Italian Technical Literature in the Field of Architectural Restoration: The case study of the Historic Memories about the Vatican Church by Giovanni Poleni | July 2015 | Translation Journal

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Italian Technical Literature in the Field of Architectural Restoration: The case study of the Historic Memories about the Vatican Church by Giovanni Poleni

Italian Technical Literature in the Field of Architectural


This paper intends to provide a theoretical, methodological and applicative contribution to the debate about strategies for the divulgation of the Italian technical literature of the eighteenth century in English-speaking countries with attention on the Italian universities and cultural institutions of the time. The paper contains a survey of the historical bibliography of contemporary translations of non-technical treatises of architecture in the English language and it proceeds to draw up a set of guidelines (decalogue) of different recently proposed methodologies and strategies. It describes the selection of the treatise to translate, relevant to the context and authoritative knowledge in the European scientific background of the eighteenth century; it continues by proposing a synopsis of the original text in the Italian modern language, a strategy used in order to make historical technical treatises accessible to the contemporary scientific Italian language. Approaches and strategies are experimented in the case study of “Historic Memories about the Great Dome of the Vatican Church” (Le Memorie Istoriche della Gran Cupola Vaticana) by Giovanni Poleni, one in the most authoritative scholars of the eighteenth century Europe.


Dome; S. Peter Church-Rome; Giovanni Poleni; Restoration; Retrofitting; Mechanics.

1. Introduction

The subject of this paper is primarily related to the translation and dissemination of Italian historical technical- scientific literature into modern English for the English-speaking countries. The intention is to make partly methodological and partly applicative contributions to the scientific debate about the criteria, methods and techniques of translation of the historical architectural literature, with the dual purpose of spreading the wealth of knowledge and techniques, in order to value both the Italian and English languages in their historical evolution. This represents one of the reasons why the study in question is mainly centred in the Age of Enlightenment that, specifically for Italy, is particularly interesting and dense both in terms of linguistic peculiarities, as well as in the contributions that Italy offered to the scientific and academic community in Europe in the field of medicine, agronomy and also in the sciences applied to architecture, nowadays more generally referred as the Science of Construction. The application of the research partly focuses on the scientific production of one of the most influential scholars of the time, Giovanni Poleni, known not only for his vast disciplinary interests, ranging from astronomy to archaeology and from medicine to mechanics, but also for his strong reputation in the academic European context. The purpose of the translation in English is to preserve the literary, expressive, formal and aesthetic content of the original text, making it accessible but easy to read. It also aims to be relevant for Anglophone scholars of Italian literature as well as for technicians, architects or engineers, who are interested in the contents rather than the formal aspects of historical treatises. The paper investigates the strategies and methods of translation in the English language in general and also related to Italian technical literature concerning statics and mechanics applied to architecture in the eighteenth century, the time in which Padua in particular was established as an authoritative reference in the European scientific context.

2. The theoretical framework

2.a. Criteria and strategies for translating historical scientific and technical literature

The subject of translation of scientific literature is a particularly complex issue, especially concerning literature published in the eighteenth century. The difficulties are related to many factors, some of which will be taken into consideration. For example over time translation involves scholars with diverse education and scientific interests, who are not accustomed to dialogue or sharing similarities and differences. Additionally, except for a few cases mainly related to medical literature, eighteenth century writers may have drawn on a heritage of various and different experiences, poorly organised in an organic discipline, that can include peculiar approaches or suggest different orientations.

If we then enter into the specific area of historical literature, it is also difficult to define the sequence of phases or the authoritative references, that characterise the time. Therefore, translation becomes even more uncertain since, to be understood as a process of divulgation and mediation, it has to confront not only various languages, but also the different historical cultural and social contexts, that are the genesis of these treatises. It is in this changing scenario that the peculiar theme of divulgation arises in English speaking countries regarding the scientific-technical literature of Italian statics and mechanics applied to architecture.

During the eighteenth century, a consistent number of Italian scholars played an important role in the European context; Giovanni Poleni occupies a prominent place here. Education and the fields of interest of most authors of scientific treatises on mechanics, medicine, biology and astronomy involve sectors of study such as philosophy, linguistics, history, that only in the last two centuries have been progressively detached from the so called Humanities; therefore, in the eighteenth century there is not any distinction among them, both in terms of content and method of study (Mazzotta and Salmon, 2007). As result, the scholars of the time were philosophers, writers and astronomers as well as scientists, mathematicians and architects.

The translation and divulgation of Italian eighteenth-century technical architectural treatises is rather an unusual theme, unlike the artistic architectural literature of which a considerable number of Italian works have been translated into English, with authoritative editions and a widespread distribution in the English-speaking scientific community (White, 1969).

The large number of reprints, new editions, amendments and reinterpretations of successful technical and artistic literature makes it difficult to systematise and define the different translation methods (Palladio, 1570). It is not easy to find effective terms, languages and forms of expression in translating the Italian technical language of the eighteenth century into English contemporary technical language without losing some content and the elegance of expression and form of these treatises, considered as the heritage of Italian literature. The informative aspects of language, typical of these treatises, need to maintain a certain kind of balance with their aesthetic aspect and sound-effects.

There are also other experiences of translation technical treatises into English, written in languages other than Italian (Heyman, 1972), including Latin (Bowler, 2005), which, due to further dialogical difficulties, have been much less debated between scholars of ancient and modern languages and experts in scientific and technical disciplines.

Within this articulated scenario, the anastatic reprint of Memorie Istoriche della Gran Cupola del Tempio Vaticano (Historic Memories about the Great Dome of the Vatican Church) (Poleni, 1748), together with a proposal for translation and research of suitable strategies and methodologies have been developed, bearing in mind that Poleni’s masterpiece is voluminous, linguistically sophisticated and ancient.

