in Iconography and
Patronage (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978)

games.” He leans forward from the imperial suggestum, flanked by

columns and with details above that portray the rigging of the velarium.
The two gladiators, ceremonially dressed in togas, have been given a
sack of prizes, probably food and wine.
In a third-century mosaic (figure 13), five celebrants seated in the
cavea ima drink to a pile of bulls. The inscription makes it clear that the
men are rooting for the gladiators, whose names are inscribed there. The
lower inscription reads, “The bulls are silent and sleep.” Beyond the sac-
rificial bulls, two priests or attendants are distributing wine. This par-
ticular scene took place not in the Roman Colosseum but in the almost
equally huge North African amphitheatre of Thysdrus, still standing in
what is now the Tunisian town of El Djem.

George L. Hersey

There was a further sacrificial aspect on many occasions. When a

gladiator died, two actors would emerge into the arena dressed as Her-
mes and Charon. The two “gods,” whose task it was to conduct souls
to the Underworld, would take up the body of the dead gladiator and
carry it offstage. Afterward, gladiators’ corpses were usually handed
over to families or fans for burial. Nor did the magico-religious aspect
of it all stop here. The relics of the fighters were greatly valued. Their
blood was a remedy for sterility and impotence. A woman who combed
her hair with a dead gladiator’s sword could expect a fertile marriage.
His equipment and clothing protected against the evil eye.30
If Christians probably were not often martyred in the Colosseum, they
were nonetheless dead set against the games. To them the games were
not simply grisly, they celebrated a rival religion and glorified rival gods.
As Luciani writes, “With its liturgy, its sacrifices, its hysteria and the
presence of images of the pagan gods, as well as the divinized emperor,
the arena represented for the first Christians a kind of devil’s palace, the
seat of the Antichrist.”31 The first Christian emperor, Constantine, pro-
hibited the games entirely, but later Christian emperors sometimes
relented. For example, Honorius at first merely forbade senators to have
gladiators in their service, but then in 403 or 404, a Christian monk
named Telemachus entered the arena during the games to preach against
them. The crowd was infuriated, and Telemachus was killed. As a result,
Honorius issued a full prohibition against the games.

ruin-love and architectural parasitism

We have seen the Colosseum as it was to its builders and first users, and
we have seen its arena, at day’s end, as a landscape of ruined bodies. All
this takes us up to the end of the games in 523. Now I would like to
move on to the building’s long afterlife, in which it came to be revered,
almost worshipped, in and of itself, as a great ruined body. I will look at
this cult in terms of what I will call “architectural parasitism.”
In biology a parasite is any organism that lives on or in another organ-
ism and obtains its nutriment either by eating the host’s food or, as a fre-
quent alternative, by eating the host.32 But parasites are not all bad;
indeed, they have been seen as one of nature’s essential strategies. Nor
are they all microscopic. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests,
knowing that the latter will feed and rear the interlopers.33 Bees, such as

The Colosseum

the mason bee Osmia bicolor, occupy abandoned snail shells and refit
them with walling made from pebbles. They too are parasites of a sort.
They don’t eat their hosts, but they do exploit the hosts’ abandoned
body parts.34 We might even call the mason bees “ruin-dwellers.”
But for centuries, for most of its life, the word “parasite” has in fact
referred to human beings. The Greek words para and sitos mean
“others’ grain,” “others’ food.” In antiquity a parasite was someone who
literally or figuratively fed at someone else’s table. In return he was sup-
posed to flatter his host. Ever since, and flattery aside, parasites gener-
ally have been thought of as pests, despite their often constructive role.
We can apply this to architecture. A building’s users are also its users-
up – its parasites. Think of what happens, say, to a historic cathedral,
castle, or palace. The visitors wear out carpets and tile floors, mark the
walls, and bore, annoy, insult, manipulate, or otherwise wear down the
staff (we will consider the staff to be part of the monument’s organism
– its autoimmune system). Yet at the time, the very presence of these
tourist-parasites is flattering. They are there to admire and to take away
with them something of the building’s beauty. Sometimes they do this
quite literally.

Fig. 14 Maarten van Heemskerck,

Self-Portrait before the Colosseum (1553).
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

George L. Hersey

This has been happening to the Colosseum for centuries. I will here
define the Colosseum’s parasites as the tourists who stole souvenirs, as
the masons who quarried it for building stone, as the vandals who
destroyed it for fun, and even as the vegetation that for centuries grew
up around and in it and that occupied it, choked it, distorted it, and ulti-
mately threatened to bring it down.
The Western relish for ruination is present in the most ancient wit-
nesses. Isaiah, speaking of Babylon’s present “glory of kingdoms, the
beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency,” prophesies that their city will be
abandoned by its human population and be invaded by the beasts of the
desert; “their houses shall be full of doleful creatures,” says the prophet.
And how he relishes the forsaken towers and abandoned fora he
describes in the cities that have earned Jehovah’s wrath!35
But the greatest of parasites is Time. As Ovid puts it: “Time, devour-
er of matter, and you, envious old age, with the fangs of mortality
destroy everything, eating it gradually away into a slow, weakened
death.”36 A perfect definition of architectural parasitism, you might think,
though the poet here has in mind the bodies of two once-beautiful
humans: the wrestler Milo of Crotona and the aged Helen of Troy, who
“weeps when she looks in the mirror and sees her hag’s wrinkles.”
But my real point is that ruin-worshippers (unlike Milo and Helen)
actually like wreckage. When they weep at the architectural equivalent
of hag’s wrinkles they weep with pleasure. And they like the parasites
that bring it about – the toads, snakes, bandits, and contadini that eat
away at former greatness.
Maarten van Heemskerck’s self-portrait of 1553 (figure 14) was paint-
ed seventeen years after he had returned to Holland from Rome. The
artist’s dapper dress and warily pleased expression contrast expressively
with the ruined Colosseum behind him, which, as he sees it in memory,
is almost reverting to wild nature. The upper-floor vaults are already
savage, and vegetation triumphs across its skyline, where once the blue
cosmos of the velarium swayed. Of its ghostly crowds of gladiators and
martyrs there now remain only a few spidery ciceroni. In the middle
ground we see the artist as he was during his Roman stay, preserving the
picturesque wreckage, praising, in a picture, its beauty.
Collectors can also be architectural parasites. A French visitor to the
site of Plato’s Academy in Athens remarked in 1675, “It is not possible
to dig into six feet of earth without finding some precious antique.”37

Fig. 15 John Andrew Graefer,The Ruins, Giardino Inglese, Caserta (1792). Photo by Julie Dionne

This antique, it hardly needs saying, could and would be taken home –
in the cultural sense, consumed. Or think of Lord Elgin, removing the
Parthenon sculptures and taking them to Britain.38 Byron even calls Lord
Elgin (and all his countrymen) parasites, vermin, who had riven “what
Goth, and Turk, and Time have spar’d.”39 The world’s great modern
museums, indeed, were formed from objects collected in this parasitic
spirit. The process, of course, continues.
So powerful did the ruin cult eventually become that in the eighteenth
century, landscape gardeners built imitation ruins – mimickings of para-
sitized architectural corpses.40 One of the most impressive is the ruderi
on an island in the Giardino Inglese at Caserta, built in 1792 by John
Graefer for Ferdinand IV, King of the Two Sicilies. This handsome arti-
ficial corpse consists of a brick, plaster, and tufa tempietto with denud-
ed tympanum, a stained and blasted wall whose niches shelter headless
statues, and a beautiful wreck of a Corinthian portico. All of it is deep
in weeds and surrounded by a stagnant lake – a house quite literally full
of doleful creatures (figure 15).
Nineteenth-century ruin-fanciers particularly liked to see such wild
vegetation seize and occupy an ancient, once-glorious pile. This was par-

George L. Hersey

ticularly the case with the Colosseum, whose ruin was considered a judg-
ment on pagan Rome and those who had martyred Christians in its
arena. Charles Dickens actually exulted as he watched the building’s
slow-motion collapse:

To see it crumbling there, an inch a year, its walls and arches overgrown with
green, its corridors open to the day; the long grass growing in its porches, young
trees of yesterday springing up on its rugged parapets and bearing fruit … to see
its pit of fight filled up with earth, and the peaceful cross planted in the centre,
to climb into its upper halls and look down on ruin, ruin, ruin, all about it, the
triumphal arches of Constantine, Septimius Severus and Titus, the Roman
Forum, the Palace of the Caesars, the temples of the old religion, fallen down
and gone; is to see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city … It is
the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic, mourn-
ful sight conceivable. Never, in its bloodiest prime, can the sight of the gigantic
Colosseum, full and running over with the lustiest life, have moved the heart as
it must move all who look upon it now, a ruin. God be thanked: a ruin.41

That was published in 1846. As time went on, the monument’s invad-
ing vegetation gained a sacrosanct quality comparable to that of the
Colosseum itself. It was often said that the plants growing in the Colos-
seum represented exotic species whose seeds had been brought to Rome
in the feed provided from distant lands for the animals used in the
games. In 1855 an Englishman, Richard Deakin, even published an illus-
trated botanical treatise entitled The Flora of the Colosseum. Some
plants, such as the aptly named Paliurus spina-Christi, as well as the
Asphodelus fistulosa, were said to grow in the Colosseum and probably
nowhere else.42 The building had a unique ecology. To despoil it of its
parasitical plants was to force possibly unique species to go extinct -
flora that, due to their outlandish provenance, had their own tales to tell
about the Colosseum’s fauna.
Right along with the thought of botanical parasitism came the delight-
ful idea that all this beautiful stone and concrete architecture, hewn,
shaped, carved, and polished, was roughening and subsiding back into a
state of nature. Architecture was turning into mountain landscape. To
one painter the ruined Colosseum already resembled the crater of a vol-
canic mountain. “This,” wrote Thomas Cole, “was the vaulted crater of

human passions, and here burst forth with devastating power its terrible
flames, and the roar of eruption cracked the sky.”43 Cole wrote that in
1832. In 1869 the Goncourt brothers similarly saw the building – and,
indeed, most of Rome around it – reverting to a primordial pre-archi-
tectural state. “The grass has burst forth, that same oblivious grass that
is everywhere. Its rough masses have invaded the seats, and the ruined
tribunals have turned back into reddish foliage … Trees have erupted,
woven vines have bearded step upon step and covered shadowy open-
ings eighty feet wide … Blocks of stone have turned into natural rock.44
When, in later years, familiar Roman monuments began to be stripped
of the vegetation that was choking them, ruin-lovers objected. And in
1888 the Times newspaper complained that deprived of its botanical
parasites, the monument had become “hideously vulgar.” D’Annunzio
called the cleanup campaign “a blighting blizzard of barbarism menac-
ing all the greatness and loveliness that were without equals in the mem-
ory of the world.” In 1905 the travel-writer Augustus Hare issued a call
to stop what he called the “vandalism” of purging the Colosseum of its
“marvellous flora.”45 Writing in the same year, Henry James lamented
that in the Colosseum “the beauty of detail has disappeared almost com-
pletely, since the thick spontaneous vegetation has been removed by
order of the new government.”46


In its heyday as an arena and long afterward as a fabulous ruin the

Colosseum was quite literally a spectacle, and (like other amphitheatres)
the building was in fact called a spectaculum.47 It was a spectacle of the
world. Its crowds, its victims, came from all parts of the known world.
The poet Martial, in a series of epigrams about the Colosseum, asked,
“What race is so distant, so barbarous, Caesar, that from it no spectator
comes to your city?”48 He hailed it as the greatest work in human his-
tory, greater than the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, greater than Baby-
lon, greater than the Mausoleum at Helicarnassos.
Spectaculum and spectator connote the act of seeing. Another name
for the Colosseum does the same: amphitheatre. ue9atron can mean “the
spectators,” “those who are looking.” Indeed, the races that came to fill
the stands were part of the spectacle, as were the emperor and his court,
senators, the Vestals, the priests. In short, the Colosseum was three

George L. Hersey

Roman medal issued by the

Senate after Titus’s death in 81
CE. British Museum, London

things: a place to see for its own sake; a place in which to watch the sac-
rifices; and a place, a world in which to be seen.49
I thus return to and end with the Colosseum’s cosmic qualities. In post-
classical lore the building was a model or talisman for the Earth as the
centre of the universe. “As long as the Colosseum stands, Rome stands;
when the Colosseum crumbles, Rome will crumble. And when Rome
crumbles, so will the world,” wrote the Venerable Bede in c. 700.50 In
this same spirit, in 1328 Ludwig of Bavaria issued medals based on
imperial prototypes (figure 16). The Colosseum was depicted on these
medals, which were inscribed, Roma Caput mundi regit orbis frena
rotundi (Rome, head of the world, holds the reins of the circling orb).
Even today, seen from the air, the great old skeletal spectaculum stares
up to heaven like a giant unblinking eye – the eye of Earth’s orb, of
Rome’s circling world.


1 The best and fullest new book is Roberto Luciani, Il Colosseo (Milan:
Fenice 2000, 1993), with full bibliography. Other items are noted below.
2 Seneca Moral Epistles 1.7, to Lucilius; Martial De spectaculis 2.
3 M. Wilson Jones, “Designing Amphitheatres,” Römische Mitteilungen 100
(1993): 391, with earlier bibliography; note especially J.C. Golvin, L’Am-
phithéâtre romain; Essai sur la théorisation de sa forme et de ses fonctions
(Paris: Diffusion de Boccard 1988).

The Colosseum

4 Greg Wightman, “The Imperial Fora of Rome: Some Design Considera-

tions,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 56 (March
1997): 64–85, with copious earlier bibliography.
5 Alexandre Koyré, The Astronomical Revolution: Copernicus, Kepler,
Borelli, trans. R.E.W. Maddon (New York: Cornell University Press 1973).
6 Jones, “Designing Amphitheatres,” 394.
7 Koyré, The Astronomical Revolution, 23–4. See also Germaine Aujac,
Claude Ptolomée, astronome, astrologue, géographe (Paris: Éditions du
cths 1993); John Phillips Britton, Models and Precision: The Quality of
Ptolemy’s Observations and Parameters (New York: Garland 1992).
8 Koyré, The Astronomical Revolution, 39.
9 Note the large number of staircase accesses, known as vomitoria. They
suggest that in case of fire or earthquake the Colosseum probably could
have been emptied quickly enough to comply with the building codes in
force today.
10 In the meantime, see Luciani, Il Colosseo, 56–7.
11 Thomas L. Heath, Greek Astronomy (London, 1932); D.R. Dicks, Early
Greek Astronomy to Aristotle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1970).
12 F. Nolte, Armillarsphäre (Erlangen, 1922).
13 Luciani, Il Colosseo, 83.
14 There had been a colossal statue of Nero, which Vespasian transformed
into a sun god, on the site. Martial Epigrammata spectacula 2.70.
15 Leone Battista Alberti, L’Architettura [De Re Aedificatoria, 1485] (Milan:
Polifilo 1966) 2, 751.
16 Luciani, Il Colosseo, 10.
17 Confessions 6.8
18 Prudentius Contra Symmachum 2.1091–1101.
19 U. Mioni, Il Culto delle reliquie nella chiesa cattolica (1908).
20 For the legendary twenty-eight wagonloads of martyrs’ bones buried
beneath the floor of the Pantheon, see Susanna Pasquali, Il Pantheon:
Architettura e antiquaria nel settecento a Roma (Modena: Panini 1996),
25. These, however, came from cemeteries, not from the Colosseum.
But, of course, it was the practice to bury those who died in the gladia-
torial battles and venationes (wild animal duels) in cemeteries outside
the city walls.
21 Luciani, Il Colosseo, 57–9. This is another way to think of the Colosseum
as cosmic.

George L. Hersey

22 Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, Voyage d’Italie (1776), Oeuvres

complètes (Paris: Pauvert 1966).
23 Luciani, Il Colosseo, 113–32.
24 Seneca Moral Epistles 1.7, to Lucilius.
25 Rosella Rea, L’Anfiteatro Flavio (Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato);
“L’Anfiteatro flavio. Competizioni atletiche e spettacoli anfiteatrali: Il
punto di vista dell-intellettuale,” in Lo Sport nel Mondo Antico [exhibi-
tion catalogue] (Rome: Quasar 1987), 79–86; M. Di Macco, Il Colosseo:
Funzione simbolica, storica, urbana (Rome, 1971); Roberto Luciani,
“Ludus Magnus,” L’Urbe 3–4 (1989): 37–46; Kathleen Coleman, “’The
Contagion of the Throng’: Absorbing Violence in the Roman World,”
Hermathena 164 (1998): 65–88.
26 Epigrammata spectacula 1.
27 Luciani, Il Colosseo, 122.
28 Livy Ab, urbe condita 21.57.7.
29 Luciani, Il Colosseo, 139.
30 Ibid., 129–30.
31 Ibid., 173.
32 Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World
(New York: Viking 1994), 114. For parasites and appearance, see Para-
sites and Pathogens: Effects on Host Hormones and Behavior, ed. N.E.
Beckage (New York: Chapman & Hall 1997); Randy Thornhill and
Steven Gangestad, “Human Facial Beauty: Averageness, Symmetry, and
Parasite Resistance,” Human Nature 4 (1993): 237–69.
33 Scott Robinson, F.R. Thompson III, T.M. Donovan, D.R. Whitehead, and
J. Faaborq, “Regional Forest Fragmentation and the Nesting Success of
Migratory Birds,” Science 267 (1 April 1995): 1987–90.
34 Karl von Frisch (with the collaboration of Otto von Frisch), Animal Archi-
tecture, trans. Lisbeth Gombrich (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold
1983), 71.
35 Isaiah 13:19–21. Quoted by Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1953), 2.
36 Metamorphoses 15.234–6.
37 Georges Guillet de St-Georges, An Account of a Late Voyage to Athens, etc.
(London: Herringman 1676). Quoted by Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 158.
38 Christopher Hitchens et al., The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned
to Greece? (London: Chatto & Windus 1987).

The Colosseum

39 In “The Curse of Minerva” and “Childe Harold” (13), from which the
line comes. Quoted by Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles, 60.
40 Barbara Jones, Follies and Grottoes (London: Constable 1953).
41 Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy (Leipzig: Tauchnitz 1846), 846.
Quoted by Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 200.
42 Richard Deakin, The Flora of the Colosseum (1855). See Luciani, Il
Colosseo, 246–7.
43 Thomas Cole, Notes at Naples (1832), in Louis Legrand Noble, The Life
and Works of Thomas Cole, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge, ma: Har-
vard University Press 1964). Cole painted the Colosseum interior in this
same year (a painting now in the Albany Institute of History and Art,
Albany, ny).
44 Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Madame Gervaisais (1869).
45 Quoted by Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 202.
46 Henry James, Italian Hours (1909).
47 Vitruvius De architectura libri 10.5.6.
48 Martial Epigrammata spectacula 3.
49 And indeed the root of the word “theatre” is ue9atron, I see. Herodotus
Histories 6.21, Aristophanes Equites 233. In short, the word focuses not
on the stage but on the seating, the cavea.
50 Patrologia Latina 94.543.

On the Renaissance Studioli
of Federico da Montefeltro and
the Architecture of Memory

Robert Kirkbride

Urbino studiolo (c. 1476), Palazzo Ducale.View toward northeast corner, with ideal city at right.
Photo by author

the S T U D I O L I of the ducal Palaces of Urbino and Gubbio offer

elegant demonstrations of architecture’s capacity, as a discipline and
medium, to transact between the mental and physical realms of human
experience. Constructed in the late fifteenth century for the renowned
military captain Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, the studioli
may be described as treasuries of emblems, since they contain not things
but images of things. Over the past five centuries these chambers have
themselves become emblems for the intellectual milieu at the Court of
Urbino, crystallizing a unique humanism that bridged the mathematical
and verbal arts, as well as the liberal and mechanical arts.
Owing to their comprehensive iconographic programs – which encom-
pass the seven liberal arts,i the Christian virtues,2 and the heraldic
imagery of the Montefeltro, as well as the personal accomplishments of
Duke Federico – the studioli are often described as encyclopedic contain-
ers of universal knowledge. However, careful review of these emblems

Gubbio studiolo (c. 1482), Palazzo Ducale.View toward northwest corner, with instruments
of measure and architecture located in the cabinet directly below the word “INGENIOQ(UE)”
(genius). Photo by author

and their perspectival arrangement reveals that the studioli might have
served more as a rhetorical medium for stimulating thought than as rep-
resentations of a complete body of knowledge. Considered in light of
pedagogical traditions, these chambers may be appreciated as associative
engines whose unique visual composition assists an occupant/observer to
forge new constellations of meaning from a largely traditional set of
images. As such, the studioli extend an ancient legacy of open-ended
architectonic models that were conceived to activate the imagination and
exercise the memory as an inventive, and not merely recapitulative,
agency for knowing.
The following investigation approaches the studioli from a vantage that
has not yet been explored: their position within the occidental tradition of
memory architecture. By reviewing the rhetorical dimension of architec-
ture in classical Rome and the Middle Ages and offering comparison with
salient aspects of the studioli, this article joins recent scholarship on the

The Architecture of Memory

history of memory training with iconographic analyses of these Renais-

sance chambers.3 By drawing on images found within the studioli, as
well as literary sources readily available to Duke Federico and the mem-
bers of his court, this inquiry hopes to underscore the rhetorical appli-
cations of the studioli while examining their dense weave of tradition
and innovation.4

introductory description

The Gubbio and Urbino studioli are capstones to the ambitious building
program sponsored by Duke Federico da Montefeltro from the 1460s
until his death in 1482 at the age of sixty. During this period Federico
had enlisted two architects – first Luciano Laurana and later Francesco
di Giorgio Martini – to redesign the numerous palaces and fortifications
of his expanding dukedom. Completed during di Giorgio’s tenure –
Urbino in 1476 and Gubbio in 1482 – the studioli reflect an intense
collaboration among the many scholars and artists that Federico and
his half-brother Ottaviano degli Ubaldini had gathered to their court.
Indeed, although various artists have been championed as their progen-
itors, any definitive attribution for these chambers is highly contestable,
if not somewhat beside the point. Ultimately, the studioli offer testament
to the urbane atmosphere cultivated at Urbino, a convivial intelligence
that was also to be conveyed through Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of
the Courtier.
As with their authorship, the function of the studioli is not easily pin-
pointed: they belong to a rubric of small Renaissance chambers
described by such interchangeable terms as gabinetto, cameretta, scrit-
toio, and studietto, which were used by their patrons to overlapping and
often uncategorical ends.5 Immediate precedents to the studioli include
the “studies” of Federico’s mentors – Pope Nicholas V, Piero de’ Medici,
and Leonello d’Este – which had been inspired by Petrarch’s writings on
the benefits of solitude and leisure for intellectual pursuits.6 Appropriate
provisions for such idyllic preoccupations were often represented in
the portraiture of scholarly church fathers and included such items as
described by Leonello d’Este: “As well [as books] it is not unseemly to
have in the library an instrument for drawing up horoscopes or a celes-
tial sphere, or even a lute if your pleasure ever lies that way: it makes no

Above: Urbino, south
wall.Traditionally, the
astrolabe (at left) was
used in astronomical
observations, astrologi-
cal speculation and
mnemonic training.The
armillary sphere (at
right) offered a model
of the universe repre-
senting the motion of
the planets.
Photo by author

Right, top to bottom:

Urbino, north wall. Lute
with two broken strings
and recorders. By tra-
versing the studiolo the
viewer “activates” sev-
eral optical phenomena,
such as the “moving”
recorder, whose open
end appears to follow
the viewer.
Photos by author
The Architecture of Memory

noise unless you want it to. Also decent pictures or sculptures repre-
senting gods and heroes. We often see, too, some pleasant picture of St.
Jerome at his writing in the wilderness, by which we direct the mind to
the library’s privacy and quiet and the application necessary to study and
literary composition.”7
The humanist theme of privacy and quiet, which formed a common
thread among these chambers and their owners, occupied one side of a
more ancient debate concerning the respective values of an active or a
contemplative life. For his own part, Petrarch had resuscitated classical
authors such as Pliny the Younger, who in his private letters described
his study to be located near the bedroom and furnished with a book-
press, or wall-cupboard. Not coincidentally, Leon Battista Alberti, who
dedicated an early version (1452) of his De Re Aedificatore to Federico,
described therein the separation that should characterize one’s bed-
chambers, recommending that “the Wife’s Chamber should go into the
Wardrobe; the Husband’s into the Library.”8
In addition to his architectural concerns, Alberti was also occupied by
the dialectic of the vita activa/vita contemplativa.9 Through his own
treatise on the subject,10 as well as others that extol the virtues of invest-
ing in artistic endeavours, Alberti deeply influenced a younger genera-
tion of powerful and wealthy soldier-scholars, including Leonello d’Este
and Federico, who negotiated their turbulent political climate as much
by tactical eloquence as by militaristic valour. The incentive among this
new ruling elite to be equally adept with pen and sword was expressed
by Vespasiano da Bisticci: “It is difficult for a leader to excel in arms
unless he be, like the Duke [Montefeltro], a man of letters, seeing that
the past is a mirror of the present. A military leader who knows Latin
has a great advantage over one who does not.”11
At first glance, the studioli appear quite similar: while relatively small
in footprint (14.8 square metres at Urbino and 13 at Gubbio), both are
tall spaces, fitted with a gold and azure coffered ceiling set 5 metres
above a floor of terra cotta tiles. This configuration provided large wall
surfaces at intimate proximity, an ideal arrangement for a bold perspec-
tival composition that would invite closer inspection of its subtle and
exacting craftsmanship. The lower portion of both chambers is panelled
with intarsia (inlaid wood), ostensibly elaborating on Alberti’s advice
concerning the insulation of stone walls: “If you wainscot your Walls

Ducal Palace, Urbino. Axonometric
projection, drawn by Renato Bruscaglia

with Fir or even Poplar, it will make the House the wholsomer, warmer
in Winter, and not very hot in Summer.”12
In both studioli the intarsia illusionistically depicts a series of low
benches and book-presses fitted with latticework doors (some closed,
some ajar) containing select books, scientific and musical instruments,
armour and weaponry, family crests of the Montefeltro, and numerous
honours bestowed upon Federico during his enormously successful mil-
itary career. Both studioli also contained a thematic series of paintings
that occupied the area between the intarsia and ceiling. Beyond these
basic similarities, however, there are notable differences.
The location of the Urbino studiolo within the Ducal Palace reveals as
much about Federico’s unique approach to governance as his interest in
history and innovative architecture. Instead of building his palace as a
hermetic fortress, as did many of his contemporaries, Federico and his

The Architecture of Memory

architects conceived, in Castiglione’s words, a palace “furnished … with

everything suitable that it seemed not a palace but a city in the form of
a palace.”13 The convergence of the civic and domestic realms depicted
by this statement is not exaggerated: with the exception of the private
apartments and the Duchess’s wing (to which only Federico and Otta-
viano held the keys), the citizens of Urbino enjoyed a liberal access to the
Ducal Palace that was quite uncommon in its time.14 Quite likely, this
degree of freedom reflected an implicit pact between Federico and his
subjects in response to the demise of his younger (legitimate) brother,
Duke Oddantonio, who after less than one year of imprudent rule was
assassinated in his bedchamber by a group of citizens.15
Auspiciously, the studiolo was positioned between the public and pri-
vate zones of the palace: to be precise, between the Duke’s bedchambers
and the Sala delle Udienze, or council chamber. The studiolo also occu-
pied a liminal perch between the palace/city and the dukedom, offering
egress to an exterior loggia that provides a sweeping view of the lands
surrounding Urbino.
While little information is available from contemporary sources con-
cerning the Gubbio studiolo, currently installed at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York, we are fortunate to have inherited valu-
able (if slender) accounts of the Urbino studiolo and the role it would
have played in Federico’s daily activities. In his biography of the Duke,
composed in the late sixteenth century, Bernardino Baldi offers this cryp-
tic description:

Detail of previous figure, redrawn by author,

showing the position of the studiolo (1)
between the public and private zones of the
palace. Room 5 is the Sala delle Udienze, 3
and 4 are the Duke’s bedchambers, and 2 is
a loggia that offers a generous view of the
countryside and the main entrance to Urbino
Robert Kirkbride

Four of the twenty-eight uomini illustri, Urbino

studiolo.Top (left to right): Euclid, and Federico’s
teacher,Vittorino da Feltre. Bottom (left to
right): Federico’s close friend Cardinal Bessarion
and Albertus Magnus. Photo by author

Besides the [Ducal] library there is a small chamber, designated the studiolo,
in the Prince’s apartment, around which are wooden benches with their legs
and a table in the middle; all made of the most diligent craftsmanship in intar-
sia and intaglio. From the intarsia – which covers the wall from the floor to
the height of a man or a little more [2.68 meters] – up to the ceiling, the walls
are subdivided by a number of paintings [28]. Each painting portrays a
famous ancient or modern writer, and includes a brief note of praise summa-
rizing their life.16

The portraits of the twenty-eight uomini illustri greatly illuminate the

scope and demeanour of scholarship pursued by Federico and his court.
Each philosopher, poet, lawyer, ruler, and influential contemporary rep-
resented a dialectical position concerning the nature and uses of knowl-
edge and wisdom: ancient and modern, sacred and profane, Aristotelian
and Neoplatonist. This mixture of illustrious heroes reflects the need for
one to maintain a balance in one’s affairs, to temper one’s own actions
and positions in the political arena. The cultivation of the ancient virtues
of prudence and temperance was not merely a by-product of humanist
conceit but a matter of political and professional survival.17
Regarding the use of the Urbino studiolo, Vespasiano da Bisticci pro-
vides significant clues: “In summer, after rising from table [mid-day] and
giving audience to all who desired, [Federico] went into his closet to
attend to his affairs and to listen to readings, according to the season. At

The Architecture of Memory

vespers [evening] he went forth again to give audience.”18 Later, after the
evening meal, “the Duke would remain for a time to see if anyone had
aught to say, and if not he would go with the leading nobles and gentle-
men into his closet and talk freely with them.”19
It can be imagined that the studiolo offered the Duke a ruminative
atmosphere during the time of day traditionally known as siesta. From
Vespasiano’s comment, it is apparent that Federico, after having granted
audience in the early afternoon in the Sala delle Udienze, would with-
draw to the studiolo, at times accompanied by a reader who would read
selections from the Duke’s favourite authors, including Livy and St
Augustine.20 Later in the evening, the studiolo offered a convivial setting
for conversation, seemingly the day’s final activity before the Duke
retired to his bedchamber.
While less important politically than Urbino, Gubbio was the birth-
place for both Federico and his heir, Guidobaldo, and was therefore
highly significant to the Montefeltro for reasons of dynastic continuity.
Moreover, following Battista Sforza’s marriage to Federico in 1460, the
Gubbio Palace became her favourite residence. It is quite possible then,

Ducal Palace,
Gubbio. Partial plan
of ground floor.
Chamber I, termed
“gabinetto,” signifies
the studiolo, whose
ceiling and intarsia
are now installed at
the Metropolitan
Museum of Art,
New York City.
Archivio di Stato,
Florence, Fondo
Urbinate, Classe III,
Robert Kirkbride

Urbino.View toward southeast corner with

lectern in a studiolo-within-a-studiolo (left), a
positive organ by Juhani Castellano (right), and
a bench and cabinet door that hinge open to
fulfill their represented function. See Pasquale
Rotondi’s hypothetical arrangement of a bench
and lectern at the southeast corner, below.
Photo by author

as Luciano Cheles has noted, that the renovation of the palace by

Francesco di Giorgio Martini was intended to commemorate the
Duchess, as well as to celebrate the birthplace of the heir.21
As a result, there are subtle differences between the studioli. Unlike
the Urbino studiolo, a between space par excellence, the Gubbio studio-
lo was a more private cul-de-sac, situated at one end of the palace
library. Moreover, instead of the uomini illustri, Gubbio featured a cycle
of seven allegorical paintings, each depicting a liberal art as a goddess
who offers a manuscript or symbolic object (representative of the respec-
tive art) to a mortal. Of the original seven, only the images of four have
survived: Ptolemy with astronomy, Costanza Sforza with music, Federi-
co with dialectic, and Guidobaldo with rhetoric. This last portrait for-
merly occupied the most central position in the chamber.22
It is even more difficult to discern a “functional” use of the Gubbio
studiolo. For example, while particular areas of the Urbino intarsia fold-
ed out into furniture, the paneling in the Gubbio studiolo was entirely
fixed. Unlike at Urbino, there are no hidden cabinets or bookshelves, nor
was there apparently any free-standing furniture. Nonetheless, there are
several clues that point to the uses of the studiolo, the first of which may
be deduced from the cycle of allegorical portraits.
In Dialectic, the Duke is shown genuflecting before the goddess and is
either receiving or returning a closed book. Curiously, Federico’s gaze is
focused not on the goddess but beyond the frame to the adjacent por-
trait, which depicts his son Guidobaldo receiving an opened book from

Left: Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (1472–1508) with the goddess Rhetoric.
National Gallery, London

Right: Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422–82) with the goddess Dialectic. Originally in the
Gubbio studiolo, relocated to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin and destroyed during
World War II. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

Rhetoric. The goddess gestures to the verso page while training her gaze
upon us, the observers who would be standing in the centre of the cham-
ber. From this privileged position, which maximizes the effect of the per-
spectival illusion, we can imagine ourselves in the shoes of the young
Prince – his own image fixed eternally under the Duke’s watchful gaze –
raising his own eyes to meet those of the placidly stern goddess of
Rhetoric. The incentive to attend to his studies must have been enormous.
Another clue is found in the only section of intarsia not immediately
visible upon entering the chamber. Here we find the image of a lectern,
on which a manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid is illusionistically opened to the
passage describing the death of Pallas,23 likely a reference to the death of
Duke Federico. Above the lectern there is a circular mirror bearing the
letters, signifying Duke Guidobaldo.
Since Federico’s ducal insignias are found elsewhere in the chamber, it
might be argued that the studiolo was completed following Federico’s
death. However, one could easily counter that the program for the cham-
ber had been conceived, or adapted, in preparation for the inevitable
transference of the dukedom to, as Castiglione describes it, “a mother-
less little boy of ten years.” Regardless of the exact timing, the educa-

Robert Kirkbride

Gubbio, window niche. A mirror, tradi-

tionally associated with the cardinal
virtue of prudence (and thereby with
memory), with initials proclaiming
“Guidobaldo, Dux.” Photo by author

tional theme of the studiolo, underscored by the portraits of the liberal

arts, would have been most appropriate for a young prince. Seen in this
light, the general tone of the Gubbio studiolo is slightly more “studious”
than at Urbino: there are fewer visual “tricks”; the container of bonbons,
readily “shared” at Urbino, is placed on a cabinet shelf at Gubbio.
From contemporary accounts, Guidobaldo was an avid student: he
was fluent in Greek and could read many manuscripts in the Ducal
Library that Federico, who had received only rudimentary training in
Greek grammar, could not. More notably, Guidobaldo was admired for
his “remarkable powers of memory,” which had been acquired through
“judicious and habitual exercise.”24 As such, the studiolo of Gubbio
might be seen as an educational compass, conceived to assist the young
prince in his navigation of the political uncertainties of the day and to
continue the ascendant legacy of the house of Montefeltro.
From a historical vantage, the studioli are most often regarded for
their display of mathesis universalis, a proportional harmony underlying
all universal phenomena that may be apprehended through the mathe-
matical arts and translated through the medium of architecture to frame
thought and action. In the studioli, this commensurable harmony is

The Architecture of Memory

manifest in the virtuoso marriage of intarsia and the recently formalized

principles of perspective.25
Given the evidence provided by Federico’s biographers and comments
from notable scholars of the Court, including those offered by the Duke
himself, it might appear that the Court of Urbino held the mathematical
arts in preeminence to the verbal arts.26 In his famous patent of 1468,
which awarded Luciano Laurana the architectural commission for the
Ducal Palace at Urbino, Federico declared, “We deem as worthy of hon-
our and commendation men gifted with ingenuity and remarkable skills,
and particularly those which have always been prized by both Ancients
and Moderns, as has been the skill (virtù) of architecture, founded upon
the arts of arithmetic and geometry, which are the foremost of the seven
liberal arts because they depend upon exact certainty.”27
While this passage might seem to summarily quell any further doubts
on the matter, we must take into consideration a curious detail: if the arts
of arithmetic and geometry were perceived as preeminent to the verbal
arts and noting that the program of the Gubbio studiolo in particular
was dedicated to all of the liberal arts, why then was Guidobaldo depict-
ed with the art of rhetoric and not with one of the mathematical arts?
This question may be addressed on (at least) three levels. In human-
istic pedagogy, the verbal arts offered precepts for the early stages of
learning, and in fact the construction of the Gubbio studiolo coincided
with this period of Guidobaldo’s education.28 Second, highly cultivated
skills of diplomatic eloquence and persuasion were required to negoti-
ate the interlacing wiles of an Italic peninsula constantly in turmoil,
whether among its own factious powers or in the shadow of the
encroaching Ottoman Empire. Guidobaldo’s tutor Ludovico Odasio
considered the “powers” of eloquence and an extensive acquaintance
with history to be “the great aim of a princely education.”29 Duke Fed-
erico’s own successful career had greatly hinged upon the interception
of and response to a discrediting letter written by his lifelong nemesis,
Sigismondo Malatesta.30
The third and most comprehensive response forms the basis of this
essay. During the Renaissance – and particularly at the court of Urbino
– categorical divisions of thought and learning were more fluid and
hypothetical than one might expect: the pursuit of one mode of learning
was perceived, not as contrary to, but rather to the benefit of another.31

Robert Kirkbride

For example, architecture was perceived to offer a bridge between the

mathematical arts, which lend themselves to mechanical practices, and
the art of rhetoric, a discipline significant to the cultivation of memory
and eloquence. While architecture represented a virtuous consummation
of mathematics, as is evident in Federico’s patent, it served also as an
educational model for memory-building. Thus, the study of rhetoric was
not necessarily limited to oral and verbal expression. By the architec-
tonic nature of its precepts, rhetoric was associated with mathematical
expression, even if indirectly; nonetheless, consistent with the tendency
of history to alight upon the unusual and overlook the commonplace,
evaluation of the studioli has stressed the historical significance of their
perspectival compositions. Consequently, over time the more traditional
and, hence, less extolled rhetorical and mnemonic undercurrents have
become somewhat obscured.
It is possible to enrich our understanding of the studioli by pursuing a
line of inquiry hinted at by Alberto Pérez-Gómez: “the [studioli] intarsia
constituted the stage for a new orbis studiorum, a new definition of
knowledge distinct from medieval theology but not distant from its aspi-
rations.”32 How did the studioli serve to redefine the “sphere of knowl-
edge”? In what ways are they similar to and different from medieval and
classical precedents?
While addressing these concerns, my aim is also to examine the role
of architecture in this transformation of knowledge. Traditionally, archi-
tecture has provided a concrete, organizational metaphor for learning
and memory-training, with the practice of constructing buildings serving
as a pedagogical mirror to the intimate process of self-edification. As a
medium uniquely conducive to rhetorical and material investigation,
architecture has enabled the mind to ask itself (even to conceive of ask-
ing itself) such experiential dilemmas as are reflected in the following
passage from St Augustine’s Confessions: “The power of the memory
is prodigious, my God. It is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary. Who can
plumb its depths? And yet it is a faculty of my soul. Although it is part
of my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then, that
the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part
of it which it does not itself contain? How, then, can it be part of it, if it
is not contained in it? I am lost in wonder when I consider this problem.
It bewilders me.”33

The Architecture of Memory

on architecture, memory, and icono graphy

Augustine’s comparison of memory to a sanctuary reflects the deep asso-

ciation between architecture and memory. This kinship stems from a
fundamental awareness that in order to preserve the stuff of memory for
future recollection, it must first be collected and carefully stored in a
manner that enables the mind’s eye to compose and recombine the mate-
rials of experience at will, as a given situation demands.34 Through its
tactics of containment, architecture helps the mind envision a spatial
matrix that expresses and recursively facilitates mnemonic practices. By
constructing this matrix, or model, of the mind’s workings within the
mind itself (the kernel of Augustine’s wonder and bewilderment),35 one
edifies oneself as container of the universe of one’s experience. Conse-
quently, architecture historically has served educators as an ideal model
for learning, by furnishing mnemonic armatures that help the mind ren-
der knowledge and experience accessible and comprehensible.36
Before our experiences may be stored as the stuff of memory, howev-
er, they must be presented in a form that may be grasped by the mind.
According to Aristotle, memories are ideas, abstracted from sensual
stimuli, that the mind cannot apprehend without a representative
image.37 Augustine echoes this thought, “The things which we sense do
not enter the memory themselves, but their images are there ready to
present themselves to our thoughts when we recall them.”38 While it is
now a common notion that the other senses offer significant contribu-
tions to the formation of personal memory (even triggering the con-
founding episodes best described as synaesthesic) the faculty of vision
has been traditionally considered the central agency, the “noble sense,”
of memory and reason.
Despite their pivotal role in preserving sensuous perceptions,
mnemonic images do not inherently mean anything. Reduced to their
essence, they offer mental switches, or conduits, that help one’s mind
constellate ideas from among the elements and experiences at hand.39
This does not diminish but rather reinforces the importance of the rep-
resentation since from Aristotle on, memory treatises concur that the
images used for memory must be sensuously striking for an idea or expe-
rience to be fixed securely in the mind and thus available for recollection.
As Albertus Magnus describes it, “Wonder is like ‘a systole in the heart’

Robert Kirkbride

… someone witnesses something amazing, but what matters most is not

‘out there’ … but deep within, at the vital emotional center of witness.”40
Over time, of course, images do accumulate associated meanings, the
residue of prolonged use and familiarity. Iconography, “the description
or illustration of any subject by means of drawings or figures,”41 pro-
vides a valuable investigative tool that peels back the surface layer of
emblematic works such as the studioli. However, iconographic analyses
too readily attribute a direct correspondence between image and mean-
ing, a misleading presumption. The intrinsic value of mnemonic imagery
is precisely its capacity to convey different meanings to different people
under ever-changing circumstances.42
With this in mind, then, it is inappropriate to pursue a final, “exhaus-
tive” assessment of the studioli. A less axiomatic approach is necessary
to recollect those mnemonic origins of the studioli that iconographic
analysis has not yet revealed and possibly cannot adequately engage. For
example, a notable shortcoming in this mode of inquiry is its tendency
to emphasize the intellectual value of an image at the expense of its expe-
riential qualities. The emotional impact of an image – its capacity to
move a viewer figuratively and literally, inwardly as well as outwardly –
is often downplayed, if not entirely ignored. This is a significant over-
sight, since an image provides a lasting influence on the eye of the mind
only if it has adequately stimulated the corporeal eye.
Scholarship has had great difficulty addressing certain perspectival
illusions in the studioli that engage the observer physically but evade cat-
egorical assessment. These illusions are not merely sleights of hand-eye
coordination; they evoke an ambience of wonder that is ideal for stimu-
lating the mind, and especially the memory. A more comprehensive
appreciation of the studioli calls for a mode of investigation that delves
beyond iconographic groundwork to engage the dense layering of their
imagery and the phenomenological impact of their composition. The
question we should ask of the studioli is not only “what do they mean?”
but “how do they work?”

the phenomenology of the STUDIOLI

There are multiple layers of experience awaiting a visitor to the studioli,

whether one proceeds by curiosity and instinct or follows a manual or

Urbino, west wall. Chess pieces.
Photo by author

docent. Most visitors are drawn immediately to examine the intarsia at

close proximity: there is an almost overpowering desire to touch the
wood paneling, a tactile component decidedly truncated by museum eti-
quette. Others follow clues in the perspectival arrangement and search
for standpoints from which the overall composition may be appreciated.
After a visitor has perused the chambers, two modes of apprehending
the studioli become evident: observation at rest and observation in
motion. “Observation at rest” corresponds to those fixed standpoints
from which the illusion snaps into full focus. Conversely, “observation
in motion” refers to optical effects that are detectable only while tra-
versing the rooms.
For instance, shadows seem to appear and disappear, depending on
the position of the observer with regard to certain objects; the shadow
that extends from the tip of the mace in the Urbino studiolo offers a
prime example. Other objects, such as the flutes and recorders on the
bench, appear to follow the viewer across the chamber. Likewise, the lat-
ticed cabinet shutters appear to swing open and closed according to the
observer’s own movement, evoking the unearthly sensation that the
“contents” of the rooms are being manipulated by one’s own eyes.
Further levels of reading unfold only gradually. Some emblems are
purely two-dimensional, including the heraldic devices (imprese) of the
Montefeltro, as well as the various awards Federico had accumulated
during his career, from his appointment as Knight of the Pope and pro-

Emblem of the Ermine, from the dado of both studioli.The ermine represented purity and
loyalty: “non mai” refers to the tradition that an ermine would rather die than soil its own
pure white coat.The King of Naples awarded Duke Federico with the Order of the Ermine in
August 1474. Olga Raggio has suggested that the presence of the ermine and the phrase “non
mai” might also have served to refute any question of Federico’s involvement in the assassina-
tion of his younger brother, Duke Oddantonio da Montefeltro, in 1444. (See the Metropolitan
Museum of Art catalogue, “The Liberal Arts Studiolo from the Ducal Palace at Gubbio,” 28.)
Photo by author

motion to the status of Duke to his celebrated induction into the chival-
ric Order of the Ermine and Order of the Garter.43 Other emblems rep-
resent three-dimensional figures that hover enigmatically between the
realms of material objects and intelligible ideas. For example, the astro-
labe and chess pieces refer not only to their practical uses for astronom-
ical calculation and gentlemanly gamesmanship but also to established
precepts of memory-training and lessons in prudent governance.
The boundary between the two- and three-dimensional is not always
so crisp, however. The ermine that is emblematically depicted in the dado
below the studioli cabinets elsewhere appears to dangle from the collar
that Federico had received from the King of Naples; in both studioli this
collar dangles from a drawer or cabinet. As another example, the illu-
sionistic shadows cast beneath the benches and within the cabinets
“originate” from actual apertures in the rooms, further blurring the dis-
tinction between actual and ideal. Taking into consideration Federico’s
monocular vision, which avoided the optical dilemma that was to be-
guile Descartes over a century later, one can imagine how marvelously
real the cabinets and their contents would have appeared to the Duke.44

The Architecture of Memory

There are other forms of play in the studioli that were highly con-
ducive to memory-work, such as the series of verbal puns in the east wall
at Urbino. Directly behind the central image of the ideal city is a book-
press, which Pliny had described in his letters as an armarium. The stu-
diolo-within-a-studiolo to the right of the Ideal City represents a place of
study that was known also as an armariolum. On the other side of the
ideal city we find Federico’s armour, known as arma: furthermore, an
arsenal for arms and armour was called an armamentum. With the
weapons and instruments of scholarship disposed throughout their cabi-
nets, each studiolo thus may be seen as both an armariolum and an arma-
mentum, a witty conflation of the vita activa and vita contemplativa.
It is vital in the studioli to appreciate the emotional impact of the sub-
ject material as well as the compositional technique. When Alberti, who
discusses this at length in his treatise On Painting (1435), describes the
appropriate nature of a work’s historia (or subject), he might well be
describing the principles behind the studioli:

Urbino, east wall. Book-press

(armarium) at centre with panel
of the ideal city, studiolo-within-
a-studiolo (armariolum) at right,
and Federico’s armour (arma) at
left. Soprintendenza per I Beni
Artistici delle Marche, Urbino

Robert Kirkbride

A “historia” you can justifiably praise and admire will be one that reveals itself
to be so charming and attractive as to hold the eye of the learned and
unlearned spectator for a long while with a certain sense of pleasure and emo-
tion. The first thing that gives pleasure in a “historia” is a plentiful variety. Just
as with food and music, novel and extraordinary things delight us for various
reasons but especially because they are different from the old ones we are used
to … When the spectators dwell on observing all the details, then the painter’s
richness will acquire favour.45

All of these effects contribute to a perception that the studioli were

conceived to engage the entire body as well as the eye, a tactic that
would enhance the memorability of the intellectual content of the cham-
bers while conveying the mastery of the artisans and magnificence of the
patron. To this end, the studioli provided the Montefeltro dukes with
treasuries of images that were readily preserved within the memory, par-
ticularly that of a visiting dignitary, who would then recount to others
the marvelous “sorts” of wisdom cultivated at the Montefeltro court.
From this point of view, the studioli would have served quite naturally
in a propagandistic capacity, although this aspect should not be over-
stressed. While the Urbino studiolo occupied a highly political position
in the palace and the affairs of the Duke, the studiolo at Gubbio was
more private and less disposed to such “propagandistic” uses. In light of
the deep tradition of memory architecture, as well as the profound influ-
ence of classical Roman culture on Federico’s humanist court, the studi-
oli should be considered, first and foremost, as idealized settings in
which Federico and Guidobaldo would compose themselves and their
thoughts as part of their responsibilities of governance.

on classical architectural mnemonics

Can it be that the memory is not present to itself in its own

right but only by means of an image of itself?
Augustine Confessions 10.15

In Plato’s Theatetus, an enquiry on the nature of knowledge, Socrates

compares the memory to an aviary: “Let us make in each soul a sort of
aviary of all kinds of birds … When anyone takes possession of a piece
of knowledge [a bird] and shuts it up in the pen, we should say that he

The Architecture of Memory

Gubbio, window niche. A caged parrot. At

Urbino, a cage containing two parrots is
“suspended” alongside a mechanical clock.
Parrot in Italian is papagallo. In 1475
Federico received the Golden Rose from
Pope Sixtus IV at the Vatican Palace in the
Camera papagalli, a room adjacent to the
Pope’s bedroom that was reservsed for
confidential negotiations. Photo by author

has learned or has found … knowledge; and knowing, we should say, is

this.”46 Unfortunately, while a cage may seem a logical metaphor for
memory, if the “birds of knowledge” are permitted to fly about at will,
even within the confines of our own “cage,” we might very well reach in
and retrieve a dove instead of the parrot we had sought. In order to
prevent such mnemonic misapprehensions, it is vital to design memory
structures carefully. As Hugh of St Victor warns, “Confusion is the
mother of ignorance and forgetfulness, but orderly arrangement illumi-
nates the intelligence and firms up memory.”47
A retracing of mnemonic models reveals a polithetic evolution in
design, from simple architectonic containment toward increasingly elab-
orate strategies of memory edification.48 As in the studioli, more com-
plex models often incorporated earlier models into their design, through
extended memory techniques such as “nesting” or “concatenation.”49
These techniques increased memory capacity by storing knowledge
securely while providing the mind’s eye with an array of possible routes
for mental perambulation and, consequently, thought-permutation.
At least as early as classical Greece, beehives and their forulae,50 as
well as dovecotes and their loculamentae,51 were among the common-
place vessels easily transposed into the mind as models for memory-
training. Due to the cellular, lattice-like construction of these containers,
bits of information could be discretely stored and then quickly recom-

Robert Kirkbride

bined and re-presented as required for a given rhetorical demonstration.

