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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: November 2020

Introduction: Fictions of Containment


In 1450, Leon Battista Alberti, author of the first Renaissance architectural treatise, On the Art of Building in Ten Books [De Re Aedificatoria], stated that ‘the building is a form of body’ whose design should serve to reinforce social order. Just as the body often served as a metaphor for the nation with the king as head, the house in Alberti's treatise is both a physical structure and a metaphor for the social body. Ideologies of gender and the body are deeply embedded in Renaissance architectural theory since treatises such as Alberti's instruct architects to design buildings that reflect the teleological order and symmetry of nature and of the male body. These texts gender ideal use of space by dividing masculine and feminine space within the home. For example, Alberti's treatise advocates the segregation of women within the innermost regions of the domestic interior, thus protecting the physical body of the wife through the reinforcement of house walls. Furthermore, Renaissance architectural theory draws direct correlations between bodies and buildings. Vitruvius's De architectura [On Architecture] (30–15 BCE), the only extant Roman architectural treatise and an important classical source for renaissance architects, asserts that the structure of temples should be based on the proportions of the ideal (male) body, a tenet that Leonardo da Vinci represented visually in his Vitruvian man drawing. Following this classical teaching, renaissance architects asserted that the design of churches and palaces should be based on the proportions of the human body. Thus, Alberti's statement that buildings are bodies is literal; as Alberti's contemporary Francesco di Giorgio, who published the first vernacular translation of Vitruvius in 1470, put it, churches ‘have the proportions and shape of the human body’ so that the chancel is the head, the naves are the arms, and so on. For this reason, early modern texts across genres demonstrate a ‘symbolic transference from the body to architecture’ such that architectural spaces serve as a metonymic body. In the early modern period, ‘theoretical concepts of architecture may be found in very complex literary contexts’ since humanists regarded both literature and architecture as modes of artistic expression.