Trees Move In

By Sylvia Lavin

The following text is the second 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.

Gabriel Pierre Martin Dumont (1720–1791), Garden design following the ground plan of St Peter’s, Rome, 1769. Pen, ink, pencil and watercolour on two joined sheets of watermarked laid paper, 710 × 402 mm. DMC 2632.

In 1769, Gabriel Pierre Martin Dumont, an architect with deep roots in both the French and the Italian architectural academies, made a remarkable drawing of a formal garden in the shape of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. More precisely, Dumont drew a garden in the shape of two plans of St. Peter’s, using as templates measured drawings of the basilica and its piazza that he had made in Rome as a Grand Prix winner and published in 1763. [1] To form the garden, Dumont converted the building mass into parterres, topiaries, and flower beds, the baldachin into a fountain, and the forecourt into two semi-circular allées of paired trees. Despite its fantastical content, Dumont was meticulous about emphasising the drawing’s precision as well as its fidelity to his own measured drawings and, through them, to the papal basilica: he left his regulating lines visible, noted measurements establishing that the garden was to be exactly the same size as St. Peter’s, and gave his allées the same number of trees as columns in Bernini’s colonnades. The trees, however, present neither in Rome nor in the drawings made there, and hence unmeasurable, risked escaping the logic of verifiability that undergirded the drawing as a whole. To counteract this threat, Dumont enhanced their verisimilitude by drawing the trees not in plan but rather in foreshortened isometric projection and by giving each tree its own shadow. Just as he reassured the reader of Détails des plus intéressantes parties d’architecture that the engravings in the publication, although copies of his drawings, had been done in his presence and hence were true to their originals, he presented each tree as a copy machine that could automatically and therefore faithfully duplicate its own form. [2]

The capacity to self-replicate without human interference encouraged architects like Dumont to invite trees into the architectural domain, where an archaeological epistemology that defined buildings as authentic sources of knowledge that could be transmitted through the graphic language of measured drawing was emerging. Using an extraordinary turn of phrase reflecting his commitment to this belief, Dumont defined his drawings of St. Peter’s as ‘a linear dictionary.’ [3] Dictionaries and encyclopedia constituted privileged epistemic devices during the 18th century because they stabilised language by disciplining even disputed terms within the objective order of the alphabet. [4] To use a linear dictionary to convert the basilica into a garden would have assured Dumont and his readers that the translation had triggered minimal textual drift and maintained a high degree of empirical conformity. [5] Despite these assurances, however, and although highly detailed and their interaction with the sun carefully observed, the trees do not behave according to the logic of a consistent plan view, and their deviance points to broader anomalies arising precisely from Dumont’s efforts to establish fidelity in drawing. The garden only appears to grow on a continuous plane, but in fact it is based on plans cut at significantly different heights, the basilica at the mezzanine level and the piazza close to the ground. [6] The trees, which at first glance appear so attentively drawn, have no ground beneath them at all. They stand, rootless, on the abstract surface of the paper. Dumont offers no explanation for this anomaly but its effects are clear: it emphasises the sign of the cross within the basilica and leaves the image of Bernini’s embracing arms of the church intact. In other words, the garden is both composed of observable matter translated into abstract lines in accordance with the emerging principles of archaeology and a reaction to the religious politics of the 1760s, when church lands were being seized and the Jesuits expulsed from France. In response to the threat of dechristianisation, Dumont designed an architecture parlante to encode a message in the abstract language of the plan. [7] Lacking a dome or facade and shielded by a forest, it would have been impossible for a visitor to recognise the image of St. Peter’s Basilica through the trees. The church was nevertheless hidden in plain sight within the linear text of the drawing, legible only to those with the architectural key that took the shape of a tree.

Detail of Dumont’s garden design.

How to draw trees as they moved into the architectural domain raised profound epistemic problems but also revealed ontological conflicts for architects of the 18th century. On the one hand, the rise of empiricism directed architects to include a wide range of observable phenomena in their drawings, including trees. Drawing a tree in isometric projection was a means of managing temporal discontinuities between architectural and arboreal growth because it permitted one tree to appear at two different times: at the start of construction, when a newly planted tree could be shown as a point on a plan, and after completion, when the tree had established a canopy. In other words, not cutting a tree to draw it in plan was a way of acknowledging that trees are living beings that change over time, independent of human action, in ways that buildings do not. On the other hand, for architects seeking to convert architecture into an epistemology through the device of linear dictionaries, change over time was a form of instability to be overcome. The purpose of drawing trees into this architectural domain was not to present their essence as living beings but to deploy them as signs, particularly as signs of knowledge. In other words, isometrically projecting a tree onto a plan view enabled Dumont to include both the tree and its shadow and hence to demonstrate that the tree was, not like a tree in the world, but like a building and, even more, like a human, capable of mimesis and of language.

Architects persisted in drawing trees as anomalous stand-ins for living beings until, eventually, projecting isometric renderings of trees onto plan views of buildings became a graphic convention. During the 18th century, however, this linear incongruity reflected growing discontinuities between abstract systems of knowledge about and empirical observations of living things that had an impact on virtually every domain of knowledge. For example, only a few years before Dumont made the drawing of St. Peter’s, Marc-Antoine Laugier published his Essai sur l’architecture, in which he instructed architects not to lose sight of the rustic hut and to confine design to simple and natural principles. [8] The main principle in question concerned construction in wood: Laugier referred to the supports in his hut as pieces de bois elevées perpendiculairement, which is to say not as trees but as timber. [9] Quickly recognising that such a description was neither simple nor natural, Laugier mitigated the denaturing abstraction of pieces de bois by adding the well-known frontispiece by Charles Eisen to the second edition, only two years later. [10] Although Eisen worked hard to mediate the difference between timber and trees exposed in Laugier’s text by showing some branches pruned back to the trunk and others growing into foliage, this linear sleight of hand was more difficult to execute at the ground plane, where Eisen’s trees ‘grow,’ as if by natural happenstance, in a perfect rectangle. [11]

Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen (1720–1778), Frontispiece, Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Essai sur l’architecture, c.1754. Pen and ink and grey wash on paper, 210 × 147 mm. DMC 1240.

Just as the conceptual conversion of tree into column had to pass through the material production of timber, the relation of ground plane to architectural plan had to pass through the surface of the drawing. If Dumont’s dictionary of St. Peter’s was made only of lines, his garden design also depended on the uneven distribution of colour on the drawing’s surface: he left the ground of the garden colourless, exposing the paper itself and emphasising its nature as an abstract plane, but rendered the ground of the surrounding forest with a brownish-green wash, emphasising its nature as the surface of the earth. The trees that Dumont showed growing from each substrate belong to entirely distinct natural orders and to what Claude-Henri Watelet, in his Essay on Gardens: A Chapter in the French Picturesque, called different classes. [12] The forest trees are haphazardly drawn and lacking detail, propagate in irregular fashion, and do not ‘speak’ in the clear language of shadowy duplication. [13] They lack delineated trunks and remain close to the earth. Dumont did not draw these trees into the architectural domain but left them in the kind of woodlands that had suffered slow growth during the little ice age and were being rapidly deforested to satisfy increasing demand for timber. [14] Decades before the Revolution unfolded on the streets of Paris, it had already begun in the woods. So, while in 1769 Dumont imagined that it might still be possible to protect the church from secularising philosophes by returning it to the topos of the church-as-garden hidden within a forest, he would also have been aware that woodlands in France were already filled with armed rebels lying in wait for officers of the crown seeking to regulate use of the land.

Dumont drew certain trees into the architectural domain and excluded others, but despite this effort to define architecture as a delimited territory, the trees drew architecture back out into the world and became frontline actors during a period of profound epistemic and political conflict. [15] The increasing tension between beings conceived as resources to be exploited, most useful but difficult to discipline when in large numbers, and beings cultivated for pleasure, granted spatial autonomy, individual identity, and the power of language, helps explain why garden design became an unprecedented urgent sphere of discourse during the 18th century. [16] Trees became unavoidable material and symbolic pressure points for architects that had to be either deliberately drawn or erased from the world, but that were never native to architectural systems of representation. As a result, how to include trees in architecture was and remains problematic: on the one hand, each tree drawn into or excluded from the architectural domain betrays the discipline’s roots in the 18th-century systems of abstraction that effected violent cuts and discriminations among living beings. On the other hand, when trees moved into architecture’s linear dictionary they disturbed its conventions, generating anomalies in the field that make possible new knowledge of how architecture once managed, and might yet still manage, the surface of the earth.


