Vitruvius On Architecture – The Art of Enclosing Space

Classical Columns

Hyde Park Barracks, Macquarie Street Sydney by colonial architect Francis Greenway (1777-1837)

Architecture is a product of society and about its search for perfect spaces to work, live, languish and play in. It’s also about the art of enclosing space, something that the first century Roman architect and engineer Marcus Pollio Vitruvius certainly knew about.

‘… man’s body is a model of proportion because with arms or legs extended it fits into those ‘perfect’ geometrical forms, the square and the circle‘*

The Hyde Park Barracks in Macquarie Street at Sydney is a place of outstanding cultural significance.

Today it remains visual evidence of colonial Governor Macquarie’s architectural vision for Sydney. Designed by Francis Greenway (1777-1837) Australia’s first government architect, he suffered bankruptcy in England and was convicted as a forger. His death sentence was committed to transportation for fourteen years to the coast of New South Wales. He arrived at Sydney in February 1814 carrying a letter of recommendation to Governor Lachlan Macquarie (1762 – 1824) from the former colonial Governor Arthur Phillip (1738-1814), who had founded the British colony.

It seems despite all of his trials and tribulations, Greenway still had some influence.

In July Macquarie requested Greenway copy the designs of a courthouse. He objected to the idea of copying anything and offered his services as the Governor’s architect.

‘If your excellency will grant me the power as an Architect to design and conduct any public work I will exert myself in every way to do your Excellency credit as a promoter and encourager of the most useful Art to society, which adds to the comforts of the Colony as well as the dignity and interest of the Mother country’.

In 1819 Governor Macquarie ordered Greenway to design secure lodgings to control the convicts roaming around Sydney after their day’s work.

Roman Basilica at Trier

The design for relieving arches on the facade is a device often used in the domestic and public building sphere by Greenway’s contemporary architect John Soane (1753-1837) at London.

Greenway worked in the office of the Prince of Wales architect, John Nash at the turn of the century in London, where he would have been well aware of John Soane’s work.

Soane re-interpreted many elements from the treatise of sixteenth century Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio, who in his turn had thoroughly researched and re-interpreted Vitruvius. It was a case of three degrees of separation.

The Aula Palatina (Palatinate hall) or Konstantin Basilika built in Trier in 310 AD is all but empty and austere. Originally it was embellished with colorful marble inlay, golden mosaics, and statues and its occupants were made comfortable by a hypocaust, or hollow-floor heating system.

Aula Palatina a Roman Baslica which is now a Protestant Church

The splendor and technology were all destroyed by the Germanic Franks in the fifth century.

On the exterior its ranks of arch-headed windows one above the other are part of an architectural formula for basilicas originally designed and built for dispensing justice and transacting business.

The largest surviving single-room structure from Roman times. 220 feet long, 90 feet wide and 98 feet high with a vast semi-circular apse its depth is magnified by an optical illusion – both the windows of the apse as well as the niches underneath become progressively smaller towards the middle enhancing an impression of length.

From antiquity until the twentieth century a lifeline of continuity connected architectural styles and their design, which reflects the beliefs and values of each age in which they were conceived. Vitruvius lived in the years straddling the old republican Roman world and the new Empirical era.

Maison Carrée at Nimes, one of the best preserved intact Roman Temples in the world today

We don’t know much about him personally or his life really, but we do know he was born somewhere around 80–70 BCE and died after c. 15 BCE. He was active when that group of senators, led by Marcus Brutus, murdered Julius Caeser on the Ides of March (15th March) 44 BC.

Roman Emperor Augustus in his role as Priest his Toga swathed over his head in reverence to the Gods

Roman Emperor Augustus in his role as Priest his Toga swathed over his head in reverence to the Gods

This was a pivotal event in Roman history, starting a series of civil wars ultimately ending only when Caesar’s adopted son and heir Octavius defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium and became Caesar Augustus.

This heralded the start of a new Rome, one Augustus boasted in his funerary inscription the Res Gestae Divi Augustus – that he had turned from brick to marble.

There are two concepts, which were valid for Roman architecture from the late Republican period; that of auctoritas, or inner weight and ‘potestas’ the powerful and authoritative.

A building with auctoritas had dignity, validity and authority.

Vitruvius dedicated the treatise he wrote on architecture to Emperor Augustus, presenting it to him in 25 BCE in the form of ten scrolls.

The use of marble, especially in buildings like temples led to designs in the Augustan age that were very different from those of a previous age.

The House of Livia at Rome

The House of Livia (Augustus’ wife) at Rome

The bricks and mortar of Roman Republican architecture with its arcades, arches and vaults are not as defined or as clear and precise as those built out of marble and stone.

Augustan architecture was characterized by its austere combination of column and architrave, prop and load.

Successful great public works were, for Emperor Augustus, as important as they have been to world governments since and we know about their form and style from Vitruvius.

His Ten Books in Architecture still stands as one of the most important design treatises ever written. Indeed much of today’s architectural terms derive from it.

