An Unpublished Architectural Treatise – Illustrated with 20 Drawings

Bianconi, Domenico

Vedute d'architettura antica in prospettiva di Domenico Bianconi alla Reale Academia di Francia in Roma.

Rome: the author, ca. 1760


Oblong quarto: 21 x 27.6 cm. 29 unnumbered leaves, comprising 1 blank, 2 calligraphic title pages, a portrait of the author (aged 75), 4 leaves of text with ruled borders, and 20 full-page architectural drawings in brown ink and wash.


Bound in contemporary stiff parchment over boards, with patterned paste-paper for the pastedowns. The binding and contents are beautifully preserved and very fresh.

A remarkable, unpublished manuscript treatise by Domenico Bianconi, an architect and scenographer who worked in the style of Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743). The manuscript was written while Bianconi was professor of perspective at the French Academy in Rome. The album, with its twenty pen and ink wash drawings and accompanying text, not only documents how architectural drawing and perspective were used in stage design and architectural projects in the 1700s, but how these skills were taught to aspiring artists. Scant information survives about how architects were trained in early modern period. This teaching album is a rare example of exactly the kind of teaching material aspiring architects would have been familiar with in eighteenth-century Italy.

The second title page of the manuscript, titled “Prospettive Inventate, e Disegnate, da Domenico Bianconi….” Also reads “Opera quarta”. There is a related manuscript by Bianconi at Yale, a model book entitled "Diversi ornamenti: opera terza”, showing wall decorations, capitals, doorways, ecclesiastical architecture.

The first 14 drawings depict elaborate and highly detailed architectural capriccios, with edifices based on Roman and Baroque models. The buildings are shown in various stages of completion, and some are depicted as ruins. All have ornamental features such as sculptures, fountains, and basins. The second set of images depict a series of seven ceilings, each of which relates directly to these theater design projects. 1-3 depict the ceiling of the theater in the Palazzo dei Priori in Fermo, which Bianconi completed in 1746. 4-6 show the ceiling of the gallery of Count Vinci located in his palace in Fermo.

Bianconi was born in Fano, on the eastern coast of Italy just south of Pesaro. He was profoundly influenced by the work of Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743), a member of the famous Bolognese family of painters, set designers, and architects, who helped create sets for the local theatre, the Teatro della Fortuna [1] and, with his son Antonio , painted the quadratura vault for the church of Sant'Agostino (destroyed in World War II). He also restored the Fano’s Teatro della Fortuna [2]. Bianconi's career as well as the perspectival views presented in this album are both marked by a strong connection to Galli Bibiena.

Bianconi's earliest career was as an architect who built and decorated theatres in the Marche region. From 1746-48, Bianconi constructed “cinque ordini di palchetti” for the teatro dell'Aquila in Fermo (in Marche). In 1747, he built a public theatre in San Severino (Marche)[3], which also had several tiers of boxes.[4] The plan of this theater was bell-shaped, with the curve of the boxes echoing the sloping sides and rounded top of a bell [5]. The “a campana” plan for theatres was pioneered by the Galli Bibiena family in Bologna. This curvilinear design was aesthetically pleasing to baroque architects and patrons, while serving a practical function. Everything from the proscenium to the boxes themselves were designed to “flare like trumpets for better hearing” [6]. In 1768, Bianconi also built the first public theatre in Ostra (Montalboddo). All of these theaters were "teatri condominiali," built by subscription and financed by local aristocratic families. Unfortunately, none of Bianconi's theatres survive. While the musician's loge in the teatro in the Palazzo Priori in Fermo remains, his teatro dell'Aquila in Fermo, as well as Bianconi's theatre in San Severino and his Teatro La Vittoria all were demolished.

The second set of images that appear in this album depict a series of seven ceilings, each of which relates directly to these theater design projects. Watercolors 1-3 depict the ceiling of the theater in the Palazzo dei Priori in Fermo, which Bianconi completed in 1746. While the figure of Justice uses her sword to direct the viewer’s attention to the fictive ceiling above, putti and garlands of fruit grace the architectural space of beyond the balustrades. Ionic columns, half domes, niches, and coffered ceilings complete the quadratura view. Watercolors 4-6 show the ceiling of the gallery of Count Vinci located in his palace in Fermo. While certainly related to the designs of the Jesuit mathematician and artist Andrea del Pozzo, Bianconi's ceilings are, again, deeply rooted in the designs of Ferdinando Galli Bibiena. Each of Bianconi's six watercolors depicts a corner of a quadratura ceiling, demonstrating the technique of “sott'in su”, of which similar examples are found in two of Bibiena's published treatises [7]. Bianconi's images, with their fictive architecture of columns and balustrades, relate very closely to those created by Galli Bibiena.

This album of watercolor perspective scenes does far more than merely document Bianconi's aptitude as a set designer. This remarkable volume of “prospettiva nuda," as Bianconi calls it, also details his second career as a teacher of perspective. Bianconi proudly records his affiliation with the royal French Academy in Rome on the title page of his work, under an image of the coat of arms of the Academy. This great Academy, founded under Louis XIV by Colbert in 1666, served as the training ground for artists like Boucher and Fragonard in the 1700s. Located on the via del Corso in the Palazzo Manfroni, during Bianconi's tenure there, the Academy served not just as an art school for French artists, but was also a social hub for a number of artists working in Rome in the eighteenth century.

