The literary architect Vitruvius

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Berlin · 2020   Uwe Topper topper

The literary architect Vitruvius
Who wrote his famous book on architecture?

"The famous ten books about architecture by Roman author Vitruvius, supposedly a contemporary of Augustus,
are read with pleasure today, because they contain curious opinions about the architecture of the
ancient Greeks and Romans. In my dictionaries I couldn't find any Information on the first edition (editio
princeps, incunable) of the book. There is a first illustrated edition from 1511 by Fra Giovanni Giocondo
(died 1515 in Rome), the teacher of Julius Caesar Scaliger (i.e. the father of the famous creator of chronology).
Dürer's work Instruction on Painting (printed 1525) makes reference to »Fittrufius«. A draft of it is said
to have existed as early as 1508. One generally assumes that Vitruvius had been "rediscovered" earlier in
the 15th century. In 1521 there is another illustrated Vitruvian edition (by Cesariano), which
would have been available to Dürer if the chronology of the Renaissance was reliable
(which is not the case). In volume X of Vitruvius there are anecdotal chapters
on fortress building which fit more into the Dürer period, who also published a book on
Defense constructions (1527). ...
In the diary of his trip to Holland (1520) Dürer mentions the writer Vitruvius, too, when he saw the
coronation church in Aachen (p. 72), being prepared for Charles V soon to be crowned as emperor there.
For this church marble pillars were transported from Rome across the Alps following the plans of Vitruvius
("... according to Vitruvius' writings"). Today the columns are attributed to Charlemagne,
perhaps Dürer didn't know that emperor yet. But if Vitruvius's plans were important to Charles V,
then Vitruvius was his contemporary." (Topper, Kalendersprung 2006, p. 251 f).

I wrote this 15 years ago, puzzled then by the enigmatic discrepancies in the book of Vitruvius.

Vitruv ProportionDrawing: Theorie of Proportion by Vitruvius (from Scamozzi, Nürnberg 1678) in: Rupp 1964, S. 8

In encyclopaedias Vitruvius is sometimes referred to as an "ancient architect and engineer", although it is not known whether and when he would have designed or built any building. He is the author of a ten-volume book on architecture, yet nothing more is known. It is the only surviving ancient work on the subject but its Latin is horrible, even misleading, as all translators testify. There even accour words of colloquial language, a typical feature of the early Renaissance. Illustrations might be useful for understanding this difficult text but there are none. The oldest manuscript is said to come from the 9th century.
We have no clues about the life of Vitruvius other than those that appear in his work itself which are worthless with any suspicion of forgery. According to the dedication, the author must have lived at the time of Augustus but when he died is unknown.

Central perspective

This is particularly striking: Vitruvius knows how to design the perspective view (I, 2), which he calls Scenographia. Vitruvius describes the central perspective in two places, first in book I, chap. 2, a bit briefly and therefore difficult to understand:

"The perspective view is a drawing showing the face and the receding sides, in which the directions of all lines correspond to a compass center." (quoted from Reber p. 23)

Then in more detail in Chap. VII, in the foreword 11:
"First, when Aeschylus staged his tragedies in Athens, Agatharch made a scena and left a treatise on it. Inspired by him, Democritus and Anaxagoras wrote about the same thing, namely about how the lines diverge when the center is assumed at a certain place ..., according to the laws of nature must correspond the place of vision and the linear extension of the visual rays, so that clear images of indistinct (i.e. distant) objects in the stage paintings can reproduce the appearance of the buildings on flat and frontal surfaces that some seem to recede, some seem to stand out (quoted from Boehm, 1969, p. 16)."
If we look at Roman mosaics, we are always slightly annoyed to find that the artists did not master the central perspective. Instead of tapering towards the back, the guidelines strive for one point towards the viewer. There can be no question of central perspective here. Yet Vitruvius fully understood it !
Central perspective representation is a groundbreaking innovation in the Italian Renaissance gradually appearing in the paintings in the late 15th century. Generally Brunelleschi and Alberti are endowed with the honour of having developed it.
Now we are used to the fact that the Renaissance and classical antiquity are very similar and even equal in certain aspects but - has nobody ever noticed that 1500 years are skipped over here without any intermediate links? This is not the same as in poetry, where one can fall back on old themes and myths, even after a thousand years. Architects have to learn their craft, and there was a lot of construction going on in the supposed thousand plus years between two highlights of civilization.
As far as the value of the 10 volumes of Vitruvius "On Architecture" is concerned, I am amazed at the presence of these texts as late as 1700 AD. It is also placed right next to Alberti.
Katharina Krause writes about drawings by French architects around 1700 (part 2):
"They were therefore content with the brief statements of two authorities: Vitruvius and
Alberti. Vitruvius insists on three drawings in the planning: the ground plan, the orthogonally projected elevation and the perspective view, which he calls Ichnographia, Orthographia and Scenographia. Alberti differentiates the architect's drawing from that of the painter through its greater rationality."

