Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.18

Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols, Author and Audience in Vitruvius' 'De architectura'. Greek culture in the Roman world.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xvii, 238; 8 plates.  ISBN 9781107003125.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by John Matthew Oksanish, Wake Forest University (


Over the past half-century the most influential work on Vitruvius and De architectura (DA hereafter) has come from Europe, where scholarship has yielded a rich bounty on matters ranging from textual exegesis and the architectural interpretation of DA to its author’s place in the intellectual, social, and political milieux of the first century.1 Yet despite this vibrant, continental tradition and increasing interest from Anglophone scholars, much remains to be said about Vitruvius's text as a literary artefact or, as the title of Nichols’ book indicates, Vitruvius qua author.2 Indeed, Author and Audience in Vitruvius's'De architectura' represents a significant step toward filling that gap, and it does so with the distinction of being the first full-length monograph from a classicist in English. This distinction alone will surely generate interest in Vitruvius in the U.S. and U.K., but the book’s novelty lies not merely in its language of composition. Rather, Nichols’ sustained willingness to embrace the full breadth of Vitruvius's philological and philosophical interests (6 pref.) within and beyond DA’s prefaces sets her book apart from studies that have already treated Vitruvius's authorial voice in some fashion.3 Elegantly eschewing the apologetics that often accompany the treatment of technical texts, Nichols both elucidates the risks of underreading DA—that is, of treating it as an unvarnished source of testimonia for facts and attitudes about architecture—and introduces new possibilities for its interpretation.

Nichols, like DA itself, has plenty to say about architecture in its material sense. But her book is first and foremost a study of the constructedness of Vitruvius's text and its distinct but complementary authorial personae. By adopting strategies similar to those used by writers in “more elevated genres of poetry and prose” (p. 193), Nichols’ Vitruvius speaks in a compelling, if inconsistent, voice to persuade the reader of the relevance of a “new” Roman discipline, architectura. Nichols’ project does not merely mark similarities between Vitruvian strategies of self-fashioning and those of his better-known contemporaries and forebears. Instead, it advances the distinctive view that the interest of Vitruvius's strategies lies in their unprecedented focus on the “propriety of [the author’s] professional conduct and the moral integrity of his social interactions,” which are also reflected in the ethical-aesthetic particulars of Vitruvius's program of domestic construction and ornament.

After an introduction explaining the book’s methodology, the first two chapters examine the intellectual, social, and ideological context behind DA and its author. Chapter 1, “Greek Knowledge and the Roman World,” identifies three complementary functions of DA’s authorial voice, viz., those of “architect,” “author,” and “general.” Vitruvius's capacious definition of the officium architecti predictably yields some slippage between these functions and the characteristics that Nichols attributes to them. (For example, Nichols associates the Caryatid-narrative at DA 1.1.5 with the “architect” function, though that same narrative might also be assigned to the function of “author” and/or “general.”) That all three functions share a role in “protecting a completed empire against cultural stagnation” (p. 26) helpfully revises any notion that the universalizing DA merely holds a technical-textual mirror to the Augustan oikoumene. By preserving rather than effacing the alterity of the innumerable foreign texts, objects, and exempla that the text appropriates for Rome, DA actively shapes the ideological contours of an empire. Thus, both Vitruvius's conspicuous screed against plagiarists (7 pref.) and his self-conscious reliance on Hellenistic sources become acts of conquest comparable to the infamous plunder of Corinth by Lucius Mummius – named auctor at DA 5.5.8.

The second chapter, “The Self-Fashioning of Scribes,” elaborates on Nichols’ earlier work comparing the self-effacing elements in Vitruvian and Horatian autobiography.4 The chapter discusses the authors’ shared emphasis on their upbringing, education, and “poverty,” their studied anonymity, and a shared strategy of ridiculing other scribae—a heterogeneous class that included assistants to magistrates--as upstarts. In combination, these characteristics forestall charges of the authors’ ambition (especially political ambition), despite their discernible appetite for other forms of recognition, such as literary immortality.

