Thursday, April 03, 2008

Vitruvius - Roman Architect and Engineer

born around 84 B.C., died after 27 A.D., Roman architect, military and hydraulic engineer, art theorist

The name Vitruvius Pollio was reported by the epitomist Faventinus, but only the gentile name Vitruvius is assuredly correct. Vitruvius served as military engineer in the armies of Caesar and Augustus and worked with Marcus Aurelius, Publius Minidius and Gaius Cornelius to build projectile artillery and other war machines. It is highly probable that he belonged to the circle around Marcus Vipsanius Aggrippa from 33 B.C. and that he was involved in the construction of public plumbing in Rome. The only building that can be attributed to Vitruvius with certainty, which was designed by him and constructed under his direction, is no longer standing: the basilica of Fanum Fortuna in Umbria [should be Marche instead of Umbria], (presumably Vitruvius’ hometown, called Fano today). The very precise description of this building in De architectura libri X (V 1, 6 – 10) suggests that this basilica was similar to the basilicas in Pompeii and Ardea near Rom.
Vitruvius began writing his famous work De architectura libri X, which he dedicated to Augustus, even before 33 B.C. and apparently completed it before 22 B.C. Unfortunately this book is full of gaps and many of its passages are unclear and ambiguously formulated, but it is of outstanding importance for us today because it is the only Ancient textbook on architecture and technology that remains preserved today. In Book I Vitruvius deals with architectural training and elucidates general aesthetic concepts as well as the planning of cities and fortifications. In Book II he describes the construction materials used at the time and explains the technology of building walls. Books III and IV deal with the construction of temples and the orders and proportions of columns. Book V is dedicated to the erection of public buildings; Vitruvius deals in particular with the construction of markets, basilicas, theatres, halls and water installations. The different types of private buildings and the design of individual rooms in such buildings are discussed in Book VI. This book also deals with agricultural buildings and the influence of climate on the type of construction. The interior d├ęcor of buildings, such as stucco and plasterwork, colours and decorative murals, are the subject of Book VII. The installation of waterworks, for example, the construction of the aqueducts, is described in Book VIII. Because the main subject of Book VIII is the construction of sundials and water-clocks, the beginning of this book presents general astronomical observations about the measurement of time. An introduction to the mechanical engineering of that time, which was primarily concerned with the construction of lifting machines and guns, is given in the final Book IX. Vitruvius bases his purely technical data primarily on his own experience; on occasion he also refers to that of older Roman practitioners, otherwise he mostly refers to late Hellenistic authors such as Hermogenes, Pytheos and Varro, whereby, however, he does not always quote accurately and barely mentions buildings from the Augustan era. The compilatory character of his book also influences his linguistic style. In the introductions to the individual books, Vitruvius’ style is quite circumlocutory and rhetorical, whereas the language in the technical descriptions is extremely dry and concise. Vitruvius’ style is quite often criticized in Ancient philology, but what he writes does not actually amount to vulgar Latin. In Classical archaeology the concepts and schematic ground plans handed down by Vitruvius have often been used to reconstruct excavated buildings with great success. Vitruvius’ characterization of the Classic orders of columns (Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, Tuscan) remains part of architectural history even today. In his own day Vitruvius had no important influence. Not until the late Ancient period and the early Middle Ages did an intensive reception history of Vitruvius commence, whereby it is difficult to determine what influence Vitruvius actually had on the Middle Ages. By far the greatest influence was exerted by his book De architectura, in the period of the Renaissance, when his theory of proportion and his description of Ancient architectural orders became fundamental components of architectural theory. Whether his theory of proportion was actually used in practice can hardly be determined today. The ambiguity of Vitruvius’ text made many different interpretations possible, which was apparently quite advantageous for Renaissance architects and allowed them to integrate the architectural principles and aesthetic theory of the Ancients into their own architectural practice on the basis of Vitruvius’ writings. Many important artists of the Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci and L.B. Alberti, studied Vitruvius thoroughly and found diverse sources of stimulation in his work. Approximately 55 hand-written manuscripts of Vitruvius’ De architectura are known. Vitruvius is one of the first Ancient authors whose work was printed (Editio princeps around 1486) and was translated into many European languages. The numerous sixteenth-century editions are important not only because of their commentaries and translations, but primarily because of the illustrations they contain. These editions are of particular value for art historians: because the original Ancient illustrations for De architectura were not preserved, all illustrations for Vitruvius’ De architectura are always interpretations from the period of the given edition. The commentaries on the editions of Vitruvius from the sixteenth century codified the system of the ancient forms of buildings; this codification was soon elevated to dogma and continued to exert an influence well into the nineteenth century (Vitruvianism).
- From The Archimedes Project

Digital images of a 1567 edition of his work

(contains beautiful architectural illustrations)
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