Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2023
Dario Donetti and Cara Rachele, eds. Building with Paper: The Materiality of Renaissance Architectural Drawings Brepols, 2021. 176 pp.; 60 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Hardback € 85.00 (9782503591186)

Although architectural drawings were made before the Renaissance, the increasing availability of paper in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Europe had a profound influence on the tools and processes of architectural design. Paper was economical, flexible, portable, and an efficient medium for capturing ideas quickly and for conveying elaborate and complex ideas about masses and volumes in visual terms. But architects did not abandon centuries-old tools overnight, and throughout the Renaissance, drawings continued to be made with a variety of media and for diverse purposes. Generations of modern historians, however, have given primacy to drawings on paper and have studied them mainly for their documentary or illustrative value—as evidence of a building’s appearance, construction chronology, and authorship, or as a demonstration of esoteric theoretical discourse—rather than for their intrinsic material value. By challenging this traditional approach toward architectural drawings, the authors featured in Building on Paper seek to provide new ways of looking at the rich information they contain. As the volume editors Dario Donetti and Cara Rachele explain, they are interested in analyzing drawings as material objects and tools of the design process within the context of the “messy Lebenswelten of the architectural workshop and building site” (15). In doing so, they address a much larger question about what drawings were and what they meant to Renaissance architects. The resulting volume is a concise and stimulating collection of essays that point to exciting new directions for scholarship in architectural history.

Building on Paper concerns the work of Italian architects, and in particular, architects associated with Florence and the circle of the Sangallo family. While greater attention to other Italian centers would have been welcome, this narrow geographical focus provides a cohesive framework, as each essay draws upon on the wealth of extant drawings from central Italy and its extensive historiography of architectural scholarship. The authors also share a connection with the Euploos Project, an initiative to digitize works in the collection of the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe at the Uffizi. Among the scholars overseeing this project are Alina Payne and Marzia Faietti, whose preface and epilogue bookend the volume and provide incisive reflections on the questions raised in its essays, the most significant seen as the definition of drawing in Renaissance architectural practice.

In the first essay, Morgan Ng lays the groundwork for disputing a traditional and limited definition of architectural drawing by studying non-paper-based visualization strategies that architects inherited from previous centuries. Incisions, marks, and sketches on stone, plaster, and wood surfaces at building sites, full-scale templates created in special rooms near the worksite (luoghi da disegnare), sgraffito decorations on palace facades, and ropes guiding the layout of building foundations were just some of the modes of architectural drawing that continued to be used alongside paper through the Renaissance. Drawings themselves even inspired architectural ornament, such as in the intarsia “rose windows” in the pavements of Siena Cathedral, or in Verrochio’s Tomb of Cosimo de’Medici at San Lorenzo in Florence (1464), which resembles a compressed orthogonal projection of Filippo Brunelleschi’s nearby Old Sacristy (1421–44). Considering drawing through a more syncretic lens, Ng argues, allows us to understand better not only what drawings were, but how over time, different drawing modes shaped the conventions of graphic representation in architecture.

The most common forms of drawing that provided direct connection between the architectural designer and stonemason were modani, or full-scale template cutouts made to assist the measure and carving of column bases and other details. Jonathan Foote’s essay surveys the materials of modani in Florence as they developed from tin and wood in the fourteenth century to paper in the sixteenth century. He also shows that with increasingly prevalent use of paper, modani came to represent much more than ornamental profiles. Because they were issued from the hand of the architect and circulated among masons, architects, and patrons, modani came to embody the authority of an architect and the authenticity of his design. As Foote shows, this evolution of meaning paralleled the growing professionalization of the architecture trade and architects’ desires for their field to occupy a place among the intellectual arts.

Dario Donetti’s essay discusses drawings collected by one of the most professionalized architects of his time, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, but with a focus on their function as mobile conveyances of information. These range from polished presentation drawings to more informal project plans with personal annotations revealing Sangallo’s archival filing system. Traces of complex interlocking folds indicate that many of these drawings circulated in ways analogous to letter correspondence, serving as lines of communication about buildings and sites near and far between Sangallo the Younger, his patrons, and members of his family and workshop.

Cara Rachele likewise uses the corpus of drawings related to the Sangallo workshop to investigate a subject that appears throughout the Renaissance: detail drawings of spolia, or fragments of ancient ruins. She argues that such drawings, including representations of column capitals, entablatures, or other ornamentation frequently copied from earlier drawings rather than from the original objects, are valuable evidence of the design thinking process and illustrate how architects found inspiration from the antique. Prevailing scholarly opinion casts the development of the detail drawing as a clear progression, one that evolved from the more volumetric and idiosyncratic pictorial representation associated with fifteenth-century antiquarian drawings to the more rational orthogonal projection of the sixteenth century. But Rachele shows that this process was hardly straightforward. Architects preferred a hybrid approach, often utilizing modes of pictorial representation alongside clear construction profiles, plans, sections, and elevations, choosing the approach that helped them best capture and convey their ideas in each context.

Giovanni Santucci’s essay examines paper models, or modelli di cartone, drawings made to be cut and assembled like 3D models representing actual building interiors and exteriors. Unlike wax, clay, or wood models, paper models were inexpensive, easy to shape and color, and could be transported without difficulty. Architects used paper models as they experimented with ideas, as in the case of Bernardo Buontalenti’s designs for the Cappella dei Principi at San Lorenzo (ca. 1602). They could also help patrons and potential clients understand project proposals, as in the case of Giovanni Antonio Dosio’s modelli di cartone for the Cappella Niccolini in Santa Croce in Florence (1584), intended to assist his indecisive patron, Giovanni Niccolini.

In the book’s final chapter, Victoria Addona considers sixteenth-century debates about disegno, the concept acclaimed by the Accademia del Disegno in Florence as the element uniting the material arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture with the intellectual pursuits of creativity. She begins with Alessandro Allori’s definition of disegno in drafts of his unpublished treatise on drawing, Ragionamenti delle regole di disegno (1560s), and the ways it highlights the contradictions that existed between drawing in theory and practice. While Allori and others defined drawing as pure line, devoid of chiaroscuro modeling or coloration, in practice, architectural drawing was far more pliable, encompassing manifold media and techniques. Her cases in point are the early modern proposals for the decoration of the façade of the Cathedral of Florence. In these designs, architects often embraced a hybrid approach, pasting paper embellished with chiaroscuro and colored details on wood models. Utilizing formats that oscillated between two and three dimensions, they “revised the stakes of architectural disegno at the level of their material surfaces” (142). Like her fellow authors, Addona makes clear that architectural drawing was anything but limited to pure line.

Indeed, as each author convincingly argues, the processes and materials of architectural drawing and design in the Renaissance were far from linear, but instead fluid, repetitive, adaptive, and even contested. Throughout the book, several authors compare the emerging technology of drawings on paper during the Renaissance to our own messy transition from paper-based media to digital tools. The keyboard has already supplanted the teaching of handwriting in schools, just as computer software and digital tools are superseding lessons in traditional draftsmanship at university architecture programs. Libraries, archives, and museums are digitizing premodern books, manuscripts, and works of art, rendering them more accessible to a wide viewing audience, and yet at the same time, more abstract. Building with Paper, however, reminds us of the critical role of tactile materiality in the creation of art and architecture both past and present.

Katherine Bentz
Professor of Art History, Fine Arts Department, Saint Anselm College