1902 Encyclopedia > Vitruvius

Roman architect and engineer
(Early 1st cent. AD)

VITRUVIUS, a Roman architect and engineer, whose full name was MARCUS VITRUVIUS POLLIO, the author of a very celebrated work on architecture. Nothing is known about his personal history, except what can be gathered tfrom incidental remarks in his own writings. Owing to Ttiie discovery of a number of inscriptions relating to the Gens Vitruvia at Formias 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 3d century, which is inscribed with the name of a later architect of the -same family name—" Lucius Vitruvius Cerdo, a freedman oof Lucius." From Vitruvius himself we learn that he owas appointed, in the reign of Augustus, together with 'three others, a superintendent of balistx and other military _engines, a post which, he says, he owed to the friendly influence of the emperor's sister, probably Octavia (De Architeclura, i. pref.). In another passage (v. 1) he describes a basilica and adjacent aides 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 will 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
The De Arcldtectura is divided into ten books, each with a preface, in which occur most of the personal facts about himself. It is dedicated to Augustus, and that fact is really all that is known with regard to the date at which Vitruvius lived, though many attempts have been made to gather more minute indications from the internal evidence of his writings : for example, the omission of any mention of the Pantheon in Rome has been taken as an argument to show that he wrote before it was built in 27 B.C. This, however, and other arguments of the same kind are obviously of but little weight. Vitruvius's name is men-tioned by Frontinus in his work on the aqueducts of Rome; and most of what Pliny says (H.N., 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. 1, though without any acknowledgment of the source.
From the early Renaissance down to a comparatively recent time the influence of Vitruvius's treatise has been remarkably great. Throughout the period of the classical revival Vitruvius was the chief authority studied by all 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 mediaeval 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 Vitruvius's remarks about the advantages of placing bronze vases round the auditorium of theatres. Bramante, Michelangelo, Palladio, Vignola, and earlier architects were careful students of Vitruvius's work, which through them has largely influenced the architecture of almost all European countries down to the present century, a very remarkable instance of the success and influence of a book being actively redeveloped a very long time—about fifteen centuries—after its author's lifetime. There is no reason to suppose that the book was either popular or influential among the ancient Romans, and yet in more modern times its influence has been un-bounded. Its archaeological value is very great, as without it we should find it very difficult to understand the uses of the various parts of such houses as those at Pompeii, and many interesting details with regard both to construction and design would have remained unintelligible.
Bk. i. opens with a dedication to Augustus. C. 1 is on the science of architecture generally, and the many different 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, and the like ; 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, season-ing, &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, hypsethral; c. 3 on inter-columniation—pyenostyle, systyle, eustyle, &c. ; c. 4 on founda-tions, 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)circu-lar temples ; (9) altars. Bk. v., on public buildings, has a preface on the theories of Pythagoras, &c. Its twelve chapters treat (1) of fora and basilicas, with a description of his own basilica at Fanum ;

(2) of the adjuncts of a forum (rerarium, 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 ; (8) of porticus and covered walks ; (9) of baths, their floors, hypocausts, the construction and use of various parts ; (11) of palaestra;, xysti, and other Greek buildings for the exercise of athletes ; (12) of har-bours 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 the various sorts of 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 ou 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 engineer-ing, and the preface on theories of the ancients. C. 1 treats of the finding of good water, its quality according to the soil it runs through ; c. 2 of rain-water 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, cisterns, fountains, poisoning from lead pipes, hydraulic cement, settling tanks, and other valuable 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 valuable discoveries of the Greeks, and of Romans of his time who have vied with the Greeks—Lucretius in his poem De Jterum Natura, Cicero in rhetoric, and Varro in philo-logy, as shown by his De Lingua Lalina. 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 sun-dials and their inven-tors. 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. 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 balistse and catapults ; (l3) 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.
3 One of the earliest commentators on Vitruvius was the monk-archi-tect Fra Giocondo, a man of extraordinary talent (see VERONA).
The first MS. of the De Architecture! which attracted much attention was a fine codex on vellum preserved in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. The first printed edition is that issued in Rome by George Herolt about 1485-86. but. without indication of place or date; it is a small folio with thirty-four lines to tbe pige, and has neither signatures, catchwords, nor numbering of the leaves. It was edited by J. Snlpieius, and with it is printed Fiontinus De Aqmeduetibus ; this second work occurs as an addition in many early editions of Vitruvius, of which a very large number were printed at. various places in Italy within a few years after the publication of the editioprinceps.8 On the whole the best edition of Vitruvius's text is that edited by Schneider, Leipsic, 1807, 3 vols. 8vo, with good notes, but no plates. An immense number of translations have also been pub-lished in most. Ku: opean languages—the first Italian translation at Como in 1521;. Fiench, at Paris in 1547 ; German, at Nuremberg in 1548 ; and the first English translation in London in 1692. The bi st English translation is that of Gwilt, 1S26, improved edition, 3860. That of Wilkins (1812) is merely a fragment of some of the books, but it is copiously illustrated with engraved piates.
The name of Vitruvius has been given to several handsome works on modern architectu; e, such as Campbell, Vitruvius Britamiicus, London, 1715-71, a series-of illustrations of the chief buildings of the 38th century in England, including many works of the brotliers Adam ; one of these brothers, William Adam, pio-duced a similar work illustrating the buildings which lie had designed for Scotland, of which he was a native, under th" title of Vitruvius Scoticus, Edinburgh, 1790. Thurah, Le Vitmre Dane-is, Copenhagen, 1746-49, is a similar collection of modem buildings in Denmark.
The biographies of Viti uvius as usually published are very untrustworthy, and contain many statements which rest upon no authority whatever. (J. II. M.)


The references in this article follow the divisions into books and .chapters adopted in :the .more recent German editions.

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.

Vitruvius names Cicero and Lucretius as " post nostram memoriam
nascentes." 2 The architect being at that time also the contractor.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries