Sparkles under the Northern Sun: The Danckerts Press and the Slow Introduction of Writing on Building Technique in the Dutch Republic

From Firenze University Press Journal: Opvs Incertvm

Jeroen Goudeau, Radboud University, Nijmegen

Between 1630 and 1727 the rich catalogue of the Danckerts press covered a wide span of subjects in contemporary architecture. This case-study makes clear that in the Dutch Republic the interest in autonomous information on building techniques arose relatively late. Publishers mostly looked to Italy, France and, as is demonstrated here, also to Germany. In the genres discussed, actual building techniques can only be traced to a very limited extent. It is more precise to speak of technical details in the communication of architecture. Only in 1680 the first book with exclusively technical illustrations appeared, Architectura chivilis, based on a German source. Danckerts proved to be a pioneer in what would become an independent technical book genre. Around 1700, books on elements of civil architecture, such as roofs and stairs, were accompanied by publications on mills, sluices, and bridges. It was only then that building techniques in the strict sense found their way into books.

Although a wealth of high-quality books on architecture was published in the Dutch Republic during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some crucial topics remained remarkably under-exposed. Technical, material and constructional issues that were faced in actual building practice, for instance, rarely found their way into treatises or engravings. In this article it will be argued that in the Italian-, French-, and Vitruvius-orient-ed architectural publishing in the Netherlands, technical knowledge remained almost entirely absent until the last quarter of the seventeenth century.

Although this situation was no different from that in neighbouring countries, this slow introduction of writings on building techniques does contrast with the then lively building practice, showing the interest in these matters among Dutch craftsmen, architects, engineers, and amateurs.

This article sketches the milieu in which descriptions of building techniques, if any, appeared as isolated sparkles in the broad spectrum of architectural books of this era in the flourishing Northern Netherlands. In order to draw some conclusions from the large body of material, the focus will be on the architectural publications of the Danckerts press. This publishing house was responsible for some of the most important, as well as the majority of architectural books in the Northern Netherlands during the seventeenth century4. Moreover, Danckerts’ architectural books cover the span of subjects in contemporary architectural writing in which technical knowledge gradually found its way to print. It will be-come clear that, when speaking about technical knowledge in architectural books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the term technique itself will have to be interpreted in a broad sense. Knowledge of building technique is seldom explicitly dealt with and can only be discovered indirectly and in altered forms. Technical knowledge is reflected in the use of technical terminology, in the summing up of building mate-rials, and is most manifest in visual representation, that is, in illustrations displaying technical operations or containing technical or constructional details without these being the main subject. The illustrations can occur in unexpected places.

The Danckerts press can function here as a marker in a still undefined field. All in all, it was Danckerts who would publish only in 1680 the first book in the Dutch Republic with almost exclusively technical illustrations: Architectura chivilis. To get there the road had been long and winding, prudently moving through the varied genres of the architecture book.


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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy