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Francesco Primari

The Ca' Brütta of Muzio and Book IV of Serlio

The Invention of Language

Ca’ Brütta. Façade on Via Turati

Ca’ Brütta. Façade on Via Turati

This essay attempts, in a fresh way, to trace the treatises behind Muzio’s figuration, highlighting the role of Sebastiano Serlio’s work as a departure point for an operational recomposition of architectural language. Serlio’s grammar and syntax in Book IV of his "Treatise on Architecture" is analysed as a source of the solutions adopted for Ca’ Brütta, defining the authenticity and depth of its genealogy together with a long-term view of its legacy.

Opposed then exalted, idealized at the same time as being forgotten, Ca’ Brütta, Giovanni Muzio’s first work in Milan, has seen its ups and down, without however ever being properly appraised, but it has been a touchstone in the worn-out vacuous dialect between modernity and tradition. This short essay will attempt to trace the figurative materials its architectural discourse developed from, trying to specify the origin of “our own classical-style elements from the 1500s to the 1800s” which Muzio himself identified in 1922 as actors in the composition of Ca’ Brütta; (1) on the one hand to play down the metaphysical, ironic and estranging components attributed to it by the critics; on the other, in opposition to this interpretation, to highlight the realistically operational character of an analogical anastylosis of the linguistic code verified in the major treatises of Renaissance architecture, which Muzio proposed as a base on which to re-establish the architectural discourse.
We shall see how the pages of Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise were able to offer Muzio the keystones for a recomposition of language that is not without its gaps and reinventions: “let it be understood, no slavish copy or elaborate contamination, but an inspired free choice, and I would say that this classicism was none other than the yardstick to measure the efforts made, so that every element sounds right and the flavour is candid.” (2)
It is, therefore, in this series of figures with captions from Serlio’s treatise that we can look more clearly at the formal genesis of Ca’ Brütta and work our way along the furrow of a proper Baukunst of language. From the apparently atheoretical and totally visual nature of Serlio’s work, Muzio acquired the basics of a grammar for the construction of a semantic system that could provide a recognizable idiom for the spectator, by this time accustomed to the eclectic stile umbertino chaos. And what better treatise than that of Serlio to show a sure way back to a long-known langue, the Classical? Serlio’s was an open system, which in the face of its Vitruvian surface rigour, posed its own problem of reinterpreting the Classical language in a progressive sense, relating it to other themes – for example that of the house suitable for any social condition – and other contexts – the French one – providing a topic, that of the orders, in a brand new logical and proportional sequence, while at the same time immediately presenting short syntaxes and applicative verifications. This tangency with Serlio’s text sheds a light on the authentic unadulterated approach that Muzio entertained with the Classical and with treatises, personally collected in a huge library, (3) not as a mere bibliophile, but as an inexhaustible source of images, exempla, realizations, ready to again be verified in the invention process. Which is why it was Serlio who became the source of possible analogies; arguably the most didactic among the treatises in the rules of composition for the art of building; here is why in Book IV – the foundation of Serlio’s grammar and syntax – we find the greatest number of parallels with Muzio’s work.
A first analogy with Serlio’s text can be found in the front on Via Principe Umberto (currently Turati): the door that leads to the internal street appears as a meditation around the series of city gates that Serlio shows as examples of applying the Tuscan order on the first pages of Book IV. This is not only testified by the morphological scheme: i.e. the composition of a central arched opening with two doors at its sides. However, it is the same image in skiagraphy of Muzio’s drawing that reveals its creative paternity. The version without architectural orders, which resulted in rustication, was envisaged in Serlio’s examples (Folio VIIIIv) and in Muzio’s invention confers a fitting tone to the urban role on the street front, guaranteeing the requested continuity, without entering into contradiction with the more private nature of the internal street. This solution was then combined by Muzio with another of Serlio’s figures: namely, the ambulatione composed of a wooden pergola embellished with interwoven arches that close off the top of the façade composition presented on Folio XLIIIIr ; a composition that Muzio was to borrow, transforming  it and placing it to mark the top of the arched main door, in this way clearly defining its colloquial nature.
