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Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman writer, architect and engineer, active in the 1st century BC. during the era of Emperor Augustus. He was the author of De Architectura, (c.40 , tr. 1914) known today as The Ten Books of Architecture, a treatise in Latin on architecture, and perhaps the first work about this discipline. He is believed to have served in the Roman army, probably under his sponsor, the emperor Caesar Augustus.

Mainly known for his writings, Vitruvius was himself an architect; Frontinus mentions him in connection with the standard sizes of pipes; the only building, however, that we know Vitruvius to have worked on is, as he himself tells us (de Arch. V.i.6), a basilica at Fanum Fortunae, now the modern town of Fano. The basilica has disappeared so completely that its very site is a matter of conjecture.

Vitruvius is sometimes loosely referred to as the first architect: it is more accurate, of course, to say that he is the first Roman architect to have written on his field; and we find him to be much more of codifier than an original thinker or creative intellect. We must not make the mistake, at any rate, of equating Roman architects with their modern counterparts; it is safer to think of them as engineers, architects, artists, and craftsmen combined.

Among notable concepts contained in De Architectura (probably written between 27 and 23 BC), Vitruvius declares that quality depends on the social relevance of the artist's work, not on the form or workmanship of the work itself. Perhaps the most famous declaration from De Architectura is one still bandied in architectural circles: "Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight." This quote is taken from Sir Henry Wotton's translation of 1624, and there is some debate about whether it is a direct translation or a paraphrase of Vitruvius' meaning. Nonetheless, it is most often attributed to Vitruvius, rather than to Wotton.

Vitruvius studied human proportions (third book) and his canones were later encoded in a very famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (Homo Vitruvianus). The 16th century architect Palladio considered him his master and guide, and made some drawings based on Vitruvius' work before conceiving his own architectural precepts.

The following is a synopsis of what is covered in the books



Dedication to the Emperor; branches of knowledge that an architect must be acquainted with; the factors involved in siting a town and designing its walls, including a rather odd extended explanation of the various winds.


A story about Dinocrates, architect to Alexander the Great, serves as prologue. Second prologue, on the origins of architecture; but most of the book is about materials: bricks, sand, lime, pozzolan concrete; kinds of stone and types of stone masonry; timber.


Some comments on the chance nature of fame in the arts serve as a rather irrelevant prologue: it seems clear Vitruvius felt he had to have one. The book then proceeds to temples, setting forth some basic definitions, then describing a canon for the construction of temples of the Ionic order.


Corinthian and Doric temples; temple doors and altars; the Tuscan order, which Vitruvius seems to find primitive.


In which the author warns you that architecture is highly technical, then proves it in spades in his exposition of civil public spaces: the forum, the basilica, the theatre and its porticos, the palaestra and the baths; harbors. Vitruvius takes particular delight in the acoustics of the theatre about which he seems to know much, much more than he has allowed himself to tell us for fear of boring us: it's a pity.


Prologue: poor but honest makes a good architect. A second sort of prologue on the diversity of mankind from climate to climate, easing into the topic of private houses: their construction should depend on the climate as well. Layout of the Roman house and the Greek house; considerations of weather, function of the rooms, social position of the owner.


Long prologue on the importance of sharing knowledge, and, conversely, not plagiarizing. True to his word, Vitruvius then shares with us his recipes for interior decoration: the preparation and execution of wall paintings: lime, stucco, plaster, pigments.


Water: how to find it, where it comes from, types of water, how to judge its quality; how to transport it (aqueducts). A disappointing book though, since most of it is given over to anecdotal material, cribbed from other authors, about the effects of waters from various sources.


Prologue: architects deserve more honour than wrestlers. Useful technical achievements of architects: a method of doubling a square, a method of constructing a right triangle, Archimedes and the crown. Sundials and water-clocks, preceded by a long section on the planets and the constellations.


Prologue: a proposal on how to deal with cost overruns. The book then details many kinds of machines used in civil and military engineering: pulley-based machines for lifting and transporting weights; the principle of the lever; machines that convert rotary to linear motion and vice-versa, including the water-screw. The hydraulic organ. An odometer of sorts. Catapults, scorpions, balistae, tortoises and how to defend against them.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014