Cover image for Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian By David R. Coffin

Pirro Ligorio

The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian

David R. Coffin


$103.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02293-2

242 pages
8.5" × 10"
145 b&w illustrations

Pirro Ligorio

The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian

David R. Coffin

“The wide range of Ligorio’s activities has created a diffuse bibliography across several disciplines, many of its sources in publications which are not easily found in most libraries. Professor Coffin has admirably synthesized this large body of work . . . and he has added new observations as well. It is both a genial and learned perusal of one of the challenging figures of the 16th century, and what results is a unique and significant multidisciplinary contribution.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Pirro Ligorio (1510–1583), an Italian architect and antiquarian who designed the Casino of Pius IV and large portions of the gardens of the Villa d’Este, has long been a notoriously elusive subject because of his daunting erudition and because his notebooks and drawings are in collections scattered throughout the world. In this book David R. Coffin, one of America’s leading experts on Renaissance architecture and landscape architecture, mobilizes all available published and unpublished materials to offer the first comprehensive account of Ligorio’s life and multifaceted career.

Coffin traces the unfolding of Ligorio’s life from his early years in Naples, to his work in Rome, where he served several popes and pored over Ancient ruins, through his residency in Ferrara as court antiquarian. In addition to illuminating Ligorio’s relationship to his patrons, Coffin sheds new light on Ligorio’s famed map of ancient Rome, a masterpiece that bears witness to Ligorio’s cartographic skills, his erudition, and his lifelong fascination with the eternal city. Copiously illustrated, Coffin’s biography includes a checklist of Ligorio’s drawings. It will be of interest to architectural historians, art historians, and all those involved with the study of Rome and of the classical heritage.

“The wide range of Ligorio’s activities has created a diffuse bibliography across several disciplines, many of its sources in publications which are not easily found in most libraries. Professor Coffin has admirably synthesized this large body of work . . . and he has added new observations as well. It is both a genial and learned perusal of one of the challenging figures of the 16th century, and what results is a unique and significant multidisciplinary contribution.”
“David Coffin's biography is a welcome addition to the relatively thin literature on Ligorio. His study draws on a lifetime of distinguished work on and around Ligorio, whose voluminous manuscripts have been mined by scholars. The learning displayed by this densely documented study and the associated collection of imagery is most admirable, worthy of the immensely erudite subject himself.”
“This volume reflects the alpha and the omega of the author’s career.”
“The volume is well produced, with copious black-and-white illustrations integrated with the text.”
“The present volume is the most authoritative exploration of the life and work of one of the Renaissance great figures, the Neapolitan artist and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio.”
“Coffin's work will not end debate on specific attributions or the quality of Ligorio's artistic work, but this biography should serve as the foundation for any further studies of the artist.”
“As the first biography of Ligorio, David Coffin’s book is much welcome, even if it has been a long time in the making.”
“Coffin’s book serves as a helpful master narrative to a figure that had previously seemed difficult to approach. . . . The breadth of Ligorio’s achievements make him undoubtedly one of the most daunting sixteenth-century figures to fully capture in print. We are fortunate that Coffin, whose own intellectual biography was so inexorably intertwined with that of his subject, found the chance to complete this book before his death.”
“The excellent production values, favoring a generous quantity of sharp, rich black-and-white photographs that achieve optimal visual force on heavy, coated paper, create a vivid contrast to the unfortunately gray, often fuzzy pictures of Coffin’s earlier The English Garden: Meditation and Memorial (Princeton, 1994). One can only hope this is not the last of the genre of the beautiful scholarly book, capaciously illustrated but not overly long.”
“Coffin has done a service to Renaissance studies in representing Ligorio in whole rather than in parts, and in giving clear indications of his achievements and innovations, as well as his extraordinary vision of antiquity. This book will not be the definitive work on Ligorio—his breadth of production, his influence and reception could potentially fuel several volumes —but it is a very good place to begin.”
“Coffin’s calm and sympathetic assessment would surely have been welcomed by Ligorio, not least as an ample corrective to the dark shadow that Vasari cast over his successes.”

David R. Coffin passed away in October 2003. He was Howard Crosby Butler Memorial Professor of the History of Architecture, Emeritus, at Princeton University.


