Born a free Roman citizen, by his own account Vitruvius served the Roman army alongside Marcus Antonius, Publius Minidius, and Gnaeus Cornelius, under Julius Caesar. As an army engineer he specialized in the construction of ballista and scorpio artillery war machines for sieges. The locations where he served can be reconstructed from, for example, descriptions of the building methods of various "foreign tribes". Although he describes places throughout De Architectura, he does not say he was present. His service likely included north Africa, Hispania, Gaul (including Aquitaine) and Pontus. A description of The Praefect of the camp or army engineer is given by Flavius Vegetius Renatus in The Military Institutions of the Romans:
Mainly known for his writings, Vitruvius was himself an architect. In Roman times architecture was a broader subject than at present including the modern fields of architecture, construction management, construction engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, military engineering and urban planning.Frontinus mentions him in connection with the standard sizes of pipes. The only building, however, that we know Vitruvius to have worked on is one he tells us about, a basilica completed in 19 BC. It was built at Fanum Fortunae, now the modern town of Fano. The Basilica di Fano (to give the building its Italian name) has disappeared so completely that its very site is a matter of conjecture, although various attempts have been to visualise it. The early Christian practice of converting Roman basilica (public buildings) into cathedrals implies the basilica may be incorporated into the cathedral located in Fano.
The date of his death is unknown.
Vitruvius is the author of De architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture, a treatise written of Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. This work is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity.
Vitruvius is famous for asserting in his book De architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, it must be strong or durable, useful, and beautiful. According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature. As birds and bees built their nests, so humans constructed housing from natural materials, that gave them shelter against the elements. When perfecting this art of building, the Ancient Greek invented the architectural orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. It gave them a sense of proportion, culminating in understanding the proportions of the greatest work of art: the human body. This led Vitruvius in defining his Vitruvian Man, as drawn magnificently by Leonardo da Vinci: the human body inscribed in the circle and the square (the fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order).
Vitruvius is sometimes loosely referred to as the first architect, but it is more accurate to describe him as the first Roman architect to have written surviving records of his field. He himself cites older but less complete works. He was less an original thinker or creative intellect than a codifier of existing architectural practice. It should also be noted that Vitruvius had a much wider scope than modern architects. Roman architects practised a wide variety of disciplines; in modern terms, they could be described as being engineers, architects, landscape architects, artists, and craftsmen combined. Etymologically the word architect derives from Greek words meaning 'master' and 'builder'. The first of the Ten Books deals with many subjects which now come within the scope of landscape architecture.
It is worth noting that Vitruvius advises that lead should not be used to conduct drinking water, recommending clay pipes or masonry channels. He comes to this conclusion in Book VIII of De Architectura after empirical observation of the apparent laborer illnesses in the plumbum foundries of his time. In 1986 the United States banned the use of lead in plumbing due to lead poisoning's neurological damage.
Vitruvius gives us the famous story about Archimedes and his detection of adulterated gold in a royal crown. When Archimedes realised that the volume of the crown could be measured exactly by the displacement created in a bath of water, he ran into the street with the cry of Eureka!, and the discovery enabled him to compare the density of the crown with pure gold. He showed that the crown had been alloyed with silver, and the king defrauded.
He describes the construction of Archimedes' screw in Chapter X, although doesn't mention Archimedes by name. It was a device widely used for raising water to irrigate fields and dewater mines. Other lifting machines he mentions include the endless chain of buckets and the reverse overshot water-wheel, a spectacular example of a sequence of such wheels being shown above. Remains of the water wheels used for lifting water have been discovered in old mines such as those at Rio Tinto in Spain and Dolaucothi in west Wales. The former now is shown in the British Museum, and the latter in the National Museum of Wales. The remains were discovered when these mines were re-opened in modern mining attempts.
He describes the many innovations made in building design to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants. Foremost among them is the development of the hypocaust, a type of central heating where hot air developed by a fire was channelled under the floor and inside the walls of public baths and villas. He gives explicit instructions how to design such buildings so that fuel efficiency is maximised, so that for example, the caldarium is next to the tepidarium followed by the frigidarium. He also advises on using a type of regulator to control the heat in the hot rooms, a bronze disc set into the roof under a circular aperture which could be raised or lowered by a pulley to adjust the ventilation. Although he does not suggest it himself, it is likely that his dewatering devices such as the reverse overshot water-wheel was used in the larger baths to lift water to header tanks at the top of the larger thermae, such as the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla.
His book De architectura was rediscovered in 1414 by the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini. To Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) falls the honour of making this work widely known in his seminal treatise on architecture De re aedificatoria (ca. 1450). The first known edition of Vitruvius was in Rome by Fra Giovanni Sulpitius in 1486. Translations followed in Italian (Como, 1521), French (Jean Martin, 1547 , English, German (Walter H. Ryff, 1543) and Spanish and several other languages. The original illustrations had been lost and the first illustrated edition was published in Venice in 1511 with woodcut illustrations, based on descriptions in the text, probably by Fra Giovanni Giocondo. Later in the sixteenth-century Andrea Palladio provided illustrations for Daniele Barbaro's commentary on Vitruvius (which appeared in Italian and Latin versions). However, the most famous illustration remains a fifteenth-century one, Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.
The surviving ruins of Roman antiquity, the Roman Forum, temples, theatres, triumphal arches and their reliefs and statues gave ample visual examples of the descriptions in the Vitruvian text. This book then quickly became a major inspiration for Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture. Brunelleschi, for example, invented a new type of hoist to lift the large stones for the dome of the cathedral in Florence and was prompted by De Architectura as well as viewing the many surviving Roman monuments like the Pantheon and the Baths of Diocletian in Rome.
In book seven's introduction Vitruvius goes through great lengths to present his credentials for writing De Architectura. Similar in concept to a modern day reference section, the author's position as one who is knowledgeable and educated is established. The topics listed range across many fields of expertise reflecting that in Roman times as today construction is a diverse field. It is apparent that many ancient lost works and their authors are known only because they are referred to by other authors whose works have survived. Vitruvius makes the further point that the work of some of the most talented is unknown, while many who are of lesser talent but greater political position are famous. This theme runs through Vitruvius’s ten books repeatedly and here in the introduction to Chapter 7, he illustrates this by naming (in addition to some very well known names), some of the most talented individuals in history, known only because their name appears in book seven's introduction:
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