Cover image for Remarks on Architecture: The Vitruvian Tradition in Enlightenment Poland By Ignacy Potocki and edited and translated by Carolyn C. Guile

Remarks on Architecture

The Vitruvian Tradition in Enlightenment Poland

Ignacy Potocki, edited and translated by Carolyn C. Guile


$74.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06628-8

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06629-5

176 pages
6" × 9"
11 b&w illustrations/2 maps

Remarks on Architecture

The Vitruvian Tradition in Enlightenment Poland

Ignacy Potocki, edited and translated by Carolyn C. Guile

“An exceptional case study of what rigorous and inventive scholarship can bring to our knowledge not only of the strategies at work in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, but also of the Enlightenment European architectural theory more generally.”


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At the end of the eighteenth century, the authors of Poland’s 3 May 1791 Constitution became the heirs to a defunct state whose territory had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. At this moment of intensive national postmortem, Ignacy Potocki, an eminent statesman and co-author of the Constitution, wrote the treatise Remarks on Architecture.

One of the best-preserved examples of early modern Polish architectural thought, Potocki’s work announces itself as a project of national introspection, with architecture playing a direct role in the betterment of the nation. Addressed to the contemporary Polish nobility, the book argues that architecture is a vessel for cultural values and that it plays an important part in the formation and critique of broader national traditions. Throughout, Potocki conveys the lessons of a Vitruvian canon that shaped Continental classical architectural theory and practice throughout the early modern period.

Expertly translated by Carolyn Guile and featuring an introduction that explores Polish Enlightenment architectural writing as an example of cultural exchange, inheritance, and transformation, this edition of Potocki’s treatise broadens our understanding of European architectural history during the early modern period.

“An exceptional case study of what rigorous and inventive scholarship can bring to our knowledge not only of the strategies at work in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, but also of the Enlightenment European architectural theory more generally.”
“This publication of Ignacy Potocki's treatise on architecture makes an important contribution to our understanding of Enlightenment ideas about architecture, aesthetics, and classicism, while further elucidating the complex relation of Polish ideas to the European Enlightenment as a whole. Carolyn Guile has provided an excellent translation and a fascinating introduction to Potocki, his treatise, and its significance for the history of art, architecture, and aesthetics.”

Carolyn C. Guile is Assistant Professor of Art History at Colgate University.


List of Illustrations



A Note on the Text


Remarks on Architecture, by Ignacy Potocki

Transcription of the Manuscript: “Uwagi o Architekturze Przez Ignacego Potockiego”






The same fate to which other fields are subject befalls architecture. All the tomes written in this manner serve the master more than the student. And that is why those who without a mentor who wish to have any knowledge of architecture whatsoever are at first intimidated merely by looking at the great tomes. And, so to speak, they lose desire to read them before they even begin to understand the subject.

—Ignacy Potocki, Remarks on Architecture

The Manuscript and Its Author

Notable among the surviving examples of architectural theory written by Polish authors in the early modern period is a heretofore-unpublished, late eighteenth-century treatise, Remarks on Architecture, by Ignacy Potocki (1750–1809). Addressed to the nobility, or szlachta, and written in a conversational style, Potocki’s treatise conveyed the lessons of what might be called a Vitruvian canon, which shaped Continental classical architectural theory and practice throughout the early modern period. Potocki advanced the claim that patrons and architects could significantly alleviate society’s ills by raising architecture in the country to a higher standard, comparable to that of neighboring countries and consistent with a shared Latinate orientation. Although patrons bore responsibility for funding the construction of edifices that ennobled the Commonwealth in the private and public domains alike, he called upon authors and architects to mentor and to lead, and to convey the received rules of architecture in a clear, accessible manner.

For seventeenth- and eighteenth-century practitioners, both professional and amateur, discussions and writing about architecture and the arts in Poland took many forms, ranging from formal treatises dedicated to the king to didactic manuals, letters, private journals, and scattered notes. Polish scholars have written monographic studies of Polish architects, and general Enlightenment studies on Polish art and architecture are plentiful (in Polish), but apart from Stefan Muthesius’s brief survey in Art, Architecture, and Design in Poland, 966–1990, no general study of eighteenth-century East European or Polish architecture exists in English, nor has there been an in-depth study of early modern East European or Polish art and architectural theory per se. In isolated instances, scholars have acknowledged the impact of Continental ideas on Polish Enlightenment projects; the treatises of Marc-Antoine Laugier (1753) and later of Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1800) informed Polish writing about architecture; André Le Nôtre’s work influenced the form of Polish palace and garden design. Architectural theory emerging in early modern Poland-Lithuania and written both by professional architects and amateurs sometimes reached beyond the scope of technical matters and addressed the problems of beauty, stability, and progress, both domestic and national, in relation to progress in the arts, with varying and intriguing results. The Remarks on Architecture reveals an author aware of his perspective and of his participation in a Continental dialogue as he raised the issues of local custom and need. Significantly, a text such as Potocki’s broadens our understanding of European architectural history and theory during the early modern period through its translation and absorption of primary sources known on the eastern borderlands of Europe. The last decades of the eighteenth century are revelatory of the ways in which patrons and theoreticians of architecture collaborated with practitioners to construct the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s cultural relationship to classical and European visual expression and connected their political goals with their aesthetic interests and didactic agendas. Form carried social meaning.

