Digital Serlio: Text Transcription & Translation

On Domestic Architecture: Transcription & Translation

Teresa M. Harris
Director, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University & Former Curator, Avery Classics


The Digital Serlio Project represents the culmination of a scheme first conceived by William Bell Dinsmoor in the 1920s. Dinsmoor served as the third Librarian of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library from 1920 to 1926 and was responsible for the purchase of Serlio’s unpublished manuscript for the sixth book, containing designs for domestic architecture. Dinsmoor, who published the first exhaustive study of the manuscript in a series of seminal articles in The Art Bulletin in 1942, quickly recognized the importance of the manuscript offered by the dealer Bernard Quaritch, despite the fact that the manuscript had been bound multiple times and possessed an inaccurate title page, added by an eighteenth century owner, labeling the manuscript as the eighth book.[i]

Archival records show that in 1920 when Dinsmoor received the manuscript from Quaritch, Avery had the distinction of possessing the largest collection of Serlio’s works outside of the British Museum.[ii] The library, therefore, was the logical home for the manuscript, and Dinsmoor undertook an extensive campaign to raise funds for its purchase.  He also had dreams of publishing the volume, urging donors that: “Never before has America had a chance to publish a first edition of one of the world’s architectural classics; and now, when the missing link in the oldest complete course in the theory of architecture has unexpectedly appeared among us, it would be extremely unfortunate if it were lost.”[iii] He approached the Avery family along with numerous well-positioned architects – including Cass Gilbert, John Russell Pope and William Mead – for contributions but met with little success. At the request of the Director of the School of Architecture, the university finally purchased the manuscript in 1924 with funds from Columbia University’s Art Professorship Fund.

Dinsmoor conducted painstaking research on the manuscript and even traveled to Munich and Vienna to view the other known Serlio manuscripts. He intended for his research to form an introduction to the published volume, which would also include an English translation of the work. In 1933, the School of Architecture paid a Mme. Piccirilli for a first draft of the translation of Avery’s Serlio manuscript.[iv] Mme. Piccirilli was not an architectural historian, which accounts for some of the infelicities of phrase in the English translation that nonetheless gives us an interesting lens through which to understand the peculiarities of Serlio’s language. Dinsmoor intended to “make such revisions as the architectural interpretation may seem to require, and to compare the Munich version” that summer but appears to have abandoned the project. His meticulous research appeared in The Art Bulletin articles of 1942; however, a facsimile of the manuscript was not published until the 1978 volume prepared by Myra Nan Rosenfeld. An English translation of the revised Munich manuscript was published by Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks in 2001.[v]

The Digital Serlio Project offers Mme. Piccirilli’s translation side-by-side with a new transcription of the manuscript by Chloé Demonet. The transcription respects the language and the layout of the original text as much as possible and uses the following conventions:

  • The shape of the text on the page is indicated by vertical lines for line breaks. The creation of a new paragraph is indicated by an indentation.
  • Words or sentences that were crossed-off within the text, along with omitted words and super/subscript letters or words are indicated by square brackets, which often include an explanatory note.
  • Square brackets also indicate the few cases of uncertainty regarding the transcription.
  • Parentheses indicate abbreviations, generally limited to the character p with a cross-stroke.
  • To facilitate the legibility of the text some spaces between words were added, “u” was substituted for “v” where appropriate but “j” was maintained for “i”

We hope that the transcription and translation allow a wider audience to make use of the manuscript for teaching and research and that the Digital Serlio project as a whole inspires new scholarship on the topic.

Teresa Harris
Curator, Avery Classics
Avery Architecural & Fine Arts Library


[i] For a thorough description of the changes made to the manuscript over the course of its life see William Bell Dinsmoor, “The Literary Remains of Sebastiano Serlio,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 24, no.2 (June 1942), 117-119.

[ii] [William Bell Dinsmoor] to Professor William Boring, Director of the School of Architecture, Columbia University (June 8, 1920). William Bell Dinsmoor papers, Box 3, Folder 1, Avery Drawings & Archives.

[iii] [William Bell Dinsmoor] to Mr. Hewlett (April 22, 1921). William Bell Dinsmoor papers, Box 3, Folder 1, Avery Drawings & Archives.

[iv] [William Bell Dinsmoor] to Mme. Piccirilli (May 22, 1933). William Bell Dinsmoor papers, Box 3, Folder 1, Avery Drawings & Archives.

[v] Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks, trans. and eds. Sebastiano Serlio on Architecture, vol. 2. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001).  For a comparison of the key differences between the Avery and the Munich manuscripts see Appendix One, pp. 617-20.

Transcription & Translation