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25 November 2012

Learning from Letarouilly

a new expanded edition out now from Dover
Paul-Marie Letarouilly’s Edifices de Rome Moderne, and to a lesser extent his subsequent volumes on the Vatican, have shaped our perception of the Renaissance ever since their publication in 1840. Their reprints as part of the American Renaissance at the turn of the last century, and again in the 1980’s, acknowledged their unparalleled role in unpacking Renaissance Rome in ways that could be useful to modern architects. In this John Barrington Bayley’s Letarouilly on Renaissance Rome holds a unique place, because it is part reprint of, part meditation on, both the Rome Moderne and Vatican volumes. Part of Classical America’s mission of making available the knowledge of the past that architects once had had, Bayley’s book was also his view of Letarouilly’s value, and the value of Rome generally, to an American audience. This is, as I have written elsewhere, still a controversial point. If there is such a thing as “American” architecture it is surely a melting pot—or more of a minestrone—of various cultures and movements; but its standards, at least as regards classicism, have to depend on European and British models. Just as Rubens saw the Genoese palazzo as an excellent model for Antwerp’s burghers, architects like Charles McKim saw Letarouilly as a font of forms for American building—from libraries to residences. As Bayley recognized, the great mediator of that Roman Renaissance resource was Paris, and that city features heavily in his text.

Letarouilly on Renaissance Rome is organized by type—piazza, courtyard, palace, etc.—or place—Palazzo Massimo, the Vatican—and each chapter is introduced by Bayley’s observations. This has the advantage of giving greater clarity to the order of the plates, and of having a mediating voice to make sense of them. The new edition from Dover includes fifty additional plates of both Rome and the Vatican, with a new introductory essay that puts Bayley and Letarouilly in context.

Other Letarouilly efforts are ongoing elsewhere. At the University of Oregon Prof. Jim Tice and his team have been working to insert Letarouilly’s plans in their Nolli plan context, tremendously useful for understanding each. Prof. Kevin Hinders at the Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has spent years photographing extant Roman buildings from the same vantage point as Letarouilly’s views.

This passion for a French architect’s engravings of Renaissance Rome is sponsored as much by the love of Rome itself as the plates. Without that passion no great work can be done, and without acknowledging the transcendent value of Rome no great work can be built.