On the Interpretation of Architecture
Theory of Interpretation

Vol. 12, No. 2, December 2008


___Lex Hermans
  The Rules of Rhetoric as Manual for Reading Classicist Architecture



From the mid-fifteenth through to the early nineteenth centuries rhetoric has been the backbone of education. The rules for persuasive speech, analysed in Antiquity by Aristotle and laid down by Cicero and Quintilian, were taught in the whole of the Western world. Moreover, these rules were adapted to other disciplines than the art of speaking, such as painting, sculpture, and indeed architecture.

Rhetoric required of buildings that they express the status and the character of the patron, owner, or user. Over the centuries theorists and architects developed and applied a refined syntax and vocabulary of architectural expression, which from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic era made architecture an architecture parlante.

Speaking as an act of communication assumes there will be an audience to speak to; it also supposes that the audience will understand what is being said. In the early modern period this was the case. The achievements of Greco-Roman society set the benchmarks for the modern one and provided the guidelines for social and artistic enterprise. Classicism, the imitation of and competition with Ancient examples and models, was the norm. Hence viewers used rhetorical skills to interpret a classicist building, much as the architect used them in designing it. Rhetoric, then, was the main tool for interpretation. The many quotes in what follows, ranging from Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) to Sir John Soane (1753-1837), will, I hope, bear this out.


Before interpretation can start there has to be viewing. According to classicist theory the viewing of buildings was predicated upon the immovability inherent in works of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It was held that unlike a recitation that moves over a stretch of time, or a performance which moves over time and place (for instance a masquerade or a procession), a stationary object can be seen in one single glance. This would suggest that the first look at such an object far more conditions its possibilities of agency than the view of a beginning performance. Indeed, the objects stand still and are silent; they don’t have an as yet un-revealed part that in time may produce changes of action and mood, and cause variations of tension and expression. The spectator gets an over-all view at first glance. At that exact moment he has to be captivated, compelled, as it were, to keep looking, notwithstanding the unchanged presence of the object.

When the visitor of a building can encompass visually the whole of a façade, he is free to let his eye wander in every direction, from detail to detail. In a passage devoted to the working of the human intellect, the Venetian patrician and prelate Monsignor Daniel Barbaro shows in his Commentary on Vitruvius (1556; revised edition 1567) that he was conscious of the way one views a building. Like the brain works its way from indistinct forms towards more precise and detailed knowledge, says Barbaro, so does the eye of someone who is looking at a building.

Approaching the building, we see the openings, and especially the space between the columns – which in some temples are narrow and in other ones larger – gives various appearances to the eye and generate various impressions, of softness and beauty, or of grandeur and severity, like the spaces between the voices do to the ears: what is consonance for the ears is beauty for the eyes.[1]

Discerning solids and voids can be thought of as particular to viewing; calling something soft or severe is an act of interpretation. In this passage Barbaro shows how conscious he was of the fleeting boundaries between viewing and interpreting.

Three interpretations

Interpretations can take many forms. In order to get some idea of what classicist interpreters thought important, let’s look at three examples of written interpretations of still existing buildings, dating from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.

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Illustration 1:
Jacopo Sansovino, Mint (Zecca), Venice begun 1536; additional third storey begun 1558


In his guide to Venice (1581) Francesco Sansovino, the son of the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, wrote about the new Mint his father built in front of the Ducal Palace (1536). The entry is as much a description as an interpretation.

At the end of Library towards the Canal lies the Mint, an important structure, made by Sansovino on the orders of the Supreme Council of the Ten. It is unique for its composition, and of a unity as there is no other. … But among all other features its most remarkable one is that it is knitted together from top to toe and in all its parts from natural stone, bricks, and iron, and that one won’t find even an inch of wood, so that as to strength and fire safety there is no other place that is comparable to it. The main entrance on the Piazza (for one may also enter by the canal) demonstrates at first meeting the solidity of the building, because it is composed of the rustic order combined with the Doric one. And instead of columns or pilasters that sustain the doorway, there are two herms, one and a half times bigger than natural size, very nobly made. … The main façade answers the Canal Grande with a partly rusticated, partly smooth order with such a blend that it is pleasing to the eye and according to the rules of Vitruvius.[2]

Sansovino description is superficial and incomplete, and his way of viewing doesn’t follow any precise order. The text cannot conjure up before the reader’s mind’s eye the square, originally two-storey building block with its piers-and-arches ground floor that bears a piano nobile in a half-rusticated Doric order with engaged columns that bear a full and richly sculpted entablature. Nor does the author mention the second floor, in an equally half-rusticated Ionic, that was added to the building in 1558.[3] Instead, he focuses on the main character of the building; according to him, its structural strength is represented by the rustication of the walls and the entrance, and he maintains that they convey the character of the Mint immediately to the viewer, at the moment when he first set his eyes upon it. Technically speaking Sansovino treats especially the entrance as a pars pro toto that is small enough to be seen in a single glance and allows the spectator to create at once a mental image of the building’s meaning.  

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Illustration 2:
Federico Zuccari, Studio,
Florence, 1577-1579


A more precise and intellectually more refined example of interpretation can be found in The Origin of Building, or: The Plagiarism of the Heathen Detected by the British architect John Wood of Bath (1741). He gives a reading of the studio the painter and art theorist Federico Zuccari built in 1577 in Florence.[4] The façade of the building consists of a rusticated base, bearing three relief panels that show the instruments of the three arts: sculpture, architecture, and painting. The window grills are decorated with the Zuccari arms. Over the door is a cartouche with a coat of arms, and in the middle of the frieze that crowns the basement is another one.[5] The upper part of the façade shows two niches (for statues, no doubt) at the outer positions, above the rusticated engaged columns that frame the nether part, and in the middle tract, between two windows, a large panel, meant to contain a fresco. On the architraves of the window frames is an inscription that reads ‘FEDERICUS ZUCCARUS MDLXXVIIII’.[6]

In 1724 Ferdinando Ruggeri published a print of the façade. Wood republished the Ruggeri print in his treatise[7] and added the following interpretation:

Saint Matthew writes, that our Blessed Lord and Saviour declared that Man to be wise who built his House upon a Rock; so that Signiore Zuccheri seems to have had in View, to make the Base of his House, which is to be supposed a Rock, an Emblem of his Wisdom; and that the Figure of that Base, … making a perfect Square, should allude not only to his Solidity and Stability, but to Mercury, the Deity who was held by the Pagans to preside over Learning, Eloquence, and Trade: For the proper Emblems among the Antients, of Solidity and Stability, was a Cube; and the Grecians represented Mercury under that Figure.
Upon this Base, the Superstructure … was rais’d with Brick, the Ornaments were made of Stone, and the Centre was adorned with a large Picture. So that the most impartial Survey of this whimsical Front, we may conclude, that Signiore Zuccheri, over and above his other Views, designed to exhibit in it Samples of his three-fold Profession in Theory and Practice; the first being apparent in the Door, the Windows, the Pillasters, and the other Ornaments traced and cut out of the Rock in an unfinished Manner, the second in three Pieces of Sculpture … cut out of the same Rock; and the third in the finished Picture

Wood weaves description and interpretation into a single canvas, while suggesting that the interpretation follows the methodical and impartial viewing of the studio’s façade. He uses common knowledge of the Bible, emblems, mythology, and architectural expression to sustain his reading.  

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Illustration 3:
Sir John Soane, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, 1800-1803


A third example of viewing and interpreting is Sir John Soane’s use of the front of Pitzhanger Manor, the country retreat he built for himself in Ealing (1800-03), as a case to present to his students. In the preparatory notes for his fifth annual lecture at the Royal Academy in London (1819) he cautioned his hearers:

Describe the front. No man will suppose that the architect or owner had attained civic crowns for saving the lives of his fellow citizens […]. To judge of this species of building we should endeavour to discover the object to be attained: for example, in the building before you, if we suppose the person about to build possessed of a number of detached pieces of ornament, such as eagles and wreaths, demiboys and foliage, columns and statues, pedestals and acroters &c, and that from a desire to preserve them from ruin, or to form a building to give a faint idea of an Italian villa… this building may thus be considered as a picture, a sort of portrait.[9]

In fact, Soane doesn’t describe the façade at all. What he does is highlighting some of its most salient features, and suggesting that looking at these features will disclose to the viewer the character of the patron who commissioned the building. Here, viewing is presented as if it is a search for details that can be clues for better understanding.

Notwithstanding the differences in time and method the interpretations by Sansovino, Wood, and Soane undeniably share the view that a façade represents the character and qualities of the owner or the use of the building. By scrutinizing every detail and combining what they see into an overall “program” the authors are confident that the façade will yield its “meaning” and “tell” the viewer what the building is about. Moreover, they are sure they can deduce where its owner stands in society. The face of a building, then, is a representation. The question is, why the authors could be so confident.


The eloquence of architecture is bound up with the conventions of a society. If forms, patterns and (geometrical) abstractions do have an exact meaning, it is conferred to them by convention. Indeed, it is only because of the conventions of their education that Sansovino, Wood, and Soane could interpret the lay-out and meaning of a building after its façade or its sole entrance.

Even if the front as a pars pro toto enables the viewer to get a picture of what one may expect of the complete building, its effect can by no means be uniform. The image conjured up in the mind of the expert will be quite another than that of the ignorant. Both will expect to see the interior mirrored by the exterior, but the scope of their expectations differs. The illiterate and uneducated no doubt will have read a façade with its columns, pediments and sculptural ornaments as the expression of power and riches, but nothing more specific. The well-educated and the expert on the other hand presumably disposed of the correct mental framework to interpret such a façade in greater detail; they may even have been capable of making an educated guess at the exact status of the patron by assessing the interplay of the various elements.

The expert would interpret a façade on the basis of his first impression of the whole and on a careful observation of the details performed immediately afterwards. He would turn to some basic rules to get the bearings for his reading. From the sixteenth through to the early nineteenth centuries these rules were likely to be predicated upon rhetoric.


To Romans of the Imperial period rhetoric was the individual’s source of general education.[10] Manuals such as Quintilian’s The Orator’s Education summarized the basic requirements. Renaissance society willingly adopted the educational values of Ancient society inasmuch they were compatible with the intrinsically Christian views of early modern mentality. In this context rhetoric was soon established as a model of civilizing processes. Thanks to the usefulness of their skills the humanists became teachers and administrators to the Italian courts and cities. By the 1450s basic education was organized according to humanist guidelines, and from the sixteenth century onward the average schoolboy was educated to improvise orations and to perform ex tempore interpretations of classical texts.[11] Rhetoric came to be the bedrock of primary and secondary education, and would remain so till the first decades of the nineteenth century. A continuous flow of new handbooks and reprints of older ones kept the tradition alive and close to daily practice.

The rhetorical system basically consisted of five parts and three tasks. The parts of rhetoric are: inventio or finding the subject matter; distributio or forging the basic material into an understandable order; elocutio or refined phrasing of the whole text; memoria or memorizing the finished text; and actio or the delivering of the text before an audience. The three goals or tasks of the art of eloquence are to instruct (docere), move (movere), and entertain (delectare) the audience in order to coax them into understanding and eventually believing the orator’s words.[12] In the end, rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech.

Thanks to its stress on logical structure and intelligible argumentation the method of rhetoric was adaptable to other disciplines than eloquence. As early as the 1530s Giulio Camillo, a humanist from the Venetian republic, argued that rhetoric, painting, architecture, and ballistics all share the same basic structure.[13] As this idea was generally accepted in classicist thought, rhetoric could be used as a model for all liberal arts and related disciplines.[14] This is especially true for inventio, distributio, and elocutio, based as they are on common sense and concepts. Anybody who wants to create something will, before starting, think out what exactly he wants to make, then consider and gather the elements he needs for its construction, and finally make it as resembling to his concept as he can.

Since the sixteenth century the parallels between rhetoric and architecture have often been pointed out. Like the other visual arts, architecture also made use of rhetoric in two distinct ways. On the one hand there is the art of oratory as a basic manual of composition, which is easily adopted, and on the other there is the demand for acting and agency, which is far harder to satisfy. An example of the compositional side we find in Vincenzo Scamozzi’s The Universal Idea of Architecture (1615):

And like the orator goes on recounting everything in an ordered manner, appropriate to time and place, and uses the colours of rhetoric and the terminology of the art, in exactly the same way the architect must lay out his inventions, designs and the disposition of the parts in a well-ordered way to the building, and apply to the type [of building] the order which is best suited to it.[15]

This is a very down-to-earth way of applying the rules of rhetorical composition to architecture. There are examples of more refined ways also. Monsignor Daniel Barbaro, for instance, whose Vitruvius edition would remain a standard for centuries, considered architecture actually as a rhetoric for the eye:

And like a speech has forms and various ideas to satisfy the ears, so has architecture its aspects and forms to satisfy the eyes. And like the things we have in our minds and our souls are proffered to others by means of the art, and the words, figures, composition of words, elements, members and clauses constitute the ideas and forms of speech, so the proportions, the compartments, the differences of aspect, the elements and the collocation of the various parts constitute the idea of a building, because they are proper to the matter for which they are used.[16]

Like Scamozzi, Barbaro maintains that an architect should use the rules of rhetoric when designing a building. But with Barbaro we also find a conscious stress on the impact a building should have on the viewer. The final product should satisfy the audience, the ears of the listeners in case of a speech, the eyes of the observers in case of a building. This requirement, too, is in harmony with rhetoric, for an orator should educate, move and please the audience. And although instruction by means of an abstract art such as architecture presumably is more difficult than by words, Barbaro here effectively puts them on a par.


Martin Kemp has pointed out that fifteenth-century Italian humanists have paid much attention to the idea (inventio) and the organization (dispositio) of a work of art (and, we might add, to elocutio, in rhetoric the final phrasing, in the visual arts the choice of colours, details, and the like) but scarcely a word to the public performance (actio)[17]. The omission is understandable enough. Indeed, the compositional aspects of rhetoric can be easily transposed to the design processes in the visual arts and architecture[18]. The two last parts of rhetoric, memory (memoria) and delivery or performance (actio), are respectively irrelevant to and difficult to be achieved by works of art like paintings, statues, and buildings, that cannot speak or move. Nevertheless, they were expected to “speak” to the observer, to “deliver” the speech and the message. An “eloquent” example of this view is given by Germain Boffrand in the highly original second chapter of his Book of Architecture (1745). Entitled ‘Principles of architecture derived from Horace’s Art of Poetry’ it sets out to show why the architect should follow Horace’s recommendations for writing literature. It goes without saying that the “rules” the Roman poet formulated are deeply rooted in rhetoric. Boffrand maintains:

Architecture, although its object may seem to be no more than the use of material, is capable of a number of genres that bring its component parts to life, so to speak, through the different characters that it conveys to us. Through its composition a building expresses, as if on stage, that the scene is pastoral or tragic; that this is a temple or a palace, a public building destined for a particular purpose or a private house. By their planning, their structure and their decoration, all such buildings must proclaim their purpose to the beholder. If they fail to do so, they offend against expression and are not what they ought to be.[19]

Boffrand compares a building to an actor on a stage. Orators, like actors, do perform. Hence it need not surprise us that Sir John Soane identified the delivery of the orator (actio) with the character of a building, implying that in the end it was the “performance” of the edifice that made it act upon the mind of the observer. In 1819 he wrote in a preparatory note for the fifth lecture he was to deliver at the Royal Academy:

every building whether great or small, – simple or elegant, must like the picture speak intelligibly to the beholder, – each must have a positive character, peculiar to itself; sufficient to point out the purpose and uses for which it was erected: – this cannot be attained if the work is deficient in character – The Athenian Orator being asked what were the great requisitions of his art, replied, action – action – action; so if it were asked what constituted the distinctive beauties in architectural composition, the answer would be, character – character – character.[20]

Boffrand’s and Soane’s views did not differ much from the very practical, down-to-earth German handbook anonymously published in 1788, entitled Inquiries into the Character of Buildings.[21] What its author wanted to instill upon his readers was that they had to design their buildings so that these would be eloquent. It is in line with Boffrand’s dictum: ‘A man who does not know these different characters, and who does not make them felt in his works, is no architect.’[22] The anonymous manual was double-edged, though. It taught the architect to make designs for eloquent buildings. Conversely, a reader could learn from the manual how to interpret a building designed according to its instructions.