The memory was cultivated not merely for the recapitulation of stored
information but as an imaginative engine for mixing and reinventing
experiences and ideas from the exterior world within the interior cham-
bers of the imagination. “You were trained to furnish the rooms of the
mind,” Mary Carruthers has stated, “because you cannot think if you
do not have something to think with, and thinking is the mark of the cit-
izen.”52 The demonstration of one’s well-furnished memory through
inventive oration conveyed one’s capacity for crafting thought, a skill
highly admired at least until the end of the Renaissance. Subsequently,
the perception that we make our own thoughts, from any and all avail-
able materials, has gradually given way to the more passive notion that
thoughts are things we simply have.53
As a student became adept at these memory exercises (and in general,
as the human mind contrived more elaborate matrices for expanding
mental and mnemonic skills), the architecture of buildings and cities
provided ideal abodes for the materials of memory. The classical Greek
and Roman tradition of “architectural mnemonics” consisted of the
careful arrangement of images, representing ideas and rhetorical argu-
ments, in palaces and cities constructed in the mind.54 In this training,
physical architecture offered a quarry for an imaginative, inner recon-
struction of the exterior world. One would extract spaces and ornament
from the buildings encountered in daily life and recompose them within
the mind as fantastic, personalized palaces outfitted with numerous stor-
age locations for images and expressions of wisdom. As a result, amid
rhetorical debate or presentation, one could call upon rhetorical pas-
sages at will, and re-present them in an appropriate sequence through
the mental navigation of a given palace/treatise.
Significantly, striking (or monstrous) construction details were consid-
ered to be the choice materials for mnemonic construction, in that they
provided the mind with secure memory-fixtures.55 If the locations for
memory-placement were too ordinary, or even too poorly “illuminated,”
errors would occur.56 With this in mind, it is reasonable to speculate that
physical architectural ornament not only influenced but was in turn
influenced by the procedures of architectural mnemonics. This would
have been especially true where sponsors of architectural construction
were educated in rhetorical mnemonics, as in classical Rome. The archi-
tectonic expression of thought became firmly associated with the liberal

Left: Urbino, north wall. Intarsia capital with ornament of the scopas (a hand-brush).This symbol
of purity had been absorbed into the dynastic emblems of the Montefeltro through Federico’s
marriage to Battista Sforza in 1460. Photo by author

Right: Urbino, north wall. Intarsia capital with ornament of exploding grenade. Federico was
renowned (and feared) as a military leader for his use of heavy artillery as well as his tactical
genius. Photo by author

art of rhetoric within the education of the Roman aristocracy. For a cul-
ture defined by political oration and legal debate, the architecture of
individual palaces and the city provided a ubiquitous map and legend (as
well as a mental stage-setting) for composing one’s thoughts – and com-
posing oneself – for the theatre of civic participation.
Vitruvius attests to the significance bestowed upon rhetoric during this
period: “Advocates [lawyers] and professors of rhetoric should be
housed with distinction, and in sufficient space to accommodate their
audiences.”57 The first part of this phrase offers insight into the value
that the practice of rhetoric had gained as an educational/theatrical per-
formance, with a rhetorician earning fees “on the scale of those given to
a prima donna in our time.”58 The second part of the phrase, which sug-
gests that spaces were created within the private residence to house these
rhetorical performances, is even more notable.59
Certain areas of the Roman house were designated as places to “enter
into thought,” with the physical architecture and ornament articulating
an ambience conducive for thought, as well as the sensuous conduits for
guiding one’s mindfulness to the construction site of one’s memory. In
book 2 of De oratore, an enquiry into the ideal philosophical orator,
Cicero offers a few examples of these domestic settings.60 The character
Antonius recounts how Simonides of Ceos had discovered the principles

The cubiculum from the
Villa of Fannius Synestor,
Boscoreale (40–30 BC),
now at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York
City. Photo by Schecter Lee

of architectural mnemonics from the banquet table by placing images

(imagines) in an orderly set of architectural locations (loci) in his memo-
ry.61 Elsewhere in the dialogue, Antonius and Crassus take a siesta to con-
template their responses to matters that others had placed before them.
Antonius chooses to compose his thoughts while walking in the portico.62
Crassus, on the other hand, retires to an exedra where he devotes “all this
midday interval to the closest and most careful meditation.”63
Aside from the portico and exedra, there is another chamber in the
Roman house, the cubiculum, to which Crassus (and Cicero, who had
purchased Crassus’s house) could retire, to meditatively compose him-
self and his responses. Obscure in its origins and function, this cham-
ber remains to this day somewhat misunderstood. The Oxford English
Dictionary renders cubiculum (as well as its derivative cubicle) as
“bedroom,” a logical assessment given its Latin root cubare, to recline.
Otherwise, Vitruvius mentions the cubiculum only once, noting simply
that “private rooms [cubicula] and libraries should look to the east, for
their purpose demands the morning light.”64 Pliny the Younger offers
a more informative comment in his Epistolae, evoking a studious
ambience: “My cubiculum has a press let into the wall which does duty
as a library, and holds books not merely to be read, but read over and
over again.”65

The Architecture of Memory

A well-preserved cubiculum extracted from the villa of Fannius

Synestor at Boscoreale may be visited at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art in New York City. In accord with traditional scholarship,66 the label
describes the cubiculum as a bedroom; to this end a small couch has been
placed in the room. Although this particular piece is not original to the
chamber, its inclusion is not erroneous. The error lies in the assumption
that the couch would have been used for sleeping and not for other activ-
ities. As Philo, envoy to the Emperor Caligula, observed, “The couches
upon which the Romans recline at their repasts shine with gold and
pearls.”67 Repasts and siestas were not utilized merely as periods of eat-
ing and sleeping, as their English translations suggest. Instead, as may be
gathered from Cicero, this period of the day and the setting of the cubicu-
lum would have been utilized for “business, for conversation with par-
ticular friends, for reading and contemplation.”68 Carruthers elaborates:

Urbino. Pasquale Rotondi’s hypothetical

arrangement of a bench and lectern at the
southeast corner (recall view toward
southeast corner with lectern, above)

Robert Kirkbride

[Synestor’s cubiculum is] just large enough for a single couch. The word
Cicero uses, lectulus, meant not just a bed for sleeping, but one for conversa-
tion and study – perhaps because of its partial homophony with legere, lectus
(“gather by picking” like flowers) and “read.” Its walls are all painted in pan-
els, intercolumnia, with fantastic, theatrical architecture … The murals make
a “theater” of locations that, apparently, was assumed to be conducive to
inventional meditation – not because it provided subject-matter, but because
the familiarity, the route- (and rote-) like quality, of such a patterned series in
one’s most tranquil space could help provide an order or “way” for composi-
tional cogitation.69

In addition to the peripatetic mode of composition preferred by Anto-

nius, Romans meditated in a reclined position – in both the public exe-
dra and the more private cubiculum. The linguistic interpolation of bed
and reading, via Cicero’s lectulus, was to continue into the Renaissance:
the lettiera was a standard form of bed during the fifteenth century.
However, as is evident in the contemporary portraiture of the scholarly
church fathers, the appropriate posture for thought had changed from a
reclined to a seated position: Cicero’s “day-bed” was replaced as the fur-
niture-for-musing by the reading lectern.
Not surprisingly, lecterns figure prominently in both the Gubbio and
Urbino studioli. At Gubbio, the lectern served a prominent role in com-
memorating Federico’s death. In the intarsia at Urbino, a large lectern is
featured in the studiolo-within-a-studiolo: adjacent panels even fold out
to form what may have actually served as a bench and reading stand, as
Rotondi has suggested. Furthermore, in Baldi’s description, there was
originally a table placed in the middle of the Urbino chamber. Although
the exact character of this table is not certain, it is quite likely that it
would have been a lectern, since Federico used the studiolo not only to
read alone, but to be read to by another.70
From da Bisticci’s accounts, it is apparent that Federico used the
Urbino studiolo in a manner similar to the Roman cubiculum. In the
Sala delle Udienze, Federico received visitors seeking counsel. After
hearing their news or requests, Federico would retire to the studiolo,
ostensibly to consider and compose his responses by consulting the
appropriate authorities and their commentaries on the subject. To draw
an even more concrete connection between the studioli and cubiculum,

Gubbio. Floralegium
ornament at ceiling.
Photo by author

we might return to Pliny’s phrase. While it is interesting to note that

Pliny’s manuscript was present in the Ducal Library of Urbino,71 it is
even more interesting to note that Luciano Cheles, in his analysis, crops
the words cubiculi mei from his citation of Pliny’s phrase, perhaps due
to its traditional misinterpretation as “bedroom.”72 When the studious
significance of the cubiculum is restored, we realize that Cheles was more
correct in his comparison than perhaps even he was aware: the physical
description of Pliny’s cubiculi concurs precisely with the physical
arrangement of the Urbino studiolo.
In a related note of interest, Virgil in his fourth Georgic speaks of the
bees’ cells as cubilia and of the bees retiring for the night in their bed-
chambers.73 In ancient tradition, scholars were likened to bees, whose
diligent investigations afield gather nectar to produce honey.74 This trope
became somewhat less metaphoric during the medieval epoch, when
monasteries would literally buzz with the sounds of cogitation, as
brethren “ate the book” and ruminated.75 While the steady hum of soft-
ly vocalised lectio had been all but silenced by the advent of the printed
page, the trope was incorporated by Francis Bacon in 1626 as a funda-
mental image of the scientific method, when he likened the scholar-
scientist to a bee in the first chapter of the Novum Organum. It is not at

Robert Kirkbride

all far-fetched, then, to draw a comparison between the mnemonic

imagery of classical forulae, the floralegium (literally, the reading of
flowers) found in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts,
and the floral ornament often found along the margins of architec-
tural settings of study. Nor is it stretching the point too far to envision
the cubiculum, entwined within the genealogy of these pedagogical
metaphors, as a cell in which the scholar/bee would distill and preserve
the sweet nectar of experience.
The Montefeltro studioli represent elaborations upon this genealogy.
In the studiolo at Urbino, Federico distilled the rewards of the person he
had proven to be; the studiolo at Gubbio served as an incubator for the
Duke that Guidobaldo was to become.

on the medieval S A N C TA M E M O R I A and

the mechanisms of memory

I have explored the vast field of my memory in search of you,

O Lord! And I have not found you outside it.
St Augustine Confessions 10.24

Even before the fall of the Roman Empire, the pedagogical objectives
and procedures of memory-training had begun to change markedly. Due
to the influence of the fathers of the early Christian Church – Paul,
Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great (all of whom had
been extremely well-versed in the art of rhetoric)76 – the role of mem-
ory expanded from storage and inventory to foster skills of seeking
and invention. Classical architectural mnemonics were transformed
by Christian theologists into sancta memoria, or holy recollection, a
monastic practice that centred on the cultivation of memory through a
process known as aedificatio (self-edification). No longer a mere chore-
ographic display of the “birds of knowledge,” memory came to be seen
as a way of thinking in its own right, as a process of inventive wayfind-
ing to be practised throughout the pilgrimage of one’s life.
In particular, memory became the ideal vehicle to facilitate the search
for an immutable, invisible God. Augustine’s comment that God is not
to be found “outside” the memory follows from a sinuous line of logic
surmising that God, as the Maker of all things, fabricated human mem-
ory and therefore, as “Lord of the Mind,” dwells in some “cell” or

The Architecture of Memory

“sanctuary” located therein.77 Memory offered a dwelling place for

God, as well as a means to draw nearer to God. Through concentrated
meditation, the search of one’s fields of memory would reveal God’s wis-
dom, providing an inward model for a pilgrimage of the external world.
As Augustine implores, “Whisper words of truth in my heart … while I
withdraw to my secret cell [cubiculo] and sing you hymns of love, groan-
ing with grief that I cannot express as I journey on my pilgrimage. Yet I
shall remember the heavenly Jerusalem and my heart shall be lifted up
towards that holy place.”78
The approach to God called upon holy recollection. To recollect, one
must first have constructed within the mind the means to recollect. Gre-
gory the Great elaborated on Augustine’s image of “memory-lifting,”
placing it central to the practice of meditation: “a soul placed far from
God creates a kind of machine, that by its means [the soul] may be lift-
ed to God.”79 Memory became, in Gregory’s words, a machina mentis –
a machine of the mind to stimulate and guide thought and action.
Through meditation exercises, the matrices of memory architecture
could be expanded indefinitely. Although the orbis studiorum of Augus-
tine’s world was bounded by God, this was far less constricting than one
might imagine. Since God was not to be found outside the memory, the
circumference of the orbis studiorum was determined elastically by the
capacities of one’s memory: hence the emphasis placed on the cultivation
of mnemonic powers. Truth as interpreted through the meditative exer-
cises of sancta memoria is not to be confused with either the knowl-
edgeable demonstrations of a classical education or, even less, with a
scientific truth as substantiated by hard, reproducible evidence. The craft
of memory-building followed a very different sort of logic: truth in sanc-
ta memoria was inventively fabricated through the process of aedifica-
tio, in which the craft of edifying thoughts mirrored the edifying craft of
architecture. As Gregory the Great describes it in Moralia in Job, “First
we put in place the foundations of literal meaning [historia]; then
through typological interpretation we build up the fabric of our mind in
the walled city of faith; and at the end, through the grace of our moral
understanding, as though with added color, we clothe the building.”80
Among the various pedagogical devices implemented in the habitus of
memory construction, architecture served as the central operative
metaphor for this ongoing construction, particularly with regard to its

Robert Kirkbride

material practices of fabrication. Memory as a practice of wayfinding

drew upon architecture as a process. Building became valued as a
gerund, an active state as well as a simple enclosure. By entering into (a)
memory-building, one ascended from the world toward God in a state
of contemplative love. The architect’s machina, a mechanism for hoist-
ing blocks of masonry into place, served as an operable metaphor for
this ascent, due to its pivotal role in the construction of divine structures
such as cathedrals and monasteries, but even more importantly, due to
the overarching notion that God the Architect would have used such a
mechanism – a machina universalis – while fabricating the universe.81
In his Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville extracts the word maciones
(mason) from the Latin machina, citing the tradition of the architect/
inventor who, like Daedalus, designs the walls of buildings as well as
machines that facilitate their fabrication.82 For Gregory the Great the
machina represented the act of contemplation, energized by love, that
enabled one to elaborate on the foundations of historia and “build up
the fabric of [the] mind.”83 As the integral mechanism of aedificatio, the
practice of contemplation facilitated the discovery/fabrication of a uni-
verse within one’s memory, empowering one to emulate in small com-
pass the labours of God the Architect.
Previously, in book 10 of his enquiry into the ideals of architecture,
Vitruvius had defined a machine somewhat less metaphorically as “a
continuous material system having special fitness for the moving of
weights.”84 He then distinguished between machines (machinae) that
are “driven by several workmen” and instruments (organae) that “carry
out their purpose by the careful handling of a single workman.”85 This
pragmatic observation, while clearly intended as a matter-of-fact ac-
count of the process of construction, foreshadowed a central motif of
sancta memoria.
The operation of machines required collaborative effort to transport
materials too heavy for one person. This simple fact supplied the practi-
tioners of aedificatio with a rich source for allegorical interpretation. As
the lesson of the Tower of Babel illustrates, without appropriate planning
and prudent guidance, all collaborative projects are easily sabotaged by
miscommunication, even those with a clear and common purpose.
As caretaker of the process of construction and the chief fabricator who
translates the intangible ideals of a community into its places of gathering,

A Renaissance example
of the architect’s machi-
na. Drawing of the hoist-
ing mechanism designed
by Filippo Brunelleschi
to construct the Duomo
at Florence. From the
sketchbook of Francesco
di Giorgio Martini, court
architect of Urbino

an architect is invested with profound ethical responsibility. For the tradi-

tion of sancta memoria, the architect’s machina, representing the practice
of meditation, was conveyed to the site of memory-building as an ethical
device essential to the procedures of self-edification.
The collaborative nature of construction offered other allegorical
dimensions. Buildings such as cathedrals and monasteries were continu-
ously under construction, their final form manifesting centuries of com-
munal effort and an aggregation of ornamental character, as bestowed
by legacies of architects and master-masons. The indefinite duration of
this construction should not be reduced to matters of technological
capability but should rather be understood as a reflection of ontological
aspirations quite removed from our own.
From the peripatetic St Paul to his monastic descendants, rhetoricians
and educators of sancta memoria played on the image of architecture as
an exercise for building personal character and communal identity. In 1
Corinthians 3:10–17, St Paul refers to himself as a wise master-builder,
claiming to have laid the foundations of a Christian doctrine whereupon
others would continue to build within themselves – each as a temple
wherein God dwells. Subsequent authors, such as Gregory the Great and

Robert Kirkbride

Hugh of St Victor, attended to the methods of interpretation by which

each student would raise, internally and uniquely, an allegorical super-
structure upon the foundations of historia.86 Although constructed with
commonplace materials available to everyone – biblical stories, architec-
tural settings and ornament – one’s memory architecture was a personal
creation, reflecting the unique character cultivated through one’s habit-
uation to the precepts of aedificatio. While this mnemonic architecture
was invisible to others, one’s character was not, expressing itself out-
wardly in the worldly fruit of one’s labours, as well as one’s tem-
perament and interaction with others. By aedificatio, one built personal
character and also found guiding principles for everyday life.
The practice of aedificatio was thus intimately personal and yet ulti-
mately communal. Although one’s memory structures were visible only
to oneself, all who practised aedificatio were united by the notion that
each continued the work of God, as architects of their own lives and as
participants in the ongoing fabrication of truth. As St Paul exhorts, “We
are fellow workers with God, you are God’s building.”87
Nonetheless, the convivial aspirations of sancta memoria did not
diminish, but rather fortified, personal expression. In the Didascalicon
(1128), a treatise on education particularly significant for its treatment
of both the liberal and mechanical arts,88 the Augustinian Hugh of St
Victor divided the stages of learning into the lectio divina and meditatio.
The lectio – “reading” or “study” – trained one’s aptitude for thought
“by the order and method of exposition and analysis, including the dis-
ciplines of grammar and dialectic.”89 The meditatio was more advanced,
drawing on the skills honed by the lectio but not bound by its rules or
precepts. Hugh elaborates: “[meditatio] delights to range along open
ground, where it fixes its free gaze upon the contemplation of truth,
drawing together now these, now those ideas, or now penetrating into
profundities, leaving nothing doubtful, nothing obscure. The start of
learning, thus, lies in lectio but its consummation lies in meditation.”90
Meditational composition was characterized by a free play of associ-
ation and was not obliged to follow a prescribed path.91 Nonetheless, it
was essential for meditation to have a target destination to orient one’s
inner pilgrimage. In monastic meditation, all roads led to the New
Jerusalem, Augustine’s City of God.92
Apart from the evocative account of its foundations and general char-
acter in Revelations 21, the New Jerusalem was as open to imaginative

The Architecture of Memory

interpretation as the mnemonic models and mechanisms conceived to

assist in one’s journeys. The fruit of study, then, was to envision the ideal
city within oneself as a communal building site for memory, energized
and supplied with the materials gathered from one’s diligent investiga-
tions afield. While providing an inner source of hope and fortitude by
the promise of an ideal state unassailed by fortuna and the fragility of
human affairs, the City of God also served as a constant reminder that
citizenship in the hereafter was determined by the character of one’s
actions in the here and now.93
A well-trained memory was considered central to the cultivation of
prudence, the virtue of discernment between, as Cicero describes it,
“what is good, what is bad, and what is neither good nor bad.”94 Tra-
ditionally associated with wisdom by way of sapientia (the term used by
Cicero), prudence surveys the cause and effect of past, present, and
future, offering inner counsel on the most appropriate course for one’s
actions. Whether employed in the fabrication of thoughts or buildings or
in the governance of a city, prudence was considered an essential moral
compass for one’s participation in the field of human interaction.
The intangible objective of the New Jerusalem did not diminish, but
rather elevated, the value of material works, particularly those that
assisted in mnemonic composition. Knowledge of a material art was
thought to provide a “sort” of wisdom, since the accumulation of expe-
rience enables one to conduct one’s craft with increasing acumen and
foresight.95 Similarly, memory-building was thought to refine one’s nat-
ural abilities through habitual training, a procedure considered by Aris-
totle to be central in the development of one’s character (éthos) and the
pursuit of ethical excellence.96 As a result, products of artisanry were
often termed virtù, because they conveyed thought beyond the realm of
the senses, toward divine contemplation.
Cogent examples of such virtù are offered by medieval picturae – actu-
al paintings, or mental images painted with words – that were conceived
to be borne between the eyes of the body and the eye of the mind as
guides to contemplation. Also referred to as mappae, the picturae were
composed of imagines agentes: activating images that, like the imagines
of classical architectural mnemonics, stimulated cogitation and facilitat-
ed mnemonic navigation.97 Picturae assisted in the memorization of sig-
nificant narratives by supplying the memory with cues for the turning

Robert Kirkbride

points of a given storyline. These visual prompts also furnished one’s

meditations with loci with which to insinuate narrative compositions of
one’s own.
Meditation stimulated the discovery and fabrication of alternate
routes among one’s memory structures, “drawing together now these,
now those ideas” as one explored the heuristic causeways of the memo-
ry. Nonetheless, in order to prevent the flow of one’s thought from wan-
dering too far astray, it was essential for meditation to have provisional
limits, or guides.98 In addition to the destination of the New Jerusalem,
picturae provided meditational composition with a starting point and
the visual channels and ornaments (ductus) to convey the mind’s eye
among the imagines agentes of a given narrative.99
Less significant than where meditation began was how it began: for
a well-trained memory, the point of departure consisted of any phrase
or image that adequately stimulated the emotions and triggered the rec-
ollective process. In ways akin to the Roman cubiculum, picturae
offered many visual apertures for an observer to catch hold of and enter
into thought. One might, for example, follow Aristotle’s suggestion to
begin from a central location and proceed by considering the images on
either side.100
The representation offered a space of thought, a visual setting con-
ducive to mental perambulation. During contemplation of a pictura,
whether in its presence or in recollection, the mind’s eye literally would
enter the picture plane and navigate among the images, generating new
associations and courses for thought.101 Ductus offered provisional
tracks for the pilgrim’s progress. Connective pictoral filaments, such as
architectural ornament, served literally as conduits for the flow of
one’s thought: redirecting it, altering its pace, and drawing the mind’s
eye along a narrative path while providing opportunities for digression
and invention. The imagines agentes provided mnemonic markers
along this flow, evoking within the observer the emotions appropriate
to respective narrative passages and renewing the observer’s interest
and participation.
This space of engagement was not necessarily limited to a single pic-
tura but could be elaborated into a thematic cycle. In addition to its
role in articulating physical and mental pictures, ductus would conduct
an observer along extended narrative sequences within a cathedral,

Urbino, centre panel of east wall.The ideal city, seen at distance through the arcade. At left,
a basket of fruit, traditionally associated with charity and concord; at right, a domesticated
squirrel, representative of prudence. Photo by author
Robert Kirkbride

throughout a monastic compound, or as an episode of the worldly pil-

grimage. Picturae could be mounted onto wooden panels and assem-
bled contiguously to create intimate, contemplative settings, as at St
Peter’s and Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.102 Narrative cycles could
also be dispersed strategically throughout a larger construct as markers
for ritual processions; the “twelve stations of the cross” exemplifies a
traditional narrative that was frequently incorporated into the orna-
mental fabric of a cathedral and the ritual choreography of its congre-
gation. Architecture, in addition to its metaphoric dimensions, provided
a prosthetic for the mind, a physical matrix that set thought in motion
by engaging the entire sensory apparatus of the body. The cathedral
provided the medieval mind with an “engine for prayer,”103 facilitating
private compositional meditation and communal ritual proceedings, as
well as the perambulatory flow of pilgrims across Europe toward the
earthly Jerusalem.
In this context architectural ornament, in representations as well as
buildings, offered a ductus that conveyed the mind’s eye between the
exterior world and the interior seat of witness. With the theological and
moral underpinnings of Christian doctrine, the ornamental language of
architecture was conceived and refined as a topological guide to visual-
izing social conduct.104
Through sancta memoria, mnemonic architecture became a mode of
invention as well as a container for inventory. Study was considered a

Urbino, north wall. “With [the

influence of ] virtù so does one
scale the stars.” Photo by author

The Architecture of Memory

lifelong endeavour rather than a liminal phase; a lifetime of finding and

keeping to the Way, as a pilgrim en route between the lost Zion and the
dream of the New Jerusalem. Historia served as the foundations upon
which the edifice of one’s life would be constructed. Lectio prepared the
adept with the tools and procedures for crafting thought and thereby
edifying oneself. The practice of meditatio cultivated one’s habits in
emulation of God the Architect. By building with the materials in mem-
ory, through the metaphor of aedificatio, one negotiated everyday life
while contributing to the unceasing fabrication of the New Jerusalem.

conclusion: V I RT U T I B U S I T U R A D A S T R A

Although their objectives were different, classical architectural mnemon-

ics and sancta memoria addressed the same fundamental question: how
can one integrate personal experience and preexisting constructs of
knowledge and truth? In essence, how does one live among others?
Within these two pedagogical traditions, memory offered a site of rec-
onciliation. Whether utilized as a visual matrix to assist in public ora-
tion and disputation, as in classical Greece and Rome, or as a habitual
exercise of self-edification, the architecture of memory offered a mental
theatre for actively participating in the apprehension of truth and the
determination of knowledge.105
Like the Roman cubiculum and medieval picturae, the Renaissance
studioli offered physical “theatres of locations” conducive to contem-
plation. However, the studioli also manifested a profound transfor-
mation in practices of envisioning knowledge; their comprehensive
perspectival arrangement signalled a shift from the inward habit of
mnemonic composition toward a more extroverted mediation of the
world by the corporeal eye and its prosthetic instruments. The studioli
demonstrated the emergence of a quantitative methodology for repre-
senting reality, a scientia mechanica centred on the belief that humans
might participate directly in the inner workings of the universe.
Nonetheless, within the studioli this transformation appears as a
syncretic overlap rather than an abrupt departure, with mechanical
practices such as perspective serving to recalibrate deeper rhetor-
ical traditions. The passion with which Federico and his scholars
embraced the mathematical arts was mixed with a deep appreciation
of a history that had been recorded and recovered primarily through

Urbino, detail of ideal city
seen in illustration of Urbino,
centre panel of east wall, above.
Photo by author

the verbal arts. As such, the studioli are distinctly removed from, and
yet akin, to their classical and medieval precedents.
The studioli were intricately wrought from many philosophical and
artisanal traditions: their imagery encompasses subjects that, to our
backward gaze, often appear contradictory, if not irreconcilable. A key
to understanding Federico’s world – which turned upon such virulent
debates as the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, scholastic and
mechanical science, pagan and Christian wisdom – may be found in the
multiple aspects of the notion of virtù.
In Virgil’s Rome, virtù represented military valour. From Federico’s
vantage, the notion of virtù had accumulated the moral and ethical over-
tones of medieval Christianity, as well as the skills demonstrated in the
crafting of thought and material artifacts. By Federico’s day, in fact, the
artifacts themselves were considered virtù. Whether manifest as a paint-
ing or a room, a palace or a city, virtù effected an empathy between
human emotions and the sensible realm of materials. As an integration
of the visible and invisible, virtù provided a means to reach the divine
and to insinuate oneself within the pantheon of communal memory.
Architecture, by its lineaments and ornament, provided a tangible medi-
um for the expression of virtù in the realm of human affairs.
Above all, virtù represented a well-tempered personal character: in
particular, a balance maintained between active participation in contem-
porary affairs and contemplative pursuits. For Federico, these two states

Portrait of Federico and
Guidobaldo, ca. 1475, painted by
Justus of Ghent.The young
prince’s position at the Duke’s
right knee recalls the ancient
Roman practice of demonstrating
Photo by Massimo Listri

were cooperative, if not codependent. Architecture provided a material

and metaphoric expression for this integration. Recalling the visual and
verbal pun of the armarium/armamentum and the ideal city located
between them, one might draw a phrase from Vitrivius to appreciate Fed-
erico’s affinity for this discipline: “architects who without culture aim at
manual skill cannot gain a prestige corresponding to their labours, while
those who trust to theory and literature obviously follow a shadow and
not reality. But those who have mastered both, like men equipped in full
armour, soon acquire influence and attain their purpose.”106
Until well into the Renaissance, a well-trained memory was consid-
ered an indispensable recombinatorium for ideas and a speculative
mechanism for change. While we tend to imagine the early Renaissance
humanists to be encaged in a closed universe, awaiting the liberating
flights of Columbus and Copernicus, Federico da Montefeltro’s rise from
military captain to Duke offers an illustrious example of the capacity to
intervene in one’s own fate. Federico, like Alberti, was an illegitimate
child; his life accomplishments demonstrated to his contemporaries that
the hermetic cycle of noble birth could be negotiated. By an appropriate
integration of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, one could
ascend within the prevailing social and political structures. The studioli
may be seen as open manuals for navigation, providing Federico and
Guidobaldo with treasuries for personal experience, sources of will-
power, and templates for action.

Robert Kirkbride

How would Federico have conducted a new guest through the studi-
olo? Did he have an ideal narrative, propagandistically conceived? Or
would he have tailored a unique itinerary to each visitor, according to
his perception of the other’s vested interests? To what extent were the
narratives extemporized? Had Federico cultivated a repertoire? Would
he have indulged a guest to muse aloud, to ask questions to which he
could then knowingly respond? Would he have permitted, possibly even
encouraged, visitors to touch the intarsia?
Although the exact appearance and use of mnemonic palaces and
cities vanished irretrievably with their authors, we may discern the fol-
lowing from the evidence available: at the moment of their physical com-
pletion, in the presence of their patron, architect, scholarly consultants,
and artisans, the studioli embodied a deep history of ideas and practices
of knowing, gathered and presented in a highly innovative manner. Over
the ensuing five hundred years, the studioli have accumulated further
layers of significance from the glosses of scholarly interpretation. The
absolute and original meaning of the studioli proves elusive, if not beside
the point. It is precisely by their capacity to engage the observer – to
draw us into speculation on the possible meanings of particular images,
as well as the potential meanings constellated from clusters of images –
that these chambers reveal their quintessence. The studioli do not repre-
sent total knowledge but offer an architectonic matrix within which the
observer figures as a vital participant-agent in retrieving associations and
forging them anew.


1 The seven liberal arts consisted of the mathematical arts (the “Quadrivi-
um”: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) and the verbal arts (the
“Trivium”: grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric).
2 The Christian virtues include the four cardinal virtues – justice, prudence,
fortitude, and temperance – adopted from the Old Testament (Book of
Wisdom 8:7–8) and classical pedagogy (Cicero’s De inventione). The the-
ological virtues are faith, hope, and charity.
3 For the history of memory training, see Lina Bolzoni, La stanza della memo-
ria (Torino: G. Einaudi 1995); Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), and The Craft of Thought
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998); Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard

The Architecture of Memory

of the Text (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1993); and Frances Yates,
The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1966). Since
1985 valuable iconographic research on the studioli has been presented by
Luciano Cheles, Maria Grazia Pernis, and Virginia Grace Tenzer.
4 The earliest surviving catalogue of the Ducal Library of Urbino, the Indice
Vecchio (hereafter abbreviated as i.v.), was published between 1482 and
1490 by the ducal librarian Agapito. Cosimus Stornajolo, Biblioteca Vat-
icana: Codices Urbinates Graeci (Rome: Ex Typographeo Vaticano 1895).
5 A seventeenth-century plan of the Ducal Palace at Gubbio lists its studio-
lo as “Gabinetto.” Recent scholarship has illuminated the position of these
rooms in the origins of the contemporary museum as spaces of inquiry
newly emerged between the private and public sphere. See Paula Findlen,
Possessing Nature (Los Angeles: University of California Press 1994).
6 Luciano Cheles, The Studiolo of Urbino: An Iconographic Investigation
(University Park, pa: The Pennsylvania State University Press 1986), 23.
7 M. Baxandall, “Guarino, Pisanello and Manuel Chrysoloras,” Journal of
the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 28 (1965): 196. See also Cheles,
Studiolo, 36.
8 Leon Battista Alberti, The Ten Books of Architecture, 1755 Leoni Edition
(New York: Dover Publications 1986), bk. 5, chap. 17.
9 Like Federico, Alberti was an illegitimate child. As a result, he was de-
prived of his inheritance, and throughout his life he had to strike a balance
between intellectual and economic pursuits.
i0 Leon Battista Alberti, De Commodis Literarum atque Incommodis (On
the Advantages and Disadvantages of Scholarship) (1428). See Martin
Kemp’s introduction to Alberti’s On Painting (New York: Penguin Books
1991), 3.
i1 Vespasiano da Bisticci, The Vespasian Memoirs, trans. William George
and Emily Waters (London: George Routledge & Sons 1926), 99. Ves-
pasiano was a bookseller in Florence and also ran a copy-house, provid-
ing Federico with numerous manuscripts for the Ducal Library.
i2 Alberti, Ten Books, bk. 10, chap. 14.
i3 Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Leonard Opdycke (New
York: Horace Liveright 1929), 9.
i4 Alterations to the Duchess’s wing were not completed until after the death
of Battista Sforza in 1472.
i5 For an account of this rather indecorous episode, see Maria Grazia Pernis
and Laurie Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo

Robert Kirkbride

Malatesta (New York: Peter Lang 1996), 25.

i6 Bernardino Baldi, Della vita e de’fatti di Federigo di Montefeltro, duca di
Urbino (1604) (Rome: F. Zuccardi ed. 1824), 3 vols. Also cited by
Cosimus Stornajolo, Biblioteca Vaticana, xiv, i.g. My own translation,
with assistance from Anna Botta and Arielle Saiber. See also da Bisticci,
Vespasian Memoirs, 101.
i7 Even a highly cultivated condottiere was not immune from scrutiny
regarding flaws of character. Sigismondo Malatesta, an elder rival of Mon-
tefeltro who greatly influenced Federico’s patterns of patronage, was both
renowned and feared for his intelligence and battle skills. Over time, how-
ever, his penchant for extremism – for example, his overzealous advocacy
of the neoplatonist Gemisthus Pletho – alienated his patrons and eventu-
ally led to his excommunication.
i8 da Bisticci, Vespasian Memoirs, 109.
i9 Ibid.
20 Iris Origo, “The Education of Renaissance Man,” Horizon 2, no. 3
(1960): 68.
21 Cheles, Studiolo, 26.
22 Rhetoric and Music are at the National Gallery in London. Dialectics and
Astronomy were destroyed in Berlin during World War II and exist now
only in photographic record.
23 i.v. no. 492.
24 “His [Guidobaldo’s] powers of memory were especially remarkable, and
by judicious and habitual exercise were extended with advancing man-
hood. He is said to have possessed that rarest gift of never forgetting any-
thing he wished to recollect, and to have repeated with perfect accuracy
successive pages which he had read only once, some ten or fifteen years
before.” James Dennistoun, Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, vol. 1 (Lon-
don: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans 1851), 296–7. Also: da Bis-
ticci, Vespasian Memoirs, 107.
25 While Alberti composed the first formalized treatise on the art of perspec-
tive (De Pictura, 1435) his velo technique was employed more often as a
rhetorical explanation of the geometric principles of Brunelleschi’s exper-
iments than as an actual method of construction. As James Elkins has
pointed out in The Poetics of Perspective (Ithaca: Cornell University Press
1994), “most measured Renaissance architectural scenes were done using
visual-ray methods,” rather than the velo method. Although Alberti was
certainly an influential figure in the Court of Urbino, the perspectival

The Architecture of Memory

composition of the studioli seems to have been influenced instead by the

methods described by Piero della Francesca in his De prospettiva pingen-
di, composed while at Urbino under Duke Federico’s patronage (see
Elkins, Poetics, 84–9, and Alberto Pérez-Gómez, “The Glass Architecture
of Fra Luca Pacioli,” in this volume). Regardless, the studioli contain the
most comprehensive examples of perspectival intarsia to have survived
the ravages of time – of despoliation, relocation, fire and woodworms.
26 Vespasiano da Bisticci frequently cites the Duke’s inclination toward math-
ematics and architecture. However, as an examination of the contents of
the Ducal Library illuminates, while this inclination may have been
remarkable for its time, it was not at all to the detriment of but was,
rather, complementary to the practices of rhetoric and the verbal arts.
27 D.S. Chambers, Patrons and Artists in the Italian Renaissance (London:
Macmillan 1970), 165. See also Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Princi-
ples in the Age of Humanism (New York: W.W. Norton 1971), 67n2.
28 Training in the verbal arts commenced at age six or seven. Guidobaldo
was born in 1472 and the Gubbio studiolo was constructed between 1476
and 1482.
29 Dennistoun, Memoirs, vol. 1, 298.
30 Federico’s response, “a masterpiece of libelous eloquence,” not only
annulled Malatesta’s charges but was in turn used sixteen years later by
Pope Pius II as the basis of an excommunication trial brought against
Malatesta. Nicholas of Cusa conducted the trial, which concluded with
the burning of a straw effigy of Malatesta on the Compidoglio. See Pernis
and Adams, Federico da Montefeltro, 29–33. From ancient Greece and
Rome through the Renaissance, letter-writing was considered a significant
rhetorical practice. See Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought and Its
Sources (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979) 224.
31 Medieval and Renaissance treatises on education offered unceasing varia-
tions on the number and nature of these arts. Within the Court of Urbino,
Luca Pacioli offers various categories for knowledge in his De Divina Pro-
portione. See Pérez-Gómez, “Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli.”
32 Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise Pelletier, Architectural Representation
and the Perspective Hinge (Cambridge, ma: mit Press 1997), 262, caption
33 St Augustine Confessions (London: Penguin Books 1961), 10.8 (i.v. no.

Robert Kirkbride

34 Research has established that the fabrication of this matrix is neither pure-
ly theoretical nor merely metaphorical. As neurologist Wilder Penfield dis-
covered in the 1950s, much of the brain is connected not to the sensors
along the body’s surface (skin, eyes, ears) but instead to a representation
of the body (the “homunculus”) that is mapped directly onto the surface
of the brain. In other words, in our daily peregrinations, the mind func-
tions by creating a small representation of “itself.” Sensory stimuli are
gathered from throughout the body and conveyed through neural centres
to this homunculus, which then serves as a switchboard for the rest of the
brain. Currently, research is focusing on the degree to which the body
map/homunculus may be trained or retrained.
35 St Augustine Confessions 11.5.
36 A recent study summarized: “Architecture education is really about fos-
tering the learning habits needed for the discovery, integration, applica-
tion, and sharing of knowledge over a lifetime.” Ernest L. Boyer and Lee
D. Mitgang, Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Educa-
tion and Practice (Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Learning 1996), xvi. Architecture continues to provide a model of inte-
grated thought and action. Currently, educators are calling on the inter-
disciplinary skills of architects to assist in the reevaluation of learning –
not merely for the physical design of educational buildings but to partici-
pate in the reorganization of the curriculum. Moreover, even in the pro-
tean, nonmaterial realm of cyberspace, architecture serves as an operative
metaphor: the Internet Architecture Board is an international technology
advisory committee responsible for the worldwide integration of comput-
er hardware and infrastructure.
37 Aristotle De memoria 450a 10–15 (i.v. no. 214 and 215). Luca Pacioli
reiterates this notion in his De Divina Proportione: “nothing can be
grasped by the intellect unless it has been previously offered to perception
in some way.” See Pérez-Gómez, “Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli.”
38 St Augustine Confessions 10.8.
39 It is significant to distinguish between semiotics and mnemotechniques:
there is no inherent meaning in a memory image. See Carruthers, The
Craft of Thought, 178, and 331n23. See also Bolzoni, La stanza della
memoria, 90–102.
40 See Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders (New York:
Pantheon Books 1995), 78.

