Vitruvius on Architecture

by Steven W. Semes

Vitruvius on Architecture, by Thomas Gordon Smith

Vitruvius on Architecture, by Thomas Gordon Smith.  New York: The Monacelli Press, 2003. 200 illustrations, 25 in color, including photos and details. 288 pages. ISBN: 9781885254986

If Western classical architecture has a founding document—a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution establishing the ground rules of the discipline for generations to come—it is undoubtedly the Ten Books on Architecture by the first-century Roman architect and military engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. His text offers a comprehensive overview of architectural practice and the education required to pursue it successfully. Like any foundational document that has endured, it is imperfect, but, also like any good constitution, it not only offers practical guidance but also defines the means to adapt its precepts to changing conditions. Paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead’s famous declaration that Western philosophy is largely a set of footnotes to Plato, our architecture since the Renaissance may be viewed as a series of commentaries on Vitruvius. While it is not the only book on architecture to have been written in ancient times (Vitruvius alludes to several even older texts in the course of his presentation), theTen Books is the only such text to have survived into the modern era. We know little about its reception in the Roman world, and there is reason to think it may have had little impact, since contemporary and subsequent Roman architecture moved in rather different directions. But upon its rediscovery, translation and publication in the fifteenth century at the start of the Italian Renaissance, the work of the Augustan architect would set the terms of architectural discourse for the next six centuries.

Thomas Gordon Smith, himself a protagonist of the present-day renaissance of classical architecture, has done a great service by presenting once again the founding document of our discipline for what it is, a thoughtful and very human guide for fulfilling the three conditions of building well: “strength, utility, and beauty.” He succeeds in locating the Ten Books in the context of the world in which it was written while, at the same time, placing the work in the context of our own world, in which the wisdom of the classical tradition is being appreciated anew.

Like other foundational texts in what has come to be called the Western canon, the Ten Bookshas been defined as much by detractors as by defenders. Since the eighteenth century, the work has been dismissed by rationalists, Gothic revivalists, Romanticists, eclectics and functionalists, so that today mainstream architects and critics see Vitruvius as, at best, quaintly irrelevant. The absence of a good English translation, uniting contemporary usage with an understanding of the formal language the writer describes, has also hurt his cause. Now, thanks to Smith and his collaborators—Latin scholar Stephen Kellogg and renderer Matthew Aaron Rosenshine—we are able to judge for ourselves the relevance of the wisdom Vitruvius offers us. The translation offered in this edition is an emendation by Kellogg of the 1914 English version of Morris Hicky Morgan, incorporating recent scholarship and updating Morgan’s late-Victorian prose. The new edition includes only those five of the original ten books that deal explicitly with architecture, rather than military engineering and other non-architectural subjects. Smith precedes this with an introductory commentary of great interest and value in its own right, and concludes with a helpful glossary.

The loss in antiquity of Vitruvius’ original illustrations (he refers to ten originally accompanying hisTen Books) has allowed subsequent editors and translators to supply their own, often reflecting the illustrator’s concerns as much as the words of the author. The images created by Andrea Palladio (for Daniele Barbaro’s Italian edition of 1556) and Claude Perrault (for his French edition of 1684) mirror, respectively, the Renaissance humanism of the former and the Cartesian systematization of the latter. Smith joins this tradition and provides, with Rosenshine’s expert assistance, a striking and beautiful visual accompaniment to the text, reflecting a vision of the classical from his contemporary viewpoint as both a teacher and practitioner.

Essential to Smith’s rehabilitation of Vitruvius is his correction of a number of misunderstandings that have encumbered modern readings of the Roman author, even among classical architects. First among these is the notion that Vitruvius is a pedantic, rigid stickler for following the rules. In truth, Vitruvius is pragmatic rather than rule-bound, and the rules he sets down “anticipate modifications in response to actual conditions,” as Smith writes in his commentary. Vitruvius’ rules—the patterns for drawing the three families of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, for example—are more like a set of flexible patterns. Obedience to such reasonable prescriptions is liberating, as Smith himself declares, because they bring to individual designs a coherence analogous to articulate speech. Vitruvius’ Ten Books is partly an attempt at providing a consistent architectural grammar. For example, Vitruvius castigates designers for mixing elements of the Doric and Ionic types within the same composition, because to do so creates architectural gibberish.

