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“I have drawn up clearly defined rules, so that by studying them closely you will be able to judge for yourself the quality of the buildings you have already created and of those to come, for in these books I have laid down all the principles of architecture”
Vitruvius, De Architectura – from his dedication to Augustus, (c.20-10 BC)
Vitruvius Pollio, Hoc in uolumine haec opera continentur. Cleonidæ Harmonicum introductorium interprete Georgio Valla Placentino. L. Vitruuii Pollionis De architectura libri decem. Sexti Iulii Frontini De aquaeductibus liber unus. Angeli Policiani opusculum, quod Panepistemon inscribitur. Angeli Policiani in priora analytica praelectio cui titulus est Lamia (Venice, 1497), Sig. A1r.
De Architectura is the only text on Greco-Roman architecture that survives from antiquity. The writing dates from the time of Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC) in the first century BC and is a treatise on architecture and related arts. Its author, Vitruvius (c.80-70BC-c.15BC), sought to create a reference or theoretical basis for an architecture that could represent the values of Caesar’s republic.
Vitruvius believed in the importance of architecture as a respectable, professional, subject. He believed that architecture was a public gesture and that the greatness of the State’s power could be demonstrated with distinguished authority in its public buildings and structures, its greatest achievement being the city.
De Architectura was not advocating or inventing a new architecture, but rather the continuance of existing architectural models; it was a recording, preserving and perfecting of the models. He advised that his readers consult the ancients to determine the best models and his writings assumed his readers had a degree of familiarity with architecture allowing him to dwell on the intricacies of its elaboration and construction. He describes an architecture at the large scale with a coherent place in the landscape down to the particular details of construction. Vitruvius set out a broad palate for the learning of an architect – draughtsmanship, mathematics, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law and astronomy.
The edition of De Architectura in Edward Worth’s collection is the 1497 Venetian edition by Simone Papiense, known as Bevilacqua (fl. 1485-1518). Vitruvius created his original manuscript on papyrus scrolls, one scroll for each of the 10 books, apparently over two separate writing campaigns covering a 35 to 40 year period. While initially addressed to Caesar the 10 manuscripts were completed around 20 BC-10 BC when Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (63BC-14AD), had assumed power and who, after 27 BC, became Augustus. Vitruvius used a wide range of references in his manuscripts and while this reference material is long lost he included a 63 item bibliography referencing his ancient architectural sources.
It is believed that Vitruvius’ original scrolls contained some form of illustrations. If so they have not survived or have been lost over time. There are locations in the original text where Vitruvius, at the end of a description, refers the reader to an illustration at the end of the book. One source suggests illustrations followed at the end of the text in six of the ten books, 10 to 12 illustrations in total. It is not clear whether these were drawings or sketches. Another source suggests that there were no illustrations. In any event no sketches or illustrations survive. The Bevilacqua publication in Worth’s collection is one of three fifteenth-century Latin editions. Three simple woodcut images from Worth’s copy are reproduced on this webpage.
Vitruvius Pollio, Hoc in uolumine haec opera continentur. Cleonidæ Harmonicum introductorium interprete Georgio Valla Placentino. L. Vitruuii Pollionis De architectura libri decem. Sexti Iulii Frontini De aquaeductibus liber unus. Angeli Policiani opusculum, quod Panepistemon inscribitur. Angeli Policiani in priora analytica praelectio cui titulus est Lamia (Venice, 1497), illustration on Sig. A2v.
Vitruvius’ writing style proved challenging for the numerous translators over the centuries, with their translated editions sometimes containing passages that were confusing or included errors. Fra Giovanni Giocondo (c.1433-1515), an Italian monk (it is unclear whether Franciscan or Dominican) from Verona, who was a classical scholar and a practising architect in Italy and France, produced a translation in 1511 that addressed these errors through scholarship and enlightened guesswork as to what Vitruvius’ written intent and meaning were.
Vitruvius lived for approximately 70 years around the period c.80-70 BC to c.15 BC as a subject in the Roman Empire at the time of Julius Caesar. He lived through the reign of Caesar and then, following the Ides of March in 44 BC, under Octavian (Augustus).
There is some debate about who he was; some scholars have identified him as Marcus Vitruvius Pollio while others identify him as L. Vitruvius Mamurra, Caesar’s Prefect of Buildings, who served with Caesar in Gaul.
Vitruvius Mamurra trained as an engineer and builder of war engines and artillery. He enrolled in Caesar’s staff for the Gaul campaign and worked as a military architect for the 14 years between 58 BC and 44 BC. Towards the end of this period, in 46 BC, he was in Africa with Caesar. During the reign of Octavius (Augustus), Vitruvius was engaged on the construction of baths and aqueducts in Campus Martius in Rome under Agrippa (64/62BC-12BC) according to De aquaeductibus Urbis Romae composed by Sextus Julius Frontinus (35 AD-c.103 AD) in 100 AD; this is the only ancient Roman confirmation of Vitruvius’ existence.
