Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.72

Louis Callebat, Vitruve, de l'Architecture, Livre VI. Collection des Universités de France, publiée sous le patronage de l'Association Guillaume Budé.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2004.  Pp. 255.  ISBN 2-251-01437-3.  €39.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Margaret Muther D'Evelyn, Department of Art, University of Rhode Island (mmutherdevelyn@mail.uri.edu)
Word count: 1347 words

One of the beauties of Louis Callebat's edition, translation, and commentary of Vitruvius's Book Six on residential architecture in the Budé series edited by Pierre Gros lies in the interweaving of texts and concepts from Vitruvius's other nine books into the commentary, following Vitruvius's lead. As Daniele Barbaro noted in establishing the text, and translating and commenting on Vitruvius in mid-sixteenth-century Venice, Book Six can be seen as a miniature replica of Vitruvius's first five books (1567 Italian, VI.P., p. 274). Callebat's study proves the unity of Vitruvius's complete vision in Ten Books and the richness of Book Six in and of itself. In the present line-by-line commentary, as if in answer to the dreams of Renaissance architects, Callebat presents comparative archaeological material. The difficulties of interpreting Vitruvius's terms, many of which appear in de architectura for the first time in Latin or solely in de architectura (p. XX), disappear under the spotlight of Callebat's erudition.

Callebat is a recognized authority on Vitruvius. Having established the texts, and translated and commented on Vitruvius's Book Eight on water in 1973, and Book Ten on machines in 1986, and having established the text and translated Book Two on the beginnings of building and on building materials (in collaboration with Pierre Gros and Catherine Jacquemard) in 1999, Callebat, working in collaboration with others, also published the supremely useful Concordance to De Architectura along the way in 1984.

In his eloquent Introduction to Book Six, after a brief overview of its themes, Callebat defends Vitruvius's brevity of style as appropriate to the purpose of transmitting a knowledge of technique and providing a broad historic, sociological, and moral perspective (p. XII). The problems of interpretation, archaeological and lexical, which Callebat next addresses, include attention to Vitruvius's treatment of the villa, the Greek house, and the architectural workshop. Callebat argues that Vitruvius's professionality governs his outlook, and dismisses the need to interpret his personal moral position on questions such as luxury building. He discusses Vitruvius's term "symmetria," which is first introduced in Book Three to explain the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole in temples, for its application to private building (pp. XLII-XLIII). To Vitruvius's professionalism Callebat also attributes the care with which dwellings of great dignitaries are treated.

Near the close of his Introduction, Callebat summarizes the problems facing modern readers from the sixteenth-century onward who have labored to decipher Vitruvius's descriptions "esoteric for the novelty of the vocabulary [...], having lost all points of reference with the observable historic material" (p. XLVII). He credits Fra Giocondo and Daniele Barbaro for their critical readings (with an unexpected typo of "1521" for Fra Giocondo's 1511 edition), Jean Martin for his French translation, Fra Giocondo for his illustrations, Cesare Cesariano for his work on the plan of the Greek house, and Andrea Palladio for his treatment of oeci (p. XLVII).

What Callebat calls the interest and originality of Vitruvius's Book Six as a vision by an architect of an architect confronted with the difficulties of his profession (p. LII), shine through the massive commentary. It would be hard not to agree with Callebat's statement that, as the only surviving work of a specialist on ancient habitats, Vitruvius's text remains an essential document for moderns, furnishing vocabulary and schemes for ancient private Roman and Greek houses (p. LI).

