Category Archives: Project description

de natura instrumentorum

Welcome to the Fall 2012 project section of ARCH531 (Architectural Intentions from Vitruvius to the Renaissance), a lecture course taught by Prof. Alberto Perez-Gomez at McGill University, School of Architecture, with this project segment conceived and taught by me.

The project theme for this term was de natura instrumentorum, or the nature of instruments, and following books 9 and 10 in Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture, we explored the status of instruments and machines from antiquity through to the Renaissance. In Exercise 1, early forms of computing (e.g. paper machines or volvelles, astrolabes) were investigated, and Exercise 2 involved replicating the map of Rome as well as the ‘horizon’ instrument invented by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Exercise 3 explored machines, mechanisms, and contrivances from antiquity to the Renaissance, using them as inspiration towards creating original work.

Please click on the links above to see the project and exercise descriptions, and to leave comments.

Yelda Nasifoglu, project instructor for Fall 2012


[exercise 2 description] Alberti’s map of Rome

You are asked to draw the map of Rome as described by Leon Battista Alberti in his Descriptio urbis Romae, or the Delineation of the City of Rome.

  • Read the translation of the text in Carpo, Mario and Francesco Furlan, eds., Leon Battista Alberti’s Delineation of the City of Rome, Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS, 2007, pp 97-108. Also study the sketches on pages 33-39 & 73-77. The book is held on reserve for you under the course number at the McLennan Library. You may also consult the available French translation.
  • Create the ‘horizon’ instrument that Alberti describes – you are completely free this time to choose your materials and mode of construction (paper, wood, metal, computer-drawn, laser cut, 3d-printed, etc.)
  • Create a map of Rome using the instrument & following Alberti’s instructions.

[exercise 1 description] volvelles and astrolabes

You are asked to reconstruct a volvelle which is (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) a “device consisting of one or more movable circles surrounded by other graduated or figured circles, serving to ascertain the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the state of the tides, etc.” You may replicate an existing instrument (e.g. an astrolabe or any paper volvelle, though you are to limit your selection to the period covered by the lecture course) or construct one textually described at length. For help with making your selection, see the ‘General Tips’ and ‘Sources’ sections.

The main purpose of the exercise is for you to gain an understanding of what the instrument seeks to measure and for what possible purposes; therefore it is important that you thoroughly understand how the instrument works and should be able to demonstrate this. Do not pick something too complicated; this task is not meant to be onerous – it should be fun.

While online or digital tools may be utilized as preparatory research, it is imperative that the final reconstruction be done by hand with the use of a compass and straight-edge (i.e. not simply ‘traced’). It should be made out of thick stock paper.