Vitruvius, De Architectura

Introduction: The Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, known as Vitruvius, wrote the most extensive and detailed architectural treatise to survive from the ancient Mediterranean region. De Architectura (On Architecture, or The Ten Books on Architecture) dates to ca. 25 BCE and was dedicated to the emperor Augustus, Vitruvius's patron. The book is a manual of Greek and Roman construction practices, describing how to build cities, temples, houses, and harbors as well as pulleys, catapults, and water mills. Vitruvius was a theorist as well as a technician. He argued that good architecture should possess utility, strength, and beauty (utilitas, firmitas, and venustas)—an idea still embraced by architects today. He also posited that the proportions of buildings, their parts, and their interrelationships should display a mathematical logic similar to what he saw in the human body: a symmetrical system of parts that together create a harmonious whole.

On Architecture is known today thanks in part to monks in the Carolingian realm who copied and illustrated the text during the ninth century. Well known and disseminated in medieval Europe, the text was "rediscovered" in the early fifteenth century and published as a printed book in 1486. Circulated widely, it had a profound influence on early modern (Renaissance) artists and thinkers, who were turning to Greco-Roman antiquity for inspiration. Leonardo da Vinci's ink drawing "Vitruvian Man" comments on the treatise's discussion of symmetry in temples and the human body (Book III, Chapter 1).

The passages translated here highlight Vitruvius's knowledge of architecture in two urban settings: (a) the forum and basilicas, epicenters of public life in ancient cities; and (b) the baths, the social, recreational, and curative heart of Roman society. Aspects of the thermal technology described by Vitruvius outlived the Roman Empire by many centuries, appearing in medieval bathing chambers in western European, Byzantine, and Islamicate contexts.


(a) The Forum and Basilica (V.i.1–V.i.6)
The Greeks construct their forums in a square shape with very broad double colonnades decorated with stone columns set close together or with marble entablatures, and they fashion walkways in the rafters above them. But in Italy, this cannot be done in the cities according to the same scheme because a custom has been handed down from the ancestors that the gladiatorial games are held in the forum. Therefore let very large spaces be left between the columns, and all around in the colonnades banking houses [offices] should be constructed; and put balconies up on the higher floors, correctly arranged both for the sake of convenience and for the collection of public revenues.

The size of the forum ought to correspond to that of the population, lest it be too small to be useful or seem empty due to an absence of people. The width of the forum should be determined in such a way that, after its length has been divided into three parts, two of these are allocated to it. Its shape therefore will be oblong, and this will be useful for the purpose of the public games.

The columns on the upper level must be made smaller than the lower ones by one-fourth, because lower sections ought to be stronger than those above in order to bear weight; it is also fitting that the nature of organic forms be imitated, such as round trees like the silver fir, cypress, and pine; none of these is thicker anywhere than the area right above its roots, and then it advances into its height as it grows, becoming naturally smaller in equal measure all the way up to its tip. Therefore, if the nature of organic forms demands it to be this way, it has been rightly established that in both length and thickness higher parts must be narrower than those that are below.

It is necessary that basilicas attached to the forums be set in the warmest possible areas, so that throughout winter businessmen are able to conduct themselves in them without the annoyance of inclement weather; and their width should be set to be neither less than one-third of their length nor more than one-half of it, unless the nature of the location impedes this or otherwise compels the shape to be altered. . . .

The construction of basilicas may also possess the highest dignity and beauty, such as I arranged and brought to completion at Fano [a city in Italy], the proportions and shapes of which were thus: the arch in the middle between the columns 120 feet long, 60 feet wide. The colonnade around the arch and between the walls and the columns is 20 feet wide. The columns with capitals are 50 feet in uninterrupted height, 5 feet in thickness, and have pilasters 20 feet tall and two-and-one-half feet wide, and one-and-one-half feet thick, supporting beams in which the rafters of the colonnades are carried. And above these are other 18-foot pilasters, 2 feet wide, 1 foot thick, that also hold the supporting beams of the rafters and colonnades, which were placed underneath the arch after being covered.
(b) Baths (V.x.1–V.x.5)
First, a place must be chosen that is as warm as possible, that is, facing away from the north and the north wind. The hot and the lukewarm baths should receive their light from the southwest; if, however, the nature of the location prevents this, certainly from the south, since most often the time for bathing is from midday until evening. Care must also be taken so that the hot baths for the women and for the men have been joined and arranged in the same parts of the building; that way a furnace may be used in common for both baths. Three bronze vessels should be set above the furnace, one for the hot bath, another for the lukewarm bath, and a third for the cold one, and placed together so that the quantity of hot water that comes from the lukewarm bath into the hot bath flows in the same manner out from the cold bath into the lukewarm bath, and the curvatures at the bottom of the baths may be warmed by the shared furnace.

The hanging or suspended floors of the hot baths ought to be made in such a way that their foundation is first covered with one-and-a-half-foot roof tiles inclined toward the furnace, so that if the playing ball is thrown [on the floor resting on top of the tiles], it does not get stuck inside but instead rolls back to the heating room by its own momentum. A flame will spread out under the suspended floor more easily in this arrangement. Have pillars erected above [the one-and-a-half-foot roof tiles] with 8-inch tiles, set apart so that 2-foot roof tiles may be placed on top of them. The pillars ought to have a height of 2 feet and should be built with white clay mixed with hair or straw, with 2-foot roof tiles on top that support the floor.

If the vaulted ceilings are constructed out of the masonry structure of the building itself, then they will be more useful. . . . Let the upper joints of these vaults be plastered in white clay mixed with hair or straw; the lower section that looks out upon the floor, however, must first be covered with tile mixed with lime, and then polished with stucco or plaster. Likewise, the roofs in the hot baths will be more useful if they are doubled, for the moisture from the steam will not be able to damage the material of the woodwork because it will spread out between the two vaults.

The size of the baths should correspond to that quantity of bathers, provided that [the baths] are arranged this way: their width should be one-third of their length, except for the waiting area for the washbasin and the bathtub. The washbasin certainly should be constructed below a window so that those standing around do not obscure it with their shadows. The benches in the waiting room for the baths ought to be spacious enough that those who are waiting are able to stand upright while the firstcomers occupy the tubs. The width of the tub should not be less than 6 feet from wall to partition so that the lower step and the backrest may occupy 2 feet of it.

The hot room and the sweating baths ought to be joined to the lukewarm bath, and their width should be equal to the height of the lower curvature of the dome. Leave an aperture for light shining through the middle of the dome from which a bronze disk may hang with chains; the temperature of the sweating bath will be determined by raising and lowering this. The disk itself should be made circular, so that the strength of the flame and steam should spread equally from the middle throughout the curves of the dome.

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Lepcis Magna, plan of forum and basilica, early third century