Trees Make A Plan

By Sylvia Lavin

Circle of the Sangallo Family, On Timber, the Species of Trees, drawing for Vitruvius, book II, chapter 9, c.1530–1545. Pen and dark brown ink on paper, 150 × 264 mm. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The following text is the first of a series of four essays on trees in architectural drawings by Sylvia Lavin. The essays were first published in Log 49: ‘Observations on architecture and the contemporary city’ (Summer 2020). Drawing Matter would like to thank the author and the journal’s editors for allowing us to reproduce the essays on To order a copy of Log 49, click here.

In 1546, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger died of malaria while working in Umbria about 100 kilometres north of Rome. Unlike Claude Perrault, who in 1688 also contracted a fatal infection as part of his work – the source of his malady is said to have been a camel he was dissecting in the anatomy theatre at the Paris Academy of Sciences as part of the research that eventually produced the most comprehensive early modern study of comparative anatomy – Sangallo died as a result of the work he was called on to perform as an architect. [1] In 1545, Pope Paul III had sent Sangallo to the region between Rieti and Terni to develop a plan for regulating the Velino River. Its frequent overflows created a wetland thought to cause illness, repeating a cycle of inundation and disease already confronted in antiquity. In 271 BCE, the Roman consul Manius Curius Dentatus constructed a canal system that channelled water through an artificial lake and a 165-metre-high waterfall. The system fell into ruin during the Middle Ages, resulting not only in the return of flooding and of collateral territorial and economic conflicts between Rieti and Terni but also the return of disease. Sangallo travelled between the two cities over the course of a year, crisscrossing the valleys of marshland and studying the structure of the Cascata delle Marmore and the Curiano Trench. [2] Before he could develop a plan for restoring the water management system, however, he was overwhelmed by the very environmentally induced disease he had been sent to cure.

Malaria is transmitted through the bites of female mosquitoes seeking blood to nurture their eggs laid in shallow collections of fresh water, but Sangallo’s death was also a result of an environmental theory of architecture based on a body of knowledge that included how to slaughter an animal and inspect its liver to determine the healthfulness of a site and at what time of day and under what constellation particular kinds of trees should be felled, as well as how to avoid ‘the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes’ that cause malaria. [3] Sangallo practiced architecture in ways that exemplified this theory vested in the relation between building and living things. His reputation was based not only on his work as a structural engineer, military architect, and hydraulics expert but also on his capacities as an architectural physician who, according to Giorgio Vasari, could restore dying buildings to good health. Well into the eighteenth century, Quatremère de Quincy still wrote of Sangallo, ‘Creating a building is a natural thing, but resuscitating a building takes a miracle worker.’ [4] This ability to bring things back to life, from canals to people, helps to explain why, of all the architects working in Rome, Paul III elected to send Sangallo into the marshes. Yet Sangallo’s identification with this however miraculous skill also limited his reputation according to a competing theory of architecture rooted not in environmental knowledge but in the divine nature of individual genius: one often repeated account hypothesises that Sangallo did not die of malaria but rather of shame at having had Michelangelo step in to improve the design of the Palazzo Farnese.

Lacking both the training and celebrity of painter architects like Raphael and Bramante, coming instead from a large family of woodworker architects, Sangallo is mostly credited with standardising the conventions of architectural representation and practice. [5] This view of Sangallo as a proleptically modern professional architect concerned with practicalities is belied, however, because he made numerous copies of ancient inscriptions while in the Umbrian marshes and was also deeply preoccupied with Vitruvius. [6] In fact, the entire Sangallo family of architects, often referred to as the ‘Sangallo clan,’ planned a highly unusual illustrated edition of the Ten Books that would have focused less on standardising the orders than on the interaction between living beings and architectural production. [7] For example, in Book II of Vitruvius, chapters IX and X are devoted to trees, a topic the Sangallos considered important enough to warrant an illustration. [8] Eight different tree types are each identified by a caption above the canopy and rooted in separate earthen pedestals below, set in a shallow space close to the picture plane. The labels encourage a ‘reading’ of the drawing from the left to the right side of the sheet, where the one-at-a-time presentation of individual trees gives way to a duck-filled pond bordered by a pair of aqueous willows that push the picture plane into deeper space where a pair of mountain willows grow. [9]

The drawing, following Vitruvius, brings together trees useful to building as timber in various ways, from dowels and beams to pilings, but it also reveals the emergence of a schism within epistemic space opened by sixteenth-century architectural procedures. On the left, the trees, extracted from their native habitats, are drawn as a wall of arboreal specimens in quasi-orthographic projection, while on the right, they are presented as natural inhabitants of a landscape perspective. A path formed by the topographic delineation negotiates between these two kinds of view, minimising the appearance of contradictory representations of space. A similar spatioperceptual difference was inscribed within the practices of sixteenth-century natural sciences as scholars began simultaneously to establish botanical gardens in order to bring specimens close to the observer and to move into the field in order to study the lives of plants al vivo. This double vantage point structures sixteenth-century herbaria, in which individual specimens are drawn in large scale and placed in the foreground while the plant’s native growth setting is placed in a distant background. [10] But unlike drawings that superimpose the space of scientific taxonomy and the space of organic life but leave them separated by an impassable gulf, the Sangallo drawing moves the viewer from one space to another, from trees in the process of becoming timber, and hence of becoming architecture, to trees in the process of living. The drawing thus entangles orthography and perspective, rather than standardises their differences, and constructs an anachronistic temporal reversal in order to account for them: the very ‘first’ tree, a trimmed fir, is presented as a quasi-technical object, indicated by the pot that has replaced its crown, and initiates a stroll down the drawing’s pathway that leads back in time to trees before such human intervention. [11]

Circle of the Sangallo Family, amphiprostyle temple plan, illustration to Vitruvius Book III, Chapter 2, c.1530–1545. Pen and dark brown ink on laid paper, 150 × 250 mm. DMC 2939 r.

While using foreground and background to establish a timeline for the origins of architecture was common in Renaissance editions of Vitruvius, these ‘stories’ were generally told within a single perspectival scene and a unidirectional timeline from the distant past to the near present. The Sangallos’ simultaneous use of both implied orthography and perspective suggests a more circuitous timeline, and the complexity of their history of the origins of architecture in the interaction of humans and trees is made explicit in what has been identified as a drawing for Book III, chapter II in which Vitruvius classifies temples. [12] Unlike most editions of Vitruvius, in which the temple types are diagrammatically drawn in plan without a setting in order to emphasize the comparative number and configuration of columns, the Sangallos embedded a single amphiprostyle temple within both a setting and a narrative. Two soldiers, having arrived by sea and traversed a terrain topped by fortified medieval hill towns, are shown a plan of a temple by a magus, a Renaissance figure with the attributes of the scientist, magician, and priest, and associated with multiple forms of knowledge, like the architect. [13] A hilly woodland has been cleared and flattened to make space for an anticipated architectural drama, and trees, sized to serve as building material and connected to the site by a waterway, establish the wings of the scene. [14] A plan, drawn at scale and directly on the ground, has been planted, and the action is about to begin. 

The drawing constructs a theatre, dramatizing the role of architecture in the interactions between time and life that were visibly reshaping the environment during the sixteenth century. [15] Already in the fifteenth century, writers like Alberti were making ample use of analogies between plant life and architecture to suggest this dynamic, but the word plan accrued a particularly potent double meaning when the Latin planta (a sprout, shoot, or twig) became pianta, the architectural plan. [16] New buildings and living organisms, like young trees and seedlings, were implanted in the earth because that was where they were understood to grow, and drawing was a means of this propagation. When Vitruvius gave instructions for laying out a new city, he not only recalled the ancestral habit of animal sacrifice as a means of gauging a site’s existing health, he also provided a method for ensuring salubrious air in the future that involved casting cardinal shadow lines directly on the earth. Sangallo’s drawing is a representational abstraction and architectural ritualization of these medico-environmental activities and brings together old forms of knowledge with new forms of projection. On the one hand, there is the violent but knowledge-producing cut: just as a botanist would cut a plant to expose its internal organs to the picture plane of representation, Sangallo shows the plan as a horizontal cut through a building. [17] That Sangallo conceived of this as an abstract plane is made evident by the fact that the surface of the earth is rendered in virtually every part of the sheet except around and under the plan, which floats over nothing. On the other hand, Sangallo cut the temple infinitely close to the ground, at a level continuous with the magus’s foot that steps forward directly on the earth. He also drew it at full-scale, as did the Colchians in Pontus, who, according to Vitruvius, used trees not as columns but as lines placed on the ground to establish the plans of their houses. [18] Most extraordinarily, Sangallo drew the plan in perspective, as if a thing seen al vivo, the protagonist of an architectural drama unfolding in an environment, like the Umbrian marshes, the very natural history of which was being redesigned. This drawing is simultaneously a projection toward a future city, a future built on a thousand cuts, of the land, of trees, and of plans, but also a recollection of the time when architecture lived among the trees planted in the earth.