Ignacy Potocki is best known as a figure who played a crucial role in the Commonwealth’s conversation about the durability of its statehood. Notably, he co-authored the 3 May 1791 Constitution, intended to be permanent. In her exquisite pastel portrait of Potocki dating to 1783 or 1784, Anna Gault de Saint Germain, née Rajecka (1762–1832), portrayed Potocki as a patriot decorated with the star of the Order of the White Eagle, the Crown’s highest honor (fig. 1). Like his brother Stanisław Kostka Potocki (1755–1821)—author of the first major art-historical text in the Polish language—he saw a direct relationship between the survival of the Commonwealth and the cultivation of architecture and the arts, to which may be appended related rules governing taste. To read Ignacy Potocki’s work is to consider the nature, variety, extensions, and limits of Western culture in an area geographically remote from the Italian lands that produced the buildings and architectural ideas the Potocki brothers most admired, but intellectually connected to its traditions. The Remarks on Architecture should be understood in the context of social and political reform at a moment when Stanisław Kostka Potocki’s interests in aesthetics, art, and the relationship of the two to self- and national improvement appeared. Motivated by their commitment to education and together with other individuals in their circle, such as Grzegorz Piramowicz (1735–1801) and Hugo Kołłątaj (1750–1812), the Potocki brothers worked to reform the monarchy and citizenry through a variety of means.

While the text of the Remarks is chiefly a didactic treatise designed to educate a nobleman about best practices in architecture, the grammar of ornament, the origins of “true architecture,” and standards and beauty, the ideas recorded within it allude to the need for cultural preservation during a protracted political crisis and period of national eradication, when the constitution was overturned shortly after its implementation and the Commonwealth was by 1795 partitioned in its entirety among Prussia, Russia, and Austria. In spite of their catastrophic political consequences, the partitions had a tangible and positive effect on independent cultural expression. Potocki’s text presents the present-day reader with an opportunity to consider the extent to which Continental theoretical literature—the Vitruvian canon—informed the attitudes toward architecture of like-minded members of the szlachta estate, who shared the author’s interests in building a stronger republic through the mechanisms of reform. Architecture could signify and embody cultural values, bearing the traces of the ideals and principles of their practitioners and of the writers on architecture who formulated the relationship between form and content.

Potocki’s treatise also stresses the role of architecture in the formation and critique of broader national traditions in a moment of intensive postmortem regarding the status of the respublica. Architecture was directly affected by problems of impermanence and instability and what some theorists criticized as the transient fashions born of mere taste; as tangible cultural property, it represented the outward expression of identity and allegiance to theoretical, practical, and aesthetic norms. Polish authors of art and architectural literature seeking solutions to impermanence and instability were cognizant of both the durability and liability of tradition.

The transcription of the treatise that follows its translation is based on a manuscript in the Archiwum Publiczne Potockich at the Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych in Warsaw. While I believe it circulated in its day in manuscript form, to my knowledge it has never been printed in any language and has received only passing mention, by Polish scholars concerned with Potocki’s activities as a politician and educator. There has been no art-historical analysis of the document. The few Polish historians who have mentioned the Remarks on Architecture have limited their observations to Potocki’s own modest description of his treatise as a “mosaic” comprising references to other sources and have stated that this dependence upon other sources demonstrates a lack of originality. But a treatise of this kind, in which its author announces and credits his sources while establishing his own positions relative to the subject at hand, reveals the ways in which culture and ideas travel and how they are received. The value of Potocki’s treatise lies also in what it reveals about the way a Pole, or someone living in and working from the eastern borderlands of Europe, would recognize, acknowledge, and assimilate foreign ideas and concepts, betraying a sense of affinity with a canon of ideas that shaped the classical tradition in other regions and embracing the pragmatic tone of its dicta. The text of the Remarks on Architecture embodies Potocki’s comprehension of architecture’s historical trajectory and the reasons for its rise and fall and intimates larger lessons for his compatriots and their legacy. Throughout, he makes it plain that decline could be averted only through knowledge of the past combined with experience itself. This thinking echoed that of his colleague Stanisław Staszic (1755–1826), who in his Warnings for Poland (1790) made clear to his countrymen his positions about the dangers of their ignorance and fixed attitudes regarding tradition. Correct architecture, Potocki held, provided evidence of cultural fortitude in the face of uncertainty. His work is guided by an autodidactic approach to the theoretical tradition of architectural writing and instruction to which he felt anyone interested in architecture would and must refer.