List of Illustrations




1. Early Years in Rome

2. Ligorio in Papal Employ

The Papacy of Paul IV (1555–1559)

The Papacy of Pius IV (1559–1565)

The Papacy of Pius V (1566–1572)

3. The Villa d’Este at Tivoli

4. Ligorio in Ferrara



I. House Facades at Rome Painted by Ligorio

II. Documents

III. The So-Called Palazzetto di Pirro Ligorio

IV. Figural and Ornamental Drawings of Pirro Ligorio

Checklist of Figural and Ornamental Drawings of Pirro Ligorio





There has never been an extensive or even adequate biography of the sixteenth-century Neapolitan artist and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio. His contemporary the Tuscan artist and biographer of Italian artists, Giorgio Vasari, refused to include an account of Ligorio in his Vite. Vasari, as an ardent follower and worshiper of the artist Michelangelo, accused Ligorio of belittling Michelangelo and was in vicious competition with Ligorio to be accepted as a papal artist. Presumably these are the reasons Vasari omitted Ligorio.

The first biographical account of Ligorio is the two pages Giovanni Baglione published in his Vite in 1642, about sixty years after Ligorio’s death. Baglione’s sketch presents, with no apparent errors, a very reasonable image of the variety of accomplishments Ligorio achieved. Ligorio’s contribution to house facade painting in Rome is particularly stressed. A few of Baglione’s contributions to Ligorio’s life are unconfirmed, and their source is unknown. Baglione is the first to claim that it was Ligorio’s ability as an engineer that caused Duke Alfonso II to call him to Ferrara to control the damage produced by the silting up of the Po River. Ligorio is described as "of tall stature and good appearance," and his death is credited to a fall, information for which there seems to be no other source. Later biographical accounts, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Francesco Milizia’s Memorie degli architetti antiche e moderne or G. K. Nagler’s Künstler-Lexikon, are for the most part based on Baglione, although they introduce numerous errors, which Baglione did not have. So Milizia ascribes to Pius IV, not Pius V, the commission for the tomb of Paul IV, and Nagler locates the tomb in San Pietro in Vaticano, not in Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Milizia claims that it was Paul IV who removed Ligorio as the architect of San Pietro, while Nagler credits Duke Ercole II with calling Ligorio to Ferrara.

The first scholarly account of Ligorio’s life is the entry by Giuseppe Ceci in the Thieme-Becker Künstler-Lexicon of 1929, which is based on thorough research but is the last biographical account to consider all aspects of Ligorio’s career. Contemporary with Ceci’s account, Vincenzo Pacifici published his life of the Cardinal of Ferrara, which explored the relationship between Ligorio and the cardinal. There were also important studies of individual works of architecture produced by Ligorio, such as F. S. Seni’s La Villa d’Este in Tivoli in 1902, Walter Friedländer’s Das Kasino Pius des Vierten in 1912, followed after World War II by James Ackerman’s The Cortile del Belvedere in 1954 and my Villa d’Este at Tivoli of 1960, which had been part of an unpublished dissertation of 1954. The dissertation included an intensive biography of Ligorio. which is the genesis of the present study.

My interest in the personality and activity of Ligorio began in 1945 in the seminar of Erwin Panofsky on Renaissance and Renascences. The seminar was to center on several characteristics of the period usually defined as the Renaissance, such as linear perspective, central-plan churches, and classicism. Panofsky differentiated the Renaissance from the medieval Carolingian Renascence or the Twelfth-Century Renascence by the fact that the Renaissance reintegrated classic stories or iconography with forms as seen in classical antiquity, unlike the Renascences, which presented the story and the forms as separate entities. Thus, he chose the subject of the work of Ligorio for a student report to illustrate the Renaissance approach.

For Ligorio, the ideal model for contemporary society was classical antiquity, particularly Roman antiquity. Ligorio, like his humanistic predecessors, such as Leon Battista Alberti, considered a study of classical ideals and forms necessary to correct the defects he saw in contemporary society and culture. Therefore, imperfect or fragmentary classical remains must be restored. Ancient sculpture should not be exhibited with missing noses, fingers, or limbs but must be restored by stonecutters after his direction, so that contemporary artists would have proper examples on which to base their work. Similarly, he would restore fragmentary inscriptions so that their facts or information could be understood by his contemporaries and not left simply as ruined ancient artifacts. He was exacting in his analysis of ancient monuments. One of his criticisms of Michelangelo was the freedom with which the latter used ancient motifs. For Ligorio broken pediments denoted death and so were appropriate only on tombs, unlike the free use that Michelangelo and his followers made of them.