Others believe him to be Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. In a condensed version of Vitruvius’ work entitled De Diversis Fabricis Architectonicae, written by Marcus Cetius Faventinus (fl. late 3rd century AD), Vitruvius’ cognomen or family name is listed as ‘Pollio’, which is understood to have been an old prosperous Latium family in Campanium and that, apprenticed to them, he was educated by his relations.
The only reference to a building designed by Vitruvius is contained in his own publication, De Architectura. This is a reference to a basilica at Fanum Fortunae, now Fano, north of Ancona in Umbria, although there is no record of the building in Fano. One suggestion is that the early Christian practice of converting Roman basilicas into cathedrals may account for its disappearance. Vitruvius was probably involved primarily in designing residential structures as the materials he discusses largely concern domestic architecture.
In the first book Vitruvius discusses the education of the architect, aesthetic and technical principles, elements of architecture, the siting of the town, fortifications, streets, and placing of its principal buildings. He believed that the architect should be a person of wide learning. His ideal architect given the non-specialist approach in the ancient world was experienced not only in draughtsmanship and mathematics, but also in history, philosophy, music, medicine, law and astronomy. His writing emphasises the value of traditional building materials and warned against excessive boldness in architectural method.
In Worth’s Bevilacqua edition, Book 1 contains woodcuts illustrations giving guidance on setting up an identification mechanism, using a bronze Gnomon (sundial) and circle based on the shadow length generating a circle with lines to radiate from the centre in order to identify where the eight principal winds will blow from. This can be used to inform the positioning of urban elements and the orientation of streets to address the detrimental force of the winds at both city level and at domestic scale.
Vitruvius Pollio, Hoc in uolumine haec opera continentur. Cleonidæ Harmonicum introductorium interprete Georgio Valla Placentino. L. Vitruuii Pollionis De architectura libri decem. Sexti Iulii Frontini De aquaeductibus liber unus. Angeli Policiani opusculum, quod Panepistemon inscribitur. Angeli Policiani in priora analytica praelectio cui titulus est Lamia (Venice, 1497), illustration on Sig. B1r.
Book 2 is devoted to the origin of buildings, building materials, methods of construction and the characteristics of the four natural elements, earth, wind, fire and water. Book 3 describes temple types, columns, foundations and the Ionic order. Vitruvius’ anthropomorphic proportional system for architecture is also set out. He describes the relationship between the human body and the geometrical forms of square and circle. He describes his method as follows –
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.
The graphic interpretation of this relationship has been illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Cesare Cesariano (1483-1543), Jean Goujon (1510-1565) and Guiseppe Salviati (1520-1575), linking strongly with the Humanist aspect of the Renaissance. Today Leonardo’s Uomo Universali or ‘Vitruvian Man’ is universally recognised.
Book 4 deals with the origin of orders, the Corinthian and Tuscan orders. Book 5 explores the major public buildings and spaces of the Roman city – the forum, the basilica, the curia, the baths and harbours and compares Greek and Roman theatres. Book 6 explores Roman and Greek domestic buildings, their principal rooms, proportions, exposure, size and decoration. Book 7 deals with interior of buildings, finishes for floors, walls and ceilings and the cladding of buildings.
Book 8 discusses water supply, hydraulics and the finding, conducting and taming water and the building of aqueducts. Lewis (1999) believes that the eight book is not one of Vitruvius’ best as it is ‘bitty and discursive’, the sections on aqueducts hardly conveying the impression of a writer who is master of his subject. However, he acknowledges Vitruvius is the only surveying ancient author delivering a technical account of water supply, albeit in the context more probably of Hellenistic rather than Roman aqueducts.
Book 9 describes geometry, measurement and astronomy – clocks, sundials, the moon, the planets and constellations. At the beginning of Book 9 Vitruvius describes how to make a set square and explains that Pythagoras discovered and demonstrated one mathematically and refers to his theorem. In Worth’s 1497 edition, Book 9 contains a page with woodcut illustrations at the top and bottom of the page dealing with the Pythagoras material.
Vitruvius Pollio, Hoc in uolumine haec opera continentur. Cleonidæ Harmonicum introductorium interprete Georgio Valla Placentino. L. Vitruuii Pollionis De architectura libri decem. Sexti Iulii Frontini De aquaeductibus liber unus. Angeli Policiani opusculum, quod Panepistemon inscribitur. Angeli Policiani in priora analytica praelectio cui titulus est Lamia (Venice, 1497), illustration of Pythagorean theorem on Sig. H5r.
Book 10 explores machines for civil and military purposes – the principles of mechanics, hoisting pulleys, water raising devices, sluices and millstreams, the endless screw, force pump, water organ, measurement of land and sea travel, catapults, battering rams, towers and armoured siege engines. The issue of cost overruns on building projects existed back in antiquity also. In the preface to Book 10 he discusses the relationship between estimates and actual costs, and suggests making architects who exceed an estimate by more than twenty-five percent liable to make good the surplus out of their own pocket! Throughout the books Vitruvius draws heavily on his own personal experience and personal observation, but also references earlier works of Greek architects such as Hermogenes of Priene (late 3rd-early 2nd BC).
