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Raphael’s Letter to Pope Leo X and Architectural Drawing

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Raphael’s letter to Pope Leo X and Architectural drawing. B086493

Raphael an Italian painter and architect of the renaissance period wrote a letter to Pope Leo X expressing his anger at the state of the ‘great, noble city, once queen of the world’, Rome, as being ‘cruelly butchered’.[1] In the letter Raphael makes clear his dissatisfaction towards a number of things that relate to the state the ancient antiquities lay in. He pleads with Pope Leo X to take the issue of protecting these ruins seriously as they were the glory of their “founders” and lashed out on past pontiffs for failing to defend these ancient relics but rather invested their time in destroying them. Raphael touches on a lot of issues in his letter to Pope Leo X. [2]  I will look to summarise what he says regarding architectural drawing and suggest possible reasons as to why the suggestions in this letter could have excited him.

When Raphael wrote this part of the letter, ca. 1519,[3] architectural drawings were not a new thing and architects had already been making various styles of drawings. Various styles and techniques of architectural drawings including orthogonal drawings were being made but none met the criteria Raphael had suggested in his letter to Pope Leo X.[4] Raphael suggested the way an architect made drawings could be divided into 3 parts. The first part the plan, he described this as the “flat drawing”. The second part the “interior wall, with its ornaments”. The third part the “exterior wall, also with its ornament”. [5] 

Raphael goes on to further explain the way in which each of these drawings should be made and points out the need for accurate measurements, making the point about drawings of  perfectly parallel lines not lines that “appear to be parallel”[6]. He makes clear his aim for perfection when it comes to drawing and documenting of buildings and ancient ruins. Raphael further elaborates on the need for accuracy of measurements saying , “thus it is always necessary to have in hand the correct measures of palmi, feet, diti and grani right down to the most minute divisions”.[7]  Raphael suggested this precise method of recording buildings and an understanding of the “orders” could be used to accurately record the ruins of ancient Rome.[8] He stresses that with these three types of drawings, it is possible to consider in “minute detail all the parts of any building, inside and out.”[9] Raphael points out that these three styles are evident in all of his drawings.

 Raphael then explains necessary procedures that need to be taken in order to get the correct dimensions of a wall in the “front part of the plan of the building” or of a detail such as, columns, pilasters, windows and openings. Raphael describes in detail how the plan should be drawn;

Having drawn the plan, and included its walls, with their widths, either round or square or in whatever other form it is, draw a line as wide as the whole building parallel to the front wall, unless it is round, in which case one must take the diameter. From the middle point of this line you shall draw another straight line, which makes to one side and the other two right angles and this shall be the line of the entrance of the building.[10]

He reiterates the need to ensure the lines on the edges of these details are “parallel to the lines at the extremities”. For the top lines of the features of the building i.e. windows, he suggested these be drawn with lines parallel to the “ground line of the building”. Raphael explains that “from the front plan of a building” lines should “never be diminishing at the extremities” regardless of the shape of the building as an “architect cannot get correct measurements from a foreshortened drawing”. Raphael points out that if circular drawings were foreshortened in an elevation it is possible to correct this if original measurements are present and makes the point of the need of accuracy of measurements on this idea.[11] He explains the way in which the “interior wall” drawing can be obtained:

The third part of this drawing is which we have called the inside wall with its ornaments. And this is no less necessary than the other two, and like the elevation, is made from the plan with parallel lines. It shows the inside half of the building, as if it had been cut in two, and shows the courtyard, the correspondence between the height of the cornice on the façade with the inner parts, the height of the windows, the doors, the arches and the vaults, whether they be barrel vaults, cross vaults or any other kind of vaults.[12]

 Raphael points out that the exterior plan shows the building as though it had been “cut down the middle”. It shows the height of features within the wall of the structure such as windows, doors and arches and can be obtained in the same way as the drawing of the “interior wall”. [13]

Raphael expresses the need to make drawings for people who like to see and understand, “none builder”, what the building will look like when actually built as opposed to the mathematical drawings to be given to an engineer. He cites this as the reason for the need for perspective drawings, to show and explain the appearance of a building. He explained that this allowed for the “eye to see and judge the grace of that likeness”. Raphael stated this let the “beautiful proportion and symmetry” of the building to be seen and understood clearly, allowing people to admire what does not appear in the measured architectural drawings.[14] He states “the architect should know perspective, because the technique improves his ability to visualize the whole building with its ornaments”.[15] Raphael also draws attention to the way light acts as a pyramid as it enters our eyes and affects the way we see these features of the building painted in perspective. [16] 

Raphael suggests the method of surveying to records buildings by using the direction of the wind to create an instrument that would allow for the direction of angles on walls to be measured. He then describes the way in which this instrument is to be constructed with the directions of the “8 winds”, the four main ones, “tramontane” (north), “austo” (south), “levant” (east) and “ponente” (west), the four collateral winds, “greco, libeccio, maestro and scirocco” being marked on the circumference of the instrument. Raphael states that where all these lines intersect an “umbilicus” (a very straight, small and sharp nail) will be inserted which will be covered by a “piece of very thin transparent horn” that does not interfere with the movement of the nail but stops the wind from controlling its movement. He describes the construction of this instrument with the addition of a “sight” such as the “rings of the astrolabe” that could be moved while the rest of the instrument stayed stationary.[17]

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