Translating the five orders: John Thorpe, 1601

Translating the five orders: John Thorpe, 1601

In 1601, Hans Blum’s 1550 Latin text on the classical orders was translated into English as The Booke of Five Collumnes of Architecture by John Thorpe (1564/5–1655). Thorpe was a surveyor and architect who came from a long line of Northamptonshire masons. In 1583, he became a clerk of the Queen’s Works, where he was employed as an accounts-keeper and draughtsman, carrying out various small-scale improvements at the royal palaces. In 1601, he left the Crown’s service and established what would become a successful and long-lasting private practice as a surveyor of both estates and buildings.

Despite his practical background, Thorpe was not unlettered. He translated from both Latin and French and pursued an interest in continental architecture that went well beyond that of most craftsmen of the time. In many ways, Thorpe represents the impact of the Italian Renaissance not in the rarefied environment of the court but in the everyday world of the craft practitioner. Translating Blum’s highly visual explanation of the simple proportional rules underlying the five orders helped disseminate classical architecture among even less well-educated master masons.

Image 1. The only surviving copy of the first edition of this work, preserved in Worcester College, Oxford, is a damaged fragment. Adopted as a workman’s pattern book on the building site, most copies must simply have been used to the point of destruction. 

Image 2. The volume opens with a direct appeal for 'bookes of building' to be regarded as necessary, not only for 'Artificers' but also for  'noble Gentlemen' and 'Richmen'. 

Commentary. Drawn primarily from Anthony Gerbino and Stephen Johnston, Compass and Rule: Architecture as Mathematical Practice in England, 1500-1750, a virtual exhibition at the History of Science Museum, Oxford. More detail can be found in their book of the same title (New Haven, 2009), pp. 79-82.