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Renaissance revivified

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Paper Palaces: The Rise of the Renaissance Architectural Treatise Edited by Vaughan Hart with Peter Hicks. Yale University Press, 1998. 414pp. £30.

This small but by no means lightweight book is full of very mixed and rich fare. It invites individual scholars each to introduce a treatise writer, in chronological order from Alberti (mid-fifteenth century) to Perrault (mid-seventeenth century). The remaining chapters put these treatises into various contexts, ranging from Manuela Morresi's fascinating Tafuri- inspired essay on these treatises on the political life of Venice (where so many of them were published), to James McQuillan bringing the Vitruvian story to an end in the French Enlightenment.

Now that the history of architectural history is mainstream, it is surprising that such an anthology hasn't appeared before. After a long editorial introduction, 16 scholars each have a chapter; most are the leading authority, and often the translator of the treatise they discuss. This should indeed become a key source for students and teachers.

The dry editorial leads to Rykwert's model introduction to Alberti. We next meet Filarete and Francesco di Giorgio, followed by the much less inspiring codifiers Sagredo, Serlio, Philandrier and Vignola; but then come the great Philibert de l'Orme, Palladio and Scamozzi, and finally Claude Perrault. An essay by I K McEwen fascinatingly links civil and criminal regulations with 'Vitruvian' principles for regulating architecture in Colbert's France. The surprise for me was the Scamozzi essay by Marco Frascari, a fascinating rehabilitation of a most original man (and his memory theatre) from the shadow of Palladio; while Hart's discussion of Serlio's petrified Roman camp as ideal city raises interesting threads worth expanding further.

At times there is a sense of special pleading, not always eloquently put. Perhaps writers on architectural writers, like dogs resembling their masters, too easily fall into the tone of their subject. But if an antiquarian dust hangs over this tome, it cannot affect the real architects (Alberti, Palladio).

The essay on the treatises of the Low Countries has none of the dynamism of that on Venice; Hart on John Schute in England is interesting but not gripping, though his piece on Serlio's theatrical perspective is a fascinating fragment in itself, if misplaced in this context. But one could also say that, quite differently, of the astonishing essay by Alberto Perez-Gomez on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Suddenly, with the least accessible of all the books under discussion, Perez-Gomez grabs the reader's attention, really discussing architectural ideas with an immediacy which makes them potent today.

In contrast to the book's mood which emphasises the canonic aspect of 'Vitruvian commentaries' from Serlio to Francois Blondel, Perez-Gomez splits the structure wide open with a great sensual laugh, adding: 'Today, in the wake of modernism, after witnessing the failures of instrumental theories and functionalism to generate meaningful architecture, we are perhaps better prepared to appreciate the great relevance of Hypnerotomachia.'

I would have welcomed more context, more links; Brunelleschi, Bramante and Raphael are here only as shadows while Michelangelo is a vast absence. One might also have considered the astonishing current interest which can support fine new English translations of Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio, Serlio - and, recently, of the Hypnerotomachia (aj 9.3.00) - at the end of the twentieth century.

John McKean is professor of architecture at Brighton

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