Towering genius rebuilt

February 27, 1998

TWO YEARS of painstaking detective work by an Edinburgh University fine art expert has uncovered the authorship of a newly discovered Renaissance manuscript on architecture.

The manuscript was unknown to scholars until it was bought on the London art market in 1991, and beyond being in Italian, it gave no indication of who had written it or when.

But senior lecturer Michael Bury spotted a note in the margin by its original purchaser, a Bolognese gentleman, indicating that he had bought it from the heirs of Antonio da Faenza, a minor painter of the early 16th century.

Mr Bury gradually pieced together information from archives that revealed that Antonio da Faenza had written the manuscript around 1520 with collaboration from "a learned Franciscan", Giovanni da Camerino, an expert in architectural theory.

It emerged that Antonio had been involved in both civil and military architectural projects, but this side of his work remained unknown because nothing he built survived. He died after being struck by falling masonry when the bell tower he designed for Faenza Cathedral collapsed.

Such a catastrophe was not uncommon, Mr Bury said. "There were people who were not necessarily very brilliant engineers who were good designers, and they needed expert engineering back-up to make sure their buildings stood up."

The manuscript tries to give a complete overview of the basic principles of classical architecture as they were then understood.

Mr Bury believes it was intended for publication, aimed not only at professional architects, but also at their wealthy well-educated patrons - many of whom were themselves interested in architectural theory.

"It contains the basic principles that anyone wanting to design a house might turn to, to think about how they should go about it. If it had been published, it would have been a real first, the earliest systematic illustrated architectural treatise," Mr Bury said.

It was not until 1537 that the first fully illustrated architectural book was published.

Some mysteries still remain. The manuscript shows that Antonio was very knowledgeable about his contemporaries, such as Raphael, who was a great architect as well as a painter. But his 640 illustrations of buildings do not match the work of Raphael's circle. "He was very much on top of contemporary practice at its most advanced. He's working in a similar manner to the most up-to-date writers and thinkers about architecture, but he seems to be independent," Mr Bury said.

"One would expect him to be using drawings from Raphael's circle and just recycling them. It makes him particularly intriguing that we can't pin him down better."

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