Architecture: The Five Orders

Architecture: The Five Orders

One of the most characteristic aspects of the Renaissance is the revival of classical architecture.  Classical architecture is, in essence, a set of geometrical proportions and decorative conventions, implemented in countless buildings surviving from Greek and Roman antiquity and canonized in the ten books of architecture by Vitruvius. Yet Vitruvius's text alone was impossible to interpret accurately without access to actual buildings; and the buildings on which an accurate interpretation could be derived were preserved, within the Latin West, primarily in Italy. Before classical architecture could spread throughout Europe to become the defining style of the Renaissance, Vitruvius's principles needed to be reformulated and illustrated with images of the elements of classical architecture, beginning with the 'five orders' or sets of rules for constructing the five different styles of columns at the heart of the classical canon. It was primarily from books such as these, and only secondarily through the opportunity to travel to Italy and study the ruins of classical buildings themselves, that masons and later architects north of the Alps first learned the classical buildings principles. 

The first comprehensive treatise on architecture since Vitruvius was the work of the Mannerist architect Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – c. 1554), variously known as I sette libri dell'architettura ("Seven Books of Architecture") or Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva ("All the works on architecture and perspective"). First published between 1537 and 1551 in Italian, frequently reprinted in the original Italian and translated into Dutch, French, German, Spanish and finally (via Dutch) English, Serlio's work played a formative role in the reception of classical architecture north of the Alps. Most decisive of all was Serlio's role canonizing the doctrine of the five orders of classical architecture: the Italian original of the engraving reproduced here is the first image in which all five are depicted together. An excellent guide to their complicated bibliography can be here, and a modern summary is available here.

As an example of the contents, the three images reproduced here provide part of Serlio's depiction of the Coloseum in Rome (from the first English edition of 1611).

The first of these images shows the five orders as depicted in the most influential of the early treatises of this kind: Five Bookes of Architecture  by Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554); then translalted out of Italian into Dutch and out of Duth into English by Sir Robert Peake, Robert (1592?-1667) (London, 1611), fol. A3r. 

The remainder of the images are taken from the Latin original of the first work of this kind to be translated into English: Hans Blum, Qvinqve colvmnarvm exacta descriptio atque deliniatio, cum symmetrica earum distributione (Tigvri [Zurich], Apvd Christophorvm Froschovervm, 1550). Source: Getty Research Institute, call number 72160. Full text available on