Scaffolds and Centerings: The Representation of Temporary Architecture

Carolyn Yerkes

Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

Temporary architecture is the focus of folio 719r from Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus: a sheet that has drawings of centerings for the dome and lantern of the cathedral of Milan (fig. 1). The sheet covers both the means and the end of the building process, as the centerings share the page with proposals for the lantern. The emphasis, however, is on the means. Leonardo made several sheets like this one, composing the apparatuses that were needed to erect a dome but would not be part of the dome itself (see, for example, Codex Atlanticus, fols. 535r and 537r). In these scaffolding studies Leonardo tested ideas for the building process, exploring the structures that are used to make other structures.

Scaffolding and other elements of temporary architecture feature prominently in the graphic experiments of many Renaissance engineers, architects and artists, including such prominent figures as Taccola, Francesco di Giorgio and Brunelleschi. In fact, Brunelleschi’s fame was based both on the design for the dome of the cathedral of Florence and on the methods for building it. Although the architect’s exact methods for building the dome are not known, presumably he adapted Gothic masonry techniques to his task of making a shell with a continuously changing curvature.

One of the earliest attempts to recover those methods can be found in an eighteenth-century print by Giovanni Battista Nelli: the print presents an imaginary reconstruction of the wooden beams that might have supported the work on the dome and cupola (fig. 2).

This type of archaeology of absent architecture—the reverse-engineering of temporary structures through images, is an intriguing dimension of how the great building projects of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were received.

Leonardo’s drawing and Nelli’s print are two points in the trajectory that traces the representation of scaffolding in the early modern period. On one side is Leonardo’s design drawing: the experiment that tests a new idea on paper for a building that does not yet exist. On the other side are the ex-post-facto prints that feature hypotheses about or celebrations of the structures used to create the monumental architectural works of the past. Drawings like Leonardo’s are legion; prints like Nelli’s, less so—although other examples can be found. An engraving made by Jacob Bos and published by Antonio Lafreri in 1561, for example, shows the centering built by Antonio da Sangallo and Michelangelo to construct the arches of Saint Peter’s (fig. 3). These images analyze and historicize the experiments born in sketches.

In between these two types of images is a third type, which is the representation of construction in progress. Domenico Fontana’s prints representing the raising of the obelisk at Saint Peter’s are well known as they were published in Della trasportatione dell’obelisco vaticano (Rome 1590), but history paintings also offer great examples of the genre. In his painting for Palazzo Vecchio representing the raising of Bramante’s design for the new Saint Peter’s, Giorgio Vasari included a view of the southern apse of the basilica, which was then only partially finished. In another work for the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, Vasari represented the visit of pope Paul III to the construction site of Saint Peter’s (fig. 4). In these images, Vasari chose the act of building as the central story of his narrative painting.

As the trajectory of scaffolding imagery moves from projective design to construction in progress and, ultimately, to images of scaffolding where the building is entirely absent, the sole focus of representation becomes the temporary structures, now lost, that enabled the construction in the first place. Archaeological images that reconstruct lost temporary architecture mark the end of a full inversion, the point when interest in support structures emerged as independent of interest in completed buildings.

If what we see in Leonardo’s drawings are the early stages of a new aesthetic—the aesthetic of the technical—then these retrospective analyses of scaffolding, these images of temporary structures that cease to exist once the building is finished, provide the lens to see that aesthetic most clearly.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, Studies for the Dome and Lantern of Milan Cathedral, Codex Atlanticus, folio 719r (facsimile), Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

Fig. 2 Giovanni Battista Nelli, Discorsi di architettura del senatore Giovan Batista Nelli con la vita del medesimo, Florence, 1753, tav. II. Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Fig. 3 Jacob Bos, Vault Scaffolding for St. Peter’s Basilica, Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, [A66], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Fig. 4 Giorgio Vasari, Paul III Inspecting the Rebuilding of St. Peter’s, Sala dei Cento Giorni, Palazzo della Cancelleria, Rome, 1546. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).

Suggested reading

Pietro Marani & Paola Cordera, Macchine per l’architettura e il territorio: Disegni di Leonardo dal Codice Atlantico (2010), 76–79.

Paolo Galluzzi, Renaissance Engineers: From Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci (Florence, 1996).

Salvatore Di Pasquale, “Leonardo, Brunelleschi, and the Machinery of the Construction Site,” in Leonardo da Vinci: Engineer and Architect (Montreal, 1987), 163–181.

Daniela Lamberini, “Machines for Use on Building Sites,” in The Renaissance from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo: The Representation of Architecture, ed. by Henry A. Millon & Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani (Milan, 1994), 478–493.