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Understanding Vitruvius

By Edited Apr 26, 2016 1 2


Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, better known simply as Vitruvius, was a Roman military engineer, architect and author who lived during the first century BC. He is best known for his multi-volume treatise on architecture entitled De Architectura, also known as The Ten Books on Architecture, which he dedicated to Emperor Augustus. His work was rediscovered in 1414 and made wildly known around 1450 by Leon Battista Alberti's seminal treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria. De Architectura is not the product of original or creative thinking on Vitruvius' part, but rather a codification of the architectural knowledge and beliefs of his time. Nonetheless this work is vitally important as it is the only major book that survived from classical antiquity and therefore had an immense influence on the development of the Western world as a whole. The ideas of De Architectura can be easily understood if broken down into four categories: an architect's education, the role of fire, the importance of shelters, and the principle of symmetry.

For an architect Vitruvius prescribes a lengthy and very diverse program of education based on the two principles of theory and practice. An architect must be taught drawing as well as a basis of history, philosophy, music, medicine, law, and astronomy. Though studying all of these fields may seem like an impossible task, because of the commonalities and relationships in their theory Vitruvius maintains that it is possible to understand all of them. With knowledge in all of these fields the architect will not only be able to construct buildings skillfully but, for example, will also know how to assure the healthiness of his dwellings due to his knowledge of medicine. Though the architect will never have as much theoretical knowledge or practical skill in any of these fields as a specialist who has devoted himself entirely to a single one, his training grants him alone mastery of the practice of construction. Such an expansive knowledge will also allow the architect to infuse his buildings with the so called Vitruvian Triad, i.e. solidity, usefulness, and beauty (firmitas, utilitas, venustas) [1].

De Architectura

In “De Architectura” Vitruvius states that the discovery of fire allowed human beings to begin to build shelters. Vitruvius explains that fire’s warmth was responsible for the first primitive societies since it brought more and more people together around its heat and light. Once many human beings were together in one place they realized that they had been created superior to the Earth’s other creatures. They alone possessed a powerful intellect and the ability to completely reshape the world around them as they pleased; clearly they had been destined for higher things. These grouped people thus started the practice of building shelters. Here Vitruvius begins to show the greater philosophy behind architecture; humanity builds because humans are gifted among the animals. Humans can walk upright and see the stars, i.e. are not confined to the activities of the lowly earth but rather can think creatively and rationally [1]

Vitruvius then states the practice of building shelters played a seminal role in the development of human civilization. Vitruvius begins by explaining that as humans came together around fires, forming primitive societies, they started to construct shelters. Though these shelters were originally very simple, as the builders became increasingly skilled by both solving the deficiencies of their constructions and adopting the best elements of other designs their shelters became more and more advanced. Eventually some builders attained a very high degree of skill and their craft became a specialized profession. Vitruvius concludes that thereby “the human race […] advanced from the construction of buildings to the other arts and sciences, and so passed from a […] barbarous mode of life to civilization.” [1]. For Vitruvius, humanity’s construction of shelters is the phenomenon which allowed the emergence of civilization itself. By fulfilling humanity fundamental animal need for protection, shelters allowed the development and fulfillment of higher, more mind oriented needs. [1].

Vitruvian Man

Lastly and most importantly, Vitruvius requires symmetry in the design of a good temple. This concept is inspired by Vitruvius’s description of the perfect proportionality of the ideal human body. This idea of human proportionality would later be revisited by Leonardo da Vinci in his very famous drawing “Vitruvian Man”. Leonardo did not make the mistake of copying blindly, instead he used the framework but corrected the imperfections he saw in De Architectura's description of human proportionality; for example, he offset the circle and the square in his drawing instead of making them concentric. Vitruvius believed that “since nature has designed the human body so that its members are duly proportioned to the frame as a whole […] in perfect buildings the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme” [1]. Buildings such as temples, which require perfection intrinsically, must therefore be symmetrical so as to follow the proportionality blueprint of the human body, which was believed to have been handed down by the gods [1].

In conclusion, a comprehension of the four central categories of an architect's education, the role of fire, the importance of shelters, and the principle of symmetry allow for a more or less complete understanding of the vital ideas of De Architectura. Though Vitruvius' work also contains a vast quantity of other information, most of it concerns Roman building techniques that rapidly became obsolete. The rediscovery, in the Renaissance, of the more philosophical ideas contained in this sole surviving major work on architecture from classical antiquity would dramatically shape the development of architecture in Europe. De Architectura would influence important Early Renaissance artists, thinkers, and architects such as Alberti, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo, clearly leaving its mark on the ideology and work of the time and forever onwards. Understanding Vitruvius is therefore an fundamental part of a greater comprehension of the cultural development of the Western world.


Vitruvii De Architectura Libri Decem (Latin Edition)
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Jun 11, 2014 1:48am
Good read.
Nov 8, 2014 2:55pm
Thanks Brent
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  1. Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus The Ten Books on Architecture. New York: Dover, 1960.

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