Theoretical writings on Architecture.


That beam which is more than 20 times as long as its greatest thickness will be of brief duration and will break in half; and remember, that the part built into the wall should be steeped in hot pitch and filleted with oak boards likewise so steeped. Each beam must pass through its walls and be secured beyond the walls with sufficient chaining, because in consequence of earthquakes the beams are often seen to come out of the walls and bring down the walls and floors; whilst if they are chained they will hold the walls strongly together and the walls will hold the floors. Again I remind you never to put plaster over timber. Since by expansion and shrinking of the timber produced by damp and dryness such floors often crack, and once cracked their divisions gradually produce dust and an ugly effect. Again remember not to lay a floor on beams supported on arches; for, in time the floor which is made on beams settles somewhat in the middle while that part of the floor which rests on the arches remains in its place; hence, floors laid over two kinds of supports look, in time, as if they were made in hills [Footnote: 19 M. RAVAISSON, in his edition of MS. A gives a very different rendering of this passage translating it thus: Les planchers qui sont soutenus par deux differentes natures de supports paraissent avec le temps faits en voute a cholli.]

Remarks on the style of Leonardo’s architecture.

A few remarks may here be added on the style of Leonardo’s architectural studies. However incomplete, however small in scale, they allow us to establish a certain number of facts and probabilities, well worthy of consideration.

When Leonardo began his studies the great name of Brunellesco was still the inspiration of all Florence, and we cannot doubt that Leonardo was open to it, since we find among his sketches the plan of the church of Santo Spirito[Footnote 1: See Pl. XCIV, No. 2. Then only in course of erection after the designs of Brunellesco, though he was already dead; finished in 1481.] and a lateral view of San Lorenzo (Pl. XCIV No. 1), a plan almost identical with the chapel Degli Angeli, only begun by him (Pl. XCIV, No. 3) while among Leonardo’s designs for domes several clearly betray the influence of Brunellesco’s Cupola and the lantern of Santa Maria del Fiore. [Footnote 2: A small sketch of the tower of the Palazzo della Signoria (MS. C.A. 309) proves that he also studied mediaeval monuments.]

The beginning of the second period of modern Italian architecture falls during the first twenty years of Leonardo’s life. However the new impetus given by Leon Battista Alberti either was not generally understood by his contemporaries, or those who appreciated it, had no opportunity of showing that they did so. It was only when taken up by Bramante and developed by him to the highest rank of modern architecture that this new influence was generally felt. Now the peculiar feature of Leonardo’s sketches is that, like the works of Bramante, they appear to be the development and continuation of Alberti’s.

But a question here occurs which is difficult to answer. Did Leonardo, till he quitted Florence, follow the direction given by the dominant school of Brunellesco, which would then have given rise to his “First manner”, or had he, even before he left Florence, felt Alberti’s influence—either through his works (Palazzo Ruccellai, and the front of Santa Maria Novella) or through personal intercourse? Or was it not till he went to Milan that Alberti’s work began to impress him through Bramante, who probably had known Alberti at Mantua about 1470 and who not only carried out Alberti’s views and ideas, but, by his designs for St. Peter’s at Rome, proved himself the greatest of modern architects. When Leonardo went to Milan Bramante had already been living there for many years. One of his earliest works in Milan was the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Via del Falcone.[Footnote 1: Evidence of this I intend to give later on in a Life of Bramante, which I have in preparation.]

Now we find among Leonardos studies of Cupolas on Plates LXXXIV and LXXXV and in Pl. LXXX several sketches which seem to me to have been suggested by Bramante’s dome of this church.

The MSS. B and Ash. II contain the plans of S. Sepolcro, the pavilion in the garden of the duke of Milan, and two churches, evidently inspired by the church of San Lorenzo at Milan.

MS. B. contains besides two notes relating to Pavia, one of them a design for the sacristy of the Cathedral at Pavia, which cannot be supposed to be dated later than 1492, and it has probably some relation to Leonardo’s call to Pavia June 21, 1490[Footnote 2: The sketch of the plan of Brunellesco’s church of Santo Spirito at Florence, which occurs in the same Manuscript, may have been done from memory.]. These and other considerations justify us in concluding, that Leonardo made his studies of cupolas at Milan, probably between the years 1487 and 1492 in anticipation of the erection of one of the grandest churches of Italy, the Cathedral of Pavia. This may explain the decidedly Lombardo-Bramantesque tendency in the style of these studies, among which only a few remind us of the forms of the cupolas of S. Maria del Fiore and of the Baptistery of Florence. Thus, although when compared with Bramante’s work, several of these sketches plainly reveal that master’s influence, we find, among the sketches of domes, some, which show already Bramante’s classic style, of which the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, his first building executed at Rome, is the foremost example.[Footnote 3: It may be mentioned here, that in 1494 Bramante made a similar design for the lantern of the Cupola of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.]

On Plate LXXXIV is a sketch of the plan of a similar circular building; and the Mausoleum on Pl. XCVIII, no less than one of the pedestals for the statue of Francesco Sforza (Pl. LXV), is of the same type.

The drawings Pl. LXXXIV No. 2, Pl. LXXXVI No. 1 and 2 and the ground flour (“flour” sic but should be “floor” ?) of the building in the drawing Pl. XCI No. 2, with the interesting decoration by gigantic statues in large niches, are also, I believe, more in the style Bramante adopted at Rome, than in the Lombard style. Are we to conclude from this that Leonardo on his part influenced Bramante in the sense of simplifying his style and rendering it more congenial to antique art? The answer to this important question seems at first difficult to give, for we are here in presence of Bramante, the greatest of modern architects, and with Leonardo, the man comparable with no other. We have no knowledge of any buildings erected by Leonardo, and unless we admit personal intercourse—which seems probable, but of which there is no proof—, it would be difficult to understand how Leonardo could have affected Bramante’s style. The converse is more easily to be admitted, since Bramante, as we have proved elsewhere, drew and built simultaneously in different manners, and though in Lombardy there is no building by him in his classic style, the use of brick for building, in that part of Italy, may easily account for it.

Bramante’s name is incidentally mentioned in Leonardo’s manuscripts in two passages (Nos. 1414 and 1448). On each occasion it is only a slight passing allusion, and the nature of the context gives us no due information as to any close connection between the two artists.

It might be supposed, on the ground of Leonardo’s relations with the East given in sections XVII and XXI of this volume, that some evidence of oriental influence might be detected in his architectural drawings. I do not however think that any such traces can be pointed out with certainty unless perhaps the drawing for a Mausoleum, Pl. XC VIII.

Among several studies for the construction of cupolas above a Greek cross there are some in which the forms are decidedly monotonous. These, it is clear, were not designed as models of taste; they must be regarded as the results of certain investigations into the laws of proportion, harmony and contrast.

The designs for churches, on the plan of a Latin cross are evidently intended to depart as little as possible from the form of a Greek cross; and they also show a preference for a nave surrounded with outer porticos.

The architectural forms preferred by Leonardo are pilasters coupled (Pl. LXXXII No. 1; or grouped (Pl. LXXX No. 5 and XCIV No. 4), often combined with niches. We often meet with orders superposed, one in each story, or two small orders on one story, in combination with one great order (Pl. XCVI No. 2).

The drum (tamburo) of these cupolas is generally octagonal, as in the cathedral of Florence, and with similar round windows in its sides. In Pl. LXXXVII No. 2 it is circular like the model actually carried out by Michael Angelo at St. Peter’s.

The cupola itself is either hidden under a pyramidal roof, as in the Baptistery of Florence, San Lorenzo of Milan and most of the Lombard churches (Pl. XCI No. 1 and Pl. XCII No. 1); but it more generally suggests the curve of Sta Maria del Fiore (Pl. LXXXVIII No. 5; Pl. XC No. 2; Pl. LXXXIX, M; Pl XC No. 4, Pl. XCVI No. 2). In other cases (Pl. LXXX No. 4; Pl. LXXXIX; Pl. XC No. 2) it shows the sides of the octagon crowned by semicircular pediments, as in Brunellesco’s lantern of the Cathedral and in the model for the Cathedral of Pavia.

Finally, in some sketches the cupola is either semicircular, or as in Pl. LXXXVII No. 2, shows the beautiful line, adopted sixty years later by Michael Angelo for the existing dome of St. Peter’s.

It is worth noticing that for all these domes Leonardo is not satisfied to decorate the exterior merely with ascending ribs or mouldings, but employs also a system of horizontal parallels to complete the architectural system. Not the least interesting are the designs for the tiburio (cupola) of the Milan Cathedral. They show some of the forms, just mentioned, adapted to the peculiar gothic style of that monument.

The few examples of interiors of churches recall the style employed in Lombardy by Bramante, for instance in S. Maria di Canepanuova at Pavia, or by Dolcebuono in the Monastero Maggiore at Milan (see Pl. CI No. 1 [C. A. 181b; 546b]; Pl. LXXXIV No. 10).

The few indications concerning palaces seem to prove that Leonardo followed Alberti’s example of decorating the walls with pilasters and a flat rustica, either in stone or by graffitti (Pl. CII No. 1 and Pl. LXXXV No. 14).

By pointing out the analogies between Leonardo’s architecture and that of other masters we in no way pretend to depreciate his individual and original inventive power. These are at all events beyond dispute. The project for the Mausoleum (Pl. XCVIII) would alone suffice to rank him among the greatest architects who ever lived. The peculiar shape of the tower (Pl. LXXX), of the churches for preaching (Pl. XCVII No. 1 and pages 56 and 57, Fig. 1-4), his curious plan for a city with high and low level streets (Pl. LXXVII and LXXVIII No. 2 and No. 3), his Loggia with fountains (Pl. LXXXII No. 4) reveal an originality, a power and facility of invention for almost any given problem, which are quite wonderful.

In addition to all these qualities he propably stood alone in his day in one department of architectural study,—his investigations, namely, as to the resistance of vaults, foundations, walls and arches.

As an application of these studies the plan of a semicircular vault (Pl. CIII No. 2) may be mentioned here, disposed so as to produce no thrust on the columns on which it rests: volta i botte e non ispignie ifori le colone. Above the geometrical patterns on the same sheet, close to a circle inscribed in a square is the note: la ragio d’una volta cioe il terzo del diamitro della sua ... del tedesco in domo.

There are few data by which to judge of Leonardo’s style in the treatment of detail. On Pl. LXXXV No. 10 and Pl. CIII No. 3, we find some details of pillars; on Pl. CI No. 3 slender pillars designed for a fountain and on Pl. CIII No. 1 MS. B, is a pen and ink drawing of a vase which also seems intended for a fountain. Three handles seem to have been intended to connect the upper parts with the base. There can be no doubt that Leonardo, like Bramante, but unlike Michael Angelo, brought infinite delicacy of motive and execution to bear on the details of his work.

Taken from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880.

Notebooks of Leonoardo da Vinci
XIII: Theoretical writings on Architecture.
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