Students at the French Academy were required to study mathematics, geometry, perspective, architecture, anatomy, and life drawing. Bianconi most likely instructed students in their studies of perspective. This academic specialty boasted an illustrious faculty; Giovanni Paolo Pannini was Professor of Perspective earlier in the century.

Bianconi’s album served as a teaching tool. He makes numerous references to the students at the Academy and reports that it was never his intention to have this treatise printed because he wanted to use it to instruct his pupils. Bianconi's self-portrait, which appears on the fifth page in the volume, shows the maestro with a deep frown. The compass held in his right hand with jaunty pinkie finger and the drawing board before him all identify him as a teacher of perspective. In his text, Bianconi singles out for praise some of his predecessors in the "professione di Prospettiva” like Daniele Barbaro, and his edition of Vitruvius' “On Architecture”, Albrecht Dürer, Vignola, and Lorenzo Sirigatti, author of the “Elementi di Prospettiva”, which was first published in Venice in 1596. Bianconi also mentions two of his contemporaries - Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena and Andrea del Pozzo. The former authored two other influential treatises that would have been particularly useful to Bianconi as an instructor, “L'architettura civile preparata su la geometria, e ridotta alle prospettive” (Parma, 1711) and “Direzione a’ giovani student nel disegno dell’architettura civile” (Parma, 1731-2). From the manuscript it is clear that both works were very important to Bianconi.

Bianconi's treatise is so close to Galli Bibiena's work that it can be seen as a visual distillation. Like Galli Bibiena, Bianconi focuses on perspectival stage sets. In addition to traditional center viewpoint perspectives, Galli Bibiena pioneered the scene Vedute in angolo, stage sets showing diagonal perspective. Bibiena abandoned the traditional center viewpoint in favor of several diagonal axes, each of which enabled further vistas to open. This kind of spatial structure not only offered designers the richest complexity in their sets, but was in demand due to the changing social nature of the eighteenth-century theatre. The old axial Renaissance set was aimed directly at the sovereign's box. The scena per angolo was designed to look good from a number of different viewpoints and to please the largest number of paying customers possible. Bianconi's watercolors rely on both the scena al angolo formula and center viewpoint perspectives.

Bianconi abridges a number of Galli Bibiena's complexities to make them easier for his students to understand. The difficulties of calculating the diagonal perspective to create a scena al angolo must have presented a challenge to Bianconi's students. Hatched orthogonals appear in several of Bianconi's watercolors to emphasize the use of such markings to his students, something Bibiena also does in a more complex way in his “Architettura civile”. All of Bianconi's perspective designs are set in landscapes: none of them depict interiors. This contrasts to Bibiena's richly complex interior spaces. Bianconi also depicts only ancient structures in his perspectives and shows no contemporary architecture. Unlike Bibiena's renditions, Bianconi's perspectival designs do not appear to be for specific plays or dramas. Bianconi eliminates specific figures and mythological characters for the most part, leaving their selection up to the students using the book as a guide. Generalized ancient ruins, country villages, fountains, and obelisks populate Bianconi's scenes. Again, strong parallels can be draw to the blocked columns, obelisks on pedestals, and building materials scattered in the foreground that appear in Galli Bibiena's engraved scenes.

Bianconi's career as an academic was not limited to Rome. He participated in the first "concorso” at the royal Academy in Parma in 1757-8. This academy, which was founded by Louis XIV's grandson, Carlo Borbone, who had recently inherited the duchy of Parma from his mother Elisabetta Farnese, was modeled on the Royal Academy in Paris and the Academy of Saint Luke in Rome. Bianconi's assigned theme was the design of a circular chapel [8]. With its high altar surrounded by eight subsidiary tabernacles, Bianconi's design relates to both Bernini's church at Ariccia and Andrea del Pozzo's unrealized plan for the church of Santa Maria delle Fornaci in Rome, which Pozzo published in the second volume of his “Prospettiva” in 1700. The twin towers Bianconi planned for the chapel echo those in Carlo Fontana's plan for his great church in Colosseum, published in 1725. The elevation of the chapel also recalls the twin churches in piazza Santa Maria del Popolo that greeted visitors travelling to Rome from the north. These drawings show Bianconi was a careful student of both the paper architecture of Pozzo, as well as contemporary Roman architecture.

[1] D. Lenzi, ed., Meravigliose scene, piacevoli inganni (Bibbiena, 1992), p. 104.
[2] Ibid, p. 105.
[3] C. Ferrari, Teatro dell'Aquila di Fermo (Fermo, 1977), pp. 11-12,
[4] A. Pellegrino, Il teatro Feronia: storia, spettacolo, società (S. Severino Marche, 1985), pp. 7-9.
[5] F. Mariano, ed., Il teatro nelle Marche (Florence), 1997, p. 298 for Bianconi's plan.
[6] A. Hyatt Mayor, The Bibiena Family (New York), 1945, p. 18.

[7] “Disegni delle scene che servono alle due opere che si rappresentano l'anno corrente nel Regio Teatro di Torino” (1699-1703) and “Varie opere di Prospettiva” (1703-8).

[8] For these drawings see H. Hager, “Le accademia di architettura,” in “Storia dell’architettura italiane: il Settecento, G. Curcio and E. Kieven, eds. (Milan, 2000), 1: pp. 38-40 and C. Mambriani, “Il primo concorso Internazionale dell’accademia di Parma (1758-59),” Il disgno di architettura 2 (1990): pp. 66-71.