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Read about my book on the impact of Dietterlin and his Architectura, coming in autumn 2024 from Cambridge University Press: The Architectural Image and Early Modern Science: Wendel Dietterlin and the Rise of Empirical Investigation

The following text is the English version of an exhibition catalogue essay that originally appeared, in French, as Elizabeth J. Petcu, "Wendel Dietterlin & l'Architectura," in Cécile Dupeux and Jean-David Huhardeaux Touchais (eds.), Strasbourg 1560-1600. Le renouveau des arts (Strasbourg: éditions des Musées de Strasbourg, 2024), 197-211. The author thanks the Musées de Strasbourg for granting permission to publish the English version here.

Wendel Dietterlin & the Architectura

         The artist Wendel Dietterlin the Elder (c. 1550-1599), best known today for his Architectura treatise, embodies numerous dimensions of the intellectual and cultural richness of his home city of Strasbourg during the later sixteenth century. Dietterlin was born in Pfullendorf in present-day Baden-Württemberg and married a Strasbourg citizen, Catharina Sprewer, in 1570, to gain Strasbourg citizenship himself as well as entry to the local artists’ guild.[1] Dietterlin’s relocation to Strasbourg during the formative years of his career proved shrewd. The city’s position at the centre of trade routes that ran between the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Central Europe, as well as its status as a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire, fostered a culturally rich environment defined by vibrant arts and publishing scenes.[2]Strasbourg’s cosmopolitanism shaped Dietterlin’s art from the beginning. It manifests, for instance, in a drawing [Fig. 1] that resembles a putto from a fragment of a fresco of the prophet Isaiah that Raphael (1483-1520) made for Sant’Agostino at Rome in 1512, which the Rhineland artist could have known from a 1592 print by the Dutch painter and printmaker Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), or even a drawing that the Dutch painter and historian of art Karel van Mander (1548-1606) made in the mid-1570s.[3] As Dietterlin’s putto suggests, the artist absorbed from Strasbourg a rich local culture as well as a pan-European array of artistic and intellectual influences in ways that prepared him to engage audiences across Europe and beyond.

         Not long after settling in Strasbourg, Dietterlin had become one of the leading painters of facades and interiors in the German-speaking lands, a status that both relied upon and supported the artist’s exposure to trans-European artistic and intellectual influences. Records indicate that Dietterlin led multiple architectural painting campaigns in Strasbourg and the south German region, including the decoration of the residence of the Strasbourg Bishop, the Bruderhof, between 1574 and 1575, and the city’s so-called Neue Bau, or town hall, between 1588 and 1589.[4] Further afield, Dietterlin painted the interior of the Great Hall of the Neue Lusthaus or “new pleasure palace” in the gardens of Duke Ludwig III of Württemberg at Stuttgart, between 1590 and 1593.[5] Scholars have also attributed the paintings of the so-called “Salle de la Loge” of Strasbourg’s Frauenhaus to Dietterlin, though definitive proof of the cycle’s authorship remains elusive.[6] In addition, a single panel painting, The Raising of Lazarus (1587?), has survived from Dietterlin’s hand.[7]


         The travel Dietterlin undertook to complete his architectural painting commissions expanded upon the already rich panoply of intellectual and cultural resources the artist could encounter in Strasbourg. For instance, Dietterlin’s sojourns brought him into contact with the polymathic Württemberg architect-engineer Heinrich Schickhardt (1558-1635). The friendship granted Dietterlin access to Schickhardt’s building expertise and voluminous engineering and architectural drawings, in addition to books from across the Holy Roman Empire, as well as France, Italy, and the Netherlands.[8]Schickhardt’s library contained not only volumes on architecture, art, and engineering, but religion, geometry, perspective, alchemy, medicine, pharmacology, and botany.[9] Thus, while there is no record that Dietterlin ever travelled beyond the German-speaking lands, the artist nevertheless enjoyed exposure to an international and multidisciplinary spectrum of textual and visual sources. That omnivorous gathering of inspiration would come to fruition in his final major project, the Architectura.


