BMCR 2000.03.29

Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture

, , Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xvi, 333. $80.00.

Writing his architectural treatise during the later part of the first century BCE, one of the ambitions of Vitruvius, retiring architectus, was undoubtedly to be recalled as an erudite and architectural authority. Whether he achieved this goal is certainly debatable: errors in geography, history, logic and technique continue to be highlighted. These errors, however, are part of what makes the work so valuable; they offer a glimpse into the mind of a classical architect. Regardless of the errata, Vitruvius remains destined to perpetual memory and the present rendition of his work is proof of that. The De architectura libri decem outlines Roman architecture — or what it should have been according to its author — at a time when its impact on future building ideals was paramount. Topics range widely, from architectural education, city planning and the development of humanity in the first book, to temple design and building typology, climate effects and acoustics, aqueducts and waterworks, astronomy and dials, and in the final book, defense apparatus and other machinae. Architectural principles are elucidated at specific junctures, and Vitruvius’ own view of what the profession should be comes across throughout the text. The value of the De architectura libri decem and its subsequent translations cannot be overemphasized.

As twentieth century translator of Vitruvius’ treatise Ingrid D. Rowland (IDR) has done a tremendous service to all those interested in classical architecture. An interpretation that renders clearly the often confusing notions contained within the ancient text, all-the-while contextualizing and reconciling the latter within current theoretical frameworks and with archaeological advances in mind has long been overdue. The new book’s words are unambiguous and thus readily accessible. The illustrations and Commentary by Thomas Noble Howe (TNH) — with IDR and Michael J. Dewar — are extensive, having as their objective “to investigate the possibility of a consistent design approach” and “to illustrate the relation of this approach to the broad principles of liberal knowledge” (xv). Whether these goals are achieved or not is perhaps debatable, but the drawings do add to the reading of the text. As the first comprehensive English-language translation of the Ten Books on Architecture in over sixty years, it is a welcome addition to the body of work related to Vitruvius — a body of work that reaches back to soon after the treatise was completed.

The extent to which the De architectura libri decem was referenced during — and beyond — Vitruvius’ lifetime remains unclear; Pliny, Cetius Faventinus, Servius and Sidonius Apollinaris recalled the early architectural writings in their own treatises. Later, during the Middle Ages, the set of books was transcribed and maintained in the libraries of monasteries and learned individuals, and towards the end of the fifteenth century, Latin editions were popularized. Initially these contained no graphic depictions — Vitruvius’ probably had ten, all lost — but in 1511 Fra Giovanni Giocondo generated a set of illustrations to accompany his Venetian edition. Giocondo had taught a course in Paris that included Vitruvius’ writings and during the following decades a profusion of Italian and French versions were produced, setting the tone for what would become a tradition of translating, editing, correcting and illustrating the De architectura libri decem; Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio, Cesare Cesariano and Daniele Barbaro were part of this tradition which extends to the present rendition. Sir Henry Wotton translated the treatise into English in 1624, as did William Newton in 1771 and Joseph Gwilt in 1826. However, it was for the most part the Latin edition of Valentin Rose published in 1867, complete with its apparatus criticus, that informed subsequent twentieth-century English versions; Rose’s work — based on Giocondo’s manuscript — remains a benchmark for related translations, and English interpretations of the recent past have consistently turned to it: Morris Hicky Morgan’s of 1914 and Frank Granger’s of 1931. With no substantial English language edition undertaken since, the present interpretation of Vitruvius’ words is welcome.

IDR’s Introduction offers a snapshot of Vitruvius’ life, career, literary influences, the artes liberales, roman building, Vitruvius’ “Position in the History of the Development of Roman Construction Methods and Forms”, and finally, some thoughts on interpreting the treatise. It is unfortunate that more use does not seem to have been made of the Collection des Universités de France (Association Guillaume Budé) series edited by Pierre Gros and others; their ongoing work seems key in any attempt to contextualize Vitruvius. The relative brevity of the introductory comments, however, reminds the reader that the book is not about Vitruvius; it is an interpretation of his treatise’s contents and as such does not necessarily attempt to provide the reader with the same type of contextual information included as part of editions such as Giulio Enaudi’s Italian publication of 1997 or the aforementioned Budé series. The latter situate Vitruvius and the passages of the De architectura libri decem within social, cultural, geographical and intellectual milieux, in addition to assessing the technical aspects of the treatise and discussing current philological debate; IDR and TNH — through their Commentary — focus for the most part on technique (the architectural, mechanical and scientific problematic). We will return to the Commentary, but first the translation.

IDR approaches the task of translating with consideration for multiple sources; that is to say that while using Giocondo’s as a primary text, the interpretation is not one deriving uniquely from a singular manuscript. A variety are consulted and a rendition that is richer than previous English translations results. No doubt some will miss the Latin text that other translators like Granger included; in this case, as collation and emendation were significant in shaping the rendition, a copy of the Latin text would not necessarily have been useful. The recourse to emendation, the insertion of words thought to have been part of an original text but now gone, presumably through repeated transcription, appears to have been undertaken with special care. Interpretive errors contained within previous versions are retraced, with the words and phrases emended accordingly; footnotes identifying discrepancies and translator choices enable the reader to reconcile the passages with those of others such as Claude Perrault, Morgan and Granger. In VI, 6.4, for example, IDR distinguishes between sublinata and sublimata and tells the reader that while Granger writes about granaries with “concrete floor[s]”, probably following the British Library Harleianus 2767 manuscript, another choice is available from the Wolfenbüttel Gudianus 69 manuscript (and adopted by IDR) where the granaries are said to have “elevated” floors. The difference is subtle, yet not insignificant.

The treatise contains a few hapax legomena terms or phrases that are not found elsewhere in classical texts. IDR treats these according to their individual complexity and context, thus preserving textual intent and significance as much as possible. The term trabes everganeae in V, 1.9 is a good example. The translation of the words seems straight-forward; IDR uses “outward-sloping beams” as the equivalent. While “knee-brace” may have been more to the point — the reader would be better able to identify the building component — the choice is adequate. Other difficult passages are treated with balance and interpretive logic and, where translation is not readily possible, as with the case of another hapax legomenon, scamilli impares, IDR leaves the words intact (III, 4.4 and V, 9.4).

From its position within the treatise and especially from examples found in Greek temples, it is certain that the term scamilli impares refers to the rise of stylobates as they curve towards the center along a horizontal plane. While the objective of scamilli impares is presumably dual: to counter the illusion of downward curvature and to allow moisture to drain more effectively, the term remains problematic and no one has yet been able to clearly articulate its technical significance. In other words, while “uneven benches” is one way one could translate the words, exactly what these would have been and what they would have done is not known. Giocondo’s treatise and Cesariano’s 1521 Como edition include drawings that attempt to convey its meaning but theirs as well as other Renaissance views have been shown to be incorrect. IDR opts to leave the term in Latin, italicized, with a simple reference to Figure 46 in the Commentary. Now there are two generally posited solutions to the term: First, there is the possibility that scamilli are little step-like notches cut into the stylobates; these notches would be impares, that-is-to say, uneven, or odd-sized. Second, scamilli may be referring to specific devices used to generate a rise at the center of the horizontal stylobate arrangement; these would perhaps be leveling blocks of graduated sizes. No example of the former is known; the latter is adopted by the commentator/illustrator. The implication in the Commentary, however, is that Vitruvius employed the term with this particular meaning in mind. This is a good example of the difficulties that can arise when allowing drawings to interface directly — without corresponding textual remarks — with the reader’s imagination.

Another example of what could be seen as a slightly liberal interpretation of the old treatise relates to the passage describing Vitruvius’ basilica at Fanum (V, 1.6-10). IDR translates the passage quite clearly and, in fact, when compared with Morgan and Granger, the depiction is eloquent. In this part of the treatise Vitruvius outlines a set of proportions and dimensions that go beyond his normal generalizations; indeed, some hypothesize that the passages were inserted at a time after Vitruvius’ writing of the treatise. Regardless, when drawings are presented in Figures 79 and 80, complete with a detailed axonometric outlining truss and beam arrangements, they appear to stretch the textual depiction. Vitruvius did not precisely outline this array of timbers; nor did he stipulate the roof structures posited. Thus, while the textual interpretation seems appropriate, the visual depictions generate what could be construed as exaggerations.

