The origins of architecture according to Vitruvius

Title page of a 1480 Vitruvius manuscript

When conducting research related to architectural history, it is virtually impossible to avoid discussing the mother of all architectural treatises: Vitruvius’s De Architectura libri decem. In this classical text, dating from the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus,[1] we find the root for practically all the preoccupations so characteristic of architectural theory from the Renaissance onwards. The fascination with the origins of the discipline is no exception. Ever since the manuscript was ‘discovered’ by Poggio Bracciolini in 1414, commentators and translators of the text were intrigued by the Vitruvian account of the beginnings of architecture. Or should I say: ‘accounts’?

In fact, the Vitruvian origin myth is a patchwork of contemporary philosophical and literary commonplaces concerning origins, taken over from authors such as Lucretius. As a result – and in line with Vitruvius’s own statement that ‘this work [is] not […] intended for a treatise on the origin of architecture; that origin […] is only incidentally mentioned’ [2] – De Architectura contains not just one, but several origin myths. In the first chapter of the second book, for instance: here the humble beginnings of the art of building are situated at the dawn of civilization. As a result of the accidental discovery of fire – so Vitruvius tells us – people started communicating with each other, giving rise to ‘the first assembly of mankind, to their first deliberations, and to their union in a state of society’. Soon these rapidly civilizing humans started constructing various forms of shelter, making use of the materials they found on the spot:

“In the assembly […] they were led to the consideration of sheltering themselves from the seasons, some by making arbours with the boughs of trees, some by excavating caves in the mountains, and others in imitation of the nests and habitations of swallows, by making dwellings of twigs interwoven and covered with mud or clay. From observation of and improvement on each others’ expedients for sheltering themselves, they soon began to provide a better species of huts. It was thus that men, who are by nature of an imitative and docile turn of mind, and proud of their own inventions, gaining daily experience also by what had been previously executed, vied with each other in their progress towards perfection in building.” [3]

Still, Vitruvius treated these first huts as historical curiosities with no relevance for the practice of his own days, and they did not yet deserve the name ‘architecture’. As civilization advanced, so did the art of building; and it was only when builders started ‘attending to the comforts and luxuries of civilized society’, that ‘it was carried to the highest degree of perfection’.[4] In his fourth book, Vitruvius placed the beginning of actual Architecture – with a capital A; that is, of the classical orders – at the point where human proportions were adopted as the organizing principle of the different types of columns:

“In this country [Ionia] … they began to erect temples, the first of which was dedicated to Apollo Panionios, and resembled that which they had seen in Achaia … As they wished to erect this temple with columns, and had not a knowledge of the proper proportions of them, nor knew the way in which they ought to be constructed, so as at the same time to be both fit to carry the superincumbent weight, and to produce a beautiful effect, they measured a man’s foot, and finding its length the sixth part of his height, they gave the column a similar proportion, that is, they made its height, including the capital, six times the thickness of the shaft, measured at the base. Thus the Doric order obtained its proportion, its strength, and its beauty, from the human figure.” [5]

The passage continues with a discussion of the Ionic and Corinthian orders, modelled on female proportions, and of the incident that inspired Callimachus to come up with the forms of the Corinthian capital.[6]

The following chapter discusses the origin of ornament: columns are modelled on human proportions, but entablatures and pediments derive their ornament from the imitation of timber, carpentry-based prototypes. After a long and technical explanation of why certain forms were developed, Vitruvius concludes: “Thus, each piece has its proper place, origin, and purpose.” Because of this, the forms were kept in use even when builders switched to more durable materials. “Following the arrangement of timber framing, workmen have imitated, both in stone and marble, the disposition of timbers in sacred edifices, thinking such a distribution ought to be attended to”.[7] This imitation was subject to strict reasoning, as Vitruvius illustrates in a passage on mutuli and dentils, two decorative elements that the ancients did not use. “Their opinion […] was, that a distribution would not be correct in a copy which could not exist in the prototype. For the perfection of all works depends on their fitness to answer the end proposed, and on principles resulting from a consideration of Nature herself, and they approved those only which, by strict analogy, were borne out by the appearance of utility.” [8]

Anybody even remotely acquainted with architectural theory since the Renaissance will have recognized several familiar themes in Vitruvius’s conjectures. Echoes of these origin myths keep popping up as late as the 20th century, informing and justifying both architectural theory and practice in a variety of ways. The Renaissance, for instance, saw a series of Vitruvius editions visualizing the Vitruvian account (see the gallery here), while the seventeenth century offers some fascinating examples of how the Vitruvian origin myths served as a visual metaphor (see for instance the columnar histories of Kepler and Caramuel). I am planning to introduce you to some more of these echoes in the near future, so if you are interested: keep an eye on our blog!


[1] While researching this blog post, I stumbled upon a site advancing the idea that De Architectura might have been written by none other than Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, general, son-in-law and close friend of the emperor Augustus and responsible for various major building projects. The main argument for this charming notion is the fact that the Latin spelling of the author’s name, VITRVVII, could be read as an acronym meaning ‘the three-times master’. One wonders why 18th century Freemasons never came up with this wonderful piece of evidence: it fits their interests perfectly! See http://www.arqweb.com/vitrum/index.asp; an English translation is available on http://vitruviidearchitectura.blogspot.nl/

[2] Last sentence of Book II, Chapter I: ‘Of the origin of building’, p. 41. All English translations follow those by Joseph Gwilt, in his 1826 edition of Vitruvius. Full text is available on Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=QgngAAAAMAAJ

[3] Book II, Chapter I. Gwilt p. 38

[4] Book II, Chapter I. Gwilt p. 40

[5] Book IV, Chapter I: ‘Of the origins of the three sorts of columns, and of the Corinthian capital’. Gwilt p. 100

[6] Book IV, Chapter I. Gwilt p. 101

[7] Book IV, Chapter II: ‘Of the ornaments of columns’. Gwilt p. 104

[8] Book IV, Chapter II. Gwilt p. 106

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Origin myths in Renaissance Vitruvius editions: a gallery « ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

  2. Pingback: The origins of architecture according to the Bible | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

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