The Memorie Istoriche in fact contains only 86 pages of drawings out of 400 pages of text, differing, for instance from Palladio’s treatise, where drawings occupy a significant number of pages. Consequently, the semantic translation would be particularly onerous and hardly feasible although, being a non-literary text, precedence would be given to the denotation aspect of words and their referential function without losing the sense that gives the target language text its naturalness.

The reading of the whole source language text was followed by reading paragraph by paragraph in order to feel the tone and intention of the author, mark the difficulties, adjust the structural linguistic choices and word collocation to preserve and maintain its cohesion and coherence. The proposal of a synopsis, using languages, forms and expressions consistent with the technical language currently used by the English speaking scientific community, can also facilitate suggesting the text to an Anglophone scientific audience, belonging to a culture that is of course far from the Italian culture of the eighteenth century.

For that reason, the synoptic translation of the Historic Memories is also enriched by other simple, but hopefully useful instruments including:

  • a biographical profile of the author;
  • a short description of the scientific relevance of the Historic Memories in the scientific context of its time;
  • a reference list, cited by the author in the book itself;
  • a conversion table of historic and contemporary measurement units, specifically used in the field of architecture.

2.b. The proposal

The proposed strategy for the translation of the eighteenth-century Italian literature, specifically related to the themes of statics and mechanics applied to architecture, consists of the following phases:

  • selection of the work to be translated, according to two factors: relevance and authority of the author, in the context of European science of the eighteenth century, and also the importance and critical success of the selected text;
  • elaboration of a synopsis of the selected text in Italian; since the text is extremely complex, voluminous and rich in technical drawings, a literal translation of the text itself would not be feasible. The synopsis also facilitates the submission of the text to an Anglophone scientific audience who is far removed from Italian eighteenth century culture;
  • translation of the synopsis from Italian into English, using a coherent technical language nowadays used by the English scientific community in the issue of statics and mechanics applied to architecture. In this regard, it is worth noting that the authors of such treatises in the eighteenth century were mostly physicists, chemists and architects; nowadays these are mainly engineers, hence further lexical difficulties arise.

The synopsis is accompanied by other instruments of innovative character in the panorama of English translation of Italian technical works, including:

  • elaboration of a list of bibliographic sources quoted by the author in the text itself;
  • drawing of a vocabulary of technical terms used by the author and organised into four themes: a. the term in eighteenth century Italian; b. the corresponding term in modern Italian; c. the term in eighteenth century English; d. the corresponding term in modern English.

3. The case study

3.a. Giovanni Poleni’s biodata

The experimental application of the research is related to the choice of this strategy applied to Historic Memories about the Great Dome of the Vatican Church of Giovanni Poleni, (Venice, 1685-Padua, 1761), who is one of the most authoritative Italian scholars of the eighteenth century in Europe (Figure 1). His training and activity as scholar make him an eclectic Illuminist, with a holistic interest in the world of experimental sciences. After his early studies in philosophy and theology in Venice he devoted himself to the study of mathematics and physics, the results of which were collated in a book, printed in 1709, Miscellanea. De barometris et thermometris, de machina quadam arithmetica, de sectionibus conicis in horologiis solaribus, that earned him Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) support to become a member of the Royal Society of London and the Chair of Astronomy and Meteorology at Padua University. He proposed unedited variants of differential and integral calculus, gaining Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz’s (1646-1716) interest and support of his election as a member of the Academy of Sciences of Berlin, resulting Poleni’s accreditation in the European context.

Ten years later, he occupied the Chair of Mathematics in Venice, and had set up a first informal experimental laboratory for applied physics and engineering. The Venetian Republic commissioned him to study the complicated issue of irrigation and flood risk of the Adda River; he collated the results of the related experiments in a treatise, published in 1717, De motu aquae mixto libri duo, that earned him further distinction in the European scientific community. In 1738, at the University of Padua, Poleni founded the first official Italian experimental physics laboratory called “Theatre of Experimental Philosophy” for astronomical observation and experimental tests, which led him in 1739 to the nomination as a member of the Academy of Sciences in Paris. In 1741, he published the results of ten years of observations and experience in a book, Institutionum philosophiae mechanicae specimen, that obtained a great critical acclaim. In these years, Poleni intensified his study of applied sciences regarding the art of building studying Vitruvius’s treatise and in 1737, he published Utriusque thesauri antiquitatum romanarum graecarumque nova supplementa and in 1739, Exercitationes Vitruvianae primae X.

These works led to him receiving, from Pope Benedict XlV in 1743, the assignment to study the structure of the Dome of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, in order to evaluate its structural vulnerability and to define the restoration works required. In 1748, he published the results of this research, Historic Memories about The Great Dome, which still represents a fundamental text on the scientific method applied to structural restoration and constitutes one of the most relevant and authoritative methodological reference for the science of structural restoration (Gennari, 1839).

3.b. The content of the Poleni’s Historic Memories about the Great Dome of the Vatican Church

The Historic Memories (Figures 2-4) is a fundamental Essay on structural restoration; in this book Poleni describes the restoration works of the Dome in the Vatican Church, the most important and one of the largest Christian Churches. The Vatican Dome, designed and partially built by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), is one of the most significant monuments of architectural history and even today constitutes an unmatched typological reference. The Historic Memories proposes and describes an innovative introduction and coding of the scientific method in the discipline of restoration, as a process of anamnesis (description of the current conditions; history of the building), diagnosis (analysis of materials, including experimental tests, understanding of the technical constructive aspects) and prognosis (design and execution of the restorations, with subsequent verification of their effectiveness) (Benvenuto, 1991).

Portrait of Giovanni Poleni by Giacomo

Figure 1. Portrait of Giovanni Poleni by Giacomo Ciesa (1772-1773. Astronomical observatory of Padua).

Historic Memories of Giovanni Poleni 1

Historic Memories of Giovanni Poleni 2Historic Memories of Giovanni Poleni 3Figures 2-4. Some of the best-known illustrations in the Historic Memories of Giovanni Poleni.

