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A Critical Look at Analyses of Bramante’s Tempietto

Ross Majewski

Fig. 1 Bramante’s Tempietto, San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. 1502-1514

The Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, constructed between 1502 and 1514, sits as a memorial on the supposed spot of St. Peter’s crucifixion on the Janiculum Hill in Rome. This small, temple-like structure is situated, almost out of place, in the courtyard of the church of San Pietro in Montorio. Designed by Donato Bramante, the Tempietto has a harmony and proportional order that, rather unusually, allows Palladio to deem it as ideal enough to place it among the works of the ancients.[i] This is only the beginning of an unusual history for the structure. If we were to look at the building in terms of its performance, or what it does, it would be hard to state exactly what that is, other than serve as a tourist attraction and a study for architectural history and theory. This paper will look at three articles that analyze three different historical aspects of the Tempietto: 1) its antecedents, 2) works that it was a model for, and 3) its design theory based in geometrical relationships. It will take a critical look at the content of these articles and how they approach their study, and attempt to relate relevant insights to our own design theory today.

The first article I will examine at is Earl Rosenthal’s The Antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto (1964). In this article, Rosenthal examines possible antecedents for the Tempietto, challenging some established precedents and formulating his own theory for the subject’s unusual form. Several factors lead Rosenthal to believe “that concrete architectural models rather than the ancient antetype contributed to the imaginative process by which Bramante conceived this Tempietto and its concentric courtyard.”[ii] He states several discrepancies between the Tempietto and ancient round peripteral temples. One major inconsistency, according to Rosenthal, is in the measurements of the structure. “Bramante, if he had started with the ancient type in mind, would have retained at least some of its numerical and proportional characteristics.”[iii] These factors lead Rosenthal to believe that Bramante’s design for the Tempietto, and the circular courtyard around it, derive from other sources as well. Even when we look at the work of Bramante’s immediate predecessors, “no one would deny that Alberti’s theories played an important role in the shaping of Bramante’s architectural principles, [but] neither he nor [Luciano da] Laurana provides an obvious model for Bramante’s two-story, round peripteral temple.”[iv]

Rosenthal begins his own investigation of the antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto by looking at how several drawings of the Tempietto have been interpreted differently and that the structure itself has been altered quite severely over time. Within the drawings, Bramante “had blocked out the general proportions of a lantern but had not determined its precise form.”[v] Therefore, in other representations “each copyist was free to add a lantern of his own design.”[vi] In terms of the actual structure, in 1605 “the dome was raised and enlarged and a salient metal strip was added above the original cornice to form a new frieze. These changes… disturb the original proportions and balance of the component masses.”[vii] The alterations to the Tempietto do not stop there though. Rosenthal points out that “the most uncertain aspect of the original design is the entry to the crypt… no sixteenth-century descriptions of the Tempietto refer to that entry or to the crypt.”[viii] Rosenthal is justifiably puzzled by this point because “it seems unlikely that Serlio, Palladio, and other contemporaries would have ignored so important a feature. And it seems even more unlikely that Bramante would have permitted such a break in the concentric symmetry of his design.”[ix] Rosenthal continues to point out another, maybe even larger, discrepancy between Bramante’s design and the actual construction of the Tempietto: the failure of the concentric courtyard to be built [Figures 2 & 3]. Despite whatever factors led to its incompleteness, Rosenthal argues that “it is the whole complex… and also the several departures from the original design that we must keep in mind when discussing the precedents of Bramante’s project.”[x] Rosenthal has noted the various, and often dramatic, departures from Bramante’s original plans for the Tempietto, a note I would like to expand on further in a moment.

Rosenthal, taking into account these discrepancies, begins to formulate his theory for the antecedents of the Tempietto. He reasons that “the closest approximation to Bramante’s spatial design, because of its circular peristyle and its central island-villa, is the famous Teatro Marittimo in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.”[xi] Rosenthal cites evidence that suggests that Bramante “measured what was at Tivoli and in Hadrian’s Villa and he utilized them a great deal.”[xii] Rosenthal then provides us with a design of a temple [Figure 5] by Francesco di Giorgio, with whom Bramante supposedly had much contact. Rosenthal cites this plan as a stepping stone between the forms found at Hadrian’s Villa and its application to temple-like structure of the Tempietto.

