Little is known of Vitruvius' life, except what can be gathered from his writings, which are somewhat obscure on the subject. Although he nowhere identifies the emperor to whom his work is dedicated, it is likely that the first Augustus is meant and that the treatise was conceived after 27 BC. Since Vitruvius describes himself as an old man, it may be inferred that he was also active during the time of Julius Caesar.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Roman architect and engineer, was author of the celebrated treatise De architectura libri decem (Ten Books on Architecture) which carefully described existing practices, not only in the design and construction of buildings, but also in what are today thought of as engineering disciplines. His writing is prescriptive and gives direct advice: "I have drawn up definite rules to enable you, by observing them, to have personal knowledge of the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be constructed." (Preface, Book I, Morgan's translation). His writings were addressed to Caesar in an attempt to inform the Emperor on the subject of architecture so that he might make informed decisions concerning the construction of public buildings.
De architectura was based on Vitruvius' own experience, as well as on theoretical works by Greek architects. The treatise covers almost every aspect of architecture and include such varied topics as the manufacture of building materials and dyes (material science), machines for heating water for public baths (chemical engineering), amplification in ampitheaters (acoustics), and the design of roads and bridges (civil engineering). It is divided into 10 books dealing with city planning and architecture in general; building materials; temple construction and the use of the Greek orders; public buildings (theatres, baths); private buildings; floors and stucco decoration; hydraulics; clocks, mensuration, and astronomy; and civil and military engines. Using modern terminology, the subjects of the ten books are as follows:
3.Temples (Part 1)
4.Temples (Part 2)
5.Public places: square, meeting hall, theatre, park, gymnasium, harbour
7.Finishes and colours
9.Sundials and clocks
Vitruvius' outlook was essentially Hellenistic. His wish was to preserve the classical tradition in the design of temples and public buildings, and his prefaces to the separate books of his treatise contain many pessimistic remarks about contemporary architecture. Vitruvius' expressed desire that his name be honoured by posterity was realized and his advice was followed for centuries. Throughout the antique revival of the Renaissance, the classical phase of the Baroque, and in the Neoclassical period, his work was the chief authority on ancient classical architecture.
Here are several interesting excerpts from Vitruvius' works:
" COLONNADES AND WALKS Book V Chapter
5. The space in the middle, between the colonnades and open to the sky, ought to be embellished with green things; for walking in the open air is very healthy, particularly for the eyes, since the refined and rarefied air that comes from green things, finding its way in because of the physical exercise, gives a clean-cut image, and, by clearing away the gross humours from the eyes, leaves the sight keen and the image distinct. Besides, as the body gets warm with exercise in walking, this air, by sucking out the bumours from the frame, diminishes their superabundance, and disperses and thus reduces that superfluity which is more than the body can bear.
THE EDUCATION OF THE ARCHITECT Book I Chapter
1. The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion.
2. It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.
3. In all matters, but particularly in architecture, there are these two points:- the thing signified, and that which gives it its significance. That which is signified is the subject of which we may be speaking; and that which gives significance is a demonstration on scientific principles. It appears, then, that one who professes himself an architect should be well versed in both directions. He ought, therefore, to be both naturally gifted and amenable to instruction. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him be educated, skilful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens."
Still in print today, the Ten Books on Architecture are a comprehensive essay on the architecture of the era and teach many lessons still employed today.
Vitruvius' work De architectura libri decem suggests that an architect needs a good understanding of philosophy, geometry, music, medicine - indeed all of the liberal arts and sciences. This system is adopted in Freemasonry which takes architecture, geometry and symbolic understanding of the liberal arts and sciences as the basis for instruction in the morality of Man.
Morgan's translation is at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Vitr.+1.preface+1
from Crane, Gregory R. (ed.) The Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu, August, 2001
Another version of Vitruvius' works http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/home.html
from Thayer, Bill - website Lacus Curtius http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/home.html, August 2001
Italian web site PROGETTO GIOVANI 1996-97 Liceo Classico "Vitruvio Pollione" http://www.comune.formia.lt.it/scuole/Classico/Vitruvio/sommario.htm edited by Pinelli, Luigi, August 2001
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