The names of the different parts of ancient buildings would be entirely unknown but for his surviving text.

He incorporated terms from Greek architecture and translated them into Latin. The work contained Vitruvius’s rules and ideals garnered from the knowledge and expertise that he had gathered throughout his working life.

This included theory and practice, which as we find out in life are often poles apart.

He pointed out how ‘lively mental energy’ was required to unite the two.

He wrote

‘architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance…

… however, those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them’

Michelangelo's Vitruvian Man

Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man

Vitruvius wrote his treatise because as he reveals in its text that he despaired with the lack of professionalism of his contemporary colleagues.

He wanted to establish a standard for the practice of architecture and for the education of an architect. He also wanted to enlighten and help his readers understand the passion, joy, and beauty of one of the world’s most fascinating ages of architecture.

He confirmed this by saying ‘that one who professes himself an architect should be …both naturally gifted and amenable to instruction… Let him be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens’.

High standards indeed.

Vitruvius was a champion of standards, of strength, function and beauty.

He believed in harmonious relationships between the parts of a building and explored many different ratios to achieve the pleasing classical proportions that reflected the society in which he lived.

Vitruvius-ArchitecturraHe also believed the proportions of the human body , as they related to a building, as well as the daily direction of the sun and winds should be taken into account when designing any structure to ensure the general health and wellbeing of its occupants, both physically and psychologically.

Like so many other documents from Roman times his treatise was looted, lost or hidden when Rome’s citizens fled to the safety of the hills leaving the once glorious city to fall into ruinous decay.

This followed the sacking of Rome by Alaric, the Visigoth and his tribe in the year 410.

For centuries monks in the scriptoriums of monasteries secluded in hidden remote valleys, or perched high on perilous cliff tops, continually transcribed knowledge from antiquity so that it would not be lost.

They learned to illustrate, or illuminate them with beautiful images and fonts making them even more exciting. The church knew that knowledge was power and because the world was in chaos, violent and constantly changeable they wanted to keep knowledge safe so it would not be misused.

Staircase at the Vatican by Donato Bramante (1444-1514)

By the fifteenth century, nearly a thousand years later peace was opening up the countryside once more and access to monastery libraries was granted in 1414 to Roman historian Poggio Bracciolini by Pope Gregory XII (1406-15).

Poggio had been travelling with the Pope when he discovered a manuscript describing ancient education methods, which were a revelation to people of his own age.

Under a papal decree to find more such documents, later the same year he re-discovered the one and only copy of the Vitruvius manuscript that we have.

This document, found at St Gaul, discussed all types of Greek and Roman building, civic and domestic, architecture, town planning, water supplies, civil engineering, geometry and astronomy, including methods of decoration in stucco and fresco.

Once again Vitruvius voice spoke across fourteen centuries when he declared ‘without symmetry and proportion no temple can have a regular plan; that is, it must have an exact proportion worked out after the fashion of the limbs of the finely shaped human body’.

Sculpture-at-Rome-BESTProportion, whether in the human body or in a sacred building came to be considered a distinctive mark of beauty. It was also a reflection of God’s cosmic order’ during the Renaissance, or rebirth of humanism.

Scholars discovered the ancient Roman achievement was not a sudden creation, but owed a heavy debt to ancient Greece and Athenian democracy.

From then on the classical ideal became a subject of intense pursuit and Vitruvius’ manuscript became known to contemporary architects from an edition published in 1486.

Vitruvius’s treatise contained knowledge that in so many ways must have seemed overwhelming to those able to afford early copies. Over the centuries after it was first published it lapsed into obscurity again.

Then in the sixteenth century it was studied and re-interpreted by sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). From that time forward once again it began reinvigorating and inspiring architectural achievement.

Villa Capra, ‘La Rotunda’ by Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto, Italy

Palladio successfully brought Vitruvius back to life and prominence by refining the use of his principles. He championed the practical application of his methods in his own great body of architectural public and personal works.

With Vitruvius’s help Palladio created buildings of great beauty with elegant proportions, crisp lines, and integrated geometries and they became the hallmarks of his vision.

The treatise of Vitruvius was an exceptional accomplishment: a study relevant to his day and age.

It is a rich legacy from the architectural culture of antiquity.

Just as the recipe for concrete was in itself an incredible invention for his world, so would knowledge of it become a revelation for the people in the world of the fifteenth century, one that would over the next few centuries inspire an awe inspiring revolution in architectural style.

In his Ten Books of Architecture Vitruvius observed that just as a ‘man’s body was considered sacred so then was architecture when related to it.

Today our challenge and task is to establish how his enduring gift to the evolution of design in architecture and style can be conveyed into the future.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

*Marcus Pollio Vitruvius (c80-15BCE)

Recommended Reading
Ten Books in Architecture by Marcus Pollio Vitruvius – Free Online – Project Gutenberg
Vitruvius on Architecture by Thomas Gordon Smith, The Monacelli Press
Andrea Palladio: The Architect in his Time by Bruce Boucher, Abbeville Press

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