Also the general idea of the two fronts on Via Principe Umberto appears to feature the essential traits of the “Venetian” houses presented on Folios XXXVr and XXXVIr of Book IV. Indeed, these feature a tripartite façade system with a high base; however, it is the proportional verification that ensures the parallelism: but not only, in fact the general proportion between the base and the height of Muzio’s two fronts is identical to Serlio’s examples, but Muzio, despite using a higher base than these – three storeys instead of two – does not betray Serlio’s proportional precept for these houses: “All the orders on top of orders must diminish the height of the fourth part: but in this case, in my opinion, the disposition of the columns, starting above this base, wants to be the same height as the first [the base; author’s note]: as a result, if the rusticated part was the larger fourth part of the Doric in the middle, and the third order the smallest fourth part of the second; this third order would be too short, and the first would be too tall.” Which is the same for the fronts on Via Turati; the base is as high as all the upper three storeys, which is why the sixth floor unexpectedly features a Doric order with much compressed proportions; not through some deformative intention, but because this is the part that re-emerges from the fourth and fifth storeys that had hidden it up till then. In this way, Muzio reflects on the availability of the orders to represent the domestic nature of a house.
Again above, the building is set back, in line with a typical scheme of the French maison de rapport and then ends with a altana – another clear Venetian reference later demolished – which would have raised the overall height of the top of the building to ¾ of all the piani nobili, following Serlio’s rule of the gradual diminution to ¼ of the superimposed orders.
But on looking closer, it is the entire repertoire of the façades presented by Serlio in Book IV that appear to form the morphological outline of the compositional solutions for Ca’ Brütta. In Serlio’s division of the walls Muzio found the reflection of a research that would influence all of his work and that concerns the value of the wall’s tectonic depth and its chiaroscural values. In particular, if we observe the houses engraved on Folios XXXIr, XXXIIr and XXXIIIr we can see that in these are all the grammatical elements used by Serlio and Muzio to describe the construction of the wall, also replacing the architectural orders; In fact, Serlio prescribed that “the ornaments of the niches must be on the same axis as to the columns and the spaces of these niches are as wide as the spaces between the columns”. The system of niches in Serlio’s architecture is an alternative to the use of orders; it was this possibility that Muzio grasped in his attempt to propose a classical language while attenuating the role of the orders in favour of a more domestic wall architecture. At this point, it was to be the niches, the wall panels, the bas reliefs, the tympanum or remenato pediments, the frames and aedicules that would constitute the elements of the architectural language, delimiting and describing the empty fields left by the order.
The variety of niches that Muzio used is also in absolute agreement with the combinative reconstructions of different niches recomposed by Serlio as ancient fragments next to an opening, shown in tables XIIv and XIIIr “to show the diversity of niches that such a work can accommodate” so that “the judicious Architect can make use of them in the places he decides.” These are real morphemes, short syntaxes, that Muzio reinterprets and reuses to again write a similar architectural language; never literal nor philological archaeological citations, but patterns of figuration, points of departure to measure a fitting principle for present problems, one that can suggest solutions to concrete themes, such as that of conferring architectural character on stretches of walls without openings or with blank walls on an axis; cf. Serlio’s composition on Folio XVIIr.
Also the syntactically unusual use that Muzio makes of rustication – etched rather than painted– allocated in parts for certain stretches of buildings that are never bases, can be seen in the unprejudiced use that Serlio made of rustication in combination with the architectural orders to modulate the character in a fresh way. In addition, the perspective illusions defined on the façade of Ca’ Brütta as a constructed trompe-l’oeil recall all the skiagraphic language of Serlio’s design.
These then are “the essential schemes and the necessary universal elements of architecture […] always true” survivors “in stylistic expressions that are different from time to time” (4) which for us can be traced in comparisons with Serlio’s work. What is their role in assembling the parts of Ca’ Brütta?
Although Muzio himself saw in them a sort of “fragmentary composition” (5) we can find no satisfied poetics of the fragment: the caesuras that bring rhythm to the façades are revealed first and foremost at a level of type or morphology that do not directly concern the problems of figuration in a façade; in fact, this is a house made of houses, often singled out be a simple triadic tripartition scheme, and placed next to one another in a paratactic way to characterize the theme of the residential building in relation to the contexts in which it impinges now and then. It follows that the dispositio of the decorative elements supports the pauses imposed by this general decomposition that the block is a part of. Vice versa, Serlio’s façade themes are presented as linguistic elements unifying the block’s polyhedral nature. A role that is anything but ironic and disorientating conferred to language, but on the contrary, genuinely constructive.

