“You may also make Images, Histories, or Fables of Marble, or other matter against a wall; but to represent the life, they ought to stirre . . . “

Work cited:

Serlio, Sebastiano. The First[-Fift] Booke of Architecture. London: Printed for R. Peake, 1611. Print.

Originally written in Italian and published as Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva sometime after 1537.

Additional references:

Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus. The Architecture Of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: In Ten Books. Translated from the Latin by Joseph Gwilt, London: Priestley and Weale, 1826.

Originally written between 30 and 15 BC as De architectura.

Alberti, Leon B, Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

Orginal title De re aedifactoria.
Originally written in Latin circa 1452.
Originally published 1485.


Pictured woodcut illustration engraved by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (?) and Cornelis Bos (?) after Sebastiano Serlio and Baldassare Peruzzi.


Serlio’s description of the theatrical scene settings for tragic, comic and satiric scenes (Book 2, Chapter III) is famous for its accompanying woodcut illustrations – based on Serlio’s original drawings but known through later Dutch and English renditions. However, if one considers Serlio’s text without the illustrations, it remains important as the earliest known written discussion of Western scenography separate from a discussion of theater architecture.

But first, a glance backwards. Both Vitruvius and Alberti, inspired by Greek and Roman tradition, wrote on the material world of theater. However, they focused their attention on the planning and construction of theater buildings. Each writes on the geometry of the stage, audience and the adjacent structures. Vitruvius seems very concerned with the subject of theatrical acoustics. Alberti later addresses Vitruvius' devotion to acoustics by telling readers that this subject cannot ignored, but then seems to forget to finish the thought. Vitruvius, even, mentions the three scene types (Book 5, Chapter VI) but his description is only brief and serviceable. He tells you what needs to be represented on stage (columns for tragedy, private dwellings for comedies, etc.) but he does not tell you why this is so or how to do it.

Serlio steps into this gap by writing about the art and craft of set design itself. He speaks of the things on stage and the illusion they create, not only the world around them. His foundation is dramaturgical. He tells us that we need palaces and temples for tragedies because the stories of tragic plays are set in those locations. He then goes on to tell us how to position those palaces and temples on stage, and even what materials to make the set pieces with. We come across familiar words like board, paint and linen. He even begins to express an opinion about certain styles of scenography, such as mentioning that scenery with painted human or animal figures do not ring true to him because they do not move.

It is also important to note that Serlio’s writing is included within an architectural treatise devoted to drawing, ornament and style. It does not address as vast a subject area as the writings of Vitruvius and Alberti which focus on architecture in relation to civil planning, engineering and civic duty.

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