De Architectura / On Architecture

De Architectura, or On Architecture, is a treatise written between 30 and 15 BC by the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.

A Model Through Time

As it is the only treatise on architecture left from its time, De Architectura is the first book on architectural theory. It’s based on Vitruvius’ own experience, as well as on theoretical works by famous Greek architects.  Moreover, the work covers almost every aspect of architecture. However, it has limits since it tells primarily about Greek models, from which Roman architecture soon abandoned to serve the needs of their new empire.

A photo of De Architectura, which is an ancient book with a dual-toned cover.
Vitruvius(De Architectura )-1557

Image source: by Creator:Fra Giovanni Giocondo da VeronaCreator:Fra Giovanni Giocondo da VeronaCreator:Giovanni TaccuinoCreator:Marcus Pollio Vitruvius

A photo of De Architectura opened up, with writing on the left and a drawing of columns on the right.
A 1521 Italian language edition of De Architectura, translated and illustrated by Cesare Cesariano

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De Architectura describes 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.

However, the book also discusses art, natural history, and building technology. Additionally, it is purely Hellenistic in nature, as Vitruvius did not accept modern architecture.

Vitruvius designed and supervised the construction of the basilica in Fano. In the picture there are the designs for the basilica realized by Vitruvius.
Vitruvius’ Designs for the Basilica in Fano

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Vitruvius 'De architectura': Perspective Diagram.
Vitruvius ‘De architectura’: Perspective Diagram

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The principles of Good Architecture

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

  • Firmatis (Strength) – Should stand sturdy and in good condition
  • Utilitas (Utility) – Should be useful and functional for the people who use it
  • Venustatis (Beauty) – Should delight and lift people’s spirits

The triad of characteristics, outlined in Book III, derives partially from Latin rhetoric (through Cicero and Varro) and has guided architects for centuries. The Roman author also described his research on the architect’s qualifications (Book I), and the types of architectural drawing.

A page from De Architectura with a drawing of a column-made building on the right.
Recto- Temple Types- Amphiprostyle (Vitruvius, Book 3, Chapter 2)

Image source: by Creator:Sangallo familyCreator:Marcus Pollio Vitruvius

Buildings, Architecture and Human Proportions

De Architectura describes the various devices used for engineering structures, such as hoists, cranes, and pulleys, as well as military vehicles such as catapults, ballistae and siege machines. Inthe ten chapters, Vitruvius discusses the construction of a sundial and water clock and the use of an aeolipile (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 principles are present in the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (Homo Vitruvianus, “Vitruvian Man”).

"Vitruvian Man", illustration in the edition of De architectura by Vitruvius; illustrated edition by Cesare Cesariano (1521).
“Vitruvian Man”, illustration in the edition of De architectura by Vitruvius; illustrated edition by Cesare Cesariano (1521)

Image source: by Ralph Buckley

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