Sambin. Oevvre

Hugues Sambin. Oevvre de la diversite des termes, dont on use enarchitecture, reduicts en ordres.

Hugues Sambin (ca.1520 - 1601)


(Click on the call number to view the digital facsimile of the book.)

Gordon 1572 .S3

Oevvre de la diversite des termes, dont on use enarchitecture, reduicts en ordres.

Lyon : Iean Durant, 1572.

Architecteur en la ville de Dijon

Born around 1520, the son of a menuisier (an occupation encompassing the English equivalents of finish carpenter, joiner, cabinet maker, and wood-carver), Hugues Sambin established himself in Dijon as a master craftsman (maître-menuisier), as well as in the roles of architect, designer, and engineer.

Archival research has shown that the young craftsman spent half a year in 1544, working at the palace of Fontainebleau, where he came into contact with the works of Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio.¹ The Italian artists' decorative work at Fontainebleau represents the height of the mannerist movement under François I, and undoubtedly influenced the young woodworker, who would later incorporate the mannerist aesthetic in his decorative elements and building designs.

Oeuvre de la diversité des termes...

Although he copied and was clearly influenced by the copper plate engravings being made at Fontainebleau in the 1540s from drawings by Rosso and Primaticcio, Sambin's Oeuvre de la diversité des termes dont on use en architecture presents woodcut engravings, a much more common medium for illustrated books of the day and particularly in the major printed architectural treatises of the French Renaissance. Clearly Sambin envisioned his work as belonging to that category. Although the Oeuvre is not a "traité" like those of Androuet du Cerceau and Philibert de l'Orme, Sambin's specialized work on the "termes" presents the author as "architecteur en la ville de Dijon." He states that his goal in publishing the volume was to "servir à plaisir aux ouvriers et aux architectes," to make his images available to both artisans and architects.


Viewing Sambin's anthropomorphic columns, the sixteenth-century reader familiar with the work of Vitruvius (author of an important architectural treatise from antiquity that circulated widely in Europe in the Renaissance) would have recalled the earlier, related tradition of the Caryatids. These were columns on the exterior of a building in the form of clothed human figures, usually female. As Vitruvius recounts the story, the Caryatids represent the women of Caria, enslaved by the Greeks who conquered their state. To evoke this enslavement, the Caryatid columns bear burdens (i.e. the weight born by the columns). Sambin's initial Tuscan and Doric terms still bear some resemblance to the Caryatid columns depicted in the French Renaissance edition of Vitruvius ², as seen here:

Vitruvius also described male figures used as supports. The "Colonnes Persanes" (depicted in the French edition) represent the Persian men conquered by the might of the "forces de Lacedemone." Although some of Sambin's simpler "termes" are reminiscent of the "Colonnes Caryatides" and "Persanes," most of his figures depart from the Vitruvian tradition in striking ways. The ornamentation and excess of decoration on Sambin's figures are what draw our attention, and the weight of any burden born from above is minimized. In fact, we see only a small fragment - a mere suggestion - of the structure above each figure in the woodcuts.

Sambin's categories and descriptions of the "termes" follow the progression of classical architectural orders as outlined and explained by Vitruvius. Sambin's images, however, often seem not to correspond with his descriptions. Sambin's Tenth Term is a Corinthian figure, described as resembling a young maiden because of "sa beauté & delicatesse." In the corresponding woodcut image, shown at left, a young woman's delicate form is masked from head to toe with garlands, scrolls, and grotesque ornament.

