Vitruvius

Vitruvius

A reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of The Vitruvian Man from iStockphoto.com, courtesy of NPR.

Life

Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman architect active in the first century BCE.

Little is known about Vitruvius apart from what he says about himself in his writings. His praenomen is unknown, but his cognomen was attested by M. Cetius Faventinus, a late-third or early-fourth century author on architecture.

It should be noted, though, that Faventinus’ statement is ambiguous, and instead of referring to a “Vitruvius Pollio and other authors,” he could have meant “Vitruvius, Pollio, and other authors” (Vitruvius Pollio aliique auctores)—the Latin is ambiguous.

He fought as an artilleryman under Caesar, for which he received a public pension. Octavia, sister of emperor Augustus, apparently recommended that he continue receiving a pension, and thus used his spare money to write. Conte notes that it is probably not a coincidence that his work on architecture appeared during the time Augustus was engaged in massive public works.

Works

Vitruvius’ only surviving work—and likely his only work—was the De Architectura in ten books. He begins, like many others in technical fields, by advocating for a liberal education (of the kind Cicero desired for orators in the De Oratore, or Quintilian in his Institutiones).

The rest of the book is outlined in a fairly straightforward manners.

  • Book II brushes on the origins of architecture before discussing the types of material;
  • books III and IV discuss temples and other religious architecture;
  • books V concern public areas, including baths, markets, harbors, and the theater;
  • books VI and VII are about the private sphere, with VII specifically on wall painting;
  • book VIII is on water types and aqueducts;
  • book IX is a mishmash of math, sundials, and astronomy;
  • finally, book X goes through the various machines that help with construction as well as the kinds that architects would be useful in crafting, such as artillery weapons.

Unfortunately, all the diagrams that accompanied the De Architectura have been lost in the manuscript process.

Legacy

Vitruvius’ impact was strongest during the Renaissance when Europe was rediscovering the lost art of Roman science. Vitruvius’ discussion on the human body and proportionality led to Leonardo da Vinci’s (and others’) “Vitruvian Man,” the figure of which remains popular today.

Texts Online

Latin: Phi Latin Texts