European Architecture Series

Biography of Roman Architect, Author of De Architectura.

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Vitruvian Man (c. 1492)
Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice.
Leonardo da Vinci's illustration of
the human body derived from text
concerning geometry and human
proportions in Vitruvius's book,
De Architectura (1486).

Vitruvius (c.78-10 BCE)
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio


Who was Vitruvius?
De Architectura ("On Architecture")
Other Architects Influenced by Classical Architecture

For a short guide to terms
see: Architecture Glossary.

Who was Vitruvius?

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, better known simply as Vitruvius, was a Roman architect and engineer of the 1st century BCE. Due to the classical foundation of Renaissance art in general, and Renaissance architecture in particular, Vitruvius has become one of the most famous architects - not for anything he designed, but for his erudite multi-volume treatise De Architectura ("On Architecture"), written around 27 BCE and republished during the Early Renaissance in 1486. Apart from what little we can glean from this work, we know little about his life and career, or the architecture for which he may have been responsible. Even so, because his unique treatise covers all aspects of classical building design, it has become a bible of sorts for many students of classical antiquity, and he himself is regarded as one of the principal contemporary authorities on Greek architecture and (to a lesser extent) Roman architecture, about which (ironically) he was more pessimistic. For a comparison with a leading architect from Ancient Egypt, see: Imhotep (active c.2650 BCE).


Few details are known about Vitruvius's life. He is referred to in print by the natural scientist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) and by the soldier and aqueduct engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus (35-103 CE), although neither his first name Marcus nor his cognomen Pollio are authenticated. His books appear to be dedicated to Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, which - since he wrote them when he was an old man - presumably means that he was most active during the middle of the first century BCE. Almost certainly born a Roman citizen, he mentions in his books that he served as an artilleryman - most probably as the officer in charge of a number of artillery engineers, specializing in siege machinery and earthworks, in Gaul, Spain and North Africa. (Note: in both classical and medieval eras, military engineering, architecture and building construction were closely linked.)

After military service, Vitruvius seems to have established himself as a professional architect, in which capacity he would have been involved in various types of surveying, engineering, and urban planning, as well as architectural design. During this time he is known to have designed only one building (now destroyed) - a basilica in the town of Fano, Italy. In about 27 BCE he began writing his magnum opus De Architectura, and in his final years he was given a generous pension by Augustus, although whether this was for his treatise, or for military services rendered, is unclear. Despite being included by the Renaissance mathematician Gerolamo Cardano (1501-76) in his list of the 12 most exceptional scientists, the fact that there is no record of when or where Vitruvius died, suggests that he was less of a celebrity in his own life that his subsequent fame suggests.



De Architectura ("On Architecture")

Reportedly rediscovered in 1414 by the Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) (though not published until 1486), this multi-volume treatise contains the basis of much of what we know about Roman technology, and is the only major surviving work on architecture from classical antiquity. Along with contemporary books like De Re Aedificatoria (1485), by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), it is said to have influenced a huge number of Renaissance architects, including Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Donato Bramante (1444-1514), Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) - architectural adviser to the Fontainebleau School in France - Michelangelo (1475-1564), Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), Giulio Romano (1499-1546), Vignola (1507-1573), and Andrea Palladio (1508-80).

Furthermore, during the classicist phase of 17th century Baroque architecture and later during the 18th century era of Neoclassical architecture - inspired by the excavations at Pompeii and the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) - Vitruvius's treatise was the leading authority on ancient classical design.

De Architectura is divided into ten books on a wide variety of architectural subjects including structural design and city planning; the use of the Greek orders of architecture (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian), notably in temple construction; building materials; public baths and theatres; domestic houses; floors and stucco decoration; clocks and astronomy; and hydraulics. It covers most aspects of architectural science, although it focuses largely on Greek models. This focus on Hellenistic design was because Vitruvius had a low opinion of contemporary Roman architecture - a somewhat ironic position, since Roman architects were soon to make a radical shift from Greek ideas and construct some of the greatest public buildings, bridges, roads and other monumental structures which the world has ever seen. See also: Roman Art.

De Architectura includes Vitruvius's famous assertion that a well designed structure must possess the three attributes (the Vitruvian Triad) of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – meaning, it must be solid, useful, and beautiful. In addition, he explains that Greek architecture is based upon mathematical concepts like the circle and the square, which form the fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmos, and which are aligned with the measurements of the human body. (See also: Greek Art.) This concept was later illustrated by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) in his iconic drawing of Vitruvian Man (c.1492, Venice Academy Gallery).

Even so, Vitruvius is regarded less as an original thinker and more as a codifier of existing theory and practice. Moreover, his low opinion of Roman architecture is understandable, given the small number of exceptional buildings. The only noteworthy structures erected during Vitruvius's time (c.100-25 BCE) were the Temple of Hercules, Cori (80 BCE); the Apartment Blocks (Insulae) at Ostia (79 BCE); and the beginnings of The Forum in Rome. Neither the Maison Carree at Nimes (19 BCE), nor the Pont Du Gard Aqueduct, Nimes (19 BCE) were in existence when De Architectura was written.

Other Architects Influenced by Classical Architecture

Neoclassical artists who imitated Roman architectural designs included the following:

Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808)
Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841)

Jacques Germain Soufflot (1713-80)
Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806)
Jean Chalgrin (1739-1811)

John Nash (1752-1835)
Sir John Soane (1753-1837)
Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867)

United States
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
William Thornton (1759-1828)
Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)

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