Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, Rome
Artist: Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Source: 'Vedute di Roma' (Rome, [1747?-1788]), pl. 56, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Copyright: RIBA Library Photographs Collection
The Early Imprints Collection, part of the Books and Periodicals Collection of the British Architectural Library at the RIBA, is a unique collection of over 4,000 books published between 1478 and 1840 from across Europe and the United States, over half are in English with the remainder published in other languages. Books in the collection include:
- John Shute's 'The first and chief groundes of architecture' (1563), the first work in English on classical architecture
- A.W.N. Pugin's 'Contrasts' (1836)
- The manuals and pattern books of Sir William Chambers, William Halfpenny, Batty Langley, William Pain, William Salmon, Abraham Swan and Isaac Ware
- Editions of the writings and publications of Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio and Piranesi
- 'Summa theologica' by Saint Thomas Aquinas and printed in 1478, the oldest book in the Library
All the books of this special collection are available on request to any member of the public by visiting the Library's Reading Room at 66 Portland Place during opening hours. Entry is free.
Use the online catalogue to search the collection and find out more about individual books. Visitors to the Reading Room can also consult the printed catalogue 'Early Printed Books 1478-1840: a catalogue of the British Architectural Library Early Imprints Collection', which contains full bibliographical and historical account of each book in the collection.
Highlights of the Early Imprints Collection
The collection covers many topics and in several languages, including:
Source: James Stuart & Nicholas Revett. 'Antiquities of Athens' (London, 1787), vol. 2, chapter 2, plate I
House De Dolphijn, Amsterdam
Source: Hendrick de Keyser. 'Architectura moderna' (Amsterdam, 1631), pl. XXXIIII
Louvre, Paris: Under construction
Source: 'Cabinet du roi, Plans, elevations et vues des chasteaux du Louvre et des Tuileries' (Paris, 1727), 2nd unnumbered plate
Altes Museum, Berlin
Source: Karl Friedrich Schinkel. 'Sammlung architectonische Entwürfe' (Berlin, 1819-1840), vol.1, pl.37
Caryatids supporting an entablature
Source: Cesare Cesariano. 'Di Lucio Vitruuio Pollione de architectura libri dece' (Como, 1521), Book 1, p. 6
All images © RIBA Library Photographs Collection. See more illustrations from the collections online via RIBApix.
Although the bulk of this collection relates to strictly architectural subjects - building design and practice, carpentry, the theory and history of architecture - a large part is devoted to related matters. Archaeology is particularly well represented, with such works as:
- 'Description de l'Égypte' (Napoleon's Egypt) of 1809-1818
- Stuart and Revett's 'Antiquities of Athens' (published from 1762)
- A.B. Desgodetz's 'Les Edifices Antiques de Rome' (1682), represents the French model of accuracy and detail which set the standard for Stuart and Wood's later publications
- Robert Wood's 'Palmyra' (1753) and 'Balbec' (1757) are among the books based on archaeological expeditions by British writers
The collection also includes some books owned or used by notable individuals. Noteworthy association copies and books with important provenances include, for example, the first edition of Palladio's 'I quattro libri dell'architettura' (1570) that belonged to Lord Burlington, while the 1619 edition of Serlio's collected works was owned and annotated by Inigo Jones's assistant John Webb.
However, the most important association in the collection is the 'Heirloom' copy of Christopher Wren junior's 'Parentalia' (1750), which is bound with numerous manuscript leaves and additional plates, deriving from Sir Christopher and other members of the family.
Decoration and ornament
Decoration and ornament, both interior and exterior, are covered in the collection. Here it is the French 'Ornemanistes', such as Jean Le Pautre, Jean Marot and Percier and Fontaine, who are most heavily represented. In furniture design the collection holds the works of:
- Thomas Hope
- François Thiollet
A related art is vase design, and here too the collection holds important works, notably those describing the collections of Sir William Hamilton. Encompassing all these decorative arts are the Library's magnificent holdings of the etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, built around the collection bequeathed to the Library by Graham B. Tubbs in 1965. The RIBA's holdings are virtually complete (the collection only lacks a handful of the views and the etched catalogo of Piranesi's publications).
Among the books by Dutch authors in the collection, Hans Blum is the earliest; his epitome of the five orders, derived from Serlio's fourth book of 1537, was first published in Zurich in 1550, and was often reprinted in the Netherlands and in English (the RIBA holds examples of both). A similar work, derived instead from Scamozzi's codification of the orders and published a century later, is Symon Bosboom's 'Cort Onderwys Vande Vyf Colommen', probably first published in 1657, and likewise translated into English. Other Dutch architects and writers present in the collection include:
- Jacob van Campen
- Hendrick de Keyser
- Jacob Pole
- Several members of the Danckerts family (leading architectural publishers in the Netherlands)
Early English books
17th-century publishing in English is represented by such works as Sir Henry Wotton's influential 'The elements of architecture' (1624) and Thomas Wilsford's 'Architectonice' (1659). There are also English versions of the works of the great Italian theorists:
- Palladio (editions dated 1668-1753)
- Scamozzi (1676-1734)
- Serlio (1611)
- Vignola (1655-1699)
- Vitruvius (1692-1826)
- Leon Battista Alberti (translated by Giacomo Leoni, 1726)
Perhaps the most impressive French books are the 23 volumes of the 'Cabinet du Roi', 1727 edition, recording the glories of the court of Louis XIV. In general French books are well represented in the collection. The earliest are the theoretical and illustrative works of Philibert de l'Orme and Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, who laid the foundations for the work of the later theorists Roland Fréart, Pierre Le Muet and André Félibien.