         Dietterlin had begun to conceive his Architectura no later than 1592, the year he applied to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) for an imperial privilege—an early form of copyright—for the project.[10] Over 150 Architectura drawings, such as this design for a fountain showing St Christopher [Fig. 2], survive from Dietterlin’s preparations for the treatise, which the artist states he etched himself.[11] Perhaps due to the large number of plates it encompassed, Dietterlin’s Architectura appeared in phases.[12] A first instalment materialised at Stuttgart without a named publisher in 1593, in German, with forty-nine etched plates, including text pages.[13] A bilingual, Latin/French version appeared in the same year, published at Strasbourg by the heirs of printer Bernhard Jobin (c. 1545-1593/5).[14] In 1594, Jobin’s heirs released a second instalment of Dietterlin’s Architectura in German, and were likely also responsible for a bilingual, Latin/French version that appeared in the same year with the same fifty-three new images (and five plates repeated from the 1593 Architectura) as its German counterpart.[15] In 1595, Jobin’s atelier also released a luxury version of the Latin/French sequel with a title page printed in black and red inks.[16] The multipronged publication programme continued in the Architectura’s final instalment, published at Nuremberg by Balthasar (1583-1635) and, in some printings, Hubrecht Caymox (1554-1601) in 1598.[17] The Caymoxes produced upmarket German and Latin/French versions of the Architectura with title pages printed in red and black ink, as well as a German version of the treatise printed in black ink alone.[18] The 1598 instalment of the Architectura encompassed all the etchings included in the previous releases, plus an additional 107 prints, to achieve a total of 198 unique image plates, all accompanying less than twenty pages of text.[19]

         Dietterlin’s 1598 Architectura, like its precursors from 1593 and 1594, encompasses five “books”. Each book showcases one of the five “modern” orders of architecture, ranging from the Tuscan to the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite.[20] Each also provides a historical introduction to the featured order, and discusses how to draft its basic elements.[21] Every book likewise contains an etching that summarizes the order’s main physical features as well as the metaphorical character or personality historically attributed to it, such as this plate that visualises the Tuscan order as a farmer-formed post [Fig. 3].[22] There follow plates showing variations on the order’s fundamental architectural components, such as different columns, cornices, capitals and bases, and then architectural projects that incorporate the order, such as fountains, funerary monuments, doorways, triumphal arches, and facades. 

         As a painter of architectural structures who likely never received or executed a building commission, Dietterlin used his Architectura to express his versatile understanding of architecture as a medium. Dietterlin’s Architectura etchings cultivate ambiguity about the material status and scale of the architectural compositions they depict, for instance, this image of a clock fountain [Fig. 4], which could be constructed in monumental form using stone or wood, or on a modest scale as an adornment to a dining table or cabinet of curiosities, executed in, say, ivory or silver.[23] In many cases, artists could also emulate this and other Architectura designs in a combination of materials. Thus, on the one hand, readers can interpret Dietterlin’s Architectura as a guide to the fundamental elements of building design and an architectural model book. On the other hand, one can read Dietterlin’s Architectura as a guide to creating architectural forms in media other than built architecture, for instance, façade painting, woodwork and glass-painting—artforms that played prominent roles in late sixteenth-century Strasbourg.[24] Whatever media a reader might use to realize an Architectura design, the project remains “architectural” insofar as Dietterlin had established that all the works portrayed in his treatise embodied a classical order. 

         Dietterlin’s flexible definition of architecture as well as his multilingual and multiformat publication strategy positioned his Architectura to appeal to many kinds of readers.[25] In the first place, the spectrum of structures and objects pictured in Dietterlin’s treatise as well as the material ambiguity of its designs allowed various types of architects and artists to employ the book in their work. Dietterlin’s moves to please many kinds of artists were not revolutionary—artist-authors in the German-speaking lands had aspired to reach a variety of architect and artisan readers since the time of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).[26] Indeed, in crafting prints that portrayed objects as architecture and architecture as objects, Dietterlin burnished a tradition of flexible architectural image-making that had already flourished in Strasbourg and the Upper Rhine region more broadly under the influence Martin Schongauer (1430-1491), who fashioned rich engravings such as this image of an architectonic censer [Fig. 5]. Schongauer’s printed censer displays architectural elements such as finials and intersecting tracery typical of prestige building in his milieu, thus mediating architecture through an engraved image of metalwork. Schongauer’s engraving of a small object as a site for masterful ruminations on the multimedia possibilities of architectural composition anticipates the ways in which Dietterlin would, nearly a century later, use print to portray architecture as a subject with which virtually any artist could engage.[27] Dietterlin built upon Schongauer’s example by showing how all artistic creations could fall into the visual and conceptual framework of the five modern orders of architecture.[28] In so doing, Dietterlin ensured that his Architectura could appeal not only to diverse architects and artists, but a broad array of patrons of art and architecture who might purchase the treatise as a source of inspiration for their commissions.