Architectural critics have habitually equated Ligorio’s architectural style with the richly decorative stucco decoration of the facades of the casino and loggia at the Casino of Pius IV in the Vatican. This is the cause of the misattribution to Ligorio by Italian architectural historians of the so-called Palazzetto di Pirro Ligorio on the Capitoline hill in Rome. Actually, his more common architectural style is an austere mode visible on the facade of the Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, on the northern transept of San Giovanni in Laterano, and even on the side elevations of the buildings of the Casino of Pius IV. This austere style may be the reason he was given the commission by Pope Pius V for the new Palace of the Inquisition and why some Jesuit fathers may have preferred his design for the new mother church of their order, in contrast to the successful, more genial style of Giacomo Vignola supported by the Jesuits’ principal patron, the Cardinal Farnese. The two different architectural styles visible in Ligorio’s works are undoubtedly determined by his sense of architectural decorum. The decorative mode of the facade of the Casino of Pius IV was chosen to express in a classic vocabulary the free, delightful quality suitable to a rustic retreat. The austere style is not only more appropriate for the secondary side elevations of the building but is right for structures in the context of urban architecture.

In his passion to exercise a control of classical antiquity, Ligorio created at different times in his career two very detailed, but incomplete, encyclopedias. The first, written during his residence in Rome, now in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Naples, was composed in the traditional medieval manner as a series of subject entries: inscriptions, coins, garments, and so forth. After he left Rome, Ligorio began at Ferrara a new encyclopedia, now in the Archivio di Stato at Turin, organized in a very new fashion, alphabetically, an organizing principle that will be commonly used only in the next century. Thus, his passion for classical antiquity in no way diminished his interest in innovation.

Although Ligorio was never able to publish his encyclopedias—it would have been a mammoth task given the size of the works and the great number of illustrations they would require—he did successfully publish a series of detailed maps of areas of Europe and particularly a large map of Rome, his Imago of 1561. Unlike most other maps, which limited the depiction of architecture to important, famous buildings, Ligorio’s map shows the individual monuments surrounded by blocks of vernacular architecture, now lost. He thus created a total context, setting an example for future maps of Rome.

Although Ligorio began his career in Rome as a facade painter, in 1549 he gave up this independent existence to become a salaried employee of the Cardinal of Ferrara as court archaeologist. At the same time he stopped being active as a painter, that is, a manual artisan, and attempted to present himself as a humanistic intellectual, emphasizing his Neapolitan patriciate and devising iconographic programs to be executed by others. He was henceforth to be known as a designer of pictorial programs, of architecture, and of sculpture. Soon he would progress from the relatively small court of the cardinal, secure in the latter’s patronage, to the larger and more competitive papal court. Although this position brought more renown, it also brought more danger, as Ligorio discovered in 1565, when he was imprisoned on the accusation of several of his competitors. The papal position was more insecure than that of other courts, for successive, often short-lived popes changed their desires and ideals. So Ligorio, after generous patronage from Popes Paul IV and Pius IV, was dismissed by Pius V, whose Counter-Reformation ideals were antithetical to Ligorio’s passion for classical antiquity. For the last fifteen years of his life Ligorio was exiled, as he would consider it, at the declining court of Ferrara, which was battered by nature and politics. His patron, the duke of Ferrara, was almost paranoid in his concern for the loyalty of his courtiers, as evidenced by the treatment of Ligorio’s friend the poet Torquato Tasso, who was imprisoned for his disloyalty. Vasari, Ligorio’s principal rival at the papal court, was victorious, not only in his achievement in ousting Ligorio as papal advisor to Pius V but also in the security of a generous patron in the person of the duke of Florence. In addition, Vasari was able to publish his Vite, ensuring his later fame in addition to his work as a painter and architect. Ligorio’s tremendous effort to command a knowledge of classical antiquity remained in manuscript unavailable to the public, and time destroyed most of his painting.

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