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Authors born between 200 BCE and 200 CE

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Connections in Architecture

The Education of an Architect

On Budget Overruns




Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (active around 25 BCE) wrote ten books on architecture. Other that what can be deduced from these books, very little is known of his life. He lived at some time between the death of Julius Caesar and the battle of Actium, probably in the reign of Augustus. The dedication of his books  indicates that Augustus was the patron of Vitruvius, so that the books were probably presented in about 25 BCE. From the text one can gather that Vitruvius was a creative person with wide-ranging interests. He clearly took pride in architecture as serving the needs of man and as providing an important expression of human endeavor.  

Vitruvius aims to demonstrate the excellence of the science that he possesses. He notes that as in other arts, an architect must constantly keep in view the intention of the work and the material used to express that intention. He must also be versed in history, law, moral philosophy and physics. Vitruvius presents architecture as a thoroughly humanistic art, but warns that talent is not enough for success in architecture: favor and ambition play their part; and  money, good connections, and eloquence are essential.

The short extracts here are taken from Books I and II to show the general ideas on architecture in Roman times without getting into the details of construction practices. Architecture is one of the fine arts and as such is sensitive to man and his position in nature.


Connections in Architecture

  1     In the first book, Emperor, I laid before you an explanation of the art, its requisites, and the learning an architect should possess, and I added the reasons why he should possess them. I also divided it into different branches and defined them. Then, because most important and most necessary, I have explained the proper method of setting out the walls of a city, and obtaining a healthy site for it, and have exhibited in diagrams the winds, and quarters whence they blow. I have shown the best methods of laying out the streets and lanes, and thus completed the first book. In the second book I have analyzed the nature and qualities of the materials used in building, and adverted to the purposes to which they are best adapted..

  2     No matter how an artist may promise to exert his talents, if he have not either plenty of money, or good connections from his situation in life; or if he be not gifted with a good address or considerable eloquence, his study and application will go but little way to persuade persons that he is a competent artist.

       We find a corroboration of this by reference to the ancient Sculptors and Painters, among whom, those who acquired the greatest fame and applause are still living in the remembrance of posterity; such, for instance, as Myron, Polycletus, Phidias, Lysippus, and others who obtained celebrity in their art. This arose from their being employed by great cities, by kings, or by wealthy citizens. Now others, who, not less studious of their art, nor less endued with great genius and skill, did not enjoy equal fame, because employed by persons of lower rank and of slenderer means, and not from their lack of skill, seem to have been deserted by fortune; such were Hellas the Athenian, Chion of Corinth, Myagrus the Phocaean, Pharax the Ephesian, Bedas of Byzantium, and many more; among the Painters, Aristomenes of Thasos, Polycles of Adramyttium, Nicomachus and others, who were wanting neither in industry, study of their art, nor talent. But their poverty, the way­wardness of fortune, or their ill success in competition with others, prevented their advancement.

       Nor can we wonder that from the ignorance of the public in respect of art many skilful artists remain in obscurity; but it is scandalous that friendship and connections should lead men, for their sake, to give partial and untrue opinions. If, as Socrates would have had it, every one's feelings, opinions, and information in science could be open to view, neither favor nor ambition would prevail, but those, who by study and great learning acquire the greatest knowledge, would be eagerly sought after.

       Matters are not however in this state as they ought to be, the ignorant rather than the learned being successful, and as it is never worth while to dispute with an ignorant man, I propose to show in these precepts the excellence of the science I profess.


The Education of an Architect

  3    Architecture arises from other sciences and arts, adorned with copious and diverse learning, To pass judgment on architectural works requires a firm grasp on this learning when other arts are made use of. To achieve competence in architecture itself requires competence in both practice and theory. Practice involves continual concentration on the execution of each task, particularly when working with the hands, for it is in preparing a material that one best gains an appreciation of its properties. Theory comes from reasoning that demonstrates and explains how to develop designs and prepare materials. An architect who merely has practical experience is unable to justify the design he adopts; one who is merely a theoretician fails by grasping the shadow rather than the substance. Only an architect well-grounded in both theory and practice is properly equipped: able not only to prove the propriety of a design but also able to implement it effectively. For as in other arts, architecture must constantly keep in view the intention and the material used to express that intention. Successful implementation is founded on the imperative that the materials chosen can be worked to completely fulfill their purpose. This is impossible without mastery of both theory and practice. Consequently, a person not familiar with both of these branches of the art has no pretension to the title of architect.

  4    An architect should be creative and apt in the acquisition of knowledge. Deficient in either of these qualities, he cannot be a perfect master. An architect should be a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies.

      By means of the first named accomplishment, an architect commits observation and experience to writing, in order to assist memory. Drawing is employed in representing the forms of designs. Geometry affords much aid to the architect: to it is owed the use of the right line and circle, the level and the square, whereby the delineations of buildings on plane surfaces are greatly facilitated. The science of optics enables an architect to introduce with judgment the requisite quantity of light, according to the aspect of a building. Arithmetic provides cost estimates, and aids in the measurement of works; assisted by the laws of geometry, it determines those abstruse questions wherein the different proportions of some parts to others are involved.

  5    Unless acquainted with history, an architect will be unable to justify the use of many ornaments that may be introduced. For instance, should any one question the origin of those draped matronal figures crowned with a mutule and cornice, called Caryatides, the explanation lies in the following history. Carya, a city of Peloponnese, joined the Persians in their war against the Greeks. These in return for the treachery, after having freed themselves by a most glorious victory from the intended Persian yoke, unanimously resolved to levy war against the Caryans. Carya was, in consequence, taken and destroyed, its male population extinguished, and its matrons carried into slavery. That these circumstances might be better remembered, and the nature of the triumph perpetuated, the victors portrayed these women as draped, and apparently suffering under the burden with which they were loaded, to expiate the crime of their native city. Thus, in their edifices, did the ancient architects, by the use of these statues, hand down to posterity a memorial of the crime of the Caryans.

  6    Again, a small number of Spartans, under the command of Pausanias, the son of Cleombrotus, overthrew the prodigious army of the Persians at the battle of Platea. After a triumphal exhibition of the spoils and booty, the proceeds of the valor and devotion of the victors were applied by the government to the erection of the Persian portico. As an appropriate monument to the victory, and a trophy for the admiration of posterity, its roof was supported by statues of the barbarians in their magnificent costume, signifying a merited contempt for their haughty projects, intimidating other enemies, and acting as a stimulus to their fellow Lacedaimonians to be always in readiness for the defense of the nation. This is the origin of the Persian order for the support of an entablature; an invention which has enriched many a design with the singular variety it exhibits. Many other matters of history have a connection with architecture, and prove the necessity of architects being well versed in it.

  7    Moral philosophy will teach the architect to be above meanness, avoid arrogance, and be just, compliant and faithful to a client. And, what is of the highest importance, it will prevent avarice, for an architect should not be occupied with the thoughts of acquiring riches, nor with the desire of grasping every thing in the shape of gain. Rather, an architect should dignified, with gravity of manner and goodness of character. In these matters we recognize the importance of moral philosophy; for such are her precepts.

  8    Music assists an architect in the use of harmonic and mathematical proportion. It is, moreover, absolutely necessary in adjusting the force of the balistae, catapultae, and scorpions, in whose frames are holes for the passage of the homotona, which are strained by gut-ropes attached to windlasses worked by hand-spikes. Unless these ropes are equally extended, which only a sensitive ear can discover by their sound when struck, the bent arms of the engine do not give an equal impetus when disengaged, and the strings, therefore, not being in equal states of tension, prevent the accurate flight of the weapon.

      Also the acoustic vessels placed in certain recesses under the seats of theaters are fixed and arranged with a due regard to the laws of music, their tones being fourths, fifths, and octaves; so that when the voice of the actor is in unison with the pitch of these instruments, its power is increased and mellowed by impinging thereon. An architect would, moreover, be at a loss in constructing hydraulic and other engines, if ignorant of music.


 9    That branch of philosophy which the Greeks call the doctrine of physics, is necessary to an architect in the solution of various problems; as for instance, in the conduct of water, whose natural force, in its meandering and expansion over flat countries, is often such as to require restraints, which none know how to apply but those who are acquainted with the laws of nature. Nor, indeed, unless grounded in the first principles of physics, can an architect study with profit the works of Ctesibius, Archimedes, and many other authors who have written on the subject.

      Skill in physics enables an architect to ascertain the healthiness of different tracts of country, and to determine the variation of climates. These matters are of the highest importance, as no building will be healthy without attention to such points.

  10  The law should be an object of an architect’s study, especially those parts of it which relate to party walls, to the free course and discharge of the eaves' waters, the regulations of cesspools and sewage, and those relating to window lights. The laws of sewage require particular attention, to prevent a client being involved in law suits when the building is finished. Also, contracts for the execution of the works should be drawn with care and precision, because neither party will be able to take advantage of the other when legal flaws are absent

  11  Astronomy instructs an architect in the points of the heavens, the laws of the celestial bodies, the equinoxes, solstices, and courses of the stars; all of which should be well understood in the construction and proportions of clocks.

  12  Since, therefore, this art is founded upon and adorned with so many different sciences, I am of opinion that those who have not from their early youth gradually climbed to its summit cannot, without presumption, call themselves masters of it. Perhaps, to the uninformed, it may appear unaccountable that an architect should be able to retain in memory such a variety of learning; but the close alliance with each other of the different branches of science impinging on architecture will resolve the difficulty. For as a body is composed of various concordant members, so does the whole circle of learning consist in one harmonious system. For this reason those who from an early age are initiated in the different branches of learning have a facility in acquiring some knowledge of all, because of their common connection with each other.

  13  In this regard one of the ancients, Pythius, architect of the noble temple of Minerva at Priene, says in his commentaries that an architect should have the perfect knowledge of each art and science that is not even acquired by the professors of any one science in particular, who have had every opportunity of improving themselves in it. Such perfection, however, cannot be necessary, for an architect cannot be expected to be the equal Aristarchus as a grammarian, yet should not be ignorant of grammar. In music, an architect evidently need not equal Aristoxenus, yet should know something of its harmonies. An architect need not excel, as Apelles, in painting, nor as Myron or Polycletus, in sculpture, yet should attain some proficiency in these arts. In the science of medicine, it is not required that an architect should equal Hippocrates. Thus also in other sciences it is not important that pre-eminence in each be gained, but an architect must not be ignorant of the general principles of each. For in such a variety of matters, it cannot be supposed that the same person can arrive at excellence in each, since to be aware of their many refinements and implications, cannot fall within his power.

 14  Those unto whom nature has been so bountiful that they are at once geometricians, astrono­mers, musicians, and skilled in many other arts, go beyond what is required of the architect, and may be properly called polymaths, in the extended sense of that word. Men so gifted, discriminate acutely, and are rare. Such, however, was Aristarchus of Samos, Philolaus and Archytas of Tarentum, Apollonius of Perga, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Archimedes and Scopinas of Syracuse, each of whom wrote on all the sciences.

      Since few men are thus gifted, an architect who must strive to be generally well informed in all the arts cannot hope to excel in each. Therefore, I beseech you, O Caesar, and those who read this my work, to pardon and overlook grammatical errors; for I write neither as an accomplished philosopher, an eloquent rhetorician, nor an expert grammarian, but as an architect. In respect, however, of my art and its principles, I will lay down rules which may serve as an authority to those who build, as well as a guide to those who are already somewhat acquainted with the science.


On Budget Overruns

  15  In the magnificent and spacious Grecian city of Ephesus an ancient law was made by the ancestors of the inhabitants. It was hard indeed in its nature, but nevertheless equitable. When an architect was entrusted with the execution of a public work, an estimate of the cost was lodged in the hands of a magistrate, and the architect's property was held as security until the work was finished. If, when finished, the expense did not exceed the estimate, he was complimented with decrees and honors. When the excess did not amount to more than a fourth part of the original estimate, it was defrayed by the public, and no punishment was inflicted. But when more than one­fourth of the estimate was exceeded, he was required to pay the excess out of his own pocket.

      Would to God that such a law existed among the Roman people! Not only in respect of their public, but also of their private buildings. For then the unskillful could not commit their depredations with impunity, and only those who were the most skilful in the intricacies of the art would follow the profession. Proprietors would not be led into an extravagant expenditure so as to cause ruin; architects themselves, from the dread of punishment, would be more careful in their calculations, and the proprietor would complete his building for that sum, or a little more, which he could afford. Those who can conveniently expend a given sum on any work, with the pleasing expectation of seeing it completed would cheerfully add one-fourth more. But when they find themselves burdened with the addition of half again, or even more, of the expense originally contemplated, they lose their spirit and tend to abandon completion, sacrificing what has already been laid out,



 Adapted from The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in Ten Books translated from the Latin by Joseph Gwilt, London, John Weale, 1860.

   Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000