The difficulty of course, is that the reading of the text, regardless of its philological accuracy, can be significantly altered by visual representations. As archaeologists, architectural historians, theorists and practitioners continue to arbitrate the classical through Vitruvius’ treatise, the text’s interpretation becomes even more significant when new pictorial dimensions are added. The problem is magnified when the illustrator blends imagery that represents the passages with diagrams that are meant to show the state-of-the-architecture of the day. Recall that Vitruvius is not describing architecture as it is; he is depicting it as it should be. Further, when the illustrator writes that “gaps and ambiguities in the drawings are left because that is probably the way he [Vitruvius] intended them to be understood” (xvi), the implication, undoubtedly unintentional, is that there were many drawings accompanying the De architectura libri decem. The point is, however, that Vitruvius would not have “intended them to be understood” because there were only ten drawings with his text (as opposed to the over 500 illustrations included within the 139 figures of the present book).

That said, many of the drawings do support the translation. The illustrated temple types and column ratios in Figures 39 to 42, for example, seem fair visual depictions of the words in Books III and IV. Similarly, the techniques sketches outlining what Vitruvius probably meant as he wrote about brickwork — opus testaceum, opus incertum and opus reticulatum in Figures 31 and 32 — complement the translation. Other drawings, like that depicting men “chopping down trees to build an encampment” in Figure 36 are perhaps unnecessary.

Inclusion of secondary chapter titles helps to make sense of Vitruvius’ sometimes meandering digressions. The latter’s confusing discussion of the human canon in Book II is a good case in point: By inserting the “Excursus on Contemporary Hut Architecture” sub-title after II, 1.3, IDR identifies precisely where Vitruvius veers off topic and in turn, with another sub-title — “The Invention of Building” — where the discussion resumes after II, 1.5. The Book titles, on the other hand, do not clearly identify subsequent contents or topics; Book II, for instance, does not solely discuss what its title suggests: Aside from “Building Materials”, the Book includes the important “first house” narrative and details on building techniques. Individual Book titles, it should be noted, did not appear until the Renaissance. Related to the reader’s navigation through the book is the Index. While some referenced authors are listed, others, like Pierre Gros whose work on Vitruvius during the past years has been significant, appears left out of the Index. Many others that appear in the notes are not included; while there are bibliographic references within the footnotes and commentary, these do not always appear in the Index. The result is that one has to meander through the book to find references.

It is clear that this book is a major accomplishment; the translated text is accompanied by commentary which in turn is complemented by over 500 sketches, drawings and other illustrations, offering a portrait of what Vitruvius may have intended as well as a great many facts relating to building technique and the sciences of the time. As with any other such text accompanied by copious diagrams, however, the reader should approach the commentary and illustrations which make up more than half the book with some caution; these extend well beyond what Vitruvius probably envisioned. It does seem somewhat of a paradox that while the De architectura libri decem was devised to appeal to those interested in architecture and the building crafts, few visual elements seem to have been included to complement the initial textual depictions. As more and more illustrations are produced to accompany new translations, the imagination is initially liberated; however, the same drawings also etch the imagination along a path that leads to particular renditions. And this is where the reader of this new book is cautioned: Inevitably the pictorial can end up forcing the reader’s textual to fit the visual, thus altering the text — and intent — of Vitruvius. The previously discussed basilica at Fanum is an example of this; from the drawings one could imagine that Vitruvius outlined it as shown. Further, while the illustrator’s Introduction and Commentary indicate that the diagrams are meant to explore a “consistent design approach” and “to illustrate the relation of this approach to the broad principles of liberal knowledge”, this reviewer is left to wonder if these objectives have been met as there is no final synthesis accompanying the drawings. The risk in the end is that the splendid work of the translator can be significantly altered by the illustrations.