“The architect must not only understand drawing, but music.”
– Marcus Vitruvius Pollio
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was one of the master architects from ancient Rome. Fascinatingly, he also served as a civil engineer, an officer in the military, a builder, and an author. Little is known about his childhood but it is believed that he was born in 75 BCE. His ideas pertaining to architecture and society, in general, went on to form the world of buildings as we know it today. He was a firm believer of, ‘Everything can and should be measured.’
According to his own accounts, Vitruvius was a military architect and engineer under the reign of Julius Cesar. He was also an architect consultant for Emperor Augustus. Fields like architecture, military engineering, and public building construction were closely linked together back in the classical era. Vitruvius was known to be in charge of a lot of things during his time with the troops, ranging from providing carriages to wood and straw to the military, building bathhouses to digging trenches, and making war machines to bringing water into the encampment. It is believed that Vitruvius established himself as an architect after his tenure with the armed forces. His service in the army helped him acquire the knowledge and skills that were needed for his widely admired and major project – ‘De Architectura’, a ten-volume treatise on architecture.
‘De Architectura’ is among the earliest comprehensive works known to mankind on architecture that codified building practices across an entire kingdom. This treatise, now popularly called ‘Ten books on architecture’ consists of all the major architectural achievements of the great Roman and the Greek Empire. It talks about temples, town planning, columns and orders, mills, surveying, building equipment and materials, domestic heating, and so forth. It is also said to be among the first books on architectural theory.
Vitruvius also explains proportions in this book with the help of the human body as a unit. This later on, during the Renaissance period, led Leonardo Da Vinici create one of his best-known drawings, the Vitruvian Man. Not just Da Vinici but many more Renaissance architects such as Niccoli, Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti found their rationale and inspiration in this book.
Vitruvius dedicated the ten-volume treatise to Emperor Augustus. In this book, he also talks about the pillars of architecture, which are the guiding factors for any architect, with the first pillar being history. The Roman architect knew the importance of history when it came to architecture. He talks about the conquest of the Carrhae by the Romans and how the wives of the defeated were taken as slaves. Caryatides, sculpted female figures that serve as columns in public buildings immortalize in stone, the sins of the people of Carrhae and the burden of those wives. According to Vitruvius, history played an important role in architecture as it deals with the social behavior and culture of an empire.
The other pillars included Art, Drawing, and Geometry – Ideas transformed into architectural shapes; Physics – How a building interacts with the forces of nature; Philosophy – Higher the meaning, higher the purpose of the architectural shapes; Medicine – How a building affects its occupants; Law – A building and the conflicts that it creates; Astronomy – Solar paths; Music – A vocal representation of math and harmony. These pillars of architecture devised by Vitruvius went on to shape the world of architecture forever. Even today, when one talks about architecture and planning, one talks about these factors. De Architectura became a bible of sorts for many architects to come and played a major role in making the world of buildings what it is today. All of the experience and traveling with the military helped Vitruvius devise such well-defined principles regarding architecture.
When one talks about Vitruvius, it is only natural that the Vitruvian Triad comes up eventually. This famous triad speaks of the three qualities a building must possess, according to Vitruvius. The triad consists of: – Utilitas – Usefulness or utility, the function; Firmitas – Strength and durability, the structure; Venustas – Beauty, the form. This means a building must be sustainable, stable, beneficial, and beautiful – A statement that is true, even for today.
The only building designed by Vitruvius in our knowledge is one he tells us about in the book, a basilica completed in 19 BC which is now destroyed. It was constructed in Fanum Fortunae, now called Fano.
Vitruvius was a lot of things – a scientist, a philosopher, a historian, a writer, a military veteran, an observer, and undeniably, an architect who changed the world of architecture eternally.