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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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  • Comment number 3. Posted by John Thompson

    on 20 Mar 2012 08:17

    (end of part 1 should read paved streets)cont:-
    De architectura displays the highest example available from antiquity of the knowledge and thinking of a man who was a do-er,not just a know-er,who combined the best practice of both Greeks and Romans.With all the invention of all the essential “machines”-the ladder,the pulley, windlass,wagon,bellows and catapult-Vitruvius stresses qualitative
    benefits of expertise and technique,not their quantative,productive possibilities overlooking the virtue of the progression of technology.He
    stressed necessity and beauty of nature rather than technology.

    Mary beard has said in her book on Pompeii,Vitruvius talks of the domus or ‘private house’,which was not private in the sense we mean,as an escape from public life,in Vitruvius the domus is treated as part of the public image of its owner,providing the backdrop against which he conducts some of his public life.Also he shows different parts of ahouse to have different functions,drawing a distinction between ‘common’ parts of the house-atria,vestibules,peristyles-where visitors may enter uninvited,and the‘exclusive’ parts-cubicula(chambers)and triclinia(dining rooms)and bath suites,where guests would only venture if they are invited.

    What Vitruvius bequeathed most to the Renaissance was a humanist sense of man as the measure of all things: clarity,economy, elegance, based on simple geometric figures-the square,the circle,forms of ultimate perfection-entertaining the idea these forms must be applicable to the human body:that each guaranteed the perfection of the other.It has aesthetic meaning,because the symmetry of the human body,the relation of one part of it to another,influence our sense of normal proportion,reconciling the physical and intellectual.Harmony and perspective come into this,greatly influencing Brunellesci,Alberti and
    Palladio,as well as Leonardi.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 20 Mar 2012 07:46

    Cont:-and drains;an aqueduct to supply running water;public and private baths;an amphitheatre and a theatre;the forum and temples, town council chamber, commemorative arches,porticos and the great basilica;if possible town walls,for security and to demonstate civic pride in the community’s achievement;and statues set up by the principal citizens.This took time and money.For some communities there was help. Augustus for example,was a considerable benefactor,especially in the veteran colonies.The walls and gates at Fano(where Vitruvius worked)were put up at his expense.

    Due to overcrowding in Rome from the 3rd century BC tall apartment blocks were built,whose advantages were described by Vitruvius,but whose height was regulated to 60 Roman feet(20 metres) for stability and there was the risk of fire.He advises how to build them.The incentive to build was that bricks and concrete were more fireproof. Normally there were shops on the ground floor,staircases led up to apartments.This occurred similarly at Ostia and Pompeii.

    Vitruvius expounds the mathematical principles on which Etruscan-style temples werebased,and has sage advise about the placing of temples in towns:
    “Those dedicated to deities who protect the city,and those dedicated to Jupiter,Juno and Minerva should be on the very highest point, commanding a view of the greater part of the city walls. The temple of Mercury should be near the forum or,like those of Isis and Serapis,in the market;those of Apollo and Bacchus near the theatre;that of Hercules at the circus,if there is no gymnasium;that of Mars outside the city,but near the military training ground;that of Venus outside the city near the harbour.The writings of the Etruscan haruspices[soothsayers]also say that the sanctuaries of Venus,Vulcan and Mars should be situated outside the city,so that young men and married women may not become accustomed to the pleasures of the flesh”.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 20 Mar 2012 02:42

    Vitruvius showed the Roman’s more practical application of Greek mathematics,he drew on Greek classical authors,was inspired by Archimedes and Pythagoras.Veteran settlements did a lot to promote the Romanisation of Italy.Architect and engineer, Vitruvius had clear ideas about what was desirable in the layout and history of these later
    Republican and early Imperial military colonies.The situation of the site was very important:’cold winds are disagreeable,hot winds enervating and moist winds unhealthy’,while fenland locations are castigated because the ‘morning breezes bring with them the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marsh’..Lessons were learnt from the string of new settlements in the Po valley and in the other flatlands,like the Pomptine Marshes to the south of Rome.Vitruvius set out particular rules that govern the arrangement of the streets and the placing of the public buildings-the forum and senate house,the temples,theatre,circus,market and baths.This comes from long and solid experience.

    Vitruvius tells us something of his own work,particularly theconstruction of the great basilica that he superintended at Fano,on the Adriatic coast.The building’s position is no longer known,but his somewhat immodest comment,namely that ‘basilicas of the greatest dignity and beauty may be constructed in the style of the one which I erected’,is amply supported by his description of this lofty and elegant structure. Placed next to the forum and next to the temple of Augustus(an unimpeded view of which is carefully arranged by omitting two columns),this was a two-storey building;but ‘the carrying of the columns
    directly up to the beams which support the roof seem to add an air of sumptuousness and dignity to the work’,he writes,adding that he designed it so that those appearing before the magistrates’ tribunal,in the centre of one side of the basilica should not get in the wayof all the businessmen elsewhere.

    Public architecture burgeoned in the Roman towns of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.It took a long time for a single place to acquire all the buildings that an architect like Vitruvius would have desired.It took about 120-140 years should the place be successful and flourish.Under the Empire many new towns did not ‘make it’;but Republican Italy, enriched by the wars of conquest,had a full treasury and many rich individuals who wished to endow in a time of experiment and change. Whatever the political discord of the late Republic,the period was an entrepreneur’s dream.Every town of consequence needed paved

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