Marcus Vitruvius Pollio's De architectura (On architecture) printed in Rome, 1486

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio's De architectura (On architecture) printed in Rome, 1486

In the canon of architectural writings, this ancient Roman Latin text stands at the summit. It was written by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (fl. first century B.C.) sometime in the late first century B.C. Today’s architecture students find it on their reading lists, and it is still available in paperback translations. The author intended it to be a practical guidebook for the designer-builder, but it has become a paean to the aesthetic principles of classical architecture.

It is believed that Vitruvius dedicated his book to the emperor Augustus (d. 14 A.D.). Described as a “complete system of architecture,” it rested on the precept of a physical ideal defined by the beauty of graceful proportions and symmetry, and governed by rules of order (taxis in Greek). Accordingly, Vitruvius provided, in meticulous detail, the necessary engineering specifications, including, most famously, the precise proportions for the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian architectural orders.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, De architectura (On architecture), Rome: 1486. Edited by Joannes Sulpitius. CMGL 84110

The 1486 printed edition of De architectura owned by the Rakow Research Library was published in Rome. Although the book lacks a traditional colophon indicating the printer, we may surmise that he was either Eucharius Silber (fl. 1480–1510) or Georg Herolt (fl. 1480–1495). Joannes Sulpitius Verulanus (15th century), an author and scholar who was known throughout Europe, edited the work.

As an artifact of early printing, the book has a puzzling unfinished quality. While Vitruvius probably illustrated his original manuscript with architectural drawings, only one woodcut diagram appears in this edition. Several blank spaces suggest that additional graphics were planned, but, for some reason, they did not make it onto the page. Also missing are the standard large capital letters that signal a new section of text and provide an opportunity for color and ornamentation. Clearly, such a plain book was not destined to adorn the library shelves of a wealthy book collector. Instead, its relatively small size and light weight made it both portable and affordable for the working man—the craftsman-builder or the project manager who would have wanted to have the volume at hand for regular reference.

The role of glass in De architectura is somewhat elusive. In the chapter on residential design, Vitruvius stresses that the arrangement of windows should comply with the rules of proportion and symmetry. For “windows,” he chooses the Latin word fenestra (from which the English word fenestration derives), which may denote a window with a pane or just an opening in an exterior wall. Furthermore, he does not specify whether the window opening should be filled with a glass pane or with another material, such as translucent marble or mica, which was also used by the Romans. In the end, we are left to speculate that Vitruvius may not have felt the need to name one material or another, since the choice would likely have been dependent upon the size of a client’s budget—a practice that was well understood then, as it is now.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Cook, Frank Palmer. Talk to Me of Windows. South Brunswick and New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1971.

Harden, D. B. “Domestic Window Glass: Roman, Saxon, and Medieval.Studies in Building History, 1961, pp. 39–63.

Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus. De architectura. Rome, 1486.

______. On Architecture. Translated by Frank Granger. Loeb Classical Library.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

______. The Ten Books on Architecture. Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan. New York: Dover Publications, 1960.

Whitehouse, David. “Window Glass between the First and the Eighth Centuries.” In La vetrata in Occidente dal IV all’XI secolo. Edited by Francesca Dell’Acqua and Romano Silva. Il colore nel Medioevo: Arte, simbolo, tecnica. Lucca, Italy: Istituto Storico Lucchese, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, and Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Italia, 2001, pp. 31–43.

Published on January 16, 2014