Dispareri in materia d'architettura, et perspettiva. Con pareri di Eccellenti, et Famosi Architetti, che li risolvono

Autore: BASSI, Martino (1542-1591)

Tipografo: Francesco & Pietro Maria Marchetti

Dati tipografici: Brescia, 1572


AN ARCHITECTURAL CONTROVERSY AROUND THE FABBRICA OF THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

 

4to (205x149 mm). 53, [3] pp. and 12 leaves of engravings numbered I-XII. Collation: A-G4. The leaf G4 is a blank. With the printer's device on title page and on leaf G3v. Old vellum, some light browning and foxing, front fly-leaf partially truncated, but a fine genuine copy with wide margins from the library of Thomas Vroom (cf. M. Kemp, What is the use of perspective books?,in: “Collection Thomas Vroom. Une histoire de la perspective, Première Partie”, Paris, November 14, 2019, pp. 9-15, lot 31), with his bookplate on the front pastedown.

 

FIRST EDITION. The Dispareri constitutes a unique publication in the panorama of the artistic treatises published during the Renaissance. In it Bassi attacks Pellegrino Tibaldi's figurative and constructive competence in three specific subjects concerning the Fabbrica of the Milan Cathedral, falling within the province of sculpture and architecture. The first subject is the bas-relief of the Annunciation, begun by Vincenzo Seregni, the former architect of the Fabbrica, before Carlo Borromeo replaced him in 1567 in this post with Tibaldi. In the dedicatory letter Bassi wrote to the Illustri e Molto Magnifici Signori Deputati della Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano (that is, the committee designated to select and to supervise the artists involved in the church's renovation) on March 20, 1571, Bassi declares that: “Il tutto dimostrando non solamente col detto mio; ma colle autorità degli Scrittori, e col giudizio degli Architetti e Perspettivi stimati de' più eccellenti, e famosi di questa età; delle quali scienze é materia, e proprio il suggetto è la materia di questo libretto” (p. 4) (‘I will demonstrate [my reasons] not only with my opinion, but also with the authority of the writers and the judgment of architects, and of the most illustrious and famous perspettivi of this age; this science, that is the subject of this booklet, is their subject').

“The most remarkable and interesting example of the seriousness with which the position of the vanishing point in the picture field and its relationship with to the standpoint of the beholder were discussed in the Renaissance, in the pamphlet of Martino Bassi, Dispareri in materia d'architettura, et perspettiva (Brescia, 1572) […] The case which occasioned this pamphlet was as follows: there was in the cathedral of Milan a relief of the Annunciation, set at the height of seventeen braccia [1 braccio = ca. 59 cm] above the ground in a perspectivally represented square room with sides of eight braccia. The creator of this work has assumed a distance of nineteen braccia and had given the vanishing point an asymmetrical position. Now, Pellegrino Tibaldi – reasoning that the vanishing point ought to lie at eye level of the annunciating angel – introduced a second vanishing point into this relief, in the center of the picture field and fifteen pollici [1 pollice = ca. 33 cm] higher than the first vanishing point; and on the top of this he calculated the lines that converged toward that new vanishing point at a perpendicular distance for only four braccia. This provoked a violent uproar among the Milanese experts, with this very Martino Bassi proclaiming himself their spokesman, followed by fruitless negotiations with the unrepentant offender, and finally a questionnaire put to Palladio, Vignola, Vasari and Giovanni Bertani, the Mantuan architect and Vitruvius commentator. Bassi presented the matter to these authorities and at the same time proposed two emendations to which they were to respond: the vanishing point must be at any rate be reunified, he argued […] That the present situation with two vanishing points was intolerable, was of course freely and immediately admitted by all parties. But as for the corrective measures to be adopted, it turned out that precisely in these perspectival questions the position of contemporary artists could differ considerably, according to their particular conceptions of art” (E. Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, New York, 1991, pp. 141-142; see also M. Kemp, The science of art: optical themes in western art from Brunelleschi to Seurat, New Haven, CT, 1990, pp. 73-74 and J. Elkins, The Poetics of Perspective, Ithaca, NY, 1994, pp. 72-77).

The second subject under discussion is the baptistry, Tibaldi's first realization in the cathedral. It is a canopy placed on four columns. Bassi criticizes the access steps and judges the spaces between the columns too wide to provide the necessary stability for the aedicule. The third is the scurolo (crypt) under the main altar. Bassi emphasizes its lack of harmony with the architectural environment of the cathedral. In addition, its position, half-buried, causes the altar to be so high that it is necessary to climb steps to reach it. Tibaldi is criticized for having deviated too much from the intentions of the first architects, who wished to put the crypt under the gallery.

In his letter from Venice (dated July 3, 1570, pp. 42-45) Palladio rejects the double horizon in the bas-relief in the name of nature and the rules of optics which one has a duty to respect.  For the baptistry, he considers that the architrave will end up by collapsing because of its excessive length.  For the crypt, he reckons that the height of the choir is a bad thing which will block one's view.

