De Architectura / On Architecture

De Architectura (On Architecture) is a treatise on architecture written between 30 and 15 BC by the Roman architect and military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.

A Model Through Times.

As the only treatise on architecture to have survived from antiquity, De Architectura has been regarded as the first book on architectural theory. It’s based on Vitruvius’ own experience, as well as on theoretical works by the famous Greek architects.  The treatise covers almost every aspect of architecture, but has its limits, since it tells primarily about Greek models, from which Roman architecture was soon about to depart in order to serve the new needs of proclaiming a new empire.

Frontispiece of Vitruvius tenth book of the De Architecture.
Frontispiece of Vitruvius tenth book of the De Architecture.

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De Architectura is devoted to urban planning and architecture in general. The treatise is divided into 10 books: building materials; the building of temples and the use of Greek orders; public buildings (theaters, baths); private buildings; floors and moldings; hydraulics; clocks, measurements and astronomy; civil and military engines.

The book deals not only with architecture, but also with art, natural history and building technology, and it is purely Hellenistic in nature, as Vitruvius did not accept modern architecture.

Vitruviu's illustrated its theories and rules with technical drawings and examples.
Vitruvius illustrated its theories and rules with technical drawings and examples.

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De Architectura is divided into 10 books:

  1. Town planning, architecture or civil engineering in general, and the qualifications required of an architect or civil engineer.
  2. Building materials: bricks, sand, lime, pozzolan concrete; kinds of stone and types of stone masonry; timber.
  3. Temples and the orders of architecture.
  4. Continuation of book III.
  5. Civil buildings.
  6. Domestic buildings.
  7. Interior decorations and wall paintings.
  8. Water supplies and aqueducts.
  9. Sciences influencing architecture – geometry, measurement, astronomy, sundial.
  10. Use and construction of machines- Roman siege engines, water mills, drainage machines, Roman technology, hoisting, pneumatics.
Three Principles of Good Architecture

There are three principles of good architecture proclaimed by Vitruvius in De Architectura:

  • 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 described his research on the architect’s qualifications (Book I), and on the types of architectural drawing.

A depiction of Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus.
A depiction of Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus.

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Buildings, Machines and Human Proportions.

De Architectura is important for its descriptions of the various devices used for engineering structures, such as hoists, cranes and pulleys, as well as military vehicles such as catapults, ballistas and siege machines. In ten chapters, Vitruvius described the construction of a sundial and water clock and the use of an aeolipil (the first steam engine) as an experiment to demonstrate the nature of the movement of atmospheric air (wind). In Book III Vitruvius also studied the proportions of man, and his canons were later coded into a very famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (Homo Vitruvianus, “Vitruvian Man”).

Diagram Of Man'S Proportions From Vitruvius Translation, 1558.
Diagram of Man’s Proportions from Vitruvius Translation, 1558.

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