CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


BENELLI, Francesco
Misunderstanding Vitruvius: the Original Sin of Modern Theory of Architecture

Session 15 Creative Misunderstanding


Vitruvius’ “De Architectura” is the book that started the theory of Early-Modern Architecture. The text, written under Augustus, arrived to the Renaissance without illustrations, and even the first printed editions were lacking of. In 1511 Fra’ Giocondo published the first illustrated Vitruvius, turning inevitably the book into an ambiguous tool being the illustrations only mere visual and modern interpretations of the roman text. Given its obscure Latin often inaccessible for Renaissance architects, illustrations start to be the main key of interpretation of the book, which description of roman republican architecture moreover differs from the visible Imperial ruins. My paper investigates the response of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the most celebrated practicing architect in the Sixteenth-century, in relation with the discrepancy between the text, its illustrations and the roman ruins. Renaissance architects, studying roman architecture and its theory from within this triangle, ended up with a much different understanding from today’s knowledge of the ancient period. I will show that most of those misunderstandings cannot be defined as “mistakes” but as “cultural limits”, wide or narrow, depending on the extent of capability to understand the sources.

The discrepancy between the information on roman architecture turned to be an incredible source of reasoning and creativity forcing the architect to question himself about those differences. My paper will change the classical notion of “Renaissance Vitruvianism” and will explain how much some of these misunderstandings will be turned into common elements of classical architecture still in use until the coming of twenty-century modernism. 

BENELLI, Francesco   

Francesco Benelli is Adjunct Associate professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Columbia University New York. He obtained his M.Arch. at the School of Architecture “La Sapienza”, Rome in 1996 and in 2001 his PhD in the History of Architecture at the “Istituto Universitario di Architettura, Venice” (IUAV). In the same year he was the recipient of a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, New York, where he taught for 13 years up to the position of Associate Professor. In 2008 he was a Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, and in in 2014/2015 a Fellow Associate at the Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York. He widely published on Renaissance and Medieval architecture as well as on modern historiography focusing on the work of Rudolf Wittkower (for the list of most of his publications see: His book on “Giotto’s Architecture in Paintings” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. He is currently writing a book on Vitruvian studies during the first half of the sixteenth-century.