Continuing the work of Pacioli and Leonardo - A Fundamental Work on Perspective and the Graphic Representation of Architecture - A Book that Directly Influenced Palladio’s Representation of Buildings in his “Quattro Libri Dell’Architettura”(1570)

Barbaro, Daniele (1540-1570)

La Practica della Perspectiva.

Venice, Borgominieri, 1569


Folio: 29 x 22 cm. 195 pp., (6) ff. Collation: A-O4, P6, Q-Z4, Aa4, Bb6


Illustrated with c. 220 woodcut illustrations in text, 22 of which are full-page. Some of these woodcuts are taken from Barbaro’s own edition of Vitruvius (1567), Serlio, and Dürer. Four isssues are known. This is the issue with both the title page and colophon dated 1569 and Borgominieri’s device on the title and colophon. A fine copy in slightly later vellum. The text is crisp and bright with some minor faults as follows: occasional light smudges or stains in scattered margins, a few light dampstains in several sigbatures, final few signatures with a very light stain to the bottom quarter of the leaves. Diagram on leaf P1 very slightly shaved.

First edition of the first systematic treatise on the practical applications of perspective, “La Practica della Perspectiva”, written by the distinguished Venetian patron of Palladio, Daniele Barbaro. Barbaro produced his own edition of Vitruvius in 1567, for which Palladio had furnished illustrations. Barbaro’s intention in writing the “Pratica” was to provide a work on persepctive that would be of practical use to architects and artists. “Barbaro’s crucial contribution [to architecture] is to have separated perspective, used in stage designs, from the graphic representation of buildings.

While Barbaro explains how perspective can be used to represent architectural forms in paintings and stage scenery, he is adamant that perspective should not be used when representing architectural forms in formal architectural treatises:

“Barbaro’s crucial contribution is to have separated perspective, used in stage designs, from the graphic representation of buildings. His intention was to eliminate the equivocal position of perspective as a means of architectural representation. According to Barbaro, perspective can be used to falsify objective reality and is therefore not useful in representing buildings [for practical architectural purposes.] He thus rejects perspective because it shows objects as they are perceived, rather than as a two-dimensional abstraction. Since perspective is an aspect of optics, it is not part of architecture. The immediate results of Barbaro’s influential concept can be seen in Palladio’s illustrations for his ‘Quattro Libri dell’Architettura’(1570), where he avoids perspective, eliminating it from the canonical means of representation of architecture.”(Millard)

In Part one Barbaro examines the principles of persepctive, their consequence and graphical representation. In part two, he offers a discussion of the five regular polyhedrons, continuing the tradtion begun by Luca Pacioli and Leonardo. “It is in the third chapter that Barbaro considers the foundation of architectural representation, that is, the plan, claiming that all perspectives are born from the plan, like a tree from its roots. The third chapter, on elevations, concerns not only the built-up sides of buildings but also volumes, increasingly more faceted and complicated. Chapter 4 contains a description of stage sets illustrated with plates from Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise on perspective. Barbaro also offers a long section on the perspectival construction of columns… In the last chapter, chapter 9, Barbaro turns to an examination of instruments used in perspective, discussing his own and those of Baldassare Lanci, a well-known Florentine architect and stage designer.”(Millard)

The ‘Pratica’ is one of the most fundamentally important cinquecento treatises for the graphic representation of architecture. A practical manual, Barbaro offers lessons in practical projective geometry, treating polyhedra, anamorphosis, and the camera obscura (with a convex lens, as ‘used by old men in their spectacles’). Kemp considers the latter, in which Barbaro “clearly acknowledged the essential aspects of focus and aperture... the first lucid account of the camera obscura” (Science of Art, p. 189). La Practica also includes important material on architectural ornament, the orders (pp. 129-151), scenic modes and human proportion. (See Kemp pp. 188ff. for details on the camera obscura, and more generally pp. 76-8.)

It is significant that Barbaro relied in part on the unpublished work on persepctive by Piero della Francesca, written 90 years earlier. That treatise had circulated only in a few manucript copies and thus it was Barbaro who made Piero’s insights available to the broader 16th c. audience.

Fowler 36; Millard, Italian Architecture, p. 38-40; Mortimer 39; Vagnetti EIIb23; Wiebenson III-B-7; Berlin Katalog 4694; Kemp, Science of Art, p. 189. Adams B-171; Riccardi I/1°, col. 76; Vagnetti, Prospettiva, EIIb23; Gernsheim, History of Photography, pp. 7-8.