  1. The basic literature on Sangallo includes Gustavo Giovannoni, Antonio da Sangallo, il Giovane; a cura del Centro Studi di Storia dell’Architettura e della Facoltà di Architettura dell’Università di Roma (Rome: Tipografia Regionale, 1959) and Christoph Luitpold Frommel and Nicholas Adams, The Architectural Drawings of Antonio Da Sangallo the Younger and His Circle (New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1994). For his work on fortifications and in the countryside, see Giulio Zavatta, 1526, Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane in Romagna: Rilievi di fortificazioni e monumenti antichi romagnoli di Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane e della sua cerchia al Gabinetto disegni e stampe degli Uffizi (Bologna: Angelini, 2008). For his papal commissions, see Maria Beltramini and Cristina Conti, Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane: Architettura e decorazione da Leone X a Paolo III (Milan: Officina Libraria, 2018).
    See Perrault’s compendium, Claude Perrault, ed., Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1671). On Perrault’s biography, see Antoine Picon, Claude Perrault ou la curiosité d’un classique (Paris: Picard, 1988). On his study of animals, see Anita Guerrini, ‘Perrault, Buffon and the natural history of animals, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 66, no. 4 (2012): 393–409. 
  2. On the architectural and environmental history of this region from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, see Emanuela Guidoboni, ‘Human Factors, Extreme Events and Floods in the Lower Po Plain in the sixteenth Century,’ Environment and History 4 (1998): 279–308, Saverio Ricci, ‘Un paesaggio ‘testimonianza di civiltà’: la cascata delle Marmore nella cultura europea di età moderna,’ Opus: Quaderno di storia architettura restauro disegno, no. 2 (2018), and Miro Virili, ‘Il Canale Pio e l’opera di Andrea Vici a Terni,’ Memoria Storica, no. 39 (2012).
  3. The phrase is from Vitruvius, Book I, chapter IV, ‘The Site of a City,’ in Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), 17. For more on Sangallo’s interest in Vitruvius, see below. 
  4. For Vasari’s remarks, see Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, vol. 6 (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1913), 131. For Quatremère’s, see Quatremère de Quincy, Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages des plus célèbres architectes du XIe siècle jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIe: Accompagnée de la vue du plus remarquable édifice de chacun d’eux (Paris: J. Renouard, 1830), 1:185. The complete passage reads, ‘Nous dirons donc ici avec Vasari que restaurer ainsi, c’est créer, et même faire quelque chose de plus difficule. En effet, ajoute-t-il, crére un edifice est chose naturelle, mais le ressusciter, cela tient du miracle.’ 
  5. See, for example, James S. Ackerman, ‘Architectural Practice in the Italian Renaissance,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 13, no. 3 (October 1954): 3–11. On the importance of orthography to Sangallo and the emergence of representational conventions, see Wolfgang Lotz, ‘The Rendering of the Interior in Architectural Drawings of the Renaissance,’ in Studies in Italian Renaissance Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965), 1–41
  6. On these inscriptions and on Paul III’s interest in the engineering antiquities of the regions, see Frommel and Adams, The Architectural Drawings of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and His Circle, 2:262–65 and 470–72, and Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages (Wilmington, N.C.: Consortium Books, 1977), 12:590–93. I am indebted to Jack Freiberg for these references and for his insight into Sangallo and 16th-century Italian artistic practice. 
  7. On the Sangallos’ interest in Vitruvius, see N. Pagliara, ‘La attività edilizia di Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane: Il confronto tra gli studi sull’antico e la letteratura vitruviana,’ Controspazio IV (1972): 23–47, Ingrid D. Rowland’s introduction to the facsimile edition of Vitruvius Pollio, Giovanni Battista da Sangallo, Vitruvius, Ten Books On Architecture: The Corsini Incunabulum (Rome: Edizione dell’Elefante, 2003), as well as Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory: From Vitruvius to the Present (London: Zwemmer, 1994), 69.
    On the other members of the Sangallo family in this context, see Adriano Ghisetti Giavarina, Aristotile da Sangallo: Architettura, scenografia e pittura tra Roma e Firenze nella prima metà del Cinquecento: Ipotesi di attribuzione dei disegni raccolti agli Uffizi (Rome: Multigrafica, 1990) and Sabine Frommel, Giuliano da Sangallo (Florence: Edifir, 2014)See also H. Günther, Das Studium der antiken Architektur in den Zeichnungen der Hochrenaissance (Tübingen: E. Wasmuth Verlag, 1988). 
    Renaissance specialists and experts in the history of works on paper agree that the drawings discussed here are likely to have been made as illustrations to this edition, but they disagree on the attribution. Some claim they were drawn by Aristotile and others, Antonio da Sangallo. The authorship of the drawings, beyond originating within the orbit of the Sangallos and of Vitruviuan-based practice during the sixteenth century, is not fundamental to the concerns of this essay. Henceforth, I refer to their producer as Sangallo in this generic sense. 