The treatise is very voluminous; in fact, it contains only 86 pages of drawings out of more than 400 pages of text. But at the same time reading the treatise is facilitated by the structure of the essay: 5 books, 76 chapters, 458 columns, 669 paragraphs, 696 footnotes, authors index with 915 calls and 290 names and a thematic index with 1417 calls and 579 relevant issues. This allows reading of this ante litteram hypertext in different ways and for scholars interested in very different types of research fields (history, religion, architecture, mechanics, geology, numismatics, genealogy, etc). For these reasons Historic Memories is articulated in six sections, called books: The first book concerns the anamnesis and explores the history of the Vatican Church, above all in terms of the connection between historical sources and constructive phases, with the aim to investigate any vulnerabilities intrinsic to the construction. The second book concludes the anamnesis, describing and investigating the state of art about mechanics applied to the theory of arches, vaults and domes, comparing the theoretical approach, experiments and convictions of some of the most influential and authoritative scholars and scientists of Poleni’s time from Blondel and Parent to Dulacq and Stirling, from Hooke and Newton to Musschenbroek and Bernoulli. The third book deals with the diagnosis, proposing an interpretation of the damage suffered by St. Peter’s Dome in the past and in his time. Under the methodological point of view, it is interesting to note that Poleni starts to elaborate his interpretation through description, comments and criticism of a very large number of writings, books, reports, treatises and essays written by several scholars in charge of analysing the problems of the period before him, including not only the opinions of mathematicians and architects, but also some suggestions of philosophers, historians and experienced masons, thus demonstrating an open-mindedness, which is unusual for that period. The fourth book deals with the prognosis, suggesting the integration of two different kinds of restoration work: first of all he proposes to add five tension metal rings to the Dome. Second, he recommends to retrofit all the cracks and damage using materials, techniques and procedures as much as possible that are compatible with those present in the structures (arches, dome, pillars, etc) to be repaired. Also in this case, with regard to the methodological approach, it is interesting to note that his intent is to demonstrate the validity of his proposals comparing them to others’ opinions, case studies and previous experiences. The fifth and last book briefly describes the restoration site, the work actually carried out and some discrepancies and differences between the restoration project and the accomplished work with the aim to use the observations and discoveries made during the work to verify his theoretical convictions.

3.c. The historical and scientific relevance of the Poleni’s Historic Memories about the Great Dome of the

Vatican Church

The eighteenth century marks a crucial moment of transition from modernity to contemporaneity in the mechanical sciences. In this regard, the scientific approach was applied to architecture, consequently defined as the science of construction, that based its theory on the concept of resistance connected to the properties of materials, and no longer on the principle of equilibrium.

Therefore, the revolution consists in applying the concept of science to architecture and overcoming the concept of architecture as an art. Accordingly, the great innovative merit of Poleni is related to the systematisation of knowledge for the reading and critical interpretation of the structural characteristics of buildings, and the introduction of instruments to understand the structural problems and the consequent identification of the best proposals for their retrofitting.

The contribution of Giovanni Poleni to the science of restoration is not only limited to the diagnostic tests of the materials of the Dome, although these are an original contribution (Bianco, 2010), but above all he had the intuition to determine, using the scientific method, the relationship between the materials and the construction techniques in the cracks of the Vatican Dome.

This intuition was the necessary condition to formulate a diagnosis and evaluate the effectiveness of different types of consolidation and restoration. Poleni applied this principle to other cases, such as the narration of the construction and transformations of the Temple of Diana in Ephesus (Poleni, 1742) and the archeological discoveries in Pozzuoli. In both cases Poleni proposed the reconstruction of the history of these buildings, not only in terms of knowledge, but also as a ratio for their tangible and intangible transmission to the future (Poleni, 1755).

Poleni’s relevant contribution to the organic application of the scientific method is related to the understanding of the structural problems of buildings, and this is perceivable through the critical success of his writings among his contemporaries (Cossali, 1813), who considered the process of diagnostic investigation of St. Peter’s and the method to define the interventions as an authoritative methodological example for the scientific and technical community. Jean-Baptiste Rondelet (1743-1829) in his writings related to similar problems occurring in the pillars of the Pantheon in Paris, cited clearly the case of the Vatican Church as an example of approach, investigative methodology and restoration proposals. In fact, in retrofitting the pillars of the Pantheon, Rondelet reported Poleni’s technical model (Rondelet, 1797), which a large part of the scientific community still recognise as one of the most relevant scientific approaches to this issue (Giuffré, 1988).

3.d. Other architectural treatises in the eighteenth century

The history of architectural treatises in Italy has a long tradition originated by Vitruvius’s treatise and characterized by very large dissemination from the fifteenth century in the rest of Europe thanks to translations and reprints becoming very popular in a short time (Leon Battista Alberto, De re edificatoria, 1452; Antonio Averlino Filarete, Il trattato di Architettura, 1464; Sebastiano Serlio, I sette libri dell’Architettura, 1537; Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Regola delli cinque ordini d'Architettura, 1562; Andrea Palladio, I quattro libri dell'architettura, 1570) and giving Italy cultural primacy (Philibert de L'Orme, L’Architecture, 1567; Hugues Sambin, Oeuvre de la diversité des termes dont on use en architecture, 1572; Walther Hermann Ryff, Bawkunst Oder Architektur aller fürnemsten, 1582; Cristóbal de Rojas, Teorica y practica de fortificacion, 1598). This Italian leadership was however lost two centuries later, just at the time of Poleni (Neveu, 2005).

However, the contents of these very well known treatises differ profoundly from Poleni’s treatise since they address formal, design and aesthetic issues of architecture (including for example the building types or architectural styles and orders) and they deal only marginally with technical aspects, for example building materials and their general properties.

