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The Ten Books of Vitruvius and why they have endured

Updated on September 7, 2014

Cosmic man

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From ancient writer to movie character

When watching The (marvellous) Lego Movie recently, I was touched to see that one of its siren characters was Vitruvius, based on the real-life Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman writer who lived between 70 or 80 BC and died after 15 BC. Although the movie did not refer to his texts, I warmed to this odd little cartoon, most likely because I had become fascinated with Vitruvius during my student days. His Ten Books on Architecture is still in print.

Experts believe that the books were written between the end of the first century BC and 27 AD, which makes their writing concurrent with events in the New Testament. The simple and direct style of the writer reveals his depth of learning. Vitruvius did not leave a thing to chance. Several of the manuals begin addressed directly to the emperor, Caesar Augustus, a possible factor in their survival.

Safe as houses...

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Dynamics of dwellings

In Book 1, Education of the Architect, Vitruvius advocates a course of study in a number of disciplines, including drawing and arithmetic, history and philosophy, optics, law and medicine, for the practising builder. He knew that buildings were not just mortar and brick, but just one dynamic in the functioning environment and the educated builder was more likely to get this mix of dynamics right. In Book 2, The Origin of the Dwelling House, Vitruvius gives us a potted history of the domestic home, from the time of cave dwellers “the men of old were born like wild beasts in woods”, to Roman times. He outlines a number of extant building materials, like brick, lime and stone. Incidentally, the Romans have been credited with the development of concrete.

Vitruvian man

In Book 3, On Symmetry, Vitruvius expounds on the importance of proportion in a building, explaining that every part should have an exact relation to every other part, just as with the parts of our bodies. I quote: if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head and apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces that are exactly square…nature has designed the human body so that its members are duly proportioned to the frame as a whole.

Fourteen centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci adapted the Vitruvian man drawing as shorthand for the cosmic unity of man, an image that is still iconic today.

Weatherproof

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Acoustics and anecdotes

In Book 4, The Origins of the Three Orders, Vitruvius elaborates further on proportion, particularly in the laying out of temple buildings, very important for Romans. Among the anecdotes in this book is the tale of how the elaborate Corinthian order originated when an acanthus plant grew through the weave of a basket that had been placed on the grave of a Corinthian young woman.

In Book 5, The Forum and the Basilica, Vitruvius expands on the topics of Book 4, encompassing descriptions of baths and theatres. Here, he includes a chapter on acoustics. It becomes evident that Romans recognised the importance of building for secular rather than sacred use. Unlike the Egyptians, they didn’t expend entire lifetimes building tombs for the burial of kings.

In Book 6, On Climate as Determining the Style of the House, Vitruvius expounds on laying out a building so that it gains maximum advantage from prevailing conditions, for example, ensuring that the house is secure against draughts, but does not become overheated by the position of the sun. It is in this book that the writer describes the races of Italy as “the most perfectly constituted, both in mind and body”. This is because, he writes, “Italy is the most truly perfect territory being situated under the middle of heaven and having on each side the entire extent of the world.”

Written in the stars...

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Colours, cosmic matters and combat

In Book 7, Floors, the author gives a comprehensive account of flooring of all kinds. He explains how to create colours like red and green from earths and verdigris, predating The Craftsman’s Handbook, the work of the great Renaissance colourist, Cennino Cennini, by about 1400 years. Book 8, How to Find Water, does what it says on the bucket and advises Roman builders on how to locate water and sink wells – very important in those pre-plumbed times. Book 9, The Zodiac and the Planets, may seem like quaint nonsense to the modern reader, but it is charming to read and does provide insight into the not inconsiderable astronomical knowledge of the writer. Book 10, Machines and Implements, is an account of mechanical devices in use in Roman times, like the hoist, the pumps and water screw. Vitruvius also lists various “combat” machines, such as catapults, an insight into the violent nature of the times.

The attraction of the Ten Books lies in finding the nuggets of antiquated charm among the considerable body of still-relevant building knowledge. They have endured right through the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages and to the Renaissance, becoming a study manual for artists and architects such as Bramante, Michelangelo and Palladio. As at the end of The Lego Movie, the ghost of Vitruvius lives with us still.

Sources

The Ten Books on Architecture by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (Dover Publications)

The Story of Architecture by Patrick Nuttgens, Phaidon 1997

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