Res et verba

The idea that a façade was capable of “performing” was based on the rhetorical notion of res et verba (matter and words), i.e. what a building was about and how this was expressed. The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose treatise on architecture remained the mainstay reference book for classicist architectural theory, points to this fact:

These two things are contained in all matters, but above all in architecture: that which is signified and that which signifies. What is signified is the matter set forth by what is said. What signifies this is a demonstration developed through the principles of learning.[23]

Now this is a very rhetorical way of stating things.[24] As Monsignor Barbaro makes clear, it means that the subject matter has to be shown by means of signs that are capable of being interpreted by the viewer.[25] In rhetoric the signs were words and phrases, which ought to be appropriate to the subject; indeed, they had to be its mirror. Barbaro had written that ‘[n]ecessity has it that the words be equal to the meaning, for, as is already said, one is speaking to this end that what much we have inside will be shown at the outside.’[26] In architecture application of this rule meant that a building had to express the status or other qualities of its patron or owner. This became the classicist standard. Over time, this requirement of correct expression of the matter was expanded in such a way that a façade should not only express status or use, but also character. Boffrand, for example, took to this view:

It is not enough for a building to be handsome; it must be pleasing, and the beholder must feel the character that it is meant to convey; so that it must appear cheerful where it is intended to communicate joy, and serious and melancholy where it is meant to instill respect or sadness.[27]

This rhetorical idea explains why the design of a façade was a matter of concern. The question was: how was expression achieved, and how could it be recognized for what it was? When the façade showed purely architectural means, that is to say: no identifyable paintings, sculptures, or explanatory inscriptions, the expressive apparatus consisted of the orders.


The orders and their anthropomorphic associations as explained by Vitruvius formed the core of classicist architectural expression. Indeed, the three main orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – can be considered to have been the equivalent of the three main registers of rhetoric. They were, so to speak, the genera dicendi of the art of building. In the preface to his fourth book, the General Rules of Architecture (1537), Sebastiano Serlio starts his account by summarizing the Vitruvian narrative on how the ancients exercised decorum by matching the orders of the temples with the natures of the gods to whom they were dedicated: masculine Doric for Jupiter, Mars, and Hercules; Ionic, a mix between delicate and robust, for Diana, Apollo, and Bacchus; and Corinthian, elegant and feminine, for Vesta, the goddess of virgins.[28] He added that

in these modern times it seems to me that the procedure should be different, but not too far from the ancients. What I mean is that, following our Christian customs, I would (as far as I could) dedicate sacred buildings, according to their types, to God and to His Saints, and I would give secular buildings, both public and private, to men according to their rank and professions.[29]

In the eighteenth century Boffrand once again pointed to the fact that the genres of poetry are to its chosen subjects what the orders of architecture used by the Greeks and the Romans are to the various genres of building. Moreover, he maintained that the ‘profiles of mouldings, and the other members that compose a building, are in architecture what words are in a discourse.’[30]

Within rhetoric three genera dicendi or styles of speaking were distinguished: plain, florid and grand. The rules of decorum formed the guideline for deciding which style was suitable to which subject, although in practice the dividing lines were not as strictly respected as theory would have it. Indeed, great practitioners cautioned against a too narrow reading of the rule. All the same, they insisted upon a delivery in which the words were geared to the facts.

Classicist architecture at heart was an architecture parlante – it was eloquent architecture. The efforts of the architects to establish a coherent system for the use of the orders and to attribute specific meaning to various combinations of measure and ornament are connected with the general aim for expression. This system of orders and their attributed meaning was common knowledge among the educated classes.


The orders and all other ornamentation of a façade ought to act as an expression and as ever so many clues for correct interpretation. A building should fit the status of its owner or occupant. In Antiquity, authors such as Aristotle and Cicero had stressed this basic requirement.[31] Appropriateness (decorum) was their main concern, as it would be of their classicist progeny. Early modern authors on architecture never tired of proclaiming the absolute need of an exact correspondence between the status of patrons and inhabitants and the style and the choice of location of their dwellings. In On Building, the first treatise on architecture of the modern era, written in the 1450s and first published in 1485, Leon Battista Alberti made it perfectly clear that the dignity of the (upper class) occupants has to be expressed by their houses, and that the dignity of the entrance has to mirror the patron’s status as well as be appropriate to the immediate neighbourhood.[32] Later authors, such as Andrea Palladio and Pietro Cataneo in the sixteenth century, followed suit.[33] They took to the view that a magnificent building is not fit for a commoner, and that visible richness of decoration and the use of expensive materials suggest that a building is the dwelling of an important person. Buildings should be constructed according to the financial means and the importance of the patron, and the decoration had to be representative of their status.[34] What is more, many classicist theorists thought that the façade of a house should be a “portrait” of the owner.

Built portraits

In the general introduction to the second edition of The Lives, in the paragraphs dedicated to the ideal palace, Giorgio Vasari wrote that ‘[i]n its first aspect the façade demands beauty and grandeur, and should be divided as is the face of a man.’[35] This seams to have been a common view. ‘From the aspect of an edifice,’ wrote the architect and theorist Vincenzo Scamozzi, ‘we understand that majesty which shows itself to our eyes precisely by its features, like the looks of a human face or of any other individual body.’[36] A façade, then, is the face of a building and hence, like the human face, its most eloquent part. And as in human intercourse, with architecture also there has to be established eye contact before the more refined play of communication can begin.

The prolific (and scandalous) writer Pietro Aretino wrote on August 30, 1538 a letter to the Venetian art dealer and collector Andrea Odoni, in which he is most explicit on the similarities between a house and its owner:

But for anyone who wants to see how clean and bright is his spirit, let him look at his face and his house; let him look at them, I say, and he will see what calm and what beauty one can contemplate in a house and in a face. If it wasn’t that it would look like an I don’t know what, I would compare the bedrooms, the hall, the loggia and the garden of your living space to a bride who awaits her relatives who will come to see her giving her hand.[37]

To Aretino a house was the portrait of the intellectual qualities and the character of the owner. The owners adhered to exactly the same views as the authors, not surprisingly so as most theorists belonged to the propertied classes themselves and hence can be expected of giving vent to received opinion. Occasionally, we actually can hear the voice of an owner. At the end of the eighteenth century Giovanni Tommaso Faccioli wrote down a faded inscription he had discovered on the façade of villa Trissino near Vicenza. This originally fifteenth-century villa had been completely renovated in the early sixteenth century, its exterior faced with stucco and adorned with frescoes. Its bright walls earned it the popular nickname of “Ca’ imprenta”, the “painted house”. On its front it read: ‘If you want to know the soul of the master look at and think of his house.’[38]

Portraits, indeed, is what classicist façades and – following Aretino – the whole interior of houses were considered to be, encoded portraits that could be read by everyone who possessed the key.

