Aesthetica Preprint, 42 (December 1994)

Maria Luisa Scalvini & Sergio Villari, The manuscript on proportions of François Bernin de Saint-Hilarion

It has seldom happened in the history of architecture that the manuscript of a famous treatise would be lost for centuries, and that its author's name and biography would remain practically unknown. Yet, this is exactly what happened to the "abbé" de Saint-Hilarion's treatise on proportions. At least twice in the 1680s, François Blondel, renowned director of the Académie Royale d'Architecture and author of the famous Cours d'Architecture (1675-83), proposed the manuscript for publication, emphasizing its theoretical value and the quality of its drawings. Nevertheless, the manuscript remained unpublished. In the 18th century, the two parts of the text got definitively separated, while author's name fell into oblivion, and the paternity of the treatise was even attributed to others.
Thanks to the fortuitous "rediscovery" of the second, and later of the first part of the manuscript (respectively by Albert Erich Brinckmann in the 1910s, and by his student Annemarie Cetto a few years later), Saint-Hilarion's treatise was rescued from oblivion and raised a series of questions concerning the identity of the "abbé". Owing to an adverse fate, however, the curtain soon dropped once again on the treatise, and during World War II the second part of the manuscript, which was kept in Berlin, got lost.
The work of the historian often resembles that of the detective. In fact, Maria Luisa Scalvini and Sergio Villari have reconstructed the history of the text and of its author starting from only a few clues, which were partly disseminated within the 250 pages of the surviving first part that is still kept, in the Abteilung für Handschriften of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Münich.
The present volume contains the Italian translation of the first chapters of the manuscript, whose history has been recovered almost completely, following its tortuous journey from France to Germany. These first chapters are the most significant, since they contain the most important theoretical arguments forcefully advanced by the author, and in particular the notion that only geometric proportions are suited to architecture (rather than arithmetical ones or the harmonic ones that were borrowed from music).
As for the author, the research which has been systematically carried out in numerous French archives, both public and private, has resulted in the discovery of several documents. These documents have made it possible to reconstruct the biographical profile of the author and to contextualize him within a thick network of direct and indirect relationships with other important, contemporary figures. Saint-Hilarion and his treatise thus come definitely back to light, and they acquire historical and theoretical depth within a particularly complex context.
In late seventeenth century France, several important figures participated in a veritable "querelle" on architectonic proportions. On one side there was François Blondel, a strong defender of the prerogatives of the Académie d'Architecture and of the importance of the professional milieu; while on the other side there was Claude Perrault, an illustrious member of the Académie des Sciences, whose heterodox theses were presented in 1673 in his comments on the translation of Vitruvius's treatise and were also reiterated in 1683 in his famous Ordonnance des Cinq Espèces de Colonnes (which has already been published by Scalvini and Villari in this same book series, in the "Aesthetica Preprint" n. 31). Another important participant in this "querelle" was René Ouvrard, "maitre de la Musique" at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris from 1663 to 1679, and author of L'Architecture Harmonique.
After three centuries, Saint Hilarion and his "travail subtil & extraordinaire", which he carried out far from the Parisian scene in the castle of Ussé, have finally re-emerged in all their originality to complete the reconstruction of the complex context of that debate.