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Vitruvius (fl. 46-30 B.C.)

 

Roman military architect and engineer, expert in ballistic machines, and theorist, whose textbook De Architectura libri decem (Ten Books on Architecture) is the only complete treatise on architecture to survive from Classical Antiquity. Written during the twenties of the first century B.S., it influenced deeply from the Early Renaissance onwards artists, thinkers, and architects, among them Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), and Michelangelo (1475-1564). Vitruvius was not a master of style – "he has all the marks of one unused to composition, to whom writing is a painful task," said later Morris Hicky Morgan, who translated the book into English.

"It was a wise and useful provision of the ancients to transmit their thoughts to posterity by recording them in treatises, so that they should not be lost, but, being developed in succeeding generations through publication in books, should gradually attain in later times, to the highest refinement of learning. And so the ancients deserve no ordinary, but unending thanks, because they did not pass on in envious silence, but took care that their ideas of every kind should be transmitted to the future in their writings." (from The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, 1914)

Little is known of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio's life. He is not mentioned in the surviving work of any of his Augustan contemporaries. From De architectura we can conclude that he was had a Hellenistic education –  words like graece and Graecia appear more often in his text than romanus and Roma. He served under Julius Caesar in the African War (46 B.C.) and had a wide knowledge of military engineering and artillery. It has been suggested that Vitruvius was Julius Caesar's chief engineer Mamurra. After Ceasar's death (44 B.C.) Vitruvius was involved in the construction of the Roman water supply under Octavian. Like other Romans, Vitruvius praised water as the source of human society and culture.

Vitruvius was comparatively unsuccessful in his profession and it seems that his rules were rarely, if ever, followed. His basilica (hall for meetings), which was build at Fanum Fortunae (now Fano on the Adriatic coast), is destroyed, and there are no other buildings connected to his name. Around 39 B.C., Caesar's supporter Asinius Pollio and the writer Varro built Rome's first public library in the Forum. Varro's treatise De bibliothecis has not survived. Vitruvius adviced that libraries should face toward the east, to catch the morning light and keep the building warm enough in order to reduce the humidity that might damage the books.

In his old age Vitruvius composed De architectura, a guide to Hellenistic and Roman practice in town-planning, architecture, and civil engineering. None of his original illustrations have survived. The treatise was probably conceived between 33 and 14 B.C. Vitruvius had retired about 33 B.C. In the preface to Book II he described himself as small, old, and ugly. His pension, granted by Augustus on the recommendation of his full sister Octavia minor, ensured him a care-free old age.

Vitruvius based his work on Greek professional literature that is now lost. Contemporary architecture did not inspire him. He complained that the workmen are in a hurry, "the uneducated rather than the educated are in higher favor", and architecture is professed by men, who "have no knowledge even of the carpenter's trade." Topics covered in De architectura include: (Book I) qualifications and training of an architect, the fundamental principles of architecture, (Book II) architectural history, building materials, (Book III) symmetry in temples and in the human body, (Book IV) temples, the different types of columnar "Order", the theory of proportion (Book V) theatres, baths, and other public buildings, (Book VI) siting, domestic architecture, exposure and proportions of houses, (Book VII) flooring; lime, stucco, frescoes and their colouring materials, (Book VIII) water-supplies, aqueducts, cisterns, etc. (Book IX), astronomy, sundials and water clocks, and (Book X), machines used in civil and military engineering. Vitruvius' description of the Orders – Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian – and his theory of proportions become the most studied parts of his work. Noteworthy, it shows that Vitruvius knew better the periods of heliocentric planetary circulations than Copernicus (1473-1543).

Vitruvius dedicated the book to "Imperator Caesar" (Augustus), who boasted that he inherited Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. However, Vitruvius did not mention in De architectura any buildings of the period, in spite of the massive reconstruction program. It is generally agreed that he did not live in the best period of Roman Imperial architecture – sculpture was the leading art. The fifteenth century humanists, who studied Vitruvius and went to Rome, soon realized that most of the finest buildings survived were from much later in date. Already the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) had complained in a letter: "Where are the numerous constructions erected by Agrippa, of which only the Pantheon remains? Where are the splendorous palaces of the emperors?"

Some of Vitruvius' ideas found later their way in the planning of Roman cities in northern Africa, such as Thanugadi (Timgad) and Thugga (Dougga). De architectura was not unknown in the Middle Ages, but its corrupt Greek vocabulary was an unsurmountable obstacle for most readers, who were mystified by such aesthetic terms as eurythmia and simmetria. Petrarch annotad his manuscript of Vitruvius with explanatory notes. De architectura was quoted by Boccaccio, who read the text with fascination, and Benvenuto da Imola. The Italian humanist and historian Poggio Bracchiolini (1380-1459), who recovered many manuscripts of classical authors, become interested 1414 in the work after finding a copy in the Swiss monastery of S. Gall. In the 1420s, Cardinal Branda Castiglione erected a group of buildings in the country village of Castiglione Olona, near Varese. The Cardinal and his architect drew on Vitruvius and Pliny. Although Vitruvius' writing was obscure, sometimes nearly unintelligible, his fame started to spread.

Vitruvius saw that an architect should be widely educated in arts and sciences from medicine to astronomy, because "it is by his judgement that all work done by other arts is put to test." Vitruvius admitted that an architect cannot reach perfection in the different fields of knowledge. Those few great men, such as Archimedes, who thoroughly mastered geometry, astronomy, music, and the other arts, become pure mathematicians. The term Vitruvian man, illustrated by famous drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and later William Blake, refers to his theory of ideal human proportions presented in Book III: "For if a man lies flat on his back with arms and legs outspread and a circle is described with the point of a compass placed where his navel is, the fingers and toes of his hands and feet will touch the circumference of the circle. And just as the human body will give a circle, it will also give a square. For if we measure from the soles of the feet to the top of the head and then compare the measurement with the span of the outstreched arms, width and heigh will be found to be equal, as in an area set out with a builder's square."

The Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, who borrowed a lot  Vitruvius' ideas in his De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture), believed that mathematics is the common ground of art and the sciences. The art of architecture is essentially governed by mathematical laws and proportions. Alberti also placed the artist on a level with the humanist. However, Alberti, a master of Latin prose, noted that Vitruvius' "very text is evidence that he wrote neither Latin or Greek, so that as far as we are concerned, he might just as well not have written at all, rather than write something that we cannot understand." Petrarch, on the other hand, showed more understanding to Vitruvius' prose.

Drawing on Vitruvius, whose source most likely was Aristotle, Alberti argued that the work of art is so constituted that it is impossible to take anything away from it or add anything to it. In On Painting (1436) Alberti also used the Roman writer as a source. Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1501/2) partly based his Trattato di architettura civile e militare on Vitruvius. Leonardo owned a copy of Francesco's book. An incurable empiricist, Leonardo wrote in one of his notebooks: "Vitruvius says that small models are of no avail for ascertaining the effects of large ones; and I here propose to prove that this conclusion is a false one. And chiefly by bringing forward the very same argument which led him to this conclusion; that is, by an experiment with an auger." Bramante (1444-1514) and Andrea Palladio (1508-80) were among the serious students of classical learning and of Vitrivius. Palladio also drew a plan of a Roman house for his friend Daniele Barbaro's edition of De architectura, the standard Cinquecento edition, with illustrations by Palladio. The first printed version of the work, edited by Sulpizio da Veroli, was printed c.1486 in Rome. Further editions appeared in Florence in 1496 and Venice in 1497. The the first illustrated edition was published in 1511 by Fra Gioncondo. An Italian translation was made under Raphael's direction c. 1520. Another translation, with a commentary by Cesare Cesariano, came out in 1521. Translations into other European languages were also published before the middle of the 16th century.

For further reading: Between Science and Drawings: Renaissance Architects on Vitruvius's Educational Ideas by Liisa Kanerva (2006); Vitruvius on Architecture by Thomas Gordon Smith (2003); Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture by Indra Kagis McEwen (2002); A History of Architectural Theory: From Vitruvius to the Present by Hanno-Walter Kruft (1994); The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi by George Hersey (1988); Vitruvs Architekturtheorie by Heiner Knell (1985); Homage to Vitruvius by John K. Ryan (1981); 'Vitruvius', in Greek and Latin Authors 800 B.C.-A.D.1000 by Michael Grant (1980); Translation of Vitruvius and Copies of Late Antique Drawings in Buonaccorso Ghiberti's Zibaldone by Gustina Scaglia (1979); Vitruvius and Later Roman Building Manuals by H. Plommer (1973); Index Virtruvianus by Hermann Nohl (1965); 'The History of the Theory of Human Proportions as a Reflection of the History of Styles,' in Meaning in the Visual Arts by Erwin Panofsky (1955); Vom Nachleben Vitruvs by H. Koch (1951); Vitruvio by F. Pellati (1938); Vitruv und die Poliorketiker by W. Sackur (1925); Des Marcus Vitruvius Pollio Basilika zu Fanum Fortunae by Jakob Prestel (1901); The Elements of Civil Architecture by Henry Aldrich (1824)

Editions:

  • M. Vitrvvivs per Iocvndvm solito castigatior factvs cvm figvris et tabvla vt iam legi et intelligi possit, 1511 (by Ioannis de Tridino alias Tacuino)
  • De architectvra libri decem ... omnibus omnium editionibus longè emendatiores, collatis veteribus exemplis, 1552 (by Gulielmi Philandri)
  • I dieci libri dell'architettvra, 1556 (tr. et commentati da monsignor Barbaro)
  • Della architettvra, 1590 (by di Gio. Antonio Rvsconi)
  • M. Vitrvvii Pollionis De architectvra libri decem, 1649 (by Gvilielmi Philandri, Danielis Barbari, & Clavdii Salmasii)
  • Les dix livres d'architecture de Vitruve, 1673 (Paris; J. B. Coignard)
  • Les dix livres d'architecture de Vitruve, 1684 (by M. Perrault, 2nd. rev. ed.)
  • An Abridgment of the Architecture of Vitruvius: containing a system of the whole works of that author illustrated with divers copper plates, curiously engraved, with a table of explanation, 1692 (London: Printed for Abel Swall and T. Child)
  • The Theory and Practice of Architecture, or, Vitruvius and Vignola, 1703 (abridg'd, printed for R. Wellington)
  • The civil architecture of Vitruvius, 1812 (London; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown)
  • The Architecture of Marcus Vitrivius Pollio, 1826 (London; Priestley and Weale)
  • The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in Ten Books, 1860 (translated by Joseph Gwilt)
  • The Ten Books on Architecture, 1914 (translated by Morris Hicky Morgan)
  • Vitruvius On Architecture, 1931-1934 (translated by Frank Granger; ed. from the Harleian manuscript 2767)
  • De architectura, 1968 (translated into Italian by Bono Mauro da Bergamo & Benedetto Jovio da Comasco; commentary by Cesare Cesariano)
  • Ten Books on Architecture, 1999 (translated by Ingrid D. Rowland; commentary and illustrations by Thomas Noble Howe)
  • On Architecture, 2009 (translated by Richard Schofield; with an introduction by Robert Tavernor)

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