Rosenthal has now supported his theory for the antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto, but I am not very convinced by his concluding arguments. The points that have merit are the ones he brought up preceding his final arguments, the evidence that demonstrates the discrepancies between Bramante’s original design and how the Tempietto exists today. What these show us is that works of architecture are created in a particular time and that as time changes, so do the works. The Tempietto, almost atypically, still has this particular mystery and awe surrounding it that Bramante intended despite the missing and modified components of its construction. Acknowledging that architectural works are set in time, operate in time, and are modified over time opens a Pandora ’s Box in terms of design theory. I am left asking: What steps should we take to account for the fact that Architecture is situated in time? What are appropriate ways to account for this temporal shifting and how is the architecture we create allowed to respond?[xiii]

The next article I will look at is John Peacock’s Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I (1982). The topic of this article becomes works that are modeled after the Tempietto, as opposed to the previous article which discussed works that it was modeled after. The particular objects of study are decorated funerary structures, or catafalques, one of which was designed by Inigo Jones in 1625 for James I. According to Peacock “what [Jones] produced was a version of Bramante’s Tempietto, that key work in the canon of Renaissance architecture which also is a kind of funerary, since it commemorates the martyrdom of St. Peter.”[xiv] From these opening lines of Peacock’s article, I would like to examine the relationship between the Tempietto and the tempietto-type catafalques, which emerge at the end of the sixteenth century, in terms of translation.[xv]

Peacock explains how Jones’s design “draws on a recent tradition of tempietto-catafalques, and is particularly close to that designed by Domenico Fontana in 1591.”[xvi] Jones “borrows from Fontana’s design but also revises it quite severely.”[xvii] What Jones does is challenge Fontana’s “inflated and bedizened version of the Tempietto with the ‘masculine and unaffected’ purity of the original and draws it back in style towards the High Renaissance, re-classicizes it as it were.”[xviii] This is a fascinating series of events; Jones, in designing his catafalque in 1625, reinterprets Fontana’s design in a manner that attempts to be more truthful to Bramante’s original design; a design that, I will remind you, is “worthy enough to be placed among the ancient.”[xix] Jones’s “crucial revision is the restoration of Bramante’s Doric Order… in an enriched form.”[xx] These developments face fragile questions though in terms of translation. On a very general level: What makes an appropriate architectural translation? Does Jones’s refiguring respect Bramante’s Tempietto in a more meaningful manner than Fontana’s design?

To begin to answer these questions we must look at what an appropriate translation should be.[xxi] Translations in any sense typically deal with two primary issues, content and expression. In an architectural sense, content would relate to the formal qualities of the work (dimension, size, shape, massing, etc.). Expression becomes the intangible aspects of a work architecture (reference, experience, performance, etc.) A good translation, on a case by case basis, balances the translation of both content and expression. The act of taking the original, within its particular context, and modifying it to a new situation and context adds new meaning to both the original and the new product. In this light, we can begin to assess the appropriateness of Inigo Jones’s translation of the Tempietto into a catafalque.

To see that Jones’s design of 1625 respects the form of the Tempietto more than Fontana’s design of 1591 is not hard [Figures 6, 7, & 8]. Fontana applies highly decorated surfaces (especially to the dome), adds much more ornament, and modifies the proportions of the structure to a bulbous-like form. Jones, on the other hand, maintains proportions very similar to the original. He also ornaments his design, as is traditionally done to commemorate the pope’s rule, but does so to a much lesser extent than Fontana’s design. But the important part here is that as the content, or form in an architectural sense, approaches the originals, so does its expression. Jones’s refiguring of Fontana’s design “is not simply to be explained in terms of a certain academic purism. Jones’s design relates to a context of ideas.”[xxii] Where Fontana’s design uses ornament applied to the modified form of the Tempietto, Jones’s “follows Fontana’s precedent of the catafalque as an architectural summation, but the summation is on a more abstract level… of carefully evolved theoretical principles, principles of harmony and proportion.”[xxiii] This is where Jones’s design begins to translate the expression of the original Tempietto in a more meaningful way than Fontana’s; Jones’s design “instead of an emblematic vehicle for ideas of papal authority, becomes more intrinsically an embodiment of those principles.”[xxiv]

This is where we can begin to learn a lesson from Jones’s reinterpretation of Fontana’s catafalque. Rather than try to outdo Fontana’s design in terms of size, ornament, or grandeur, Jones’s design returns to a simpler and more honest form; one that closer represents the formal and abstract ideals of proportion and harmony, mirroring the expression of the architecture to that of the pope’s rule. I must be clear though that this is not an argument for approaching all architectural projects with ideals of harmony as they relate to Bramante’s geometry. What is important here is that Jones’s translation looks to Bramante’s model, determines what qualities are appropriate to express, and applies them fittingly into a new context. I would argue that these are the guidelines with which we should attempt to translate architectural works within our own context in an appropriate manner.