Nichols is surely right to attribute Horace’s and Vitruvius's deliberately self-effacing personae to self-fashioning. Somewhat less clear is whether the strategies underlying Vitruvius's persona are, as Nichols argues, attributable to his status as an apparitorial scribe in particular. That Vitruvius never clearly identifies himself as a scribe is certainly understandable in light of the elite prejudices, which Nichols clearly identifies, against them. Yet this omission also complicates our ability to assign Vitruvius to a particular rank or status. Indeed, when Nicholas Purcell suggested in 1983 that Vitruvius “belong[ed] in the apparitorial world” he relied in no small part on the (rhetorical) evidence of DA itself, our only source for Vitruvius's biography.5 (At the time, theories of self-fashioning were in their infancy, while Vitruvius was generally regarded as a transparent, if perhaps sycophantic, technical writer.)6 While this scholarly context does not harm Nichols’ description of the individual features of Vitruvius's self-fashioning, it renders attribution of his rhetorical strategies to his “real” scribal status slightly circular. Scholars may wish to leave open the possibility that Vitruvius's “scribal” stance of savvy modesty was due to factors other than his actual rank; perhaps Vitruvius was not a scribe after all.

The next three chapters tackle aspects of Vitruvius's traditional (and problematic) status as the designated font (in sourcebooks, etc.) for Roman architectural values and practices, particularly within the domestic arena. In “House and Man” (chapter 3) Nichols argues not only that the “traditional” and moralizing Vitruvius is more elastic in his views than scholarship has generally held, but also that the contingency and performativity of his moral discourse—contradictions and all—constituted a Roman tradition as old as Cato. The chapter underscores the essential role of the house (its expense, materials, artistry) in demonstrating the character of its owner, and it highlights the continuity of moral critiques of domestic luxury from the middle republic to the early empire. Comparisons with Plautus, Cato, Horace, and Cicero show that Vitruvius's own ambivalence toward magnificentia and elegantia, either of which may indicate appropriate grandeur or conceal deceit through expense and artifice, is hardly idiosyncratic. At the same time, Nichols shows that Vitruvius's ambivalence creates certain problems for an author who has elsewhere glorified his own modesty: for better or for worse, architects’ reputations and fame are inextricably linked to the moral life of owners who ultimately lay out the expense.

The fourth chapter, “Art Display and Strategies of Persuasion,” with black and white in-text images and duplicate color plates, also focuses on domestic display, in particular his jeremiad against surrealist frescoes. Again, Nichols highlights Vitruvius's attitude toward the always in-process spoliation of what is Greek, while noting the myriad problems that are introduced when we ignore DA’s place in a Roman rhetorical tradition in which aesthetic claims were inherently moral. A lucid summary of the problems of periodization attending mural styles and their connection (or lack thereof) with the Vitruvian typology is followed by the suggestion, undoubtedly correct, that Vitruvius dislikes surrealist styles because they undermine principles of sound construction as well as his guiding principle that architecture is, in essence and as a matter of its early evolution, “a logical extension of nature” (p. 141).

If in his aesthetics Vitruvius rejects fashions emerging at the start of the principate, it is not to parrot the artistic conservatism of the princeps. Recalling the discussion of domestic expense and decoration in the previous chapter, Nichols sees a “discursive choice” made by Vitruvius that engages the modes of philosophical and analogical argument familiar to elite readers from other domains. Although other scholars have noted the role played by moralizing rhetoric in Vitruvius's tirade before, none has so carefully considered the factors in play and the flexibility latent in Vitruvius's remarks.7 What is also novel about Nichols’ account is the way it keys the success of Vitruvius's own self-fashioning not to the successful emulation of elite artistic tastes, but to the successful demonstration to his elite (and aspirant) readers of “the weighty implications of domestic decor for the articulation of their personal prestige” (p. 161, emphasis added). This is not just a case of Vitruvius putting his own “personal” priorities on display; rather, it is of performing, in a philosophically and rhetorically informed fashion, an expert sensitivity to the tastes that can make or undo a man.

Chapter 5, “The Vermilion Walls of Faberius Scriba” (in-text images are again accompanied by color plates), also focuses on the importance of the house and its decorative elements as mirrors to its owner and, in a different way, its architect. Vitruvius relates how the scribe Faberius decorated the walls of his peristyle with vermilion. (As a scribe, Faberius is a peer to Vitruvius in Nichols’ analysis; he is therefore an exquisite target for the aesthetic and ethical critique that Vitruvius levels against him.) Faberius failed to treat the wall with wax in the Greek manner as Vitruvius suggests, and the result was not the elegant polish sought by the owner, but a different and unsightly color altogether (7.9.2: domum eleganter expolitam; varioque colore). Vitruvius's critical language in this passage recalls political invective (also present in the passage on surrealist murals), but comparisons with Furius Bibaculus’ critique of Cato’s use of vermilion (F1 Courtney = Suet. Gramm. 11) suggest that the point of Vitruvius's anecdote is not so much to shame Faberius, or even to place Vitruvius's own good character in high relief. Rather, Faberius’ error demonstrates the social disgrace that accompanies poor aesthetic (and, it should be said, technical) choices that an expert such as Vitruvius could prevent. This is a Vitruvius smart enough not only to design buildings, but also to build (or destroy?) reputations and moral discourse.