These treatises were in fact addressed to scholars, intellectuals and savants and their dissemination was due to their intellectual connotation (Bury, 1988). Conversely, Poleni’s treatise is an essay that addresses purely technical and technological issues, for instance drawing techniques compared to principles of optical physics, or debated issues on structural performance, seismic and technological architecture. For these reasons Poleni’s treatise seems to have more connections with nineteenth-century treatises than sixteenth-century treatises described above. The need to investigate technical issues using different criteria in comparison to those traditionally used for examination of the aesthetic aspects of architecture highlights the introduction of other experimental sciences also in architecture and the passage from the “Art of Construction” to the “Building Science”.

The proliferation of these technical treatises took place thanks to a new category of scholars interested in the experimental sciences, such as chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering, which in fact rapidly developed from the end of the eighteenth century (Kruft, 1994). This highlights how Poleni’s treatise was anticipatory and innovative. For this reason this treatise quickly became an authoritative reference on the national scene of technical treatises (Francesco Algarotti, Saggio sopra l’architettura, 1756; Girolamo Masi, Teoria e pratica di Architettura civile, 1788; Daniele Danieletti, Elementi di Architettura Civile, 1791) and also in the international context (Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’architecture, 1753; Thomas Skaife, A key to civil architecture or The universal British builder, 1774; Tobias Gruber, Briefe hydrographischen und physikalischen Inhalts aus Krain an Ignaz Edlen von Born, 1781), unlike treatises about architectural orders that continued to proliferate in Italy thanks to the Vitruvian tradition (Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, Li Cinque Ordini di Architettura,1749; Girolamo Fonda, Elementi di architettura civile e militare ad uso del Collegio Nazareno, 1764; Francesco Milizia, Principi d’Architettura Civile, 1781), however, finding less continuity in Europe (Pierre Bullet, Architecture pratique, édition nouvelle revue et augmentée, 1768; James Basire, The rudiments of ancient architecture, in two parts, containing an historical account of the five orders, 1789; Leopold Peucker, Landschaften aus Architektur-Stücken und Alterthümern, 1793). However, considering specifically the technical treatises, there are some interesting precedents also in Italy, such as the Manuale dell’Architetto by Giovanni Branca, which was published for the first time in 1629 and in many subsequent editions (1688, 1718, 1757, 1783, 1789), was a kind of practical guide for architects and builders and addressed different operational and technical issues but not scientific. Another example in Italy is Dialoghi sopra le tre Arti del Disegno by Giovanni Gaetano Bottari, published in Lucca in 1754, which proposed architectural technical drawing as an approach based on optical physics, a science strongly developed in that period.

Finally, another interesting essay is Osservazioni di Continuazione al Trattato di Teofilo Gallaccini sopra gli Errori egli Architetti, written by Antonio Visentini and published in 1771, specifying, however, that Visentini collaborated with Poleni in Padua. In the same time period in Europe, specifically in the countries where the study of experimental sciences such as medicine and astronomy were more developed, there are interesting examples of technical architectural treatises (Wiebenson, 1983), that have some elements in common with Poleni’s Historic Memories. For instance, Jean-Baptiste Rondelet in his Traité theorique et pratique de l'Art de Bâtir, published in 1802, deals with many structural issues, yet omitting seismic implications as in the case of Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, who in the same year published the Précis des leçons d'architecture données à l'École Polytechnique, and a few other non Italian scholars (Samuel Wale, Marc Antoine Laugier, An essay on architecture in which its true principles are explained, 1755; Adam James, Adam Robert, The works in Architecture, 1773; Lukas Voch, Architektur nötig, 1769). Around the same time within this category of architectural technical treatises there is a very limited number of treatises that deal with retrofitting and structural restoration: in England Langley Batty’s Ancient Architecture restored and improved published in 1742; in France, for example, the essay by Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, Mémoire historique sur le Dòme du Panthéon Français, published in 1797; in Italy, specifically for some seismic issues, Istoria e teoria de' tremuoti in generale: ed in particolare di quelli della Calabria e di Messina del MDCCLXXXXIII by Giovanni Vivenzio published in 1788. This observation explains even better what kind of cultural innovation Poleni’s treatise provided the scientific and academic community in the Italian and European context.

4. The translation

4.a. The synopsis

The decision to propose a translation of the Memorie Istoriche through a synopsis is a challenge since, like a large part of coeval works on homologous or similar issues, it is a linguistically sophisticated work. In order to be brief, in this paper it is possible to show only the synoptic translation of the Introduction to the First Book of the Historic Memories, following the strategy described above: 1. the original text; 2. the synopsis-Italian version; 3. the synopsis translated into English.