The third and final article of this paper is one titled The Tempietto and the Roots of Coincidence (1990) by Mark Wilson Jones. In this article, Jones looks at the Tempietto from a heavily mathematical point of view.[xxv] He notes that even though “alterations suffered by the building have marred a more complete picture… a clear mathematical order pervades the whole of the original project.”[xxvi] From the beginning, Jones takes the stance that “some aspects of Bramante’s achievement remain obscure because they cannot be appreciated without knowing the dimensions that [Bramante] intended, a knowledge which so far has been incomplete.”[xxvii] The ‘dimensions’ that Jones speaks of here are literally the units of measurement, from a specific measuring system, that Bramante would have used in the design of the Tempietto. Another complicating factor is that “the relationship between units from different places could be quite complicated and difficult to express in arithmetic terms.”[xxviii] In Bramante’s particular case, no autograph drawings exist that indicate what system of measurements he might have used. Thus it is “not surprising that scholars have yet to agree which unit of measure Bramante, who was brought up in Urbino and had previously been working in Milan, adopted for the design of the Tempietto in Rome.”[xxix] Furthermore, Vitruvius, “whose treatise was of course the most important single document for Renaissance architects and theoricians… repeatedly affirmed the need to give architecture a clear mathematical order, although his text leaves room for different interpretations as to how this might be achieved.”[xxx]

All of these previous points, pulled directly from Mark Wilson Jones’s article, cannot help but raise some skepticism in me; particularly the guiding statement of the article that “some aspects of Bramante’s achievement remain obscure because they cannot be appreciated without knowing the dimensions that [Bramante] intended.”[xxxi] This skepticism stems from the idea that geometry meant something completely different for Bramante than it does for us today.[xxxii] We simply do not look at geometry, and especially systems of measurement, in the way Bramante or one of his contemporaries would have. When we look at the Tempietto, we do not read the structure in terms of defined units, we read it in terms of the relationships and spaces that they define. The terms palmo, palmi, piede, and braccia simply do not cross our mind, nor does this particular lack of understand detract from our experience of it. Our ‘understanding’ of proportion, which may be inherent in human nature or not, does affect our reading of the structure of the space and the space of the structure; but our bodies, through our perceptions, become the unit-less measuring devices.[xxxiii] Jones spends a significant amount of time and effort[xxxiv] in this article deciphering the dimensions of the Tempietto and speculating on which system of measurement Bramante might have used, information that I would argue is irrelevant to most of us today.

All hope is not lost though. Jones does bring up several aspects of Bramante’s geometrical system that have immense implications on contemporary design theory. Using geometry and its inherent ability to produce ratios as a guiding system for the harmony of his design, Bramante did not “accept the shortcomings of such systems, [rather] he sought to maximize the number of satisfying interrelations between elements of his design, and this of necessity entails the use of different ratios… As further intervals are added so are different ratios; it is the architect’s task to select suitable ones.”[xxxv] Bramante’s selection of ratios for any one component to another “reflected a building’s context. Factors include geographic location, economic limitations, and the size and peculiarities of the individual site”[xxxvi] that “presumably suited the particular requirements of their patrons and sites.”[xxxvii] Bramante’s skillful application of geometry contains a particular appropriateness because “from a pragmatic point of view, the flexibility of such an approach is of considerable value given that the design of a building has to respond also to structural, functional, and aesthetic constraints.”[xxxviii] This is where the example of Bramante’s use of geometry, one with a different understanding than ours today, can be used as model for how we approach might design today. Bramante uses geometry as a guiding principle for his work and explores the geometry in such a way that allows him to adjust it to the particular and specific demand of the project and site. He then applies the geometry in a way that best suits all of the components in line with his design theory. Again, I am not arguing for the sole use of geometry to create ‘harmonious ideals’ in every, or even any, architectural project; Bramante designed in a context that understood those ideals much differently than we do today. What I advocate is that we approach design in a way that looks at the various contexts of a project (cultural, environmental, political, temporal, etc.), forms relevant guidelines to inform design within these contexts, and produces works that attempt to balance these principles in an appropriate manner.

By taking a critical look at each of these articles about Bramante’s Tempietto, both in terms of the material the articles contain and how they approach the material, we can begin to ask appropriate questions for the study of how we might approach architectural design today. By looking at the issues these articles presented and attempting to understand the context that they took place in, we can begin to inform our own design theory.

[i] John Peacock, “Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I,” Architectural History 25 (1982): 1  Also see Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture of 1570

[ii] Earl Rosenthal, “Antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 55

[iii] Earl Rosenthal, “Antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 61  This paper, in a later passage, will look at a mathematically based analysis of the Tempietto by Mark Wilson Jones. Jones’s article goes into much depth about the specific ways that Bramante approaches geometry and how it informs his design theory.