Individual authorship and plagiarism

Vitruvius' view on antiquity is at times terrifyingly starry-eyed. The strange notion that plagiarism or unjustified attribution of a poem or play should be punished was alien to antiquity emerging in the Renaissance and becaming increasingly important after 1500. With bizarre episodes, in which even a plagiarist is executed by the tyrant or the mob, Vitruvius describes brutal behavior that was unthinkable in ancient times (VII, foreword).


Vitruvius said it was a divine miracle that the angle of the earth's obliquity is exactly 24° and is thus geometrically easy to represent. (Jahrkreuz, p. 45). The expression is not exactly classical and there are other tangible signs of modernization. Vitruvius tries (in book IX.) to reproduce ancient astronomical knowledge, such as the well-known beginning of the zodiac sign at 8°. His description of the zodiac allows to recognize the state of formation of the zodiac images, as shown in my most recent book (Jahrkreuz, p. 97). "The head and breast of the lion are counted as part of the constellation of Cancer", while "the puff of folds of the virgin's dress forms the first parts of the constellation Libra" or "the thighs of Sagittarius already belong to the constellation of Capricorn". These hints reveal the moment when the zodiac was reformed at the beginning of the Renaissance, whereby the zodiac constellations, which are visually different in size, have already been trimmed into the modern width per sign of 30° (IX, 1.5).
Vitruvius's text appears conspicuously modern when he describes (IX, 4,6) the Pole Star asclearly referring to our present Polaris which at the supposed time of Augustus could not be seen in this location.
Vitruvius gives a detailed account of the orbits of the planets (IX, 1) and makes completely wrong statements for Mercury and Venus. While the numerical values ​​and the references to the retrograde movement for the outer three planets are almost correct, one should have had only knowledge of Greek astronomy, such as that of Aratos or Hipparchus, and could have copied the exact values ​​for Venus and Mercury from them.

The multiple mentions of the Chaldean Berosus (IX, 2,1) are problematic, even if Berosos is called outstanding by Pliny (VII, 37) as quoted by the commentator Reber (note p. 306). Berosus was an important reference person for Trithemius and other arch forgers around 1500 AD; his text being written by Nanni, Annius of Viterbo.
Vitruvius also describes the lunar orbit in a complicated manner and with incorrect numerical values, although the correct values ​​were familiar to every writer both in antiquity and in the Renaissance. What may have led Vitruvius to this nonsense? Should his text appear archaic, naive, untouched by real knowledge; or could the monk who wrote this not find any better model - an explanation remains unfathomable. It is true and repeated by many comentators that larger text passages in this chapter in particular are completely incomprehensible and can only be reconstructed with the help of other "ancient" texts, but that is no explanation for this process either.
Then the mathematician Aristarchus of Samos is mentioned twice (I, 1.17 and IX, 2.3), but in both cases no mention of his knowledge of the rotation of the earth around the sun which may be because it only broke through in the Renaissance. The work "On the Size and Distance of the Earth and the Sun", which was (stupidly) attributed to him, is not mentioned, nor any allusion to the views of the Arabs and the emerging heliocentrism of Copernicus. (Topper, 2016, p. 53).
The intention to resemble archaic knowledge, on the other hand, emerges when Vitruvius writes of the (in)visibility of the star Canopus (IX, 5,4), "of which we only know through merchants, who travelled to the most distant regions of Egypt, that lye in the extreme limits of the Earth", which is incorrect for antiquity (as well as the subsequent Arab period), because Canopus was clearly visible in North Africa from Alexandria to Tingitana at that time. It rose up to 7½ degrees above the horizon. Today it is still visible as the second brightest fixed star (after Sirius) in the location Canopus (from the ruins of Abukir not far from Alexandria).
Vitruvius speaks very scathingly about astrology (IX, 6); he only mentions it as a Chaldean science that helps weather forecasts. I can only explain this reluctance by assuming that he wrote in a time and for a time that did not appreciate judicial astrological interpretations, which is likely to apply to the 15th century, providing an insight into the mind of that time.

The Engineer

In the last chapter, Vitruvius designs hydraulic machines, from water mills and bucket wheels to ballasts for war. His work could be compared here with the Book of Mechanics by Philon of Byzantium, which I could not study for lack of any literature. How well Vitruvius's experiments fit into the turn of 1500 AD can be gauged from Dürer's and Leonardo's work in this field. They are both quite similar.

Several times Albrecht Dürer laments the loss of the art textbooks of the ancients Pliny and others spoke of. He also blames the church for the destruction (in his Lehrbuch der Malerei) and condemns it; he also cites war, the displacement of peoples or a change in law and belief as reasons for this loss. This hits exactly the ideals of the Renaissance whereas nowhere a catastrophe is mentioned as cause. Presumably the catastrophe was too long ago (more than 150 years) while the change of faith is fully present in Dürer's time.


Vitruvius himself gives a very imaginative catalogue of Greek literature preparing for his work (VII Prew. 11-14), of which however, nothing remains. The Vitruvian text might be based on parts of an unknown Greek work, which, however, was not completed by its translator from lack of language skills. If it is Byzantine, that would not be a special case for the recovery of ancient knowledge in the Italian Renaissance but actually rather common.
In Vitruvius's time, on the other hand, it looks dark: "We know nothing about the reception of the Vitruvian text in antiquity." (Kruft 2)
It is often said that Isidore of Seville (6th century) quoted Vitruvius; that is unsupportable. It is neither correct for a direct quotation nor at secondhand.
Vitruvius is said to have been handed on again under the Carolingians. How we should think about these texts and dates was made clear to us by Illig: They are all later forgeries.
Bocaccio and Petrarca are known as connoisseurs of the Vitruvian text, but this is due to the shift in the Italian dates, because they are actually both contemporaries of Dante around 1500 (see my remarks there), so they would already know the first editions of Vitruvius.
At the end of the 15th century there were supposed to have been translations of Vitruvius' work into Volgare. Only one edition is known: that of Francesco di Giorgio from the 1470s. The first printed Latin edition "probably" appeared in Rome in 1486, with a text by Frontinus about the water pipes of the city of Rome attached. There are reprints of these in Venice in 1495 and Florence in 1496. Frontinus (around 100 C.E.) is also regarded as author of the Stratagema (Matters of Warfare), a manuscript which was supposedly "re-discovered" but probably is yet more work of the humanists.
Alberti's Architektur-Tratat was published in 1485; in parts it follows the pattern of the Vitruvian text. It is understandable that these two works are so often mentioned side by side; the Vitruvian appeared around 1486.


Even if those thoughts showed that Vitruvius was probably written in the Italian Renaissance, there was still no reference to the author. Pastor and chronologist Hermann Detering gave a clear hint here. In my review of his book "False Witnesses" (2013) I wrote:
"Detering uncovered a secret by tentatively revealing who probably wrote Caesar's Bellum Gallicum, and probably also the Ten books on Architecture of Vitruvius (p. 151): a certain Fra Giocondo from Verona, according to Vasari born there in 1435 or soon after who worked as architect Jean Joyeux in Paris around 1500. Fra Giocondo was a friar, of which order is unknown. He also wrote the 10th volume of the letters from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan, which differs greatly from the nine volumes previously. After we had been given the hint by Detering we now have to check the "funny brother" (Fra Giocondo), because only he saw the alleged original of the Plini-letters (p. 80)."

At that time I could not follow the clue to Fra Giocondo, now I look up Wikipedia and other encyclopaedias:

Giovanni Giocondo

Fra Giovanni Giocondo (also Giovanni da Verona; born 1433 in Verona; died 1515 in Rome) was an Italian Dominican, later a Franciscan, a humanist and antiquarian as well as an architect and architectural theorist.

Fra Giocondo seems to have devoted the first half of his life mainly to humanistic studies, which he combined with the study of ancient architecture. During this time he taught Julius Caesar Scaliger ... in the Greek and Latin languages. Although he was a member of an order, he spent most of his life outside the monastery. In Rome and other cities in Italy, Fra Giocondo collected more than 2000 inscriptions dedicated to Lorenzo de ’Medici; a copy is in the Biblioteca Magliabecchiana in Florence. During his stay in France he found a manuscript of Caesar's Gallic War, which was printed with his comment by Aldus in Venice. He had other authors printed for the first time, including Columella's De re rustica.

Between 1506 and 1508 Giocondo created the German court in Venice, which was painted by Titian and Giorgione.
In 1511 Giocondo published his own treatise on architecture in ten volumes, which could be seen as an improvement or explanation of Vitruvius' book of the same name.

In France, Giocondo discovered a manuscript by Pliny the Younger containing his correspondence with Trajan. Giocondo published it in Paris, where it is still considered authenthic to this day. The Italian version was published in Bologna (1498). Pliny's letters to Trajan are of value only for Christian theology (see Detering as cited above).

Giocondo also found Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War and published them.
Baldauf had commented on this, even if he did not come across Giocondo (since all finds were always attributed to Bracciolini).
Columella's just mentioned "garden book" is, at least from an astronomical point of view, completely worthless and by no means antique.
And finally: Vitruvius does not yet know the chronology that was emerging at that time. Of course: Scaliger (senior) was Giocondo's student. He sets a thousand years between the Greek heyday (let's say Plato) and Homer (today three centuries are assumed to be sufficient).

Since I now suspect that the two books of the same name, Ten Volumes on Architecture, both published by Giocondo, are actually only one, namely first in 1486 still rather bungled, and then improved and abundantly illustrated in 1511 with all the skills acquired in the meantime, I search now on the Internet for the original work of Giocondo in order to be able to compare it with the original version (of Vitruvius). I can't find any clue. Except for this:

The digital art gate - here author Zindel 2017 -
first describes the supposed ancient architect Vitruvius and then adds:

"At the end of his life, Fra Giovanni Giocondo (around 1435 - 1515) used all his skills to explain the difficult accessible and inadequate text of Vitruvius in an understandable way. Fra Giocondo is a well-known engineer, knows the technical and scientific writings of the ancients, is more competent Philologist and excellent connoisseur of the ruins and their inscriptions. He tries to make De architectura libri decem of Vitruvius understandable for scientists as well as for practitioners, at the end he also adds an important dictionary. In comparison to the three previous editions of Vitruvius ( 1486, 1496 and 1497) Fra Giocondo offers a greatly improved text with 136 wood engravings, since the original illustrations have been lost. His interpretations of the Doric style, which Vitruvius had not described in detail and which rarely appear in the ancient buildings, were taken over by almost all of his successors such as Diego de Sagredo, Serlio, Philandrier, Vignola or Pa lladio."

The solution could easily be as follows: Fra Giocondo does not necessarily have to be the inventor or forger of Vitruvius, he may have processed the texts available in 1511 (e.g. cared for by Giovanni Sulpicio from Veroli, Venice 1495 and Florence 1496; see Kruft p. 72 f).


Detering, Hermann (2011): Falsche Zeugen (Aschaffenburg)
Illig, Heribert (1996): Das erfundene Mittelalter (Düsseldorf)
Krause, Katharina (1990): Zeichnungen französischer Architekten um 1700 (Teil 2: Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 53, S. 66-72
Kruft, Hanno-Walter (2013): Geschichte der Architekturtheorie, Von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, 6. Aufl. online (Beck, München)
Reber, Franz (1908): Zehn Bücher über Architektur (Berlin; Nachdruck Matrix 2004)
Rupp, Erwin (1964): Bautechnik im Altertum (München)
Topper, Uwe (2916): Das Jahrkreuz (Tübingen)
(2013): Review of Detering, "False Witnesses" (here in English)
Zindel (2017) in: Die digitale Kunstpforte (internet) Stichwort Vitruv – Giocondo Fra

Uwe Topper, Berlin, Dec. 2020

Vitruv LeonardoProportion scheme of the human figure according to Vitruvius - sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, 1485/90, Venice, Galleria dell ’Accademia. Author information from the photographer: Luc Viatour 2007 /

The English version of this article was improved thanks to Nick Weech of Scotland

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