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Donatella Mazzoleni » 2.Archi-tecture. Art

Introductory lesson

We begin this course by asking ourselves “what is Architecture?”
First, we are going to look for our answer in our cultural tradition, looking at “rhetorical” definitions (built with care and designed to please) which have been produced over the centuries and approved by the academic world.
We will steer our research away from the rhetoric of verbal and conceptual language towards the rhetoric of iconography. In this way, we will see how architecture is represented in images (by allusion or analogy, emphasis or hyperbole, through metaphors or metonyms, personification or comparison) when the aim is to celebrate its social and cultural authority.
We will go straightaway to an allegorical image of architecture, a particularly nice one, which has been famous throughout history.
We will then go back to verbal language and explore the different and complex meanings that the term “architecture” denotes.
Over the course of the lessons we will reflect on, and try to grasp, what is meant by the term “architecture” and assess its current value as actual nourishment for our imagination. We will forget our awareness of history and conceptual certainties, and try to look at architecture in a more “physical” way.

Conceptual tools

Different stages of the agogic journey (touched on in this lesson)

Preparation – Nomadic research – SerendipityAccumulation – Attempts at design – Analogies -Distraction, rest – Epiphany – Evaluation

Non-verbal language (used or mentioned in the lesson)

Body language

gesture, cosmetics, tattoos, clothing, appropriation of land

Spatio-visual languages

graphics, painting

Spatial-territorial languages

interior design, architecture, landscape, cosmology

References to other disciplines (used or mentioned in this lesson)

Ethology, Anthropology

Rhetorical devices (used or mentioned in the lessons)

Accumulation – Allegory – Allusion – Anagogy – Analogy – Antithesis – Assonance – Emphasis – Hyperbole – Iteration – Metaphor – Metonyms – Oxymorons – Comparisons – Paretymology – Personification – Similitude – Synecdoche – Synesthesia – Tautology

Allegory of architecture

The term “allegory” has two roots: “allos“=other and “agoreuo“= public speaking.
We can compare the greek term “agorà“= public space, and the latin one “grex“= flock, group.
The rhetorical term “allegory” means representing an idea through the use of a character, a device which is especially popular in public speaking.
“Allegory” means “using another way to say what you want to say in public“.
Marc-Antoine Laugier in his introduction to Essai sur l’Architecture (1755) refers to architecture as a woman who is both educated (reclining on a bed of archaeological finds) and sophisticated (she is elegantly dressed), pointing out to a winged child how a tree’s branches intertwine.
If we decode the allegory and translate the image into words we could say that “Architecture is an Art whose origins lie in Nature“.

Marc Antoine Laugier Essai sur l’Architecture, 1755 frontispiece.

Marc Antoine Laugier Essai sur l'Architecture, 1755 frontispiece.


“Art” is something which is done with our hands; the erect posture in humans freed the anterior limbs (“arti” in Italian) from their locomotor function enabling them to specialize in manipulation and precision tasks. Words which are related to the term “art” are the names of objects like “arms”, and concepts like “harmony” and “order”.

Etymology of the word “art”. Images modified by Donatella Mazzoleni.

Etymology of the word "art". Images modified by Donatella Mazzoleni.


The word “architecture” is made up of two parts:
The part “-tecture“, from the latin (tectura), is based on the indo-european root tekt, which can be found in:

  • Greek words like tektòn (carpenter) and techne (arts, skills),
    • which refer to something to do with human skills;
  • latin words like tegere (protect), tectum (roof), but also texere (weave), textum (textile, fabric),
    • which all have something to do with the construction of forms of protection;
  • late-latin words like testa (the head, the furthermost point of the human body),
    • which therefore indicates something to do with elevation.

The “archi-” part, which is Greek in origin (arché), contains the indo-european root arch, whose meaning is related to the abstract idea of origin and principle but also excellence.

Etymology of the term “architecture”. Illustration by Donatella Mazzoleni.

Etymology of the term "architecture". Illustration by Donatella Mazzoleni.

Meaning of Architecture

Once we are aware of the etymology and therefore the complex, multi-layered meaning of the word we have given to our subject “architecture” we can say that architecture (Arché + Tekt) responds to two different types of needs:

  • material needs, relating to the construction of protective layers around us which shield both the individual and the community and which, unlike those of other living creatures (that are blessed with scales, hides, shells and exoskeletons) are “an unfinished body …”
  • immaterial needs, relating to the construction of meaning, making sense of our being in the world.

The construction of meaning is achieved through a cascade of formulated mirror-images.
When we perceive the similarity between the different protective layers it activates our analogic thought processes making it possible to bestow meaning on the place we live in, and this in turn makes it possible for us to enjoy its beauty…

The two souls of architecture

With its material and immaterial aspects, architecture is revealed as having two souls:

  • a female, maternal soul (tekt as embrace, membrane or covering and roof), which expresses itself in the construction of protection for the places where human life operates.
  • a male, paternal soul (tekt as pride, head), which finds its expression in the construction of markers of territorial possession.

Architecture can therefore be used as a powerful ambassador for peace which operates across all cultures regardless of identity, race, creed or government as it is rooted in universal human values.
However, it can also act as a powerful language for war challenging differences of identity, race, creed and government, because it emphasizes their main values which are in competition with each other.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna della misericordia, central panel of altar-panel. 1444-1464. Source: Wikipedia.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna della misericordia, central panel of altar-panel. 1444-1464. Source: Wikipedia.

Suit of armour. Source: Wikimedia.

Suit of armour. Source: Wikimedia.

The two main actions of architecture

Architecture is achieved through two simple actions which form the basis of every project and build:

  • Separation, which involves marking the borderline where a portion of space will be cut from the body of the land, thus creating a distinction between an “inside” and an “outside” but also a potential relationship between the two.
  • Erection, once the borderline has been marked, gravity is challenged and the enclosing walls are put up thus creating the distinction between earth and sky.
The two actions of architecture. Diagram by Donatella Mazzoleni.

The two actions of architecture. Diagram by Donatella Mazzoleni.

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Progetto "Campus Virtuale" dell'Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, realizzato con il cofinanziamento dell'Unione europea. Asse V - Società dell'informazione - Obiettivo Operativo 5.1 e-Government ed e-Inclusion