[iv] idid: 63

[v] idid: 58

[vi] idid: 58

[vii] idid: 58  This citation also references the date of 1605 as the date of these modifications. This date is located in an inscription that supposedly places the construction of the dome at this time. See Rosenthal’s footnote 8 on page 58 for more information.

[viii] idid: 58

[ix] idid: 58

[x] Earl Rosenthal, “Antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 59 Rosenthal bring up a very valid point here: that looking at this as a completed work only gives you a partial picture of what its sources might have been. If the project was completed as intended it would be very different form the one that is there today and this influences the way we attempt to determine its antecedents. If you look at the project as it is built today, it would very much resemble the ancient round peripteral temples that previous authors have assumed it was modeled after. By looking at Bramante’s intended plan, we can see that it closer resembles the antecedents that Rosenthal points out.

[xi] idid: 70 Here Rosenthal makes the connection between the plan of Teatro Marittimo at Hadrian’s Villa (shown in Figure 3) and Bramante’s original design for the Tempietto courtyard (shown in Figure 1).

[xii] idid: 70-71

[xiii] These thoughts are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s article titled “Architecture and Narrative” for the 2009 Milan Triennale. Here he crosses the temporality of narrative with the spatiality of architecture to demonstrate the spatiality of narrative and the temporality of architecture. These thoughts are also influenced by Victoria Meyer’s article titled “Space and the Perception of Time” for the Nov. 1999 Journal of Architectural Education, particularly her discussions about the temporal nature of the works of Marcel Duchamp.

[xiv] John Peacock, “Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I,” Architectural History 25 (1982): 1

[xv] These thoughts are influenced by a chapter titled “Translation and Interpretation” in Umberto Eco’s book “Experiences in Translation”. Where the ideas he expresses about translation are thought about in terms of an architectural context. The subsections titled “Substance of the Expression” (pg. 82) and “Interpretation, Translation, and Transmutation” (pg. 99) are particularly relevant and helpful to this discussion.

[xvi] John Peacock, “Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I,” Architectural History 25 (1982): 1

[xvii] idid: 1

[xviii] idid: 1

[xix] idid: 1

[xx] idid: 1

[xxi] See note 15

[xxii] John Peacock, “Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I,” Architectural History 25 (1982): 1

[xxiii] idid: 2

[xxiv] John Peacock, “Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I,” Architectural History 25 (1982): 2

[xxv] Jones’s 27 page article, including his end notes, dedicates eight full pages of text and twelve figures and tables dedicated solely his analysis of the Tempietto from a mathematical point of view. This number excludes other text and figures that analyze works similar to the Tempietto, comparing them to the subject of his article, again with a mathematical approach. Jones also includes an appendix after his endnotes that breaks down twenty-seven architectural components of the Tempietto into their dimensions and ratios with regards to one another.

[xxvi] Mark Wilson Jones, “The Tempietto and the Roots of Coincidence,” Architectural History 33 (1990): 9

[xxvii] idid: 1

[xxviii] idid: 2

[xxix] idid: 3

[xxx] idid: 17

[xxxi] idid: 1

[xxxii] These thoughts are influenced by Alberto Perez-Gomez’s Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (MIT Press, 1981) where he argues that instrumentalized theory begins to take something away from the way we view architectural works. The article discusses how geometry and mathematical approaches differ with the context they take place and trying to understand works outside of that context simply does not work.

[xxxiii] These thoughts develop in part from the phenomenological principles supported by Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and discussed briefly in Alberto Perez-Gomez’s introduction to his Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science. MIT Press, 1981

[xxxiv] See note 25

[xxxv] Mark Wilson Jones, “The Tempietto and the Roots of Coincidence,” Architectural History 33 (1990): 12

[xxxvi] idid: 15

[xxxvii] idid: 16

[xxxviii] idid: 12, 14


Eco, Umberto. Experiences in Translation. University of Toronto Press, 2001

Jones, Mark Wilson. “The Tempietto and the Roots of Coincidence.” Architectural History 33 (1990): 1-28

Leatherbarrow, David. Architecture Oriented Otherwise. Princeton Architectural Press, 2009

Meyers, Victoria. “Space and the Perception of Time.” Journal of Architectural Education 53, no. 2 (1999): 91-95

Peacock, John. “Inigo Jones’s Catafalque for James I.” Architectural History 25 (1982): 1-5

Perez-Gomez, Alberto. Introduction to Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science. MIT Press, 1981

Rosenthal , Earl. “Antecedents of Bramante’s Tempietto.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 55-74