Book Six opens with the anecdote of the shipwreck of Aristippus, a Socratic philosopher, on the island of Rhodes, a tale borrowed from Cicero (p. XLVI). With this story, which demonstrates that an education survives most vicissitudes, Vitruvius expresses gratitude to his parents for having provided his education and thereby his love of words and techniques (p. 60). In chapter one, Vitruvius deals with adjusting buildings to various climatic conditions, and in chapter two with making perspectival adjustments to the "symmetria," or proportionality, of a dwelling. In chapter three, he begins a long study of the private house, first the spaces at its nucleus -- the entrance court and wings -- then the peristyle and various private spaces such as triclinia, exedras, oeci, and galleries. In chapter four, he addresses the question of the appropriate orientation of rooms according to their functions, and in chapter five the social significance of the great vestibules and atria so essential to the fulfillment of patricians' social and political obligations. In chapter six, he introduces the villa, the location of its kitchens and stables, baths and storage areas, and the issue of the reception of light. In chapter seven, he presents a description of the Greek house, a text Callebat considers to be -- appropriately enough -- an ekphrasis. Lacking an atrium but replete with peristyles and lodgings for women, for men, and for guests, the Greek house, according to Callebat, represents Vitruvius's idealized reflection of patrician building in the early Empire, less notable for its functions than as a cultural symbol, offering a glimpse of daily life (pp. XXXV-XXXVIII, XLV). Finally, in chapter eight, Vitruvius deals with foundations and the architectural workshop; he describes the various roles of patron, architect, and artisan, and reserves to the architect the glory of the work, since the conception of the building in all its detail before its construction belongs only to the architect (pp. XIII-XIV).

Fortunately, students of Vitruvius's Book Six on residential architecture no longer have to deal with the almost total lack of archaeological evidence faced by sixteenth-century editors. Yet, as Callebat warns from the start, much still remains to be done (p. XVI). Furthermore, although centuries of study have clarified many lexical questions, difficulties of interpretation remain. Many of the objects described by Vitruvius's terms have been altered, and a number of the terms come from specialized fields other than residential architecture (p. XX). Nevertheless, it can be startling to recognize in Callebat's work the two-pronged method of analysis -- philological and archaeological (p. XX) -- of the first commentators, the French humanist Guillaume Philandrier (1544 and 1552) and the Italian humanist Daniele Barbaro (1556 and 1567).

Callebat's commentary opens the mind of Vitruvius, as Renaissance editors such as Barbaro had stated was their purpose in analyzing the text. Callebat's comparative texts reveal what Vitruvius's contemporaries, particularly Cicero, were thinking and writing. Callebat makes use of medieval sources -- Servius's commentary on the Aeneid, the writings of Cassiodorus and Isidore of Seville -- as Philandrier had done. Ancient poetry documents the functions of the buildings and issues of astronomy for Callebat as it had done for Renaissance commentators. The bibliography, which extends through 2003, as well as the rich visual apparatus with diagrams of music and astronomy, and copious plans, cross-sections, perspectives, and photographs, supports Callebat's exhaustive and riveting commentary.

For those interested in the reception of Vitruvius, Stefan Schuler's "Vitruv im Mittelalter" (1999) is helpful. Vitruvius could, however, be said to have come more fully into his own during the Renaissance. The permeation of artistic and architectural thought and practice during the Renaissance with Vitruvius's ideas is a commonplace, but it is probably still underestimated. Callebat's new edition offers a few words on these Renaissance editions (p. XLVII and passim). The only tiny concern I would like to enter, besides noting a typo in an English-language title in the bibliography, regards the omission of Daniele Barbaro's 1567 Latin edition from the list of editions and variants. Although Barbaro discusses various lemmata taken from Philandrier's "Annotations," he incorporates many alternate readings along with Philandrier's into his 1567 Latin edition, and some of these clarifications can be credited to Andrea Palladio, Barbaro's collaborator and author of Callebat's Fig. 7.

Leon Battista Alberti satirically dubbed Vitruvius's Ten Books "almost the sole survivor from this vast shipwreck" (de re aedificatoria, VI.I, trans. Joseph Rykwert.). Now, along with the other eight of Vitruvius's books published in the Budé series, Book Six on residential architecture can enter into learned discourse on its own terms as a literary text. According to Vitruvius, Aristippus had been able to do the same, "discussing philosophical subjects" in the gymnasium after having been shipwrecked with his companions on the island of Rhodes (Vitruvius, VI.P., trans. Morgan).

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