BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time newsletter: Vitruvius and De Architectura

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    Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Vitruvius and De Architectura. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - EMcN.


    I did not mention that it was the Ides of March today; indeed, the sole reason is that I forgot. I have since been trying to work out how we could have winkled it in. Not much of the Ides of March about Vitruvius. Yet Shakespeare was haunting the first part of the programme when Serafina did her rapid rundown of the 1st century BC. You wanted to keep saying "wasn't that bit in Shakespeare?" or "where's Brutus?".

    It is quite a career for someone to start making ballistic missiles and catapults for Caesar's army in Gaul, and end up sitting in Rome as an aged protégé of the Emperor's sister, writing a very substantial book on the history of architecture. Those lives which travel so far from their beginnings are always fascinating. And I'm becoming increasingly fascinated with people who really start at the coalface quite young and manage to work their way through to enormous achievements. Nelson joined the Navy when he was twelve. A lot of the men who created the Industrial Revolution were apprenticed or chucked into jobs when they were thirteen or fourteen. And so it goes...

    The thing that struck me this morning was how very, very powerful knowledge is and how you never know when it will be rediscovered and re-energised. We're used to it in science now. Rutherford splits the atom and says no harm will come of it, but it was an intellectually satisfying thing to do, and a few years later the world could be blown up. And again and again, as we are finding, games that mathematicians play with prime numbers, for example, turn out to be the way in which we run crucial parts of the communications system. Sometimes these developments take hundreds of years. Much the same here with Vitruvius. He petered out when Rome petered out and St Peter's Rome took over. His temples were no longer required in an age of churches and cathedrals. The fascinating thing is that the Renaissance in Italy went pagan. Palladio's churches are built precisely like temples. There is very little about the atmosphere inside them which echoes, even - let alone matches - the heavy, religious splendours of cathedrals, or the simple, religious peace of village churches. These are places which have abandoned a medieval God and are open, it seems, to all influences.

    Got up this morning at about five and found a Dickensian fog outside and freezing weather. In the middle of the day people are sunbathing in London parks. London itself is so crowded that you wonder if this is a secret trial run for the congestion of the Olympics. At the moment much of central London is dug up in order to make it spick and span for the Olympics. Those of us who live here have our doubts...

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

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