Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman writer, architect and engineer, active in the 1st century BC. He was the author of De Architectura, known today as The Ten Books of Architecture, a treatise in Latin on architecture, and perhaps the first work about this discipline.
Mainly known for his writings, Vitruvius was himself an architect; Frontinus mentions him in connection with the standard sizes of pipes (Aq. I.25); 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 is a plain and accurate translation of the passage in Vitruvius (I.iii.2): but English has changed since then, especially in regard to the word "commodity", and the tag is usually misunderstood.
Vitruvius' work is one of many examples of Latin texts that owe their survival to the palace scriptorium of Charlemagne in the early 9th century. (This activity of finding and recopying classical manuscripts is part of what is called the Carolingian Renaissance.) Many of the surviving manuscripts of Vitruvius' work derive from an existing manuscript that was written there, British Library manuscript Harley 2767.
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.
Though De architectura had been known throughout the Middle Ages, the work was popularized in 16th century through Wotton's translation. Inigo Jones, English architect, was perhaps the first, together with Frenchman Salomon De Caus , to re-evaluate and implement those disciplines that Vitruvius considered a necessary element of architecture: arts and sciences based upon number and proportion.
Among his sources Vitruvius cites Ctesibius of Alexandria and Archimedes for their inventions, Aristoxenus (Aristotle's apprentice) for music, Agatharchus for theatre, and Terentius Varro for architecture.
- The "Ten Books of Architecture" online: cross-linked Latin text and English translation
- Latin text, version 2
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