De Architectura (On Architecture) is a treatise on architecture written by the Roman architect and military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio between 30 and 15 BC.
A Model Through Times
As the only treatise on architecture to have survived from antiquity it has been regarded as the first book on architectural theory. Based on Vitruvius’ own experience, as well as on theoretical works by the famous Greek architect, the treatise covers almost every aspect of architecture, but it is limited, since it is based primarily on Greek models, from which Roman architecture was soon decisively to depart in order to serve the new needs of proclaiming a world empire.
Chapters and Structure
De Architectura is divided into 10 books dealing with city planning and architecture in general; building materials; temple construction and the use of the Greek orders; public buildings (theatres, baths); private buildings; floors and stucco decoration; hydraulics; clocks, measurements, and astronomy; civil and military engines.
The book deals not only with architecture but on the arts, natural history, and building technology as well, and it has a purely Hellenistic mark, being Vitruvius really pessimistic about contemporary architecture.
Three Principles of Good Architecture
In De Architectura Vitruvius asserted that there were three principles of good architecture:
- Firmatis (Strength) – It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
- Utilitas (Utility) – It should be useful and function well for the people using it.
- Venustatis (Beauty) – It should delight people and raise their spirits.
The “triad” of characteristics, outlined in Book III, derive partially from Latin rhetoric (through Cicero and Varro) and have guided architects for centuries, and continue to do so today. The Roman author also gave advice on the qualifications of an architect (Book I) and on types of architectural drawing.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvius
Buildings, Machines and Human Proportions
De Architectura is important for its descriptions of many different machines used for engineering structures, such as hoists, cranes, and pulleys, as well as war machines such as catapults, ballistae, and siege engines. Through the ten chapters, Vitruvius described the construction of sundials and water clocks, and the use of an aeolipile (the first steam engine) as an experiment to demonstrate the nature of atmospheric air movements (wind). In Book III, Vitruvius also studied human proportions and his canons were later encoded in a very famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (Homo Vitruvianus, “Vitruvian Man”).