Compass and Rule is not the newest secret society on campus.
With approximately 100 items, including drawings, manuscripts, maps, models and scientific instruments, “Compass and Rule: Architecture as Mathematical Practice in England, 1500–1750” — currently on display at the Yale Center for British Art — explores the separation of architectural design from physical construction over time in England. The exhibit explores how architecture was tranformed from a trial-and-error process to a precise, mathematical practice.
“The exhibit looks at the role of mathematics in the separation and elevation of design from actual building,” said Anthony Gerbino, co-curator of the exhibition and architectural historian at Oxford University’s Worcester College. The other two curators of the show are Stephen Johnston, assistant keeper at Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science, and Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of rare books and manuscripts at the British Art Center.
The period featured in the show marks the reintroduction of classical design and ideas in the Renaissance, said Yale Center for British Art Director Amy Meyers. The exhibition is organized chronologically to show the transition from medieval practices to the emergence of modern architecture in Renaissance England.
The first item on display is a small slab of white stone removed from the 13th century chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Upon first glance, the slab appears to be plain and blank. But a closer look reveals the sketch of a window from the chapel scratched on the stone by the point of a compass. The fact that the architects inserted the stone carrying part of the design into the physical building “brings home the unity of design and construction” that was the norm for medieval architecture, Gerbino explained.
Because architects did not separate design from the built product, architectural sketches were rare finds before the spread of Renaissance culture, Johnston said.
“This is because drawings were not quite understood at the time,” Johnston explained. As a result, a lot of sketching occurred on site and most designs were merely outlined by stakes and string, Gerbino added.
As attention to mathematics and geometry burgeoned, architecture became elevated to the rank of art. Aristocrats became eager patrons of this practice, commissioning a multitude of projects, many of which were realized during Sir Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666.
Two highlights of the exhibit are an elaborate astrolabe given to Queen Elizabeth I and a silver microscope belonging to King George III. The act of giving scientific instruments to people of such high stature “proved just how hot math is,” Johnston said.
“For them, math was the coolest thing,” he said.
The exhibit also features works by British architectural pioneers Inigo Jones and Wren. An animation of a section from Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral sketch shows how his two-dimensional drawing displays three-dimensional thinking.
“What we want to do with the exhibition is to give some sense of how the user and creator of such drawings built up a way of thinking and working in three dimensions on a flat paper surface,” Johnston said.
An exquisite set of drawing instruments with gilded cherubs show how architectural materials approach luxury goods, Johnston said, adding that such an item would not be sold at a hardware store but in the most fashionable stores in London.
“Compass and Rule” will be on display until May 30.