This document roughly describes the architecture of librsvg, and future plans for it. The code is continually evolving, so don’t consider this as the ground truth, but rather like a cheap map you buy at a street corner.

The library’s internals are documented as Rust documentation comments; you can look at the rendered version at

You may also want to see the section below on interesting parts of the code.

A bit of history

Librsvg is an old library. It started around 2001, when Eazel (the original makers of GNOME’s file manager Nautilus) needed a library to render SVG images. At that time the SVG format was being standardized, so librsvg grew along with the SVG specification. This is why you will sometimes see references to deprecated SVG features in the source code.

Librsvg started as an experiment to use libxml2’s new SAX parser, so that SVG could be streamed in and rendered on the fly, instead of first creating a DOM tree. Originally it used libart as a rendering library; this was GNOME’s first antialiased renderer with alpha compositing. Later, the renderer was replaced with Cairo. Librsvg is currently striving to support other rendering backends.

These days librsvg indeed builds a DOM tree by itself; it needs the tree to run the CSS cascade, do selector matching, and to support cross-element references like in SVG filters.

Librsvg started as a C library with an ad-hoc API. At some point it got turned into a GObject library, so that the main RsvgHandle class defines most of the entry points into the library. Through GObject Introspection, this allows librsvg to be used from other programming languages.

In 2016, librsvg started getting ported to Rust. As of early 2021, the whole library is implemented in Rust, and exports an intact C API/ABI. It also exports a more idiomatic Rust API as well.

The C and Rust APIs

Librsvg exports two public APIs, one for C and one for Rust.

The C API has hard requirements for API/ABI stability, because it is used all over the GNOME project and API/ABI breaks would be highly disruptive. Also, the C API is what allows librsvg to be called from other programming languages, through GObject Introspection.

The Rust API is a bit more lax in its API stability, but we try to stick to semantic versioning as is common in Rust.

The public Rust API is implemented in src/ This has all the primitives needed to load and render SVG documents or individual elements, and to configure loading/rendering options.

The public C API is implemented in librsvg-c/src, and it is implemented in terms of the public Rust API. Note that as of 2021/Feb the corresponding C header files are hand-written in include/librsvg/; maybe in the future they will be generated automatically with cbindgen.

We consider it good practice to provide simple and clean primitives in the Rust API, and have librsvg-c deal with all the idiosyncrasies and historical considerations for the C API.

In short: the public C API calls the public Rust API, and the public Rust API calls into the library’s internals.

|  Public C API  |
|  librsvg-c/src |
|  Public Rust API  |
|   rsvg/src/ |
| library internals |
|  rsvg/src/*.rs    |

The test suite

The test suite is documented in rsvg/tests/

Code flow

The caller of librsvg loads a document into a handle, and later may ask to render the document or one of its elements, or measure their geometries.

Loading an SVG document

The Rust API starts by constructing an SvgHandle from a Loader; both of those are public types. Internally the SvgHandle is just a wrapper around a Document, which is a private type that stores an SVG document loaded in memory. SvgHandle and its companion CairoRenderer provide the basic primitive operations like “render the whole document” or “compute the geometry of an element” that are needed to implement the public APIs.

A Document gets created by loading XML from a stream, into a tree of Node structures. This is similar to a web browser’s DOM tree. Node is just a type alias for rctree::Node<NodeData>: an rctree is an N-ary tree of reference-counted nodes, and NodeData is the enum that librsvg uses to represent either XML element nodes, or text nodes in the XML.

Each XML element causes a new Node to get created with a NodeData::Element(e). The e is an Element, which is a struct that holds an XML element’s name and its attributes. It also contains an element_data field, which is an ElementData: an enum that can represent all the SVG element types. For example, a <path> element from XML gets turned into a NodeData::Element(e) that has its element_data set to ElementData::Path.

When an Element is created from its corresponding XML, its Attributes get parsed. On one hand, attributes that are specific to a particular element type, like the d in <path d="..."> get parsed by the set_attributes method of each particular element type (in that case, Path::set_attributes).