Prefaces and previews

In view of the above it becomes evident why it was considered important that a viewer was confronted with an eloquent façade. It provided the (casual) observer with concise, eye-catching details that contain the core “message” of the building. The front of a building was something of a “preview” of the owner or occupant. The first impression, which sets the tone, can be compared to the exordium, the take-off of a speech. According to Quintilian this “preface” has three functions:

The reason for a Proœmium is simply to prepare the hearer to be more favourably inclined towards us for the rest of the proceedings. Most authors agree that there are three main ways of doing this: by making him well disposed, attentive, and ready to learn. Of course, these aims have to be maintained throughout the pleading, but they are particularly vital in the initial stage, since it is by means of this that we gain admission to the judge’s mind so as to make further progress later.[39]

The orator emphasizes that the introduction has to be in proper proportion to the subject (and the size) of the speech and alerts his readers to the condition that an opening address ought to be free of uncommon words, daring metaphors, archaic expressions or poetic licence: ‘At this stage, we are not yet accepted, the attention of the audience is fresh and watchful’.[40] This is sound rhetorical advice. As the orator must aim for enthralling all of his audience in order to win them over to his point of view, he has to be cautious when he is setting out. If he would start his speech using unconventional words or arcane phrasing to represent his case, he might be aiming too high for some of his hearers whereas others would consider it inappropriate or just distasteful. Both groups he will loose from the onset; as to them the rest of his words would fall on deaf ears.

Early modern authors have been very attentive to the lessons imparted by the Ancient orators. Daniel Barbaro wrote in his Commentary on Vitruvius:

as the introduction is … what is first presented to us, and because we look with the strongest attention to what meets us first, it is a good and appropriate idea to propose in introductions the subjects we want to be most carefully looked at and listened to.[41]

The introduction prepares the audience for the main points, which will be elaborated in what follows. In architecture the most obvious candidate for fulfilling the task of making the spectators receptive to the message of a building would be the façade or, even more concise, the main entrance. According to Francesco Sansovino, the son of the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino:

The introduction to an oration is like the beautiful and rich entrance of a magnificent and well-designed palace, for as the observers as soon as it has presented itself to their eyes deduce from it that the palace is well-adorned at the inside, composed as perfect architecture in which all parts are proportional to the whole, likewise the entrance of an oration is the image and the demonstration of what has to be said and discussed.[42]

Technically speaking Sansovino saw the entrance as a pars pro toto, small enough to be seen in a single glance and allowing the spectator to create at once a mental image of the whole building.

This idea was to have echoes in later centuries, as is evidenced by a passage in the writings of Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who, much like his Renaissance forebears, compared the expression of a façade to the performance of a play:

The front of a building is like the prologue of a play, it prepares us for what we are to expect. If the outside promises more than we find in the inside, we are disappointed. The plot opens itself in the first act and is carried on through the remainder, through all the mazes of character, convenience of arrangement, elegance and propriety of ornaments, and lastly produces a complete whole in distribution, decoration and construction.[43]

So, to classicist authors a façade was not only the “portrait” of the status and character of the owner – his built representative in public space, so to say – but also a preview. By looking at a façade the observer who possessed the key to the used idiom could figure out what manner of man the owner would be. Moreover, he would have a clue to how the interior of the building would look like. As the educated classes of the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries shared the common background of rhetoric and a set of well-known conventions, and architects designed their buildings according to these conventions, a correct interpretation of a façade was feasible.



N.B. Ancient authors are not included in the bibliography. Names (in round brackets) without any further indication are of the translators of these texts in the Loeb Classical Library. 

Alberti, Leon Battista. 1966. L’architettura (De re aedificatoria). Ed. Giovanni Orlandi and Paolo Portoghesi, 2 vols. Milan: Il Polifilo.

Alberti, Leon Battista. 1999. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor (19881), 8th pr., Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Andersen, Øivind. 2001. Im Garten der Rhetorik: Die Kunst der rede in der Antike. Trans. Brigitte Mannsperger and Ingunn Tveide. Darmstadt: WBG.

Aretino, Pietro. 1957-60. Lettere sull’arte. Ed. Fidenzio Pertile and Ettore Camesasca. 3 vols. Milan: Edizioni del Milione.

Barbaro, Daniel. 1557. Della eloquenza. Ed. Girolamo Ruscelli. Venice: Vicenzo Valgrisio.

Barbaro, Daniel, trans. and ed. 1567. I dieci libri dell’architettura di M. Vitruvio. 2d, rev. and enlarged ed. Venice: Francesco de’ Franceschi and Giovanni Chrieger.

Boffrand, Germain. 1745. Livre d’architecture contenant les principes généraux de cet art et les plans, élévations et profils de quelques-uns des bâtimens faits en France et dans les pays étrangers, Paris: for the author.

Boffrand, Germain. 2002. Book of Architecture, Containing the General Principles of the Art and the Plans, Elevations and Sections of Some of the Edifices Built in France and in Foreign Countries. Trans. David Britt. Ed. Caroline van Eck. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Bolzoni, Lina. 1983. L’idea dell’eloquenza: Un’orazione inedita di Giulio Camillo. Rinascimento, 2d s., 23: 125-166.

Camillo, Giulio. 1983. L’Idea dell’eloquenza. In Bolzoni 1983, 140-166.