1. Notes illustrating the work, in “Architettura e Arti decorative”, Year II, file II, October 1922, p. 93.
2. Giovanni Muzio, Alcuni architetti d’oggi in Lombardia, in “Dedalo”, file XV, August 1931, p. 1093.
3. Muzio possessed a copy of the 1551 edition of Sebastiano Serlio’s first five books on architecture. Whereas the images used in this essay – with their related numeration – are taken by edition of 1537; now in Sebastiano Serlio, L’architettura. I libri I-VII e Extraordinario nelle prime edizioni,  F. P. Fiore (ed.), Il Polifilo, Milan 2001.
4. Giovanni Muzio, Alcuni architetti d’oggi in Lombardia, in “Dedalo”, file XV, August 1931, p. 1093.
5. Giovanni Muzio, in Guido Canella et al., Struttura e tradizione architettonica. Incontro con G. Muzio, in “Hinterland”, nos. 13-14, January-June 1980, p. 38.

Minimal Reference Bibliography on Ca’ Brütta
- Bossaglia, Rossana, Giovanni Muzio. La Ca’ Brütta, in L’art Déco, Laterza, Rome-Bari 1984, pp. 75-80.
- Burg, Annegret, Novecento milanese. I novecentisti e il rinnovamento dell’architettura a Milano fra il 1920 e il 1940, Motta Editore, Milan 1991, pp. 49-56.
- Calvenzi, Giovanna (ed.), Operazione Ca’ Brütta 1921-2016,  catalogue of the exibition in Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Sala del Tesoro - Sale Viscontee, 15 april -10 july 2016, Contrasto, Rome 2016.
- Cesaroni, Silvia, Giovanni Muzio, architettura civile e classicità, in Giulio Ernesti (ed.), La costruzione dell’utopia. Architetti e urbanisti nell’Italia fascista, Edizioni Lavoro, Rome 1988, pp. 103-119.
- Ernesti, Giulio, Ca’ Brütta, Milano, 1919-1922, in Sergio Boidi (ed.), L’architettura di Giovanni Muzio, catalogue of the exhibition, (Milan, Galleria della Triennale, 20 December 1994 - 19 February 1995), Editrice Abitare Segesta, Milan 1994, pp. 155-158.
- Irace, Fulvio, Ca’ Brütta, Officina Edizioni, Rome 1982.
- Irace, Fulvio, Giovanni Muzio 1893-1982. Opere, Electa, Milan 1994, pp. 60-89.
- Irace, Fulvio , Giovanni Muzio. La Ca’ Brütta restaurata, in “Casabella”, n. 860, april 2016, pp. 19-27.
- Muratore, Giorgio (ed.), Giovanni Muzio. Tre case a Milano 1922 1930 1936, Clear, Rome 1981.
- Muzio, Giovanni, La Ca’ Brütta, in Milano 70/70. Un secolo d’arte, catalogue of the exhibition (Milan, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, 28 April - 10 June 1971), vol. II, dal 1915 al 1945, Editrice Edi Stampa, Milan 1971, p. 178.

Francesco Primari was born on 10 July 1977, in Pesaro.
With a school leaving certificate from the “Mamiani” Liceo Classico of Pesaro, he graduated in Architecture in April 2006, from the IUAV, with a thesis: For the city: six redevelopment projects for the fringes of Pesaro’s old town.
Again at the IUAV in March 2012 he took a PhD in Architectural Composition with a thesis: The building of the city. The Bonaiti and Malugani houses of Giovanni Muzio in Milan.
Since February 2013 to May 2015, he has been carrying out research as a fellow at the Department of Architecture of the University of Bologna’s Cesena branch, where, since 2006, he has been a tutor on architectural design courses.
City gate. Folio VIIIIv, dalle “Regole generali di architettura di Sebastiano Serlio”

City gate. Folio VIIIIv, dalle “Regole generali di architettura di Sebastiano Serlio”