VITRUVIUS POLLIO

ca. first century B.C.

Roman engineer and architect

Vitruvius Pollio was a famous Roman architect and military engineer who worked under both Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus. He is best known for his written work, On Architecture. A treatise* on Greek and Roman architecture, it covers all types of buildings from temples to palaces and includes information on construction methods and materials, building decorations, town planning, and water supplies. Written in about 40 B.C., it is the only work of its kind to have survived from ancient times.

On Architecture is organized into ten parts, or “books.” The first book deals with architecture in general, town planning, and the qualifications needed to be an architect. Book 2 discusses building materials. Books 3 and 4 cover different styles of temple architecture. Book 5 discusses other types of public buildings, and Book 6 describes domestic buildings. Book 7 covers various decorative elements in architecture, including frescoes*. Book 8 describes water supplies and waterworks. Book 9 examines the role of geometry and astronomy in measurement and relates them to architecture. The last book deals with machinery, including military types.

Vitruvius had a wide range of knowledge, and he cited the work of early Greek mathematicians and scientists, such as Eratosthenes, Democritus, and Archimedes. Much of what is known about these individuals comes from Vitruvius, including the story of how Archimedes allegedly ran naked through the streets after having an inspiration while he was bathing. In addition to his vast knowledge, Vitruvius was concerned with the practical application of ideas. He believed that architecture influenced everything in people’s lives and the world around them.

Future architects regarded Vitruvius as the best authority on the subject of classical* architecture. In the Middle Ages, On Architecture was often used as a textbook on architecture and town planning. Vitruvius became especially important during the Renaissance*, when architects revived the classical styles of architecture. Vitruvius’s theory of ideal human proportions—the so-called “Vitruvian man”—was illustrated by several artists. The most famous depiction, by the artist Leonardo da Vinci, shows a human figure in relation to both a circle and a square. (See also Books and Manuscripts; Columns; Construction Materials and Techniques.)

* treatise long, detailed essay

* fresco method of painting in which color is applied to moist plaster and becomes chemically bonded to the plaster as it dries; also refers to a painting done in this manner

* classical relating to the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome

* Renaissance period of the rebirth of interest in classical art, literature, and learning that occurred in Europe from the late 1300s through the 1500s

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