Cataneo, Pietro. 1567. L’Architettura. 2d., rev. and enlarged ed. Venice: Manutius.

Eck, Caroline van. 1998. The Structure of De re aedificatoria Reconsidered. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 57: 280-97.

Eck, Caroline van. 2007. Classical Rhetoric and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grafton, Anthony. 2001. Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Yale University Press.

Heikamp, Detlev. 1967. Federico Zuccari a Firenze 1575-1579: II. Federico a casa sua. Paragone 18/207: 4-34.

Howard, Deborah. The Architectural History of Venice. Rev. and enlarged ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Kemp, Martin. 1997. Behind the Picture: Art and Evidence in the Italian Renaissance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

.McEwan, Indra Kagis. 2003. Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Muraro, Michelangelo. 1986. Venetian Villas: The History and Culture. Trans. Peter Lauritzen. New York: Rizzoli.

Onians, John. 1988. Bearers of Meaning: The Classical Orders in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Palladio, Andrea. 1980. I quattro libri dell’architettura. Ed. Licisco Magagnato and Paola Marini, Milan: Il Polifilo.

Sansovino, Francesco. 1561. In materia dell’arte libri tre: Ne quali si contien l’ordine delle cose che si ricercano all’Oratore, Venice: for the author.

Sansovino, Francesco. 1581. Venetia città nobilissima, et singolare, descritta in XIIII libri. Venice: Iacomo Sansovino.

Sanudo, Marin. 1879-1903. I diarii di Marino Sanuto. Ed. Rinaldo Fulin e.a. 58 vols. Venice: Fratelli Visentini.  

Scamozzi, Vincenzo. 1615. Dell’Idea della Architettura universale. 2 vols. Venice: for the author.

Serlio, Sebastiano. 1537. Regole generali di architetura sopra le cinque maniere de gli edifici. Venice: Francesco Marcolini.

Serlio, Sebastiano. 1996-2001. On Architecture. Transl., introd. and comm. Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks. 2 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Vasari, Giorgio. 1906. Le opere. Ed. Gaetano Milanesi. 9 vols. Florence: Sansoni.

Vasari, Giorgio. 1960. Vasari on Technique. Being the Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, Prefixed to the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects by Giorgio Vasari. Trans. Louisa S. Maclehose. Ed. G. Baldwin Brown (19071). New York: Dover.

Vickers, Brian. 1999. In Defence of Rhetoric (19881). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wittkower, Rudolf. 1943. Federico Zuccari and John Wood of Bath. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 6: 220-2.



[1] Barbaro 1567, 124: ‘Approssimando poi allo edificio, vedemo le apriture, e specialmente gli spacii tra le colonne, i quali essendo in alcuni Tempii piu ristretti, & in alcuni piu larghi, portano all’occhio diverse apparenze, & fanno diversi effetti, o di dolcezza, & bellezza, o di grandezza, & severità, si come fanno gli spacii delle voci nelle orecchie: però che quello, che è consonanza alle orecchie, è bellezza a gli occhi.’

[2] Sansovino 1581, 115r-v: ‘Nel fine della libreria verso il Canale, giace la Zecca, machina importante, & fatta dal Sansouino per ordine dell’Eccelso Consiglio de Dieci; la quale è singolare per compositura, & tanto unita che nulla piu. … Ma fra tutte l’altre questa è notabil cosa, che ella è tutta tessuta cosi di sotto come di sopra, & in ogni sua parte, di pietre uiue, di mattoni, & di ferro, senza che ui si troui pur un palmo di legno, di maniera che per fortezza, & per sicurezza del fuoco, non è luogo alcuno che se possa paragonare. La porta principale verso la Piazza (percioche ui si entra anco per la riua) dimostra al primo incontro la sodezza dell’edificio, conciosia che è composto d’ordine Rustico mescolato col Dorico. & in luogo di colonne o pilastri che sostengono il portone, sono termini scolpiti, molto piu grandi vna volta & mezzo del naturale: fatti nobilissimamente. … La principal faccia di fuori, risponde sul Canal grande d’ordine, parte Rustico, & parte gentile, con tal mescolanza, ch’ è diletteuole all’occhio, & secondo le regole di Vitruuio.’

[3] See Howard 2002, 169-71.

[4] Heikamp 1967, 8-9.

[5] Presumably Zuccari here kept to the same formula as he used on the corner column of his habitation: on the highest position the Medici arms, and on the lowest his own. See Heikamp 1967, 9.

[6] Heikamp 1967, 12.

[7] Heikamp 1967, 12.

[8] John Wood, The Origin of Building, or: The Plagiarism of the Heathen Detected (1741), book 2, as quoted in Wittkower 1943, 221-2. Wittkower points out that Zuccari in his own treatise L’Idea de’ pittori, scultori, et architetti (1607) more than once expounded the essential unity of the three arts and that there can hardly be any doubt that Zuccari represented this theory as a visual programme on the face of his house – thirty years before he printed the treatise.

[9] John Soane, ms. Lecture V 1819, fols 73ff., in Soane Museum Library AL Soane Case 156; quoted in Van Eck 2007, 128-30.

[10] Andersen 2001, 271: rhetoric was ‘vorrängig das persönliche Bildungsfach des einzelnen’; ibid., 255-271 Andersen discusses the permeation of rhetoric in Ancient civilization.

