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by Archaeology Newsroom

Two anniversaries of the Latin text “De Architectura”

The Latin text De Architectura (On Architecture) is considered to be the only surviving complete treatise on the architecture of the Grecoroman world. It provides us with a wealth of information on monumental composition and the building practices of the classical world; it also contains chapters on city planning, hydraulics, mechanical practices and warfare machinery. The treatise bears no title, no date and no name of author. However, through scant information in the text and mention of it by later writers (Pliny the Elder, Frontinus, Cetius Faventinus), scholars conclude that the author was a Roman architect of the Caesarian and early Augustan age, named Vitruvius and that the Treatise was composed during a long period (a span of maybe twenty years, between the middle of the fourth to the middle of the second decade of the 1st century BC.). For lack of a title, a new one had been already coined in the Middle Ages, by using the 45th and 46th words from the beginning of the text, where, in his dedication to the emperor, the author mentions his writings “on architecture”.

De Architectura was well known in the Middle Ages, more than 81 manuscript copies having been spotted in libraries of monasteries and other institutions. Famous scholars of the Middle Ages are mentioned to have known the Treatise and to have referred to it, as eg. Einhard and Vussin, Hermann the Paralytic of Reichenau, Vincent of Beauvais, Petrus Diaconus and others. Vitruvius is even mentioned in a byzantine text of loannis Tzetzes as Vigndius. Forerunners of the Renaissance such as Petrarch and Boccaccio had their own copy of “Vitruvius”, whereas Cardinal Bessarion bequeathed a copy of De Architectura to Venice which now belongs to the Marcian Library. The great age of the Treatise culminates with the Renaissance. It seems as if this classical text had been waiting for fifteen centuries to become the “holy bible” of the new culture, preaching classical art and architecture to the Western World. The invention of printing, in the middle of the 15th c, facilitated the diffusion of the text and produced magnificent editions, starting with the editio princeps of the year 1486 and spanning four centuries of artistic typography. It is noteworthy to single out that the National Library of Athens owns some of the most important and oldest editions produced in the last five centuries.

When, by the end of the 18th century, art and architecture started following different paths than the classical, the Treatise switched from embodying the main interest of architects to becoming the focus of study for art historians, archeologists, philologists and paleographers. During the 19th and the 20th c. scrupulous editions of the text and a great number of scientific articles elucidated the wisdom of the ancient writer and through him a segment of the culture of the ancient world. The Treatise has been translated in practically all European languages except Greek. Such a translation (the first ever to be attempted) is being prepared by the author of this article. ARCHEOLOGIA chose the present year 1986 to commemorate two important anniversaries of the Treatise. The first derives from the fact that a last touch was seemingly, added to the text, in about 14/13 BC. Thus, during this year 1986 AD, a span of 2000 years from the Treatise’s integration comes to completion. A second fact is that, again this year marks the end of half a millennium since the printing of the first edition (editio princeps) of 1946, in Rome. Thus, Modern Greece wishes to commemorate and honor Vitruvius the man, who proved through the ages to be an excellent and permanent ambassador not only of roman culture but also, if not mainly, of the culture of the Greeks.