Oblivious to the Ancient and Moderns? The Royal Society and John Evelyn’s Translation of Fréart’s Parallel

Matthew Walker, University of New Mexico

John Evelyn’s 1664 translation of Roland Fréart de Chambray’s Parallèle de l’architecture antique et de la moderne, with his accompanying ‘Account of Architects and Architecture’ represents the most substantial piece of architectural writing to emerge from the milieu of the early Royal Society. In the preface Evelyn explicitly aligns the work with other Royal Society publications and research endeavors, and the early parts of the ‘Account’ where Evelyn classifies, by genus and species, the various personas involved in the production of buildings appear to be, methodologically at least, very close to the Society’s broader agenda. Yet the rest of the publication, in its choice of source material and in the theoretical position that Evelyn adopts throughout the text is, on the face of it, a deeply conservative one. Both Fréart’s original text and Evelyn’s ‘Account’ are resolutely Vitruvian in their outlook, and both author and translator uphold the authority of the ancient writer and the architects of his world over any modern voice. In this respect, the publication would seem out of place in the early Royal Society (at least by the terms of the traditional reading of the group: as a dynamic force for empirical change). When compared to French architectural discourse in the 1660s and 70s, the ground occupied by the English edition of the Parallel borders on the reactionary.

In this paper, I will explore why Evelyn and the Royal Society might have been involved in the production of such an apparently doctrinal text and, in doing so, attempt to locate architecture’s complicated theoretical place within the Society’s broader agenda. Throughout, I will use Christopher Wren and Roger North’s writings to provide a more ‘radical’ English counterpoint to Evelyn’s ideas. And I will conclude with some thoughts on the substantial legacy that Evelyn (and Fréart’s) publication had in England, for it is my contention that the deeply Vitruvian arguments put forward in this best-selling architectural text largely shaped the trajectory of English architecture throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.

Callimachus Inventing the Corinthian Capital, from Roland Fréart de Chambray's Parallèle de l'architecture antique avec la moderne (1650)
Callimachus Inventing the Corinthian Capital, from Roland Fréart de Chambray’s Parallèle de l’architecture antique avec la moderne (1650). © architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr