Monday, June 28, 2010


So I got a reprint copy of De architectura by Vitruvius, I'm just beginning to delve into it, and liking it quite a bit. My reprint, a copy of the 1899 Teubner edition from one of those publishers who have sprung up lately and publish nothing but reprints, cost about one fifth as much as a new copy from Teubner, which is itself a reprint of their 1912 edition.

One fifth. Hm.

Wikipedia's article on Vitruvius repeats the common notion that Vitruvius, an architect and maker of military machines believed to have lived in the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus, was "rediscovered" by Poggio early in the 15th century. The Wikipedia article on Vitruvius' book corrects the impression that he had been forgotten and therefore needed to be rediscovered, listing many prominent medieval writers who were familiar with De architectura, and giving the figure of 92 manuscripts currently in public collections. This figure is not attributed, but it sounds about right to me. (I need to contact an actual scholar of Latin, a pro who's plugged into the academic system, and see if there are any comprehensive lists of Latin manuscripts, analogous to the Codices Latini Antiquiores which catalogues all known surviving Latin manuscripts of a literary nature written up to around AD 800, but extending up until the time of printing. It may well be that there are simply far too many such manuscripts for such a project to be feasible. My preconceptions of the numbers of such manuscripts may have substantially underestimated the numbers. It seems I keep finding out that there are surprisingly -- surprising to me -- surprisingly many manuscripts of this or that author. For example, it appears that over 500 manuscripts are around these days each one of which contains Sallust' accounts of Catiline's conspiracy and of the Jugurthine war.)

So Poggio did not exactly rediscover Vitruvius, but he did popularize him. Vitruvius seems to have been a Renaissance man before the Renaissance, in that he insisted that in order to practice his profession, architecture, well, one needed to have studied widely. History and music and the study of the nature of light -- it might be a bit anachronistic to give the name "optics" to such early inquiry -- are among the subjects described as those the architect must master. Vitruvius mentions philosophers and physicists and sculptors in his book on architecture. Renaissance men ate this up. Goethe, a Renaissance man after the Renaissance, was a big fan of Vitruvius. The Renaissance-man approach, the very mindset, is not popular today. People smile at the very idea of wanting to know everything, they find it quaint, but perhaps they are missing the point. Perhaps it's not about knowing everything, but about achieving a certain well-roundedness. Can one really claim to be wise without knowing a lot about music, and mathematics, or without regular and strenuous physical exercise, or without being well-spoken? Some of the best physicists of our time, men and women of ferocious concentration upon their specialty, are very eloquent and elegant in their equations, and it's a good thing, cause they can't talk so good at all with words and stuff, some of them. Perhaps the general approach to education is not as wise at the moment as it has been at certain times in the past. We've certainly made progress in some areas, not the least when it comes to inclusion and overcoming prejudices of all kinds, and I don't want to lose any of that, I don't want to go back to a previous century. But that doesn't mean that there is never anything beyond facts and figures to be learnt, rediscovered as it were, from bygone times. We could at least consider whether the modern emphasis on specialization is not occasionally overdone.

Anyhow, read Vitruvius! It doesn't seem to me that you'd even need to be especially interested in archietecture to get a lot out of his book.