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Uphill struggle

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Sebastiano Serlio By Sabine Frommel. Electa, 2004. 400 pp. £59.95

Serlio always gets a line or two in histories of architecture as a theorist who comes between Alberti and Palladio. Theorist is not really the right word; codifier might be better. Serlio's innovation was to give more space to illustrations than to text, so he was a kind of populariser.

Now Sabine Frommel comes to put things right with this impressive tome, which argues that Serlio is an important architect.

We know from the beginning that this will be an uphill struggle because there is only one surviving building, the chateau of Ancyle-Franc in Champagne - and even that has sometimes been attributed to Primaticcio.

Otherwise there was a smaller country house or suburban hotel on the outskirts of Fontainebleau, demolished during the Empire, and various doubtful attributions of which fragments and traces remain.

Frommel is reduced to totting up such minutiae as an elaborate altar (a commission that broke down in conflict), intarsie (designs Serlio might have sent back to a town he had left some time before), the picture frame for a royal portrait and an Egyptian portal at Fontainebleau (most interesting of all, but speculative).

Even if all the attributions were secure and all survived entirely, it would make a skimpy and inconclusive body of work. Almost more serious than the shortage of material is its absence of strong character. By a strange twist of logic, Serlio's importance as an architectural contender is demonstrated by proving how dependent he is on his stronger contemporaries. To show him learning from Bramante or Peruzzi is to locate the high watermark of his achievement.

There is a kind of bifurcation in the book.

Frommel is impatient with those who will not take Serlio seriously as an architect, but she is too honest to exaggerate his claims at those moments when she compares him with contemporaries like Philibert de l'Orme.

Late in the book she is discussing Serlio's 'late style', developed after Ancy and pretty much confined to pages in the final Libro straordinario. At this point she mentions de l'Orme's wonderful complex at Anet, which at once puts paid to Serlio's late whimsy by reminding us what real invention feels like.

The comparison makes us think that Serlio was better off when he stuck to being a safer, duller copybook architect.

Frommel's method in making her case is ultra-methodical, breaking the book up into a series of sub-books. Near the beginning comes a painstaking biography of the artist, in which are included facsimiles of two unpublished letters to a French patron who might have been. (Incidentally, he is one of the Frenchmen in Holbein's famous double portrait in the National Gallery. ) These letters in Italian and a beautiful italic hand take up seven full pages: five to reproduce, two to transcribe. They are not without interest, but they are not integrated into the argument, and give a sense of stretching a little matter a long way.

Serlio's intellectual development and the influences he came under are contained in a whole other section. After this, we are in France where the core of the book resides.

But now the pace slows still further. Ancyle-Franc fills 140 pages, broken down into nine distinct topics. The third of these is the building history. To our surprise, this is followed by the exterior; then comes the cour d'honneur; two chapters which form the very heart of the matter. I am not sure I have ever read a more painstaking analysis of the external arrangement of a relatively unremarkable building.

As a sample of the procedure, admittedly an extreme one, we might pick out the decision to defer discussion of capitals and bases in the court until pilasters and window openings have been extensively discussed. I can't convey my dismay at finding that the best part was being saved for another, larger meal later, in a further whole series of pages stretching out in front of me.

Most readers of this book will probably treat it like one of Serlio's Libri; they will concentrate on the pictures, which are lavish and would convince you, if anything could, of the subtlety of Serlio's details. When the capitals finally come, we get two pages about acanthus foliage and five or six close-ups of capitals.

The level of detail in this part of the text may be accurate in conveying the intensity of Serlio's attention to architecture. He was a designer who lost the wood in the trees, as this book does. At the end of it, I had the sinking feeling that all of Sabine Frommel's intelligent persistence had just elaborately confirmed the dismissive estimates of Wittkower, Blunt and others, which was based on a far more superficial knowledge of Serlio than hers.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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