The Architecture of Memory

41 Oxford English Dictionary, S.V. “iconography.”

42 Carruthers, Book of Memory, 257.
43 These accolades were received in the fall of 1474, just before the con-
struction of the Urbino studiolo.
44 In 1451 Federico’s right eye was destroyed and his nose broken in a cere-
monial joust. This accident and Alberti’s recommendation for the pictoral
treatment of this disfigurement contributed to Federico’s famous profile.
See Alberti, On Painting, bk. 2, 40, and note 43.
45 Ibid., 40.
46 Plato’s Theatetus, ed. Bernard Williams, trans. M.J. Levett (Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing 1992), 197d. Marsilio Ficino’s translation of this work
was included in his Commentary on Plato’s Convivium … de amore (i.v.
no. 221).
47 De Tribus Maximis Circumstantiis Gestorum (appendix a of Carruthers,
Book of Memory, 261). See also Carruthers, Book of Memory, 33.
“Inventory” and “invention” have the same etymological origins. This
kinship is fundamental to the tradition of memory-training: inventive
thought could not occur without a careful inventory of the materials of
experience within the memory.
48 By evolution I do not mean to suggest a categorical history of visuality but
rather, as Foucault and Crary have discussed, a genealogy of practices that
may be retraced. See Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cam-
bridge, ma: mit Press 1990), 6; Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed.
and trans. Colin Gordon (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press 1980), 117.
This genealogical character has also been described by Barbara Duden as
polithetic – consisting of discontinuous yet overlapping strands, as in a
hemp rope. Duden, Disembodying Women (Cambridge, ma: Harvard Uni-
versity Press 1993), 90.
49 “Nesting” entails the placement of memory images one within the next, as
in a “Russian doll.” “Concatenation” consists of forging links by which
to construct extended chains, such as the ancient catena aurea (or golden
50 “The word forulos is of uncertain derivation, but foros, of which it is clear-
ly the diminutive, is used by Virgil for the cells of bees.” J. Willis Clark, The
Care of Books (Cambridge: University Press 1901), 31. “Complebuntque
foros et floribus horrea texent.” Virgil Georgics 4.250 (i.v. no. 492).
51 Loculamentum is used by Columella to describe the cells for bird-nests
and beehives (De re rustica 8.8 and 9.12.2, respectively; i.v. no. 438) and

Robert Kirkbride

by Vitruvius as a small box in which is placed a mechanism for measuring

distances. Vitruvius, Ten Books of Architecture, trans. F. Granger, Loeb
Classical Library (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press 1983),
10.9.2; i.v. nos. 291 and 292.
52 Mary Carruthers, “The City in Our Minds: Memory Makes Poetry at the
Met,” Poetry Calendar 23, no. 1 (January 1999): 11. “There is no think-
ing, only thinking with.” Dan Rose, “Micro-Speculum,” The DNA-Photon
Project, 1925–1995.
53 Carruthers, Craft of Thought, esp. introduction and chap. 1.
54 See Carruthers, Book of Memory, 71: “The ‘places and images’ [loci and
imagines] scheme of artificial memory – which I call the ‘architectural
mnemonic,’ a term more accurate than Frances Yates’s ‘Ciceronian
mnemonic’ and less misleading than the Renaissance’s ‘the art of memory’
– is described most fully in Rhetorica ad Herennium, which is dated 86–82
bc, just after Cicero’s De inventione.”
55 One might safely describe these details as monstrous, since they provided
the memory with visual cues by which to demonstrate (de + mostrare, to
show) thoughts. For a rich discussion of this notion, see Marco Frascari,
Monsters of Architecture (Savage, md: Rowman & Littlefield 1991).
56 Significantly, we now believe that errors of memory (including inaccuracy
and forgetting) occur in the process of recollection. In antiquity and the
medieval mind, memory errors were believed to occur during the process
of collection, due to a failure to transform sense-impressions into secure
mental images.
57 Vitruvius Ten Books of Architecture 6.2 (i.v. no. 291).
58 Granger, introduction to Vitruvius Ten Books 2.25.
59 Ibid.
60 i.v. no. 447. See also Kristeller, Renaissance Thought, 223.
61 Simonides “discovers” architectural mnemonics by re-membering the frag-
ments of the instant prior to the catastrophic conclusion of a lyric poem
he had recited for the members of the banquet. For the full account, see
Cicero De oratore, 2.86, and Frances A. Yates, Art of Memory, chap. 1.
62 “(in porticu) a structure that provides the intercolumnia [intercolumnar
loci] often recommended as backgrounds for memory work.” Carruthers,
Craft of Thought, 177.
63 Cicero De oratore 3.5.7, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library.
64 Vitruvius Ten Books 6.4.1. Vitruvius should not be taken too literally: just
as his measurements and proportions often did not correspond with the

The Architecture of Memory

actual structures, his rules of proper orientation seem to reflect his ideal,
rather than actuality. The cubiculum from the villa of Fannius Synestor
faced north.
65 Epistolae 2.7.8: “Parieti eius cubiculi mei in bibliothecae speciem armari-
um insertum est quod non legendos libros sed letitandos capit.”
66 See The History of Private Life, vol. 1: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium,
ed. Paul Veyne, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, ma: Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press 1987–91), 378–9.
67 As conveyed through Pliny the Younger Natural History 9.35. (i.v. no.
68 Carruthers, Craft of Thought, 178.
69 Ibid.
70 “una tavola nel mezzo …” Bernardino Baldi, cited by Cosimus Stornajo-
lo, Biblioteca Vaticana, xiv, i.g. We know only that the “table” was deco-
rated in intarsia and was last accounted for in an inventory of 1609: “935
Tavola de noce intarsiata, con le scantie de sotta da tenere li libri fisse nel
muro.” Fert Sangiorgi, Documenti Urbinati (Urbino: Accademia Raffael-
lo 1976), 149.
71 i.v. no. 464.
72 Cheles, Studiolo, 22.
73 Virgil Georgics 42.243 (i.v. no. 492).
74 See Proverbs 6:8, “Go to the bee …”
75 The image of “eating the book” has deep origins. See Ezekiel 3:1. Also, St
Jerome (Commentarium in Ezekiel 3:5 [i.v. no. 25]) notes that “Eating the
book is the starting-point of reading and of basic history. When, by dili-
gent meditation, we store away the book of the Lord in our memorial trea-
sury, our belly is filled spiritually and our guts are satisfied.” Also St
Augustine Confessions 10.14; Carruthers, Book of Memory, 44; Illich, In
the Vineyard of the Text, 86.
76 Augustine taught rhetoric before his conversion to Christianity.
77 Augustine Confessions 10.25.
78 Ibid., 12.16; 10.17.
79 Gregory the Great, Expositio in Canticum Canticorum 2 Corpus chris-
tianorum, series latina 144, 3.14–15. Also Carruthers, Craft of Thought,
80 Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job (i.v. no. 65), Prologue: “Epistola ad
Leandrum,” 3 Corpus Christianorum, series latina 143, 4.110–114. Also
Carruthers, Craft of Thought, 18.

Robert Kirkbride

81 Augustine Confessions 11.5. See Carruthers, Craft of Thought, esp. chap. 1.

82 Isidore of Seville Etymologiae, 19.8.1–2 (i.v. no. 79).
83 “The machine of the mind is the energy of love.” Also, “Indeed the vigor
of love is a machine of the mind which, while [the mind] draws away
from the world, lifts it on high.” Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job,
6.37.58 (Corpus christianorum, series latina 143, 328.118–19). Note
also Pietro Bembo’s discourse on contemplation and love at the conclu-
sion of Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (290–303). Bembo’s
description of the ascent from corporeal desire through contemplative
love is deeply influenced by the writings of Marsilio Ficino and clearly
echoes Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon. See also Carruthers, Craft of
Thought, 23 and 81.
84 Vitruvius Ten Books 10.1.1.
85 Ibid., 10.1.3.
86 See Carruthers, Craft of Thought, esp. 16–21.
87 1 Corinthians 3:9. Also Augustine’s Confessions 10.16.
88 i.v. no. 87. See Jerome Taylor’s translation, The Didascalicon of Hugh of
St Victor (New York: Columbia University Press 1961). Also Illich, In the
Vineyard of the Text, 33–50.
89 See Carruthers, Book of Memory, 162.
90 Hugh of St Victor Didascalicon 3.7–10, 92–3. Also Carruthers, Book of
Memory, 162.
91 Augustine Confessions 10.17.
92 There were three copies of St Augustine’s City of God in the Ducal Library
of Urbino (i.v. nos. 40, 41, and 58). See also Augustine Confessions 12.15.
93 Ibid., 11.28, and 10.16.
94 Cicero De inventione 2.53, 160. Beyond this definition, Cicero continues:
“Its parts are memory, intelligence, and foresight. Memory is the faculty
by which the mind recalls what has happened. Intelligence is the faculty by
which it ascertains what is. Foresight is the faculty by which it is seen that
something is going to occur before it occurs.” Also, the Book of Wisdom
(8:8): “She [Wisdom] knows the past, she forecasts the future.” For a thor-
ough discussion of memory and prudence, see Carruthers, Book of Mem-
ory, esp. 61–71.
95 Prudence is an “intelligence capable, by a certain judicious method, of dis-
tinguishing good and bad; likewise the knowledge of an art is called Wis-
dom; and again, a well-furnished memory and experience in diverse
matters is termed Wisdom.” Ad Herennium, 3.2.3 (i.v. no. 445).

The Architecture of Memory

96 Nichomachean Ethics 1103a17 (i.v. nos. 205–208).

97 St Augustine Confessions 10.11: Cogitare – “to think or to collect one’s
thoughts. For in Latin the word cogo, meaning I assemble or I collect, is
related to cogito, which means I think, in the same way as ago is related
to agito or facio to factito. But the word cogito is restricted to the func-
tion of the mind. It is correctly used only of what is assembled in the mind,
not what is assembled elsewhere.” See also Carruthers, The Book of Mem-
ory, 33: “Cogitatio (con + agito, “move, rouse”) is defined in rhetoric …
as a combinative or compositional activity of the mind. It necessarily uses
memory, because it combines imagines from memory’s store.”
98 In memory training, silva, the forest, represented confused and disor-
dered material. See Carruthers, The Book of Memory, 62. This notion
has continued in modern Italian through the idiomatic expression
imboscata, to be confused, or literally, “in the woods.”
99 See Carruthers, Craft of Thought, 261, although ductus is discussed in
various forms and to various ends throughout this work.
100 Ibid., 201.
101 J.-P. Antoine, “Mémoire, lieux et invention spatiale dans le peinture ital-
ienne des xiiie et xive siècles,” Annales ESC 48 (1993): 1447–69.
102 On picturae and tabulatum, see Carruthers, Craft of Thought, esp.
103 Ibid., 263.
104 The role of architectural ornament in mnemonic work suggests a new
approach to understanding Alberti’s seemingly contradictory discussion
of concinnitas, wherein architecture is to be whole and irreducible, and
yet structure is somehow distinguished from ornament. It might simply
derive from a matter of translation. As Carruthers notes: “Bede uses the
verbs ornare and decorare throughout his description [of picturae]; they
are untranslatable in modern English, since we insist on conceptually sep-
arating decoration from function. In Latin, these verbs encompassed
both.” Craft of Thought, 205.
105 The Latin quotation in the heading for this conclusion is from Virgil:
“With [the influence of] virtù so does one scale the stars.” Aeneid
9.11.38–44, and the Studiolo of Urbino.
106 Vitruvius Ten Books 1.1.2.

Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth:
Modern Symbolism in the Writing of
William Richard Lethaby

Joanna Merwood

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

for many years in the early part of this century, William Richard
Lethaby, a respected teacher and architectural writer acknowledged as
an authority on modern design, maintained a correspondence with
Harry Hardy Peach, the owner of a Leicester basketware factory. In
these letters the two men discussed the weather, the war, Lethaby’s
“town-tidying” campaign, architectural competitions, recent publica-
tions about design, and, most of all, the shocking state of art in modern
England. On a particular morning in February 1923, Lethaby sat down
at his desk to answer a letter from Peach. He particularly wanted to
comment on something his friend had recently drawn to his attention:
Diderot’s definition of “art.”

Very interesting about the Diderot Encyclopedia. The definition of art is inter-
esting as showing how quickly words alter their value. I take it the definition
would now be of “science” and although I have long been against nonsensical
views of art, and have felt that most of art was science in operation, yet the
ideal and essence of operation (and art) is to go beyond the known of science
by imagination … adventure and experiment. Art then I would say was the
expanding experimental application of science in human service – something
like that!1

This dashed-off note to a friend rephrases a position Lethaby had long

maintained. By this stage in his life he had abandoned any reference
to the “mythical” or the “magical” as the embarrassing enthusiasm of
youth. However, his view of art as “science in operation” represents not
a reversal but an extension of his early writing on architectural symbol-
ism. The attempt to define art in relation to culture had been with him
since 1891, when he wrote his first book, Architecture, Mysticism and
Myth, a complex, corrupt, and sometimes confused examination of the
role of architecture as a universally understood symbol of belief in pre-
classical society. Ruskinian notions of the inherent morality of art, claim-
ing nature as the model for the creative imagination, met a new aesthetic
partly derived from symbolist art and literature in which pure mass,
shape, and line were explored as potentially containing psychological
associational value. Drawing on contemporary theories of creative pro-
duction and aesthetic perception, Lethaby examined the relationship
between architecture and culture that had existed in the premodern past,
in order to create a new relationship for the twentieth century.

Joanna Merwood

The problem of European architecture during the years 1880–1900

was one of identity and self-representation. The modern era was almost
a century old, but its built form had yet to be decided. Experimental
forms drawing on new architectural typologies, historical precedent as
well as simple technological innovation represented a fundamental rede-
termination of the role of ornament in architecture and meaning in
design. The repression of the late nineteenth-century English contribu-
tion by historians of the Modern Movement depended on the perception
that technological advances were rejected by English architects of the
previous generation. While it certainly may be claimed that Lethaby and
his contemporaries Mackmurdo, Gimson, and Prior did not embrace the
aesthetic of machine production, they always acknowledged industrial-
ization as central to the modern condition. In general their approach was
not to adapt architecture to technology but to examine how architecture
could “work” in the technological era. Their writing played out a com-
plex renegotiation of the role of architecture in society. They took an
interest not only in the new sciences of technology and construction but
in the new sciences of society and the mind; sociology, anthropology,
and psychology.
This search for the symbolism of modernity drew from both “high”
and “low” sources in Lethaby’s writing. His fascination with the mysti-
cal was the product of both the spirituality of Ruskinian thought and the
general rise of interest in alchemy, ancient magic, and Eastern religion in
late nineteenth-century England. In his writing the popular strain (lead-
ing to spiritualist movements such as Theosophy in its most extreme
form) was entirely interwoven with the medieval sensibility of the sym-
bolist writers and artists. It is here that stories about magical buildings
are told through architecture, mysticism, and myth.
When he wrote his first book, Lethaby was thirty-four years old and
a draughtsman in the office of Richard Norman Shaw. Spending long
solitary hours in the British Museum, he pieced together fragments of
ancient and contemporary writings that reinforced his mystical under-
standing of architecture and informed his writing. The resulting book
appeared in this way not as an architectural history but rather as an
unscholarly but deeply felt search for the revelation of original meaning.
“One of my purposes in this essay,” he wrote, “is to open up a view of
building and the crafts wider than ‘aesthetic’ appreciation, an under-
standing deeper than chronological cataloguing.”2 His sources were not

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

Left: The Jewel Bearing Tree. From William Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891)
Right: The Labyrinth. From William Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891)

from the architectural canon but from contemporary works in the fields
of archaeology and anthropology.3 Unstructured, dense, and wide-
ranging in its reference, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth was an
attempt to discover the mythical origins of architecture.
Mythology as it was explored through art, literature, and the new field
of anthropology was of major interest to architects of Lethaby’s genera-
tion. His book is divided into twelve sections, each of which seeks to
explain an architectural symbol found in myth. Highly poetic in style,
these chapters reveal themselves largely through stories: “The Jewel-
Bearing Tree,” “The Planetary Spheres,” “The Golden Gate of the Sun,”
“Pavements Like the Sea,” and “Ceilings Like the Sky.” Although main-
taining a distinct separation between ancient mythical understanding
and modern culture, Lethaby was fascinated by the role of architecture
in early society as “embodied magic.” Plundering ancient mythology, he
resurrected the primal role of architecture as the built archetype of a uni-
versally understood cosmology. Lethaby divided the world into mythical
and scientific periods that corresponded to two ways of thinking about
building – “ancient magic architecture” and “modern scientific build-
ing.” In mythical societies, he wrote, architecture acted as a magical

Joanna Merwood

Left: Pavements like the Sea. From William Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891)
Right: The Heavenly Gate of the Sun. From William Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891)

symbol of the universe or as the built expression of the mythopoeic state.

“The intention of the temple (speaking of the temple idea as we under-
stand it) was to set up a local reduplication of the temple not made with
the hands, the World Temple itself – a sort of model to scale, its form
governed by the science of the time; it was a heaven, an observatory and
an almanack.”4 The origin of all building, whether temple or dwelling,
was the mimicry of “nature” through sacred symbolism.
Lethaby’s understanding of myth was informed principally through
the contemporary anthropological writing of Andrew Lang, Edward
Burnett Taylor, and James Frazer, in which there was a vast reappraisal
of mythical understanding.5 Although seen as retaining and perpetuating
a dangerous element of superstition, myths were no longer viewed as
diverting stories but as representations of belief or “an explanation of
nature.”6 Myth was a form of “savage reasoning.”7 In his 1887 text Myth,
Ritual and Religion (from which Lethaby admitted that he had cribbed
his own title) Andrew Lang hypothesized that there is a state of the
human mind in which myths are “natural and rational” – this state is the
“mythopoeic” state and is common to all cultures.8 “We may see that
the progress of science is merely the framing and destruction one by one

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

of a series of hypotheses, and that the early cosmogonies are one in kind
with the widest generalizations of science – from certain appearances to
frame a theory of explanation, from phenomena to generalize law.”9
Lethaby cited the German philologist Max Müller as an authority
who had found evidence of this universality in similar stories told in
medieval Germany, ancient Greece, and modern India. This desire to
rationalize, or classify myth as a branch of human knowledge, to see
ancient magic as the original science, was carried over into Lethaby’s
writing in order to facilitate a historical continuity between the magical
architecture of the past and the scientific building of today.10
Edward Burnett Tylor’s doctrine of universality stated that all mythi-
cal cultures have the same basic concept of the world. He went about
proving this by using the comparative method of analysis. As the French
sociologist Marcel Mauss later pointed out in criticizing the British
school of anthropology, comparative theory emphasizes similarity rather
than difference.11 Indeed, in his rambling narrative William Lethaby
compared ancient Egyptians, medieval masons, and contemporary Chi-
nese, picking and choosing his examples almost at random from diverse
texts, to show that the geometries and symbols of their architecture had
the same basis. For him this was proof that the magical element of archi-
tecture that had once existed in our own culture was universal to all cul-
tures and times. His concern in Architecture, Mysticism and Myth was
to demonstrate the origin of all world religions in a similar, if not the
same, concept of the universe, a doctrine based on the primal role of the
products of human creativity as “magic amulet, charm, fetish.”12
Lethaby’s use of the comparative theory was related to Tylor’s theory
of “survival,” in which elements of prelogical society were seen to have
survived into the present day. Myths in particular were regarded as reli-
quaries of early mentality. In “The Sources of Architectural Types,” one
of his few writings on architecture, the sociologist Herbert Spencer
applied this theory of “survival” to architectural ornament. In Spencer’s
view all ornament originally had a function. During the evolutionary
process, these forms lost their functional purpose but continued to be
used out of habit, attaining the abstract status of “beauty.”13 Imagining
ornament to have an original purpose more sacred than pragmatic,
Lethaby’s understanding of “function” differs from that of Spencer.
After Tylor, he adopted the concept of cultural integration, in which all
parts of a culture are interrelated. Tylor’s view that “the several depart-

Joanna Merwood

ments of life are inextricably interwoven and interdependent” in primi-

tive societies was the basis of Lethaby’s understanding of architecture in
premodern times.14 It was not only possible but inescapable that archi-
tecture had an association with the general concept of the natural ele-
ments of the universe as magical. Spencer’s idea of the originary meaning
of form being lost through time, although remaining present as a trace,
is essentially the same as Lethaby’s.
The theory of animism, in which all things have souls and are invest-
ed with spirits, formed the basis of much anthropological research of the
late nineteenth century. Differentiating magic from religion, anthropolo-
gists argued that magic need not involve the agency of supernatural
beings such as gods but that objects themselves had the ability to effect
change.15 James Frazer expanded this animism into a theory of totems.16
His Totemism (1887) explained the idea common in “primitive” cultures
that the soul is external to the body. The totem was defined here as the
receptacle of the soul. Considered dangerous precisely because they had
an inherent intentionality, totems contained occult powers and demonic
possibilities. Magic was produced sympathetically through imitation
and contiguity by “using objects whose qualities are analogous to the
desired effect.”17 This concept of magic which Frazer expanded on in
The Golden Bough (1890), was widely influential.18
The common anthropological belief that all religion was derived from
magic was repeated by François Lenormant, the French Assyriologist,
whose book Chaldean Magic (1874) was Lethaby’s principal source on
matters magical.19 Lenormant’s book, more popular than scholarly, pre-
sented translations of ancient Chaldean tablets with cuneiform inscrip-
tions. Lethaby made much use of these “Chaldean inscriptions” as an
authority on ancient custom and ceremony, describing the origin of reli-
gious ritual in magic ceremonies performed to placate evil spirits.20 Since
most of the tablets Lenormant described are magic spells of various
sorts, they satisfied the late Victorian fascination with magic and East-
ern mysticism in general. Eastern religious texts achieved an enormous
popularity when translations were first widely distributed in the late
nineteenth century. The Veda of Hinduism, ancient Sanskrit hymns
extolling the deities who personified natural and cosmic phenomena,
were of particular interest to those who dabbled in the occult.21
Kenneth Clark makes the case for a relationship between late nineteenth-
century medievalism and ethnology in a common desire for knowledge

Magical Instruments. From Éliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic (translated 1896)
Joanna Merwood

of “primitive” or pre-Renaissance understanding.22 Lethaby’s interest in

Eastern religions may have been initiated partly by his growing belief
that Gothic architecture was heavily influenced by the East. Emphasiz-
ing the strong influence of Byzantium on Western Gothicism was the sole
aim of his 1904 book on medieval art.23 However at the time of writing
Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, Lethaby was yet to develop such a
scholarly interest in Eastern texts. Attracted by the lyricism of the trans-
lations of Eastern myths and by the possibilities of Eastern magic, he
tapped instead into the vague understanding of Eastern mysticism wide-
ly disseminated into popular thought through contemporary literature,
spiritualist societies, and music hall “mediums.”24
The most extreme nineteenth-century enthusiasts of Eastern mysticism
sought to revive a knowledge of spirituality that could once more precip-
itate change. In his 1856 text, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, Éliphas
Lévi wrote that his goal was to “revolutionize heaven and earth by the
creation of a new dogmatic symbolism.”25 By this he meant the discovery
of the key to ancient alchemy, through which one could literally transform
matter and manipulate natural law. Describing him as a “modern magi-
cian,” Lethaby often quoted the pseudonymous Lévi, a defrocked French
priest who blended oriental religion with occultism.26 Recognizing that
modern alchemy had the discoveries of science to draw upon, Lévi
attempted to find a place for the mystical practice of alchemy in contem-
porary life. “The secret agent of the magnum opus … is Magnetized Elec-
tricity,” he wrote. “The union of these two words does not reveal us
much, nevertheless they perhaps enclose a force which can revolutionize
the world.”27 To such practitioners of the occult, recovery of the alchem-
ical doctrine, by ancient or modern methods, meant that symbols could
again achieve direct identification with that which they represented.
To Lévi the evocation of symbols relied essentially on the “force of
will” of the invoker. He introduced a modern psychological reading of
alchemical symbols when he wrote, “The significance of symbols [of the
Tarot] varies in essence and extent with each individual … The Great
Arcanum is the secret of will-ability.”28 Thus, the ability of the magi-
cian/artist to change the world by transforming material or creating art
objects was due to the expression of his will. Lévi’s idea of magical cre-
ation depends on the existence of a single, powerful artificer, a magus,
whose “force of will” has the power to mold matter.

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

The popular and scholarly discourse clashed over this conception of

the artist’s individual creative power. For Riegl, art was autonomous and
could not be shaped by a single person alone.29 Although it is doubtful
that he shared Riegl’s concept of the autonomy of the art form, Lethaby,
too, argued strongly against the view of the architect/creator as a soli-
tary genius who creates out of his own unique sensibility. For him, the
act of creation was based on ritual, or ceremonial magic, as an expres-
sion of a collective consciousness rather than a single mind. He made
no distinction between “high” and “low” art, seeing art as representing
the “will” of society – Riegl’s kunstwollen. Holding the same view of the
social function of magic that the English anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-
Brown would later propose, he argued that magic embodied the desires
and needs of whole cultures, rather than the psychological need of the
Artistic reception, as well as creation, was a communal activity. Letha-
by’s writing implicitly criticized the individual theory of architectural
reception put forward by some of his peers. For example, Arthur H.
Mackmurdo no longer regarded pictorial symbolization as an appropri-
ate way of seeing. He maintained that the sensuousness of pure form had
a more direct connection to the mind of modern man. Symbols were
fetishes for primitives, he wrote; only a developed intellect could appreci-
ate pure form, which he described as “mood-made character.” “The real-
istic art,” he wrote, “is as impossible as it is wanting in force of interest.”31
Arguing against this separation of higher and lower understanding of
art in modern society, Lethaby emphasized the collective nature of the
understanding and creation of architecture in ancient times, based on a
deeper understanding of “Nature.” To Ruskin, who was critical of the
effects of industrialization on architecture, it was the medieval craftsmen
who most embodied the ideal of collective creation as an act of faith,
penance, and veneration. Echoing this sentiment, Lethaby defined medieval
architecture as “the harmonious association of all the crafts.”32 In his
text, the Middle Ages represented the most refined sensibility of the pre-
scientific era. The architect/artificer had reached the pinnacle of his abil-
ities as a magician: as one who had a spiritual connection to his material
and could mould it to reveal its true self.33
According to Ruskin, Gothic building was almost alive in the way it
changed from part to part according to the whim of its creators. In his
writing Gothic architecture is zoomorphosed in its adaptability: “It can

Joanna Merwood

shrink into a turret, expand into a hall, coil into a staircase, or spring into
a spire with undegraded grace and unexhausted energy.”34 Lethaby took
Ruskin’s concept of living architecture to an extreme of vitality. From its
origins and up until the Renaissance, he wrote, architecture was truly
animated, just as Frazer’s religious totem was animated. Lethaby’s sky
ceiling and sea floor partake of this alchemical ideal. Created not by an
individual, but through the sacred ritualistic activity of a culture, art was
“an instrument of magic.”35 The object was not just a representation but
the thing itself. Changing form by alchemical magic, art always remained
the totemic agent of desire brought to life through sacred ritual.
In 1890 Lethaby designed a stained glass window for a house in
Bromley, Kent, in the “medieval” style, incorporating a quotation from
The Romance of Merlin.36 However, like Morris and Ruskin, his inter-
est in medieval art extended far beyond an aesthetic appreciation. High-
ly poetic, his understanding of medieval architecture and much of his
knowledge of the mystical symbolism of the Middle Ages came from the
literature of the time. Chaucer is quoted on the title page of Architecture,
Mysticism and Myth.37 Dante, whom Ruskin made much use of in The
Stones of Venice, is also quoted, as is the fictional Sir John Mandeville’s
fourteenth-century Voyages and Travels and the Early English Romance
of Alexander. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Francesco Colonna’s fifteenth-
century Italian romance describing architectural fantasies, seemed to
hold a particular fascination for Lethaby.38 He invoked these texts for
their fantastic and beautiful descriptions of the symbols that make up
the chapters of his book. Saturated with references to precious stones
and metals, cosmological classification, and magic numbers, Architec-
ture, Mysticism and Myth attempts to demonstrate the deep alchemical
significance of architectural symbolism through literary reference.39
Why did Lethaby cite these romances as evidence, giving them as
much authority as the surviving examples of ancient and medieval archi-
tecture? One answer can perhaps be found in his distrust of the exam-
ples that were available, many of which had deteriorated due to
vandalism or restoration (two acts that were comparable in his view). It
was in these literary sources and not in archeological accounts that the
true romance of medieval architecture was made apparent.
Around 1905, the architectural discourse turned away from Letha-
by’s post-Ruskinian ideals and sought a renewal of classicism.40 Letha-
by himself largely abandoned Gothicism in favour of a more abstract

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

“Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.” From William Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891)

architectural symbolism. While he did not reject Ruskin’s teaching in

favour of an architecture of aesthetic autonomy, as did Geoffrey Scott
under the influence of Wölfflin and Burckhardt,41 he increasingly
turned to psychology for an explanation of the meaning of architec-
tural form. In 1924 he rewrote Architecture, Mysticism and Myth,
retitling it Architecture, Nature and Magic. Conceding that the ear-
lier book was “very insufficient and in many ways feeble,” he wrote,
“second-rate and second-hand authorities were mixed up with true

Joanna Merwood

sources, and the whole was uncritical and inexpert.”42 This new edi-
tion attempted to cast architecture as the symbol of the psychological
make-up of man throughout his historic progression. “The Gothic art
of the Middle Ages was an outcome of the whole mind and feeling of
the times. In a recent essay, I tried to show that it was inspired (uncon-
sciously) by the forest life and forest psychology (The Legacy of the
Middle Ages) … the buildings were produced by the same minds and
hearts that produced the forest ballads.”43
In this book Lethaby introduced the words “psychology” and “uncon-
scious” into his writings for the first time. The nineteenth-century pre-
figuring of psychoanalysis relied on a close reading of the face and head
to provide a direct visual understanding of the inner soul. This direct
visualization of symbol established a link between psychology and the
arts.44 Anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen-
turies took a psychological point of view that advocated “culture as the
manifestation of thought.”45 For example, Tylor’s theory of the devel-
opment of primitive cultures depended on those cultures developing
increasingly more complex ideas. In his thesis the collective conscious-
ness of a society was no different from the sum of individual thought.46
In Architecture, Nature and Magic, Lethaby started to present this psy-
chological appreciation of levels of development, the perception of sym-
bols, and their identification with certain wider ideas.

The earliest constructive works of man – holes for shelter, pits for burial, and
clay vessels – would quite obviously have been more or less round in general
like a child’s sand pit or a bird’s nest. At the same time an observant man must
have noticed that the sun in the heavens was a perfectly true example of the
same shape. A “general idea” of the circle was thus reached … This recogni-
tion of a type in the heavens and of man-made imitations on earth would have
seemed a mystery – as indeed it was – and every such imitation must have had
something of a magical character.47

Art was seen as the history of the human will, which reveals to us “the
actual psychology of mankind.” To Lethaby the Renaissance was a fun-
damental break in the history of human thought. Once again opposing
the “magical” ancient world and the “scientific” modern world, he now
declared the impossibility of reconciling the two. One of his new sources
was Worringer’s “Art as Human Psychology,” published in Form in

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

Gothic (1912).48 In Abstraction and Empathy (1908) Worringer had

described art as answering a mental need particular to its own time, rec-
ognizing the different perception of different eras. Lethaby was proba-
bly drawn to Worringer by his description of Gothic art and
architecture, which assumed for the Middle Ages a fundamentally dif-
ferent relationship between man and the wider world than the relation-
ship we now experience. Thus, Lethaby had a psychological explanation
for the creation of the Gothic architecture that he so admired, an expla-
nation that was comparable to Ruskin’s consideration of its aesthetic
appeal to the eyes of nineteenth-century man.
In Form in Gothic Worringer defined three classes of “original types
of mankind”: primitive, classical, and oriental. Each group had a unique
artistic expression, based on its relationship to the phenomenal world.
To primitive man, art was an “absolute symbol” designed to counteract
the “arbitrary” experience of the visual world: “He employs the magic
powers which, in his thoroughly logical conception, reside in these clear,
stable, inevitable line symbols, by covering all his cherished belongings
with these magical signs; and first and foremost seeks to make his per-
son taboo by ornamental tattooing.”49 This psychological understanding
of magic was quite different from Lethaby’s earlier, romantic under-
standing. The chapter entitled “Ornament and Style” in Architecture,
Nature and Magic betrays the new influence of Worringer’s theory, quot-
ing his equation of ornament with tattoo. However, from the evidence
of his own writing, he merely touched the surface of Worringer’s theory.
He did not make the same fundamental distinction between linear and
organic art. Nor did he shift his attention from the objects of perception
to perception itself or from the collective to the subjective individual.
In a lecture given to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1910
entitled “The Adventure of Architecture,” Lethaby explicitly and damn-
ingly recanted his previous thesis. He adamantly opposed the possible
adoption of a “Magic Style” due to the influence of his writing: “Build-
ing has been, and may be, an art, imaginative, poetic, even mystic and
magic. When poetry and magic are in the people and in the age they will
appear in their arts, and I want them, but there is not the least good in
saying ‘Let us go to and build magic buildings. Let us be poetic.’ Yet let
me say again, it is because I want these things that I face this problem.”50

Joanna Merwood

It is this position that has led many writers to describe Lethaby’s the-
ory as protomodernist, as “a search for the absence of style.”51 While
this view does have a certain currency (he was clear in his criticism of
“the treadmill of style-mongering”),52 Lethaby’s theory comes from an
English tradition that in its Romantic antecedents is fundamentally dif-
ferent from Continental modernism. He classified architectural symbol-
ism not in terms of form (i.e., contour, colour, space, and line) but in
terms of a deeply poetic understanding of built form as a text describing
our relationship to the world. For him the recovery of this poetic under-
standing would be through science – but through science considered as
the brave new form of faith with “a new magic wonder of its own.”53
He continued to emphasize the communal nature of architectural cre-
ation but this was now the expression of some vague and ill-defined
“common current language.”54 He was sure that this language would be
found not in any “vague idea of an abstract and absolute proportion”
but in a spontaneous agreement.55
By end of his life the “living force” Lethaby so admired in medieval
architecture, the idea of “vitality” that had captured his imagination in
the writing of Ruskin, had been converted into a scientific “spirit of
experiment in building.”56 This was prompted not by a rejection of the
poetic in architecture but by a rejection of the architecture of formal styl-
istics that he saw all around him.57 Since it was not part of the everyday
architectural vocabulary of the day, the word “experiment” may seem
peculiar, until we remember the role of experiment in natural magic. In
the twentieth century it was the engineer who embodied the ancient
alchemist’s ability to convert material from one form into another.
Throughout his writings Lethaby’s goal was to renegotiate the role of
architectural symbolism, always maintaining its moral role and its social
necessity. He struggled to incorporate the psychological theories of form
to fit his essential understanding of architecture as a “common” art, col-
lectively imagined and created art. Lethaby took the totemic view of myth
from anthropology and attempted to give life to a modern symbolism
through the conception of architectural creativity as a renewed mystical
practice. To return to the formulation proposed earlier, architecture
could only “work” in a technological society through the definition of
science, not in opposition to art, but as the true myth of modernity.

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby


1 William Richard Lethaby, letter to Harry Hardy Peach, 18 February 1923.

Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects Library.
2 William Richard Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (1891; Lon-
don: Architectural Press 1974), 17.
3 The only architectural sources Lethaby mentioned explicitly in Architec-
ture, Mysticism and Myth were Vitruvius (236 and 241), concerning the
human body being used as a unit of measurement of building and the mea-
surement of the earth’s circumference, and Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire de
l’architecture (222), concerning the medieval custom of painting a ceiling
to represent the sky.
4 Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, 6.
5 Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) is generally regarded as the founding
figure of cultural anthropology. His many works include Researches into
the Early History of Mankind (London: J. Murray 1865), Primitive Cul-
ture (London: J. Murray 1871), and Anthropology: An Introduction to the
Study of Man and Civilization (London: Macmillan 1881). He proposed
that society, like a natural organism, progressively evolves and that all cul-
tures are part of a unified whole. Andrew Lang (1844–1912) wrote Cus-
tom and Myth (London: Longmans, Green 1884), Myth, Ritual and
Religion (London: Longmans, Green 1887), and Magic and Religion (Lon-
don: Longmans, Green 1901), in which he was concerned with the reap-
pearance of certain common elements in myths and fairy tales. He stressed
the need for a systematic accumulation of information to establish a ratio-
nal basis for understanding early man and his beliefs. James Frazer
(1854–1941) wrote The Golden Bough, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan
1890), building on Tylor’s work and explaining many ancient and con-
temporary myths and rituals in relation to the cult of kingship.
6 Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, 32.
7 John J. Honigmann, The Development of Anthropological Ideas (Home-
wood, il: Dorsey Press 1976), 126.
8 Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion, 4.
9 Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, 9.
10 Ibid.
11 Marcel Mauss (1866–1943), review of F. Byron Jevons, An Introduction
to the History of Religion, in L’année sociologique (1898). See Honig-
mann, Development of Anthropological Ideas, 165.

Joanna Merwood

12 Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, 33.

13 Michael W. Brooks, John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture (London:
Thames and Hudson 1989), 305.
14 Honigmann, Development of Anthropological Ideas, 115.
15 Ibid., 157.
16 Ibid., 150.
17 James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 10–12, 30–1.
18 Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (London: Collier Macmillan 1987),
19 François Lenormant (1837–83), La magie chez les Chaldeens et les orig-
ines Acadiennes (Paris: Maisonneuve 1874), translated by W.R. Cooper as
Chaldean Magic: Its Origin and Development (London: S. Bagster & Sons
1877), 70. Lenormant’s main area of study was ancient Mesopotamia,
which he studied through its cuneiform language. “Chaldea” refers to the
land bordering the head of the Persian Gulf. “‘Chaldean’ also was used by
several ancient authors to denote the priests and other persons educated in
the classical Babylonian literature, especially in the traditions of astrono-
my and astrology.” One of Lenormant’s other books was entitled Les sci-
ences occultes en Asie (Paris: Maisonneuve 1874–75).
20 Lenormant, Chaldean Magic, 71.
21 Lethaby mentions “the cosmogonic theories in the Veda” that were sum-
marized by H.W. Wallis in the Academy (November 1887) and explained
the origin of the world as a “building,” in much the same way that a house
is constructed. Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, 16.
22 Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste
(London: Constable 1928), 302.
23 W.R. Lethaby, Medieval Art: From the Peace of the Church to the Eve of
the Renaissance, 312–1350 (London: Duckworth 1904).
24 For example, Emma Hardinge Britten, a New York medium, published
Art Magic (New York: William Britten 1876), a work of “divine dicta-
tion” through which Mrs Britten made public the words of an “Adept,” a
spiritual being who spoke to her. In 1877 Madame Blavatsky, the founder
of Theosophy, published Isis Unveiled (New York: J.W. Bouton 1877), an
“exposition of Egyptian occultism,” also dictated by invisible hands. The
relationship between mysticism and architecture was explored at this level.
In 1875, at the founding meeting of the Theosophical Society in New
York, a Mr J.G. Felt gave a lecture entitled “The Lost Canon of Propor-
tion of the Egyptians.” Citing a formula known only to initiates, Mr Felt

Symbolism in the Writing of William Richard Lethaby

proposed to discover the practice of incantation used by the ancients to

raise spirits as well as pyramids. Rudolf Steiner, a more well-known
Theosophist who later rejected the movement in favour of his own reli-
gion, Anthroposophy, extended his theory of curative education into the
building of schools and hospitals. See Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s
Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought
Spiritualism to America (1993; New York: Schocken Books 1995), 50–3.
25 Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse-Louis Constant 1809?–1875), The Mysteries of
Magic: A Digest of the Writings of Éliphas Lévi, trans. Arthur Edward
Waite (1886; Mokelumne Hill, ca: Health Research 1996), xix. Lévi’s main
works on magic are Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (Paris: G. Baillière
1856), Histoire de la magie: Avec une exposition claire et précise de ses
procédés, de ses rites, et de ses mystères (1860; Paris: Éditions de la Maisnie
1976), and La clef des grands mystères (Paris: G. Baillière 1861). In 1862
he started the series Philosophie occulte with Fables et symboles (Paris: G.
Baillière), followed by La science des esprits (Paris: G. Baillière 1865).
26 Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, 142.
27 Lévi, La clef des grands mystères, 207.
28 Lévi, The Mysteries of Magic, xl.
29 Alois Riegl, Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament
(1893), trans. E. Kain (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992).
30 A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), The Andaman Islanders (Cambridge:
The University Press 1922).
31 Arthur H. Mackmurdo, “The Spiritual in Art,” Hobby Horse 1 (1884):
32 William Richard Lethaby, “Art and the Function of Guilds” (1896) in
Form in Civilisation (London: Oxford University Press 1922), 205.
33 W.R. Lethaby, “Some Northhamptonshire Steeples,” Art Journal (1889):
231. Quoted in Godfrey Rubens, William Richard Lethaby: His Life and
Work, 1857–1931 (London: Architectural Press 1986), 94.
34 John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (1851–53; London: Collins 1960) 179.
35 William Richard Lethaby, Architecture, Nature and Magic (New York: G.
Braziller 1956), 88.
36 Rubens, Lethaby, 94.
37 “And upon pelers gete, of Jasper longe / I sawgh a temple of glas ifound-
ed strange.” Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, title page.
38 Ibid., 208.
39 Ibid., 140.

Joanna Merwood

40 Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (Cambridge,
ma: mit Press 1960), 45.
41 Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism (1914; London: The
Architectural Press 1980). For a wider discussion of Scott’s sources in Ger-
man theories of Einfühlung see David Watkin’s introduction. Scott reject-
ed the Ruskinian Gothic revival that had dominated English architecture
since the mid-nineteenth century in favour of a renewed classicism influ-
enced by Wölfflin’s writings on the Baroque.
42 Lethaby, Architecture, Nature and Magic, 15.
43 Ibid., 140.
44 Mary Cowling, The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type
and Character in Victorian Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
1989), 87.
45 Honigmann, Development of Anthropological Ideas, 116.
46 Later writers in French sociology, such as Durkheim, Hubert, and Mauss,
proposed that societal institutions such as law and religion were to be
studied separately from individual behaviour. They believed that there is a
collective consciousness that differs from individual psychological consid-
erations. Ibid., 175.
47 Lethaby, Architecture, Nature and Magic, 18.
48 Wilhelm Worringer, Form in Gothic (1912), ed. and trans. by Sir Herbert
Read (London: A. Tiranti 1957).
49 Worringer, Form in Gothic, 17.
50 W.R. Lethaby, “The Adventure of Architecture” (1910), in Form in Civi-
lization (London: Oxford University Press 1922), 92.
51 Mark Girouard, Sweetness and Light: The Queen Anne Movement
1860–1900 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1977), 227.
52 Lethaby, Architecture: An Introduction to the History and Theory of the
Art of the Building (London: Williams and Norgate 1912), 245.
53 Lethaby, Architecture, Nature and Magic, 16.
54 Lethaby, “The Adventure of Architecture,” 67.
55 Lethaby, Architecture, 239.
56 Ibid., 68.
57 It was not only in building but in architectural history that Lethaby
lamented this failing. In the conclusion to Architecture, Nature and Magic
he wrote, “Modern histories of old ‘architecture’ have been accounts of
how mere forms appeared to our eyes apart from any meaning they might
have” (144).

Gordon Matta-Clark’s Circling the
Circle of the Caribbean Orange

Michel Moussette

Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle

Yes. This is a Caribbean Orange – or a winter circus. Every-

body knows that circuses go south in the winter, right? So
it’s a winter circus. It’s a circus because it sets a stage for peo-
ple, sets a kind of stage from the ground up. Circus – basi-
cally, the reason for “Circus” in my own dyslexic manner
means “circle” through which you operate. It means a circle
in which you circle – a place of activity, a circle for action.
Gordon Matta-Clark1

architecture as middle zone. A place between sky and earth.