In a general way Vignola denounces in his letter from Caprarola (dated August 28, 1570, pp. 45-47) Tibaldi's incompetence regarding perspective and favors the full-scale illusion on the ground that the artist should “observe the true rule of perspective; that is to say placing the horizon at your level”. He criticizes the idea of installing tie beams to reinforce the baptistry. As for the crypt, he reserves judgment for an on-site visit.

Giorgio Vasari appeals in his undated letter (pp. 47-49) more to the eye's judgment than to the rules of perspective in rejecting the double horizon solution, quoting Michelangelo's dictum that the artist must have “compasses in his eyes” rather than relying upon pedantic measurements. He admires the “caprice” of Bassi's illusionistic scheme and suggests a comparison with Andrea Sansovino's bas-relief in Loreto. 

The contribution by Giovanni Battista Bertani (1516-1576), in his letter from Mantua dated December 13, 1570), a pupil of Giulio Romano, the architect of the ducal ‘Fabbrica 'of Mantua, a neo-Vitruvian author of renown, is somewhat different from the others. If he recognizes all Bassi's competence regarding perspective, he nevertheless emphasizes that numerous antique bas-reliefs and high reliefs, (having furnished a list of them), have both a natural plan and a perspective plan, and consequently a double horizon. According to him this duplication is caused by the fact that the relief reproduces natural vision whereas perspective constitutes “lie and fiction”.  He also depends on the example of the Moderns, who, like Donatello, set an arbitrary height on the figures in relief which are positioned on a ground plan in perspective.

Through the publication of this work, this debate was brought out into broad daylight. This signaled the emergence of public opinion on this type of polemics which until then had been confined to members of the fabbricas and therefore largely undocumented. Finally, by provoking the discussion on the work and not on the project, Bassi shifts the point of view of the commentary, opening the way to a definition of expertise. In fact, he was one of the first to use the term esperto in a treatise, designating one who held practical and proven knowledge, a term which would progressively be distinguished from the term perito, which refers to a more theoretical and doctrinal knowledge (cf. P. Dubourg-Glatigny, La question de la perspective matérielle dans les traités du ‘Cinquecento', in: “L'artiste et l'oeuvre à l'épreuve de la perspective”,M. Cojannot Le Blanc & al., eds., Rome, 2006, pp. 370-374).

Little is known about the early life and education of Martino Bassi. He was born in Seregno near Milan and apparently was an autodidact. Since 1567 he was a member of the association of engineers of the city of Milan and managed important construction sites of church buildings in Milan and Lombardy throughout his life (cf. P. Mezzanotte, L'architettura milanese salla fine della Signoria Sforzesca alla metà del Seicento, in: “Storia di Milano”, G. Martini, ed., Milan, 1957, vol. X, pp. 561-645). From 1567 to 1588 he participated in the reconstruction of the Church of San Vittore del Corpo. In 1570 he succeeded Alessi as architect of S. Maria presso S. Celso, whose facade he finished and directed the decorations in the presbytery. In 1573 he directed the reshaping of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Mortara and designed the front nave and façade of Santa Maria della Passione in Milan. In 1575 he designed the reconstruction of the collapsed dome of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Milan. Although bound to existing planimetric premises, and later opposed by disputes the works on San Lorenzo remain the most notable testimony of his achievements. In 1578 he worked at the marble enclosure of the choir of the Certosa of Pavia. In 1579 he began the reconstruction of the church of Santa Maria della Rosa in Milan. In 1583 Bassi was consulted for the basilica of San Gaudenzio of Novara, and replaced as architect his rival, Pellegrino Tibaldi, to whom he also succeeded in 1587 as architect of the Fabbrica of the cathedral of Milan. He worked at the church of San Fedele in Milan, and he drew up the plans for the Palazzo Spinola commissioned by the Genoese banker Lorenzo Spinola. In Lodi he worked on the cathedral, the hospital, the bishopric, and the monastery of San Vincenzo, in Rho on the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Sorrows, in Pavia on the Ghislieri College, founded by Pope Pius in 1567. From 1590 date the drawings for the Church of Santa Maria del Paradiso in Milan, and shortly before his death he was able to present his designs for the façade of the Milan cathedral to Pope Gregory XIV (cf. F.B. Ferrari, Vita di Martino Bassi architetto milanese, in: “Arte Lombarda”, 9/2, 1964, pp. 57-61; see also A. Peroni, Martino Bassi, in: “Dizionario biografico degli italiani”, Rome, 1970, vol. 7, pp. 133-134 and E. Cazzaniga, Martino Bassi, in: “I Quaderni della Brianza”, XV/85, 1992, pp. 117-270).

 

Edit16, CNCE 4601; Universal STC, no. 812787; Adams, B-371; Index Aureliensis, 114.653; Katalog der Ornamentstichsammlung der Staatlichen Kunstbibliothek Berlin., New York, 1958, no. 2600; L.H. Fowler & E. Baer, The Fowler Architectural Collection of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1961, no. 40; R. Mortimer, Harvard College Library, Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts. Part I: Italian16th century books, Cambridge, MA, 1974, no. 46; D. Wiebenson, ed., Architectural Theory and Practice from Alberti to Ledoux, Chicago & London, 1983, III–B–9; T. Bürklin, Palladio, der Bildermacher, Berlin & Boston, 2018, pp. 96-99, 389.


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