  8. Vitruvius’s chapter on timber emphasizes the interconnectedness of things: he classifies trees according to their proportional containment of the four elements that compose all matter. He discusses when to fell trees (not in spring when they are pregnant, because then, like women, they are weakened by the needs of their fetuses) and links the characteristics of different species of tree to their architectural uses. This interconnected chain, which includes everything from fire to poisonous breath to time, pervades all aspects of his discussion of architectural sites. For example, his discussion of animal sacrifice is couched both as a reference to an outmoded ritual and as a reminder of the complex of visible and invisible factors that together determine the salubriety of a site: a healthy liver in a grazing animal attested not only to its health, or even the health of its herd, but to the quality of food, air, and temperature that also determined the health of humans.
  9. The trees include fir, beech, linden, willow, and, possibly, maple. 
  10. Among the best-known botanical drawings structured in this way are those by Gherardo Cibo. On the history of Italian botany, see Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 167–70Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, ‘Gherardo Cibo: Visions of landscape and the botanical sciences in a sixteenth-century artist,’ The Journal of Garden History 9, no. 4 (1989): 199; and ‘New World Plants in the Italian Imagination,’ in E. Horodowich and L. Markey, eds., The New World in Early Modern Italy, 1492–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 167–222. On early modern botany more generally, see Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Wolfgang Lefèvre, Jürgen Renn, and Urs Schoepflin, eds., The Power of Images in Early Modern Science (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2012).
  11. The tree is designated as Abeto dolate, or trimmed fir. On the relationship of orthography to the territorial survey, see Anthony Gerbino, ‘Mastering the Landscape: Geometric Survey in Sixteenth-Century France,’ The Art Bulletin 100, no. 4 (2018): 7–33. On anachronism, see Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010).
  12. See the attribution provided by Drawing Matter, ‘Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484–1546), Illustration to Vitruvius Book III, Chapter 2, c. 1530–1545.’ 
  13. On the magus as a ‘typology,’ see F. Borchardt, ‘The Magus as Renaissance Man,’ The Sixteenth Century Journal 21, no. 1 (1990): 57–76. 
  14. One of Vitruvius’s recommendations is to select building sites on the basis of whether or not they are near waterways that can facilitate the transport of architectural materials.
  15. I am suggesting that the temple plan serves the purpose of the checkerboard pattern frequently used in Renaissance images both to establish the perspective lines of a scene and to link that representational device to the conditions of scenography and hence to theatre architecture.
  16. See, for example, these phrases in which Alberti links plants and architecture: ‘Now that we have set down the roots and foundation of our discussion’ and, more pointedly, in the context of discussing columns, ‘So to begin from the very roots, as it were, let it first be said that every column has a foundation.’ Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building In Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert with Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 9, 25. An early Italian edition of Alberti’s De re aedificatoria uses the word pianta several times, particularly when the discussion concerns dimensions. See Leon Battista Alberti and Pietro Lauro, I Dieci Libri De L’architettvra Di Leon Battista De Gli Alberti… : Nouamente De La Latina Ne La Volgar Lingua Con Molta Diligenza Tradotti (Vinegia: Appresso Vincenzo Vavgris, 1546), 148 and 151. Of course, following Vitruvius, Alberti also devotes a section of his treatise to trees. See Book II, chapters IV–VII. While using the term plant to refer to an entire building goes back to at least the thirteenth century, it is only during the fifteenth century that the unified and three-dimensional structure of the architectural plant is separated into the plan(t) as an abstract plane, which is further separated from the planes of sections and elevations. On the early history of these conventions, see Howard Saalman, ‘Early Renaissance Architectural Theory and Practice in Antonio Filarete’s Trattato Di Architettura,’ The Art Bulletin 41, no. 1 (1959): 89–107. 
  17. While the parallel between the cutting of human bodies in order to study their internal organization and the cutting of buildings to produce sections, plans, and elevations is frequently noted, the parallels between the procedures of botanical investigation and architectural projection is less discussed, despite the virtually direct relation between at what distance to the ground a tree is felled and at what distance to the ground a building is cut to produce a plan.
  18. See Vitruvius, Book II, chapter I, 39.