Closed upon itself. Where everything is either too shallow or too deep.
At zero and infinity there is not much to be experienced. No wind no sun
no rain. Only dust. Dust coming in. From everywhere. Inexorably relent-
lessly etc. Dust accumulates. Has to be carried away. In garbage bags
bins crates trucks etc. Dust layers over dust layers. Everywhere. Some-
one once initiated dust breeding. Élevage de poussière. And it reached
quite a price per square inch. But no repeat. Wonder why. You can won-
der why. Anyway the second law of thermodynamics is clear. Someday
probably not tomorrow or the day after everything will have trans-
formed into dust. That is in fact rather cold dust. The sighting of a dust
cloud will be quite an event. Comparable in our terms to a coup de
foudre. Or to the close encounter with the moon of a faraway planet.
The universe as a big dust-producing machine. Zero infinity and dust.
But that is only if you believe in progress. That is only if you don’t have
circles on your mind.
Machines everywhere. Autistic children often dream that they are
machines. Or geometrical figures. Vacuum cleaners washing machines
and televisions. Office buildings shopping malls and bungalows. All
machines. Imagine that something not quite right is going on. Or maybe
do not imagine at all. Just build a machine and couple it to another
machine. “Where?” is our problem. For now.
The middle zone. Again. Maybe it is possible to incorporate the under-
ground the sky and the building. Someone who played chess as a kid
with our previously mentioned Dust Breeder once said that. Well maybe
that is possible. We shall see. Maybe when the sentences get longer and
the quotation marks begin to multiply. When the concepts are exposed
and the power tools put to work. Then maybe something will happen.
We shall see. Things take years to happen and we do not want to talk

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting. Englewood, NJ, 1974

years. Nor do we want to write years. So let’s quote someone. Right now.
Otherwise we shall not be convincing anyone. Worthy of that name.
Anyone. And as Gordon Matta-Clark says, “You have to walk.”2
Opening the middle zone. What does that mean. Two things mainly.
Two verbs actually. To capture and to unbalance. But that has to be qual-
ified. We cannot stop here and unveil the lively bibliography. Not right
now. We would not have convinced anyone. So let’s cut it out. The cap-
ture. How do you capture the wind the sun and the rain. How do you
capture the underground. The answer is, you have to build a machine. A
capture machine. And to do so you have to dance au pas-de-deux, learn-
ing the building’s own particular ways. To dance with the building is to
make the building dance. Is to make everyone dance in a tangle of light
feet. A specialist of the hammer once wrote that “one must still have
chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”3
So we become the building and the building becomes us. Part of us is
trapped in the building. Part of the building is trapped in us.4 We enter
the becoming of the building. We plunge into surfaces. Into the con-
densed strata that are the traces of process. Of years. But still no ques-
tion marks. Not right now. We shall come back to surfaces later.
First we shall hunt. Very quickly. Just as an example. The act of killing
is secondary in hunting. Most important is the becoming. The good
moose hunter occupies a volume that is not human. He breaks branch-
es eight feet above the ground and makes too much noise when drinking

Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle

at the lake. Breathing and walking follow what appears at first as non-
rhythm. A moose rhythm.5
Second we shall dance. Not too quickly. Because dancing with a build-
ing is not so easy. Just try. And see. Finding the centre is everything. Not
the geometrical centre. That would be too easy. Rather an elusive centre.
One that can never be totally circumscribed. “I work similarly to the
way gourmets hunt for truffles. I mean, a truffle is a fantastic thing
buried somewhere in the ground. Very fleshy, esteemed as a prize food.
So what I try to find is the subterranean kernel. Sometimes I find it.
Sometimes I don’t.”6 Another quotation. To get the ingredients going. “I
see in the formal aspect of past building works a constant concern with

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting. Englewood, NJ, 1974

the center of each structure. Even before the Splitting, and Pier
52 projects, which were direct exercises in centering and recentering, I
would usually go to what I saw as the heart of the spatial-structural con-
stant that could be called the hermetic part of my work, because it
relates to an inner-personal gesture, by which the microcosmic self is
related to the whole.”
Centring machines and capture machines. Machines that capture. But
no domestication involved here. Sky remains sky. Wind remains wind.
Ask how so. Answer. Because you are walking. Because you have to

Michel Moussette

walk. There are no images. Maybe some layered close-ups. But certain-
ly no outside. Only an inside where everything plays and dances. Even
as death lurks around the corner as it is fond of doing.
But this might sound vague. So let’s get back to machines. Unbalanc-
ing machines. Ugly. Replace. Vertigo machines. Yes. Vertigo machines
that bring us into motion with the sky, the underground and the build-
ing. “To visit his final works was to be seized by vertigo, as one suddenly
realized that one could not differentiate between the vertical section and
the horizontal plan (a perceptual undifferentiation particularly danger-
ous in a piece of Swiss cheese full of holes reflecting one into the other
and in all directions), as if in order to learn ‘what space is,’ it was first
necessary that we lose our grip as erect beings.”7 That the carpet, the old
linoleum, and the plywood all be pulled at once from under our feet. But
not to get to any profound depths. Rather to live within the surface. To
fall in all directions at once. In the surface. Or maybe rather to explore
an extremely densified shallow depth. Where the real and the imaginary
are compressed together. “Aspects of stratification probably interest me
more than the unexpected views which are generated by the removals –
not the surface, but the thin edge, the severed surface that reveals the
autobiographical process of its making.”
This points to a movement that can be followed. Maybe. To put it
simply: from depth towards surface. Like Alice. Wasn’t depth the start-
ing point? If we may say so. So depth as starting point. Digging under
the foundations of an art gallery to expose from below the building’s
“enormous compressive confining forces.” Building houses high-up
in the trees. Crawling through a rope tunnel over a ravine at two hun-
dred feet above the closest ground. Always to gain a vantage point.
Above and below the plane of the Middle Zone. And later. Cutting every
column of an art gallery at midpoint and inserting a small metal cube in
which the entire building’s forces would have been concentrated. Split-
ting in two an entire house.8 Along a line at midpoint. The centre at the
centre springs into mind. There is something literal about these actions.
There is also depth to them. Not much to do with machines. At this
point. So far. But watch this. “Physically penetrating the surface seemed
the logical next step.”
The next step is away from elements as such. Establishing fields.9 The
next step dances with “what is already there.” However inappropriate
“what is already there” may seem. “There is a kind of complexity which

Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle

Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect. Paris, 1975

comes from taking an otherwise completely normal, conventional, albeit

anonymous situation and redefining it, retranslating it into overlapping
and multiple readings of conditions past and present.”
So. Matta-Clark and surfaces. Not quite the first thing that springs to
mind. Maybe we are walking in the wrong direction. Maybe we should
have waited somewhere. But then. First things that spring to mind do
not lead anywhere. They stand. Domesticating the unknown by means
of the familiar is best left to museum builders and cattle raisers. Some-
thing like that. Moose and truffles respond differently. And our concern
here is machines. Machines are not deep. Machines are not moral.
Machines produce. Machines couple with other machines. Dance. Cut.
Centre. Walk. Boil. Dance. Fall. Mix. Dance. Walk. Capture. Blend.
Cook. Chop. Centre. Cut.

Michel Moussette

The machines produce layer upon layer. Layered surfaces for which
there is a great demand. Square feet are doing quite well. For now. Lay-
ers can be taken out of context and put into crates. Beautiful wooden
crates. And then taken all over the world. Valencia. Santiago. Chicago.
To name just a few as there will be many more. In the proper environ-
ment these surfaces will last for very long. Temperature at about twenty
degrees Celsius and humidity at about 30 percent. No direct sunlight.
Even better. Imagine. There are photographs. Most of them taken by the
artist himself. They are powerful. Very wonderful. Their size is impres-
sive. They convey. Beautifully.
But you have to wonder. Matta-Clark certainly did. The exhibits are a
“profound dilemma.” There is a “price to pay” and “my work pays more.”
“The installation materials end up making a confusing reference to what
is not there.” How does one answer this relentless demand for surface?
“The desire for exhibiting the leftover pieces hopefully will diminish as
time goes by. This may be useful for people whose mentality is oriented
towards possession. Amazing, the way people steal stones from the Acrop-
olis. Even if they are good stones they are not the Acropolis.”
The extracted surfaces come in many sizes and shapes. Some are soft
some are hard some are carpeted some are clad. They are the leftovers
of leftovers. And some order is now most obviously required. We could
build an imaginary museum for the extracted surfaces. That would cer-
tainly be a break. Not even trying to go beyond our analogous thinking.
Our architected thinking.10 Our orderly thinking so needful of examples.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect.

Paris, 1975
Photowork. Gordon Matta-Clark,
Splitting. Englewood, NJ, 1974

A sculptor sculpted lonely elongated figures. Build him a long corridor

connected to a thin tower right in the middle of nowhere. A painter paint-
ed horror in dark basements while the war raged high above. Build him
a labyrinth of concrete with only screams of light coming in. Another
painter painted painting after painting of fluttering wild geese. Then build
him a huge barn on stilts with roof-doors open to the sky of a slow river.
And along this direct track. What can we make of Matta-Clark?
Geometry springs to mind immediately. So geometry we shall follow for
the time being.

1.0 The first step is to build a surface we may inhabit. This will be the
beginning of our museum. Sort of an index for the leftover pieces. A
simple two-dimensional plane. Easily representable on a piece of
paper. Or in one’s head.
1.1 Our first axis is time itself. We shall call it the Building Works Line.
It goes from looking for the centre at the centre to falling in all direc-
tions at once. Something like this: Treshole, Datum Cuts, Splitting,, Pier 52, Conical Intersect, Office Baroque, Caribbean

Michel Moussette

1.2 Our second axis is all about representation. We shall call it the
Extracted Surfaces Line. To keep things simple we shall concentrate
on photographies. Some eventual “others” can put some order into
Matta-Clark’s other extracted surfaces. Into the heavy wall sections
and into the unsteady grainy silent black-and-white movies. This
is how our second line goes: Documentation Photographs, Walk-
through Photographs, Photoworks that are a “sort of documenta-
tion/time evolution of the piece,” Photoworks that are a “kind of
narrative which is subject to all kinds of variations.”11
2.0 The second step is to obtain a volume by projecting the surface of
the index into space. This can be done only by following our two
lines. Our two curved lines as we shall see.
2.1 Extracted Surfaces Line. In some of the Photoworks there no longer
exists a “confusing reference” made to an experience outside the
gallery. No direct attempt to be faithful to a “beyond.” These Pho-
toworks use the Building Work “as a kind of stage” and “as a point
of departure.” They are a simple play that produces an image where
all sense of gravity is lost. Where the Swiss Cheese Vertigo roams
again. And most of them were produced by a direct work on the neg-
atives. Collaging and montaging. The performance of the cut then
becomes something important. Almost structural. You have only one
chance. Sort of. The time of the cut becomes related to the time of
the exposed photograph. To the time of the experienced photograph.
Tape cut and negative margins are visible. The traces of the collag-
ing and montaging are left in a manner qualified as “deliberately
artificial.” And this certainly points to interesting directions. The
most obvious is a circular one.
2.2 Building Works Line. Another circling back toward a “point of
departure.” Quickly. As usual. Matta-Clark. By moving from centre
to periphery comes back to centre. Moving toward the surface gets
back to depth. Using “what is already there” connects to what is
3.0 But if our lines circle back toward the origin, they still do not inter-
sect it. In other words we have spirals and not circles. We would
have circles only if we stood very far above our surface and main-
tained a complete immobility in relation to our coordinate system.
4.0 Our museum now could be described by the points corresponding to
spiraling axes set in two different planes. The irregular surfaces

Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle

would be many and hard to sweep clean. The infinite janitor skewed
into space could leave only the wind and rain to clean up the build-
ing. But it might be time for us to move on. Out of these conditions.
To circle new circles. To look at them from all sides. Peering from
above. Investigating from below. Setting it all into motion and going
wherever they go. So we are leaving geometry. And going back to
machines. Already.

Machines that add layer upon layer. Taking the initial condition and
“redefining it, retranslating it into multiple readings of conditions, past
or present.” Pushing the established limits so that the elements lose their
hierarchy.12 In fact, the elements disappear. The threshold, the staircase,
and the column are gone. Only a field is left. A field of elements? Maybe.
It does not really make any difference. The multiple layers are pushed
toward a limit. Compressed within a surface. An “about to be disinte-
grated level.” Compress and Flatten. In Caribbean Orange the raindrops
are horizontal and the sun shines from underground. The orange is

Leftover pieces. Gordon Matta-Clark, Bingo. Niagara Falls, NY, 1974

Gordon Matta-Clark, Caribbean Orange. Chicago, 1978

sliced diagonally. Typical Caribbean fashion. We could not care less

about being orthogonal. A whole set of right angles has just gone down
the drain. Elements have stopped relating to another level. Elements
have never related so strongly to another level. They have never been so
alive and so dead. In their very own way. But we are not stopping any-
where. Be it an orange peel or a raindrop, a surface or a storm. We are
following a movement. That of the section revealing the “thin edge, the
severed surface.”
All this could easily lead to a tale of infinity and transcendence with
famous philosophers and poets as main characters. Or to Piranesi and
the importance of walking and crawling in relation to the infinite. But it
won’t. Not this time. Rather. Surface and geometry as others. Others
that can be brought within the vicinity of life but that always remain
unfamiliar. Vertiginous. And if life is all about depth is there a precise
point, an actual hinge between depth and surface? Is this what these
machines are all about? The artist is alive. A-live. Easy enough to under-
stand. He is subject to tides, like all of us. Or is it the waves that pull at
the moon? Anyhow, when twin-brother Batan jumps out the window of
Matta-Clark’s seventh floor studio, depth kicks back in. Forget Pier 52.
Forget Conical Intersect. Dig Descending Steps For Batan in humid
earth. In lightless cold basement. And from then on, something was
wrong. Something in deep centre was wrong. Death was lurking around
the corner.
But quickly back to surfaces. Last cut. The act of cutting. As more
important for Matta-Clark than the extracted surfaces. Or even the
“final” result. The simple tracing of the dissection lines already making
the machine vibrate. Layers beginning to project. Space. “I don’t know

Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle

what the word space means either. I keep using it. But I am not quite sure
what it means.”13 The word space. And then the cut itself through the
strata. Through the first layers of sedimentation. That wonderful thin
edge. Through the structure. The whole house creaking. Sawdust flying
everywhere. Maybe it is best when dealing with dust to get a job at the
Bibliothèque Nationale and write books. Maybe not. Just another layer.
Even if the blade might kick back. Anytime. At certain moments more
than others. Push the tool over its limits. But do not force it. Do not force
it. Twice is enough. Do not force it. Thrice is too much. So you’d be bet-
ter to chop it up. Chop mushrooms, seaweed, frog legs. Mix with mar-
row and rice. Stuff beef bone. Once all is eaten make necklace with bone
and wave bye-bye to satisfied customer. Food was important. We could
not have afforded to waste Food. But certain words have been forgotten.
Some very important. Let’s name them. Non.u.mental. An.architecture.
Capitalization of first letter as permanent feature. Important projects
also forgotten. Let’s not name them. Almost named them. Almost is
often. If only we could stand. But that would be the end. For a couple of
minutes. The building projects all destroyed. Interventions as specific.
Calibrated. To that exactly. To dust exactly. To nothing left standing.
Surface and depth. Depth and surface. Dust. But goes on. Dancing. We
shall see. With circles and machines and other machines. We shall see.
Only thing important. Known. You have to walk. You can only walk.


1 Judith Russi Kirshner, “Interview with Gordon Matta-Clark,” in Gordon

Matta-Clark, ed. Corinne Diserens (Valencia: ivam Centre Julio Gonzalez
1992), 392.
2 Kirshner, “Interview with Gordon Matta-Clark,” 390.
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann
(New York: Penguin 1978), 17.
4 Artist Dennis Oppenheim marvelled at how Matta-Clark managed to trap
deep parts of himself within his Building Works. See his comments in Gor-
don Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, ed. Mary-Jane Jacobs (Chicago: Muse-
um of Contemporary Art 1986), 21.
5 Painter Jean-Paul Riopelle’s observations on hunting can be found in
Riopelle, Oeuvres Vives, ed. Michel Tétreault (Montreal: Art International

Michel Moussette

1993). Riopelle spent most of his life painting wild geese. He now lives
peacefully on Île-aux-Oies, where he roams around in a hearse.
6 From Donald Wall’s interview with Gordon Matta-Clark, in “Gordon
Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections,” Arts Magazine 50, no. 2 (May 1976):
79. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are from this interview.
7 Yve-Alain Bois, “Treshole,” in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Form-
less: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books 1996), 191. For what ap-
pears to be an interesting influence on Matta-Clark, see the work of his
father, Roberto Matta-Echauren, especially “Mathématique Sensible –
Architecture du temps,” Minotaure 11 (1938): 43, an article describing a
true vertigo machine that would bring human verticality to the forefront
of consciousness.
8 The cuts do have a certain violence and crudeness to them. They are an
attack on a certain way of life and were certainly read that way, espe-
cially in Europe, where a “politicized public” accused Matta-Clark of
“exploiting the sanctity of domestic space.” Matta-Clark’s work certainly
does tap into this sanctity but the objective is not to overcome the system.
It is rather an idea of subversion that deploys itself within the existent per-
ceptual, social, and built frameworks. For more on Matta-Clark not
equating “his cuttings with the wanton destruction of buildings,” see
Pamela L. Lee, “On the Holes of History: Gordon Matta-Clark’s Work in
Paris,” October 85 (summer 1998): 65–89.
9 Transforming elements into fields is a favourite strategy of what might
be named, quite inappropriately, Anti-Architecture. See Michel Parent,
Vauban (Paris: Fréal 1971): 96–104, for an illustration of Sébastien Le
Prestre de Vauban’s défense en profondeur, where elements are progres-
sively multiplied and disseminated over a field. In a striking parallel in
hockey, the Buffalo Sabres’ Dominik Haçek has revolutionized goaltend-
ing by departing from the butterfly style to invent a completely new “hor-
izontal” style.
10 I am not being ironic here. A nice and appropriately architectural exam-
ple of using a “space of thought” and its discourse to get somewhere
else is Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
(New York: Pantheon 1977). Also see Michel de Certeau’s commentary,
“Micro-Techniques and Panoptic Discourses: A Quid pro Quo,” in
Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis, mn: University of
Minnesota Press 1986).

Matta-Clark’s Circling the Circle

11 For a revealing discussion of the Photoworks, see Kirshner, “Interview

with Gordon Matta-Clark,” 393–4.
12 There is a critical tendency to bunch all of Matta-Clark’s works together
and hence to downplay any development. An understanding of the
absence of hierarchy in the later work of Matta-Clark can however be
found in Yve-Alain Bois, “Treshole,” 280–1n15.
13 Kirshner, “Interview with Gordon Matta-Clark,” 394.


1943 Birth of Gordon Matta-Clark and his twin brother, Batan.

1963 Poetry studies at La Sorbonne, Paris.
1964–9 Architectural studies at Cornell University with Richard Meier,
Michael Graves, et al. Meets Robert Smithson and works in collabo-
ration with Dennis Oppenheim.
1969 Land of Milk and Honey, lone survivor of a series of “paintings”
done with wine, food, and agar.
1970. Almost begins to work for Richard Meier. Hole project unsuccessful-
ly attempts to reveal gallery foundations from underneath. Things are
not going well.
1972 Datum Cuts. Open House. Trip to South America.
1973 Treshole. Reality Properties: Fake Estates. Purchase and documenta-
tion of fifteen totally unusable interstitial spaces auctioned off at
twenty-five dollars apiece by New York City. “A foot or two of some-
one’s driveway but most of it is gutter space and curbstone.” Beauti-
ful photographs.
1974 Splitting and Bingo (
1975 Day’s End (Pier 52). Conical Intersect (Quel Can) in Paris. Opening
of the restaurant FOOD. Special unforgettable meals including Bone
Meal and Live Sea Shrimp in Hardboiled Egg Meal.
1976 Window Blow-Out at Cornell. Descending Steps for Batan. Jacob’s
Ladder rope bridge in Kassels.
1977 Office Baroque in Antwerp. Sous-sol de Paris movie.
1978 Caribbean Orange (Winter Circus) in Chicago. Plans for Time Sphere
Launch on Times Square. Marriage with Jane Crawford. Death from
cancer at age 35.

All works by Gordon Matta-Clark (and pictures of the artist) are reproduced
courtesy of the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, Weston, ct.
Geometry of Terror:
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Juhani Pallasmaa

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Hitchcock … is so emotional that he pretends to be

thinking only of the money.
François Truffaut1

mathematics of the stage

with its precision of mathematical thought, Rear Window (1954)

is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s most perfectly constructed film. It takes
place during four days, from Wednesday to Saturday, and the events are
filmed from the window of one apartment and mostly through the eyes
of one person: the magazine photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart),
confined to a wheelchair with his leg in plaster.
Everything takes place in a block of apartments at 125 West Ninth
Street in Greenwich Village, at the south end of Manhattan – or more
precisely, within the buildings surrounding the courtyard. The address is
made up; in reality this part of the street has no such number, because it
changes into Christopher Street before reaching number 125. The fic-
tional address presumably is due to a practice established by the Motion
Picture Association of America, which requires that a film crime shall
not take place at a real address.2 However, 125 Christopher Street was
the address of the film murderer before the street name was changed,
and the apartment block in the film was modelled on an actual building
located at this address.
Most of the buildings around the courtyard are typical American ten-
ements built in the grim Federal Brick style. On the extreme right is a
multistorey plastered building next to a four-storey brick house, and
directly in front is a small two-storey building, to the left of which is an
alley leading to the street. On the extreme left, another red brick build-
ing is so high that the upper storeys never appear in the film. The partly
paved and planted courtyard has various levels, and at the right rear is
a part jutting out with a roof terrace joined to a glass-fronted studio flat.
L.B. Jeffries’s home is a two-room apartment. The film takes place in
the living room, which has a kitchenette separated by cupboards. It con-
tains a bay window overlooking the yard, a fireplace, a door to the bed-
room (various essays on the film refer to a bathroom, but there is no
other place in the flat where the implied bedroom could be located), and
a front door three steps up from the floor. The bedroom door is opened
only once, when the protagonist’s girlfriend Lisa goes in to change into

Jeff surveying his neighbours
through the telephoto lens
of his camera

Jeff and Detective Doyle

her nightgown. This mysterious room, which is never shown to the audi-
ence, is a familiar Hitchcockian psychological theme that appears also in
the film Rebecca, in which the door of a locked room is never opened.
During the period of Jeff’s convalescence, a high bed has been moved
into the bay, and other furnishings have been moved to allow for his
immobility and treatment.
The extreme spatial restrictions of Rear Window – the film is seen
from the perspective of a person bound to one spot and everything takes
place within one huge set – was a stimulating challenge for Hitchcock:
“It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an
immobilised man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second
part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is
actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.”3

Reconstruction of Jeff’s apartment 7 carpet;
(drawing by the author): 8 low drawer;
1 bay window, with three windows that 9 easy chair;
can be opened; 10 low table;
2 high bed; 11 lamp suspended from ceiling;
3 side table; 12 table lamp;
4 kitchen furniture; 13 fireplace;
5 open shelves in three parts, with 14 three steps up to the door;
photographs, etc. below cupboards; 15 trunk;
on the opposite side, presumably 16 possibly a balcony for the bedroom;
kitchen cupboards;
6 table with broken camera, photographs,

Reconstruction of the courtyard 14 ground floor: Miss Lonelyhearts’s
(drawing by the author): kitchen; first floor: the Thorwalds’
1 Jeff’s apartment; kitchen; and second floor: dog owner
2 stair/hallway; couple’s kitchen
3 bedroom (never shown in the film); 15 ground floor: Miss Lonelyhearts’s living
4 lower courtyard; room; first floor: the Thorwalds’ living
5 part of the songwriter’s studio room; second floor: dog owner couple’s
apartment; living room;
6 roof terrace attached to the studio 16 ground floor: Miss Lonelyhearts’s
apartment; bedroom; first floor: the Thorwalds’
7 ground floor: the sculptress’s apartment; bedroom; second floor: dog owner
first floor: Miss Torso’s room; couple’s bedroom;
8 first floor: Miss Torso’s balcony; 17 Mr Thorwald’s flower bed;
9 first floor: Miss Torso’s bathroom; 18 lady with a bird cage;
10 ground floor: the sculptress’s terrace; 19 room of the newly married couple;
11 stair to Miss Torso’s balcony; 20 passage to the street;
12 corridor (on all three floors); 21 restaurant with Miss Lonelyhearts’s table
13 balcony with emergency stair;

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

the characters in the film

Walter Benjamin’s description of the theatrical character of the town-

scape of Naples is an exact picture of the combined stage and auditori-
um in Rear Window: “Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are
all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony,
courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stage
and boxes.”4
The tenants observed through the windows of their apartments are
like a collection of butterflies in glass-covered cases – the director even
puts this idea into the mouth of the photographer: “They can … watch
me like a bug under glass, if they want to.” The tenants form a cross-
section of New York’s colourful populace: a songwriter-composer, a
young dancer keeping her figure trim, a sculptress, a middle-aged spin-
ster longing for male company, passionate newlyweds, a childless couple
doting over their little dog, a salesman (Raymond Burr) and his invalid
nagging wife, and the film’s protagonist, the magazine photographer
L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) and his wealthy, fashion-conscious girl-
friend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who lives in the high-rent district of
Park Avenue and Sixty-third Street “and never wears the same dress
twice.” There’s a heat wave going on, so everyone keeps their windows
open, and to while away the time the convalescent photographer in his
wheelchair begins to observe what’s happening in the courtyard.
“The field of vision has always seemed to me comparable to the
ground of archeological excavation,” writes Paul Virilio.5 Despite being
so contrived and restricted, the apartment block in the film is a rich
excavation of city life, in which the layers are exposed only gradually.
The tenants form a closed community for whom the outside world
appears distant; it is seen in the film only as a painted silhouette and a
narrow view of the street. “What you see across the way is a group of
little stories that … mirror a small universe,” Hitchcock said about the
world in his movie.6 Lower-middle-class life was familiar to him from
his own childhood in the suburbs of London.
The first images of the film give a cheerfully humorous description of
daily activities of the inhabitants and pigeons within the enclosed realm
of the courtyard. A black cat running across the stairs in front provides
a subtle, superstitious omen. As the story advances, the air becomes
heavier, shadows grow darker, and the sense of gravity increases. The

The murderer and his wife

space begins to wrap around the viewer like a dark, strangling garment.
The tenants never encounter each other, except for a brief exchange of
words between the sculptress and the salesman at the beginning of the
film, which the salesman crudely terminates with “Why don’t you shut
up.” Although the tenants have outside friends, they remain strangers to
each other. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbour,” says
the strangled dog’s owner to her neighbours in this most dramatic scene
in the film. Not until the scream following the discovery of the strangled
dog do they come into the courtyard space; meanwhile, the darkened
windows reveal the dog strangler and wife murderer withdrawn from
the group. He can be seen smoking a glowing cigarette in his darkened
apartment. The darkness of this window, reminiscent of René Magritte’s
painting La réponse imprévue (1933), is undoubtedly one of the most
evocative darknesses in cinema. An equally tangible void is the silence of
the telephone at the moment Jeff realizes he has confirmed his identity
to the murderer. In this scene the camera moves temporarily and unno-
ticed into the courtyard to view the characters from below as a single
wide-angle shot from the perspective of the strangled dog. This deviation
brings about one of the most dramatic scenes in the film. “The size of
the image is used for dramatic purposes,” says Hitchcock about his cin-
ematic dramaturgy.7

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

the logic of terror

The suspense in the film is based on the irrefutable logic of terror. Hitch-
cock slowly builds in the audience a stream of suspense that he dams
until the final cataractic release. Hitchcock planned his film so precisely
that after it had been edited, only a few dozen metres of film remained
on the cutting-room floor.8
As an artistic masterpiece, Rear Window weaves innumerable details
into a faultless fabric in which allusions and hints criss-cross unending-
ly in all directions. Every episode or line appears to contain meanings
and allusions. Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), the nickname given to the
shapely dancer, intimates mutilation, the central theme of the film. The
little dog is killed because “it knew too much,” an allusion to the film
Hitchcock directed twice (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 and
1956). Hitchcock even wrote an enigmatic article about his wife Alma
entitled “The Woman Who Knew Too Much.”9 The words of the songs
heard in the background always relate ambiguously to the scene.
Colours, too, contain meanings: for example, Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith
Evelyn) is coded in green; her dresses are always shades of emerald
green, and there are no other green clothes in the film. Rear Window is
an exceptionally visual film; the sections without dialogue constitute 35
percent of the entire film.
Hitchcock’s initial idea was to have the musical background consist
entirely of the piece of music gradually composed by the songwriter dur-
ing the course of the film. He has expressed his dissatisfaction with the
music in the film,10 although his idea is realized to the extent that the
songwriter plays his new record to Miss Lonelyhearts at the end of the
film; this episode, in fact, starts one of the stories that will develop after
the film has ended. The composition is entitled “Lisa,” in accordance
with the female protagonist.
Rear Window is truly a masterpiece of artistic condensation: its rich-
ness and logic are revealed only after seeing it several times. But great
works always contain a great number of redundancies, depths, and lev-
els. The narrative logic of the film, its architectural messages, role char-
acterizations, atmospheres and secret hints, camera angles and shot
compositions, space and image details, and words and music constitute a
mosaic that builds up the suspense with the infallibility of the geometrist.

Juhani Pallasmaa

The film ends like a geometrical exercise at school – qed – which was to
be demonstrated. “Clarity, clarity, clarity, you cannot have blurred think-
ing in suspense,” as Hitchcock says.11

the situationality of meaning

Hitchcock stresses the importance of pictorial and material expression

and makes the narrative dialogue subservient: “Dialogue should simply
be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the
mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”12 Hitchcock
is interested less in the stories than in the way they are told. “The impact
of the image is of the first importance in a medium that directs the con-
centration of the eye so that it cannot stray. In the theatre, the eye wan-
ders, while the word commands. In the cinema, the audience is led
wherever the director wishes.”13
Hitchcock’s ability to reveal the hidden feelings and moods of the
characters with a simple gesture, rhythm, or camera angle frees the dia-
logue for its contrapuntal purpose. Accompanying the everyday pictori-
al narrative, lines are spoken that have quite surprising or absurd
dimensions, such as the insurance nurse-therapist Stella’s (Thelma Rit-
ter) story of how she foresaw the Great Crash of ’29 from the number
of times her patient, the boss of General Motors, visited the toilet:
“When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, soon
the whole nation is ready to let go,” she remarks.
“Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake,” Hitchcock has
said in his characteristic capricious humour.14 This presumably implies
that his films do not attempt to imitate the realism of everyday life but
are artistic constructs, cinematic still-lifes whose minute details form a
perfect, logical structure. A work of art is always a deliberate condensa-
tion and representation, whereas everyday life is too loose and unfo-
cused to be a story. “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits
cut out?” Hitchcock concludes.15 Another meaning of Hitchcock’s
metaphor of a slice of cake is, of course, the simultaneously entertaining
and metaphysical essence of his films – the image of a cake makes one
think of cinematic slap-stick humour, but on the other hand Hitchcock’s
films are the metaphysics of a perfect, enclosed world. “The fact is, I
practise absurdity quite religiously,” he confesses.16

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

the extraneous and the contradictory

The extraneousness of the events, their intermingling and occasional

triviality – such as the helicopter at the beginning of the film hovering
over the buildings to gawk at the bathing beauties on the flat roof –
increase the credibility and irrevocability of the main story in much the
same way that mundane and incidental details appear in the epic works
of the great painters of history. Titian’s monumental painting Presen-
tation of the Virgin brings a touch of ordinary life through irrelevant
episodes: a countrywoman selling eggs, a boy playing with a dog, and a
mother with a child in her lap, talking to a monk. A story achieves the
aura of real life when it does not proceed too linearly and obviously; the
individual will of the narrator-director controlling the events appears to
submit to the overriding power of destiny.
Fear and love are contradictory and mutually exclusive emotions. In
Rear Window suspense and fear often develop alongside the love affairs:
the scenes in which Lisa and Jeff are kissing, the intimacy of the newly-
weds behind the drawn blinds, the men fawning over Miss Torso, and
the lovelorn Miss Lonelyhearts. Even the murderer is having an illicit
love affair.
Alongside the yearning and problematics of love, there are powerful
erotic suggestions and sexual symbols, such as Lisa’s pining for love and
Miss Torso’s erotic teasing. On the other hand, Jeff rebuffs Lisa’s ap-
proaches but obviously is interested in observing the intimate life of the
dancer from a distance. Jeff has both phallic symbols (the telephoto cam-
era) and manifestations of frigidity and impotence (a leg in plaster and
immobility). Jeff’s rebuffing of Lisa and his occasional rudeness are not
explained by their difference in class or customs, as he would have it.
The events in the lives of the tenants develop independently of the
main story, but occasionally the climaxes of these separate stories are
connected: for example, Miss Lonelyhearts’s preparations for suicide at
the same time that Lisa faces a dangerous situation in the murderer’s
apartment. Hitchcock creates a feeling of terror through carefully juxta-
posed scenes when the mind is most receptive, such as when a blood-
curdling scream from the yard interrupts Lisa displaying her enticing
lingerie, when the murderer is cleaning the butcher’s knife and little saw
while children can be heard playing, or when Lisa is kissing Jeff while
his mind is preoccupied with the significance of the murder weapons.

Jeff considers the significance of Mr Thorwald’s kitchen tools while kissing Lisa

The murderer’s gardening hobby also belongs to this series of contradic-

tions. The occasional background sound of a soprano practising scales
simultaneously lulls the audience into a benign sense of security but
invokes a premonition of fear from the higher notes. “Emotion is an
essential ingredient of suspense,” writes Hitchcock.17


The lives of the tenants in Rear Window are observed in the lit rooms
behind uncurtained windows, like separate silent films or tv programs.
The window of the newlyweds, with its white shade pulled down, is like
a cinema screen without a film projected onto it, and the contents of
this film are aptly left to the viewer’s imagination. Peeping into the
apartments through the photographer’s telephoto lens and binoculars is
a bit like channel-swapping with a remote.18 Lisa Fremont’s metaphors
– “It’s opening night of the last oppressing week of L.B. Jeffries in a
cast,” “I bought the whole house,” and “The show’s over for tonight,”
as she pulls down the window shade in front of Jeff’s curious eyes – all
indicate a show. “Preview of coming attractions,” says Lisa, as she
flashes the overnight bag containing her nightgown, is also a reference
to the cinema-like structure of the story. The transfer of the action from
one window to another – as if moving from one screen to another – cre-
ates a comical effect but also brings to mind René Magritte’s painting

René Magritte, L’evidence éternelle (1930).
The Menil Collection, Houston

L’evidence éternelle (1930) of a woman’s

body painted in parts on five separate, jux-
taposed canvases.
Actually, Jeff appears to create the story
of the film in his own mind, as he inter-
prets the meanings of the unrelated events
he observes and almost directs how they
will develop. The whole story might just be
a dream or a hallucination brought on by
his immobility. He also cuts the film into
montages by transferring his view (= cam-
era’s view = spectator’s view) from one
window and episode to the next and by
selecting the image frames and distances
with his own eyes through the alternative
optics of the telephoto camera and binoc-
ulars. Jeff is both the film’s director and
spectator, and Rear Window is a metaphor
for making and viewing a film. The direc-
tor himself confesses the cinematic essence
of the film: “Rear Window is not about
Greenwich Village; it is a film about cine-
ma, and I do know cinema.”19


The narrative of Rear Window is struc-

tured through a number of mirror-images,
reversed relations, and character metamor-
phoses. For instance, as Jeff and Lisa are
enjoying their lobster dinner brought from
a top quality restaurant, Miss Lonelyhearts
has her lonely supper with an imaginary
male companion. Hitchcock has pointed
out an essential reversed symmetry in the
film: the photographer is immobile while
his fiancée moves freely, whereas with the
Thorwald couple on the opposite side of
Juhani Pallasmaa

the courtyard, the wife is bedridden while her husband comes and goes
freely.20 The photographer hero seems to conceal a yielding helplessness,
whereas the coddled fashion girl exhibits reckless courage as she climbs
into the murderer’s flat. She has no escape route, and the frightened hero
verbalizes the fear of the viewer who feels guilty for having allowed the
woman to put herself in this danger. The travelling salesman, who tends
flowers in the garden, is revealed first as an aggressive character, and
finally as the cruel killer of his wife. But at the moment he enters Jeff’s
room, helpless and pitiful, he is capable only of uttering the frustrated
question, “What do you want from me?”
An essential role reversal is the unexpected change from pursued to
pursuer, after the murderer discovers his surveyor. This incident even
reverses the location of the auditorium and the stage. The identity of
the viewer in relation to the protagonist also shifts; most of the time
we see what Jeff sees, but during the three occasions when he is asleep,
we see more.

the realism of the set

The apartments are like stages stacked one upon the other, like urn
recesses in a columbarium, with no access to the rest of the normal
anatomy of an apartment block, to staircases and corridors; only the
flats of the salesman and Miss Lonelyhearts are connected to a corridor.
The young man in the flat just rented on the left reopens the front door,
in order to carry his bride over the threshold, but where the door leads
remains unclear. The block of apartments in the film is like a tree lifted
from its roots, without access to the ground water.
Nor are the plans of the apartments “real,” as they have been flat-
tened against their facades, so that everything can be seen through the
camera in Jeff’s room; such one-sided flats are sometimes called “rail-
road flats.”21 For example, the flats of the Thorwalds and Miss Lonely-
hearts are approached unorthodoxly through a kitchen. And where is
the murderer’s bathroom located, the walls of which he is shown to be
washing? Hitchcock even utilizes the blank wall spaces between win-
dows, out of sight from the camera, and vague reflections in the open
window panes to stimulate the viewer’s imagination and feeling of sus-
pense, for instance, in the sequence when Lisa is in the murderer’s apart-
ment and the policemen finally arrive to save her.

The stage of the film

The apartment block in Hitchcock’s film appears to have been built

like a mountain, a canyon, with excavated flats that apparently lack
another side, despite the audience’s narrow view of a rear street with a
restaurant that appears in the opening between the buildings. The court-
yard and the apartments facing it form a huge stage surrounded by what
appears to be a hidden backstage where the occupants move from the
street to their flats.
The author has been unable to obtain the set drawings for Rear Win-
dow, but we can assume that subtle perspectival distortions have been
made in the geometry of the courtyard as well as the individual rooms.
These deviations from orthogonality would facilitate the intended shots
as seen from Jeffries’s room. The scenographer of a film must know
laws of optics and perception more accurately than an architect. Cer-
tain vertical and horizontal planes presumably have been tilted toward
the sight line of the camera – in the manner of tilted table tops in cubist
paintings – to provide the required visibility and frontality. The wall
for the newlyweds is clearly positioned diagonally, and the back wall
of the Thorwalds’ bedroom is probably also skewed, although it appears
orthogonal. Besides, the film has not been shot consistently from the
protagonist’s room, as it appears to us experientially.

Juhani Pallasmaa

the physical map of the film

Peter Wollen regards the series of places in a film as its structural ele-
ments: “Building up the story of a film … also means drawing a psy-
chical map. In watching a film we form in our minds diagrams of the
relationship between the different places on which the film is construct-
ed, and of those routes the characters use in or between these places.”22
Since most of the routes used by the characters in Rear Window are
hidden in the unknown backstage, the audience cannot form the kind of
psychical map that Wollen mentions. The exit from Jeff’s flat to the
street is somewhere to the left behind the audience. The murderer creep-
ing up the stairs to Jeff’s flat brings the unfamiliar rear of the building
into the audience’s imagination, and it is this unfamiliar rear that maxi-
mizes the threat: at this stage the threat is not just the rather pathetic Mr
Thorwald but the labyrinthine unfamiliarity of the building itself. The
true identities of the tenants, their invisible, intimate life and subcon-
scious, appear to be concealed in this backstage. The threat is not con-
tained in what is shown but in what is not shown. The terror is not in
the scene projected on the screen but in the minds of the audience.

movements in the
courtyard and
through the block
(drawing by the

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

The wheelchair-bound photographer has to leave his front door un-

latched so that his girlfriend, insurance company nurse, and detective
buddy can enter; the three steps leading to the door prevent the wheel-
chair patient from opening it. The knowledge that the door is unlocked
increases the threat of the footsteps creeping up the stairs in the finale of
the film; curiously, one hardly pays attention to this minor architectural
detail before the stairs are emphasized by the threat of the approaching
murderer. An extra dimension of terror is provided by the narrow strip
of light under the door, with its ominous, guillotine-like shape. When the
passage lights suddenly go out as the footsteps reach the door, it’s like
the blade falling.
Hitchcock says that fear was his special cinematic field: “My special
field [I have split] into two categories – terror and suspense … terror is
induced by surprise, suspense by forewarning.”23 He goes on to define
the difference between the two: “Suspense is more enjoyable than terror,
actually, because it is a continuing experience and attains a peak crescen-
do fashion; while terror, to be truly effective, must come all at once, like
a bolt of lightning, and is more difficult, therefore, to savour.”24

the geometry of voyeurism

The film tells the story of a murder and its exposure, but its central
philosophical theme is actually the voyeur’s gaze. The duality of the gaze
is expressed by Jeff as he suspects murder: “It’s not an ordinary look …
the man behaves as if he is afraid someone is watching him.” The com-
plicated relationship between the viewer and the viewed in Rear Win-
dow brings to mind Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas, in which the
location and role of the viewer have also been a subject of philosophical
“We’re all voyeurs to some extent, if only when we see an intimate
film. And James Stewart is exactly in the position of a spectator looking
at a movie,” François Truffaut notes when interviewing Hitchcock about
his intentions in Rear Window.26 Jeff’s voyeurism is not, however, a sex-
ual perversion, but more the professional curiosity of a photographer.
Although the concept of private life would appear to be self-evident,
the twenty-eight hundred-page History of Private Life shows that it has
both an interesting history and a multiplicity of dimensions.27 In a draw-
ing from The Art of Living (1945), published a few years before Rear

Apartment block as the stage for various lifestyles and social classes. From Tableaux de
Paris, Le magazine pittoresque, 1847

Window, the well-known cartoonist Saul Steinberg shows a similar dis-

sected apartment block exposing the private lives of its tenants.28 But
even Steinberg had his predecessor; as far back as 1847 Le magazine pit-
toresque’s cartoonist depicted in his Tableaux de Paris different lifestyles
and social classes within the framework of a single building.
The fascinating attraction of privacy is also exemplified by the success
of a small Manhattan theatre in the mid-1960s. The stage of the theatre
was a small flat that could be viewed from a small auditorium through
a one-way mirror. The flat was rented to a family who lived their daily
life unaware of being on stage and being watched. The theatre was open
twenty-four hours a day and the seats constantly sold out – until the city
authorities closed it for being “inhuman.”29

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

The voyeuristic stage and private performances of Rear Window are

also connected to the private peep shows, the tableaux vivants, of
Parisian brothels in the nineteenth century. “That’s a secret, private
world you’re looking at out there. People do a lot of things in private that
they couldn’t possibly explain in public,” says Detective Doyle (Wendell
Corey) to Jeff.
As an introduction to the voyeuristic content of the film, the bamboo
shades rise slowly underneath the credits, like a view opening below
drowsily raised eyelids; this is also a reference to the gradual awakening
of the unsuspecting sleeping photographer to the reality of murder. The
shades are likewise a metaphor for the stage curtain; as they rise, they
reveal the courtyard, the scene of the unfolding drama. This introduc-
tion to the theme of voyeurism is also present in the hovering helicopter
ogling at the scantily dressed girls on the roof terrace; we know what the
pilot is seeing because a moment earlier the viewer has seen two women
enter the terrace and throw their bathrobes over the balustrade.
Throughout the film, the camera – the voyeuristic eye – is bound to the
wheelchair in the photographer’s room, except for the climax, when the
murderer pushes his exposer out the window, and the camera moves out-
side, along with the photographer. At this very moment, the residents

Lisa and Jeff are alarmed by

the scream of the dog owner

Juhani Pallasmaa

who have been viewed turn into active onlookers. The camera also pops
outside during the scene of the strangled dog, but the spectator hardly
realizes that it has momentarily strayed into the courtyard. The camera
is outside, the protagonist’s realm of awareness during the three
sequences when he is asleep: at the very beginning when the scene is
introduced, when Thorwald leaves his room early on Thursday morning
with an unidentified woman, and in the very last sequence when he is
asleep with both legs in a cast. The middle sequence is particularly impor-
tant because it enables the viewer to know more than the protagonist.
In analyzing Descartes’s writings on reading, the philosopher David
Michael Levin uses the term “bodiless reader.”30 The protagonist in Rear
Window and the spectator are likewise bodiless observers. Jeff’s immo-
bility eliminates the physicality and tactility of experience and trans-
forms it into something purely visual; the eye subordinates the other
senses. Scratching his itchy leg under the plaster with a Chinese back
scratcher epitomizes Jeff’s loss of movement and touch. His complete
reliance on vision represents the spectator, alone and bound to his chair
in the darkness of the cinema. It is this spectator’s immobility that lulls
him into a regressive, dreamlike state.

the morality of voyeurism

“The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the
work house … You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out
with a red-hot poker … We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” warns
Stella. “The way you look into people’s windows is sick … Sitting
around, looking out of the window to kill time is one thing – but doing
it the way you are, with binoculars and wild opinions about every little
thing you see is … is diseased,” Lisa scolds Jeff. “What people ought to
do is get outside their own house and look in for a change,” says Stella
when warning Jeff of the dangers of peeping. At the end of the film the
murderer literally fulfills the nurse’s idea by pushing Jeff out the window
– to see the inside of his flat from the outside for the first time.
Jeff ponders whether it is ethically acceptable to spy on people
through his telephoto lens. “I’m not much on rear-window ethics,”
replies Lisa to his semirhetorical question. At first both Lisa and Stella
disapprove of Jeff’s snooping (“window shopper,” accuses Stella) but
later become keen peepers themselves. The murderer realizes he is being

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Jeff in his wheelchair.

