Giuliano da Sangallo, Unsung Renaissance Innovator

The story of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is familiar to all architects. In 1501, a powerful and visionary pope—Julius II—hired an architect from Milan—Donato Bramante—to build a great cathedral that would outshine the Pantheon and any church in Europe. Its dome would tower over the city of Rome. Pilgrims the world over would identify it as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and marvel at its glorious architecture.

Though Bramante’s church would not be finished until the early years of the 17th century, and its design would owe more to Michelangelo than its original designer, no one doubts that the Milanese architect created the revolutionary concepts that made the church possible. Yet a question has perturbed historians for centuries: How did a man with little knowledge of Roman classical building, and only a few commissions to his credit, invent one of the great monuments of Western architecture? Even the first of his Roman masterworks, the mausoleum of San Pietro in Montorio, has puzzled scholars with its sophistication and elegance. Often dated to 1502, it seemed unlikely that Bramante could have built such an original design, based on a round Roman temple, so quickly, surpassing not only his previous work but also everything by his contemporaries. 

A handsome new book by art and architecture historian Cammy Brothers, Giuliano da Sangallo and the Ruins of Rome (Princeton University Press, 2022), helps to unravel the riddle of where Bramante got his knowledge of ancient building, and her history is a bold revision of the standard accounts. Instead of rehashing the tale of a rival Florentine architect, hired by Julius’s predecessor, being cast aside in favor of a man of superior talent, Brothers relates a much more complex series of events that resulted in a pathbreaking design. In so doing, she also elevates a “minor” figure from the Medici court in Florence, a member of a family of carpenters and furniture-makers, to a status thought preposterous by midcentury German art historians studying the Italian Renaissance. Those historians looked at Giuliano’s Codex Barberini and Tacuino Senese, finding little of interest, since most of the drawings were oddly detailed renderings of Roman ruins.

It is a rare scholar who can write convincingly about architectural drawings in an extended study, especially delicate ink-wash drawings in two obscure codices (bound volumes) such as these. But Brothers, author of a previous book on Michelangelo, keeps the reader intrigued with penetrating revelations concerning Giuliano da Sangallo and the relationships between artists and architects who sought to record and understand the ruined monuments left by ancient Roman builders throughout Europe. Not printed but assembled from parchment and paper sheets, such bound collections were common among the circle of artists and guild masters working in the Quattrocento and Cinquecento. Like Florentine painters before him, Giuliano worked for decades to fill his notebooks with accurate drawings of key buildings. More important, they were passed around and studied in studios from Milan to Rome like fashionable design magazines featuring the latest creations of hot architects, not hidden away in libraries as was once thought.

Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo by Piero di Cosimo (circa 1482-85). Rijkamuseum, Amsterdam, via Wikipedia.



All right, I’m exaggerating a little. Giuliano da Sangello, given an exalted new name by his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, was not a starchitect publishing his designs in a glossy design rag. He was a dedicated artist who benefited from wealthy patrons, who provided him not only with steady employment but also the time to educate himself in the new/old style of building that referenced Vitruvius and later Roman builders. He could visit Rome to record ruins there, but also travel to France when seeking to study a key ruined monument far from home. Unlike his contemporaries in Siena and Milan, Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Filarete (Antonio Averlino), he drew buildings in situ, as they existed, not as described by Vitruvius or illustrated in editions of his treatise (there were several in print by the time he began his career). His drawing style, a detailed painterly collage of different views and details, puzzled scholars who knew only the abstract, rational work of later masters like Palladio and Vignola. Many of the buildings he visited were obscure, and the renderings murky and hard to understand. The Pantheon was there, but so was the Crypta Balbi and Palazzo di Mecenate, ruins long buried and unexcavated by modern archaeologists. 

Sangallo, whose brother and nephew were also architects of note, created the wonderful villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano (circa 1485), the central plan church Santa Maria in Carceri at Prato (1484), and the Palazzo Gondi (1489–90) in Florence. His connection to the Medici family brought him to Rome under Pope Nicholas V to help renovate Old St. Peter’s. He could have remained to build the new cathedral after 1500. Yet history records only his brief encounter with Bramante before returning to Florence.

Why did this otherwise accomplished architect, with several masterpieces to his credit, spend so much time measuring and drawing ruined monuments, even noting decorative details that seemed superfluous to designers establishing a canon of exemplary precedents for publication in their treatises? Why did he lovingly reproduce carved inscriptions in many locations? Why use strange drawing conventions, such as a carved-out perspective of round buildings, to depict ancient structures?


Brothers shows in her painstaking analysis of both drawings and built works that Giuliano had a different view of antique architecture than most of his peers. With this unique knowledge, he may have given Bramante several key ideas for the new basilica and the mausoleum in Rome. His drawing of a round temple at Ostia shows a restored entablature very like the one used at the mausoleum of San Pietro in Montorio. A drawing of a round temple on the Tiber restores a balustrade similar to Bramante’s. Finally, a drawing by Bramante at the Uffizi depicts in red chalk a reworking of one of Sangallo’s schemes for a new church, suggesting that the two men may have been collaborating for a while. In her study, Brothers goes on to reveal Giuliano’s unique blend of archaeology, history and new designs—all recorded in a few bound volumes that the architect maintained throughout his career. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Giuliano was leaving a comprehensive record for posterity. 

Those who visit Florence will know the robust stonework of the Palazzo Gondi but may not realize that its voussoirs were inspired by Roman precedents. Villa enthusiasts will make a pilgrimage to Poggio a Caiano outside the city, perhaps shocked to find a hodgepodge of elegant classical ornament attached to a castello akin to examples from the late middle ages. Brothers points out the amazing all’antica details in many of Giuliano’s buildings, tracing their sources in the codices from the Vatican and Uffizi. Because his imagination was so wide-ranging and his curiosity so complex, this Florentine designer was underappreciated by modern historians. I came away with a new understanding of Sangallo’s unique genius, very different from the one I got on my sketching tours or in courses.


Photo courtesy of Cammy Brothers.


Renaissance architecture is today a rather specialized area of study, and many key topics have been treated in ample detail by previous generations of (mainly European) historians. Brothers’ mentor, James Ackerman, was the great American contributor to this body of knowledge, so she knows her territory well. Her previous work was exemplary, but this book is truly a brilliant, unprecedented scholarly achievement that should place her in the front rank of architectural historians working today. Because she is able to connect drawings directly with the design of buildings, Brothers goes beyond the typical archival analysis common in her profession. As she writes, “I have hoped to suggest a model through which we can think in a more complex and dynamic way about an architect’s relation to earlier architecture.” Her book is a challenge to accepted scholarly practice, suggesting that we look more closely at memory and playful invention than in the past. And it is written with such clarity that any literate architect can grasp its significance. 

Brothers’ book is also a tour de force of book design and production. Princeton University Press was given the challenge of illustrating, in full color, a group of subtle, often pale, chalk and sepia-wash drawings of various sizes. In order to discuss the full content of each drawing, the author also needed details of key sheets. With some grant support from the College Art Association and other sources, the editors and designers were able to meet this challenge and surpass most previous attempts at printing copies of Renaissance drawings. The format of the book is reasonable, not too large or too small, and the text is well integrated with the illustrations. It adds to a growing list of impressive architecture titles from the academic publisher.

Featured image: The Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano (circa 1480), is located in Poggio a Caiano (Prato) It was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo and commissioned by Lorenzo il Magnifico. Image via Wikipedia.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.