Ask Alma's Owl: Defining Architecture

December 20, 2016
Leone Batista Alberti

Dear Alma,

Is it true that Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library has one of the world’s oldest volumes on architecture among its holdings?

—Antiquarian

 

Dear Antiquarian,

Among the 600,000 volumes in Avery Library is Leon Batista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, the oldest printed book on architecture in the West. Printed in 1485, it is an overview of architectural principles, exploring concepts such as proportion, durability and beauty. Though not illustrated, architectural treatises that followed it shortly thereafter would feature numerous illustrations.

Alberti, who lived from 1404 to 1472, was the embodiment of a Renaissance man: an architect, author, cryptographer, humanist, linguist, mathematician, poet and sculptor. After taking holy orders, he worked at the Vatican and later was an adviser on religious building projects in Rome. His three foundational treatises addressed painting, sculpture and architecture and he wrote the first known publication on the the laws of perspective.

De re aedifcatoria

“Avery has a very strong collection of Renaissance treatises, of which the Alberti is the earliest,” said Teresa Harris, curator of Avery Classics, the rare book collection in Avery Library. These “formed the basis of Western architectural theory and practice for centuries.”

Although Alberti delivered his volume to Pope Nicholas V in 1451, it wasn’t printed until nearly four and half decades later. It came too late for Alberti, who had died 13 years earlier. Its publisher was a familiar hand: his brother, Bernardo. The book was later translated into many languages; an English translation came in 1775.

Adolph K. Placzek, the Avery librarian from 1960 to 1980, once wrote of proudly showing the Alberti volume to a group of visitors, saying “This is the first printed book on architecture ever.” A Chinese student in the group gently corrected him by asking, “What about Yingzao Fashi?” one of the oldest extant Chinese technical manuals on buildings, published in 1103 A.D. Placzek continued, “The somewhat sobered answer was that we were dealing with books that were produced after Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. In that sense, Alberti’s is the first book on architecture.”

The Alberti book is one among 40,000 items housed in Avery Classics. Other rarities include a travel sketchbook by a young Le Corbusier and the first architecture book printed in America, The British Architect: Or the Builder’s Treasury of Staircases, published in 1775.

—By Gary Shapiro

Send your questions for Alma’s Owl to curecord@columbia.edu