Around 25 B.C. the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote this dedication to the emperor Augustus:
I have drawn up definite rules so that by observing them you might understand what previous works were like and what future works will be like … In the following volumes I have disclosed all the principles of the discipline.1
Thus Vitruvius began his ten-volume De Architectura, the most extensive treatise on architecture written in antiquity.
Vitruvius wrote his masterpiece out of a sense of urgency. The turmoil of the late republic had left its mark on Roman architecture, which Vitruvius believed had drifted away from universal Greek principles. With Augustus at the helm, he thought, the time was ripe for a massive building campaign in which classical methods and forms could be re-established. But Vitruvius, approaching his 70th year, knew he would never see that day. In the preface to Book VI, he lamented: “I have achieved only little celebrity. Once these volumes have been issued, however, I hope that I will be renowned to future generations.”
This proved to be an understatement. Although Vitruvius had little influence on his immediate contemporaries, later generations have paid him the highest compliment: perennial imitation. The great Renaissance architect Leone Battista Alberti (1404–1472), for example, working during one of the world’s greatest periods of artistic and architectural ferment, used De Architectura as a model for his own treatise on building (De Re Aedificatoria). A century later, another Italian architect, Andrea 046Palladio (1508–1580), referred to Vitruvius as his “master and guide.”2
Even today Vitruvius exerts an influence. Much of our knowledge of Hellenistic architecture from 300 B.C. to 100 B.C. comes from De Architectura. Vitruvius provides the only architectural treatise to survive from the time when Hellenistic temples and civic structures were standing and in use. Since these ancient structures are now in ruins, excavated from millennia of rubble, archaeologists draw on Vitruvius’s text to better understand how they were built and laid out. Indeed, Vitruvius’s ideas concerning classical proportions and working methods have taken a very tangible form: Since the 1970s, a group of modern architects, the New Classicists (see the last sidebar to this article), have revisited De Architectura to design buildings in Georgia, New York and Indiana.
Vitruvius was born about 90 B.C. In Book I, he thanks his parents for providing him with a liberal education, including rhetoric, science, philosophy, drawing, music, law and mathematics. His training probably also included an apprenticeship with architects trained in Greece, from whom he absorbed Hellenistic ideas of balance and proportion, especially as embodied in Ionic and Doric architecture. At some point, Vitruvius became familiar with Greek architectural treatises; perhaps he learned about them from his teachers, or perhaps when he was older and writing his masterpiece in Rome he visited the libraries of wealthy families—such as the library in the recently discovered House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome.3 In any event, Vitruvius eagerly imbibed Hellenistic thought—whether dealing with the professional architect’s ethical, cultural and artistic responsibilities or reflecting on the human condition.4
All this makes De Architectura much more than a technical manual devoted to architecture; it is also a guide to the wide-ranging, delicately balanced classical sensibility. While the work does explain the mechanics of materials, levers, hydraulics and war machines (such as the ballista), it also addresses more human matters: the chance nature of fame, the relation between poverty and honesty, the diversity of mankind, the value of sharing knowledge. In Book I, Vitruvius tells us that architects, too, must strive to attain this Greek ideal:
Architects who sought to be skilled with their hands without formal education have never been able to reach a position of authority in return for their labors; while those who relied only on reasoning and scholarship were clearly pursuing the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men fully armed, have more quickly attained their goal with authority.5
Ironically, this master of architectural function and beauty spent much of his career designing engines of war. Caught up in the fractious civil wars of the Roman Republic,6 Vitruvius served as a military architect in Julius Caesar’s army, where he probably designed the pulleys, levers and catapults (he called them scorpione) that he describes in Book X. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Vitruvius remained faithful to Caesar’s 18-year-old nephew, adopted son and heir, Octavian. After 13 years of territorial expansion and internal strife, Octavian consolidated political power 047in the Battle of Actium. In 27 B.C. the Roman senate bestowed the honorific “Augustus” upon Octavian, and later the title of emperor.
