The columnar histories of Kepler and Caramuel

As we have seen in my post on Renaissance depictions of Vitruvian origin myths, since the fifteenth century trees and columns have formed an intriguing alliance in architectural theory. In the seventeenth century however, a new dimension was added: the gradual development from tree to column began to be visualized as an ‘architectural timeline’. Let’s take a closer look at two examples.

Kepler - Tabulae Rudolphinae - frontispiece

Fig. 1: frontispiece of Johannes Kepler, Tabulae Rudolphinae (1627)

1678-Lobkowitz-Arquitectura_civil_T3 82

Fig. 2: Juan Caramuel, Arquitectura civil recta y oblicua (1678)

We kick off with the fascinating frontispiece (Fig. 1) of a work that had absolutely nothing to do with architecture: the astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae (1627). On the title page of the book, a catalogue of stars and planetary tables named after the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, the history of astronomy is visualized in a circular structure supported by columns in various stages of development, with prominent astronomers standing next to them. The columns support a roof that symbolizes Kepler’s own theory: it is both founded on his predecessors’ work as well as covering and crowning the whole of it. I first encountered it in a wonderful book by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton on the history of the timeline (2010),[1] which describes it as follows:

The oldest astronomer – a Babylonian who stands by a column that is almost still a tree – is clearly portrayed as part of the primitive world and doing approximate work. As the astronomers come closer to the present, their pursuits become more sophisticated and the columns next to them more ornate and classical. Copernicus and Tycho Brahe – and, of course, Kepler – represent the culmination of an architectural timeline for astronomy.

The reason why this image caught my attention was because I had seen the motif of a history in columns before: in a work on architecture by the bishop and polymath Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz (1606-1682, Fig. 3). It is quite possible Caramuel copied the idea straight from Kepler’s version: as a young, precocious kid he had taken an interest in astronomy, even publishing astronomical tables when he was only ten years old. The treatise in which he returned to the motif, titled Architectura civil recta y obliqua: considerada y dibuxada en el templo de Ierusalen, was published in 1678, when he was bishop of the Italian town of Vigevano. It was one of the most innovative texts on architecture published at the time, for its discussion of ‘oblique’ or curved architecture, or how to apply the classical orders in irregular circumstances such as convex and concave surfaces, stairways, circular and oval spaces (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3: bishop Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz

Fig. 3: Caramuel de Lobkowitz

1678-Lobkowitz-Arquitectura_civil_T3 151

Fig. 4: example of ‘oblique’ architecture

Being a polymath however, Caramuel diverged widely into other subjects, for instance the early history of building. In the second volume[2] he devotes a few pages to the origin and progress of architecture, quoting Vitruvius and offering a tour of primitive ways of building around the globe, both contemporary and historical. He has a special interest in South American architecture from before the Spanish conquest: drawing from the sixteenth century reports of Peter Martyr (De orbe novo decades , [3] 1507-1525) and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (La historia general y natural de las Indias, 1526), he depicts some indigenous housing in the third volume (Fig. 5), and describes the practice of living in big trees to avoid the scorching earth in hot, dry areas, or to prevent flooding (Fig. 2, top left).

Fig. x: indigenous housing in South America

Fig. 5: indigenous housing in South America

Fig x

Fig 6: detail of Plate XV

At the bottom half of the same plate we see the columnar history taken over from Kepler (Fig. 6). It forms part of an argument sustaining the wooden origin of the classical orders: Caramuel states that the first buildings were made of turf and reeds, followed by a species of huts made of beams and planes, which were in time converted into brick and marble.[4] He finds proof of this wooden origin in Spanish etymology: the Spanish word ‘madera’, from the Latin ‘materia’ which was used for materials in general, now only refers to wood. Caramuel then explains the series of different columns in plate XV (Fig. 6, click to zoom in), which show the gradual development from rough tree trunks (B) to smooth trunks (C), to capitals and bases (E and H), and to cannelures (I).

Certainly it isn’t a coincidence that Caramuel wrote his idiosyncratic treatise around the same time he was working on the facade of Vigevano cathedral, an architectural problem that could use some ‘oblique’ solutions. Dismissed by the art historian Werner Oechslin as the work of a dilettant, the facade nevertheless ingeniously preserves the symmetry of the Piazza Ducale, by hiding from view the fact that the cathedral stands at a slight angle towards it (Figs 7 and 8). Caramuel achieved this by extending the curved facade of the church to comprise the alleyway to the left. The alley could still be reached through the left most door of the cathedral, which was in perfect symmetry with the doors actually leading to the church. Only the belltower gave away the real state of affairs, and has been doing so for the last 400 years.

Fig. 7: plan of the Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Fig. 7: plan of the Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Fig. 8: facade of Vigevano cathedral

Fig. 8: facade of Vigevano cathedral


[1] Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of time: A history of the timeline. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. To get a preview of the incredible eye candy contained in the book, check this review by Maria Popova at Brainpickings.org

[2] Tratado 5, Articulo V: ‘Del Principio, y progresso de la Architectura’, pp. 11-19. Full text available on Google books

[3] An English translation of the Orbe novo is available at Project Gutenberg

[4] Volume II, Tratado 5, Articulo V, IX and X

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The origins of architecture according to Vitruvius | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

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