Following the Revolution, a whole new species of architectural books began to appear, concerned with the rebuilding of France and the remodelling of such buildings. The most radical and influential French architectural book from this period, Claude Nicolas Ledoux's 'L'architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art', is also part of the collection.
Early 19th-century France saw the genesis of what became known as the 'Empire' style. This can best be seen in the works of Percier and Fontaine, and of Charles and L.M. Normand. The collection includes all the relevant works of these authors.
Garden design is an area in which the collection is particularly rich. French authors make a strong showing, with titles ranging from Michel Le Bouteux's 'Plans et Dessins Nouveaux du Jardinage' of the 1680s, through Dzallier d'Argenville's treatise of 1709 (and its English translation of 1712), to Pierre Boitard's 'Manuel complet de l'architecte des jardins' of 1834. However, the English books are the most numerous, and include the publications of:
- Sir William Chambers
- William Cobbett
- J.C. Loudon
- Charles Middleton
- J.B. Papworth
- Humphry Repton
- William Wrighte
Georgian and Victorian architecture
The late Georgian and early Victorian periods are well covered in the collection. In addition to the works of the Pugins, the Library has an unrivalled collection of books of designs by such authors as:
- Robert Adam
- John Plaw
- George Richardson
- P.F. Robinson
- Sir John Soane
The collection holds a range of German books, this includes K.F. Schinkel's highly influential 'Sammlung architectonische Entwürfe' (1819-1840). Among the other works in German are by:
- Wendel Dietterlin
- Georg Moller
- J.F. Penther
- L.C. Sturm
- C.L. Stieglitz
The collection is rich in the literature of Gothic architecture through the writings of:
- The Pugins
- M.H. Bloxham
- John Britton
- Sir James Hall
- John Kendall
- James Cavanagh Murphy
- E.J. Willson
- 'Essays on Gothic architecture' (1800 onwards)
Guidebooks and topography
Topographical publications and guidebooks often supply the only depictions or descriptions of important buildings which are otherwise lost, or give details not available in other sources. In this category picturesque British views are represented in the collections by 'Britannia illustrata' (1707-1715), Samuel Buck's 'Views' of 1726-1742, Samuel Prout's 'Studies of cottages and rural scenery' (1836), 'Tallis's London street views' (1838-1840), and the collections of 'gentlemen's seats' published by William Angus, J.P. Neale and William Watts. The other works are primarily of European views, including those drawn by:
- Domenico Amici
- G.B. Cipriani
- Etienne Duperac
- G.B. Falda
- Jean Marot
- G.B. Piranesi
- Luigi Rossini
- Isra'l Silvestre
- Giuseppe and Mariano Vasi
The topographical and historical material in the collection covers the whole of Europe, particularly relating to London and to Rome. Among the Roman studies are the 15th century first edition of Frontinus's 'De aquaeductibus' and one of only three known copies of Palladio's 'Descritione de le chiese, stationi, indulgenze e reliquie de corpi sancti, che sonno in la citta de Roma' (1554).
Italy and the Roman Empire were the cradle of 'modern' architecture, and the collection includes examples of all the important early Italian treatises. Perhaps the richest holdings are those of Vitruvius's 'De architectura libri decem', which run from the incunabular first edition (probably printed in 1486) to Marini's scholarly edition of 1836. In all, a total of 55 different editions of Vitruvius's 10 books, in six different languages, are held in the collection.
The earliest architectural book to have been printed in the Western world was not, however, Vitruvius's work, but the 'De re aedificatoria' of Leon Battista Alberti, first published in Florence in 1485. The collection also possess work by other Italian authors, some of which are first editions. These include such architects, theorists and historians as:
- Alessandro Capra
- Pietro Cataneo
- Andrea Palladio
- Vicenzo Scamozzi
- Sabastiano Serlio
- Antonio Vissentini
The Palladian Revival is represented by examples of all the architectural works published under the aegis of Lord Burlington, such as:
- William Kent's 'The designs of Inigo Jones' (1727)
- Isaac Ware's 'The four books of Andrea Palladio's architecture' (1738)
- The seminal 'Vitruvius Britannicus' of Colen Campbell (1715-1717), and its various supplements and continuations (1725-1835)
Location and access
Find information on getting here, admissions and opening hours in Visit Us.
Reading Room, British Architectural Library, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London
Access is free and available to the public during Library opening hours, please bring photographic I.D. for admission. Reprographic services are available for those who can not visit the collection in person.
To find out more about what is held in the Early Imprints Collection, search the online catalogue. To perform a general search of all books in the Library, enter a keyword and under 'collections' select 'Books'. For a specific search of the Early Imprints Collection only, under 'Advanced Search' enter a keyword or name and in the 'Format' field select 'Early Imprints'. Parts of the collection have been digitised and can be seen online via RIBApix. Alternatively, please contact the Library.
Please note that the RIBA's collections of drawings and archives are available from the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.