Publicity photograph for
Rear Window

watched only when, following Lisa’s hand movements, he notices the

position of his observer. At this dramatic moment Jeff changes from
being the surveyor to being the surveyed, and all of a sudden his former
victim gains the upper hand. In trying to delay the approach of the mur-
derer in his flat, Jeff blinds him with flashbulbs. In the eyes of the mur-
derer, his field of vision is toned red – showing his temporary blindness
and increasing rage. In this scene the contrast between darkness and
light assumes an obvious symbolic meaning.
On two occasions Jeff’s suspicions about the crime appear to be
unfounded. The main characters in the film, as well as the audience, are
temporarily disappointed that no murder has been committed after all.
This feeling of disappointment induces a sense of guilt that involves the
audience even more closely in the story. Whether a murder has been
committed is important also to the moral acceptability of peeping. “I
wonder if it’s ethical [to watch a man], even if you prove that he didn’t
commit a crime?” muses Jeff.
In his book Downcast Eyes, the philosopher Martin Jay brings out
Freud’s views on the relationships between the desire to know, sexuali-
ty, and voyeurism: “Freud came to believe that the very desire to know
(Wisstrieb), rather than being innocent, was itself ultimately derived

Juhani Pallasmaa

from an infantile desire to see, which had sexual origins. Sexuality, mas-
tery and vision were thus intricately intertwined in ways that could
produce problematic as well as ‘healthy’ effects. Infantile scopophilia
(Schaulust) could result in adult voyeurism or other perverse disorders
much as exhibitionism and scopophobia (the fear of being seen).”31

surveillance and the surveyed: the panopticon

But Rear Window also philosophizes about the distance between the sur-
veyor and the surveyed. In the film the latter are always distanced by the
courtyard or some technical gadget (window, camera lens, binoculars).
Lack of sound in most of the sequences seen across the courtyard turns
these events into fragments of more archaic silent film; this increases the
sense of distance and also suggests comical readings. Distance promotes
a sense of helplessness and loneliness, as well as a subconscious feeling of
guilt from being a Peeping Tom. The fact that the subjects of Jeff’s (the
spectator’s) interest never look back turns the spectator into a Peeping
Tom whose feeling of guilt also makes him feel he is being scrutinized.
There is an important psychological difference between the events in
Jeff’s room and those in the apartments opposite: the former are theatre,
whereas the distant episodes are cinema. Walter Benjamin discussed the
psychological difference between these two art forms in one of his best-
known works: “The artistic performance of a stage actor is definitely
presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor,
however, is presented by a camera, with a twofold consequence … The
camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need
not respect the performance as an integral whole.”32 The audience expe-
riences the events in Jeff’s room as a continuum, but those in the apart-
ments opposite as unrelated fragments.
Another element in the film is the duality of the voyeuristic gaze:
simultaneously spectacle and surveillance. “Our society is not one of
spectacle but of surveillance … We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor
on the stage, but in the panoptic machine,” concluded Foucault.33 In his
book Discipline and Punish Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
as the main theoretical means for explaining how man became the object
of surveillance in the institutional control, scientific research, and behav-
ioural experiments of modern society.34 Bentham’s panopticon had its
predecessor in Louis Le Vau’s menagerie at Versailles. At the centre of

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

the building was an octagonal pavilion containing the king’s salon, on

every side of which large windows looked out onto seven cages contain-
ing different species of animals; the eighth side was reserved for the
entrance. Similarly, in the Rear Window menagerie there are seven flats
being scrutinized and an alley from the street to the courtyard! But Fou-
cault perhaps dismissed the possibility of simultaneous spectacle and
surveillance, which is what Hitchcock’s film is all about. Vincenzo
Scamozzi’s design for the stage of Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico
(1584) in Vicenza, a vista of seven different streets, is likewise reminis-
cent of the panopticon, as well as the set in Rear Window.
The film raises peeping to the third degree: 1 the movie camera watch-
es; 2 the photographer watches through his telephoto camera, and 3 the
audience in turn watches the events through the illusion projected onto
the screen. Rear Window is a heightened central perspective film, which
brings to mind the perspective drawing device used by the Renaissance
artist in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Man Drawing a Reclining Woman
(1538). The point of projection of the central-perspective, Jeff, is simul-
taneously a member of the cinema audience and the first-person narra-
tor of the story. In using a perspective device an artist normally requires
an assistant, just as Lisa, Stella, and Doyle function as Jeff’s legs in his

CA M E R A O B S C U R A and the stage as a machine

The photographer tied to his room becomes both camera and projector,
as well as a camera obscura representing his own room.35 “Can I bor-
row your portable keyhole?” asks Stella, taking Jeff’s binoculars. The
Peeping Tom is basically the photographer’s room, and its spatial loca-
tion in the apartment block enables the ensuing situation. The set – Rear
Window’s panopticon – was made under the supervision of Joseph
MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira, and is perfect as the logical archi-
tectonic projection of the story.
The set, with its courtyard, gardens, streets, cars and thunder show-
ers, was made in Paramount’s largest studio, Stage 18, which measured
fifty-five by thirty metres and was twelve metres high.36 It was the largest
set ever built for Paramount, and included thirty-one flats, of which
twelve were fully furnished. Hitchcock himself supervised the construc-
tion, which took six weeks. The structures contained seventy windows

Juhani Pallasmaa

Camera obscura. From

Athanasius Kircher, Ars
Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1649)

and doors, and the walls in Jeff’s flat were removable to allow for all
possible camera angles. The lowest level of the courtyard was built
below the studio floor. Filming the events in the individual flats and all
the small objects (the ring, pearl necklace, the name Eagle Road Laun-
dry on the murderer’s laundry parcel) would not have been possible in
natural light.37 The artificial lighting for this colossal set required all of
Paramount’s equipment.
As much as the narrative itself, the structure of the film relies on the
spatial relationships and geometry of the tenants’ flats, the courtyard,
the alley to the street, the street itself with the restaurant on the oppo-
site side, and the view above of the south town silhouette. The apart-
ment block is a stage machine that produces the narrative according to
the script. The set is thus a variation on the theme of the promenade
architecturale – architecture subordinated to a linearly advancing story.
It is also the architecture of surveillance and domination according to
Michel Foucault’s well-known analysis; his picture of the cells in the
ideal panopticon-prison corresponds exactly to Hitchcock’s cinematic
panopticon: “They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in
which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible
… Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from where
he can be seen from the front by the supervisor, but the side walls pre-
vent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but
he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in com-
munication.”38 The scene in which the apparently naked dancer is in her
bathroom and the murderer in the corridor leading to his apartment,
separated by only the thickness of the wall, exemplifies the solitary cells
in Rear Window’s panopticon.

Edward Hopper,
Eleven A.M. (1926)

painting themes in R E A R W I N D OW

Edward Hopper’s painting Night Windows (1928), the theme of which

is an illuminated room in the house opposite, is like something out of the
voyeurist world of Rear Window. Miss Lonelyhearts, waiting for her
imaginary companion or contemplating suicide, is also like one of Hop-
per’s paintings – for example, Automat (1927), with its lonely woman
sitting in a café – even the green colour of her dress appears in Hopper’s
painting. It is evident that Hitchcock was fully acquainted with the
works of Hopper, for he had the Bates house in Psycho (1960) built
according to the artist’s painting House by the Railway (1923).
Many of Hopper’s other paintings are also related to the voyeurist
theme of Hitchcock’s film. In Night Hawks (1942) and New York Office
(1962) the subjects of external scrutiny are a night bar and an office,
while Apartment Houses (1923) and Room in New York (1932) are inti-
mate interiors of private homes. Girlie Show (1941) draws directly on
the sexual content of voyeurism, whereas in Eleven A.M. (1926) a naked
woman is staring fixedly at the courtyard from an open window, thus
problematizing the entire issue of voyeurism. Finally, in Office in a Small
Town (1953) a lonely man in an office appears to be surveying and com-
manding his immediate surroundings in much the same way as L.B. Jef-
fries in the film.
A figure looking out of a window has been a familiar motif in paint-
ing since the Renaissance. However, the spectator, the artist, is always in
the same space as his model, with his or her approval. On the other
hand, looking from the outside through a window into a room became

Juhani Pallasmaa

popular only in the twentieth century. By its very nature, a window is

meant for looking out, not in. A view of the inside from the outside con-
fuses and perverts the ontology of the window and makes it a voyeuris-
tic instrument, as the subject is not conscious of being under external
scrutiny. The inside is always definitely somebody’s territory, whereas
the outside is anonymous.

hitchcock and duchamp

The voyeurism of Rear Window and the boundary between private

and public domains create a link to some of the central themes of mod-
ern art. The best-known work dealing with the nature of voyeurism is
undoubtedly Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz
d’éclairage (1944–66), which the artist was making at the same time that
Hitchcock was making his film. Duchamp made his final work in com-
plete secrecy, as it was believed he had given up art altogether. Both the
film and Duchamp’s enigmatic work are studies in fixed-eye central per-
spective, the interaction of intimate privacy and voyeurist gaze, and the
intertwining of eroticism and violence. An intimate event becomes public
when a crime has been committed and a district attorney becomes involved.
In Duchamp’s three-dimensional composition, a woman lying with
her legs apart on a reedy shore, a gas lamp raised in her left hand, is
observed through two holes in an ancient Spanish timber door. In the
background sparkles an electrically operated illusionary waterfall. The
young, fair-haired female figure’s hairless pubes are indecently exposed
directly in front of the viewer’s eye, in the dazzling light of a diorama.
The perspective diorama composition suggests a narrative of sexual
perversions or violence, but the event remains unexplained.39 The way
in which the spectator’s mind seeks a causal logic from the hints in
Duchamp’s construction is reminiscent of the way Jeff perceives the logic
of the series of unrelated episodes he sees from his window. “Let’s start
from the beginning, Jeff, tell me everything you saw … and … what it
… means,” says Lisa as she realizes that a crime really could have taken
place, regardless of her initial suspicion. Duchamp’s work arouses a
simultaneous feeling of scopophilic excitement and voyeuristic shame.
The incident in Hitchcock’s film is exposed as a crime, but the incident
in Duchamp’s work remains forever enigmatic; is this Duchamp’s perfect
crime? But, as Octavio Paz notes in his essay on Duchamp, “We pass

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

from voyeurism to clairvoyance.”40 Likewise, in Rear Window the

voyeurist gaze ultimately leads to clairvoyance and the mental purifi-
cation that characterizes a work of art.

the roles of objects

The language of objects plays a central role in this film, as in all Hitch-
cock films. “I make it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with
a character or a location; I would feel that I’d been remiss if I hadn’t
made maximum use of those elements,” says Hitchcock about the
importance of location and objects in his films.41
The photographer’s 35-mm reflex camera naturally plays a fetishistic
leading role. The objects in Jeff’s room (revealed by a magnificent con-
tinuous shot, moving from the childless couple sleeping on the fire-escape
platform, through several of the flats, to a medium close-up of Jeff’s
head, and finally to the objects in his flat) offer clues to why he is in a
wheelchair with his leg in plaster: the photographs indicate his profes-
sion; the close-ups of racing cars, a military explosion, and a burning car
in a war zone reveal the dangers he loves; and the shattered 8x10 view
camera signifies the accident on his last assignment. The shot ends in a
framed negative of a beautiful woman next to a pile of magazines with
the same image on the cover. The camera is Jeff’s tool and livelihood, but
during the film it changes into a means for observing, warning, and
investigating and ultimately becomes a weapon of self-defence.42 The
earlier slide photographs of the garden – in which the murderer has
buried something – are another dimension of the camera.
In the murderer’s apartment the murder weapons (the knife and saw),
the aluminum jewelry sample case that was used to convey the dismem-
bered body, and the rope-bound trunk containing the wife’s belongings
(Jeff and his assistants, as well as the audience, are temporarily led to
believe that the trunk contains bits of the body; “He better get that trunk
out of there before it starts to leak,” says Stella) represent violence. The
rope conjures an unpleasant association with hanging in the spectator’s
mind. The murdered woman’s ring and handbag also play a role in the
story. As Jeff is trying to find proof for the crime in the murderer’s tools
of violence, Lisa deduces the course of events through the victim’s hand-
bag, jewelry, and wedding ring. Lisa’s slipping the ring onto her own fin-
ger has a double meaning in its reference to her ardent desire to marry

Juhani Pallasmaa

Jeff. Lisa’s fashionable clothes – particularly her overtly provocative

diaphanous nightgown – and her fetishism for expensive objects related
to her value world create a powerful symbolic tension compared to the
mundane lower-middle-class existence of Jeff and his fellow tenants;
“Well, maybe in the high-rent district they [wives] discuss; in my neigh-
bourhood they still nag,” Jeff observes.
The apparent contradiction between the wealth of Lisa’s family and
profession and the photographer’s impoverishment (“I have never more
than a week’s salary in the bank”) is continuously emphasized by Jeff.
But in his book Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary connects
photography and money in a way that eliminates superficial class differ-
ences: “Photography and money become homologous forms of social
power in the nineteenth century. They are equally totalizing systems for
binding and unifying all subjects within a single global network of valu-
ation and desire … Both are magical forms that establish a new set of
abstract relations between individuals and things and impose those rela-
tions as the real. It is through the distinct but interpenetrating economies
of money and photography that a whole social world is represented and
constituted exclusively as signs.”43 There is thus no real contradiction
between the worlds of Lisa and Jeff; from the beginning they both
belong to the same power elite.
The characters in the film are treated as objects. All of them remain
nameless except for the murderer, whose name Lisa spells out letter by
letter, thus emphasizing his identity. The dancer and the ideal of perfec-
tion that Lisa represents are personifications of magazine femininity and
erotic desire. In his immobility and helplessness Jeff is also transformed
into an object that the others have to move and care for. In the end even
the murderer loses his vileness and repugnance when revealed as the piti-
ful product of an unfortunate fate he has only tried to conceal. Due to
their prototypicality all the characters in the film represent their own
genre-models and concepts. This objectivization of characters maintains
an air of parody, regardless of the tragedy.

fiction and reality

In Hitchcock’s films the audience is so gripped by suspense that the obvi-

ous theatrical unreality and the architectonic incredibility of the build-
ings can no longer release or moderate the reality of terror. Architecture

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

has lost its normal meaning and has submitted to terror. On the other
hand, the staged background can also be seen as a striving for absolute
truthfulness. At the end of the film the police arrive in Jeff’s room only
a few seconds after being alerted, but in fact the Sixth Precinct of the
Manhattan police is actually on Tenth Street, just opposite the entrance
to Jeff’s flat. The Hotel Albert, where Jeff lures the murderer, was on the
corner of Tenth Street and University Place when the film was being
made; since then it has been refurbished as an apartment block.
The script of Rear Window was based on Cornell Woolrich’s short
story of the same name, to which Hitchcock added some authentic mate-
rial about two macabre crimes; thus the film’s fictional crime acquires a
realism from two real-life cases. In the Patrick Mahon case, a man mur-
dered a woman, dismembered her body, and threw the bits one by one
from a train window, except for the head, which he burnt. In the Dr Crip-
pen case, a man murdered his wife and also dismembered her body. For
a long time he managed to delude friends who were curious about his
wife’s disappearance by telling them she had gone to California. He was
recognized while making his escape by steamer in the company of his
mistress disguised as a boy, due to his wig and lower set of false teeth.44

humour and fantasies

It is characteristic of Hitchcock to raise the threshold of an audience’s

suspense by creating a smoke screen of macabre humour: “And for me,
‘suspense’ doesn’t have any value if it’s not balanced by humour.”45
Innocent macabre comments by Jeff and Stella inveigle the audience into
imagining that a woman’s body has been dismembered in one of the flats
and the bits carried away in the sample case: “That would be a terrible
job to tackle, just how would you start to cut up a human body?”; “Just
where do you suppose he cut her up? … Of course – the bathtub! That’s
the only place where he could have washed away the blood” (during this
comment from Stella, Jeff is trying to eat bacon for his breakfast); “In a
job like that it must have splattered a lot”; “She’s scattered all over
town. A leg in the East River …”; and “The only way anybody would
get that ring [Stella’s wedding ring] would be to chop off my finger.”
The film does not show the murder or the dismemberment, not even
a drop of blood, but they appear even more realistically in the minds of
the audience. The nocturnal moment when the murder takes place is

Juhani Pallasmaa

marked by a woman’s muffled shriek and the sound of a glass breaking,

but at this stage the audience is not ready to appreciate the meaning of
these almost imperceptible sounds; this they acquire later when the audi-
ence returns in its mind to the chronology and logic of the drama. The
night thunder that accompanies these sounds probably gives the audi-
ence a feeling that something tragic has occurred. The events that the
audience imagines are more impressionable. “I have always felt that you
should do the minimum on the screen to get the maximum audience
effect,” said Hitchcock about his principle of cinematic minimalism.46
At the end of the film the audience is forced to imagine the part of the
woman’s body that was buried in the flowerbed, after hearing that Thor-
wald had dug it up and put it in the victim’s hat box. This episode brings
to mind the Mahon case, in which the murderer also had trouble dis-
posing of the victim’s head.
During the film the spectators and actors in the spectacle change
places on two occasions: Lisa moves from the auditorium to the stage
(the murderer’s flat), and conversely, the murderer moves from the stage
to the auditorium (Jeff’s flat). But the murderer also steps into the
domain of the audience: Thorwald’s arrival takes place quite clearly
behind the vulnerable and unprotected back of the audience. In the tra-
ditional theatre the spectator is inviolable, but when Jeff is violently
attacked at the end of the film, the psychological security created by the
theatre illusion is shattered.

the realism of dreams

In his films Hitchcock reveals that behind everyday reality there is an-
other reality. As he says, “Things are not as they would appear to be.”47
An object or place becomes horrifying and unreal when we are able to
see through its normal realism; beyond realism there is always surreal-
ism. Subconscious, forgotten, and suppressed images seep through the
ordinary consciousness dominated by the superego; without noticing it,
our brains and nervous systems chart the dangers lurking behind the
familiar. Even the faces of our mothers are transformed into frightening,
eroded landscapes if we stare so long that their familiar and loved fea-
tures lose their ordinary meanings. In Hitchcock’s films it is the waver-
ing between ordinary consciousness and dreams that predominates: the
unreality of reality and the reality of unreality.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

“For a director who bothers to really open his eyes, all the elements in
our lives contain something make-believe,” wrote Jean Renoir in his
autobiography.48 This becomes particularly clear when we watch Alfred
Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The film is a conscious dream. But even the
artistic stages of architecture are always something other than the sum
of their material structures. They are primarily mental spaces, architec-
tural representations, and images of the perfect life. Architecture, too,
leads our imagination to another reality.

Man does not live by murder alone – he needs affection,

encouragement and every now and then – a drink.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s toast49


i Interview by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, Cahiers du cinéma

190 (May 1967). Quoted in François Truffaut, Truffaut by Truffaut (New
York: Harry N. Abrams 1985), 201.
2 In 1953 moviemakers had to refrain from using actual addresses for mur-
derers. Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Double-
day 1979), 217. According to the New York City mayor’s office, a film-
maker today may use a real address if the property owner’s permission is
obtained. Correspondence between Peter Reed (Museum of Modern Art,
New York) and the author, 13 January 1997 and 12 November 1998.
3 François Truffaut, Hitchcock (London: Paladin Grafton Books 1984),
4 Walter Benjamin, “Naples,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz (New York:
Schocken Books 1978), 167.
5 Paul Virilio, L’horizon négatif (Paris: Galilée 1984), quoted in Jonathan
Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nine-
teenth Century (1990; Cambridge, ma: mit Press 1995), 1.
6 Truffaut, Hitchcock, 324.
7 Ibid., 327.
8 Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window,” in Focus on Hitchcock, ed. Albert J.
LaValley (Englewood Cliffs, nj: Prentice Hall 1972), 43.
9 Hitchcock published this article in McCall’s magazine two years after
completing Rear Window. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and

Juhani Pallasmaa

Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of

California Press 1995), 51–3.
10 “I wanted to show how a popular song is composed by gradually devel-
oping it through the film until, in the final scene, it is played on a record-
ing with a full orchestral accompaniment. Well it didn’t quite work out the
way I wanted it to and I was quite disappointed.” The song, which is heard
in the scene of the composer’s party, is “Mona Lisa,” which became a hit
five years later, sung by Conway Twitty. Patrick Humphries, The Films of
Alfred Hitchcock (London: Bison Books 1986), 120.
11 Jane E. Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography (Berke-
ley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1993), 20.
12 Truffaut, Hitchcock, 332.
13 Alfred Hitchcock, “Film Production” (1965), in Hitchcock on Hitchcock,
ed. Gottlieb, 216.
14 Truffaut, Hitchcock, 135.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., 392.
17 Ibid., 89.
18 It is fairly certain that when Rear Window was being planned and shot in
the first half of the 1950s, Hitchcock did not have tv channel-swapping in
mind, but more likely film watching.
19 Truffaut, Hitchcock, preface.
20 Ibid., 324.
21 Stefan Sharff, The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (New
York: Limelight Editions 1997), 7.
22 Peter Wollen, “Architecture and the Cinema: Places and Unplaces,”
Rakennustaiteen seuran jäsentiedote 4 (Helsinki 1996): 14.
23 Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock, 19.
24 Alfred Hitchcock, “The Enjoyment of Fear” (1949), in Hitchcock on
Hitchcock, ed. Gottlieb, 120.
25 See Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas,” in The Order of Things: An Archae-
ology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books 1994), 3–16.
26 Truffaut, Hitchcock, 321.
27 A History of Private Life, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, general edi-
tors (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press 1986).
28 Saul Steinberg, The Art of Living (London: Hamish Hamilton 1949).
29 The source remains unidentified. The author recalls reading a small note
about this theatre at the end of the 1960s, possibly in Architectural

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Design. Ludwig Wittgenstein perceptively observed the strange duality of

voyeurist interest: “There can be nothing stranger than seeing a person
during his everyday pursuits, when he believes that no one is observing
him. Let us imagine a theatre with its curtain rising to reveal a person
alone in a room, walking back and forth, lighting a cigarette, sitting down,
etc. We would suddenly see this person from outside in a way that we can
never otherwise see him – as if we could see a chapter of a biography, as
it were, with our own eyes. This would be awful and, at the same time,
more miraculous than anything a poet could make people act or speak on
the stage.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Yleisiä huomautuksia, ed. George Hen-
rik von Wright and Heikki Nyman (Helsinki: Werner Söderström 1979),
215. Translation from Finnish by the author. The English version is enti-
tled Philosophical Remarks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1975).
30 David Michael Levin, ed., Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Berke-
ley: University of California Press 1993), 347.
31 Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Cen-
tury French Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press 1994), 332.
32 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduc-
tion,” in Illuminations (London: Fontana/Harper Collins 1992), 228.
33 After writing the paragraph about the idea of the panopticon, I read
Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson’s superb article “Hitchcock, Rear Win-
dow: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism” in A Hitchcock Reader,
ed. Marshall Deuterbaum and Leland Poague (1986; Ames, ia: Iowa State
University Press 1994), 198–206. The writers also connect the idea of the
panopticon to Rear Window.
34 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New
York: Vintage 1979), 200.
35 Stam and Pearson also mention the camera obscura device as one of the
frames of reference in Rear Window.
36 The set and lighting arrangements for Rear Window are described in
David Atkinson, “Hitchcock’s Techniques Tell Rear Window Story,”
American Cinematographer (January 1990): 34–40.
37 The word “laundry” alludes to the French mass-murderer Henri Désiré
Landru, upon whom Chaplin had based his film Monsieur Verdoux eight
years earlier, in 1947. This observation originates from Heikki Nyman’s
ingenious and detailed analysis in an unpublished study: Heikki Nyman,
Hitchcockin kosketus, Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvat, part 3 (1951–6).

Juhani Pallasmaa

38 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 200.

39 Octavio Paz gives the following vivid description of Duchamp’s work:
“The visitor goes through a low doorway, into a room somewhat on the
small side, completely empty. No painting on the plastered walls. There
are no windows. In the far wall, embedded in a brick portal topped by an
arch, there is an old wooden door, worm-eaten, patched, and closed by a
rough crossbar made of wood and nailed on with heavy spikes. In the top
left-hand corner there is a little window that has also been closed up. The
door sets its material doorness in the visitor’s way with a sort of aplomb:
dead end. The opposite of the hinges and their paradoxes. But if the visi-
tor ventures nearer, he finds two small holes at eye level. If he goes even
closer and dares to peep, he will see a scene he is not likely to forget. First
of all, a brick wall with a slit in it, and through the slit, a wide open space,
luminous and seemingly bewitched. Very near the beholder – but also very
far away, on the ‘other side’ – a naked girl, stretched on a kind of bed or
pyre of branches and leaves, her face almost completely covered by the
blond mass of her hair, her legs open and slightly bent, the pubes strange-
ly smooth in contrast to the splendid abundance of her hair, her right arm
out of the line of vision, her left slightly raised, the hand grasping a small
gas lamp made of metal and glass. The little lamp glows in the brilliant
three-o’clock-in-the-afternoon light of this motionless, end-of-summer
day. Fascinated by this challenge to our common sense – what is there less
clear than light? – our glance wanders over the landscape: in the back-
ground, wooded hills, green and reddish; lower down, a small lake and a
light mist on the lake. An inevitably blue sky. Two or three little clouds,
also inevitably white. On the far right, among some rocks, a waterfall
catches the light. Stillness: a portion of time held motionless. The immo-
bility of the naked woman and of the landscape contrasts with the move-
ment of the waterfall. The silence is absolute. All is real and verges on
banality; all is unreal and verges – on what?” Octavio Paz, “* water writes
always in * plural,” in Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds.,
Marcel Duchamp (Munich: Prestel 1989), 145.
40 Ibid., 157.
41 Truffaut, Hitchcock 328.
42 Rear Window has many parallels with Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom
(1960), in which a camera is used as a murder weapon. The protagonist is
a young photographer who murders women and meticulously records the
act with his 16-mm film camera. In the end he even films his own death.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window

43 Crary, Techniques of the Observer, 13.

44 Truffaut, Hitchcock, 333–4.
45 Alfred Hitchcock, “Why I am Afraid of The Dark” (1960), in Hitchcock
on Hitchcock, ed. Gottlieb, 144.
46 Alfred Hitchcock, “A Redbook Dialogue” (1963), in Hitchcock on Hitch-
cock, Gottlieb, ed., 146.
47 Neil P. Hurley, Soul in Suspense: Hitchcock’s Fright and Delight (London:
The Scarecrow Press 1993), 2.
48 Jean Renoir, Elämäni ja elokuvani (1974; Helsinki: Love-Kirjat 1980), 60.
The English version is entitled Jean Renoir: My Life and My Films (Lon-
don: Collins 1974).
49 Hurley, Soul in Suspense, 111.

The Glass Architecture of
Fra Luca Pacioli

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

The philosophers call the purest substance of many corrupt-

ible things the “quintessence.” That is to say, mortal heaven,
extracted by human craft. The quintessence is superior. That
is, our Lord God’s heaven, in regards to the four elements, is
incorruptible and unchangeable, so the quintessence occu-
pies a similar place regarding the lower world … Mortal
heaven is incorruptible in regards to the four qualities of the
human body, and so it is naturally proven that our quintes-
sence, that is mortal heaven, is incorruptible in itself. So it is
not hot and dry in fire, nor cold and wet in water, nor hot
and moist in air, nor cold and dry in earth. On the contrary,
our quintessence is as incorruptible as heaven.
The Book of Quintessence1

The quintessence separates in the vessel, having the colour of

the sky which you can see by a diametrical line which divides
the upper part, that is the Fifth Essence, from the lower, that
is from the impurities which are of a muddy colour.
De Secretibus 2

the importance of luca pacioli’s late fifteenth-century work

on the golden section and its applications to stereotomy has never been
properly grasped. Despite his personal acquaintance with Alberti and
Leonardo, his knowledge of Vitruvius’s treatise, and his presence in
important architectural contexts such as Urbino and Milan, mainstream
architectural history has generally ignored his work. Pacioli’s plagiarism
of Piero della Francesca’s work, as well as a lack of evidence that Paci-
oli’s contemporaries were interested in his book, have not contributed to
challenge scholarly perceptions about the relative obscurity and margin-
ality of his work. Although there is a whole section devoted to archi-
tecture in his Divina proportione,3 “applications” of the golden section
in design are characteristically difficult to diagnose. An “irrational” pro-
portion (1:1.618), easy to construct geometrically as an operational
device, the golden section can be found easily in built examples, and this
has created skepticism about its intentional use, particularly in the wake
of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mystifications of the topic.4
Pacioli was first and foremost a Franciscan professor of theology:
“Ordinis Minor, Sacra Theologie Magistri in Artes arithmetice &

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

An image from Pretiosissimum

Donum Dei. Bibliothèque de
L’Arsenal, Paris, ms. 975, f. 13

geometrie.” This is how he presents himself in the dedication of his com-

pendium on arithmetic, geometry, and algebra, the Summa de arithmeti-
ca geometria proportioni et proportionalita.5 The primary aim of his
work was to “demonstrate” theology through applied proportion, wher-
ever these ratios might be found in divine and human works: from
organic growth and the composition of the soul, to accounting, art, and
architecture. His theory represents a crucial yet neglected aspect of
Renaissance architectural discourse that was never explicitly followed
up, not because of its theoretical nature but because Pacioli spoke of dif-
ficult things and tried to demonstrate the notion that mathematical num-
bers in both theory and practice merely prepare the student for divine
This belief seems to continue a late-antique and medieval interest in
numerology with a rather different lineage than traditional Biblical exe-
gesis – a tradition that includes Nichomacus of Gerasa (c. 100 ce), Mar-
tianus Capella (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, c. 410–29 ce), and
Isidore of Seville (Liber numerorum, late sixth to early seventh century ce).

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Luca Pacioli’s life-long work, from the practical concerns of his Summa
to the more esoteric issues in his Divina proportione, was always guid-
ed by a conviction about a preexisting ontological unity that was subse-
quently broken into the dualities and multiplicities of the mortal world.
He sought to understand how the lowly mechanical arts could become a
“ladder” for the spiritualization of matter. The relative importance of
arts and crafts (such as painting, sculpture, perspective, architecture, and
mechanics) and of disciplines (such as rhetoric, poetry, military arts, phi-
losophy, alchemy, and medicine) depends on their capacity to demon-
strate how sublunar multiplicity could be reconciled with the divine
monad, thus becoming vehicles for the knowledge of Truth. In the tra-
dition of medieval arithmology, ultimately derived from Plato’s Timaeus,
the monad is the originating principle (unit) of the number series and is
formally identified with God.6 The monad is not a number but an
essence, a “potential number,” as a point is a potential figure. According
to Capella, the monad is all that is good, desirable, and essential – a
notion that was explicitly introduced into Renaissance theology by
Nicholas of Cusa in his influential work De Docta Ignorantia.
In the introductory remarks to his two major works, the Summa and
the Divina proportione, Pacioli names the important painters and archi-
tects of his own time, together with mathematicians and astrologers
from antiquity and the present and quotes Solomon “nel secondo de la
sapientia … nothing is without number, weight and measure.”7 “Quan-
tity is noble and excellent, it is what makes substance eternal … Noth-
ing truly can be known to exist among natural things without number.”8
For Pacioli, all numbers are analogical and are related to higher truths;
his aim was never simply to engage in “formal” geometrical manipula-
tions, as might be inferred from his fascination with the “golden” pro-
portion. Geometry is a vehicle to demonstrate the primary status of the
monad. His obsession with “solving” problems of area and volume was
invariably an obsession with showing “equivalence” among figures and
thus to reconcile differences.
Pacioli was always aware of the crucial distinction between a mathe-
matical point and a point in the real world. They should not be confused;
“mathematics is abstract and subtle … [yet] it should always be consid-
ered as kindred to sensuous matter.”9 In this Pacioli seems to follow the
program set for mathematics by Nicomachus in his introduction to Expo-
sitio rerum mathematicorum: “For it is clear that these studies are like

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

ladders and bridges that carry our minds from things apprehended by
sense and opinion to those comprehended by the mind and understand-
ing, and from those material, physical things, our foster brethren known
to us from childhood, to the things with which we are unacquainted, for-
eign to our senses, but in their immateriality and eternity more akin to
our souls, and above all to the reason which is in our souls.”10

the lesson

It is in his Franciscan habit that Pacioli appears in a woodcut printed

several times in the Summa, as well as in the famous portrait by Jacopo
de’Barbari, now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.11 In both
images he addresses us as a teacher and is prepared to demonstrate, with
his various mathematical and geometrical implements, the wonders of
revealed Truth to all who might listen. The painting by de’Barbari offers

Jacopo de’Barbari,
Portrait of Luca
Pacioli in His Study
(c. 1498). Museo
di Capodimonte,
The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

many details about his lesson. On the table lies a beautifully bound vol-
ume with the letters li. r. lvc. bvr. (Liber Reverendi Lucae Burgensis)
identifying it as a book by Pacioli himself. On top of the book is a
wooden dodecahedron, described by Pacioli as the symbol of the “quin-
tessence” because its construction subsumes the other four (the tetra-
hedron, cube, octahedron, and icosahedron) and because it must be
constructed from the divine proportion, the golden-section ratio that is
inherent in the pentagonal faces of the solid. With his left hand Pacioli
points to the words liber xiii in an open book, while the pointer in his
right hand is directed toward the geometric diagram on a slate with
euclides inscribed on the side of its frame. Clearly, Pacioli is demon-
strating proposition 8 of the thirteenth (and last) book of Euclid’s Ele-
ments, where Euclid discusses the regular
bodies: “If an equilateral triangle be in-
scribed in a circle, the square on the side
of the triangle is triple the square on the
radius of the circle.”12 This theorem is
crucial for nesting regular bodies into a
sphere. It is also the beginning of specu-
lation about the “squaring of the circle,”
the attempt to construct a square whose
perimeter would be equal to the circum-
ference of a circle inscribed in the square
(a problem that was recognized as impos-
sible only in the nineteenth century, when
the irrational constant π was under-
stood). In other words, this theorem was
believed to be the geometrical key to the
potential “solution” of duality into unity. It
was a significant reference in the discourse
of logical reason for architects, alchemists,
mathematicians, and Trinitarian theolo-
gians until the late eighteenth century.

Solid and hollow icosahexahedron (twenty-six-faced

body), from Divina proportione. This is the same
volume that appears in de’Barbari’s portrait of Pacioli

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

On the lower left corner of the slate, a column of square roots refers to
the Euclidean theorem but also suggests a connection to the golden sec-
tion. Two of the numbers, 621 and 925, are close to numbers in the
Fibonacci series and divide into a ratio that closely approximates the
golden section proportion.
The most striking feature in the painting, however, is the floating,
shimmering corpo transparente on Pacioli’s right. This crystalline icosa-
hexahedron (twenty-six-faced body) seems to be half-filled with a trans-
parent elixir and appears both solid and hollow. It is reminiscent of the
engravings (by Leonardo da Vinci) of regular and space-filling bodies
that illustrate the Divina proportione. These engravings consistently
illustrate the bodies in both modes, as solid volumes and as empty struc-
tures, and suggest Pacioli’s unwillingness (and perhaps inability) to show
such bodies merely as “objective” geometric shapes. This simultaneity of
solidity and space is likely an allusion to the “ungraspable true nature”
of the primordial substance/space of the universe that is described by
Plato in Timaeus, the prima materia that is both the substance of human
artifacts (such as art and architecture) and the geometric space that is the
place of human culture. As primordial ground, it enables humanity to
recognize the identity between words and worldly things, while as pri-
mordial matter it allows for ideas to become incarnate in human con-
structions.13 In the painting this is strikingly evident: all eighteen squares
and eight equilateral triangles are perfectly and simultaneously visible,
illuminated by an unseen source of light that makes the vessel appear to
radiate from within.
Indeed, this sophisticated perspectival depiction of the icosahexahe-
dron seems to represent an intentional synthesis of light (from the
medieval tradition of perspectiva naturalis, a true emanation of God and
the human soul) and proportion (from the newer Renaissance tradition
of perspectiva artificialis, in all likelihood gleaned by Pacioli from Piero
della Francesca’s De prospectiva pingendi) as vehicles for ultimate unity.
Although unity could not yet be demonstrated rationally (by solving the
problem of the squaring of the circle), Pacioli declared that it was still evi-
dent to the senses. The recognition of unity is equivalent to a recognition
of meaning (not of “a” meaning); like erotic experience, it overwhelms
our capacity to describe it, and it changes our life. The human capacity
to perceive and eventually understand the reconciliation of the manifold
into unity signified for Pacioli the possibility of true knowledge, which

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

was exemplified by the artist’s and the alchemist’s ability to recognize and
unify the fragmented human being that has been split in half at birth. The
artist and alchemist pursue the experience of completion that gives sense
to human life here and now, the elixir or alchemical gold that is never-
theless ever ephemeral and never a permanent object or accomplishment
in our perennial (mortal) transmutation.
The theme of reciprocity between container and contained is also pre-
sent in alchemical treatises, particularly in the myth of malleable glass,
the supreme analogy of the Elixir, a dream that has appeared since
antiquity (e.g., in Pliny’s Natural History 36.26) and was repeated often
during the Middle Ages, culminating in the late fourteenth-century
alchemical text of Guillaume Sedacer, Sedacina Totius Artis Alchimie,
in which the “quintessence” or “mortal heaven” is identified with glass
itself. These writers tell the story of a glass-maker who was assassi-
nated by Tiberius for having found the secret of making malleable glass.
By overcoming the brittleness of glass – obviously its worst fault – this
secret would have enabled glass to surpass gold as the primary goal of
the alchemical opus. More about this later.
In addition, the twenty-six-faced body depicted in the painting is one
of two space-filling bodies that were recommended explicitly by Pacioli
as being important for architects (the other is the hebdomicontadis-
saedron, with seventy-two faces).14 While Pacioli’s architectural recom-
mendation of the seventy-two-faced body is accompanied by practical
remarks (because it is almost spherical, it is useful for the construction
of vaults, domes, and sections of domes), his preference for the twenty-
six-faced body remains enigmatic. Of course it too is “practical,” because
it yields an octagonal plan, a familiar figure in Renaissance centralized
sacred buildings. More importantly, however, it is composed of equilat-
eral triangles and squares (dual isosceles triangles), the basic figures of
creation for the architect/demiurge, as described by Plato in Timaeus.

context and precedents

Luca Pacioli was born around 1445 in Burgo Sancti Sepulcri (Borgo
Sansepolcro), a small town in Umbria that was also the birthplace of
Piero della Francesca. During his first two decades he stayed mostly in
town, where he was influenced by the artistic and mathematical work of
Piero. Eventually he went to Venice, and in 1464 he studied there under

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Woodcut of Luca Pacioli teach-

ing the mathematical arts, from
his Summa (1494)

Domenico Bragadino and was employed as a family tutor by a wealthy

merchant. After a few years (c. 1470) he continued to Rome, where he
lived with Leon Battista Alberti, to whom he had been introduced by
Piero. In 1477 he took his vows as a Franciscan friar and subsequently
taught mathematics in various Italian cities, including Perugia, Zara,
Florence, Naples, Bologna, and Pisa. He also returned to Rome, where
he was appointed professor in the Sapienza, and to Venice (c. 1508),
where he was involved in editing Campano’s Latin translation (from
Arabic) of Euclid’s Elements. During his itinerant life he wrote several
treatises. Besides his published books, some of his writings still exist in
manuscript form (such as De Veribus Quantitatis Cioe Dele Force
Quendam Miraculose de Numeri et Quantita Continua et Vulgare)15
while others are lost, such as a treatise on algebra (probably written in
Zara, c. 1481), and a translation of Euclid’s Elements into volgare (Ital-
ian), on which he possibly worked during his stay in Perugia around
1487.16 In 1496 Ludovico Sforza invited him to Milan, where he partic-
ipated in the duke’s accademia and where he met and befriended Leonar-
do da Vinci. It was on this occasion that he decided to write his treatise
on the Divine Proportion, which he published in Venice in 1509. A year

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

later he was named commisario of the Franciscan convent in Borgo San

Sepolcro, with the charge of bringing back “the perfect rule.” It was
probably there or in Rome that he died, no later than 1514.17
Piero della Francesca’s dual interest in mathematics and art pro-
foundly influenced Pacioli. This interest, however, was by no means
exceptional.18 In Renaissance culture, fleshing out these relationships
was crucial for demonstrating the capacity of human artifacts to reveal
transcendental meanings. Pacioli apparently was asked to teach arith-
metic and geometry to architects and stone-masons in his native town
quite early in his life. This experience led him to write his “practical”
treatise as a “complement” to Vitruvius, and it eventually became the
second part of his Divina proportione. What is remarkable about Paci-
oli’s work is the explicit desire to demonstrate a noninstrumental,
“opaque” relationship between the most abstract and the most concrete.
His work, from the early Summa to the later Divina proportione, is a
comprehensive examination of practical applications of arithmetic and
geometry, as well as mystical numerology; architecture, as we shall see,
was perhaps the most propitious site for “experiencing” this dark, “irra-
tional” continuity.
In De prospectiva pingendi Piero had defined painting as part of per-
spective – in his terms, as a branch of geometry: “painting is nothing but
the demonstration of diminished (degradati) or augmented (acresciuti)
bodies … perspective is necessary because it discerns all quantities
through proportion like a true science, demonstrating the diminution or
augmentation of all quantities (sizes) by the force of lines.”19 Further-
more, Piero conceived of his mathematical exploration of the regular
bodies as absolutely essential for his understanding of perspective.20
Pacioli shared Piero’s obsession with proportions and proportional rela-
tionships. He invariably understood numbers and their applications in
terms of proportion. As is well known, Pacioli “borrowed” Piero’s trea-
tise on the five regular bodies (Libellus de Quinque Corporibus Regu-
laribus) and appended it (in Italian) to his own Divina proportione. He
was also influenced by Piero’s other “minor treatise,” a book on arith-
metic entitled simply Trattato d’abaco.
The importance of these books on arithmetic tends to be either under-
estimated in the history of art or misunderstood in the history of science.
Piero’s Trattato d’abaco, Pacioli’s Summa, and some aspects of his Div-
ina proportione belong to a series of similar texts that borrow exten-

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

sively from one another. All seem to be derived ultimately from early
thirteenth-century works by Leonardo Pisano (called Fibonacci): the
Liber abbaci (1202) and the Practica geometriae (1220). Fibonacci was
responsible for introducing Arabic numerals into Western mathematics
and for identifying the series of numbers that yields (approximately) the
golden section ratio when the higher number is divided by the preceding
one. This series was generated arithmetically by adding the two previous
numbers in the series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377,
610, 987, 1597, etc.; 1597 = 610 + 987 and 987/1597 = 0.618 (the gold-
en number). While these books and manuals address eminently practical
questions for commerce, they also include the technical mathematics
that subsequent Renaissance artists and architects would use to calculate
the height of a building, the area of a plot of land, or the volume of
architectural elements such as columns and piers. Indeed, some of these
earlier works already included similar problems.
In Piero’s Trattato d’abaco and in Pacioli’s works, however, a greater
interest in abstract problems is evident. In the section on geometry of his
Trattato d’abaco, for example, Piero deals exclusively with the measure-
ment of abstract polygons and polyhedra. Then, following Euclid’s Ele-
ments, he explains how to measure the five regular and other irregular
solids inscribed in a sphere. In Piero’s book, the golden section first
appears in the geometric exercises for the pentagon and in his demon-
stration of measuring a dodecahedron in a sphere. Although Piero does
not call this ratio either “divine” or “golden,” the clarity of his exposi-
tion suggests that the proportion indeed must have been known in artis-
tic circles before Pacioli’s more elaborate discussion. Piero, commenting
on Euclid’s book 13, realized that “the side of a hexagon joined to the
side of a decagon inscribed in the same circle results in a line divided into
its mean and extreme ratio (golden section)” and consequently, “the side
of a hexagon joined to the side of a decagon is equal to the side of a pen-
tagon inscribed in the same circle.” These equivalencies have an enor-
mous significance that Pacioli must have recognized in his association of
“divine” proportion and classical architecture, particularly in the light
of the symbolic value attributed to six and ten as perfect numbers in the
architectural treatise of Vitruvius.
Piero’s second mathematical treatise, devoted exclusively to the five
regular bodies, continues to discuss mathematical problems in abstract
terms. Unlike his Trattato d’abaco, the Libellus de Quinque Corporibus

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Regularibus does not belong to a pre-existing genre. Its focus, obviously

shared by Pacioli, demonstrates a new concept of mathematics as a form
of ontology. This was formalized in Pacioli’s work as an explicitly Chris-
tian ontology that fit Franciscan contemplative practices perfectly and
resulted in a synthesis of different traditions from classical antiquity and
the Renaissance, ranging from Euclid’s Elements and Plato’s Timaeus to
medieval numerology and Biblical exegesis, as well as the “new” theol-
ogy of Nicholas of Cusa, with its famous “definition” of God as a circle
whose centre is ubiquitous.21
The particular point of departure for Piero’s Libellus is in books
13–15 of Euclid’s Elements.22 These three books describe the construc-
tion of the five regular polyhedra, their mutual relationships, and their

The five (regular) Platonic solids

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

inscription within the sphere. This topic also appears in the first part of
the Divina proportione and is clearly related to the cosmogony described
in Plato’s Timaeus. Plato relates each of the five regular bodies to the
natural elements: the cube, rising from a quadrangular base, gives an
impression of stability and is therefore identified with the earth; the octa-
hedron, suspended between two opposite points and turned as on a
lathe, conveys an image of great mobility, like the air; the icosahedron
has the greatest number of sides, and its globular form most closely
resembles a drop of water; the tetrahedron’s pointed form suggests fire;
and, last but not least, the dodecahedron has twelve surfaces that recall
the twelve signs of the zodiac, and it encloses the greatest volume (being
the closest to the sphere), so it corresponds to celestial matter.
These perfect bodies have exercised an inevitable fascination through
the centuries. There are indeed only five equilateral, equiangular poly-
hedra that can be inscribed within a sphere, and in the Renaissance these
solids were often understood as the origin of all form. In Euclid’s pre-
sentation of these regular bodies, in book 13 of his Elements, the gold-
en section plays a fundamental role as the proportion that divides a line
into its mean and extreme ratio. It is included in the first six propositions
and is indispensable for constructing the dodecahedron. Luca Pacioli
made this explicit connection between the regular bodies and the golden
section in his 1509 edition of Euclid’s Opera. This relationship, as we
shall see, is also crucial in the development of his arguments in the Div-
ina proportione.

pacioli’s S U M M A D E A R I T H M E T I CA G E O M E T R I A

Pacioli’s more “practical” work can serve as an introduction to his more

esoteric treatise on divine proportion. The Summa, published in Venice
in 1494, was a large, not very handsome volume written in very bad vol-
gare, with abundant Latin and Greek expressions and grammatical
irregularities. Pacioli generally avoided Latin, to make his works acces-
sible to artists, merchants, and craftsmen (although he does include
extensive Latin quotations of Vitruvius in his Divina proportione). This
interest in “popularizing” mathematical theories was indeed precocious
for the late fifteenth century.23 Mathematical treatises usually were asso-
ciated with classical theoria (a liberal art whose purpose was to reveal

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

truth by contemplating the Created cosmos) and had nothing to do with

practical interests. Pacioli’s deliberate attempt to make mathematical
discourse accessible to artists and craftsmen, while explicitly revealing
its theological implications, must be regarded not as an early modern
progressive attitude but as a particular outlook on the relationship
between thinking and making that needs careful qualification.
The Summa was dedicated to Guidubaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of
Urbino and son of the more famous Federigo. Pacioli acknowledges in
the preface the influence of writers such as Alberti and Piero della
Francesca and numerous artists including Gentile and Giovanni Bellini,
Alessandro Botticelli, Filippo and Domenico Ghirlandaio, Andrea
del Verrochio, Antonio da Pollaiuolo, Pietro Perugino, and Andrea
Mantegna, who have “calculated their works with level and compass.”
He proclaims the importance of mathematics for all arts and sciences,
including music, cartography, cosmography, the military arts, medicine,
philosophy and alchemy. The book itself, however, is not concerned with
artistic or scientific applications. It includes five parts: the first and most
extensive deals with arithmetic and algebra, the second with its applica-
tions to commerce, the third discusses bookkeeping, the fourth com-
pares different monetary systems, and the fifth part is a treatise on pure
and applied geometry. The mathematical sources quoted by Pacioli
throughout his book include Ptolemy, Euclid, Boethius, Leonardo Pisano,
Biagio Pelacani da Parma, Sacrobosco (John Hollywood), Albertucci
(Albert of Saxony), Regiomontanus (Johannes Müller) and, of course,
Piero della Francesca.
Although Pacioli’s main interest here seems to be the use of mathe-
matics for commercial purposes, the Summa also contains extensive dis-
cussions of esoteric and mystical issues, obviously regarded by Pacioli as
intrinsic to the subject matter. This concept is crucial to understand his
particular interest in architecture in the Divina proportione. Numerolo-
gy is present in the first part of the Summa, including the perfection of
numbers and their symbolic meanings. The first perfect number (in the
sense of Euclid) is six, which was also a perfect number for Vitruvius.
God created the world in six days, and man, the most perfect creature,
was created during the last day. Five is also excellent, because it is the
number of elements in the universe and the number of regular bodies, as
explained by Plato, “archimandrita de li phylosophanti.”24 The number

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

seven is discussed extensively for its capacity to relate gynecological and

physiological phenomena. Whole numbers are called sani (literally
“healthy numbers”), while fractions are rotti (“broken numbers”). Pacioli
devotes many pages to reconciling the biblical command “go forth and
multiply” with the apparent paradox that fractions diminish as they
multiply. For Pacioli, the covenant between the Word and the world had
not yet been broken, so the Scriptures had to be understood literally.
Conversely, the unambiguous nature of mathematical signs seemed to
provide a perfect vehicle to grasp the Creation and humanity’s place in
it. In the section on geometry, the eight general themes are related to the
octo beatitudine of Christianity. Equally, one senses that his precocious
interest in algebra was not unrelated to these mystical interests: “Arte
magiore cioe pratica speculativa, altramente chiamata Algebra et almu-
cabala in lingua arabica … Algebra id est Restauratio. Almucabala id est
oppositio.”25 Curiously, Pacioli provides the rules for the resolution of
second-degree equations in verse, using three “Latin quartets.”
The sixth distintione of the first section is dedicated to proportions:
the founding concept that rules everything in the human arts and sci-
ences and manifests the harmony of all phenomena in the universe. Pro-
portion is the thread that unites all things and is the ultimate basis for
applied mathematics. Pacioli acknowledges the Franciscan Albertuccio,
author of Tractatus proportionum, as an immediate source. The onto-
logical concept of proportion in Pacioli’s work, however, owes a greater
debt to the tradition that extends from Plato himself to Nicholas of
Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum and Alberti’s concinnitas.26 Pacioli
introduces this theme by alluding to the proportion that surely must
exist between sin and punishment (in the Christian sense). He elaborates
on the importance of proportion in various fields: in medicine (the pro-
portion between the intensity of a sickness and a prescribed remedy), in
mechanics and fortifications (between the violence of a projectile and the
strength of the fortification wall), and especially in art, where proportion
is “mother and queen.” In linear perspective and in the mixture of
colours, emphasizes Pacioli, proportion rules everything. In architecture,
proportion governs the relationship between the human body and the
work. Here, Pacioli quotes extensively from Alberti, and he praises
Brunelleschi’s church of San Lorenzo in Florence as an example of a
modern, well-proportioned building.

Title page of the manuscript
of Divina proportione (c. 1498).
National Library of Geneva,


Although it seems less focused than the Summa, Pacioli’s Divina pro-
portione is the culmination of his search for “unity” through the found-
ing notion of proportion. It consists of three distinct parts, the last of
which is Piero’s text on the five regular bodies translated into volgare.
Pacioli’s mystical discussion of the golden section synthesizes Pythagore-
an and Platonic themes with Christian theology. More significantly, the
work culminates in a section on “practical” aspects of architecture. With
Pacioli’s multiple interests in the “mathematical arts,” this section on
architecture is no mere coincidence. Pacioli evidently believed that archi-
tecture could fulfill the human quest for spiritual unity that underlies the
mathematical demonstrations in his treatise.
In the first chapter, dedicated to Ludovico Sforza of Milan, Pacioli
states that he decided to write the Divina proportione after having been
invited by the duke to a scholarly reunion on 9 February 1498. In this
symposium, attended by bishops and theologians, as well as orators,
astrologers, doctors, philosophers, and the famous Leonardo da Vinci,

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

the duke uttered “sweet and golden words,” stating that whoever pos-
sessed a gift of knowledge and shared it with others was the most pleas-
ing to God and the world. Convinced that mathematics is “the most true
of all true things,” Pacioli decided to finish and publish his work on
divine proportion, “the sublime and highest knowledge,” unknown until
now as the source of all other “speculative scientific, practical and
mechanical operations.”27
The first four chapters of part 1 are a fascinating account of the nature
of theory and mathemata in general, including their relevance for paint-
ing, sculpture, music, perspective, and architecture. He emphasizes the
origins of theory in vision, based on the wonder that likely accompanied
the experience of cosmic phenomena such as a lunar eclipse.28 He insists
that nothing can be grasped by the intellect unless it has been previous-
ly offered to perception in some way. The most noble sense is sight,
because it enables the intellect to “understand and taste.” This “theory”
is always in and of the world, in accordance with the Greco-Roman
understanding of theoria as a contemplation of truth that also “saves the
phenomena.” Such theory is always “discovered”; it never dictates to the
hands of the artist “how” or “what” to do, yet its epiphanies are corrob-
orated through enlightened human action. The psychosomatic unity of
human consciousness (as opposed to post-Cartesian concepts) remains
here a primary assumption. This “traditional” theory could never be an
imaginary (scientific) construction of the world (like Copernicus’s cos-
mology, for instance) understood from some godly point of view. There
is no semblance of a modern platonism with an autonomous ideal realm
beyond the world of experience. Pacioli’s Plato is still the Greek Plato,
capable of thinking the ideal through the specific, yet never forgetting
the opaque nature of chora, the real human experience in which Being
and becoming appear simultaneously, particularly in works of art and
craftsmanship. Plato clearly states that the ultimate aim of philosophy
and the arts is the moral attainment of a certain kind of life and the tun-
ing of the soul in harmony with the universe. Timaeus states, “The sight
of day and night, the months and returning years, the equinoxes and the
solstices, has caused the invention of number, given the notion of time,
and made us inquire into the nature of the universe; thence we have
derived philosophy … All audible musical sound is given us for the sake
of harmony, which has motions akin to the orbits of our soul and which,
as anyone who makes intelligent use of the arts [and crafts] knows, is

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

not to be used, as is commonly thought, to give irrational pleasure, but

as a heaven-sent ally in reducing to order and harmony any disharmony
in the revolutions within us.”29
Pacioli insists that this understanding is shared by his Christian
sources, although he fails to mention some important works by earlier
fellow Franciscans obviously part of this tradition.30 Among the Church
Fathers, St Augustine is, of course, a crucial reference. In this regard,
Pacioli quotes a passage from Civitas Dei about the six days of creation
and the perfect number six: 31 “we must not despise the science of num-
bers, which, in many passages of Holy Scripture, is found to be of emi-
nent service to the careful interpreter. Neither has it been without reason
numbered among God’s praises ‘thou hast ordered all things in number
and measure and weight.’”32 For Pacioli, who also quotes directly from
the Scriptures (Wisdom 11:21), this signifies the correspondence be-
tween the inferior and the superior universe, the sub- and supralunar
worlds. He praises existing applications of mathematics to practical
endeavours in the “mechanical arts” and presents a fascinating montage
of examples from disciplines that no longer seem to have much in com-
mon. After commenting on mathematical contributions to the arts of
war (fortifications, towers, moats, weaponry, etc.), Pacioli continues
with a seamless narrative on the importance of mathematics in the sub-
tle theological speculations of Duns Scotus, who proved the existence of
angels through Euclidean geometry.33 Mathematics, claims Pacioli, even
provided the just perfection of municipal law, as is taught in the theo-
logical work of Brother Guido, who employed Euclid’s principles to
explain the flooding of the Tiber.
In chapter 3 Pacioli explains the etymological meaning of mathematics,
from the Greek maqhmaticoz: that which is “capable of discipline”; that
which is stable and therefore can be taught.34 He then defines various
mathematical disciplines: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music
(the traditional quadrivium) and adds perspective, architecture, and cos-
mography. In discussing these proposed additions, he declares that per-
spective (proportionality) is the tacit foundation of architecture and
cosmography. He argues that since the ancients added music to arith-
metic, geometry, and astronomy, there is no reason for the moderns not
to add perspective. “If music pleases the ear, which is one of the natural
senses, perspective also contents the sight, which is even more dignified
because it is the first gateway of the intellect.”35 While music creates har-

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

monic proportions through pitch and rhythm, perspective relies on “the

natural number according to all definitions, and to the measure of the line
of sight” and uses arithmetic and geometric proportions. Pacioli praises
the miraculous “simulacrum of the glowing desire for our salvation”
painted by Leonardo in his Last Supper, so life-like that Christ’s disciples
seem fully aware of the ineffable truth spoken by the Saviour: “one
among you will betray me.” We see and hear the harmony in the depic-
tion of these figures, in their acts and gestures, “more a matter divine than
human.”36 For Pacioli, perspective (proportionality) contains the secret of
mimesis, a quasi-divine “power” that must be engaged in the making of
architecture and in the cosmographic depiction of the universe. Pacioli
concludes that we must either accept that there are only three principal
mathematical disciplines (mathematics, geometry, and astronomy) and
that the others are subordinate, or indeed acknowledge that there are five,
including music and perspective. It is significant that Pacioli leaves the
question open. Again, this demonstrates the meaningful distance he main-
tains between the realms of the ideal (the abstract mathematical disci-
plines) and the real (the applied arts of representation) and points to the
role of architecture and the crafts as truly “mediating” arts.
After this important preamble, Pacioli explains in chapter 5 why the
golden section merits the attribute of divine. He claims that this propor-
tion resembles God himself through five major correspondences and
reveals Christian truth through thirteen important properties that corre-
spond to Christ and his twelve disciples. The first of the five major cor-
respondences is with the absolute uniqueness of this proportion, “the
supreme epithet of God Himself”; there is simply no other proportion
(a:b::c:d) with the same characteristics. The second correspondence is
with the Holy Trinity; this proportion demonstrates unity with only
three terms, and with three terms alone. It is defined by one mean and
two extremes (proportio habens medium et duo extrema) and therefore
is analogous to the Trinity’s one substance in three distinct persons
(f:1::1:f+1). The third correspondence concerns the impossibility of
defining God in human terms; this proportion cannot be constructed
with “intelligible numbers,” remaining always “occult and secret …
irrational in the words of the mathematicians”37 (f, the “golden num-
ber,” is approximately 0.618). The fourth correspondence is with the
immutable essence of God; the “divine proportion” is invariable and
“continuous,” it arises as the constant factorial relationship between

The geometric construc-
tion of the golden section
and its elementary proper-
ties. If AB = 1, BC = 0.618.
The construction simply
projects the diagonal of the
halved square. In the penta-
gon, if the side A’E’ = 1, A’C’
= 1.618. In the golden
rectangle (bottom right),
if MN = 1, NP = 1.618

The “hollow” icosahedron (top) and dodecahedron

(bottom), from Divina proportione. The dodecahedron,
constructed with twelve pentagons, is formed by
means of the golden proportion and therefore is
associated with the quintessence
Alberto Pérez-Gómez

consecutive terms of the Fibonacci series (mentioned above). The fifth

correspondence is an analogy to the quintessence, or “celestial virtue.”
In this case, Pacioli identifies the Christian God with the Platonic demi-
urge and Creation with the cosmogony described in Timaeus. Pacioli
argues that God himself created the quintessence and from it, the four
elements that compose the universe: earth, water, air, and fire. The gen-
erative function of the quintessence (God’s heaven), identified here with
a prima materia, is analogous “to our holy proportion that provides for-
mal being (according to Plato in his Timaeus) to the heaven itself,
attributing to it the figure of the dodecahedron … the body made of
twelve pentagons that cannot be formed without our proportion.”38
Consequently, this proportion functions as a “continuous quantity” that
assigns its respective forms to the four elements: the tetrahedron to fire,
the cube or hexahedron to earth, the octahedron to air, and the icosahe-
dron to water; the quintessential dodecahedron completes the set of five
regular bodies.39 “And through them, our proportion gives form to an
infinite number of dependent bodies” (“space-filling” or irregular poly-
hedra) that provide the complex richness we normally encounter in our
experience of the world. Most importantly, Pacioli concludes, without
the divine proportion it is impossible to establish the geometric relation-
ship among these bodies and to demonstrate how can they be circum-
scribed by a sphere and thus reconciled with a primordial unity.
Pacioli proceeds to enumerate the special mathematical properties
of the golden number, “which should not be understood as natural,
but are truly divine.”40 The fact that 0.618(1 + 0.618) = 12; that
10:6.18::6.18:3.82, where 6.18 + 3.82 = 10; or that 1.6182 = 2.618 may
seem somewhat trivial to us, but Pacioli identifies these operations with
a true miracle taking place in the realm of numbers. The ninth and thir-
teenth “effects” demonstrate the relationship among the divine propor-
tion, the pentagon, and the dodecahedron. The thirteenth (and last)
effect concerns the proportion between the sides of the pentagon and its
diagonals, and Pacioli relates this again to the quintessence (numerolog-
ically corresponding to Christ, the leader of the twelve apostles). He
reminds us of Plato’s triangle as the first generative figure of the cosmos
(the simplest polygon that provides the “primordial seed”), the same tri-
angle that Euclid described as the basis for demonstrating nested regular
polyhedrons (as illustrated in Pacioli’s portrait). Pacioli emphasizes that
these constructions are generated by divine proportion.41

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Solid sphere, from Divina proportione.

This is the only volume that is not shown in “hollow” mode

The following chapters discuss the regular polygons, their construc-

tion, and the proportions between their surfaces and the sphere that cir-
cumscribes them.42 Pacioli insists it is significant that there can be only
five such bodies and he defines the quintessence as a “celestial virtue
which sustains in their being” all other bodies. In fifteen short chapters
he then describes the relative proportions among the surfaces of the bod-
ies and their nested relationship to one another.43 This curious problem
is of great importance to him. He “discovers” that not all bodies can cir-
cumscribe the remaining four and that only the dodecahedron is capable
of such a feat (in fact, the dodecahedron can circumscribe a tetrahedron
and a cube simultaneously), demonstrating how it is indeed the “recep-
tacle” of all the others. Once again, the divine proportion is presented as
the key to a quintessence that is both primordial matter and receptacle,
the “architectural” substance and space of the universe.
The “derived,” or irregular, bodies are discussed in the following eight
chapters. Pacioli systematically describes the “solid and hollow” regular
bodies, then generates derived bodies either by sectioning the apices to
create “truncated (blunt), solid and hollow” bodies or by projecting the
surfaces up to a point to generate “stellated (elevated), solid and hol-
low” bodies.44 These operations are “constructive” in nature, and Paci-
oli associates them with stone-cutting and masonry. He concludes this

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Drawing of a truncated solid hexahedron (cube) from
the manuscript of Divina proportione. National Library of
Geneva, Switzerland

Left, top to bottom:

Solid and hollow tetrahedron, the first of the Platonic
volumes, after the drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, from
Divina proportione
Solid and hollow truncated tetrahedron, from
Divina proportione
Solid and hollow stellated tetrahedron, from
Divina proportione

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Solid and hollow seventy-two-faced body, the

second composite solid of particular interest
to architects, from Divina proportione

section with a description of twenty-six- and seventy-two-sided polyhe-

dra that are “extremely useful in architecture.” No other space-filling
bodies are discussed, despite the fact that Leonardo illustrated nearly
sixty. This is significant; it demonstrates that Pacioli’s interest was not in
abstract mathematical and formal problems. He pursued this topic for
its relevance to the architecture of the universe and its human counter-
part. Indeed, the description of the geometrical properties of the seven-
ty-two-sided polyhedron finishes with a long digression on architecture.
Pacioli emphasizes the usefulness of this polyhedron for constructing
vaults and domes and refers to the Roman Pantheon, so carefully pro-
portioned that “one sole opening is sufficient to fully illuminate it with
great splendor,” as well as contemporary examples such as Santa Maria
delle Grazie in Milan.
Pacioli concludes his chapter with an apology for architectural theo-
ry (understood as principles of proportion and geometry) and criticizes
practice without “philosophy.” While acknowledging that masons some-
times construct good buildings without “any knowledge of Vitruvius,”
he insists that a craftsman’s intuitive awareness of proportion and
geometry demonstrates that everything in the world is based on “num-
ber, weight, and measure.” He laments that contemporary buildings
often deteriorate very fast, due to a lack of knowledge of “the great
architect and mathematician Vitruvius who wrote about this discipline
and provides unequaled teaching on every sort of construction.”45 He
reminds us that Pythagoras’s discovery of the proportions of the right-

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Far left: Solid hexagonal and

hollow pentagonal columns,
from Divina proportione.
(A mistake was made in the
original pairing of these

Left: Solid and hollow pen-

tagonal pyramid, from Divina

angled triangle is absolutely indispensable to building vertically and

even to recognizing justice, “for without it, it is impossible to know the
difference between good and evil, or to obtain any certain measure in
our works.”46
After briefly discussing the geometric generation of the sphere from a
rotating semicircle in chapter 56, Pacioli describes in chapter 57 the
inscription of the five regular bodies within the sphere. Although this
seems somewhat redundant, the issue here is very different. He describes
a stone-cutting operation in which each of the regular bodies is carved
from a sphere, and the text provides ample anecdotal evidence of the
usefulness of geometry, despite the disbelief of “dumb” stone masons
and other arrogant craftsmen. In one case, Pacioli and the painter
Melozzo challenged an able stone mason to carve a capital in the form
of one of the regular bodies. The stone mason insisted that it would be
an easy task despite his ignorance of geometry but ended up spoiling
many pieces of marble and giving up in humiliation.
The concluding chapters of part 1 present other architectural themes
that deal with prismatic and pyramidal bodies. They describe the geo-
metric properties of cylinders, cones, columns, and pyramids and teach

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

elementary stereometry to determine the volumes of circular columns,

the approximate volume of noncircular columns, and the volume of
pyramids. In the chapter that would have discussed the volumes of the
regular bodies, Pacioli refers the reader to the extensive description in his
Summa.47 Pacioli concludes with praise for the Duke of Urbino, whose
benevolent “sight brings happiness and health to all those whose vision
is troubled, truly like the sun that illuminates and gives warmth from
one pole [of the earth] to the other.”48 The two final chapters in Part 1
provide a glossary and refer to the figures in the treatise that were
“drawn in plan and perfect perspective by Leonardo da Vinci.” Pacioli
also refers here to the “built work,” the models of the bodies (sixty in
all, as he states elsewhere) that he apparently had given to the duke,
together with his text. In the Sforza Palace in Milan they were “sus-
pended from a cord with their name and a reference number,” between
supports of black amber.49 Although they were made of “lowly materi-
al” because of his own limited resources, Pacioli recommends to the
duke that these wondrous bodies should be carved from precious metals
and fine stone.

architecture and the philosopher’s stone

The manuscript that became part 1 of the Divina proportione was fin-
ished on 14 December 1498. When it was being prepared for printing in
Venice in 1509, it seems that Pacioli decided to add the section on archi-
tecture (part 2) and Piero’s Libellus. In the context of Pacioli’s work, this
decision was not merely an arbitrary afterthought. Pacioli understood
architecture as a fertile ground for seeking the culmination of the al-
chemical opus, since it was based on the divine proportion. Piero’s Libel-
lus was also related directly to his concept of architecture.
Part 2, on architecture, is dedicated to the masons, stone-cutters, and
sculptors from his home town (all mentioned by name), who, according
to Pacioli, had asked him to provide guidelines for architecture based
on arithmetic and geometry. Although other books on architecture
had been written in the fifteenth century, Alberti’s remained in Latin,
Filarete’s and Francesco di Giorgio’s existed only in manuscript, and a
translation of Vitruvius into volgare (by Daniele Barbaro) did not
appear before 1556.

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Pacioli’s text draws from classical and humanistic sources, but it is not
a mere simplification or reiteration of Vitruvian theories. In the preface
Pacioli states that architecture is divided into three parts: sacred temples,
profane structures, and private dwellings. The first two are public build-
ings for the “salvation” and defense of “small and large republics,”
while the third caters to the wishes of individuals. Unlike Vitruvius and
other contemporary writers on the subject, Pacioli defines the realm
of architecture exclusively as buildings. This assumption, which would
become the norm for modern architecture, was indeed a novelty in the
early sixteenth century; a “materialistic” and “technical” emphasis
indeed pervades Pacioli’s architectural theory.
Pacioli refers his readers to Vitruvius for instruction on temples.
Architecture for defending cities, on the other hand, must be discussed
because the ancients did not anticipate the invention of artillery and
other weapons. However, Pacioli merely devotes a few pages to the
exploits of famous military men associated with his home town and his
patrons and declares that the topic deserves to be discussed further. Sim-
ilarly, he “postpones” a discussion of the parts and rooms of palaces and
other private buildings, again concluding that Vitruvius has already
shown how to design them with the appropriate proportions. With this
he can now concentrate on his own original contribution to Renaissance
theory, “a very necessary part for the other three that we have men-
tioned.” No buildings, public or private, can be well ornamented (and
therefore possess true meaning) without “very finely carved stone, be it
marble, porphyry, jasper, serpentine marble, or some other rock.”50 This
part of architecture best “ornaments” buildings when it follows geo-
metric proportions, and although “Vitruvius does not speak about it
explicitly, believing it all too well-known,” Pacioli insists that all stone
masons should know “drawing by the ruler and the compass” in order
to accomplish the desired aim.51
It is crucial to note that “proportions” for Pacioli refer to the “prac-
tice” of architecture, the actual stereotomy and stereometry of stone
masonry, rather than to the design of lineamenti in the mind or the archi-
tect’s drawings of plans and elevations. This is very different from the
use of proportions in the better-known treatises of Alberti and Palladio.
Pacioli divides his exposition of proportion into three parts, analogous
to the three parts that constitute the “divine proportion” (a mean and

The composite order, from
the architectural section of
Divina proportione

The frontispiece of
Solomon’s Temple, from
Divina proportione
Alberto Pérez-Gómez

two extremes). This analogical argument locates the discussion within

his general concern.52 His concept contradicts our conventional under-
standing of the “transformation” of the medieval mechanical arts into
liberal disciplines. For Pacioli, architecture is both “material” and “mys-
tical,” a “mechanical” craft and a “liberal” contemplative discipline,
distinct aspects of architecture rather than opposing poles linked by an
instrumental relationship. Indeed, Pacioli’s preface states that he will dis-
cuss the proportions of the human body as the origin of all measure-
ments given by “the finger of God,” clarify some obscure terms from
Vitruvius, describe the architectural elements (stereotomic bodies) used
by contemporary craftsmen, and finally show how these elements are
used in a gateway similar to that of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem,
following the prediction of Ezekiel and God’s “own” architecture as a
model for practice.53
Although Pacioli was familiar with Vitruvius’s discussion of propor-
tions in architecture, his own exposition of the topic is explicitly Pla-
tonic, much closer to the Timaeus than other Renaissance treatises. His
chapter on the measurement and proportions of the human body dis-
cusses the “spherical” head placed by God at the highest point, “like a
citadel guarding the bodily edifice.”54 Pacioli repeats his story about
the importance of the senses: “nihil est in intellectu quin prius sit in
sensu.”55 The head has seven orifices through which the intellect engages
the external world, and when the head is afflicted by some impairment,
all bodily parts suffer. Nature, “the minister of Divinity,” placed in
man’s spherical head all the right proportions that correspond to the
other parts of the body. This conclusion leads Pacioli to a more tradi-
tional (Vitruvian) praise for the square and the circle, “preferred by the
ancients for their temples,” which could circumscribe “the horizontal
body of a man” with the centre of the compass on the navel.56
A significant Platonic influence is evident in Pacioli’s discussion of the
head’s proportions, “generated from the first rectilinear figure, the equi-
lateral triangle.”57 While the triangle was unimportant for other early
Renaissance writers on architecture, it was the foundation for all of
Euclid’s work, and Pacioli shares Euclid’s fascination with the “first” of
the polygons. The triangle played a crucial role in Plato’s cosmogony and,
we may recall, in Pacioli’s own “lesson” on divine geometry as depicted
by Jacopo de’Barbari. Pacioli’s discussion of the proportions of the head
in profile notes the importance of “irrational” proportions that cannot be

The proportions of the human head based
on the triangle, from Divina proportione

expressed through numbers and must remain a decision of the “perspec-

tivist” (the painter or architect who employs proportions of “continuous
quantities”). Art, he says, imitates nature and therefore must always
remain distinct from it. This crucial insight qualifies Pacioli’s theoretical
discourse: “The sciences and mathematical disciplines are abstract and it
is never possible to make them visible actualiter. The hand can never give
form to a point, a line, or a [geometric] surface,” in the way that they are
described by Euclid in his Elements, even though we may use these names
to refer to the marks made by pens and other instruments.58
This meditation on the proportions of the equilateral triangle also led
Pacioli to a brief digression on the grid used by painters to “see” pro-
portions in scenes and objects to be depicted on their canvases.59 This
allusion to the frame and grid of perspectiva artificialis again demon-
strates Pacioli’s analogy between linear perspective and proportion and
underscores his belief in perspective’s general usefulness for architecture.
Significantly, he notes the “irrational” distance between the eyes and the
back of the head (the primal equilateral triangle’s height, which is also the
dimension between the plane of vision and the seat of consciousness in
the nape of the neck) that makes perspective “possible” by reconciling
binocular vision with a geometric point. This “irrational” proportion of
the spherical head also suggests a ubiquitous centre, a “centre at the cir-
cumference,” the famous paradox from the theology of Nicholas of Cusa
that was associated with God’s vision during the fifteenth century.

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Pacioli discusses the proportions of the whole body in chapter 3 of

part 2. He cites Vitruvius extensively, repeats the Roman author’s rea-
soning concerning the perfection of the numbers ten, six, and sixteen,
and declares that the male body’s height is equal to ten heads, adding
that measurements should be taken to the bone to avoid discrepancies
between muscular and weak men.60 To understand the divisions of the
body, Pacioli recommends drawing a vertical line and subdividing it.
Thus, it is possible to recognize the length of the foot as one-tenth of the
height, regardless of actual dimensions. Indeed, Pacioli suggests conceiv-
ing these dimensions in scale, a novel notion during the early Renais-
sance, “as in the case of world maps or navigation charts.”61
The following chapters describe the classical orders and their parts.
Pacioli quotes Vitruvius extensively (in Latin) on the distinction between
the three orders but edits out the major stories about the origin of the
orders. The Ionic, for instance, is described merely as “melancholic,
because as a widow it rises without arrogance,” while the ornamented
and slender Corinthian capital resembles “clean and happy young
women.”62 He justifies the orders’ ornamental features through an anal-
ogy to the Christian tradition in which the attributes of the saints, such
as the sword, horse, and armour of Saint George or the tower in which
Saint Barbara was jailed, symbolize the holy person and his or her
virtues. Indeed, Pacioli declares that the “dress” makes the (public) per-
son and thus that ornament is crucial for architecture.
Although he remarks on the “erroneous rituals and divinities” of the
ancients, Pacioli does not question the classical orders. His main con-
cern is the geometric design and proportions of the various parts of
the orders “for masons,” i.e., the formal and material configuration of
buildings. He clearly describes the anthropomorphic proportions of the
columns, with contours widening in the middle and narrowing at the
bottom and top, following the relative thickness of the human body.
His understanding of anthropomorphic proportions seems more literal
than his sources, but his explicit interest is solidity and durability, and
beauty as an independent value is never mentioned. Following this
“technical” interest, chapter 8 describes where one might find “the
best made columns in Italy, both ancient and modern.” He praises the
new buildings in Florence, such as Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito and
his “own” Franciscan convent of Santa Croce, and is particularly
impressed by the twisted columns at Saint Peter’s in Rome “that were

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

taken from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem,” one of which has

miraculous powers against evil demons.
The rest of the treatise on architecture describes the disposition of
columns in buildings, with long Latin quotations from Vitruvius accom-
panied by fragments and observations that reveal Pacioli’s true concern:
the capacity of the “craft” of architecture to reconcile duality with unity
through geometric operations. Speaking about “columns with sides”
(pillars or “square-based columns”), he refers to the “difficult problem
of proportioning the circle to the square using the science of quadratura
circuli.” He then speculates that the wise philosopher who is capable of
finally solving the problem may have been born already, “as for me I can
demonstrate [its truth] palpabiliter [in a palpable manner, through tac-
tile intuition], to anyone who may question it.”63 This “perceptual
knowledge” of wholeness is precisely the province of architecture.64
In a special chapter on letters, Pacioli refers to the Roman alphabet as
one more demonstration of the importance of the circle and the straight
line.65 Letters had been objects of contemplation in the Franciscan tra-
dition. Pacioli’s newly designed alphabet is generated geometrically to
reveal the letters’ ultimate origin. He claims that the square and the cir-
cle are all one needs to design not only Roman letters but also Hebrew,
Greek, and Chaldean letters. Thus, geometry is understood as the origin
of writing, as the trace of God’s light upon the Tables of the Law or the
minds of mortals, at the very origins of human culture and memory. The
analogy with architecture is obvious: architecture can “write” in a uni-
versal language and implement humanity’s highest concerns.
While acknowledging that Vitruvius never speaks of pyramids or
cones, Pacioli includes a short chapter on the subject, again “for the par-
ticular benefit of masons,” and refers the reader to part 1 of his book.
Similarly, in chapter 8 he offers advice to stone masons and sculptors
concerning the five regular bodies. He suggests that these Platonic figures
may be used as capitals or as bases of columns “according to your judg-
ment,” to provide proper ornament and a place for speculating on the
virtues of the divine proportion. Pacioli mentions an icosahedron, “the
figure of water” sculpted by Phidias in the Roman Temple of Ceres,
emphasizing its appropriateness to the rituals of fertility celebrated in
that sacred space.
Pacioli concludes his writing on architecture with two chapters about
problems confronted when an architect must build in narrow sites and

Examples of letters
from Pacioli’s alphabet,
from Divina proportione

use “irrational” proportions. Compared to his contemporaries, he was

much more sympathetic to medieval building operations in situ, in
which the “effigy” of a building was not fixed before construction
began. Pacioli declares the superiority of geometry over arithmetic,
because it enables one to “draw lines and surfaces” even if the propor-
tions are not “rational” (i.e., based on natural numbers). He shares the
general Renaissance preference for using the circle and the square in
architecture whenever possible and also advocates simple proportions (a
third, a half, a fourth, etc.), as with Alberti and other fifteenth-century
writers. Indeed, geometry has an unlimited capacity to generate order
from both “continuous and discrete measurements” and is therefore
more useful than arithmetic. This is clearly an allusion to the “organic,”
continuous, and ultimately unknowable “divine proportion.” In fact,
Pacioli argues, even though proportions originate in nature, architecture
can merely approximate the natural order, which is irrational and
unknowable. A clear example is Vitruvius’s argument about making the
upper columns of a multistorey building one-fourth smaller than the
lower columns, because the proportion should acknowledge the tapering
trunks of trees. The final paragraph warns the architect not to impose
obsessive symmetry and proportion on a site that may not allow it.
From this careful reading of his treatise we may conclude that Pacioli’s
concept of architecture was unique, perhaps similar only to the equally
“unorthodox” understanding of architecture in the neoplatonic and
“alchemical” Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499). Pacioli’s concern is

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

“technical” rather than “humanistic,” recalling the alchemist’s search for

“gold” as a mineral “sol” that is distinct from the true sun in heaven.
Indeed, alchemy insists that the quintessence is a “mortal heaven” that is
not identical to God’s heaven. Analogously, Pacioli’s mathematics were
never truly “of this world” but must be grasped through the senses. The
aim of the architect/craftsman was not to render the ideal world as a
concrete physical presence; this would be an absurd impossibility. Con-
sequently, Pacioli was not interested in the ability of an architect/author
to produce “pictures” of a future building. Although he was familiar with
the new power of art (particularly the perspectival epiphanies of paint-
ing), his emphasis on craft distinguishes him from most contemporary
writers on architecture. More significantly, although architecture may be
a craft, it need not be devoid of a “philosophical” component. On the
contrary: its discourse is mathematical and theological.
Just as alchemy distinguished the material and spiritual realms while
proclaiming their inseparable nature in the experience of the alchemical
opus and in the self-understanding brought about through “making,”
architecture for Pacioli was a craft and a philosophical discourse in
search of nonduality. Only by recognizing his work in the work of the
world could the craftsman/alchemist recognize himself as a nonself in
communion with the eternal God. Pacioli’s portrait, in which nothing is
superfluous or accidental, had revealed not only his Euclidean teaching
and its allusion to divine proportion but also his interest in a stereo-
tomic glass architecture. The “philosophical” work of the architect was
modelled on the architecture of the Platonic cosmos that was echoed in
God’s design for the Temple of Jerusalem. Stereotomy and stereometry
offer techniques but also a philosophical understanding of what may be
revealed in the process: the “ephemeral gold” that must be recognized in
the unending process of transmutation that is a human work.
Pacioli believed that stereotomy, the careful “geometrizing” of stone
through cutting and polishing, could transmute and spiritualize lowly
matter, evoking St John’s Heavenly Jerusalem made of “pure gold resem-
bling pure glass.” Architecture, a “mediating art” par excellence, emerges
from humble materials, from the earth itself, like the glass that forms
Pacioli’s floating icosahexahedron and is generated artificially from
lowly ashes and sand, an alchemical symbol of rebirth and salvation. In
Guillaume Sedacer’s alchemical treatise, for example, glass is equivalent
to the “philosopher’s stone,” a mortal quintessence with a greater digni-

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

The sun and the moon framing

the earth and its geometries, allud-
ing to the relationships among the
triangle, the square and the circle
and the possibility of unity from
duality. From an alchemical treatise
by Mylius, Philosophia Reformata
(Frankfurt, 1622)

ty and importance than crystal because it is generated “technically,” by

human means.66 Glass is resistant to time, water, and fire and can be
transformed by blowing, through the spirit (pneuma) itself. This fiery
transmutation of sand and ashes, involving the last human residue, could
be understood as a transformation of matter and spirit beyond death.
The Franciscan professor of holy theology thus completed his lesson
for the architect. Consistent with his theological belief in the “fact” of
transubstantiation (the sacrificial Christian ritual in which the priest’s
hands enable bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ,
while still tasting like bread and wine), Pacioli believes that architecture
may effect a similar transmutation. The architecture of the universe,
Pacioli’s suspended icosahexahedron generated by triangles, is made of
glass and contains both a crystalline liquid and a source of light: the
Elixir and the Stone, the Quintessence itself. Human architecture, as
both an act of willful making and a recognition of the ever present, yet
never objectifiable “space/matter,” enables humanity to “experience”
unity in multiplicity. This is the “truth” of the prima materia, appearing
only in “continuous [mortal] magnitudes,” and is therefore never cir-
cumscribable by the mens (mind), whose sole vocation, as Nicholas of
Cusa had declared, is mensura (measurement). While the hope for an
ultimate solution to the squaring of the circle remained alive in Pacioli,
perhaps associated with the imminence of the Christian end of time and
the messianic advent of the Heavenly Jerusalem (the ultimate realization

Cosmological geometries reconciling
the four elements into the
Quintessence (top), and the man
into unity through the squaring of
the circle by means of the triangle
(bottom). From Sylvia Philosophorum,
an anonymous seventheenth-century
alchemical manuscript (Biblotheek
der Rijkunstuniversiteit, Leiden, Cod.
Voss. chem. q. 61, f.1, 4-12)
Alberto Pérez-Gómez

of the ideal world), his meditation retained a dignified status for archi-
tecture, which had often become associated with power and wealth.
Architecture had always been a problematic activity for the Franciscan
order, with its vow of poverty. Following Pacioli’s alchemical path,
architecture could be construed as a virtuous and ethical craft, truly a
form of meditation, capable of transmuting matter (the earth) and liber-
ating it from gravity and enabling humanity (humus) to recognize its
spiritual wholeness.67


1 An alchemical manuscript from the mid-fifteenth century, Sloane ms. 73,

fol. 10, British Museum.
2 Alchemical text by Raymund of Tarrega, falsely assumed to be Raymund
Lull (Venice, 1542), 22.
3 Luca Pacioli, Divina proportione. Opera a tutti gli ingegni perspicaci e
curiosi necessaria que ciascun studioso di Philosophia Prospectiva Pictura
Scultura Architectura Musica e altre Mathematice suavissima sottile e
admirabile doctrina consequira e delectarassi co varie questione de
secretissima scientia (Venice: Paganini 1509). The manuscript apparently
was finished on 14 December 1498 and is now in the Geneva Public Library.
A German translation by Constantin Wintenberg, Divina proportione: Die
Lehre vom goldenen Schnitt, was published in Vienna in 1889. There is
also a Spanish translation by Ricardo Resta, La divina proporción (Buenos
Aires: Losada 1946 and 1959), and a recent French translation, Divine
proportion (Paris: Librarie du Compagnonnage 1980). An English trans-
lation is expected in 2002. For this article I have used mostly the Spanish
and French translations.
4 See, for example, Matila C. Ghyka, El numero de oro (Buenos Aires:
Poseidon 1968), 2 vols., translation of Le nombre d’or; and M. Boris-
savlievitch, The Golden Number (London: Tiranti 1958).
5 Luca Pacioli, Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et Proportion-
alita (Venice: Paganini 1494).
6 Nicomachus of Gerasa, Introduction to Arithmetic, trans. M.I. D’Ooge
(Ann Arbor, mi: University of Michigan Studies in the Human Sciences
1926), vol. 16, 8.
7 Pacioli, Summa, “Dedication,” quoting “Wisdom of Solomon,” 11:20b.
8 Ibid., 4.

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

9 Luca Pacioli, La divina proporción, Spanish trans. by Aldo Mieli (Buenos

Aires: Losada 1959), 65.
10 Nicomachus of Gerasa, Introduction to Arithmetic, vol. 16, 186–7.
11 The responsibility of Pacioli in the design of his own portrait has been well
established. See Margaret Daly Davies, Piero della Francesca’s Mathemat-
ical Treatises (Ravenna: Longo Editore 1977), 74–6.
12 The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements, ed. T.L. Heath (New York:
Dover Publications 1956), 466–7.
13 Plato, Timaeus and Critias. See also my essay “Chora: The Space of Archi-
tectural Representation” in CHORA : Intervals in the Philosophy of Archi-
tecture, vol. 1 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1994), 1–34.
14 These recommendations appear in chapters 53 and 54 of art 1 of his Div-
ina proportione. Pacioli, La divina proporción, 115–18.
15 Cod. 250, Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna.
16 Had it been published, Pacioli’s would have been the first Italian transla-
tion of Euclid’s Elements. In fact, the first translation to appear was by
Niccolo Tartaglia, published (with extensive commentary) in 1543.
17 For biographical information see Pacioli, La divina proporción, preface by
Aldo Mieli, 15–17; Pacioli, Divine Proportion, intr. by M.T. Sarrade. Mieli
mentions a biography of Pacioli by Bernardino Baldi (1553–1617), not
published until 1879 by Baldassarre Boncompagni in Bulletino, vol. 12.
18 Brunelleschi’s friendship with Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, for example,
lasted over forty years, and Toscanelli’s collaboration with Alberti in
astronomical calculations is well documented. See A. Manetti, Vita di Fil-
ippo Brunelleschi, ed. D. De Robertis (Milan, 1976), 70; and Margaret
Daly Davies, Piero della Francesca’s Mathematical Treatises, 4n10. In the
Veneto, Jacopo Bellini’s experiments in perspective were encouraged by
Giovanni Fontana, a writer on perspective who had studied under Biagio
Pelacani in Padua. See M. Daly Davies, 5–6.
19 Piero della Francesca, De prospectiva pingendi, ed. G. Nicco Fasola (Flo-
rence 1942), 128–9.
20 Piero intended his book to stand “penes aliud nostrum de Prospectiva
opusculum, quod superioribus annis edidimus.” Piero della Francesca, De
Corpuribus Regularibus, ed. Girolamo Mancini (Rome, 1916), 488.
Quoted by M. Daly Davies, Piero della Francesca’s Mathematical Treatis-
es, 20.
21 While this famous definition has been traced back to the earlier Middle

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Ages (the thirteenth or even the eleventh century) by some scholars,

Nicholas of Cusa’s comprehensive geometrization of theology is a consid-
erable innovation of great significance for the Renaissance. See A. Pérez-
Gómez and L. Pelletier, Architectural Representation and the Perspective
Hinge (Cambridge, ma: mit Press 1997), 16–18.
22 Books 14 and 15 in the Campanus translation that Piero used are now
known not to be by Euclid himself. See The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s
Elements. The Campanus edition in Latin, Euclidis Megarensis philosophi
acutissimi …, was edited for publication by Pacioli (Venice, 1509).
23 In the French context, for example, only Nicolas Oresme and Nicolas
Chuquet were writing in French during the fifteenth century.
24 Quoted in Pacioli, La divina proporción, preface by Aldo Mieli, 20.
Mieli’s introduction includes a helpful, brief description of the contents of
the Summa and its sources.
25 He defines algebra as a major speculative art related to the knowledge of
letter combinations, which in the Middle Ages constituted the basis for
Jewish and Christian cabalistic practices (the contemplation of God’s
name, i.e., absolute Truth, through the combination of letters). It may be
worth noting in this connection that the well-known thirteenth-century
Christian cabalist Raymund Lull was closely associated with the Francis-
cans. Ibid., 25.
26 For a commentary on this difficult term see the glossary of the recent trans-
lation of Alberti’s On the Art of Building in Ten Books, by J. Rykwert
(Cambridge, ma: mit Press 1989).
27 Pacioli, La divina proporción, 60–1.
28 Ibid., 63.
29 Plato, Timaeus and Critias, trans. H.D. Lee (Harmondsworth, England:
Penguin 1965), 47a.
30 Perhaps Pacioli’s most important omission is Bonaventure, the Parisian
general of the Franciscans during the thirteenth century whose mystical
work was greatly influenced by Augustinian “perfect” proportions and by
an obsessive numerological concern for the number six. Bonaventure’s
Itinerarium mentis in Deum was copied and distributed widely, and it is
unlikely that a learned Franciscan such as Pacioli would not have known
it. Following from Hugh of St Victor’s concern with the place of the mechan-
ical arts in a Christian world (another, perhaps more understandable
omission in Pacioli’s text), Bonaventure was also the author of a treatise

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

entitled On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, also a likely precedent

of Pacioli’s outlook within the Franciscan tradition.
Umberto Eco (Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages [New Haven: Yale
University Press 1986], 85) has emphasized the importance of Bonaven-
ture’s interpretation of Augustine’s De musica. Bonaventure declared that
the laws of aequalitas (smoothness, evenness, and uniformity) could be
discovered by the artist in the depths of his own soul. In the Franciscan
school we find the initial insights into the nature of artistic inspiration and
its relation to self-realization, a crucial concept in Pacioli’s Divina propor-
tione. Furthermore, Bonaventure clearly understood the relationship
between love and aesthetic delight resulting from “a conjunction of the
delectable and the person who takes delight in it” (In I Sent., 1.3.2). “This
affection of love is noblest of all because it partakes in liberality to the
highest degree … As far as creatures are concerned, nothing is so delight-
ful as mutual love, and without love there is no delight” (In I Sent.,
10.1.2). The quotes are from Eco, 67. See also St Bonaventure, Opera
omnia (Florence, 1902).
I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Gregory Caicco for having raised the
Bonaventure issue after reading my manuscript. Dr Caicco has written on
the architectural implications of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium (M. Phil.,
Cambridge, 1990), and has completed a doctoral dissertation on the Fran-
ciscan tradition of architecture in the History and Theory of Architecture
program at McGill University.
31 These correspondences between Platonic cosmogony and the Biblical gen-
esis had been formulated first in the extensive exegetical work of Philo of
Alexandria (also known as Philo the Jew) c. 30b–50ce.
32 Augustine, Civitas Dei, trans. Dodds, 11.30, cited by Christopher Butler,
Number Symbolism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1970), 24.
33 Pacioli, La divina proporción, 64.
34 Ibid., 66.
35 Ibid., 67.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid., 69.
38 Ibid., 70.
39 This resonates with the later speculations about nested polyhedra in
Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum. Fernand Hallyn has demonstrated
convincingly the profound relationship among Renaissance theology, art
theories, and early modern speculations about the structure of the uni-

Alberto Pérez-Gómez

verse, particularly in the cosmologies of Copernicus and Kepler. See The

Poetic Structure of the World (New York: Zone Books 1993), esp. chaps.
7 and 8.
40 Pacioli, La divina proporción, chaps. 6–23.
41 Ibid., 83.
42 Ibid., chaps. 24–31.
43 Ibid., chaps. 32–48.
44 It is important to emphasize Pacioli’s insistence on describing both the
solid and void conditions in all cases.
45 Ibid., 117.
46 Ibid.
47 Stereometry is also the main subject matter of Piero’s Libellus, which Paci-
oli added as part 3 of the Divina proportione, a deliberate inclusion that,
as I will show, is indeed relevant to complete his architectural discourse.
48 Ibid., 136–7.
49 Ibid., 138.
50 Ibid., 150.
51 Ibid., 151.
52 Ibid.
53 Ibid., 152. Pacioli provides an image of this gateway but does not elabo-
rate on its significance in the text. Exegetical work on the Temple was
done by earlier Franciscans, and Ezekiel’s description is a well-known
instance of numerology incorporated into the Judeo-Christian tradition. In
the case of Pacioli’s reference, however, the Temple remains an ideal image
and is never intended as an “actual” building. See my “Juan Bautista Vil-
lalpando and the Architecture of God,” in CHORA : Intervals in the Phi-
losophy of Architecture, vol. 3 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University
Press 1999).
54 Pacioli, La divina proporción, 152.
55 Ibid.
56 Ibid., 153.
57 Ibid.
58 Ibid., 154.
59 Ibid.; see chap. 2, 155–6.
60 Ibid., 159. For the argument concerning the perfection of numbers see Vit-
ruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, trans. M.H. Morgan (New York:
Dover 1960), book 3, chap. 1, 73–4.
61 Ibid., 159.

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

62 Ibid., 166.
63 Ibid., 170–1.
64 We might recall here the “wondrous demonstration” of the squaring of the
circle when a beam of sunlight is projected into a dark chamber through
a square orifice and the projection turns out to be a circle. This phenome-
non remained a source of wonder during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, well after Kepler’s demonstration of the “pin-hole” principle, ac-
cording to which an aperture of any shape will project the sun as a circle.
65 Ibid., chap. 11, 171. Authorship of the famous alphabet by Pacioli was
questioned by Geoffroy Tory in his Cham-Fleury ou l’art et science de la
deue et vray proportion des lettres (Paris, 1529). It was argued that the let-
ters had been designed by Leonardo, a rumour magnified by Giorgio
Vasari. While the geometric bodies were originally Leonardo’s drawings,
Pacioli took great care to acknowledge this many times in his text. Mod-
ern scholarship tends to give credit for the alphabet to Pacioli himself. This
alphabet is, of course, very similar to Dürer’s in Unterweisung der Mes-
sung (Nürnberg, 1525), and Dürer was certainly influenced by Pacioli.
66 See Pascale Barthélemy, “Le verre dans la Sedacina totius artis alchimie de
Guillaume Sedacer,” in Alchimie art, histoire et mythes (Paris: s.e.h.a
1995), 203–33.
67 It is worth recalling the Franciscan tradition of seeking self-realization
through making, one that was never free of controversy. The ex-commu-
nicated Brother Elias, second general of the Franciscans (1226–84), was
thought to be the author of various alchemical treatises during the four-
teenth and fifteenth centuries.

Simplex sigillum veri:
The Exemplary Life of an Architect

David Theodore

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

§1. let this be known right from the start, even though it comes at
the very end of his book: “Tractatus §7.0: Wovon man nicht sprechen
kann, darüber muss man schweigen” (whereof one cannot speak, there-
of one must be silent).1 This restraint is the best, the very best we can
achieve in all things. In thinking, for instance: “The difficulty in philos-
ophy is to say no more than we know.”2 Even in polemic, “or the art of
throwing eggs,” the “difficulty is not to make superfluous noises, or ges-
tures, which don’t harm the other man but only yourself.”3
(Tractatus §5.47321: “Occam’s razor is, of course, not an arbitrary
rule nor one justified by its practical success. It simply says that unnec-
essary elements in a symbolism mean nothing. Signs which serve one
purpose are logically equivalent, signs which serve no purpose are mean-
Tractatus §7.0 is a logical truth and an ethical precept.4 In the 1930s
he told a friend: “To be sure, I can imagine what Heidegger means by
being and anxiety. Man feels the urge to run up against the limits of lan-
guage … This running up against the limits of language is ethics. In
ethics we are always making the attempt to say something that cannot
be said … But the inclination, the running up against something, indi-
cates something.”5

§2. His architecture, too, assumes the principle, the virtue, of simplicity.
It is lucid. It shows clearly its clarity. It strives to leave out the unneces-
sary, the tautological. Minimal precision has thus a clear moral purpose.
It “indicates something,” something important. His concern for preci-
sion, abstraction, and minimalism arises from deep ethical preoccupa-
tions: reduction need not designate a style, functionalism or formalism,
but rather demonstrates right action. (Tractatus §6.421: “Ethics and
aesthetics are one.”)
How much did architecture mean to him? Did he have architectural
genius? Does his architecture depend on his philosphy?6 He liked to say:
“Work on philosophy – in many ways like working on architecture – is
really more like working on the self. On your own interpretation. That
is, on how you see things yourself. And what you demand of them.”7
Architecture’s contribution to transforming the world, therefore,
works through a transformation of the architect: “Just improve your-
self,” he told his disciples, “that is all you can do to improve the
world.”8 Kundmanngasse 19, the celebrated house in Vienna he worked

David Theodore

Door hardware for Kundmanngasse

designed by Wittgenstein. From Wijdeveld,
Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Kundmanngasse 19.

Photo courtesy Terrance Galvin

on from 1926 to 1928 for his sister Margaret Stonborough, did not
change his philosophy. Building it, working on it, had changed him, so
that he made different demands on his philosophy. In 1929 Cambridge
University accepted the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his already
famous first published book (1921), as his doctoral dissertation. G.E.
Moore and Bertrand Russell asked him a couple of questions about it for
his defense. John Maynard Keynes helped him to receive a fellowship at
Trinity College. But now when he started to do philosophy again, some-
thing was askew.

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

§3. All personal reorientation is difficult. It is crippling. It is discipline.

While he worked on Kundmanngasse, the nascent Vienna Circle gath-
ered around him: Moritz Schlick, Friedrich Waismann, sometimes Her-
bert Feigl and Maria Kasper (later Mrs Feigl) and Rudolf Carnap. They
came to his rooms. Schlick’s great culture set him at ease. He detested
Carnap. Waismann took notes. But “preoccupied with other things and
with his architectural work in particular, [he] was not always prepared
to talk about philosophy. Sometimes he preferred to read out poems,
especially those of Rabindranath Tagore, usually sitting with his back to
the audience.” Later he declared these camp followers orgulous and
derivative: “What the Vienna School has achieved, it ought to show not
say … The master should be known by his work.”9
But showing is not picturing. At Saturday afternoon philosophy meet-
ings in the 1930s he “related a riddle for the purpose of throwing some
light on the nature of philosophy. It went as follows: Suppose that a cord
was stretched tightly around the earth at the equator. Now suppose that
a piece one yard long was added to the cord. If the cord was kept taut
and circular in form, how much above the surface of the earth would it
be?”10 To answer this riddle, we make a picture of the situation. If we
have the right picture, though, the best representation, we do not neces-
sarily arrive at the right answer.
(“The most accurate picture of an entire apple tree has in a certain
sense much fewer similarities with the tree than the smallest daisy.”11)

§4. Here is an accurate picture of him. He had chestnut hair, was about
5’6”, patrician, never fat, an ascetic aesthete. His clothes were carefully
chosen from the best English tailors, but he was known for his shabby
appearance: “brown coat and grey, probably patched, flannel trousers,
with open shirt and without tie.”12 He was trying to be honest. He gave
away all of his inherited fortune, first anonymously to artists such as
Georg Trakl, Oskar Kokoschka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Adolf Loos,
and then just away. He was at the front in World War I.
In group photos he sometimes appears to be sleeping.
He was a school teacher, a philosopher, a musician and a sculptor, a
soldier and a gardener. He lived the exemplary life of an architect.
For him “knowledge … was intimately connected with doing.”13 His
own training echoed Vitruvius’s prescription for the education of an
architect: manual skill, liberal arts, geometry, arithmetic, medicine,

A friend of Thomas Stonborough, Ludwig Wittgenstein [dressed in workman’s clothes],
and construction supervisor Friedl on a balcony of the Kundmanngasse. From Wijdeveld,
Ludwig Wittgenstein

astronomy, music, and philosophy, including physics. He learned to

whistle, to conduct music, and to make sculpture. He built machines.
When he was ten he contrived a working sewing machine out of wood.
In 1910 he patented some “Improvements in Propellers applicable for
Aerial Machines.” He called himself an “aeronaut”; he wanted to fly. He
developed an idea for propulsion later adapted to build helicopters in
World War II.14 He built kites with William Eccles, staying at the Grouse
Inn at Glossop in the Derbyshire Moors amidst a clutter of books.
He would be Daedalus.
In Derek Jarman’s film this ambition is caught in an image: “wearing
kite wings [he] picks up two lawn mower sprinklers and holds them out

Construction drawing
of the variable volume
combustion propeller
engine. From Wijdeveld,
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein (right) and William Eccles at the

Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station, near Glossop,
c. 1908. From Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein

David Theodore

Older Wittgenstein as Daedalus. From Eagleton and Jarman, Wittgenstein

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

like the propellers of a plane. The light catches the swirling water like a
Catherine wheel.”15
He thought of his aeronautical experiments as a failure. But in search-
ing for mathematical solutions to aeronautical problems, he discovered
a talent and appetence for thinking about logical problems. If this was a
real talent, if he could make a real contribution, he had a moral duty to
exercise his talent.

§5. He wrote in a note to himself: “Genius is talent in which character

makes itself heard … [it shows] no mere intellectual skeleton, but a com-
plete human being … That too is why the greatness of what a man
writes depends on everything else he writes and does” [emphasis
“Meaning,” “character,” “purpose,” and “symbol” have to do with
culture. “A stylistic device may be useful and yet I may be barred from
using it. Schopenhauer’s ‘as which’ for instance. Sometimes this would
make for much more comfortable and clearer expression, but if someone
feels it is archaic (altväterisch), he cannot use it; and he must not disre-
gard this feeling either.”
In the introduction to the Philosophische Bemurkungen he added: “I
would like to say ‘this book is written to the honour of God,’ but nowa-
days this would be the trick of a cheat, i.e., it would not be correctly
understood. It means the book was written in good will, and so far as it
was not but was written from vanity etc, [sic] the author would wish to
see it condemned. He can not make it more free of these impurities than
he is himself. (Translated by Mr. Rush Rhees.)”17
“Impurities”: the problem is ethical, about having the right relation-
ship to the work. He told a friend in conversation: “Bach wrote on the
title-page of his Orgelbuchlein, ‘To the glory of the most high God, and
that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.’ That is what I would have
liked to say about my work.”18

§6. He used his work to understand the world and himself. At first he
thought: “The human body … my body in particular, is a part of the
world among others, among beasts, plants, stones, etc., etc. … Whoev-
er realizes this will not want to procure a pre-eminent place for his own
body or for the human body. He will regard humans and beasts quite
naively as objects which are similar and which belong together.”19 But

David Theodore

he realized this description could lead to philosophical errors, namely,

that readers might mistake its moral injunction for a philosophy of pos-
itivist objectivism. He wanted to say that philosophy should help us to
resolve the delusion that there are two kinds of material, one mental and
one physical. So he wrote this instead: “The world is my world: The sub-
ject does not belong to the world; rather it is a limit of the world: the
world and life are one” (Tractatus §5.6–5.641).
Terry Eagleton, “the most significant Marxist literary critic of his gen-
eration,”20 glosses this passage thus: “Value cannot be in the world,
since it resides in the human subject; and the human subject is not an
object within reality, but the limit or horizon which brings that reality
into focus.”21
So who is “I”? We read in his notebooks:

Now let us ask ourselves what sort of identity of personality it is we are refer-
ring to when we say “when anything is seen, it is always I who see.” What is
it I want all these cases of seeing to have in common? As an answer I have to
confess to myself that it is not my bodily appearance. I don’t always see part
of my body when I see. And it isn’t essential that my body, if seen amongst the
things I see, should always look the same. In fact I don’t mind how much it
changes; and I feel the same way about all the properties of my body, the char-
acteristics of my behaviour, and even about my memories. – When I think
about it a little longer I see that what I wished to say was “Always when any-
thing is seen, something is seen.” I.e. that of which I said it continued during
all the experiences of seeing was not any particular entity “I,” but the experi-
ence of seeing itself.22

More important, and more difficult to articulate – thereof must one be

silent, after all – were all the experiences of living, of culture, that “I” has.

§7. He came from Vienna. The culture that he understood so well was
bourgeois and artistic, with profound roots in the ways of life estab-
lished around the Hapsburg court. He had a deep appreciation of Vien-
nese aristocratic building traditions. He grew up in the Alleegasse, with
its “seven pianos” and Wiener Werkstätte interiors. Bruno Walter, Gus-
tav Klimt, Johannes Brahms were frequent guests. While he worked on
Kundmanngasse, he stayed with his sister Margaret Stonborough in her
baroque palace, the eighteenth-century Palais Batthyány-Schönborn,

Above:The Galerie in Wittgenstein’s family
home in the Alleegasse. From Wijdeveld,
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Right: Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach,

Palais Batthyány-Schönborn, 1698 –1705; the
home of Margareth Stonborough in the
1920s. From Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein

built by Johann Fischer von Erlach. His father financed the Wiener
Secession exhibition building in the Karlplatz.
He remained self-consciously Viennese. He liked Beethoven and Karl
Kraus. He sent postcards to Adolf Loos in Paris. (Loos der einmal zu
[ihm] gesagt hat “Sie sind ich!” [Loos once said to him, “You are
me!”].)23 His declared influences were Ludwig Boltzmann, Heinrich
Hertz, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schopenhauer, Otto
Spengler, Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, Otto Weininger, Piero Sraffa.24 Two
physicists, a logician, three philosophers, a journalist, an architect, a sex-
ologist and an economist.
Although baptized and buried a Catholic, he believed in the signifi-
cance of his Jewish origins. He believed his “race” determined his think-
ing, his second-rate imitative “Jewish reproductive” talent, his lack of
genius, his exiguous groping towards significance. Greatness in music
was Beethoven, Brahms; second rate was Mendelssohn, Jewish.25

David Theodore

Postcard from Wittgenstein to Adolf Loos, September 1925, showing where he lived as a
school teacher in Otterhal. From Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein

The times determined things, too. The things we say, the gestures we
make are meaningful within a culture that shares our judgment. Thus
the “great architect in a bad period (Van der Nüll) has a totally different
task from the great architect in a good period.”26 This exigent charge
evokes judgments not just of our work but of ourselves. Van der Nüll,
architect of the Wiener Staatsoper, committed suicide when Emperor
Franz Joseph expressed displeasure with the entrance.
Suicide was everywhere. The poet Georg Trakl overdosed on cocaine
in a military hospital near Krakow two days before he was set to visit.
(“Wie Traurig, wie traurig!!!” he wrote.)27 Boltzmann killed himself the
year he was applying to study with the physicist at the University of
Three of his brothers took their own lives: Hans disappeared from a
boat in Chesapeake Bay in 1903; Rudolf took cyanide in a Berlin pub in
1904; Kurt shot himself after his troops disobeyed him in World War I.
(He barely escaped suicide himself. Architecture saved his life. He told
Marguerite Respinger that “the design and building of the house [Kund-
manngasse] had rescued him from the deep moral crisis caused by his
failure as a teacher.”)28
In October 1903 he was a student at the Realschule in Linz. Adolf
Hitler was there, too; they shared a history teacher who foretold the
decline of the “decadent” Hapsburg dynasty.29 Here he learned that
twenty-three-year-old Otto Weininger shot himself in the “death place,”
Beethoven’s house in Schwarzspaniergasse in Vienna.

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Tractatus §4.31: truth tables

From Weininger’s Sex and Character he learned to separate love from

sex, a split necessary because “sexuality is incompatible with the honesty
genius demands.”30 Derek Jarman notes that he died in 1951 of “cancer
of the prostate – the most unexplored of erogenous zones.”31 Jarman is
probably right to insist that from our point of view the links between his
hatred of disorder, his Viennese background, and his (homo)sexual guilt
should be taken seriously. Not because there is some eternal truth about
such links – i.e., in Ernest Jones’s conception in “Anal-Erotic Character
Traits”32 – but rather because they form an adequate first description of
his personality. They are the terms in which he and his peers have
described him. They sketch possible moralities. He was, after all, inca-
pable of living in a messy room or of staying in a room when sexual mat-
ters were discussed if women were present.

§8. Of all these preoccupations (philosophy, sex, death), art (literature,

music, architecture) was the most important. The Tractatus “assigns a
central importance in human life to art, on the ground that art alone can
express the meaning of life. Only art can express moral truth, and only
the artist can teach the things that matter most in life.”33 Frank Ramsey
once commented, “But what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t
whistle it either,” but of course that is exactly how we can mean what
we cannot say. That is exactly the necessity of whistling.

David Theodore

“How can I say how much music has meant to me?” he asked in his
At Cambridge he worked with his friend David Pinsent, a musician
and mathematician, on psychological “rhythm-experiments” in the psy-
chological laboratory.35 “He had hoped that the experiments would
throw light on some questions of aesthetics that interested him.”36 What
was so important about aesthetics?
(Even logic had to be a mere tool to art. He had told Bertrand Russell
that studying logic improved one’s aesthetic judgment.)37
(The truth tables are his most important contribution to formal logic
[e.g., Tractatus §4.31]; they make accurate pictures of logical problems.
He came to despise them.)
But logic is bounded. There are nonverbal meanings, meanings out-
side of language, extra-nuncupative but irrefragable. Gestures. Move-
ments. Conditions. Places. Buildings. Friendships. Music. These are in
some way aesthetic: beyond language, beyond logic.
The meaningful gesture appears in a culture. “Architecture is a ges-
ture. Not every functional movement of the human body is a gesture.
Likewise, not every functional building is architecture.”38 The Italian
economist Piero Sraffa, a friend of Gramsci no less, once made this dis-
tinction clear with an illogical yet meaningful gesture.
“Recall the impression of good architecture,” he wrote later to himself,
“that it expresses a thought. One would like to follow it with a gesture.”39
But can someone be taught to understand a gesture, gestures like kiss-
ing a photo or making music? What does understanding music mean?40
He thought about Brahms and ground his teeth together. Then he
noticed himself grinding his teeth. He stopped and continued to think
about Brahms, but the notes were less clear, less rich, ghostlier.41

§9. Art could connect logic and culture, but what connected logic and
life? Apparently nothing. “The author of the Tractatus thought he had
solved all philosophical problems. It was consistent with this view that
he should give up philosophy.”42 Upon release from an Italian prisoner
of war camp in 1919, he attended the Leherbildungsanhalt in the third
Bezirk in Vienna to become a schoolteacher in rural Austria.
Niederösterreich was like this: loneliness, music, failure. He beat on
hebetudinous schoolchildren, boxing ears and pulling hair. He recited
The Brothers Karamazov out loud to the village priest. He wrote letters

The Glass Architecture of Fra Luca Pacioli

Still from Jarman’s film Wittgenstein, showing British and American variants of Sraffa’s gesture.
From Jarman and Eagleton, Wittgenstein

David Theodore

to architect Paul Engelmann and played clarinet. He published a Wörter-

buch für Volkschule, not a dictionary, in which language homogenizes
the world, but a spelling book.43 He taught at Trattenbach, Hassbach,
Puchberg, and Otterthal. He thought he had failed as a teacher, miser-
ably failed.
He went to work as a gardener in the monastery at Hütteldorf, living
in the tool shed. His mother died; in 1926 he returned to Vienna to work
with Engelmann on the house in Kundmanngasse.44

§10. The first house he had built was like this: “The house was con-
structed of wood in the local fashion. It was modest in size, with a base-
ment, a ground floor with a few rooms, and an attic. … Because it was
situated against a steep slope high above a lake (one could reach it only
by rowing over) there was, among other things, a winch and cable mech-
anism which enabled a bucket to be lowered to hoist water.”45 It was
built in 1914 near the Norwegian village of Skjolden on the shore of the
Sognefjord. A simple house, but apart from the world. He returned to it

Wittgenstein’s first house,

made of wood, near the
Sognefjord. From Wijdeveld,
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Christopher Wood’s painting of Villa Savoye, 1929. From Richard Ingleby, Christopher Wood:
An English Painter (London: Allison & Busby 1995)

in 1931. This was the best place for thinking (about logic and about sin).
“‘Then my mind was on fire!’ he used to say.”46
Kundmanngasse, on the other hand, brought together culture and
order; it is architecture that connects ways of life and logic. He sent
some photos of the house to John Maynard Keynes. “A la Corbusier,”
Keynes wrote to his wife Lydia – as if it were merely fashionable, like a
Christopher Wood painting.47 But he had little truck with the homoge-
nized, unlimited space of the New Architecture, its “indecent open-
ness,”48 its functionalism. Kundmanngasse has no ribbon windows
(solid over solid, void over void), no roof terrasse (the house sat origi-
nally in a large landscaped garden), no pilotis, no free plan, no techno-
logical optimism – and no harmful “superfluous gestures” either. He
understood his work as precise and honest, showing the virtue of
restraint, he did the least that he could at that time.
That is, Kundmanngasse was a failure. “In this same sense: my house
for Gretl is the product of a decidedly fine ear, good manners, the expres-
sion of a great understanding (of a culture, etc.),” he wrote. “But pri-
mordial life, wild life that tries to break out – is missing. One could also
say, that it lacks health. (Kierkegaard) (Hothouse plant).”49

Clockwise from left:
A comparison of Viennese staircases

Stairs in the Palais Batthyány-

Schönborn. From Wijdeveld, Ludwig

The grand staircase of the

Alleegasse. From Wijdeveld, Ludwig

Wittgenstein’s entrance hall at

Kundmanngasse. From Wijdeveld,
Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

After finishing Kundmanngasse, he returned to Cambridge, to reading

and writing, to philosophy, a revenant.

His two rooms in Whewell’s Court at Cambridge were like this: The walls were
bare, with the exception of a silhouette of a young woman in an elaborate gilt
frame, a small bookcase and, [sic] in his bedroom a zinc bathtub which hung
against the wall when not in use. The other furniture consisted of one simple
wooden chair and a few [canvas] deck chairs (during lectures more deck chairs
were brought in from the corridor) and, in front of the window, a folding card
table used as a writing desk on which stood a fan which muffled the noise from
neighbours [a piano-playing undergraduate]. On the mantelpiece was a low-
powered bulb on a retort-stand for lighting. Instead of the fireplace, [he] used
an old-fashioned black stove, the pipe of which disappeared straight through
the ceiling. As in Kundmanngasse there were always flowers in a vase on the
windowsill, and there was a house plant. [He] changed the proportions of the
(neo-Gothic) window by gluing black strips of paper across it.50

Wittgenstein’s rooms at Cambridge.

From Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein

David Theodore

“There was a metal safe in which he kept his manuscripts. The rooms
were always scrupulously clean.”51 This is a hard spartan space, showing
at once a concern with aesthetics (he manipulated the window propor-
tions), moral hygiene (“scrupulously clean”), the erotic body (bathtub and
nubile silhouette), purist, functional, mechanical objects (deck chairs, fan,
folding card table). As usual, he organized a simple architecture that blurs
the boundaries between good thinking and good living.

§11. At Cambridge he tried again to write philosophy. At first he thought

he would start his book with a description of nature, untrammeled na-
ture, Goethe’s great teacher.52 It is a question of order. “If I am thinking
for myself, without wanting to write a book, I jump around the theme.
That is my natural way of thinking. To force my thoughts in a row is a
torment for me. Should I try to do it now? I waste an unspeakable effort
in ordering my thoughts, an effort that perhaps has no value at all.”53
He wrote in metaphors, apothegms, aphorisms.54 Self-knowledge is
different from knowledge of objects. The former is the more urgent
problem. “Scientific questions might interest me, but never really grab
on to me. Only conceptual and aesthetic questions do that for me. I am
indifferent to the solution of scientific problems; but not to the other
He left mostly fragments, annotations, notebooks, marginalia, an
enormous Nachlass.56 His method resists systematization. It is a dia-
logue, a confession.57

§12. That is what he wrote; what did he read? He “was fond of short
detective stories, especially those published in a detective story magazine
by the American firm Street & Smith.”58 “They are rich in mental vita-
mins and calories” he said.59 He read American detective stories, then,
but also Weininger, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience,
Augustine’s Confessions, Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief and Hadji Murad,
Hebel’s Schatzkaestlein, Renan’s Le peuple d’Isräel, George Fox’s Jour-
nal, and Dr Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations.

Among the books he brought with him to England as a student were a beauti-
fully made facsimile edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s technical inventions, the
mathematical work concerning the mechanics of Galileo Galilei, the sixteenth
century Machinae novi by the Italian Veranzio Fausti, a number of seventeenth

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

century German Theatri machinarum on mechanical and hydraulic engineer-

ing, and eighteenth century French and Italian studies on the aeronautics of bal-
looning. He had two works by Gottlob Frege, the logician whom he so much
admired, bound in one volume with a cover of saffian leather designed by the
Wiener Werkstätte and provided with new titles that pleased him better.60

An architect’s library, then, on Vitruvian subjects; yet, he died while

reading Black Beauty.61
(“It is questionable if when he died he had ever come to any under-
standing of the number 2. Two what?”)62

§13. At Cambridge he again felt he was a failure as a teacher. His lack

of connection with these shy young Englishmen had to do with his ten-
dency toward homiletic instead of maieutic pedagogical relationships.
He was farouche, scabrous, refulgent. He was accused of not being able
to hold a discussion. Julian Bell circulated a poem:

For he talks nonsense, numerous statements makes,

Forever his own vow of silence breaks:
Ethics, aesthetics, talks of day and night,
And calls things good or bad, and wrong or right.
Who, on any issue, ever saw,
Ludwig refrain from laying down the law?
In every company he shouts us down,
And stops our sentence stuttering his own;
Unceasing argues, harsh, irate and loud,
Sure that he’s right, and of his rightness proud.

Obviously disciples were better than collaborators.

Disciples included Maurice Drury. S.K. Bose. Desmond Lee. Norman
Friends included Engineer William Eccles. Economist John Maynard
Keynes. Gardener Hermann Postl. Architect Paul Engelmann. Chartered
accountant Gilbert Pattisson.
Lovers included Marguerite Respinger. Ben Francis. David Pinsent. Ben
Richards. The rough boys at the Prater. Georg Kreisel. Francis Skinner.63
(The list of people missing from his life, given his social connections,
is also significant. Conspicuous absences include Virginia Woolf,

David Theodore

Robert Musil, Les Ballets Russes, Arnold Schoenberg [whose music he

despised], Arthur Schnitzler, anyone from Paris.)
Sometimes a number of these companions might gather in his rooms
for philosophical “at-homes”: at home, thinking, among friends, disci-
ples, lovers.

§14. And the riddle of the earth and the cord? Malcolm continues:
”Without stopping to work it out, everyone present [at the Saturday
afternoon philosophy meetings] was inclined to say that the distance of
the cord from the surface of the earth would be so minute that it would
be imperceptible. But this is wrong. The actual distance would be near-
ly six inches … This is the kind of mistake that occurs in philosophy. It
consists in being misled by a picture.”64
We should not be misled by pictures of his one white house. Kund-
mangasse is not a representation of the logic of the Tractatus. It does not
illustrate his philosophy. His architecture is not doctrinal; it is ethical. It
does not belong to a movement in architecture, but rather to the move-
ment of his days. It consists not simply of what he built but of how he
lived. “Sound doctrines are useless,” he brooded to himself. “You have
to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.)”65

§15. Can we say what Kundmanngasse means? Is it a gesture? Can we

“follow it with a gesture”? “Architecture immortalizes and glorifies
something,” he wrote. “Therefore there can be no architecture where
there is nothing to glorify.”66 He believed that in times to come, we
might again have something to celebrate, something to monumentalize.
Then ornament, his beloved baroque, would again have meaning, the
architectural gesture would again be gravid and full.

§16. There is no small irony that in 1971 Kundmanngasse, his “hot-

house plant,” was declared a monument and spared demolition.67


i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Rout-

ledge and Kegan Paul 1922).
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper &
Brother, 1958), 45.

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

3 Quoted in Rush Rhees, “Postscript,” Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Rec-

ollections, ed. Rush Rhees (Totowa, nj: Rowman and Littlefield 1981),
4 Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York:
Macmillan 1990), 156.
5 Friedrich Waismann, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations
Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness, trans. Joachim
Schulte and Brian McGuinness (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1979), 68–9. To
be sure, this is not what Heidegger meant, although it is still an insightful
comment about Heidegger. Much has been written lately about the rela-
tionships between Wittgenstein (analytic) and Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty,
and Husserl (continentals; a bibliography is included in Nicholas F. Grier,
Wittgenstein and Phenomenology: A Comparative Study of the Later
Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty [Albany, ny: State
University of New York Press 1981]) detailing connections both superfi-
cial (e.g., Heidegger and Wittgenstein loved nature, dressed like peasants,
thought music beyond the power of philosophy, etc.) and complex (e.g.,
the similarity of arguments and argument structures in Wittgenstein and
Merleau-Ponty: see Philip Dwyer, Sense and Subjectivity: A Study of
Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty [Leiden: E.J. Brill 1990]). The Wittgen-
stein I detail here would differ from Heidegger on exactly this question of
ethics, from Husserl on the question of science, and from Merleau-Ponty
on the availability of prelinguistic experience.
6 The relationship between Wittgenstein’s architecture and his philosophy,
the search for what Nana Last calls “a possible mediation between archi-
tecture and philosophy,” is the crux of most considerations of Wittgen-
stein as an architect; see Nana Last, “Transgressions and Inhabitations:
Wittgensteinian Spatial Practices between Architecture and Philosophy,”
Assemblage 35 (1998): 36–47. But it is precisely this search for a symme-
try between the two, an isomorphism of philosophical and architectural
structures, that I try to lay aside here. The actual forms of Wittgenstein’s
buildings are quite secondary to the question of whether the shape of his
entire life made him an architect.
7 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 2d ed., ed. G.H. von Wright and Heikki
Nyman, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1980), 20.
8 Quoted in Monk, Wittgenstein, 17–18.
9 Waismann, Wittgenstein, 18. Likewise, he disapproved of G.E. Moore’s
cooperating on the book The Philosophy of G.E. Moore (1942); see

David Theodore

Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, 2d ed. (New York:

Oxford University Press 1984), 92.
10 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 46.
11 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 20.
12 “Excerpts from the Family Recollections” by Hermine Wittgenstein, quot-
ed in Bernhard Leitner, The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Doc-
umentation (New York: New York University Press 1976), 22.
13 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 18.
14 “It is interesting to note that Wittgenstein’s idea of a combustion chamber
together with a tangential reaction nozzle at the tip of a propeller blade
was brought into practical use for the rotor blade of a helicopter by the
Austrian designer Doblhoff during the second world war and is now
adopted by Fairey’s for their Jet Gyro dyne as well as by others.” Brian
McGuinness, Wittgenstein, A Life: Young Ludwig 1889–1921 (London:
Duckworth 1988), 68–9.
15 Terry Eagleton and Derek Jarman, Wittgenstein: The Terry Eagleton
Script, The Derek Jarman Film (London: bfi Publishing 1993), 76.
16 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 65.
17 M.O’C. Drury, “Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in
Jaakko Hintikka, ed., Essays on Wittgenstein in Honour of G.H. von Wright,
Acta Philosophica Fennica 28, nos. 1–3 (Amsterdam: North-Holland Pub-
lishing Co. 1976), 24.
18 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 83.
19 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914–1916, 2d ed., ed. G.H. von Wright
and G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell
1979), 82.
20 Colin MacCabe, preface to Eagleton and Jarman, Wittgenstein, 3.
21 Eagleton and Jarman, Wittgenstein, 6.
22 Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books, 63.
23 Paul Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Architect (Cambridge, ma: mit Press
1993), note to page 32.
24 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 19.
25 Ibid., 16–22. Monk (Wittgenstein, 313–17) clarifies that Wittgenstein fol-
lows the racial conception of Jewishness formulated by Otto Weininger, as
opposed, say, to Karl Kraus’s cultural conception of Judaism. (Both writ-
ers had great influence on Wittgenstein.) Monk also notes the reverbera-
tions of Wittgenstein’s thoughts on Jewishness with those of Hitler in Mein
Kampf. For some recent speculation on the importance of the Hitler-

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

Wittgenstein link, see Kimberley Cornish, The Jew of Linz: Hitler and
Wittgenstein, Uncovering the Secret Connection that Changed the Course
of History (London: Century 1998).
26 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 74.
27 Monk, Wittgenstein, 119.
28 Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 40.
29 Cornish’s book The Jew of Linz is based on a group photo purportedly
including both young Hitler and young Wittgenstein.
30 Monk, Wittgenstein, 25.
31 Eagleton and Jarman, Wittgenstein, 65.
32 In this essay Jones develops Freud’s characterization of Analerotik
Charakter in three categories very characteristic of Wittgenstein: orderli-
ness, parsimony, and obstinacy. Ernest Jones, Papers on Psycho-Analysis,
rev. ed. (New York: Wood 1919), 664–88.
33 Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York:
Simon and Schuster 1973), 193.
34 Frank Ramsey, “Last Papers,” in The Foundations of Mathematics (Lon-
don: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1931), 238.
35 G.H. von Wright, A Portrait of Wittgenstein as a Young Man from the
Diary of David Hume Pinsent 1912–1914 (London: Basil Blackwell
1990), 5.
36 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 7.
37 Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 27.
38 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 42.
39 Ibid., 22.
40 Ibid., 69–70.
41 Ibid., 28.
42 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 11.
43 “The power language has to make everything the same, which shows most
bluntly in the dictionary, and that makes it possible to personify time, is
no less amazing than if we had made gods of the logical constants”
(Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 22).
44 Monk, Wittgenstein, 234–5.
45 Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 30.
46 Basil Reeve, quoted in Monk, Wittgenstein, 94.
47 Monk, Wittgenstein, 251.
48 Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 182.
49 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 38.

David Theodore

50 Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 195. Based on D.T.A. Gasking and

A.C. Jackson, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” The Australian Journal of Philoso-
phy 29 (1951): 234–48; Wittgenstein‘s Lectures, Cambridge 1930–1932:
From the Notes of John King and Desmond Lee, ed. H.D.P. Lee (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press 1980); and H.D.P. Lee, “Wittgenstein
1921–1931,” Philosophy 54 (1979): 211–20.
51 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 24–5.
52 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 11–12.
53 Ibid., 28.
54 Jerry H. Gill argues in Wittgenstein and Metaphor (rev. ed., New Jersey:
Humanities Press 1996) that Wittgenstein believed metaphor was consti-
tutive of reality, that meaning existed in lived relationships between the
knower and the known.
55 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 79.
56 On the importance of these notes and miscellaneous materials to the
understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, see David G. Stern, “The
Availability of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy,” The Cambridge Guide to
Wittgenstein, ed. Hans Sluya and David G. Stern (New York: Cambridge
University Press 1996), 442–76. Wittgenstein’s Nachlass is being released
electronically by the Wittgenstein archive at the University of Bergen: see
57 The importance of Wittgenstein’s confessional style is explored in Stanley
Cavell, “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” in Wittgen-
stein The Philosophical Investigations, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed.
George Pitcher (New York: Anchor Books 1966), 151–85.
58 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 87. He especially liked the story “Rendezvous
with Fear” by Norbert Davis.
59 Ibid., 32. When these stories became difficult to get during World War II,
he wrote, “If the u.s.a. won’t give us detective mags we can’t give them
philosophy, & so America will be the loser in the end” (ibid., 97).
60 Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 24.
61 Guy Davenport, “Wittgenstein,” in The Geography of the Imagination
(San Francisco: North Point Press 1981), 335.
62 Ibid. Fania Pascal, who taught him Russian, recalled that “This was the
time [c. 1931] when, under the influence of Wittgenstein, young men went
about saying: ‘It’s absurd to say that 2 is a number – what else could it
be?’”; see “A Personal Memoir,” Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollec-
tions, ed. Rush Rhees (Totowa, nj: Rowman and Littlefield 1981), 30.

The Exemplary Life of an Architect

63 Monk provides standard accounts of Wittgenstein’s sexual relationships.

Monk notes (passim) that it is possible to argue that all these relationships
were unconsummated sexually.
64 Malcolm, Wittgenstein, 46.
65 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 53.
66 Ibid., 69.
67 This irony seems to have escaped Robert Mugerauer, who, in his chapter
on Wittgenstein in Interpreting Environments: Tradition, Deconstruction,
Hermeneutics (Austin, tx: University of Texas Press 1995), declares that
“Wittgenstein shows us that we can be at home while remaining unsettled
and that a house is a monument to the activity of building” (22).

Ranelagh Gardens and
the Recombinatory Utopia
of Masquerade

Dorian Yurchuk

A Ranelagh masquerade ticket. Bartolozzi-Cipriani, 1776

f ro m t h e o l d h i g h g e r m a n word palla (a ball) and the Latin

malleus (a hammer), we get the name of a device called a pallamaglio,
a stick with a mallet at one end used for playing the French game pale-
maille, a precursor of modern croquet.i In this ancient game a round
boxwood ball was struck with a mallet and sent through a ring elevat-
ed on a pole that stood at the end of an alley. The game was popular
in Saint James’s Park in London and gave its name to the street called
Pall Mall.2

Dorian Yurchuk

Soon the word “mall” became a general term for a level, shaded pub-
lic walk. Some malls were located in the hearts of communities and in
political centres, although today they are increasingly occurring outside
these areas, totally removed from the residential and commercial fabrics
of cities. While the term “mall” has recently acquired a more commer-
cial connotation, the underlying concept has not changed. Malls contin-
ue to provide an opportunity for ostentation and observation in a
constructed environment. With such issues in mind, this essay will cen-
tre on the facilities and activities of an eighteenth-century London insti-
tution called Ranelagh Gardens. This was a pleasure garden devoted
to the passive and active aspects of assembly: an arena for the activity
of exhibiting oneself and beholding others, a celebratory act of mutual
affirmation. After examining the various devices employed to these ends,
I will look into the possibilities of similar interaction in our ever more
virtual society.
The rotunda at Ranelagh was raised and finished under the “immedi-
ate inspection” of Mr William Jones. Jones, former architect for the East
India Company, was perhaps the first British architect to be listed as an
architect, rather than a craftsman, in the apprenticeship rolls.3 His
building was ready for public reception in the year 1740. It remained in
operation until 8 July 1803.4 Financing for this amphitheatrical struc-
ture in what came to be known as Ranelagh Gardens came from thirty-
six subscribers who purchased one-thousand-pound shares. The project
had received so much publicity that an overwhelming number of people
came to visit the site and began to interfere with construction. A shilling
admission charge was then instituted, and on Sundays, when all the
rowdy apprentices had a day off, no one at all was admitted. 5 On
22 April 1742, Walpole wrote to Mann, “I have been breakfasting this
morning at Ranelagh Garden; The building is not yet finished, but they
get great sums by people going to see it and breakfasting in the house;
there were yesterday no less than three hundred and eighty persons, at
eighteen pence apiece.”6 The fact that people were willing to pay to see
Ranelagh even before it was finished attests to its uniqueness in both
form and concept. It also suggests that the demand for entertainment in
eighteenth-century London was outpacing its supply.
When completed, the rotunda stood with an external diameter of 185
feet (56 metres), an internal diameter of 150 feet (46 metres),7 and a cir-
cumference of 555 feet (169 metres).8 There were fifty-two boxes in the

Top:The Rotunda at Ranelagh, 1743

Bottom: Inside view of the Rotunda with the Company at Breakfast (1751)

interior arcade of the rotunda, each with benches and a table inside.
When the two tiers of boxes did not suffice to accommodate the crowds,
additional tables were placed in various parts of the rotunda.9 The ceil-
ing was painted an olive colour, and around its extremity was a rainbow.
Twenty chandeliers descended from the ceiling, in two circles. The space
was, according to Tobias Smollet’s character, Lydia Melford, “enlight-
ened with a thousand golden lamps, that emulate the noon-day sun.”10

Dorian Yurchuk

“When all these lamps are lighted … all parts shine with a resplenden-
cy, as if formed from the very substance of light. Then doth the master-
ly disposition of the architect, the proportion of the parts, and the
harmonious distinction of the several pieces, appear to the greatest
advantage, the most minute part by this effulgence lying open to the
inspection.”11 The Ambulator, a guide book of 1782, compares the sen-
sation of entering the illuminated rotunda for the first time to “hearing
suddenly a fine concert; architecture having the same effect on the eye as
music on the ear, the mind is absorbed in an extacy.”12 This comparison
of architecture and music shows that being at Ranelagh was a thor-
oughly sensual experience. All the body’s senses were stimulated, all at
once. In addition to Ranelagh’s sights and sounds, one was exposed to
perfumes and sweat, food and drink, as well as to dancing and even
more intimate touching. The mind had plenty of cause to be “absorbed
in extacy.”
Those who chose to visit Ranelagh Gardens would travel either by
boat or by coach to a district in Chelsea, just outside London. Upon
arriving at Ranelagh House they would pay an admittance fee and pro-
ceed to the gardens through the residence. Although the fee was too high
for poorer people, it was well within reach of the middle classes.13 Besides
the Rotunda, Ranelagh consisted also of formal gardens, gravel walks,
a circular Temple of Pan, and a canal with an island. The amphitheatre
itself was reflected in a “bason” with a fountain at its centre.
According to the guidebook just mentioned, whose full title is The
Ambulator; or, The Stranger’s Companion in a Tour round London;
Within the Circuit of Twenty-five Miles: Describing Whatever is remark-
able, either for Grandeur, Elegancy, Use, or Curiosity: Not only of Use
to Strangers, but the Inhabitants of this Capitol. Collected by a Gentle-
man for his private Amusement, Ranelagh was, for the most part, a
place of summer amusements. The season would start in April and end
in July, before the families of distinction usually left London to reside in
the country.14 Concerts were given in the morning, followed by a public
breakfast that was included in the price of admission. Evening concerts
commenced at half-past six or at seven o’clock.15 During intermissions
people could stroll in the illuminated gardens to the sounds of horns and
clarinets.16 After the musicians had played several pieces of music and
sung several songs, the concerts usually ended around ten o’clock.17 It
became fashionable to arrive at Ranelagh at about eleven or twelve

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

o’clock at night, an hour after the concert had finished.18 American John
Aspinwall noted in his diary that he “got there @ 10 o clock but as that
was too early not much company … @ about twelve o clock the com-
pany became more numerous.”19 When the entertainments were over,
balls were given there. There were two sets of company dancing almost
every night, each with a band of musicians from the orchestra. The
dancers continued on into the night, as long as they thought proper.20
On other nights the company would go outdoors to watch fireworks.
After one such pyrotechnic display Aspinwall returned to the rotunda:
“@ two o clock in the morning the place was most throng’d. At least fif-
teen hundred well dress’d and genteel women were in the room at that
time and as many men … The time of leaving this fashionable place is
from three to six o clock in the mornings, when the Sun is about two
hours high – but few ladies of the Town there.”21
Yet there was more to Ranelagh than dancing, fireworks, and food.
When William Jones completed the rotunda in 1741 it was referred to
as “the amphitheatre.”22 Webster provides the following etymology: the
Greek amphitheatron comes from amphi, about, and theatron, from
theasthai, to see or look.23 That is an apt description of what went on at
Ranelagh: people came to “look about” as well as to be “looked upon
by all around.” An illustration by William Newton portrays the interior
of the rotunda framed as if it were a stage set, indicating its similarity to
theatres of the time.24 Like Ranelagh, conventional theatres in the eigh-
teenth century were forms for mutual observation and active participa-
tion. Members of the audience performed as much as the actors on stage.
The so-called “beaus” and “dandies” would amuse themselves and
other concert-goers by taking off their wigs and combing them during a
performance.25 Occasionally audience members took to the stage them-
selves, in riots such as those in Drury Lane and Covent Gardens the-
atres.26 At Ranelagh the whole space was a stage; the shape of the
rotunda forced all to participate.
Horace Walpole writes that to this “vast amphitheatre” came every-
body who loves eating, drinking, crowding, and staring.27 Aspinwall
writes that the amusement of Ranelagh “is to walk round the room &
to see and be seen.”28 The Ambulator adds that “it is at once exercise
and entertainment.”29 Smollet’s character Matthew Bramble has a dif-
ferent opinion of this arrangement: “One half of the company are fol-
lowing one another’s tails, in an eternal circle; like so many blind asses

Dorian Yurchuk

in an olive mill.”30 The reference by critics to asses and horses in a mill

underscores the machine-like qualities of Ranelagh. The place did not
just occur. It was invented, and with a very specific purpose in mind: to
facilitate the patrons’ ambulating and ogling, in a London climate. Usu-
ally malls created for the purpose of promenading took the form of a
long, linear walkway, often resulting from a path connecting two desti-
nations. In that case, people would wander back and forth between
those anchoring destinations, each of which could also be an event in
and of itself. The promenaders could choose either to participate in
that event or to turn around and walk back in the other direction. In
Ranelagh, the architect set up a far more efficient system: an endless
mall. The circular plan allows for unlimited promenading and provides
maximum opportunity for mutual observation, regardless of the weath-
er and time of day. All this would take place around a centrally located
orchestra, efficiently and equally meting out melody in all directions.
Such a closed system, totally removed from the fabric of London, was
quite attractive to the inhabitants of this physically and socially dilapi-
dated city.
Among other social ills, alcoholism had become a serious problem. In
January 1751 Fielding writes of “a new kind of drunkenness, unknown
to our ancestors … drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence.”31 The
availability of cheap gin resulted in much crime. Fielding explains that
although gin was inexpensive, poor people drank so much of it that they
had to steal in order to support their habits.
Hogarth comments on the social implications of inebriation in his
prints Beer Street and Gin Lane. The first consists of social and physical
interaction among human beings. Ranelagh Gardens operates in this
sensual mode. The second mode is one of withdrawal into oneself, of
dulling one’s senses. In Gin Lane both the social and the physical fabric
of the city crumble as a result of people’s addiction to gin.
With such conditions existing within the City of London, it is hard-
ly surprising that people would pay money to visit lavish assembly
spaces located amidst clean, quiet, idyllic gardens in the nearby coun-
tryside. Also, the eighteenth-century London social scene was ripe for
commercialization. The homes of the new leisure-hungry middle class
were much too small to accommodate fashionable activities such as pri-
vate parties, orchestral concerts, and theatres. At first, small assembly
rooms offered subscriptions for such activities to the middle classes.32

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

As “culture” increasingly “seeped through” the ranks, much more effi-

cient entertainment “machines” such as the Ranelagh rotunda were
born, with participation requiring admission fees to individual events.
King George II’s Swiss master of revels, John James (Count) Heidegger,
made masquerading a profit-making capitalist venture in London when
he invented the masquerade ticket.33 These luxuriously designed, easi-
ly purchased documents promised their bearers entry into whole new
worlds. One could just decide to go, even at the spur of the moment.
In fact, well-dressed decoys were sent to walk along the Mall at St
James’s Street, proclaiming loudly from time to time what charming
weather it was for going to Ranelagh, encouraging spontaneous visits
to the pleasure garden.34
No longer were fancy gardens, complete with ornate landscaping and
architectural follies, accessible exclusively to the aristocracy. The public
amusement park was born. For a small fee the average Londoner could
immerse himself in a different world. Ranelagh and similar venues such
as Vauxhall offered the middle class a close-up glimpse of the aristocra-
cy. Other institutions satisfied more esoteric curiosity. Bethlehem Hos-
pital, or Bedlam, as it was more popularly known, was a notorious
hospital for mental patients. It was visited by so many people that the
operators of Bedlam, just like the construction crew at Ranelagh, began
to charge an admission fee to look at the inmates. Soon it was a full-
fledged place of entertainment. Besides engaging in the spectator sport of
lunatic-watching, the visitors could purchase fruit, nuts, cheesecake, and
beer from the guards. Inmates’ poetry was sold like a theatre program. A
writer in the 1753 World commented on a visit to Bethlehem Hospital:
“It was in the Easter week, when to my great surprise, I found a hundred
people at least, who, having paid their two-pence apiece, were suffered,
unattended, to run rioting up and down the wards, making sport and
diversion of the miserable inhabitants.”35 Another favourite diversion
was attending executions. The gentlemen who sat in the boxes of the
Ranelagh rotunda also paid for bleacher seats at executions. The more
notorious the criminal, the more expensive the seat. For a half-penny one
could also rent spy-glasses for a better view of the mounted heads.36
While the point of public executions was to deter people from crime,
these spectacles also satisfied a growing thirst for public entertainment.
This mass demand for leisure was spawned, in part, by the onset of
cheaper books. With primers such as Harris’s Lexicon Technicum, peo-

Dorian Yurchuk

ple were able to educate themselves in their free time and pull themselves
up the social ladder. Later, commercial leisure venues such as Ranelagh
were marketed through the newspapers, which published not only
advertisements for events but also criticism and gossip columns about
them.37 Newspapers printed “masquerade intelligence” stories alongside
articles about troop movements and parliamentary matters.38 To under-
stand the newsworthiness of masquerading, it is necessary to examine
the implications of attire in the eighteenth century.

mask as medium

Clothing can be a collection of signs, a means of communication, like

language. Its conventional symbols can establish a connection between
identity and the trappings of identity.39 Masquerades amount to trans-
gressions against the sartorial social contract through “playfully or crim-
inally inappropriate dress.” Castle draws a comparison between disguise
and lying.40 By Webster’s definition, “to lie” is “to deceive and disap-
point confidence; to cause an incorrect impression, to present a mislead-
ing appearance.”41 Similarly, “to disguise” is “to conceal by an unusual
habit or mask; to hide by a counterfeit appearance; to alter the form
of.”42 A lie verbally subverts a generally accepted “truth,” and a disguise
alters one’s prescribed personal appearance.
In the days of Ranelagh Gardens one would obscure oneself by
employing a mask or a disguise. For those who wished only to obscure,
there was the domino, a neutral costume of Venetian origin.43 It con-
sisted of a black hooded cloak with nondescript mask that erased the
identity, gender, and age of the wearer.44 The domino, while negating the
form of the wearer, was also an emblem of potentiality. It fluctuated
between “nonbeing” and “becoming.”45
The other option for revellers wishing to participate in the masquerade
ritual was not only to obscure but also to confuse the appearance of the
self. This was accomplished through impersonation. The masqueraders
would superimpose new bodies over their old ones. The “self” and the
“other” would become merged in time and space. For the duration of the
masquerade the second identity became an extension of the body.46
The choice of characters one could assume was quite extensive, with
only one underlying requirement: that one’s actual position in life be not
just altered but contradicted outright. Traditionally, carnival represented

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

opposition. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia temporarily replaced the present

with Saturn’s golden age on earth. In the Middle Ages, carnivals opposed
the seriousness of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture. Celebrations
sponsored by the Church or the state sanctioned the existing pattern of
things, reinforcing inequality. Carnivals, on the other hand, provided
temporary liberation from the established hierarchies.47 This aspect of
the medieval carnival was evident in the eighteenth-century masquerade.
A writer in the Universal Spectator of 1792 notes that “Everyone here
wears a Habit which speaks him the Revers of what he is.”48 The rela-
tionship between the face and its mask was expected to be ironic, even
scandalous. Duchesses dressed as milkmaids, footmen as kings, and
young ladies came “trouser’d.” A correspondent at the Guardian saw
“women changed into men, men into women … ladies of the night into
saints, people of the first quality into beasts or birds, gods or goddess-
es.” In this mundus inversus, sexual, social, and metaphysical hierarchies
were reversed.49 This self-alienation was practically obligatory. People
who dressed as themselves were not admitted to the masquerades.50
Although a mask portrayed what the wearer was not, it often por-
trayed what the wearer would like to be. Addison, a contemporary of
Ranelagh Gardens, writes in Spectator 14 that at masquerades “People
dress themselves in what they have a Mind to be, and not what they are
fit for.”51 In his poem “The Masquerade,” Fielding muses that revellers
“masque the face … t’unmasque the mind.” In an “Essay on Masquer-
ades” in a 1777 issue of Lady’s Magazine, masquerades are described as
events where people divest themselves of the “borrowed feathers” of
social appearances and reveal their true natures.52 The very word “per-
son,” though defined by Webster as “an individual human being con-
sisting of body and soul,” derives from persona, the Latin word for
“mask” (from personare – to sound through).53 This suggests that a
“person” is always role-acting. In 1749 John Beard sang at Ranelagh:
“Tho’ our revels are scorn’d by the grave and the wise, Yet they prac-
tice all day what they seem to despise; Examine mankind from the
great to the small, Each mortal’s disguis’d, and the world is a ball.”54
In the eighteenth century the persona assigned to a person depended
on his or her socioeconomic standing. Established conventions dictated
which image was appropriate for various classes of people, as well as for
various types of institutions. One ought to be able to distinguish a bish-
op from a politician or a dockworker. Likewise, a cathedral should

Dorian Yurchuk

be distinguishable from a government building or a private dwelling.

Writing about architecture, Marc-Antoine Laugier refers to this “appro-
priateness” as bienséance, which means “propriety” or “decency.”55 Ac-
cording to bienséance, a building should be “neither more nor less
magnificent than is appropriate to its purpose, that is to say that the dec-
oration of buildings should not be arbitrary but must always be in rela-
tion to the rank and quality of those who live in them and conform to
the objective envisaged.56 These norms pervaded eighteenth-century life,
dictating one’s appearance, one’s behaviour, and even one’s aspirations.
It is these norms that masquerades sought to question.
The ritual of masquerade allows a person to temporarily escape his
persona and inhabit a different “self.” During festivals, people living in
profane time may access illo tempore, a different, primordial time.57
Castle proposes that saturnalian rituals such as masquerade try to
restore a time before classification, before society had a “meed of dialec-
tic, of masters and slaves.”58 Every ritual has “extrahuman” origins,
having been created in illo tempore by a god or ancestor.59 The mas-
querade also has mythological roots. Defoe explains in his 1727 System
of Magick; or, a History of the Black Art, “The Devil’s first Game, which
he in Eden play’d … when he harangu’d to Eve in Masquerade.”60
Paradise, however, is not attainable “on demand,” at any given
moment or place. Traditionally, carnivals were held in profane spaces
such as town squares and streets. Under the proper conditions a profane
street could become host to illo tempore. Rykwert identifies one of the
conditions for collective sensorum to function: group action requires
repetition, and this repetition must be rhythmic. It cannot, however, be
daily and continuous. There must be privileged points, borders, and
thresholds in time as well as in space.61 And yet, the operators of
Ranelagh wished to operate this amusement park almost every night.
Some of the masquerades coincided with traditional carnival dates such
as May Day, Midsummer’s Eve, church feasts, and Mardi Gras.62 Oth-
ers were held in association with coronations and royal birthdays.63 But
assemblies, masked and otherwise, also began to occur for their own
sake, in spite of the calendar. Like a theatre, which physically shuts out
the rest of the city during a performance, Ranelagh Gardens also need-
ed to be separate from London. It served as an interim level that, like a
church, was already removed from daily activity but did not fully engage
another realm until a ceremony would take place.

William Hogarth, “The Five Orders” (1761). Hogarth comments on fashion
by categorizing period wigs “architectonically”
Dorian Yurchuk

For eighteenth-century English masqueraders, illo tempore may also

be described as a parallel time and space of desire, which began within
the space of the mask itself. The revellers inhabited their masks. Castle
claims that by wearing a disguise, a person diminishes the “protective
spatial bubble” that exists around individual human bodies in polite
society. This allows for behaviour previously unthinkable among
strangers in public: touching, embracing, fondling, impromptu dancing,
etc.64 However, Castle also mentions that costumes were often “sup-
ported,” meaning that people would act as well as look like the charac-
ter whose being they had assumed. A Methodist preacher was spotted
walking around giving “very pathetic lectures to the ladies,” to every-
body’s amusement.65 Therefore, even though the reveller’s own “person-
al sphere of influence” may have been partially erased, he had begun to
construct a new one. He then could be said to inhabit the mask of his
appropriated character literally, spiritually, and spatially. Period writings
began to refer to the revellers simply as “masks.”66 The word was used
to designate the whole ensemble: person and persona, body and costume.
Some people, not content with the dialectic between “self” and
“other,” took on two roles, creating a dialogue within the costume itself.
One costume on a law theme consisted of half of a face painted black,
with the word “plaintiff” written on it, and the other half of the face
painted white, with the word “defendant” on it. Another period costume
was that of a woman, half young and half old. Hermaphroditic disguis-
es were also popular.67

Rotunda, house and

gardens at Ranelagh
The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

Having occupied a mask, a Ranelagh masquerader then would try to

gain entry into someone else’s identity, both figuratively and literally. A
ritual exchange of words would occur between masks: “Do you know
me?” or “I know you,” and “I am sure you don’t,” and “Yes, but I do,”
etc.68 These exchanges indicate the simultaneous desires to defend one’s
own anonymity and undermine that of others.
Besides attempting to conquer identities, the revellers also sought the
realm of the tangible. In the ridottos, bels pares, and masquerades of
Ranelagh Gardens the social structure of eighteenth-century England
was suspended.69 When wearing masks, the lower class and those with
tarnished reputations could pass for respectable citizens. On the other
hand, those who were assumed to be virtuous could engage in otherwise
unacceptable behaviour without besmirching their good names. Behav-
iour in general was much freer at Ranelagh masquerades than at any
other event attended by members of both sexes. Their collective sense of
increased liberty spawned a “new behavioural and bodily idiom.” This
liberty stemmed from the use of the mask as an “involvement shield …
a portable bodily accessory” that would protect the wearer’s identity
from the judging eyes of others.70 The result was a celebratory atmos-
phere reminiscent of the ancient sensual tradition of carnival. The root
of the word, carne, suggests the underlying themes: eating (carnivorous),
violence (carnage), and sex (carnal).71
The first ingredient, food, was definitely present at the Ranelagh
assemblies. Matthew Bramble, in Humphrey Clinker, recalls seeing peo-
ple “devouring sliced-beef, and swilling port, and punch, and cyder” at
the rotunda.72
Violence at Ranelagh, for the most part, consisted of what the Week-
ly Journal called “absolute Freedom of Speech,” even between strangers.
Walpole describes how he “took the English liberty of teasing whomev-
er I pleased.”73 Verbal aggression was tolerated at carnival time. It was
directed at neighbours or figures of authority and came from women as
well as from men.74 Women especially were allowed to speak freely.
Cursing, obscenities, loud joking, and the like had been the sole privilege
of men, but at the masquerades, Addison complains in Spectator 14,
women were using the “pert Stile of the Pit Bawdry.”75 Encouraged by
burgundy and champagne, “Nymphs in loose and antick robes” and for-
ward young ladies with “cocked hat and masculine air” would, “Ama-
zon like, attack their gallants.”76

Dorian Yurchuk

Elizabeth Chudleigh’s infamous

1749 appearance at Ranelagh.
Other women kept their disguises
(and reputations) intact

Sexual freedom was perhaps the most popular aspect of the eighteenth-
century London masquerade. As the Bishop of London explained in 1725,

MASQUERADES … deprive Virtue and Religion of their last Refuge, I mean

Shame; which keeps multitudes of Sinners within the Bounds of Decency, after
they have broken all the Ties of Principle and Conscience … and whatever
Lewdness may be concerted, whatever Luxury, Immodesty, or Extravagance,
may be committed in Word or Deed, no one’s Reputation is at Stake, no one’s
Character is responsible for it.77

Masquerades were especially liberating for women. In London few

institutions (other than the Church) could be frequented by unescorted,
respectable females. Addison writes in Spectator 8 that “The Women
either come by themselves or are introduced by Friends, who are oblig-
ed to quit them upon their first Entrance.” This was “wonderfully con-
triv’d for the Advancement of Cuckoldom.” With masks and disguises
protecting the reputations of middle- and upper-class women, social
restraints such as sexual segregation were removed, encouraging female
emancipation. In fact, the freedoms grew so extensive that soon many
assumed any woman attending a masquerade to be a whore.78

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

Reputation was of utmost importance in the days of Ranelagh Gar-

dens. When a movement was begun to make masked assemblies illegal,
the proposed punishment for improprieties or crimes committed while in
costume was unmasking: “And, tho’ they may imagine themselves con-
ceal’d by being mask’d, proper Care will be taken to oblige them to
shew their Faces; and then their Names, and Places of Abode … printed
and posted up in all public Places in London and Westminster.”79
Although the mask was utilized to exploit people’s morals and bodies
in all sorts of commercial and noncommercial ways, there was another
aspect of personal artifice in eighteenth-century England. Although the
young Irish beauty Maria Cummings died from consumption as a result
of using white lead as a cosmetic,80 professionals in the make-up and
hairdressing business were concerned with the physical and moral well-
being of the public. In 1782 James Stewart published Plocacosmos, an
extensive technical manual on the “whole art of hairdressing.” An extra-
ordinary amount of labour went into the preparation of hair in the days
of Ranelagh. Plocacosmos, however, is devoted mainly to morals. After
instructing the reader on the techniques of beauty, Stewart cautions
against vanity.81 He mentions an ancient belief that hair is an excrement
of the human body.82 According to him, “dress” is a foolish thing, and
yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed. “Great care
should be taken to be always dressed like the reasonable people of our

William Hogarth, Gin Lane (1750).

The suicide of the barber (upper
right corner) symbolizes the
corruption of body, soul, and society

Dorian Yurchuk

own age, in the place we are.” We should despise dress, but not show
the fact that we despise it.83 The underlying message is that the upkeep
of one’s appearance is closely tied to one’s physical and spiritual well-
being. Hogarth depicts the converse of this idea in Gin Lane. There a
barber has hanged himself because he had no work.84 For his clientele,
hairdressing is not a priority, since they are too busy destroying them-
selves with gin.
Only the lowest end of the London social gamut was missing from the
festivities at the gardens. This is not to say that the proprietors of
Ranelagh did not try to maintain a reputation of elitism. The public
advertisements promised that only people of the highest quality would be
admitted to the festivities. Nevertheless, the riffraff mingled freely with
the fashionable classes. “Ladies and Gentlemen of Quality” came en masse,
either despite the presence of the “inferiors” or perhaps because of it.
Horace Walpole provides evidence that the aristocracy enjoyed this tem-
porary levelling: “The King was well disguised in an old-fashioned Eng-
lish habit, and much pleased with somebody who desired him to hold
their cup as they were drinking tea.”85 Royalty, like eighteenth-century
women, were glad to escape the decorum required of them at every turn
and did not mind the presence of riffraff at their gatherings. In fact, they
sought out such entertainment. Henry Fielding felt that some coinci-
dence of ceremonial space might actually be a good thing, hoping that a
“degree of politeness” would diffuse itself throughout the several orders
of participants.86
A 1784 edition of the European Magazine criticized Ranelagh Gar-
dens: “All sorts of people are frequently confounded or melted down
into one glaring mass of superfluity or absurdity. The lower classes are
entirely lost in a general propensity to mimic the finery of the higher.”87
In such circumstances it became almost impossible, in the words of
Matthew Bramble, to “distinguish, nor be distinguished,”88 and yet, dis-
tinction was crucial to the eighteenth century. Laugier stresses that the
job of the architect is “knowing well what is fitting to each person … the
facades of houses must not be left to the whims of private persons.”89 By
embellishing their habits and habitats, the new wealthy classes imbued
themselves with supposed importance. Order, sartorial as well as archi-
tectural, was being subverted.

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

By mingling with people of other social classes, the clientele of

Ranelagh Gardens suspended the rules and regulations of the eighteenth-
century London social hierarchy, thereby opening them up for comment.
By dressing unlike themselves, they criticized the sartorial code of the
time. Yet, these are hardly the only conventions that the Raneleans shat-
tered in their holy quest for chaos. Nary a paradigm would be left unre-
combined after a night of masked assembly at Ranelagh. Many costumes
obscured their wearer’s gender. This created a new set of surprises, adding
to the overall aura of danger and excitement. The London homosexual
population regularly attended Ranelagh masquerades, capitalizing on the
general confusion that granted heretofore unknown liberty to them.90
This confusion was pursued consciously by the maskers. Having con-
cealed all other vestiges of identity, there still remained the sound of
one’s voice. The human voice could reveal at least one’s gender, if not
one’s actual identity, so the revelers attempted to disguise their voices in
various ways. A writer in the Weekly Journal in 1724 describes the re-
sult: “The first Noise which strikes your Ears upon your entering the Room
is a loud confused Squeak.” In 1740 a correspondent for the Daily Adver-
tiser refers to the scene as “This Piece of ridiculous, squeaking Non-
sense.”91 Amidst all this mystification of gender, the castrati genre of
singing rose to popularity.92
Cultural and national identities were also mingled. The clientele at
Ranelagh seemed to have a penchant for the foreign, the unfamiliar.
International costumes often made the place seem like a utopian “Con-
gress of Nations.” A geographic fluidity resulted: the exotic was super-
posed on the indigenous, the Oriental on the European, dark races on
the light, the North on the South, producers on the consumers, etc.93
Props were constructed to add to this sense of exotica. One such struc-
ture was called alternately a Chinese pagoda and a Venetian pavilion.94
Its identity seemed less important than the “fantasy and inconsequence”
it added to the masquerades.95
The general mélange of the masked ball was heightened through the con-
stant introduction of new costumes. Ideas were drawn from engravings,
paintings, book illustration, theatrical personalities, and the antics of Bed-
lam inmates.96 Emblematic figures such as Fortune, Night, Day, Temper-
ance, and Liberty were discovered in works such as Ripa’s Iconologia.97
The revellers seemed to strive for absurdity. The Weekly Journal reported
various “impossible pairings”: a lion and a shepherdess, a butterfly and a

Masquerade scene with
unholy liaisons

prize-fighter, a Devil and a Quaker, a Presbyterian parson and a nun, a car-

dinal and a milkmaid, etc.98 In this phantasmic world, characters were
released from perspectival and chronological hierarchies. Entities from
various eras mingled with members of other lands, other species, and other
dimensions, and the historical danced with the fictional. They even
tampered with the very mechanics of the universe by altering the cycle
of night and day: they slept in the daytime and revelled from dusk until
dawn. Castle likens this revocation of cosmos to a “metaphysical shock-
wave.”99 It did not take long for some Londoners to associate this blatant-
ly disruptive behaviour with certain natural disasters of the day. London
experienced earthquakes in February and March of 1750, soon after
Ranelagh opened.100 The Church wasted no time in singling out masquer-
ades and pleasure gardens as scapegoats for the earthquakes.101

medium as mask

While Ranelagh Gardens is no more, disruptive behaviour abounds in

our modern everyday life. The recombinatory sensation in the chaotic
eighteenth-century London masquerades may be evident in the more
recent phenomenon of channel surfing with a remote control. The result-
ing stream juxtaposes scenes of cooking of fowl with the live birth deliv-
ery of human quintuplets; scenes of pornography with televangelism;
scenes of nature with supernature. Modern communication technology,
from the reverse panopticon of the television studio to the a-centric Inter-
net, has assumed the role of “masquerade.” On the Web, several people
from anywhere in the world may take part in chaotic conversational

The attack on Dr John Hill at Ranelagh (1752): an actual (as opposed to a “virtual”) encounter
Dorian Yurchuk

“chat” events. Chats take place in virtual “rooms” that the participants
select by topic and language. One such site is aptly named Masquerade.
Indeed, these events faithfully replicate many characteristics of the mas-
querade phenomenon. Participants may reveal as much or as little about
themselves as they wish. After choosing a pseudonym, the masquerader
is ready to plunge into a stream of text. Participants type and send mes-
sages that appear one after another as they are received by the central
computer hosting the chat. The messages appear, attached to the pseudo-
nyms, in a colour of the writer’s choice and with whatever photographs
or icons the writer wishes to include. As these messages scroll down the
participants’ respective screens, they choose the ones to which they wish
to respond. Sometimes a conversation starts up between participants.
As in real life, anyone else who is present may eavesdrop and interject.
As with the Ranelagh masquerades, much of the dialogue consists of
questions. Chatters inquire about each other’s sex, age, and geographic
location. A chatter may become anyone, be from anywhere, and say any-
thing. Fourteen-year-olds may pose as adults, women as men, and well-
behaved citizens as foul-mouthed deviants.
While some services charge a membership fee for chats, most are avail-
able to the general computerized public. In a chat room all are equal. And
all are anonymous. As with masquerades, one may transcend one’s inhi-
bitions and act with impunity. The crucial difference lies in the scope of
one’s potential actions. While one risks moral corruption in a chat room,
the body always emerges intact. Ranelagh allowed for an act to develop
from a moral stage to a physical one. In a way, the online masquerade is
more liberating than the one at Ranelagh, for at Ranelagh the threat of
bodily pain was a factor in one’s decision making. On the other hand, the
chat room does not offer the reward of bodily pleasure, regardless of the
offers of “live” sex for ninety-nine cents a minute.
The internet’s masquerades and the eighteenth-century ones both medi-
ate between people. A Ranelagh masquerade, however, mediates personal
space within a physical building. It is the contrast, the friction between
mediated action and its environment that imbues the situations with excite-
ment. This excitement, this tension, is exactly what is missing from cyber-
space. If our minds are to be absorbed in the type of “extacy” described by
the Ambulator, all of our senses must be stimulated. One of Webster’s def-
initions for the word “virtual” is “potential.”102 Therefore, in virtual reality
one is always “becoming” and never actually achieving a state of being.

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

That is not to say that there is no place for mediation in our lives. In an
age of ideological, epidemiological, and environmental unrest, perhaps a
combination of actual and mediated space is in some way essential for our


1 Walter W. Skeat, The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology (Hert-

fordshire, England: Wordsworth 1993), 267.
2 Noah Webster, Webster’s Universities Dictionary Unabridged (New York:
Library Guild 1940), 1205.
3 Giles Worsley, Architectural Drawings of the Regency Period 1770–1837
(Washington, dc: aia Press 1991), 2, explains that craftsmen took on
apprentices, while professional architects such as William Jones and those
who followed him took articled students. Both apprentices and articled stu-
dents received board, lodging, and professional instruction in return for five
to seven years of labour. The difference was that an articled student also paid
the architect a premium (Jones received £50 from Jacob Leroux in 1753).
4 Reginald Blunt, The Wonderful Village (London: Mills and Boon 1918),
5 Mollie Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh: 1742–1803 (London: J. Westhouse
1946), 19.
6 Henry B. Wheatley, London Past and Present, vol. 3 (London: John Mur-
phy 1891), 148.
7 The Ambulator; or, The Stranger’s Companion in a Tour round London;
Within the Circuit of Twenty-five Miles: Describing Whatever is remark-
able, either for Grandeur, Elegancy, Use, or Curiosity: Not only of Use to
Strangers, but the Inhabitants of this Capitol. Collected by a Gentleman
for his private Amusement (London: J. Bew 1782), 158.
8 Warwick Wroth, The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century
(London: Macmillan 1896), 201.
9 Ambulator, 158.
10 Tobias George Smollet, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), ed.
James L. Thornson (New York: Norton 1983), 87.
11 Ambulator, 158.
12 Ibid.
13 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 33.

Dorian Yurchuk

14 Ambulator, 157.
15 Blunt, The Wonderful Village, 89.
16 Wroth, London Pleasure Gardens, 204.
17 Ambulator, 158.
18 Wroth, London Pleasure Gardens, 206.
19 Travels in Britain, 1794–1795: The Diary of John Aspinwall, Great-
grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a Brief History of His
Aspinwall Forebears, ed. Aileen Sutherland Collins (Virginia Beach: Par-
sons Press 1994), 90.
20 Ambulator, 158.
21 Travels in Britain, ed. Collins, 92.
22 Wroth, London Pleasure Gardens, 199.
23 Webster’s Universities Dictionary, 58.
24 Giles Worsley, “I Thought Myself in Paradise: Ranelagh Gardens and its
Rotunda,” Country Life (15 May 1986): 1380–4.
25 G.L. Apperson, Bygone London Life: Pictures from a Vanished Past (New
York: James Pott 1904), 61.
26 E. Beresford Chancellor, The Pleasure Haunts of London during Four
Centuries (London: Constable 1925), 85.
27 Wroth, London Pleasure Gardens, 200.
28 Travels in Britain, ed. Collins, 92.
29 Ambulator, 158.
30 Smollet, Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, 84.
31 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 55.
32 Neil McKendrick, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercializa-
tion of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa 1982), 282.
33 Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eigh-
teenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, ca: Stanford Uni-
versity Press 1986), 11.
34 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 153.
35 Anthony Masters, Bedlam (London: Michael Joseph 1977), 47.
36 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 32.
37 McKendrick, Birth of a Consumer Society, 272.
38 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 3.
39 Ibid.
40 Ibid., 56.
41 Webster’s Universities Dictionary, 984.

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

42 Ibid., 498.
43 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 15.
44 Webster’s Universities Dictionary, 518.
45 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 77.
46 Ibid., 76.
47 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cam-
bridge, ma: mit Press 1968), 10.
48 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 4.
49 Ibid., 6.
50 Ibid., 75.
51 Ibid., 4.
52 Ibid., 73.
53 Webster’s Universities Dictionary, 1251.
54 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 50.
55 Cassel’s Compact French-English, English-French Dictionary, ed. J.H.
Douglas (London: Cassel 1975), 44.
56 Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture, trans. Wolfgang and
Anni Herrmann (Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls 1977), 90.
57 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans.
Willard Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World), 85.
58 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 90.
59 Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return; or, Cosmos and History,
trans. Willard Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1954), 28.
60 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 64.
61 Joseph Rykwert, “The Purpose of Ceremonies,” Lotus 17 (1977): 57.
62 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 21.
63 Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 8.
64 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 37.
65 Ibid., 63.
66 Jubilee Masquerade Balls, at Ranelagh Gardens, a bad Return for the Mer-
ciful Deliverance from the late Earthquakes (London: W. Owen 1750), 22.
67 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 66.
68 Ibid., 35.
69 Blunt, The Wonderful Village, 99.
70 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 34.
71 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple
Smith 1978), 186.
72 Smollet, Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, 85.

Dorian Yurchuk

73 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 34.

74 Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 187.
75 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 34.
76 Blunt, The Wonderful Village, 98.
77 Jubilee Masquerade Balls, 9.
78 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 33.
79 Jubilee Masquerade Balls, 17.
80 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 62.
81 James Stewart, Plocacosmos; or the Whole Art of Hair Dressing (Lon-
don, 1782), 98.
82 Ibid., 172.
83 Ibid., 76.
84 Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 222.
85 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 28.
86 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 33.
87 Ibid.
88 Smollet, Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, 84.
89 Laugier, Essay on Architecture, 99.
90 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 50.
91 Ibid., 36.
92 Ibid.
93 Ibid., 62.
94 Ambulator, 163.
95 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 18.
96 Masters, Bedlam, 51.
97 Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 68.
98 Ibid., 82.
99 Ibid., 84.
100 Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 54.
101 Masquerades were, as Walpole put it, “sacrificed to the idol earthquake”
(Castle, Masquerade and Civilization, 97). That same year a satirical pam-
phlet was published under the title The Ranelean Religion Displayed. In a
Letter from a Hottentot of Distinction, now in London, to his Friend at the
Cape of Good Hope. Containing the Reasons assigned by the Raneleans
for abolishing Christianity, together with a true Copy of their new Liturgy
(London: W. Webb 1750), 3–21. The “Raneleans,” after finding the tenets
of Christianity inadequate for their needs, start a new “religion.” It is struc-
tured after the Christianity that had been practised in England at the time,

The Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade

with “Pleasure,” “Riches,” and “Power” quite scandalously replacing the

traditional Trinity. In this pamphlet earthquakes are also invoked. First
they are called upon to punish anyone who might interfere with their hedo-
nistic faith: “That it may please thee to darken and confound with Earth-
quakes, the Understandings of all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, that they
may not be able to disturb thy Worship, nor interrupt thy People with
unseasonable Preaching in the Duties of this House, We beseech thee to
hear us.” Elsewhere in the piece the Raneleans would have earthquakes
inflicted upon themselves should they lapse in their pursuit of Pleasure:
“When the wise man turneth away from his own Interest, and the Man of
Pleasure forgeteth the Delight of his Soul, say unto thyself, that Miracles
are not ceas’d; and let the People fear and tremble, even as with the Shock
of an Earthquake.” Because the two earthquakes came exactly a month
apart, a third was expected in April 1750. Hundreds of people evacuated
to the “innocent countryside,” which was considered to be outside the
range of the wrath of God. Seven hundred and thirty coaches were count-
ed passing Hyde Park Corner on their way out of town. Ladies made them-
selves “earthquake gowns” for sitting up all night outdoors. When the
third quake did not materialize, people (and masquerades) returned to
Ranelagh. Sands, Invitation to Ranelagh, 55.
102 Webster’s Universities Dictionary, 1920.

About the Authors

About the Authors

Caroline Dionne
At the age of six months, Caroline Dionne sailed across the Atlantic ocean
twice. She cherishes her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Université
Laval. Her favourite questions are those for which there are more (or less)
than one possible answer. In the course of her graduate studies in the His-
tory and Theory of Architecture at McGill University, she has become
obsessed with geometric ideas and is now working towards a phd on
dimensionality in the work of Lewis Carroll. She lives on Avenue de

Mark Dorrian
Mark Dorrian teaches in the Department of Architecture of the University
of Edinburgh, where he leads the final-year design studio and lectures in the-
ory and historiography of architecture. His graduate studies were undertak-
en at iuav in Venice and at the Architectural Association in London, from
which he holds his doctorate. He is currently working on A Critical Dictio-
nary for Architecture (forthcoming from Black Dog Press) and a study of the
grotesque. Recent essays include “On the Monstrous and the Grotesque,” in
Word & Image 16:3 (2000); “On Some Spatial Aspects of the Colonial Dis-
course on Ireland” in The Journal of Architecture 6, no.1 (spring 2001):
27–51; and “Surplus Matter: Of Scars, Scrolls, Skulls and Stealth,” in Archi-
tecture: The Subject Is Matter, ed. Jonathan Hill (London: Routledge 2001).
From May to August 2000 he held a visiting scholarship at the Canadian
Centre for Architecture in Montreal, where he was working on conceptual-
izations of the Baroque.

Michael Emerson
Michael Emerson has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison and has conducted his research in the His-
tory and Theory program at McGill University.

Marc Glaudemans
Marc Glaudemans studied at Eindhoven University of Technology in the
Netherlands, where he received his degree as an architect in 1994. He
recently published his doctoral thesis, entitled Amsterdam Arcadia: The Re-
discovery of the Hinterland. In general he is interested in the “broken” con-
tinuum of architecture, in terms of mimesis and poiesis. While the focus of
his work is on the period of the sixteenth to eighteenth century, connections

About the Authors

to classical antiquity and to the present are investigated with a special

emphasis on the relationship between city and country. Postdoctoral
research is anticipated dealing with the notion of architectural geography, an
analysis of territory and territorial space as expression of worldview in dif-
ferent cultures.

George L. Hersey
George Hersey, who is now retired, taught the history of art and architec-
ture at Yale University for thirty-seven years. He is the author of thirteen
books, among them Pythagorean Palaces: Architecture and Magic in the
Italian Renaissance (1976) and The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture
(1988). The present essay will appear as part of a forthcoming book, Euclid-
ean Processions: A Look at Art, the Eye, and the Brain.

Robert Kirkbride
Robert Kirkbride was born in Philadelphia and attended the University of
Pennsylvania (ba 1988, march 1990). Currently a doctoral candidate at
McGill University, Kirkbride is the founder and principal of the architectur-
al studio Elaboratory and design director for the furniture company Studio-
lo. He has taught design studios at the University of Pennsylvania and
Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. He is grateful for Melissa
Grey’s assistance in surveying the Urbino studiolo and the Bogliasco Foun-
dation’s support for the completion of this article through a fellowship and
residency at the Liguria Study Centre, Bogliasco, Italy (fall 1999). Kirkbride
lives in New York, ny.

Joanna Merwood
Joanna Merwood is completing a doctoral dissertation entitled “Environ-
ments of Cure: Color Theory in Late Nineteenth Century American Archi-
tecture” at Princeton University. She received a Bachelor of Architecture
from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 1992 and a mas-
ter’s degree from the History and Theory program at McGill University in
1995. She has taught architectural design in both New Zealand and the
United States.

Michel Moussette
After realizing at a relatively young age that it would be a herculean task to
isolate a simple formula explaining the entire universe, Michel Moussette

About the Authors

resolved to establish with clarity the limited set of equations that govern the
movement of architecture. Although waiting on top of a mountain with an
empty plastic yellow-margarine container might be a good way to achieve
this lofty goal, recent efforts have been directed towards forays into the land
of zero and infinity, where the friction of the world exists in the form of cer-
tain clearly defined variables. Michel Moussette graduated from the History
and Theory of Architecture graduate program at McGill and is continuing his
academic work at the Université de Montréal.

Juhani Pallasmaa
Juhani Pallasmaa was born in Hämeenlinna, Finland, in 1936. He obtained
a Master of Science degree in architecture from the Helsinki University of
Technology in 1966. He has been the principal of Juhani Pallasmaa Archi-
tects since 1983 and professor of architecture at the Helsinki University of
Technology since 1991. He was State Artist Professor from 1983 to 1988,
director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture from 1978 to 1983, associ-
ate professor at the Haile Selassie I University (Addis Ababa) from 1972 to
1974, director of the exhibitions department of the Museum of Finnish
Architecture from 1968 to 1972 and from 1974 to 1983, and rector of the
College of Crafts and Design (Helsinki) from 1970 to 1972. Professor Pal-
lasmaa has designed exhibitions of Finnish architecture, planning, and fine
arts that have been shown in more than thirty countries, and his design
works have been published in numerous exhibition catalogues and publica-
tions in Finland and abroad. He has written many articles and lectured in
various countries on cultural philosophy and the essence of architecture and
fine arts. Juhani Pallasmaa is member of the Finnish Architects Association,
honorary fellow of the aia, invited member of the International Committee
of Architectural Critics, and invited full member of the International Acad-
emy of Architecture in Moscow. He was the Eero Saarinen Visiting Profes-
sor at Yale University in 1993.

Dr Alberto Pérez-Gómez
Dr Alberto Pérez-Gómez was educated in Mexico and Great Britain and has
taught in Europe and North America at the Architectural Association in
London and at universities in Mexico, Houston, Syracuse, Toronto, and
Ottawa. Since 1987 he has been the Saidye Rosner Bronfman Professor of
the History of Architecture at McGill University, where he is in charge of the
History and Theory of Architecture graduate program. He has also been the

About the Authors

Director of the School of Architecture at Carleton University and of the

Institut de recherche en histoire de l’architecture in Montreal. Dr Pérez-
Gómez is the author of Polyphilo, or The Dark Forest Revisited (mit Press
1992), an erotic narrative/theory of architecture based on a kindred text
from late fifteenth-century Venice. His first book, Architecture and the Cri-
sis of Modern Science (mit Press 1983), won the Alice Davis Hitchcock
Award for architectural history in 1984. His most recent book, co-authored
with Louise Pelletier and entitled Architectural Representation and the Per-
spective Hinge, was published by mit Press in 1997. Dr Pérez-Gómez is co-
editor of CHORA : Intervals in the Philosophy of Architecture.

David Theodore
David Theodore completed a thesis in the McGill History and Theory of
Architecture master’s program, entitled “‘Aproued on my self’: Inigo Jones’
Magic Book of Palladio.” He lives in Montreal, editing The Fifth Column:
The Canadian Student Journal of Architecture, researching the history of the
modern hospital (a project of Professor Annmarie Adams) and writing arti-
cles about architecture for newspapers and popular journals.

Dorian Yurchuk
Dorian Yurchuk was born in 1970 in New Jersey. He earned his Bachelor of
Architecture degree at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science
and Art in New York City, while also attending classes at the New School
for Social Research and at Harvard University. In 1998 he was awarded the
degree of Master of Architecture, History and Theory option, at McGill
University. Current research centres on the link between laughter and heal-
ing, as evidenced in sources such as Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel
and Joubert’s Traite du Ris. His travels have taken him from Anchorage to
Kharkiw, and he has difficulty staying indoors. He now works at an archi-
tectural restoration firm in New York City, where he beholds, probes, and
reconstructs facades for a living.