1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vitruvius

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26296731911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28 — VitruviusJohn Henry Middleton

VITRUVIUS (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio), Roman architect and engineer, author of a celebrated work on architecture. Nothing is known concerning him except what can be gathered from his own writings. Owing to the discovery of inscriptions relating to the Gens Vitruvia at Formiae in Campania (Mola di Gaeta), it has been suggested that he was a native of that city, and he has been less reasonably connected with Verona on the strength of an existing arch of the 3rd century, which is inscribed with the name of a later architect of the same family name—“Lucius Vitruvius Cerdo, a freedman of Lucius.” From Vitruvius himself we learn that he was appointed, in the reign of Augustus, together with three others, a superintendent of balistae and other military engines, a post which, he says, he owed to the friendly influence of the emperor's sister, probably Octavia (De Architectura, i. pref.). In another passage (v. i) he describes a basilica and adjacent aedes Augusti, of which he was the architect. From viii. 3 it has been supposed that he had served in Africa in the time of Julius Caesar, probably as a military engineer, but the words hardly bear this interpretation. He speaks of himself as being low in stature, and at the time of his writing bowed down by age and ill-health (ii. pref.). He appears to have enjoyed no great reputation as an architect, and, with philosophic contentment, records that he possessed but little fortune. Though a great student of Greek philosophy and science, he was unpractised in literature, and his style is very involved and obscure. To a great extent the theoretical and historical parts of his work are compiled from earlier Greek authors, of whom he gives a list at i. 1 and viii. 3. The practical portions, on the contrary, are evidently the result of his own professional experience, and are written with much sagacity, and in a far clearer style than the more pedantic chapters, in which he gives the somewhat fanciful theories of the Greeks. Some sections of the latter, especially those on the connexion between music and architecture, the scale of harmonic proportions, and the Greek use of bronze vases to reverberate and strengthen the actors' voices in the theatre, are now almost wholly unintelligible. Vitruvius's name is mentioned by Frontinus in his work on the aqueducts of Rome; and most of what Pliny says (Hist. Nat. xxxv. and xxxvi.) about methods of wall-painting, the preparation of the stucco surface, and other practical details in building is taken almost word for word from Vitruvius, especially from vi. i, though without any acknowledgment of the source.

The treatise De Architectura Libri Decem is dedicated to Augustus. Lost for a long time, it was rediscovered in the 15th century at St Gall; the oldest existing MS. dates from the 10th century. From the early Renaissance down to a comparatively recent time the influence of this treatise has been remarkably great. Throughout the period of the classical revival Vitruvius was the chief authority studied by architects, and in every point his precepts were accepted as final. In some cases a failure to understand his meaning led to curious results; for example, the medieval custom, not uncommon in England, of placing rows of earthenware jars under the floor of the stalls in church choirs, appears to have been an attempt to follow out suggestions raised by Vitruvius as to the advantages of placing bronze vases round the auditorium of theatres. Bramante, Michelangelo, Palladio, Vignola and earlier architects were careful students of the work of Vitruvius, which through them has largely influenced the architecture of almost all European countries.

Bk. i. opens with a dedication to Augustus. C. 1 is on the science of architecture generally, and the branches of knowledge with which the trained architect ought to be acquainted, viz. grammar, music, painting, sculpture, medicine, geometry, mathematics and optics; c. 2 is on the general principles of architectural design; c. 3 on the considerations which determine a design, such as strength, utility, beauty; c. 4 on the nature of different sorts of ground for sites; c. 5 on walls of fortification; c. 6 on aspects towards the north, south and other points; c. 7 on the proper situations of temples dedicated to the various deities.

Bk. ii. relates to materials (preface about Dinocrates, architect to Alexander the Great). C. 1 is on the earliest dwellings of man; c. 2 on systems of Thales, Heraclitus, Democritus, &c.; c. 3 on bricks; c. 4 on sand; c. 5 on lime; c. 6 on pozzolana; c. 7 on kinds of stone for building; c. 8 on methods of constructing walls in stone, brick, concrete and marble, and on the materials for stucco; c. 9 on timber, time for felling it, seasoning, &c.; and c. 10 on the fir trees of the Apennines.

Bk. iii., on styles, has a preface on ancient Greek writers. C. 1 is on symmetry and proportion; c. 2 on various forms of Greek temples, e.g. in antis, prostyle, peripteral, dipteral, hypaethral;[1] c. 3 on inter-calumniation—pycnostyle, systyle, eustyle, &c.; c. 4 on foundations, steps and stylobates; c. 5 on the Ionic order, its form and details.

Bk. iv., on styles and orders, has a preface to Augustus on the scope of the work. The subjects of its nine chapters are—(1) the Corinthian, Ionic and Doric orders; (2) the ornaments of capitals, &c.; (3) the Doric order; (4) proportions of the cella and pronaos; (5) sites of temples; (6) doorways of temples and their architraves; (7) the Etruscan or Tuscan order of temples; (8) circular temples; (9) altars.

Bk. v., on public buildings, has a preface on the theories of Pythagoras, &c. Its twelve chapters treat—(l) of fora and basilicae, with a description of his own basilica at Fanum; (2) of the adjuncts of a forum (aerarium, prison and curia); (3) of theatres, their site and construction; (4) of laws of harmonics; (5) of the arrangement of tuned bronze vases in theatres for acoustic purposes; (6) of Roman theatres; (7) of Greek theatres; (8) of the selection of sites of theatres according to acoustic principles; (9) of porticus and covered walks; (10) of baths, their floors, hypocausts, the construction and use of various parts; (11) of palaestrae, xysti and other Greek buildings for the exercise of athletes; (12) of harbours and quays.

Bk. vi. is on sites and planning, and the preface treats of various Greek authors. C. 1 is on selection of sites; c. 2 on the planning of buildings to suit different sites; c. 3 on private houses, their construction and styles, the names of the different apartments; c. 4 on the aspects suited for the various rooms; c. 5 on buildings fitted for special positions; c. 6 on farms and country houses; c. 7 on Greek houses and the names of various parts; c. 8 on construction of houses in wood, stone, brick or concrete.

Bk. vii., mostly on methods of decoration, has a preface (as usual) on the opinions of ancient Greek writers, with lists of Greek sculptors, architects and writers on architecture, and of Roman architects. C. 1 has for its subject pavements and roads, their construction, mosaic floors; c. 2 is on white stucco for walls (opus albarium); c. 3 on concrete vaults, gypsum mouldings, stucco prepared for painting; c. 4 on building of hollow walls to keep out the damp, wall decoration by various processes; c. 5 on methods and styles of wall painting, the debased taste of his time; c. 6 on fine stucco made of pounded marble—three coats to receive wall paintings; c. 7 on colours used for mural decoration; c. 8 on red lead (minium) and mercury, and how to use the latter to extract the gold from worn-out pieces of stuff or embroidery; c. 9 on the preparation of red lead and the method of encaustic painting with hot wax, finished by friction; cc. 10-14 on artificial colours—black, blue, purple; c. 10 white lead and ostrum, i.e. murex purple and imitations of murex dye.

Bk. viii. is on hydraulic engineering, and the preface on theories of the ancients. C. 1 treats of the finding of good water; c. 2 of rainwater and rivers—rivers in various countries; c. 3 of hot springs, mineral waters, with an account of the chief medicinal springs of the world; c. 4 of selection of water by observation and experiment; c. 5 of instruments for levelling used by aqueduct engineers; c. 6 of construction of aqueducts, pipes of lead, clay, &c., and other matter on the subject of water-supply.

Bk. ix. is on astronomy. The preface treats of Greek sciences, geometry, the discovery of specific gravity by Archimedes, and other discoveries of the Greeks, and of Romans of his time who have vied with the Greeks—Lucretius in his poem De Rerum Natura, Cicero in rhetoric, and Varro in philology, as shown by his De Lingua Latina.[2] The subjects of the eight chapters are—(1) the signs of the zodiac and the seven planets; (2) the phases of the moon; (3) the passage of the sun through the zodiac; (4) and (5) various constellations; (6) the relation of astrological influences to nature; (7) the mathematical divisions of the gnomon; (8) various kinds of sundials and their inventors.

Bk. x. is on machinery, with a preface concerning a law at ancient Ephesus compelling an architect to complete any public building he had undertaken; this, he says, would be useful among the Romans of his time.[3] The chapters are—(1) on various machines, such as scaling-ladders, windmills, &c.; (2) on windlasses, axles, pulleys and cranes for moving heavy weights, such as those used by Chersiphron in building the great temple of Diana at Ephesus, and on the discovery by a shepherd of a quarry of marble required to build the same temple; (3) on dynamics; (4) on machines for drawing water; (5) on wheels for irrigation worked by a river; (6) on raising water by a revolving spiral tube; (7) on the machine of Ctesibius for raising water to a height; (8) on a very complicated water engine, the description of which is not intelligible, though Vitruvius remarks that he has tried to make the matter clear; (9) on machines with wheels to register the distance travelled, either by land or water; (10) on the construction of scorpiones for hurling stones, (11) and (12) on balistae and catapults; (13) on battering-rams and other machines for the attack of a fortress; (14) on shields (testudines) to enable soldiers to fill up the enemy's ditches; (15) on other kinds of testudines; (16) on machines for defence, and examples of their use in ancient times.  (J. H. M.) 

The best edition is by Rose (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1899); see also Nohl, Index Vitruvianus (1876); Jolles, Vitruvs Aesthetik (1906); Sontheimer, Vitruv und seine Zeit (1908). There is a good translation by Gwilt (1826; reprinted, 1874).

The name of Vitruvius has been given to several works on modern architecture, such as Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus (London, 1715–71), a series of illustrations of the chief buildings of the 18th century in England, including many works of the brothers Adam; one of these brothers, William Adam, produced a similar work illustrating the buildings which he had designed for Scotland, under the title of Vitruvius Scoticus (Edinburgh, 1790). Thurah, Le Vitruve danois (Copenhagen, 1746–49), is a similar collection of modern buildings in Denmark.

  1. The excavations made in 1887 have shown that Vitruvius was right in describing the great temple of Olympian Zeus at Athens as being octastyle. The previously almost universal opinion that it was decastyle had led to the needless theory that the passage containing this statement was corrupt.
  2. Vitruvius names Cicero and Lucretius as post nostram memoriam nascentes.
  3. The architect being at that time also the contractor.