Rather than evoking Vitruvius or classical examples, the images recall instead and are undoubtedly inspired by the "grotesque visual vocabulary" of Fontainebleau, as Rebecca Zorach notes, including "largely stucco figures like those that frame frescoes in the Galerie François Premier" (p. 131). The décor of the Palace of Fontainebleau reflects a preoccupation with nature, ornamented by art, along with a focus on the generative and nurturing powers of nature. Statues and frescoes of nude human figures are ornamented, to the point of excess, with animals, fruit, vegetables, and other plants. Female nudes bear a profusion of garlands and baskets of fruit, often in such a way that associates fruit directly with the female breast, linking nature's abundance with the female figure.³

Sixteenth-century French artists emhasized the link between nature and femininity in the polymast (many-breasted) figure of the goddess Nature, often depicted with many breasts, and draped in plants and many animals. In her innovative study of this and other related figures, Zorach includes the telling example of the polymast statue of "Nature" by Niccolò Tribolo, designer of the Boboli Gardens, sent to François Premier around 1529 for the Palace of Fontainebleau (p. 83). (Click here to view an image of Tribolo's "Nature.")

Sambin's "termes" certainly reflect increasingly feminine characteristics as the figures move from the relatively simpler orders to the composite orders and then to the even more complex composite order of his own invention. Many of Sambin's figures include multiple breasts (on both the male and female figure of the pair of terms) and a profusion of vegetation and animals, evoking the nourishing feminine qualities associated with Nature in the French Renaissance and particularly at Fontainebleau.

Classical order meets mannerist abundance

As noted above, even a quick look at the terms and the accompanying description for each pair of figures reveals a disconnect between what is described and what is depicted. Yves Pauwels has remarked on this contradictory quality in his introduction to Sambin on the Architectura website, pointing out that the Oeuvre reflects "deux principes presque contradictoires : un culte de l’invention, de la 'fureur' créatrice, de l'abondance variée, et une exigence très stricte de mise en ordre de cette matière très libre et multiforme." 4 The written portion of Sambin's work closely echoes the descriptions of the classical orders as presented by Vitruvius and reiterated by 16th-century architects, and imposes an overall structure based on the architectural orders. Sambin's figures, however, reflect an astonishing amount of additional ornamentation, visual explorations of the mannerist translation of classical art in the Palace of Fontainebleau.


¹ For more details, see Hugues Sambin: Un Créateur au XVIe siècle (vers 1520-1601), an impressive study published on the occasion of the exhibit by the same name at the Musée National de la Renaissance, October 2001 – January 2002. Research cited on Sambin’s stay at Fontainebleau was conducted by Catherine Grodecki (p.14).

² It is important to note that the illustrations in the French edition of Vitruvius are also the work of Renaissance artists. The manuscript that survived from antiquity included no illustrations.

³ Rebecca Zorach. Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. See Chapter 3, "Milk," for more about the use ofthe polymast figure to represent Nature, as well as the nurturing wealth of France. See pages 129-134 for a discusion of Hugues Sambin's terms in light of the iconographical and rhetorical tradition that associates femininity, nature, and France.

4 Yves Pauwels. "Sambin, Hugues. Oeuvre de la diversité des termes dont on use en architecture, réduict en ordre par maistre Hugues Sambin,... A Lyon : par Iean Durant, 1572." (Architectura: Sambin)

— Karen Simroth James, University of Virginia (2007)

Further Reading

Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain, et al. Hugues Sambin: Un Créateur au XVIe siècle (vers 1520-1601). Ouvrage publié à l'occasion de l'exposition-dossier présenté au Musée National de la Renaissance du 24 octobre 2001 au 21 janvier 2002. Paris: Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2001.

Zorach, Rebecca. Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Internet Resources

Consult another digital copy of this work on the Architectura site of the Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, which includes a transcription of the text in .pdf format, along with a scholarly, informative introduction in French and bibliographical information.

Another copy is available in image format (.pdf) from the Gallica website.

A Renaissance Cabinet Rediscovered: The Getty has conducted extensive research of a Renaissance cabinet, very likely made by Sambin, and mounted an impressive exhibit to document both the cabinet and the research methods used to study the cabinet’s age and origins.

Musée national de la Renaissance, Collection mobilier: L’armoire dite "de Clairvaux" (un bel exemple du mobilier de la Renaissance française, avec une profusion de décor sculpté dans la tradition du style d’Hugues Sambin)