Bibliotheca Mechanico-Architectonica
From the passing references to a study of the sources

Historical research into the relationships between mechanics and architecture entered its mature phase at the beginning of the 1970s. The exact date on which all agree is 1972, annus mirabilis of the publication of the splendid volume by Jacques Heyman dedicated to Coulomb’s Essai: Coulomb’s Memoir on Statics: An Essay in the History of Civil Engineering (1). That book indicated a rigorous strategy for research, well known to professional historians but as yet unknown to researchers in structural mechanics, more familiar with calculations for a reinforced concrete beam than with the interpretation of a document explaining the genesis of and reasoning behind the calculation. Since that time Heyman has become the undisputed master of a new approach towards the history of structural mechanics and many researchers have followed in his wake, recalling as well Clifford Truesdell, who in the field of rational mechanics had outlined an analogous approach in his encyclopaedic The Rational Mechanics of Flexible or Elastic Bodies: 1638-1788 of 1960 (2) (1960).

In the years that followed the writings of Heyman and Truesdell have influenced the work of some Italian scholars who have dwelled on the great French-Italian tradition in particular. Edoardo Benvenuto, Salvatore Di Pasquale and Antonino Giuffrè read and reread the “classics”, offering original keys to interpreting them and underlining the innovative character of the historical approach to the history of the art and science of construction. Their essays published between 1981 and 2002 mark the passages of an “Italian period”, which unfortunately ended in 2004 with the death of Salvatore Di Pasquale, the last representative of the triad of friends and colleagues (Giuffrè died in 1997; Benvenuto in 1998). In the same period of time, similar research developed all throughout Europe, focusing about important contributions of Bill Addis in Great Britain, Santiago Huerta and Enrique Rabasa Díaz in Spain, Patricia Radelet-de Grave in Belgium, Antoine Picon and Joël Sakarovitch in France, Karl-Eugen Kurrer in Germany. Involved as well are a large number of minor protagonists, many of whom seem to have overheard in passing the lessons of the Masters, resulting in a naïve enthusiasm and an incurable and speculative laziness. For this band of epigones the primary sources have become remote references approached only with difficulty; in the majority of the cases they have been reduced to a date or name cited only in footnote or waved about in the title of the work after having hastily copied the bibliographic reference from the more thorough publications.

In this way, serious research has been dealt a brusque blow and the proliferation of passing references, more or less vague, to the theme corresponds to an ever-decreasing quality. Works such as La Scienza delle costruzioni e il suo sviluppo storico (3) (1981) and An Introduction to the History of Structural Mechanics(4) (1991) by Benvenuto, La meccanica nell’architettura. La statica (5) (1986) by Giuffré and L’arte del costruire. Tra conoscenza e scienza (1996) (6) by Di Pasquale have been reduced to the status of unopened or (scarcely leafed) bibles to be kept religiously vacuum-packed, as if those essays were to be considered points of arrival, tomb of knowledge by now codified and “timeless” interpretations rather than points of departure to be discussed and compared.

The project entitled Between Mechanics and Architecture born in 1992, and the activities of the Associazione Edoardo Benvenuto,, founded in 1999, are attempting to overcome this damaging lack of genuine interest, in hopes that the spirit of research of the pioneers in the field can find valid reasons for renovation, without useless reticence regarding the limits of the historiographic interpretations that have characterized the works of this first period. Twelve years on from the publication of the volume Entre Mécanique et Architecture Entre Mécanique et Architecture (7) (1995), which amassed the first bibliography on the theme, and five years on from the selected bibliography published in the essay Degli archi e delle volte (8) (2002), it was decided to open a new phase in which texts dedicated to mechanics and architecture are to be made available to scholars so that the ease of consultation might solicit a direct comparison of the primary sources.

The recent presentation of the project by Google to develop an electronic, free-access “universal library” has recalled to mind the existence of long-range projects which have for many years made available a veritable mine of bibliographic data. Researchers who before the digital age were forced to renounce a certain type of study or to invest unfathomable sums of money in travel to consult a given text now have the possibility to undertake their research at their own desk. He who wants to can now easily consult, without leaving his own computer, the interpretations of a source with the source itself, at least in the case in which these sources are available online.

Among the projects for digitalisation that are of great usefulness for research between Mechanics and Architecture should be pointed out the site Gallica, the Archimedes Project, the Matematica su CD-rom and the JSTOR project. Only the first two of these, however, make their materials available without charge in the true spirit of open source initiatives (see Berlin Declaration ). We regard this with particular interest and sympathy, for the great service that they provide for research and for how they facilitate development without asking anything in return. In keeping with the utopian ideal of copyleft we too have decided to take advantage of the tools of research that are already available in order to create a thematic library to furnish to historians of the art and science of construction an instrument that is agile and easily useable (9). This is a way of making sure that the new resources don’t remain hidden in the jungle of Internet, where the non-professional navigator is overwhelmed and undecided between an excess of possibilities, and the professional navigator is too easily caught up in the playful merry-go-round of the latest offers.

(1) J. Heyman, Coulomb’s Memoir on Statics: An Essay in the History of Civil Engineering, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1972.

(2) C.A. Truesdell, The rational mechanics of flexible or elastic bodies 1638-1788. Introduction to vols. 10 and 11 of Leonhardo Euleri Opera Omnia,Orell Füssli, Zürich 1960.

(3) E. Benvenuto, La Scienza delle Costruzioni e il suo sviluppo storico, Sansoni, Firenze 1981.

(4) E. Benvenuto, An Introduction to the History of Structural Mechanics, Springer, New York 1991.

(5) A. Giuffré, La meccanica nell’architettura. La statica, NIS, Roma 1986.

(6) S. Di Pasquale, L’arte del costruire. Tra conoscenza e scienza, Marsilio, Venezia 1996.

(7) P. Radelet-de Grave, E. Benvenuto (eds.), Entre Mécanique et Architecture/ Between Mechanics and Architecture, Birkhäuser, Basel 1995.

(8) A. Becchi, F. Foce, Degli archi e delle volte. Arte del costruire tra meccanica e stereotomia, Marsilio, Venezia 2002. See also A. Becchi, Q. XVI. Leonardo, Galileo e il caso Baldi: Magonza, 26 Marzo 1621, Marsilio, Venezia 2004.

(9) An analogous project on CD rom has been recently developed in Spain by S. Huerta. See S. Huerta (ed.), Fuentes para la Historia de la Construcción, vol.1, Selección de Tratados españoles de Arquitectura y Construcción, ss. XVI-XX, Instituto Juan de Herrera, Madrid 2005; vol.2, Selección de Tratados españoles de Arquitectura y Construcción, s. XIX, Instituto Juan de Herrera, Madrid 2007.