Remarks on Architecture: The Vitruvian Tradition in Enlightenment Poland is a short book of herculean proportions. It consists of an extensive introductory essay by Caroline C. Guile (fifty-six pages) followed by an English translation of Ignacy Potocki's unpublished eighteenth-century manuscript Remarks on Architecture (Uwagi o architekturze), along with a transcription of his original Polish text. This book represents an important contribution to early modern architectural history, offering many new insights into the fascinating but little-known architectural culture of early modern Poland. Especially valuable is the full translation of the treatise, which offers English-language scholars a rare opportunity to study a Polish primary source.

Ignacy Potocki (1750–1809), a Polish nobleman, was a political activist and education reformer. His Remarks on Architecture, written before 1786, was a product of his elite class, education, and travels, and it reflects the climate of a critical time in Polish history. During the second half of the eighteenth century, one of the largest states in Europe disappeared from the map when Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth among themselves. Guile's introduction provides detailed context for this “political crisis and period of national eradication” (4), and it is within this historical moment that Potocki's treatise on architecture must be understood.

One of the most interesting aspects of Remarks on Architecture is Potocki's view of architecture as a branch of Enlightenment philosophy. Like other architectural thinkers of his time, Potocki wanted to instruct his readers on how architecture, placed into the service of the state, could help to alleviate society's ills. For example, if the rich invested in public buildings, “idleness, poverty, and vice everywhere would turn into industry, financial self-sufficiency, effort, and work” (75). Potocki dedicated his treatise to the szlachta, the Polish nobility who were expected to embody patriotic ideals and defend the nation's culture and its traditions. However, he also had a broader readership in mind. As a member of the National Commission of Education, Potocki argued for ways to reform education so that the Polish citizenry would acquire a more comprehensive knowledge of architecture. One of the means to accomplish this goal was through reforming architectural education. According to Potocki, the key disciplines for the study of architecture included history, law, arithmetic (to support drawing and construction), mechanics, and optics. He based these ideas on an in-depth knowledge of architectural theoretical writings by Jacques-François Blondel, Claude Perrault, Marc-Antoine Laugier, Johann Friedrich Penther, Nikolaus Goldmann, and Leonhardt Sturm, among others (6).

In addition to establishing a rich context for the discussion of Potocki's Remarks on Architecture, Guile explores another monumental question: the significance of the Vitruvian tradition in Enlightenment Poland. Her primary interest is in cultural transmission, and thus she seeks to understand the movement of ideas across Europe and their reception in Poland. As Remarks on Architecture demonstrates, Potocki was keenly interested in the European “canon of ideas” and expressed his allegiance to the Vitruvian tradition. Furthermore, as Guile asserts, Potocki's treatise reveals his critical interaction with his sources, “which in turn indicates that Polish writers and readers were ‘active interpreters’ rather than ‘passive receivers’ ” (11–12).

Until recently, Polish architecture of the early modern period has been largely overlooked in Anglophone academia. Except for the important work of Jan Białostocki and, more recently, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Guile's dissertation adviser), language barriers, restricted archival access, and misconceptions about the extent of wartime destruction left Poland underrepresented in European cultural historiography. The traditional approach of Renaissance studies also became an obstacle, with its attention to style and form and its concern with the degree of artistic fidelity to Italian exemplars. Thus, architectural innovations in this region (and others) were long assumed to be naive and peripheral misunderstandings of Italian all'antica models. These ideas have since been revised.1 

Guile challenges this conventional center-and-periphery model, suggesting that artistic transmissions are “multidirectional,” not “unidirectional” (xiii). Thus, she promotes a shared agency in cultural transmission. While I agree that this offers a more sophisticated approach to cultural exchange, further and more specific details regarding the nature of these multidirectional transmissions, and how they unfolded in the “complex environment” (xiii) of this geographic region (especially regarding the Vitruvian tradition), would be of considerable value to the reader.

Guile also makes use of a conceptual metaphor, “the borderlands,” to analyze the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, thus suggesting that the Commonwealth occupied a space between, or bridging, different and often opposing worlds. As Guile asserts, “Poland, literally ‘between East and West,’ was in a position to explore, define, and evaluate both the extensions and limits of the classical inheritance” (30). But was this not the case for most, if not all, of the inheritors and/or interpreters of the classical tradition? Guile does not address how the borderlands concept explains the architectural culture of this region, and it seems as if she is merely replacing the term periphery. It would be useful, however, to explore the ways in which Poland reached into multiple traditions in order to negotiate and define its unique place in Europe.

How we as architectural historians conceive of Poland–Lithuania in our research represents a challenging problem. Europe was not a homogeneous entity, nor was the later construct of East and West, and the risk of blurring the individual identities of regions or states is especially pertinent to the study of the Commonwealth as a union of two nations. (The same goes for the autonomous city of Gdańsk and other territories within this political border.) We have yet to fully understand the internal functions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as a cultural region. Thus, the study of art and architecture in the Commonwealth deserves a more thorough and nuanced examination of the complex social and political conditions leading up to the Remarks on Architecture.

Another way into this investigation would be to examine the Commonwealth through its entangled networks, whether religious, economic or political, rather than as a homogeneous block. Elsewhere, I have argued that Polish early modern architecture and architectural theory cannot be fully appreciated unless economic geography is taken into consideration.2 The Polish noble was a landowner, and this particular social and economic status in turn shaped the identity and ideology of the homo nobilis in significant ways. Polish patrons were keenly invested in managing their manorial country estates and in the efficient use of their land for the production of commodities (in particular cereals) for export.

The numerous agronomic manuals published in early modern Poland invite us to consider other theoretical trajectories that shaped architectural theory. One of the earliest Italian agricultural texts available in Poland was Pietro de' Crescenzi's Opus ruralium, written around 1305. Crescenzi's text was available to Polish audiences in Latin, Italian, French, and German as early as 1531, and in Polish by 1542. A second Polish edition featuring elaborate illustrations followed in 1571. It inspired the manuals of Anzelm Gostomski and Kazimierz Jakub Haur, the latter of which included extensive discussion of architecture and the first known architectural drawings of a façade and floor plan of a manor house. This literary material addressed an extraordinary range of subjects relevant to the Polish rural nobility, including domestic and farm architecture, landscape architecture (gardens, orchards, ponds), infrastructural and technical works, and other issues related to running a household economy. These texts, drawing on classical authorities such as Columella, Cato, and Varro, offered time-tested methods as well as updated instructions by experienced practitioners. In Poland, a lively discourse on architecture unfolded in the agricultural manual, not in the architectural treatise. Thus, it would be useful to consider Remarks on Architecture within this tradition as well.

Polish builders followed the advice of the ancients by seeking to dwell in accordance with the local climate, which would in turn dictate cultural traditions. Careful attention to local conditions was essential for healthy living, the practice of building, the cultivation of plants and animals, and the storage of perishables. Brief Study of the Construction of Manor Houses, Palaces, and Castles, Bases (soils) of the Polish Sky and Customs, a treatise published by an unknown author in 1659 (commonly identified as the first Polish architectural treatise), thus affirmed what was already an established concern for the study of architecture in Poland. That text also engaged with broader European architectural traditions by citing authors, such as Vincenzo Scamozzi, who were especially concerned with local environmental conditions.

Remarks on Architecture attests to the ongoing theoretical dialogue of Polish architectural culture with that of other regions of Europe—a point that should not surprise readers of this review. Guile's translation of Potocki's treatise and its accompanying materials signals a new and exciting opportunity for further research and represents a welcome addition to the broader field of architectural history.


See Katie Jakobiec, “Beyond Form and Fancy: The Merchant Palaces of Kazimierz Dolny in Poland,” Architectural History 60 (2017), 37–69.