I. The original text.Accingendomi, Beatissimo Padre, a scrivere l'Istoria delle cose, nel tempo dell'ottimo Pontificato Vostro accadute, così per riguardo alle disamine de Danni, che nella Cupola erano, di codesto Magnifico Tempio di S. Pietro, come per rispetto ai Ristoramenti o proposti, od eseguiti; punto non temei de maggiori due falli, in cui scrivendo un'Istoria incorre si può agevolmente. Cioè a dire: né ebbi timor, da una parte, di deviar dalla verità per affezione, ovvero passion veruna, che mi signoreggiasse; tali essendo le cose, onde si trattava, che mantenermi ho potuto in una indifferenza perfetta, e la sola verità riguardare; né dubitai dell'altra, di non avere le necessarie informazioni; dacché potei esattamente il tutto comprendere, per i ragionamenti altrui, per le altrui scritture, e per aver io medesimo della costituzione di quella gran Mole si concepute meditando le idee più proprie; e si mirata e rimirata, più e più volte, la realtà stessa. Ben sollecito, e grave pensier mi fu il considerare quanto dovesse riuscirmi difficile il mettere per iscritto si varie, ed importanti cose nel vero lume loro e migliore. Conciossiaché vedeva di dover io versare in materia tant'importante, quanto materia alcuna d'Architettura riputar si possa importante il più. E che sia così: se la grandezza si consideri della Mole; questa è una delle maggiori del Mondo. Se 'l proposto soggetto appartenere in gran parte sì osservi alla solidità; di leggieri apparisce, appunto esser essa la principalissima intra le tre cose, Solidità, Comodo, e Bellezza, le quali non pur nella formazione delle Fabbriche, ma negli addottrinamenti eziando dell'Architettura più escogitati, e meglio scritti, ogni maggiore studio ricercano. Se poi di quell'eccelso Edificio si riguardino la figura, la costruzione, i difetti, si comprende assai chiaramente, che per ben esorgli necessità v'é d'un'ardua combinazione di molte e diverse contezze. Ma, per dir brieve, io soggiungerò la cagione più alta, la quale rende per me quest'affare oltre ad ogni comparazione importanitssimo: egli è il Comandamento della Santità Vostra. Ben giusto fu, che ammirassi anch'io, siccome ammirai, quel fervore con cui, oltra le gravissime faccende alla Religione appartenenti e all'Impero, vi avete presa distinta cura della magnifica Mole così splendida e così grandiosa; sicché dal Vostro Comandamento e sotto i faustissimi Auspici Vostri, sono stati intrapresi ed a perfezione ridotti i ristoramenti della medesima. Sa il Mondo, essere in voi quel patrimonio amplissimo di Sapere, che alla Dignità Vostra di Maestro della Cattolica Chiesa e del Cristianesimo tutto, sta cotanto bene e convieni. Pertanto egli è chiaro da sé, che queste mie Memorie aver non dovrebbero parola alcuna, nella quale non risplendesse lume d'ingegno, e perfezione d'industria. Ciò dalla mia mediocrità io non potendo sperare, solo mi resta di supplicare vivamente alla Clementissima Degnazione Vostra. Il massimo dei miei voti è che l'Onnipotente Divina Mano e prolunghi la preziosissima vita, e felici le tanto al Mondo importanti, piissime, magnanime idee della Santità Vostra a cui fin qua i Pié venerati bacio religiosissimamente. Padova 16 dicembre 1747.”

II.a. The synopsis-Italian version. Scrivere la storia di un Edificio magnifico, come la Chiesa di San Pietro a Roma, e dei suo Danni comporta due tipi di rischi. Il primo è quello di allontanarsi dalla Verità a causa di un’eccessiva passione, per cui è necessario essere distaccati e cercare solo la Verità. Il secondo rischio è di non avere sufficienti ed adeguate informazioni, pertanto si rende utile conoscere gli studi condotti da altri, meditando sulle loro idee e soprattutto osservare molte volte l’Edificio, per trovare in esso stesso le informazioni cercate. In tal modo le informazioni raccolte sull’Edificio sono divenute così tante che la difficoltà è divenuta quella di riportare il tutto per iscritto e descrivere come questo Edificio sia espressione della triade vitruviana: Venustas, Firmitas, Utilitas, attraverso la sua configurazione e costruzione, anche nei suoi Difetti. La comprensione di ciò rende necessario combinare aspetti numerosi e diversi. Tuttavia la grandezza di questo Edificio non solo ha permesso una loro conoscenza, ma conseguentemente anche di eseguire adeguate opere di restauro, che sono esse stesse testimonianza di ingegno e capacità tecnica. Padova. 16 dicembre. 1747.

II.b.The synopsis-English version. To write the history of the magnificent Church of St. Peter in Rome, particularly related to its damage, involves two kinds of risk. The first one is the shift from the Truth for excessive passion, hence the necessity to be detached as much as possible in order to reach the Truth. The second risk is associated with the fact that there might not be sufficient and appropriate information; in this case, the knowledge of studies conducted by other scholars and writers and the proper attention to their ideas is fundamental, as well as a keen eye in the accurate observation of the construction. The abundant information collected on the Building made it arduous to transpose it in a written form; nevertheless, considering the concept of solidity, the three possible remarks on the Building can be associated with the Vitruvian virtues: Venustas, Firmitas, Utilitas (Delight, Firmness, Commodity). Going through its structure and defects clearly requires the combination of different aspects of knowledge. Furthermore, the greatness of the Building made us realise the urgency of adequate technical restoration works. Padua, December 16th, 1747.

4.b. The conversion table of measurement units and numeric systems

The synopsis is connected to a conversion table of measurement units (Table 1), specifically useful in the field of statics and mechanics in Italy in the eighteenth century and in two of the main contemporary metric systems. Although this idea is conceptually simple and common in other fields, such as the history of astronomy or of agronomy, it is however, unprecedented in the fields of the history of architecture, statics and mechanics, perhaps because of the difficulty of finding reliable and directly comparable historic sources. For this reason, being the bibliographic references significantly divergent, we have to consider the conversions just indicative and heavily dependent on geographical areas and historical phases (Cardarelli, 1999; Cardarelli, 2003; Guidi, 1839; Hinkelman and Sinylla, 2005; Marta, 1866).

Measurement units used by Giovanni Poleni

International Measurement System

UK-USA Measurement System


1 minute (minuto)

0.07 centimeter-cm

0.03 inch-in

1 line (linea)

0.89 centimeter-cm

0.35 inch-in

1 inch (pollice)

3.17 centimeter-cm

1.25 inch-in

1 ounce (oncia)

3.17 centimeter-cm

1.25 inch-in

1 palm (palmo)

26.4 centimeter-cm

10.39 inch-in

1 foot (piede)

38.04 centimeter-cm

1.25 foot-ft

1 Venetian foot (piede veneto)

33.49 centimeter-cm

1.1 foot-ft

1 Rhine foot (piede renano)

34.45 centimeter-cm

1.13 foot-ft

1 Royal foot of Paris (piede regio di Parigi)

32.48 centimeter-cm

10.7 foot-ft


1 ounce (oncia)

3 grams-g (SI)

0.11 ounce-oz

1 pound (libbra)

0.36 kilograms-kg (SI)

0.96 pound -lb


1 Roman scudo (scudo romano)


15 GBP - 23 USD

Numeric system Conversion















































































Table 1. The conversion table of measurement units and numeric systems.