[11] Vickers 1999, 255-70. A good example of how teenage boys performed in rhetorical exercises and contests can be found in Sanudo 1879-1903, vol. 36, 181: ‘In questa matina, in una scuola a san Lio di maestro Stephanin optimo grammatico, uno fiol di sier Zorzi Venier, chiamato sier Francesco, di età di anni …. fece una oratione et lexè una epistola di Cicerone, videlicet la prima familiar, et per 12 soi condiscepoli li fo arguito, et lui li rispose, et poi datoli una epistola vulgar e lui la fè latina, videlicet cadauno variamente, che fo bel udir, et tra li quel che arguite fo uno fiol di sier Vicenzo Vicenzo Donado, uno di sier Hironimo da cha’ Taiapiera dotor, uno di sier Bernardo Donado, uno Parleon, uno Zucato, et altri; poi uno fio di sier Marco Trun qu. sier Mafio disse alcuni versi in sua laude. Erano molti zentilomini parenti dil prefato Venier, tra li qual io Marin Sanudo perchè l’è fio de uno fiol di mia sorella, ch’è viva. Et con laude grande si portoe. (8 April 1524)

[12] Pertinent on this point Quintilian, De institutione oratoria 3.5.2: ‘Tria sunt item, quae praestare debeat orator, ut doceat, moveat, delectet.’

[13] Camillo 1983, 160-166 (text of Camillo’s comparison); for the dating: Bolzoni 1983, 129. For a later source, see e.g. Boffrand 1745, 16 : ‘Les Sciences & les Arts ont un si grand rapport, que les principes des uns font les principes des autres.’ (NB: I have chosen to give here and in the following only Boffrand’s French original, although the book is bilingual: French and Latin.)

[14] Cf. Grafton 2001, 168-169, who discusses mainly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

[15] Scamozzi 1615, vol. 1, 43, ll. 39-42: ‘E sicome l’Oratore và narrando il tutto ordinatamente à tempo, e luogo, convenevole, & usa i colori Retorici, e termini dell’Arte: cosi parimente l’Architetto, dee spiegar le sue inventioni, disegni, e la dispositione delle parti bene ordinate all’edificio, & applicar al genere quell’ordine, che più propriamente se le conviene.’ (Idea, 1.13)

[16] Barbaro 1567, 115: ‘& si come la oratione ha forme, & idee diverse per satisfare alle orecchie, cosi habbia l’Architettura gli aspetti,  forme sue per satisfar a gli occhi, & si come quello, che è nella mente, & nella voglia nostra riposto, con l’artificio di levarlo fuori di noi, & portarlo altrove, le parole, le figure, la compositione delle parole, i numeri, le membra, & le chiuse fanno le Idee, & le forme del dire, cosi le proportioni, i compartimenti, le differenze de gli aspetti, i numeri, & la collocatione delle parti fanno le idee delle fabriche, che sono qualità convenienti a quelle cose, per le quali si fanno.’ Cf. ibid., 36: ‘Come le maniere del parlare, che si chiamano idee, sono qualità dell’oratione, cosi le maniere de gli edificii sono qualità dell’arte conveniente alle cose, & alle persone.’

[17] Kemp 1997, 234.

[18] A good example is the transfer of rhetorical compositional technique to architecture in Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, as discussed by Van Eck 1998.

[19] Boffrand 1745, 16 : ‘L’Architecture, quoiqu’il semble que son objet ne soit que l’emploi de ce qui est materiel, est susceptible de differens genres qui rendent ses parties, pour ainsi dire, animées par les différents caracteres qu’elle fait sentir. Un Edifice par sa composition exprime comme sur un Théatre, que la scene est Pastorale ou Tragique, que c’est un Temple ou un Palais, un Edifice public destiné à un certain usage, ou une maison particuliere. Ces différents Edifices par leur disposition, par leur structure, par la maniere dont ils sont décorés, doivent annoncer au spectateur leur destination ; & s’ils ne le font pas, ils pechent contre l’expression, & ne sont pas qu’ils doivent être.’ (Trans. Boffrand 2002, 8)

[20] John Soane, ms. Lecture V 1819, fols 73ff., in Soane Museum Library AL Soane Case 156; quoted in Van Eck 2007, 130-1.

[21] Its full title is: Untersuchungen über den Charakter der Gebäude; über die Verbindung der Baukunst mit den schönen Künsten und über die Wirkungen, welche durch dieselben hervorgebracht werden sollen, Leipzig 1788. A reprint, with an introduction by Hanno-Walter Kruft, was published in Nördlingen 1986.

[22] Boffrand 1745, 26 : ‘Un homme qui ne connoît pas ces différens caracteres, & qui ne les fait pas sentir dans ses ouvrages, n’est pas un Architecte.’ (Trans. Boffrand 2002, 10)

[23] Vitruvius, De architectura 1.3.3: ‘Cum in omnibus enim rebus tum maxime etiam in architectura haec duo insunt: quod significatur et quod significat. Significatur proposita res de qua dicitur; hanc autem significat demonstratio rationibus doctrinarum explicata.’

[24] See McEwan 2003, 74-81.

[25] Barbaro 1567, 11: ‘Ma per dichiaratione dico, che significare è per segni dimostrare, e segnare è imprimere il segno. Ladove in ogni opera da ragione drizzata, & con disegno finita, è impresso il segno dello Artefice, cioè la qualità, & la forma, che era nella mente di quello, percioche lo Artefice opera primo nello intelletto, & concepe nella mente, & segna poi la materiale esteriore, dello habito interiore.’

[26] Barbaro 1557, 41: ‘La necessità uuole, che le parole sieno pari alla sentenza, perche à questo fine si ragiona, come si è detto, accioche quanto habbiamo di dentro, si dimostri di fuori’.

[27] Boffrand 1745, 27: ‘Non satis est pulchra esse poëmata dulcia sunto / et quocunque volent animum auditoris agunto. / Ut ridentibus arrident, ita flentibus adflent / Humani vultus… [Horatius, De arte poetica 99-102] Il ne suffit pas qu’un édifice soit beau, il doit être agréable, & que le spectateur ressente le caractere qu’il doit imprimer, en sorte qu’il soit riant à ceux à qui il doit imprimer de la joye; & qu’il soit serieux et triste à ceux à qui il doit imprimer du respect ou de la tristesse.’ (Trans. Boffrand 2002, 10-11) Boffrand translates poëmata with “edifice”, presumably in order to stress once more the similarities between a poem and a building.

[28] Serlio 1537, Vr.

[29] Serlio 1537, Vv: ‘Ma in questi moderni tempi à me par di proceder per altro modo: non deviando però da gli antichi, voglio dir: che seguitando i costumi nostri Christiani; dedicarò, in quanto per me si potrà, gli edifici sacri, secondo le specie loro à Dio, & a i santi suoi. Et gli edifici profani; si publici come privati, daro à gli huomini, secondo lo stato, & le profession loro.’ (Book 4: Regole generali, L’Auttore alli Lettori; trans. Serlio 1996-2001, vol. 1, 254)

[30] Boffrand 1745, 24: ‘Les ordres d’Architecture employés dans les ouvrages des Grecs & des Romains, sont pour les differens genres d’édifices, ce que les differents genres de Poësies sont dans les differents sujets qu’elle veut traiter.’ Ibid., 22 (quote): ‘Les profils des moulures, & les autres parties qui composent un bâtiment, sont dans l’Architecture ce que les mots sont dans un discours.’ (Trans. Boffrand 2002, 9)

[31] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 4.2.16 = 1123a5; Cicero, De officiis 1.39.138-40.

[32] Alberti 1966, vol. 1, 53: ‘Aliud enim foro, aliud theatro, aliud palestrae, aliud templo spatii locorumque debetur. Itaque pro cuiusque ratione et usu habendus areae situs erit et modus.’ (De re aedificatoria 1.7; trans. Alberti 1999, 19)

[33] Cataneo 1567, 95: ‘come secondo la facultà dell’entrate & dignità del personaggio si convenga procedere nella spesa & magnificentia della fabrica, & similimente che tutte le parti & membri dell’edificio debbono havere intra loro ragionevole & corrispondente proportione’. (Architettura 4.1) – Palladio 1980, 74-75: ‘Non si può dare certa e determinata regola circa le altezze e larghezze delle porte principali delle fabriche, e circa le porte e finestre delle stanze; percioché a far le porte principali si deve l’architetto accommodare alla grandezza della fabrica, alla qualità del padrone, et alle cose che per quelle deono essere condotte e portate.’ (Quattro libri, 1.25)

[34] Cf. Cataneo 1567, 95: ‘come secondo la facultà dell’entrate & dignità del personaggio si convenga procedere nella spesa & magnificentia della fabrica’. (Architettura 4.1)

[35] Vasari 1906, vol. 1, 146-147: ‘Per l’aspetto suo primo, la facciata vuole avere decoro e maestà, ed essere compartita come la faccia dell’uomo.’ (Introduzione: Dell’architettura, 7; trans.: Vasari 1960, 96-97, with minor alterations)

[36] Scamozzi 1615, vol. 1, 225, rr. 29-30: ‘L’aspetto dell’edificio, s’intende propriamente quella maestà, che si rappresenta à gli occhi nostri della sua figura; come l’aspetto della faccia dell’huomo, ò di qualche altro corpo individuale’. (Idea, 1.3.2)

[37] Aretino 1957-60, vol. 1, 125: ‘Ma chi vuol vedere in che modo il suo animo è netto e candido miri di lui la fronte e l’abitazione, e’ mirile dico, e vedrà quanto di sereno e di vago si può bramare in una abitazione e in una fronte. Se non che parrebbe un non so che: simigliarei le camere, la sala, la loggia e il giardino de la stanza, dove abitate, a una sposa che aspetta il parentado, che dee venire a veder darle la mano.’ (Trans. partially Onians 1988, 299)

[38] ‘Si Cupis Animum Domini Cognoscere Aspice Et Respice Domum’, quoted in Muraro 1986, 67.

[39] Quintilian, De institutione oratoria 4.1.5: ‘Causa principii nulla alia est, quam ut auditorem, quo sit nobis in ceteris partibus accommodatior, praparemus. id fieri tribus maxime rebus inter auctores plurimos constat, si benevolum, attentum, docilem fecerimus, non quia ista non per totam actionem sint custodienda, sed quia initiis praecipue necessaria, per quae in animum iudicis, ut procedere ultra possimus, admittitur.’ (Trans. Russell 2001)

[40] Quintilian, De institutione oratoria 4.1.62: ‘modus autem principii pro causa’; 4.1.58: ‘ne quod insolens verbum, ne audacius translatum, ne aut ab obsoleta vetustate aut poetica licentia sumptum in principio deprehendatur.’; 4.1.59 (quote): ‘nondum enim recepti sumus et custodit nos recens audientium intentio.’ (Trans. Russell 2001)

[41] Barbaro 1567, 97: ‘perche essendo il proemio […] quello, che prima ci è proposto, & per questo riguardando noi con maggiore attentione quello, che prima ci vieni inanzi, bello, & convenevole avvertimento è di proponere ne i proemii quelle cose, che noi vogliamo, che siano grandemente considerate, & attese.’

[42] Sansovino 1561, 4v: ‘Il Proemio nell’Oratione è somigliante a una bella e ricca entrata di un magnifico e ben inteso Palazzo, perche si come non prima s’appresenta a gli occhi de riguardanti, che essi da quella prendendo argomento fanno giudicio ch’il Palazzo di dentro debbe essere ben ornato, con perfetta Architettura composto, & insieme tutto corrispondente alle parti, cosi questa entrata dell’Oratione, è l’imagine et il dimostramento di quel che si dee dire e trattare.’

[43] John Soane, Academy Lecture, quoted in Van Eck 2007, 127-8.