At the same time, application of the rules is subject to constant evaluation—what Vitruvius calls “lively mental energy,” and we may call imaginative invention. Being primarily artistic rather than academic in his approach, the true test of any design for Vitruvius is not correctness but its capacity to convince the eye of its correctness. For example, the proportion of the entablature to the column below is not given by a single fixed rule, but depends on the height of the column—a response to our changing perceptions of objects at increasing distances. Similarly, Vitruvius inclines the planes of the fasciae in the architrave and introduces other small refinements, the better to “display detail at a distance.” In the best Aristotelian tradition, Vitruvius supports his architectural logic or grammar with an equally important rhetoric.

Vitruvius’ criticisms are directed against the ignorant use of the elements of ancient Greek architecture by the Roman designers of his day, not unlike the similarly uninformed use of classical details by builders of suburban “McMansions” in our time. His purpose was to raise the general standard by appealing to the practices of the Hellenistic architects whose graceful Ionic architecture he so admired. Vitruvius, the earliest author on architecture we have, was himself arguing for a renaissance—a rebirth of the architectural values of the ancients—based on models that were up to 300 years old when he wrote about them. This pattern of looking back in order to reestablish the way forward would be repeated many times in the ensuing centuries. One might say that the classical tradition consists more than anything else precisely in this continuing series of renaissances, of Arcadian retrospections in response to an intermittent sense of having lost the way.

But Vitruvius does not simply try to reestablish an earlier set of ideas. “The backward glance transforms,” as the late classical architect John Barrington Bayley wrote, and so Vitruvius seeks not replication but transformation of the ancient models to suit contemporary needs. His approach to the problem of the corner triglyph is a good example. By urging architects to center the last triglyph in a Doric frieze over the corner column—rather than at the outside corner of the frieze as in Greek practice—he breaks with a 400-year-old tradition. His reasoning makes sense in the context of his intention, as Smith identifies it, to rationalize the Doric temple configuration on the modular model of the Ionic, but also demonstrates his willingness to view critically even his most admired paradigms. A similar lesson may be drawn from Smith’s illustration of the post-antique evolution of the plancier (or the soffit of the corona, the underside of the horizontally projecting part of a cornice). In this case, the artistic descendants of Vitruvius, including Palladio and Borromini, continued to develop themes first discussed by Vitruvius, all the while adding their own transformations to their respective backward glances.

Perhaps the emphasis, by supporters and critics of Vitruvius alike, on the rules of classical architecture and the often-declared necessity for breaking them, has distracted us from a deeper issue—the dialogue between canon and character. Canon in Vitruvius, as Smith points out, comes from the Greek notion that aesthetic excellence arises from the just and proper relationships of parts and wholes on the analogy of the idealized human body. (The Greek sculptor Polycleitos composed the kanon, a text explaining the ideal proportions of his bronze figure the Doryphoros, among the best-known classical figures.) The very idea of an excellent or proper way of forming anything goes against the grain of our contemporary culture, but it is inescapable if there is to be anything more to art than the assertion of random gestures. For Vitruvius, the canon was found in the models of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian architecture developed by the Hellenistic architects he most admired. In particular, Vitruvius emphasizes thesymmetriae, the proportional relationships across scales that unite the parts and the whole in any beautiful composition. Smith and Rosenshine illustrate the results of following the Vitruviansymmetriae in their alluring renderings of temple fronts designed according to canonic prescriptions.

But Vitruvius understood—and Smith also insists—that canon alone cannot sustain the art of architecture. Buildings must respond to custom, use and the nature of the setting in which they arise. Balancing the logic of canon there must be the rhetoric of character, a term not used by Vitruvius, but inferable as an extension of his concepts of eurythmia and decor. I introduce the word character here because it took on great meaning to the French theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is being revived today. Character refers to the content of an architectural expression, such as its purpose, its response to locale and climate, its appropriation of iconographic or narrative elements, and its embodiment of emotional attributes such as solemnity or gaiety. Vitruvius anticipates these theoretical developments by endorsing eurythmic adjustments to the canonic symmetriae in order to evoke a greater appearance of beauty despite actual distortions of formal purity in response to the exigencies of a site or other pragmatic considerations. He also “relates architectural forms to character and qualities of personal temperament” by associating each of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian types with particular deities and their personal attributes. Finally, Vitruvius calls for proportionality between the degree of magnificence of a house and the social status of the occupants, another reflection of character as a suitability of form to purpose.

It is the interaction and mutual adjustment of canon and character that keep the classical tradition alive, not simply the alternating assertion of and departure from a set of fixed, immutable rules. In Aristotelian terms, the canon provides a universal standard against which particular instances are judged, but it is only through the study of particular cases that the universal standard can be discerned. Vitruvius himself arrives at the canon, just as Polycleitos did, not by receiving it as a given, but by studying closely the best models he could find and abstracting from them the patterns that constituted in his eyes the most excellent form. Only in the modern world, it seems (by which I mean the world of Cartesian and Newtonian thought), did the search for absolute certainty lead to a systematization of the canon into the kinds of rules that we post-Romantic people find so uncomfortable. As Smith points out, the concept of the order as a fixed prescription for the column and entablature was unknown to Vitruvius; it is a modern idea.

Vitruvius’ Ten Books, like other founding documents, also has its weaknesses. Perhaps our ancient author’s greatest fault is his seeming blindness to the possibilities of the Corinthian as a whole system of architecture in its own right, rather than as simply an alternative capital to use with an Ionic entablature. The full flowering of the Corinthian was to be the glory of Roman architecture for the next four centuries. Another blind spot was his disregard for the new compositional forms that even in his time were coming into broader use in Rome. Perhaps most important among these was the combination of columns and entablatures with curvilinear arcades, as in the Theater of Marcellus and its descendants, such as the Colosseum. He discusses ornaments appropriate for use in the plancier but overlooks the sculptural embellishment of such elements as metopes, acroteria or friezes (like those at the Parthenon or the Temple of Apollo at Bassae). Actual Roman buildings are generally more ornamented than Vitruvius’ descriptions would suggest, and even Smith’s and Rosenshine’s illustrations, lovely as they are, are relatively bare of ornamental embellishment.

Another missing element in Vitruvius’ treatise is the architecture of the interior. Despite lengthy discussion of temple porticoes, he is silent on the appearance of the cella within. Except for a discussion of the configuration and proportions of residential atria and mention of the Corinthian and Egyptian oecus (a type of colonnaded hall), and a discussion of the proper sun orientation of rooms based on their uses, he has little to say about how classical rooms should be designed or decorated. His discussion of his basilica at Fano includes little detail about how the interior might have looked. He condemns the contemporary style of mural painting that we now know as the third Pompeiian style, and offers a somewhat brusque defense of literalism in mural painting, but this comes in Chapter 5 of Book 7, not included in Smith’s edition. Otherwise, Vitruvius offers little guidance for the design of wall treatments and does not discuss lighting, doors and windows, stairs or furnishings of any kind.

Founding documents don’t endure because they answer all our questions, but because they point us in the right direction. The Ten Books, like any good constitution, points the way; it’s up to us to interpret and amend the text as needed. For this reason, I found the most fascinating part of the whole book to be Smith’s description of his Vitruvian House in South Bend, Indiana, designed in 1989. It is here that Smith demonstrates the imaginative inventiveness that Vitruvius celebrates, while remaining faithful to the close study of good models that alone lends auctoritas. He draws on the symmetriae of Vitruvius for the design of his Ionic diastylos in antis façade, but supplements this knowledge with lessons from Palladio and midwestern Greek Revival houses of the 1830s and 1840s. He fills in gaps in Vitruvius’ patterns for determining the entasis of his columns by consulting the archeologist Lothar Haselberger’s discovery of original diagrams uncovered at the fourth-century B.C. Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Because this house is a residence for a twenty-first-century family and not a temple, the plans reflect their needs rather than the ancient house types discussed by Vitruvius. By reacquainting us with our own founding document, and showing us how to use it and adapt it to our own world, Smith and his colleagues have given us an important resource for the continuing development and maturing of the current classical renaissance.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2004, Volume 21, Number 4