On the other hand, attributes that refer to styles, and which may appear for any kind of element, get all parsed into a SpecifiedValues struct. This is a memory-efficient representation of the CSS style properties that an element has.

When the XML document is fully parsed, a Document contains a tree of Node structs and their inner Element structs. The tree has also been validated to ensure that the root is an <svg> element.

After that, the CSS cascade step gets run.

The CSS cascade

Each Element has a SpecifiedValues, which has the CSS style properties that the XML specified for that element. However, SpecifiedValues is sparse, as not all the possible style properties may have been filled in. Cascading means following the CSS/SVG rules for each property type to inherit missing properties from parent elements. For example, in this document fragment:

<g stroke-width="2" stroke="black">
  <path d="M0,0 L10,0" fill="blue"/>
  <path d="M20,0 L30,0" fill="green"/>

Each <path> element has a different fill color, but they both inherit the stroke-width and stroke values from their parent group. This is because both the stroke-width and stroke properties are defined in the CSS/SVG specifications to inherit automatically. Some other properties, like opacity, do not inherit and are thus not copied to child elements.

In librsvg, the individual types for CSS properties are defined with the make_property macro.

The cascading step takes each element’s SpecifiedValues and composes it by CSS inheritance onto a ComputedValues, which has the result of the cascade for each element’s properties.

When cascading is done, each Element has a fully resolved ComputedValues struct, which is what gets used during rendering to look up things like the element’s stroke width or fill color.

Parsing XML into a tree of Nodes / Elements

Librsvg uses an XML parser (libxml2 at the time of this writing) to do the first-stage parsing of the SVG document. XmlState contains the XML parsing state, which is a stack of contexts depending on the XML nesting structure. XmlState has public methods, called from the XML parser as it goes. The most important one is start_element; this is responsible for creating new Node structures in the tree, within the DocumentBuilder being built.

Nodes are either SVG elements (the Element struct), or text data inside elements (the Chars struct); this last one will not concern us here, and we will only talk about Element.

Each supported kind of Element parses its attributes in a set_attributes method. Each attribute is just a key/value pair; for example, the <rect width="5px"> element has a width attribute whose value is 5px.

While parsing its attributes, an element may encounter an invalid value, for example, a negative width where only nonnegative ones are allowed. In this case, the element’s set_attributes method may return a Result::Err. The caller will then do set_error to mark that element as being in an error state. If an element is in error, its children will get parsed as usual, but the element and its children will be ignored during the rendering stage.

The SVG spec says that SVG rendering should stop on the first element that is “in error”. However, most implementations simply seem to ignore erroneous elements instead of completely stopping rendering, and we do the same in librsvg.

CSS and styles

Librsvg uses Servo’s cssparser crate as a CSS tokenizer, and selectors as a high-level parser for CSS style data.

With the cssparser crate, the caller is responsible for providing an implementation of the DeclarationParser trait. Its parse_value method takes the name of a CSS property name like fill, plus a value like rgb(255, 0, 0), and it must return a value that represents a parsed declaration. Librsvg uses the Declaration struct for this.

The core of parsing CSS is the parse_value function, which returns a ParsedProperty:

pub enum ParsedProperty {
    // etc.

What is SpecifiedValue? It is the parsed value for a CSS property directly as it comes out of the SVG document:

pub enum SpecifiedValue<T>
    T: Property + Clone + Default,

A property declaration can look like opacity: inherit; - this would create a ParsedProperty::Opacity(SpecifiedValue::Inherit).

Or it can look like opacity: 0.5; - this would create a ParsedProperty::Opacity(SpecifiedValue::Specified(Opacity(UnitInterval(0.5)))). Let’s break this down:

  • ParsedProperty::Opacity - which property did we parse?

  • SpecifiedValue::Specified - it actually was specified by the document with a value; the other interesting alternative is Inherit, which corresponds to the value inherit that all CSS property declarations can have.

  • Opacity(UnitInterval(0.5)) - This is the type Opacity property, which is a newtype around an internal UnitInterval type, which in turn guarantees that we have a float in the range [0.0, 1.0].

There is a Rust type for every CSS property that librsvg supports; many of these types are newtypes around primitive types like f64.

Eventually an entire CSS stylesheet, like the contents of a <style> element, gets parsed into a Stylesheet struct. A stylesheet has a list of rules, where each rule is the CSS selectors defined for it, and the style declarations that should be applied for the Nodes that match the selectors. For example, in a little stylesheet like this:

<style type="text/css">
  rect, #some_id {
    fill: blue;
    stroke-width: 5px;

This stylesheet has a single rule. The rule has a selector list with two selectors (rect and #some_id) and two style declarations (fill: blue and stroke-width: 5px).

After parsing is done, there is a cascading stage where librsvg walks the tree of nodes, and for each node it finds the CSS rules that should be applied to it.


The rendering process starts at the draw_tree() function. This sets up a DrawingCtx, which carries around all the mutable state during rendering.

Rendering is a recursive process, which goes back and forth between the utility functions in DrawingCtx and the draw method in elements.

The main job of DrawingCtx is to deal with the SVG drawing model. Each element renders itself independently, and its result gets modified before getting composited onto the final image:

  1. Render an element to a temporary surface (example: stroke and fill a path).

  2. Apply filter effects (blur, color mapping, etc.).

  3. Apply clipping paths.

  4. Apply masks.

  5. Composite the result onto the final image.

The temporary result from the last step also gets put in a stack; this is because filter effects sometimes need to look at the currently-drawn background to apply further filtering to it.

You’ll see that most of the rendering-related functions return a Result<BoundingBox, RenderingError>. Some SVG features require knowing the bounding box of the object that is being rendered; for historical reasons this bounding box is computed as part of the rendering process in librsvg. When computing a subtree’s bounding box, the bounding boxes from the leaves get aggregated up to the root of the subtree. Each node in the tree has its own coordinate system; BoundingBox is able to transform coordinate systems to get a bounding box that is meaningful with respect to the root’s transform.

Comparing floating-point numbers

Librsvg sometimes needs to compute things like “are these points equal?” or “did this computed result equal this test reference number?”.

We use f64 numbers in Rust for all computations on real numbers. Floating-point numbers cannot be compared with == effectively, since it doesn’t work when the numbers are slightly different due to numerical inaccuracies.

Similarly, we don’t assert_eq!(a, b) for floating-point numbers.

Most of the time we are dealing with coordinates which will get passed to Cairo. In turn, Cairo converts them from doubles to a fixed-point representation (as of March 2018, Cairo uses 24.8 fixnums with 24 bits of integral part and 8 bits of fractional part).

So, we can consider two numbers to be “equal” if they would be represented as the same fixed-point value by Cairo. Librsvg implements this in the ApproxEqCairo trait. You can use it like this:

use float_eq_cairo::ApproxEqCairo; // bring the trait into scope

let a: f64 = ...;
let b: f64 = ...;

if a.approx_eq_cairo(&b) { // not a == b
    ... // equal!

assert!(1.0_f64.approx_eq_cairo(&1.001953125_f64)); // 1 + 1/512 - cairo rounds to 1

Some interesting parts of the code

  • Are you adding support for a CSS property? Look at the How to add a new CSS property tutorial; look in the property_defs and properties modules. property_defs defines most of the CSS properties that librsvg supports, and properties actually puts all those properties in the SpecifiedValues and ComputedValues structs.

  • The DrawingCtx struct is active while an SVG handle is being drawn. It has all the mutable state related to the drawing process, such as the stack of temporary rendered surfaces, and the viewport stack.

  • The Document struct represents a loaded SVG document. It holds the tree of Node structs, some of which contain Element and some other contain Chars for text data in the XML. A Document also contains a mapping of id attributes to the corresponding element nodes.

  • The xml module receives events from an XML parser, and builds a Document tree.

  • The css module has the high-level machinery for parsing CSS and representing parsed stylesheets. The low-level parsers for individual properties are in property_defs and font_props.