The epilogue returns to the equation of Vitruvius and Mamurra hinted at in the book’s introduction. Here, as in the thesis on which the book is based, Nichols is excellent in addressing the question of Vitruvius's formerly posited (and undoubtedly false) identification with Mamurra, praefectus fabrum to Caesar and Catullan bête noire. As in the comparison of Vitruvius with Horace earlier in the book, Nichols leverages an older, mistaken view8 to a productive scholarly end. Mamurra and Vitruvius do not need to be the same man any more than Horace and Vitruvius need to allude to one another’s books for us to recognize that the expertise offered by these men, however disparate, entailed risks as well as rewards for both superior and subordinate. If Vitruvius takes pains to fashion himself as morally faultless, such perfection reflects the moral fitness of his dedicatee, Augustus.

Some quibbles may be aired in closing. Nichols, following numerous other scholars, refers on several occasions to Vitruvius's military service with Julius Caesar. Vitruvius's characterization of his connection with Caesar, however, is rather more oblique.9 Whether this obliqueness reflects his modesty, as Nichols hints, or something else should accordingly remain an open question. Finally, chapter 5 equivocates on whether the scriba Faberius of DA was the personal secretary of Caesar who aided Mark Antony in falsifying the latter’s decrees (p. 167 with p. 178). Such an identification, however enticing, remains speculative.

Despite these quibbles, Nichols has produced an exceptional book that will inevitably shape the scholarly conversation about Vitruvius the author for some time to come. That it is a book of such high quality in so many respects—including production—is fortunate indeed.


1.   Continental bibliography on Vitruvius is vast. One may merely note the peerlessly thorough Budé commentaries (Paris, 1969-2009) and the volumes by Pierre Gros with translation and commentary by Antonio Corso and Elisa Romano (Torino, 1997). Fensterbusch (Darmstadt, 1964) is comparatively modest but useful. An Editio minor (ed. Gros) has also appeared (Paris, 2015).
2.   Prominent exceptions include I. K. McEwen’s (controversial) Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture (Cambridge, MA, 2003). Other influential work on Vitruvius in English includes the translation by Ingrid Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe (Cambridge, 1999) and Andrew Wallace Hadrill’s Rome’s Cultural Revolution (chapter 4). A special edition of Arethusa, edited by Serafina Cuomo and Marco Formisano, appeared in 2016.
3.   Of special mention are Romano’s La capanna e il tempio (Palermo, 1987), essays by Gros and Romano in Le projet de Vitruve (Rome, 1994) and the Einaudi edition, and Antoinette Novara’s Auctor in Bibliotheca (Leuven, 2005), and relevant portions of Thorsten Fögen’s Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung: zur Struktur und Charakteristik römischer Fachtexte der frühen Kaiserzeit (München, 2009).
4.   “Social status and the authorial personae of Horace and Vitruvius,” in Perceptions of Horace: A Roman Poet and his Readers, edd. L. B. T. Houghton and Maria Wyke (Cambridge, 2009) 109-122.
5.   N. Purcell, “The Apparitores: A Study in Social Mobility,” PBSR 51 (1983) 156. Pierre Gros has developed the theory in Le Projet de Vitruve (above, n.3) and in subsequent studies.
6.   Stephen Greenblatt’s influential Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago) appeared in 1980. For Bramble in CHCL 2: 493 Vitruvius was “a practical fellow [who] did not find it easy to write, and he tells us much,” and “left style to the experts and schools.”
7.   Notably Lise Bek in “Antithesis: A Roman attitude and its changes as reflected in the concept of architecture from Vitruvius to Pliny the Younger,” in Studia romana in honorem Petri Krarup septuagenarii (Odense, 1976) 154-66, Jás Elsner Art and the Roman Viewer (Cambridge, 1995), and Catharine Edwards The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 1993).
8.   Paul Thielscher, RE 9 (1961) 420-25.
9.   See, e.g., Fleury on 1 pref.2.

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