Travelling Images: Venetian Illustrated Books 3

This week the exhibition curator, Laura Moretti, of the University of St. Andrews, writes about the finest, and probably most famous book in our selection: Andrea Palladio’s “Four Books of Architecture”. 

Andrea Palladio,  I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, (Venetia: Dominico de’ Franceschi, 1570)  (University of Edinburgh Library, Special Collections, Smith.1594)

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) first published his I quattro libri dell’architettura in Venice in 1570, in the printing shop of Domenico de’ Franceschi (fl. 1557-75), publisher and book dealer from Brescia, at the sign of “Regina Virtus” in the Frezzeria. The book enjoyed extraordinary fortune, through its numerous editions and translations, becoming the main channel of the widespread knowledge and appreciation of his author’s work.

Title page detail

Palladio already had important experience in the field of book publishing. In 1556, Daniele Barbaro – a refined and sophisticated Venetian patrician, and already the architect’s patron and supporter – put through the press a translation with commentary on the architectural treatise of the Roman author Vitruvio, complemented by Palladio’s lavish illustrations.

In Palladio’s treatise, the subject matter is subdivided in four sections: the first book – dedicated to a friend and patron, the Vicentine Count Giacomo Angarano – discusses the fundamental principles of building and the five architectural orders; in the second book Palladio presents his portfolio of projects for residential palaces and country houses, and reconstructions of ancient Greek and Roman houses; in the third book – dedicated to the Prince Emanuele Filiberto Duke of Savoy (1528-80) – the architect treats roads, bridges, squares, basilicas and other public buildings; while the fourth and final book is dedicated to antique temples in Rome and elsewhere, in the Italian peninsula and beyond. Book One, Book Three, and Book Four also contain introductory letters to the readers.

Book 1. The Composite Order


Book 1. Stairs


Book 2. House of the Greeks (detail)


Book 4, detail of the Temple of Portunus

The edition is finely illustrated: all the books are introduced by a full-page woodcut and illustrated by numerous diagrams and architectural details. The relationship between words and image is heavily weighted towards the latter. The text is often used to explain and elucidate the drawings, and frequent lists referring to corresponding details in the illustrations provide precise terminology and further interpretations. The drawings frequently present measurements, which give a clear sense of the proportions between different architectural elements. Palladio very rarely makes use of perspective: the only exceptions are constituted by the description of brick courses and layers in Book One, and the representation of Caesar’s Rhine bridge in Book Three.

Book One, detail of brick courses.


Book 3. Detail of Caesar’s Rhine Bridge

The majority of the drawings are plans, elevations or sections, variously articulated in the page layout. Contextual elements defining the buildings’ surroundings are rare and limited to some schematic representations of water and occasional exemplifications of soil. Shadows are consistently employed to confer profundity to the architectural elements, from the depiction of minute details to the outlines of massive buildings. The potentialities of the medium are fully explored and used at their best.

Book 4. The Pantheon


While in the depiction of ancient buildings Palladio shows an obsessive attention to the accuracy and faithful rendering of detail, the representations of his design projects present elements of greater complexity. More than faithful copies of the completed buildings, they seem to be idealizations, perhaps the architect’s successive reflections or maybe the sign of ideas not fully executed.

Book Two, Villa Godi, Lonedo di Lugo di Vicenza


The copy now preserved at the University of Edinburgh comes from the library of Adam Smith FRSA (1723-90), the Scottish economist, philosopher and author, and a key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment era. The University of Edinburgh holds about half his original library (850 works in 1,600 volumes), including books on politics, economics, law and history, but also many literary works, particularly French literature, and books on architecture.


The full catalogue record for our copy can be found here:


Travelling Images: Venetian Illustrated Books 2

This week our Venetian illustrations turn theatrical, with an illustrated copy of the plays of Plautus, and we welcome as guest blogger, the exhibition curator, Laura Moretti, of the University of St. Andrews. 


Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184 BC), Comedies, edited by Bernard Saraceni, and Giovanni Pietro Valla. (Venice: Lazzaro de’ Soardi, 1511).  Edinburgh University Library JY 1082.

The comedies by the Roman dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184 BC) were the subjects of a period of rebirth during the course of the fifteenth century. This was due – along with the favor that theatrical plays by Roman authors saw as a genre during the Renaissance – to the fact that twelve comedies by Plautus were rediscovered in the first half of the Quattrocento. Together with the eight already known at the time, the group of twenty comedies came to constitute a fundamental corpus for the theatre in the following decades, being represented with great success in Rome, Milan and Ferrara. They were reworked, modified, and translated into vernacular. Besides being copied in several manuscripts, from the beginning of the 1470s also printed editions started to appear. The texts were edited and commented by various authors, including Giorgio Merula, Ermolao Barbaro, Angelo Poliziano, Giovan Battista Pio, Filippo Beroaldo.

The present edition was published in 1511 by Lazzaro de’ Soardi. Active as a printer in Venice between 1490 and 1517, he published about fifty editions, especially Latin classics, religious texts, and works of ascetic, theological and philosophical character. The commentary by Bernardo Saraceni and Giovanni Pietro Valla had already been published in Venice in 1499 by Simone Bevilacqua. The Soardi edition, though, was the first one fully illustrated, presenting a full-page woodcut of a theatre and numerous woodcuts throughout.


A theatre seen from the viewpoint of the actors

This illustration already appeared in a previous edition of comedies by the Roman dramatist Terentius (c.195/185- c.159? BC), published in 1497 by the same Soardi. It is a rare image of a theatre seen from the unusual point of view of the actors. The audience sits on semicircular stalls, and is dressed in contemporary fashion. One actor is performing at the centre of the scene, while another oneis entering from a lateral door on the right.

The 1511 edition is completed by 316 woodcuts of scenes from the comedies. The illustrations are not designed individually, but composed assembling smaller blocks. The resulting images generally present the names of the characters in scrolls aligned at the top – also repeated underneath – and normally four, but sometimes up to six elements combining: one to six characters, one to two doors, one or tree trees, and one to four thin rectangular floral borders. It is possible to notice many repetitions of the individual elements, although the resulting illustrations are always different.

Detail of illustrations from the comedy Amphitryo

Opening from the comedy Aulularia


The above-mentioned 1497 edition of Terentius also presented woodcuts illustrating the scenes, but they were crafted individually.


From 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s hand-coloured edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München.



Opening with illustration from 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s hand-coloured edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München.

These illustrations might look more coherent and better manufactered to our eyes than the ones from the 1511 edition, but in the latter, perhaps less refined and accurate, we can notice some elements of extreme relevance for the history of the printed book. In a period in which the industrialisation of the printing process was still in its infancy, these images represent the sign of a tendency and a way of thinking in terms of reproducibility, reuse, and flexibility.

Something similar, although more elaborated, already appeared in the edition of the comedies by Terentius published in Strasbourg in 1496 by Johannes Grüninger. This particular edition also presented in the titlepage the representation of a “theatre”, and might have inspired Soardi.


Johannes Grüninger’s 1496 edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt.


Titlepage from 1496 Johannes Grüninger’s 1496 edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt.


In the 1551 edition, while the characters often simulate some sort of stage action, the trees and – especially – the doors confer a sense of spacial recession, giving to the illustrations a three-dimensional effect and a stage-like appeareance, even if still pretty schematic. The page is composed presenting the original text in the central section, together with the illustrations, while the commentary unfolds around them.

Title page with previous ownership inscription

The book formed part of the collection of Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), who studied at the University of Edinburgh and was Chair of Moral Philosophy there from 1785. His library included the books of his father Matthew (1717-85), Professor of Mathematics at the same institution. The collection passed into the hands of Dugald’s son Matthew (c.1784-1851), who bequeathed it – along with many of his own books – to the United Service Club in London. In 1910 the whole collection was transferred to the University of Edinburgh. It contains 3,432 titles in some 4,000 volumes, covering many topics, but is particularly strong in political economy, moral philosophy, and mathematics. There are a large number of presentation copies reflecting Dugald’s wide circle of acquaintances and admirers. The younger Matthew Stewart added some early printed books (there are 33 incunabula in the collection) and works on oriental subjects. A signature of a previous owner is visible on the titlepage; the Rare Books staff think it may be an institution – S[ancti] Ip[politi?] … but at the moment I am not able to identify it.

Dr Laura Moretti (University of St Andrews)

Further reading:

Fully digitised copy of the 1511 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s edition of Plautus comedies, digitised by the Bavarian State Library is available here.

The 1496 Johannes Grüninger’s edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt, is available here.

The 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München, is available here.

The 1499 Simone Bevilacqua’s edition of Plautus comedies, with commentary of Saraceni and Valla, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München, is available here.

The full catalogue record for the Edinburgh University Library copy is here: