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Bill Thayer

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Vitruvius: On Architecture

[image ALT: An engraving of a curious building: a decastyle temple surmounted by a pyramid almost steep enough to be an obelisk, in turn truncated and surmounted by an oversized quadriga.]
"Mausoleum": engraving by C. Holdenwang, 1800

Frontispiece to the Latin edition of the de Architectura by Augustus Rode, meant as a reconstruction of the mausoleum of Halicarnassus. A caption refers the reader to the Preface to Book VII of Vitruvius and to Pliny, NH 36.iv § 9. (For some much more recent reconstructions and a good critical discussion of what is involved, see the article by W. R. Lethaby.)

Another orphan text that no one wanted to enter, but that many nevertheless will be glad to see online. (Why is it that the self-aggrandizements of Cicero, the lecheries and whining of Ovid and the blatherings of that debauched old goose Seneca made it onto the Net before the works that give us solid technical information about what Rome was really good at, viz. the construction of her great buildings and works of engineering?)

As almost always, I retyped the text rather than scanning it: not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if successful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

Anyway, the text has been thoroughly proofread, and I believe it to be free of errors (but if there are errors, please report them). I've already provided a very few preliminary annotations, but much other material remains to be added, first and foremost among which are the drawings.

If you are looking for information about the architecture of amphitheatres or circuses, or about the engineering of bridges or roads, this is not the place for it, surprisingly: Vitruvius never so much as mentions a bridge of any type, and as for his references to the others, they are very infrequent and utterly incidental. The following links will take you to these unsatisfactory references in another window:
• amphitheatres and circuses (once each, in the same sentence: 1.vii.1)
• roads (8 times: 1.v.1 1.v.2 4.v.2 5.vi.3 8.iii.7 8.iii.9 10.ii.11 10.ix.1)

Good information can be found elsewhere for amphitheatres and circuses.

Book Subject

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, the function of the rooms, the owner's social position.

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 honor 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. Siege machines: catapults, scorpions, balistae, tortoises and how to defend against them.

Background Material

Additional material on Vitruvius will eventually appear here, but I'm not about to let that delay anything: I'm getting the texts online first.

The Texts of Vitruvius on LacusCurtius

Text and Translations

The Latin text is that of the Teubner edition of 1899 by Valentin Rose. I examined the Augustus Rode text (Berlin, 1800) only to reject it as obviously inferior; and I looked at the Teubner edition of 1867. (The Loeb text, by the way, was published in 1931: it may or may not be in the public domain, depending on whether U.S. copyright was renewed in 1959. Now that I've entered the Teubner edition, I hope to collate it with the Loeb text and see just what differences there might be: this will wait, however, until the drawings are added.)

I know of 5 complete English translations:

• Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Ingrid D. Rowland, with commentary by others; Cambridge University Press, 1999.

• Vitruvius: De Architectura, translated by Frank Granger; Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1931.

• Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan; Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1914.

• The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, translated by Joseph Gwilt, London: Priestley and Weale, 1826.

• The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, translated from the original Latin by W. Newton, Architect, London: Dodsley, 1771 and 1791 (of which Gwilt says: "This Edition exhibits such a mixture of ignorance of the original in the translation of the text, with so much intelligence in some of the notes, that it is difficult to believe they are from the same hand.")

The most recent one comes recommended to me by a reader: I have not looked at it, since it is under copyright; see the Bryn Mawr Classical Review; which by the way points out both the necessity of illustrating the work and the difficulties involved.

I did examine the next three translations, and chose to enter the Gwilt translation of 1826. Although it is based on a Latin text much earlier than Valentin Rose's careful Teubner edition (the textual differences are in fact rather minor) I feel, based on spot comparisons of various passages, that on technical grounds it is the best, if only marginally. Where on closer inspection newer or better Latin readings lead to different translations, I'll insert them myself as footnotes.

I should point out that in general, the more technical the subject, the more the translations diverge. Those of you used to relying on the commonly available Loeb edition will find some of its obscurities and mistakes rectified here (and almost certainly vice versa, unfortunately).

A 1547 translation by Jean Martin can be found offsite, by the way, here in two formats, running text and queryable database: it is the only complete French translation of Vitruvius online.

Chapter and Section Numbering, Headings

Although for the English text I used the Gwilt edition — without following later editors in the very occasional transposition of small passages — I followed the numbering found in the Loeb edition, since that makes this online edition easier to refer to. This affects several books.

Chapter headings will eventually be inserted. A reminder that they are of doubtful authority since appearing in few manuscripts, and those late.

Section numbers also serve as links to the Latin text of that section, which open in another window. The sections of the Latin text are in turn linked back to the other languages.

Apparatus, Explanatory Material and Figures, Commentary

I have no plans to put an apparatus criticus online, except for a very small section of Book X involving numbers.

On the other hand, the subject matter is such that a bare text is often very difficult to follow; and even where it is clear, the interest of the work is enhanced if examples can be shown.

I am therefore committed to providing the ample illustration required. Fortunately there is no shortage of figures and architectural drawings in any number of editions of the De Architectura: it should be a matter of using the clearest ones possible, consistent with a uniform look, and presenting them systematically. Also by good fortune, it turns out I've taken quite a few photographs that can illustrate a number of Vitruvius' points: little by little, they'll be popped in as well.

Similarly, this is a text that generally speaking cries out for annotation, and has already been subjected to it at the hands of many. Vitruvius fails for example to define many of his technical terms, some of which must have been obscure to the layperson in his time, let alone now. An explanatory glossary and/or some kind of running notes are thus essential. It will be interesting to see what I can come up with.

In this regard, Auguste Choisy's notes to his own translation are sometimes very valuable: I have added them or will be adding them, translated into English of course, to Gwilt's text.

All of this takes time!

Other Texts of Vitruvius Online

As of Apr 00, an unspecified edition of Vitruvius, Latin text only, can now be found at the Latin Library. In the summer or fall of that same year, it had been joined at Perseus by the 1912 Teubner edition of the Latin text and the 1914 English translation by Morris Hicky Morgan.

Numerous copies of my own work have now appeared at other Web addresses; as far as I know, never of the Latin text, always only of Gwilt's English translation. Some of them pirate my notes, and all of them introduce various errors, usually by failing to understand the text.

Those many looking for "commodity, firmness and delight" will not find it in the Gwilt translation on this site. The phrase is a rendering of a passage of Vitruvius by Henry Wotton in his 1624 treatise, The Elements of Architecture — which as far as I can tell is by modern standards a paraphrase, rather than a translation of the Roman architect's work, if often hewing fairly close. In Wotton's context:

The end is to build well. Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight.

I would not go so far as the 15 webpages, all parroting each other, that read (my italics)

Vitruvius claimed architecture was composed of the triple essence: strength, utility, and aesthetic effect. Sir Henry Wotton (1568‑1639) quaintly changed this to, 'commodity, firmness and delight.'

since Wotton's translation was excellent in the language of his time, was not quaint, and changed nothing; but it's a definite indication that this piece of nearly 400‑year‑old English is felt by many to be superseded or to need explanation; and indeed, a quick survey of webpages out there shows several misunderstandings of Vitruvius' three principles that are due to a misunderstanding of English and a failure to return to the source. The author of at least one webpage, for example, presumably led astray by a modern meaning of "commodity" (as in financial markets), misunderstands the word as having something to do with cost-effectiveness: thus pointing out the mistakes that are so easy to make in reading older English; we see the same problem with Shakespeare and with the Bible.

So although Wotton's writings rode the rise of the English language to gain widespread currency, I hope that the student of our own time seeking the authority of Vitruvius, or wishing to understand his approach to architecture, will take the time to read for themselves what Vitruvius actually says and the context in which he says it (in Book I); certainly this antiquated catchprase has at best only a borrowed authority. To quote an ancient-sounding tag may serve as a potted fix, but no understanding is gained by it. . . .

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Site updated: 27 May 11