Knowledge of foreign languages, as well as the accessibility of ideas through the medium of engraving, enabled Commonwealth citizens interested in architecture to understand, assimilate, and transform ideas arriving from beyond the Polish-Lithuanian borders. The advances in architectural education made by the Piarist and Jesuit orders beginning in the 1730s in turn enhanced interest in architectural theoretical writings. Polish works did appear, such as those by the Jesuit professor Józef Rogaliński (1728–1802) and by students as well, who were exposed to French and German works by the likes of DeLorme (1567), Blondel (1683), Perrault (1676), and Laugier (1753), among the French sources, and Penther (1745), Goldmann (1696), and Sturm (1717), among the German. The appearance of these texts within Polish intellectual circles, where they were discussed or used and where the indigenous theoretical tradition was uneven, points toward Potocki’s assimilation of that tradition and use of it for local but not exclusively Polish ends.

Educated at the Colegium Nazarenum in Rome from 1765 to 1768 and later at the Colegium Nobilium in Warsaw, Potocki was a product of the reformed Polish Piarist pedagogical tradition whose exponents promoted and wrote about the tenets of good citizenship as early as the 1740s and held assemblies in which students put forth their ideas on how to improve Polish customs—“how to make our fatherland a happier place.” Of central importance to the curriculum for the Colegium Nobilium was character building and love of the “fatherland,” as well as instruction in Latin and other languages; the curriculum also emphasized Polish history, geography, and rhetoric. As a man of letters, Ignacy managed the Załuski Library, Poland’s first public and national library. He was a close cohort of the statesman Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski (1734–1823) and the “Familia,” who gathered frequently at Czartoryski’s estate in Puławy (near Lublin), and was a central figure in politics during the reformist Four-Year Sejm (parliament) of 1788–92. His involvement in the reform of the Polish education system in the 1770s and 1780s reinforced his natural inclination to embrace the didactic potential of architecture to improve the citizenry. He had accomplished a great deal in the civic realm by the time he died, in 1809, at the age of fifty-nine. His pursuits, both recreational and professional, included politics, pedagogy, dramaturgy, poetry, and historiography; like his brother, he demonstrated a serious interest in architecture and maintained associations with the most important architects working in Commonwealth, both before and after the partitions.

Celebrated as an author of the Commonwealth’s 3 May 1791 Constitution, he was also famous as a member of one of the Commonwealth’s most prominent families, whose art collections and libraries were among the nation’s most extensive and esteemed, rivaling those of the king himself. Potocki’s travels to Italy and France in the early 1770s and from Vienna to Italy in 1783 contributed to his familiarity with Continental writings about function, beauty, and proportion in architecture; his collaborations and conversations with his brother further shaped his thinking about architecture’s principles. In no other Polish library of the time were there so many Italian architectural treatises as there were in his sibling Stanisław’s library; the brothers shared ideas on architecture, and each left behind many drawings, some of which survived the bombardments of the Second World War. While in Rome in 1769, Ignacy began an album of his own architectural drawings, including a plan of Borromini’s church of Sant’Agnese (fig. 2) and a signed drawing of a plan for the ground floor and piano nobile of a palace that in its disposition of rooms echoes Palladio’s recommendations regarding size, placement, and symmetry (fig. 3). Drawings for a Greek-cross church display his engagement with Palladian approaches to sacred architecture (figs. 4 and 5) and also recall structures in Warsaw itself he would have known intimately, such as the Church of the Holy Sacrament (1688–92), by the Dutch Palladian architect Tylman van Gameren (b. Utrecht 1632, d. Warsaw 1706).

His experiences abroad were fairly representative for most influential Polish szlachta, in spite of the Commonwealth’s size and the difficulties of crossing it. Literature and travel facilitated the Potocki brothers’ collecting activities; the Potocki library also contained extensive eighteenth-century travel writings that would inform Stanisław Kostka Potocki’s On the History of the Art of the Ancients, or the Polish Winckelmann (O sztuce u dawnych, czyli Winkelman polski, 1815). Several early modern editions of Vitruvius’s De architectura appear in the library inventory; the collection included Vitruvius Britannicus (London, 1701, and Campbell’s 1725 edition), Le Vitruve danois (1740), and M. Vitruvii Pollonis de architectura libri decem (Rome, 1586; Amsterdam, 1649). As most European writers on architecture before him, Ignacy Potocki would designate Vitruvius as the fundamental authority, though not without qualification. Also in the collection were a 1663 Venetian edition of Sebastiano Serlio’s Architettura, the Architettura di M. Vitruvio Pollione colla traduzione Italiana e comento del marchese Berardo Galiani (1758), L’idea della architettura universale di Vicenzo Scamozzi (1615), Architettura di Palladio di Vicense a Venise (1740), and Architettura di Alberti di Soimo Bartoli (1726), to name but a few tomes.