Origin myths in Renaissance Vitruvius editions: a gallery

In my blog post of 9 November 2012 I promised to introduce you to the afterlife of Vitruvius’s origin myths: in this post I will therefore take you on a guided tour of some 15th and 16th century drawings and prints visualizing the origin of architecture. Most of them are found in commentaries and translations of Vitruvius, but we should start with Antonio Averlino, better known as Filarete, who devoted some thought to origins in his Trattato d’architetura (written ca. 1465, the manuscript is now kept in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Good Christian that he was, he believed that the first builder must have been Adam, after having been chased out of paradise. He also included two illustrations of figures around rudimentary huts (figs 1, 2).

Fig. 1: Filarete (c. 1465)

Fig. 2: Filarete (c. 1465)

Filarete also introduced the novel idea that the freestanding column must have been modelled on trees (p. 29 of the digitized manuscript), and supposed arches to be of wooden origin (p. 32). This notion was later attributed to Vitruvius by generations of commentators, although Vitruvius never explicitly made the connection.[1] In his Premier tome de l’architecture (1567), Philibert de l’Orme included a plate with a tree-column, and his ‘French order’ sported tree-like knots on the column shaft (figs. 3, 4). Tree-columns were also shown in plate 66 (fig. 5) of Wendel Dietterlin’s Architectura (1598), and in Gabriel Krammer’s discussion of the Tuscan Order (1600). Sebastiano Serlio also included some entirely wooden gates in plates IX and XI of the Libro estraordinario (1551).

Fig. 3: De l’Orme

Fig. 4: De l’Orme

Fig. 5: Dietterlin (1598)

Fig 6: Fra Giocondo’s 1511 Vitruvius-edition

In the various 16th century commentaries and translations of Vitruvius, the origin myth of the second book was often illustrated. In Fra Giocondo’s 1511 edition a woodcut of the discovery of fire was included (fig. 6), sporting some quite elaborately dressed figures and a fully fledged settlement in the background. The interpretation of Cesare Cesariano (1521) , a combination of two plates depicting the discovery of fire and the construction of the first huts separately (figs 7, 8), proved more persistent. The second plate showed the gradual development of shelter in primitive times as described in Book II, starting with a very rudimentary triangular structure in the background, and proceeding to a more advanced type of hut in the foreground. This composition returned in the editions of Giambattista Caporali (1536: figs 9, 10), Machaeropaeus and Rivius (1543: figs 11, 12), Martin and Goujon (1547: figs 13, 14), and in Rivius’s splendidly illustrated Vitruvius Teutsch (1548: figs 15, 16).

Fig. 7: Cesariano (1521)

Fig. 8: Cesariano (1521)

Fig. 9: Caporali (1536)

Fig. 10: Caporali (1536)

Fig. 11: Machaeropaeus/Rivius (1543)

Fig. 12: Machaeropaeus/Rivius (1543)

Fig. 13: Martin/Goujon (1547)

Fig. 14: Martin/Goujon (1547)

Fig. 15: Vitruvius Teutsch (1548)

Fig. 16: Vitruvius Teutsch (1548)

Towards the end of the century another approach was introduced by Giovanni Rusconi, whose profusely illustrated Della architettura (1590) showed the gradual evolution of dwellings in separate plates (fig. 17).Rusconi was also the first to depict Vitruvius’s description of actual primitive huts known in his own time: those of the Colchians and the Phrygians (figs 18, 19). Vitruvius refers to these forms of habitation to sustain his conjectures on primitive building, and finds additional proof in Marseille, Athens, and even in Rome itself:

“We are certain that buildings were thus originally constructed, from the present practice of uncivilized nations, whose buildings are of spars and thatch, as may be seen in Gaul, in Spain, in Portugal, and in Aquitaine [Description of Colchian and Phrygian dwellings follows]. Each nation, in short, has its own way of building, according to the materials afforded and the habits of the country. At Marseilles the roofs are covered with straw and earth mixed up together, instead of tiles. At Athens, even to this day, the Areopagus, an example of remote antiquity, is covered with clay; and the house of Romulus in the capitol, by its thatched roof, clearly manifests the simple manners and habits of the ancients. It is from such specimens we are enabled to form just ideas of the early method of building.”[2]

Fig. 17: Rusconi

Fig. 18: Rusconi (1590)

Fig. 19: Rusconi (1590)

The huts of the Colchians and the Phrygians returned in Plate V (fig. 20) of one of the best known Vitruvius editions ever published: Claude Perrault’s Dix livres de Vitruve (1673).  They again re-appeared in 1826, in a new edition of Giovanni Poleni’s Exercitationes Vitruvianae Primae (originally published 1739-1741), where five ‘Vitruvian’ huts were combined in a single plate (fig. 21). Meanwhile, Vitruvius’s interest in the dwellings of the ‘savages’ of his days found an equivalent in the often richly illustrated works on the customs of New World natives: but I will leave that topic for a future blog post. In the meantime: a happy 2013 to all our readers!

Fig. 20: Perrault (1673)

Fig. 21: Poleni (1826)

[1] Wolfgang Herrmann, Laugier and Eighteenth Century French Theory (London: A. Zwemmer, 1962). Chapter III

[2] Book II, Chapter I: ‘Of the origin of building’. Gwilt p. 41. http://books.google.com/books?id=QgngAAAAMAAJ


  1. Pingback: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura: an Epicurean interpretation of origins | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

  2. Pingback: The columnar histories of Kepler and Caramuel | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

  3. Pingback: The origins of architecture according to Vitruvius | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

  4. Pingback: https://originsofarchitecture.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/origin-myths-in-renaissance-vitruvius-editions/ | History of Contemporary Architecture

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