Augustus sought to remedy a half century of social chaos by putting Rome’s civic and cultural affairs in order. Appreciating the symbolic power of architecture, he embarked on an ambitious program to repair and build numerous temples and civic structures. Augustus’s civic accomplishments were later memorialized by the Roman historian and biographer Suetonius (c. 75–160 A.D.): “Aware that the city was architecturally unworthy of her position as capital of the Roman Empire … Augustus so improved her appearance that he could justifiably boast: ‘I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble’.”7
A bare two years after Augustus gained sole power, Vitruvius penned his dedication to the “imperator.” Years of study and practical work had prepared him to show Rome the way back to Hellenistic Greek principles, which he believed were suited to the new social order. He had a vision of what Roman architecture could be, and he had an emperor committed 048to rebuilding the city.
Unfortunately, Vitruvius profited little from Augustus’s marbleizing of Rome. Other than being commissioned to build a basilica to be used as a civic center for the postwar military colony at Fano on the Adriatic Sea, Vitruvius was largely ignored. In the preface to Book II, he admits his disappointment by telling the story of Deinocrates (see the third sidebar to this article), an architect who won Alexander the Great’s favor through his good looks and youthful enthusiasm: “But as for me, Emperor,” Vitruvius writes at the end of the passage, “nature has not given me stature, age has marred my face, and my strength is impaired by ill health.”
De Architectura contains impressive technical information that Vitruvius thought would be helpful to the practical architect. He talks about building a town (Book I); using materials such as brick, sand, concrete, stone and timber (Book II); planning public buildings (Book V) and private houses (Book VI); decorating interiors (Book VII); maintaining water supplies (Book VIII); making sundials and water clocks (Book IX); and moving heavy objects (Book X).
The aesthetic heart of the work, however, lies in the sections of Book I in which Vitruvius describes how ancient architects solved problems—and especially in the volumes devoted to Hellenistic temples (Books III and IV). Vitruvius based this material on 22 Greek treatises,8 none of which has survived. Among them were treatises written by the fourth-century B.C. architect Philo of Eleusis, who built a naval arsenal at the Greek port of Piraeus, the foundations of which have recently been discovered. Vitruvius 049also mentions a fifth-century B.C. treatise by Ictinus, who helped design the Parthenon in Athens. Vitruvius was most deeply influenced, however, by the writings of two architects from Ionia, the south-central part of the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. One was a treatise by the fourth-century B.C. architect Pytheos, who built the Temple of Athena Polias at Priene, dedicated by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C.9 The other treatise was written by the architect Hermogenes, who built the Temple of Artemis Leucophryne at Magnesia-on-Maeander about 200 B.C.a Vitruvius charmingly calls these spiritual mentors antiqui, or ancients.
From these sources, Vitruvius developed an ideal architecture based on the Ionic temple type, which arose after 550 B.C. in Ionia and the eastern Aegean islands. Vitruvius devotes Book III to Ionic architecture, which he calls eustylos architecture—from the Greek eu, meaning good or harmonious, and stylos, meaning column. It was this “correctly columned” Ionic architecture that Vitruvius offered Augustus as a paradigm for “what future works will be like.”
In Book III Vitruvius presents plans of numerous temples, from modest two-columned shrines to the colossal Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.10 He then analyzes and “interprets” these structures, attempting to arrive at an ideal type of Ionic architecture.
The most familiar element of Ionic architecture is its distinctive capital, which has symmetrical volutes, or coils, at the front and back of the capital. Vitruvius calls the Ionic capital pulvinata (from the Latin word for cushion) to suggest its springlike appearance. These capitals rest on columns that can be spaced at various distances from other columns, forming a colonnade. Following Vitruvius’s terminology, modern architects and architectual historians call this system of spacing columns intercolumniation.
According to Vitruvius, intercolumniation should determine the dimensions of the column itself. For example, tightly spaced columns should be tall and thin, whereas broadly spaced columns should be short and stout.b To some extent, Vitruvius’s reasons are structural and functional. In buildings with widely spaced columns, for example, the cross-beams must 050be very strong (thick and heavy) to avoid collapse; the columns, then, would also have to be very strong (short and stout) to support the cross-beams’ weight. This is the kind of complexity that Vitruvius, and architects in general, must confront: One small change—for example, placing a building’s columns farther apart—requires numerous other changes that end up altering the entire structure.
Vitruvius provides a delightful example showing that intercolumniation also depends on how the building is to be used. Very narrow spacing, he says, has its disadvantages: “When the matrons mount the steps for public prayer or thanksgiving, they cannot pass through the intercolumniations with their arms about one another, but must form a single file.”
Vitruvius is also concerned with aesthetics: If the spacing is too narrow or too wide, the building will not be beautiful. His ideal intercolumniation, the eustylos, is the mean between these extremes—a preference that reflects his belief in balance and harmony as the hallmarks of the Ionic ideal, much as the equilibration of theory (ratiocinatio) and practice (fabrica) characterizes the architect’s working method. Vitruvius suggests that the proportional ratios of the human body parts—one’s height as a multiple of the length of one’s foot, for example—are analogous to those of a correctly formed building. He finds that the ideal ratio between the height of a column (including base and capital) and the diameter of the column’s lower part should be a little under 10:1 and 051that the spaces between columns in a row should be 2.25 times the column’s diameter. (Thus columns 20 feet high should be about 2 feet thick and stand almost 5 feet from adjacent columns.) For this aspect of eustylos architecture, Vitruvius credits the Ionian architect Hermogenes, who “left behind fountains from which those who have succeeded him can imbibe the guiding principles of the discipline!”11
Vitruvius wrote Book IV to describe Corinthian and Doric alternatives to Ionic architecture. Although the Corinthian would soon become the dominant Roman type, its symmetriae, or proportional ratios, were still being worked out when Vitruvius wrote. He gives Corinthian little heed; it is merely a distinctive capital (modeled after acanthus leaves) set atop a system of columns that is basically Ionic.
Doric architecture, which developed on the Greek mainland near Corinth, is given more thorough treatment. Vitruvius does this somewhat begrudgingly, given his preference for Ionic. He also considers Doric old-fashioned and difficult to work with, due to the 053required alignments between columns and beams. Nevertheless, his Roman respect for dignified predecessors shines through, and he describes the venerable Doric type in great detail.
The best Doric architecture, for Vitruvius, is that which most closely resembles Ionic. Probably influenced by Hellenistic treatises, Vitruvius preferred Doric structures with elongated, slender columns over the squatter, squarer Doric buildings—such as the Parthenon. Even so, he seems to admire the strong simplicity of Doric buildings in general. This strength is produced by Doric architecture’s baseless columns, the geometrical shapes of its capital’s echinus (the circular molding at the neck) and abacus (the slab at the top, upon which the architrave, or cross-beam, rests), and its post-and-beam structure, which distributes weight in a practical and comprehensible (yet beautiful) manner.
Our knowledge of all this ancient architecture depends, to a large extent, on Vitruvius. When Renaissance architects wanted to learn about ancient forms, they turned to Vitruvius—who was virtually the only source of information. When modern scholars and archaeologists try to reconstruct Ionic temples, they, too, look to Vitruvius. The problem is, De Architectura is not complete. It was originally illustrated with ten drawings showing what the text could only suggest. In many instances, as Chinese tradition tells us, a picture is worth a thousand words.
These drawings, however, were lost in antiquity, and the earliest extant manuscripts of Vitruvius’s text, from about 1000 A.D.,12 contain no diagrams. Over the last 500 years, a number of editions of the work have included drawings that try to illuminate Vitruvius’s text. The most significant of these were done in the 16th century by Andrea Palladio—Vitruvius’s Renaissance disciple—for a translation by Daniele Barbaro. But drawings based simply on Vitruvius’s text are by nature speculative. Today, however, archaeology can lend a hand; if Vitruvius, as a later informant on Hellenistic structures, has been of use to archaeologists, so their discoveries can help us understand Vitruvius.
This is indeed what has happened. In the early 1980s the art historian Lothar Haselberger of the University of Pennsylvania made a remarkable discovery at the Ionian Temple of Apollo at Didyma, which was built about 300 B.C. He found architectural drawings depicting the temple’s construction inscribed on the interior marble walls of the temple’s adyton, or inner court. The ancient drawings show all of the elements of the temple—column shafts, capitals, beams. And they are full scale, as large as the elements themselves! On the end wall, for example, is a full-size drawing of the temple’s naiskos, the small shrine that stood within the court.13 The temple’s architects probably intended these drawings to be used as guides in completing, and later repairing, the temple, which remained in use until 200 A.D.
The drawings on the Didyma temple shed light on previously unclear passages in Vitruvius. In Book VII, for example, Vitruvius notes that Daphnis of Ephesus and Paeonius the Milesian built the Temple of Apollo 060at Didyma for the people of Miletus. Daphnis and Paeonius gave the temple’s column shafts a subtle entasis, or convex bulge, so that the columns would seem perfectly straight when viewed from a distance. One of the drawings on the adyton wall shows how to construct a column with entasis. When Vitruvius discusses entasis in De Architectura, he refers the reader to one of his drawings. Thanks to Haselberger’s discovery, the method, as well as Vitruvius’s drawing, can be reconstructed.
With the help of the architect Matthew Aaron Rosenshine, I have produced 50 drawings to illustrate De Architectura. These images try to answer the question, What do Vitruvius’s theoretical and formal concepts look like?
Where Vitruvius’s how-to descriptions are clear, Matthew Rosenshine and I could graphically reconstruct his concepts quite easily. The account of Doric proportions is quite straightforward, for example, because the various elements are in orthogonal (perpendicular) relationship with one another. More often than not, however, we had to study the remains of the temples Vitruvius cites to fill in the 061missing links. To illustrate the Temple of Artemis at Magnesia-on-Maeander, for example, we examined the Ionic capitals that remain on site, along with examples in museums in Istanbul and Berlin. We took extensive measurements to learn how the capital’s various components, such as the sinuous spiral of the volute, were proportioned. Over and over again, this helped us solve the puzzles that Vitruvius’s text often creates.
Vitruvius recounts how the Corinthian capital was inspired by the leaves and flowers of the Mediterranean’s resilient acanthus plant. Vitruvius’s influence is like this beautiful perennial: It repeatedly springs up to provide inspiration to new generations.
A good example is, once again, the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio. According to the architectural historian Robert Tavernor, Palladio believed De Architectura expressed a kind of “natural architecture, which [Palladio] subsequently realized as ‘truths’ in his own buildings.”14
Palladio culled forms from Vitruvius to create buildings like the Villa Pisani at Montagnana, about 50 miles southwest of Venice, in which he applied Vitruvius’s descriptions of Doric and Ionic temples to his design of the front and rear facades. By imitating Vitruvius, and infusing his own “lively mental energy” (as Vitruvius describes invention), Palladio created a new kind of domestic architecture that had enormous influence on later architects, such as Thomas Jefferson. Palladio, for instance, borrowed from Vitruvius the eustylos format of wide central columns flanked by a narrower pair, as in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. This motif is clearly present in Thomas Jefferson’s early design for Monticello.15
So Vitruvius crossed the Atlantic, and crossed two millennia. Although he fell out of favor during much of the 20th century, when “avant garde” architects ceased to look to the past for sources of inspiration, he is now being revived. Vitruvius’s elegant forms are beginning to thrive again in cities once dominated by glass and futuristic fantasies.
Around 25 B.C. the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote this dedication to the emperor Augustus: I have drawn up definite rules so that by observing them you might understand what previous works were like and what future works will be like … In the following volumes I have disclosed all the principles of the discipline.1 Thus Vitruvius began his ten-volume De Architectura, the most extensive treatise on architecture written in antiquity. Vitruvius wrote his masterpiece out of a sense of urgency. The turmoil of the late republic had left its mark on Roman architecture, which Vitruvius believed had drifted away […]