While there are a very limited number of illustrations in Worth’s De Architectura copy they are nonetheless very early woodcuts undertaken in the early years of printing. And while there can be no certainty (or agreement!) on what images might have been in the original manuscript, some scholars have provided suggestions. Based on his detailed study of the text, Frank Brown (quoted in Pollak, et al., 2000) suggests that the ‘lost illustrations most likely represented a wind rose and the street layout of a town, the convex curve (entasis) of a column, the horizontal curves of a temple, the volute of the Ionic capital (scamilli impares), the musical scale of Aristoxemus, the geometrical schemes of the Roman and Greek theatres, a surveyor’s trestle-level, Plato’s doubling of the square, Pythagoras’ theorem and Archimedes’ screw’.
De Architectura was referenced over the centuries since it was completed. Pliny the Elder (c.23 AD-79 AD) refers to De Architectura. Faventinus (fl. late 3rd century AD) and Palladius (fl. 4th century AD) produced building manuals based on Vitruvius. During the middle ages there was an awareness of Vitruvius’ teachings. Bishop Isidore of Seville (c.560-636 AD) mentioned Vitruvius in the seventh century AD, and the revival of building under the Frankish emperor Charlemagne (742-814 AD) was controlled by the study of Vitruvius’ precepts and instructions. After 850 AD, with manuscripts found in monastic libraries in central Europe and Italy, De Architectura was copied and referenced for material mixes, pigments, instructions on finding water and fortifications. (C Krinsky, 1967).
Vitruvius’ influence, however, before the fifteenth century was not extensive. That was to change following the discovery of Vitruvius’ text in a manuscript brought to Florence in 1414 by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), and by the invention of printing. The first bound book form was published some 70 years later in an undated edition generally accepted as dating from 1486. It was published by Sulpitus Verulamus and was dedicated to Cardinal Raffaelle Riario (1461-1521). The Bevilacqua edition in Worth’s collection was published 11 years later in Venice.
With its translation into a number of languages, publication in a number of cities, and wide range of scholarly interest, De Architectura became a keystone in the development of Renaissance ideals c.1350-1500. It was a valued ancient Roman source and it was used as a valuable guide and became a foundational text of architectural theory and practice of the time.
De Architectura provided an archaeological verification of the Renaissance architectural styles supported by the theory of the Classical orders. As the original manuscript illustrations had not survived, the editors of the earliest printed editions had to reconstruct the drawings indicated by the text or find illustrations appropriate to the text. This led to a wide range of depicted illustrations in the various editions. As a result, the exact nature of Vitruvius’ influence on Renaissance architects, such as Leon Battista Alberti (1446-1451) and Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) depends on the specific printed editions available.
At the founding of the first school of architecture, the Academie d’Architecture in Paris in 1671-73, Vitruvius’ De Architectura was adopted as its theoretical foundation, following the first French translation by Claude Perrault (Dripps, 1987).
Vitruvius Pollio, Hoc in uolumine haec opera continentur. Cleonidæ Harmonicum introductorium interprete Georgio Valla Placentino. L. Vitruuii Pollionis De architectura libri decem. Sexti Iulii Frontini De aquaeductibus liber unus. Angeli Policiani opusculum, quod Panepistemon inscribitur. Angeli Policiani in priora analytica praelectio cui titulus est Lamia (Venice, 1497), Sig. aa1r.
Worth’s 1497 edition includes De aquaeductibus Urbis Romae by Sextus Julius Frontinus.
Brown, Frank, ‘Vitruvius and the Liberal Art of Architecture’, Bucknell Review, 11 (1963), 99-107.
D’Evelyn, Margaret Muther, Venice and Vitruvius : Reading Venice with Daniele Barbaro and Andrea Palladio (New Haven, 2012).
Drips, Robert D., ‘Rethinking Vitruvius’, Journal of Architectural Education, 40, No. 2 (1987), 19-20.
Dwyer, Eugene, et al., ‘Vitruvius’ entry in Oxford Art Online.
Granger, Frank, ‘Vitruvius’ Definition of Architecture’, The Classical Review, 39, No. 3/4 (May-June 1925), 67-69.
Krinsky, Carol Herselle, ’Seventy-Eight Vitruvius manuscripts’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 30 (1967), 36-70.
Kruft, Hanno-Walter, A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present (Princeton Architectural Press, 1994).
Lewis, Michael, ‘Vitruvius and Greek Aqueducts’, Papers of the British School at Rome, 67 (1999), 145-172.
Pollak, Martha, et al., The Mark J. Millard Architectural Collection. Volume IV : Italian & Spanish Books fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries (Washington, 2000), 481-503.
Rowland, Ingrid D. & Howe, Thomas Noble (eds.), Vitruvius – Ten Books on Architecture (Cambridge, 2001).
Shipley, Graham, et al. (eds.), ‘Vitruvius’ entry in The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilisation (Cambridge, 2008), 932.
Text: Mr. Tony Kelly (Trustee of the Edward Worth Library).