4.c. The historic sources

One of the last tools, proposed in this translation strategy, is a detailed list of the writings, published and not, that Giovanni Poleni indicates in his Historic Memories as references he used for the elaboration of his essay.

This list can be helpful, not only for providing an idea of the level of divulgation of the scientific and technical books about architecture, restoration and mechanics in Europe in that time, but also to assess the role of Giovanni Poleni in the European context, compared to some of most relevant scientists of his time, such as Newton (1642-1727) or Johann Bernoulli (1667-1745), who are cited several times by Poleni in Historic Memories, whilst occasionally proposing arguments that are discordant with the opinions of these prominent scholars. In fact the historical sources used by Giovanni Poleni can be divided into three groups:

A) scientific treatises written by scholars of his time and of the previous century, which faces preliminary or complementary issues, including treatises about theoretical physics (Kepler, 1606; Newton, 1726) , experimental physics (Galileo, 1638; Picard, 1688; Parent, 1713) and especially theoretical and experimental mechanics (Bernoulli, 1670; de la Hire, 1691, 1702 and 1712; Blondel, 1699; Leibnitz, 1712; over about a hundred other treatises), that demonstrate not only his deep knowledge of the latest scientific literature on the subject, but also the attitude to discussion and debate of these European authors, sharing, exchanging and disseminating their writings.

B) architectural treatises, which can be classified in to kinds: the ancient ones (Vitruvio, 1567) and the treatises in the two centuries before Poleni (Vasari, 1550; Barbaro, 1567; Serlio, 1575; Vignola, 1611). It is interesting to note Poleni seems to overlook the technical treatises written by the authors of his time, which, as seen above, have less relevance in the European context of architectural treatises than two centuries before, during which Italy was in an absolute pre-eminence position in Europe for these specific issues.


C) about two hundred non-scientific books and various treatises on very different subjects , from history to moral philosophy , from numismatics to genealogy. These books are not interesting for the study of mechanics applied to architecture, but they suggest the richness and complexity of the investigations, conducted by Poleni to study the Dome and then the holistic approach adopted by him, under the methodological view point, in conducting this research.

4.d. Examples of glossaries and synoptic technical translations in the field of architecture

The history of the translation of foreign architectural treatises into English is long and complex; certainly one of the best-known examples concerns Vitruvius's treatise, De Architectura, written at the end of the first century BC and translated from Latin into modern languages since the sixteenth century, often with the addition of drawings and appendices (into Italian: Giovanni Sulpizio, Victruvii Pollionis ad Cesarem Augustvm De architectura, c1486-148; into Dutch: Walther Hermann Ryff, Vitruvii viri suae professionis pertissimi De architectura libri decem, 1543; into Franch: Jean Martin, Architecture ou Art de bien bastir de Marc Vitruve Pollion, 1547; into Spanish: Juan Gracian e Miguel de Urrea, De Architectura, dividido en diez libroz, traducidos del Latin en Casellano, 1582). In this regard it is interesting to note that the first complete English translation of Vitruvius's treatise was published only two centuries later (Anonymous, An abridgment of the Architecture of Vitruvius, 1692). Still today new editions and translations, mainly into English, are published (Gwilt, 2015). Furthermore, frequently these translations were above all in the past an opportunity to add appendices that contained updates, insights and integrations written by the translators and therefore they are partly extraneous to the original texts. Also Giovanni Poleni proposed a translation of this kind, publishing in 1739 the Exercitationes Vitrvvianae primae: hoc est Ioannis Poleni commentarivs criticvs de M. Vitrvvii Pollionis architecti. This phenomenon affects not only Vitruvius’s book, but also some of the best-known treatises of the Italian architects of the sixteenth century as previously seen (Leon Battista Alberto; Antonio Averlino Filarete; Sebastiano Serlio; Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola; Andrea Palladio; etc). Sometimes the authors themselves translated their own books, as in the case of Francesco Algarotti, who translated into German his treatise Saggio sopra l’architettura of 1756 (Versuche über die Architectur, Mahlerey und musicalische Opera, 1769), suggesting a kind of synopsis with updates.Therefore the history of translation into English of foreign ancient architectural treatises is at the same time ancient and highly topical even today. Nevertheless, in the specific field of publications regarding building technologies there are no numerous examples of synoptical translation into English, both in the recent past (Jenkins, 1955; White, 1961) and today (Middleton, 2007; McBrewster, 2010) or examples of technical dictionaries and glossaries specifically conceived to support the translation of the ancient language of architecture from Latin into modern languages, especially into English in the recent past (William Salmon, Palladio Londinensis: The Builder's Dictionary, Containing an Alphabetical Explanation of the Terms Used in Architecture, 1743; Anonimous, The rudiments of ancient architecture with ... extracts form Vitruvius, Pliny & C. ... with a dictionary of terms, 1804) and currently (Curl, 2003). In regard to Poleni’s Memorie Istoriche there are some interesting historical attempts aimed at analysing, summarizing and commenting on this book in Italian (Dotti Gian Giacomo, Memorie critico-istoriche intorno alla cupola di S. Pietro in Vaticano e al risarcimento apprestatole dal Poleni, 1793) and in English in the recent past (Vivian, 1963; Heyman, 1988) and today (Lopez, 2006; Marconi, 2009), but they are not extended synoptical translations.

This set of considerations seems to provide evidence that the need to propose methods, strategies and tools for an expeditious and at the same clear translations of historical treatises in the field of architecture and building technologies is even today and perhaps more than in the past an issue that is debated too little.

5. Conclusions

The main scope of this research was, as described in the introduction, to give a partly methodological and partly applicative contribution to the scientific debate about the criteria, methodologies and techniques of translating the historical scientific Italian literature in the field of architectural restoration. Using the case study of the synoptic translation of Historic Memories represents merely a first experiment that can be improved upon, for example, by integrating it with a literary translation of some of the most relevant chapters, for instance, the part regarding the description of the retrofitting works. This would make evident the transformations and the choices made in the translation, as well as identifying the differences between the synoptic and the literary translations that, however, due to the complexity and the voluminosity of these essays is a particularly onerous and impractical translation method.



Benvenuto Edoardo, An Introduction to the History of Structural Mechanics. New York: Springer, 1991. Bernoulli Johann Curva Catenaria, In Acta Eruditorum, Transazioni Filosofiche della società reale di Londra,

in Giornali Letterari Lipsiani. Leipzig: Collegiata, , 1670. Bianco Alessia, Machiatio. Roma: Aracne, 2011.

Blondel Francesco, Discorsi intorno alla maniera migliore di descrivere geometricamente per l’Architettura gli Archi Rampanti, in Memoires de l’Academie Royale des Sciences, depuis 1666 jusqu a 1699. Paris: Academie Royale des Sciences, 1700, Edition, Tom. V.

Bowler Peter and Morus Iwan Rhys, Making modern science-A historical survey. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 2005.

It should be noted that a large part of Giovanni Poleni’s scientific treatises is in Latin and this circumstance occurs for several coeval scholars. One example is the scientific production of one of the most influential scientists of that time, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), which is largely in Latin. It does not seem superfluous to specify that the only Newton book, mentioned by Poleni in his Historic Memories is in Latin (Isaaci Newtoni Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Editio Londinensis, 1726, Lib. I. Lex. III. Corol. I., Pag. 421.) and the little surviving correspondence between Newton and Poleni, who in 1710 was appointed as member of the Royal Society of London with the support of Newton, is in Latin, the vehicular language of that time. For further information: Soppelsa Maria Luisa, Leibniz e Newton in Italia e il dibattito padovano 1687-1750. Trieste: LINT, 1989.

Bury John, Les traites d'architecture de la Renaissance. Paris: Picard, 1988.

Cardarelli François, Scientific Unit Conversion: A Practical Guide to Metrication. New York: Springer, 1999. Cardarelli François, Encyclopaedia of Scientific Units, Weights, and Measures: A Practical Guide to

Metrication. New York: Springer, 2003.

Cossali Pietro, Elogio di Giovanni Poleni recitato dall'abate Pietro Cossali. Padova: Tipografia Bettoni, 1813.

This volume is also interesting for its enthusiastic description of the method applied by Poleni for the study of the Vatican Dome. Furthermore, in one of the most well-known biographies of Poleni, the method of

investigation applied by Poleni to the Vatican Dome is described as follows: "he is studying all that was

contained in the known books, and observing the drawings, in order to have a right idea about that building", which suggests the most appropriate measures. (Giuseppe Gennari, Elogio... Op. cit.). This method, however, must be considered as the result of a series of restoration, designed and executed by Poleni in Venice, but unfortunately not well documented. It includes accounts of the restoration of several public buildings in Rialto, adapted for commercial use, the diagnosis of some structural problems of the clock in Piazza San Marco and of the facade of St. Rocco Church.

Curl James Stevens, Classical Architecture: an introduction to its vocabulary and essentials, with a select glossary of terms, New York: Norton & Company, 2003.

de la Hire Gabriel Philippe, Traité de mecanique : ou l'on explique tout ce qui est nécessaire dans la pratique the arts, & les propriétés des corps pesants lesquelles ont un plus grand usage dans la physique. Paris: Par la

Compagnie des libraires, 1691.

de la Hire Gabriel Philippe, Remarques sur la forme de quelques Arcs, dont on se sert dans l’Architecture, in

Memoires de l’Academie Royale des Sciences. Paris: Memoires de l’Academie Royale des Sciences, 1702.

de la Hire Gabriel Philippe, Sur la construction des Voutes dans les Edifices, in Memoires de l’Academie

Royale des Sciences. Paris: Memoires de l’Academie Royale des Sciences, 1712.

Galilei Galileo, Discorsi e dimostrazioni intorno a due nuove scienze attenenti alla mecanica & i movimenti locali. Leida: Elsevirii, 1638.

Gennari Giuseppe, Elogio del March. Gio. Poleni scritto dall'Ab. Giuseppe Dott. Gennari. Padova: Tip. del

Seminario, 1839. This is one of the most interesting biographies of Giovanni Poleni.

Giuffré Antonino, Anastatic reprint of the Memorie istoriche della Gran Cupola del Tempio Vaticano e dei danni di essa, e dé ristoramenti loro by Giovanni Poleni. Roma: Laboratorio fototipografico dell’Università

La Sapienza, 1988.

Guidi Giuseppe, Ragguaglio delle monete dei pesi e delle misure attualmente in uso negli stati italiani. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1839.

Gwilt Joseph, The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in Ten Books, Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 2015.

Heyman Jacques, Coulomb's Memoir on Statics. An Essay in the History of Civil Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Consider the dissemination of this book, that cannot be defined exactly as a translation, however, but rather

as a synoptic critical edition of the Charles de Coulomb, Essai sur une application des règles de maximis et de minimis à quelques problèmes de Statique relatifs à l'Architecture. Paris: Académie des Sciences, 1773.

Heyman Jacques, “Poleni´s problem”, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. 84, issue 4, 1988, pp. 737-59.

Hinkelman Edward and Putzi Sibylla, Dictionary of International Trade: Handbook Of The Global Trade

Community. Petaluma: World Trade Press, 2005.

Jenkins Frank, Marc Antoine Laugier (1713-1769) and his Theory of Architecture, Champaign: University of

Illinois, 1955.

Kruft H. W., A history of Architectural theory from Vitruvius to the present. New York: Princeyon Architectural

Press, 1994.

Leibnitz (von) Gottfried Wilhelm, Curva Catenaria, In Acta Eruditorum, Transazioni Filosofiche della società reale di Londra, in Giornali Letterari Lipsiani, Lipsia. Leipzig: Collegiata, 1691.Kepler Johannes, De stella

nova in pede serpentarii, et qui sub ejus exortum de novo iniit. Pragae: Ex Officina calcographica Paulis

Sessii, 1606.

López Gema M., “Poleni´s Manuscripts about the Dome of Saint Peter’s”, Proceedings of the Second

International Congress on Construction History, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 1957-1979.

Marconi Nicoletta, “Technicians and master builders for restoration of the dome of St. Peter's in Vatican in the

18th century”, Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, Cottbus, 2009, pp.


Marta Antonio, Trattato elementare di Aritmetica. Torino: G. B. Paravia e Compagnia, 1866.

Mazzotta Patrizia and Salmon Laura, eds, Tradurre le microlingue scientifiche. Riflessioni teoriche e proposte didattiche. Torino: UTET, 2007.

McBrewster John, Miller Frederic, Vandome Agnes, Giovanni Branca, 2010.

Middleton Robin, Jean Rondelet: The Architect as Technician, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Neveu Marc J., Architectural lessons of Carlo Lodoli (1690-1761): indole of material and of self. PhD Dissertation. Montrèal: McGill University.2005-Unpublished. (

Newton Isaac, Isaaci Newtoni Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Editio Londinensis, 1726, Lib. I. Lex. III. Corol. I., Pag. 421.

Palladio Andrea, I quattro libri dell’Architettura. Venezia: Domenico de Francesco publisher, 1570.

For instance, bout this book we have not only countless editions in Italian (just to name a few of them: Bartolomeo Carampello, 1581. Bartolomeo Carampello, 1601. Bartolomeo Carampello, 1616. Marc Antonio

Brogiollo, 1642. Domenico Lovisa, 1711. Francesco Muttoni, 1740. Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1803. Aniano Balzafiori, 1807. Giovan Battista Berti, 1818. Marco Biraghi, 1992. Marco Biraghi, 2008) but also a

large number of English translations such as that by Inigo Jones, 1616. Godfrey Richards, 1663. Godfrey Richards, 1670. Nicolas Du Bois, 1721. Giacomo Leoni, 1715. George Jameson, 1765. Batty Langley, 1767. William Halfpenny, 1751. Guido Beltramini, 2002. Adolf Placzek, 2013. Therefore, in the case of English

speaking scholars we can observe, especially for the editions published at the end of the nineteenth century, that greater freedom in favour of a more flexible interpretation is applied if compared to the Italian speaking

scholars who are usually more interested in submitting the whole content of the books with the result of a more rigid and literal result. Other elements of difficulties are partly related to the fact that in the English translations the translators do not indicate the edition or editions consulted for their translations.

Parent Antonio, Essais & Recherches de Mathematique. Paris: Academie Royale des Sciences, 1713, Volume

II. Pag. 494 & Pag. 728., Volume III.

Picard Jean, Barométres, Thermométres, et Notiométres, ou Hygrométres. Amsterdam: Henry Wetstein, 1688.

Pag. 55. & Pag. 56.

Poleni Giovanni, Dissertazione sopra al Tempio di Diana d'Efeso diretta a Monsignor Giovanni Bottari cappellano segreto di N.S. e secondo custode della Biblioteca Vaticana, in Saggi di Dissertazione dell'Accademia etrusca dell'antichissima città di Cortona. Cortona : Accademia di Cortona, 1742.

Poleni Giovanni, Memorie istoriche della Gran Cupola del Tempio Vaticano e dei danni di essa, e dé ristoramenti loro. Padova: Stamperia del Seminario, 1748. Anastatic reprint by Antonino Giuffrè. Roma:

Laboratorio fototipografico dell’Università La Sapienza, 1988.

Poleni Giovanni, Pianta d'un antico Edificio scoperto in Pozzuoli. Letter to Abbot Antonio Gori, dated 1755, unpublished (Gennari Giuseppe, Elogio...Op. cit.).

Rondelet Jean Baptiste, Mémoire historique sur le Dòme du Panthéon Français divisé in quatre parties. Paris: Du Pont Imprimeur, 1797.

Serlio Sebastiano, Sette Libri de l’Architettura. Venetia: Officina typografica Andrea Wecheli, 1575. Vasari Giorgio, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori. Firenze: Giunti, 1550.

Vignola (da) Barozzi Jacopo, Trattato di Prospettiva, annesso a: Ignazio Danti, Vita di Jacopo da Vignola,

Roma: Mascardi, 1611.

Vitruvio Marco Pollonio, I Dieci Libri dell’Architettura di M. Vitruvio, tradotti & commentati da Daniel

Barbaro. Venetia: Francesco de'Franceschi Senese et Giovanni Chrieger Alemano compagni 1567.

Vivian Frances, Joseph Smith, Giovanni Poleni and Antonio Visentini in the Light of new Information derived from the Poleni papers in the Marciana Library, London: Society for Italian Studies, 1963.

White Donald, The Ten Books of Architecture by Leon Battista Alberti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


Translations of: Leon Battista Alberti, De re aedificatoria. Firenze: Di Lorenzo,1485: first printed edition by

Giovanni Orlandi, De re edificatoria-Leon Battista Alberti. Milano: Il Profilo, 1966; Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield, The four books of Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. Translations of Andrea Palladio, I quattro libri dell'Architettura. Venezia: De Franceschi, 1570: the anastatic reprint edited by Ottavio Cabiati, I quattro libri dell'Architettura di Andrea Palladio. Milano: Hoepli, Milano, 1951; Morris Hicky Morgan, Vitruvius-The Ten Books on Architecture. Harvard: Harvard University press, 1914. It may be worth remembering that Giovanni Poleni worked for a long time on a new edition of De Architecture, that was published many years later, edited by Simone Stratico, Discorsi preliminare all'Architettura di Vitruvio Commentata da Giovanni Poleni e da Simone Stratico. Udine: Mattiuzzi, 1825.

Whyte Lancelot, Roger Joseph Boscovich 1711-1787: studies of his life and work, New York: Fordham

University Press, 1961. 1961.

Wiebenson Dora, Architectural theory and practice from Alberti to Ledoux. New York: Architectural

Publications, 1983.

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