  1. See his self-published work, Détails des plus intéressantes parties d’architecture de la Basilique de St. Pierre de Rome, levés et dessinés sur le lieu par Gabriel-Martin Dumont, professeur d’architecture, membre des Académies de Rome, Florence et Bologne (Paris: Chez l’auteur, 1763). Dumont is best known for having accompanied Soufflot on the latter’s trip to Paestum. See Sigrid de Jong, Rediscovering Architecture: Paestum In Eighteenth-century Architectural Experience and Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). Drawing Matter speculates that the scheme was intended for a site at the Abbey at Ermenonville, where the first picturesque garden by Girardin was planned in 1762.
  2. Dumont begins his introduction to the book by acknowledging previous publications on St. Peter’s but rejecting them as inaccurate. He goes on to make numerous claims for the authenticity of his drawings, including ‘je m’appliqué pendant un longtemps à mesurer avec attention,’ ‘je dessiné . . . sur le lieu même,’ and “plusieurs m’ont engagées à la mettre au jour, et à la faire gravès sous mes yeux […] pour étre assureés de la correction.’ (‘I spent a great deal of time measuring with close attention,’ ‘I drew at the site itself,’ and ‘many have encouraged me to publish this work, and to have the engravings made before my eyes, in order to be sure they were done correctly.’) My translation. The publication is unpaginated.
    Dumont’s source is Jacques de Tarade’s Desseins de toutes les parties de l’église de Saint Pierre De Rome: La première et la plus grande de toutes les églises du monde chrestien: Levé exactement sur les lieux par Jacques Tarade architecte et ingénieur ordinaire du Roi en l’année 1659; le quel, après son retour de Rome, en à fait le modelle à Versailles où sa Majesté à pris plaisir de le voir plusieurs fois et de s’informer de toutes les diment.: La beauté et la grandeur de cette édifice à engagé le d. Sr. Tarade de faire graver tous les desseins par le Sr. Marot, mais les grandes occupations que le d. Tarade à eu pour le service de sa Majesté ne luy ont pas permis de les faire mettre au jour plustôt: Pour donner une plus parfaite connoissance de la grandeur de cette église, elle est comparée icy et mise en paralel̀le avec celle de Nostre Dame de Paris, les deux plans éstant mis à côtez l’un de l’autre et réduit sur une même échelle ce qui en fait connoître la différence du premier coup d’œüil (Paris: Chez Jombert, 1713). On Tarade and Dumont, see Robin Middleton’s introduction in David Le Roy, The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2004), 92–93.
  3. On the second page of the introduction, Dumont describes the publication thus: ‘elle peut être considerée comme un Dictionaire linéaire de cette Basilique.’ (‘It can be considered a linear dictionary of the basilica.’) My translation.
  4. For some remarks on the use of the encyclopedia and dictionary format by 18th-century French architectural theorists, see my ‘Re Reading the Encyclopedia: Architectural Theory and the Formation of the Public in Late-Eighteenth-Century France,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53, no. 2 (June 1994): 184–92.
  5. The shift from conceiving of history in terms of biblical philology to material remains described with a high degree of empirical fidelity was a key value of Enlightenment archaeology. See Alain Schnapp, ‘The Invention of Archaeology,’ in The Discovery of the Past (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997) and Tapati Guha-Thakurta, ‘The Empire and its Antiquities: Two Pioneers and Their Scholarly Fields,’ in Monuments, Objects, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
  6. The plan of the piazza was cut at the base of the columns, while the plan of the basilica was cut significantly higher, at the spring of the small domes over the side chapels. The drawing is made of two sheets of paper, each a copy of a separate drawing reproduced individually in Dumont’s Détails des plus intéressantes, the first labeled ‘Plan de la Place en Colonnades et Portiques du devant de Saint Pierre de Rome,’ and the second, ‘Plan de L’Eglise de Saint Pierre De Rome Avec tous les Corridors dans les Epaissuers des murs au dessus des Chapelles.’
  7. On architecture parlante and the broader problem of language and architecture in 18th-century French architectural theory, see Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory In the Late Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987) and my Quatremère de Quincy and the Invention of a Modern Language of Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).
  8. Dumont was evidently a good reader of Laugier – he eliminated pilasters and doubled columns when he converted the Italian basilica into a French garden in accordance with the Abbot’s admonitions. That Dumont used the most up-to-date architectural theory, written by an expulsed and infamously fanatical member of the Jesuit order, to secretly replant the Roman Catholic church back in French soil just after the Jesuits had been exiled from France would not have been lost on Dumont’s faithful contemporaries.
  9. Marc Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’architecture (Paris: Chez Duchesne, 1753), 13.
  10. The two editions are Marc Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’architecture (Paris: Chez Duchesne, 1753) and Marc Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’architecture, nouv. éd., revue, corrigée, & augmentée; avec un dictionaire des termes; et des planches qui en facilitent l’explication (Paris: Chez Duchesne, 1755). On Laugier, see Wolfgang Herrmann, Laugier and Eighteenth Century French Theory (London: A. Zwemmer, 1962).
  11. On Eisen, see Vera Salomons, Charles Eisen, Eighteenth Century French Book Illustrator and Engraver: An Annotated bibliography of the Best Known Books Illustrated by Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, 1720–1778, with Descriptions of the Plates and an Index, Preceded by a Sketch of His Life and Art (Amsterdam: Hissink, 1972).
  12. On the use of this term, see Joseph Disponzio, ‘Introduction,’ in Claude-Henri Watelet, Essay on Gardens: A Chapter in the French Picturesque, ed. Samuel Danon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 1–16; also 80, n. 25.
  13. Speaking trees, related to the antique hamadryads and oracles, became a trope of 18th-century garden theory. See, for example, in relation to Watelet, my ‘Sacrifice and the Garden: Watelet’s Essai sur les jardins and the Space of the Picturesque,’ Assemblage 28 (December 1995): 16–33.
  14. On the history of tree management in this period, see Caroline Ford, Natural Interests: The Contest Over Environment In Modern France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Kieko Matteson, Forests In Revolutionary France: Conservation, Community, and Conflict 1669–1848, Studies in Environment and History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  15. It is worth noting that one of Dumont’s other publications focused on wood centring in Italian architecture. See his Parallele de grands entablements et de charpentes à l’Italienne mis au jour par Sr. Dumont… (Paris: rue des Arcis, maison occupée d’un commissaire, c. 1770).
  16. On this point in particular, see Disponzio, ‘Introduction,’ 5. On the picturesque more generally, see John Dixon Hunt, The Picturesque Garden In Europe (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002) and Dora Wiebenson, The Picturesque Garden in France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).