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Vitruvius, De architectura in the manuscript Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana , Plut. 30.10, fol. 1r (15th century)

Vitruvius ( Marcus Vitruvius Pollio ) was a Roman architect, engineer, and architectural theorist . He lived in the 1st century BC. Chr.


There is only sparse information about the life of Vitruvius. Neither the exact dates of his life nor his full name are certain. There is agreement on the noun Vitruvius (also just "Vitruvius"), but the prenomen Marcus is just as questionable as the cognomen Pollio, which is only mentioned by Cetius Faventinus . Most of the biographical data are taken from Vitruvius' own work and are therefore quite reliable.

It was probably made around 80–70 BC. Born as a free Roman citizen in Campania . As a young man, he claims to have been trained as an architect, which at the time also included engineering. During the civil war he was responsible for the construction of war machines under Gaius Iulius Caesar and moved with them to Spain , Gaul and Britain . After Caesar's murder in 44 BC. He took over the same function in the army of Emperor Augustus and was around 33 BC. Dismissed from military service. He then worked as an architect and engineer on the construction of the water network in Rome, where he introduced a new system of water distribution . His achievements as an architect included building the basilica of Fanum Fortunae , now known as Fano. He was also the first to describe sounds as a movement of air, already recognized the wave nature of sound and compared its propagation with that of water waves.

In old age he switched to writing and benefited from a pension that Augustus had given him to guarantee his financial independence. Between 33 and 22 BC Then came his work, Ten books on architecture (original title: De architectura libri decem ). There is no information about the date of Vitruvius death, which suggests that he enjoyed little popularity during his lifetime. He probably died around 15 BC. Chr.


The Ten Books on Architecture are the only surviving ancient work on architecture and, according to Vitruvius himself, the first ever Latin work that aimed at a comprehensive presentation of architecture and the level of knowledge of civil engineering at the time. The books are dedicated to the Emperor Augustus as thanks for his support. They have the character of a textbook with literary echoes and thus belong more to the non-fiction than the specialist book genre . The oldest known copy dates from the 9th century. A total of over 80 manuscripts from the Ten Books on Architecture have been preserved. No other writings by Vitruvius are known.

Time of origin

The work itself also provides the only clues for dating. Based on the information on individual Roman buildings, the beginning of the composition can be traced back to the time from 33 BC. While the final editing falls at the earliest in the twenties.


The work comprises ten books, each of which contains a foreword with a direct address to the emperor or an anecdotal introduction to the subject.

The structure is structured as follows:

  • Book 1: Training of the architect and basic architectural concepts; The creation of cities
  • Book 2: Building Materials
  • Books 3 and 4: Temple Building
  • Book 5: Public Buildings
  • Book 6: Private Buildings
  • Book 7: The interior finishing of private buildings; Color science
  • Book 8: Water Supply
  • Book 9: Astronomy and clock making
  • Book 10: Mechanical Engineering


Books 1 to 7 are dedicated to the work of architects, while books 8 to 10 are more related to today's engineering. In ancient times, these fields formed a unit. In the English-speaking world, the term civil engineer , based on Roman origins, is still used today for the civil engineer , in contrast to the non-civil, i.e. H. military engineering, in use. The civil engineer profession is similar in Austria . In German, the terms architect and engineer often have overlapping fields of meaning.

Training of the architect

In the first chapter of the first book, Vitruvius reveals that the architect's knowledge is derived from “ fabrica ” (craft) and “ ratiocinatio ” (intellectual work), which enable him to judge all other handicrafts. In the Renaissance , this dichotomy encouraged architects to break away from the medieval guild and builders' hut traditions and to introduce the personal separation of practical execution and theoretical planning. This was particularly evident with Leon Battista Alberti , who only made plans and models and left the realization of the buildings to experienced site managers.

For the theoretical training of the architect, Vitruvius orients himself to the training in the artes liberales . With this he transfers Cicero's demand for comprehensive education of the speaker ( rhetoric ) to his own specialist field, which in turn goes back to the necessity of comprehensive education (ενκυκλιος παιδεια, "enkyklios paideia") advocated by the Greeks. The corresponding term can be found in his work in the translation encyclios disciplina .

Vitruvius counts ten areas of knowledge among the areas in which an architect should be proficient for the benefit of his architectural activity: 1. Writing, 2. Drawing, 3. Geometry, 4. Arithmetic, 5. History, 6. Philosophy, 7. Music, 8 Medicine, 9th Law and 10th Astronomy. Among other things, he explains in his work theorems of Plato and Pythagoras and describes how Archimedes found the principle named after him and what results Eratosthenes and Archytas of Taranto came to when surveying the earth.

In his opinion, only those who are well versed in all of these subjects can reach the highest level of architecture, the “summum templum architecturae” . A wrong translation and interpretation of this statement could lead to a. the primacy of architecture derived from the genres of the fine arts, which was to have canonical effects from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Principles of architecture

In the second and third chapters of the first book, Vitruvius lays down various categories of architectural theory which, as basic concepts, should determine architectural design on the one hand and serve as criteria for assessing the finished building on the other.

According to Vitruvius, the three main requirements for architecture are: Firmitas (strength), Utilitas (usefulness) and Venustas (beauty). All three categories must be taken into account equally and equally. In addition, Vitruvius defines six basic terms for the subject of architecture: "ordinatio", "dispositio", "eurythmia", "symmetria", "decor" and "distributio".

“Ordinatio”, “eurythmia” and “symmetria” refer to the proportions of the building. "Ordinatio" stands for "scale", ie the appropriate dimensional division of the members of a building, "eurythmia" for the graceful appearance and the true to size appearance in the assembly of the structural members and "symmetria" for the harmony of the individual, related to a module Elements among each other. In the first chapter of the third book, in which Vitruvius explains the idealized proportions of the human body, the reduction of its dimensions to basic geometric shapes such as square and circle, and the modular basis of number systems, these statements on proportioning are deepened.

"Dispositio" refers to the conception or disposition of the building and the necessary building plans, which he defines with floor plan, section and perspective view ("ichnographia", "orthographia" and "scaenographia").

“Decor” refers to the flawless appearance of a building in accordance with the rules of recognized conventions. As examples, Vitruvius names the correct assignment of types of columns (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) to certain deities in temple construction, the coordination of outside and inside, of stylistic elements to the overall style, of rooms to cardinal points, etc.

"Distributio" means, on the one hand, the appropriate distribution of building materials and the expenses for the construction, and on the other hand, the construction method appropriate to the respective status of the residents.

Another building principle of Vitruvius that applies to the erection of temples is the principle of easting. Vitruvius insisted that the idol in the temple face west, so that those who make sacrifices not only sacrifice towards the idol but also towards the east. In addition, the altars, and thus the whole temple, should be oriented towards the east (De arch., Book 4, Chapters 5 and 9). If the circumstances do not allow this, the entrance of the temple can also be placed to the east.

Column orders

Based on the detailed description of the Doric , Ionic and Corinthian columns and their proportions and decorative elements, the system of column orders developed in the Renaissance , a canonical system of shapes and proportions for columns, for which proportions were derived from the basic dimensions of the module (the radius on the Basis of a column), according to which the dimensions of all other components are determined.

Vitruvius also connects the various orders with certain building tasks. He connects a defensive and serious expression with the Doric order, a feminine and cultivated expression with the Ionic order and a delicate and slim expression with the Corinthian order. However, he uses the term “genus, genera” (type) of the columns and not, for example, “ordo, ordinis” (orders), as it was first formulated by the architectural theorists of the Renaissance . This method of the module was taken up again in the Renaissance and in the 20th century.


The Ten Books on Architecture offer the first comprehensive treatment of ancient technology (time measurement, construction machinery, water wheels , war machines ), architecture and interior design. Previously there should have been only brief compendia and treatises on individual issues. Vitruvius was able to draw on a wealth of experience thanks to his many years of activity. In addition, he used countless Greek sources that are known to us through a catalog listed in the foreword to Book 7. In his remarks on temple construction he relied primarily on the writings of the architect Hermogenes , the chapter on astronomy probably goes back to the teacher Aratos von Soloi . One of the main sources among the Roman authors is Varro, with his treatises on building history.


The language is generally considered to be cumbersome and not very fluent. Characteristics are ancient forms, overabundance of expression, grammatical peculiarities and occasional recourse to colloquial language.


Proportion scheme of the human figure according to Vitruvius - sketch by Leonardo da Vinci , 1485/90, Venice, Galleria dell 'Accademia

Apart from a few occasional mentions, such as in Frontinus , Faventinus and Pliny the Elder , Vitruvius's work had only a slight echo in ancient literature. This could be due to Vitruvius' orientation to Greek architecture, due to the lack of statements about the new Roman developments in construction (amphitheater, vault technology, pillar and arch constructions), perhaps also to the brittleness of the language, so that the greater popularity of the Author did not appear in antiquity. It is possible that the work was used as a manual by the architects of the imperial era, but the descriptions of Vitruvius, especially in the details, can rarely be proven archaeologically.

The text was known during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. There are around 80 medieval manuscripts, including an Anglo-Saxon text and a Carolingian text from around 800 that Einhard knew. There were copies in St. Gallen , Cluny , Canterbury and Oxford, among others .

Vitruvius did not gain greater fame until later, especially during the Renaissance . A new style of architecture, based on antiquity, drew on Vitruvius to learn the basics of Roman architecture. Now they searched the monastery libraries for the rare Vitruvian manuscripts, such as the humanist Poggio Bracciolini , who found a Vitruvian manuscript in the St. Gallen monastery library in 1416 . The book was printed for the first time by Giovanni Sulpicio and published in Rome around 1486.

Since Vitruvius's work was not illustrated, it was necessary for the reception in the Renaissance to look at the ancient works of architecture in addition to his (sometimes difficult to understand) theoretical explanations in order to be able to implement the instructions from the 10 books.
At the same time, the preserved ancient buildings differed in many ways from Vitruvius' information, as they were only built after his death. This gave the architect a leeway in the implementation that made it possible to go beyond a pure copy of antiquities.

Another edition by Fra Giovanni Giocondi da Verona appeared in Venice in 1511, and in 1521 the first (illustrated) print of an Italian edition by Cesare Cesariano . And although Italian remained the leading language in European architectural theory for a long time, translations into other languages ​​quickly followed. Walther Hermann Ryff published the first German translation in 1548. He also published a commentary around the same time.

From the 15th century onwards, Vitruvius influenced a large number, if not essentially all, of European architectural treatises and European architectural theory. In 1452 Alberti published his “de re aedificatoria”, which followed Vitruvius in terms of structure and theoretical setting.

William Newton: Commentaires sur Vitruve ... London, 1780. Copy of the Scientific City Library Mainz. Signature: III i: 2 ° / 163 h

In the 18th century, François de Cuvilliés picked up the title for his textbook Vitruve Bavarois . The English architect William Newton (1735–1790) wrote an English translation and a French-language commentary on Vitruvius that appeared in 1780; this was the first scientific examination of “De architectura”. This print is provided with numerous full-page engravings, one of only two known copies in German libraries is in the Mainz City Library and is part of the Rara collection.

A central passage in Vitruvius's treatise introduces the theory of the well-formed human being ( homo bene figuratus ). The human proportions to one another are described using geometric shapes. This inspired several Renaissance artists to make sketches, including the Nuremberg Albrecht Dürer , Mariano di Jacopo Taccola , Pellegrino Prisciani and Francesco di Giorgio Martini . The most famous illustration is by Leonardo da Vinci and became famous under the name " The Vitruvian Man ". With this drawing, Leonardo substantiated Vitruvius' thesis that the upright human being fits into the geometric shape of the square as well as the circle.

The method of the module , which was founded by Vitruvius, was taken up again in the 20th century as the Modulor , a system of measurements by the architect Le Corbusier that is based on the golden ratio .

For the independent reception of the word “module” see also model .

The lunar crater Vitruvius and the Mons Vitruvius are named after Vitruvius.



in alphabetical order by authors / editors

  • Michael von Albrecht : History of Roman literature from Andronicus to Boethius and its continued effect. Volume 1. 3rd, improved and expanded edition. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026525-5 , pp. 740-746.
  • Barry Baldwin: The Date, Identity, and Career of Vitruvius. In: Latomus. Volume 49, 1990, pp. 425-434.
  • Erwin Emmerling , Stefanie Correll, Andreas Grüner u. a. (Ed.): Firmitas et Splendor. Vitruvius and the techniques of wall decoration (= studies from the Chair of Restoration , Technical University of Munich , Faculty of Architecture). Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-935643-62-7 .
  • Günther Fischer : Vitruvius New or What is architecture? (= Bauwelt Foundations. Volume 141). Birkhäuser, Basel 2009, ISBN 978-3-7643-8805-8 .
  • Hans-Joachim Fritz: Vitruvius. Architectural Theory and Power Politics in Roman Antiquity. (= Octagon. Volume 15). Lit, Münster 1995, ISBN 3-8258-2541-8 .
  • Henner von Hesberg : Vitruvius. In: Wolfram Ax (ed.): Latin teachers in Europe. Fifteen portraits from Varro to Erasmus of Rotterdam. Böhlau-Verlag, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-412-14505-X , pp. 23–43.
  • Achim Hettler and Karl-Eugen Kurrer : Earth pressure . Ernst & Sohn , Berlin 2019, ISBN 978-3-433-03274-9 , pp. 351–352.
  • Julian Jachmann: The architecture books of Walter Hermann Ryff. Vitruvius reception in the context of mathematical sciences (= Cultural and Interdisciplinary Studies in Art. Volume 1). Ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-89821-584-9 .
  • Heiner Knell : Vitruvius's theory of architecture. An introduction. 3rd, updated edition. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2008, ISBN 3-534-21959-7 .
  • Herbert Koch : From the afterlife of Vitruvius. Publishing house for art and science, Baden-Baden 1951.
  • Alste Horn-Oncken : About the decent. Studies on the history of architectural theory. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1967.
  • Stefan Schuler: Vitruvius in the Middle Ages. The reception of “De architectura” from antiquity to the early modern period (= Pictura et poesis. Volume 12). Böhlau, Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-412-09998-8 . At the same time: Dissertation University of Münster 1996.
  • Thomas Gordon Smith: Vitruvius on Architecture. The Monacelli Press, New York 2003.
  • Hans-Ullrich Wöhler: Vitruv. In: Gerhard Banse , Siegfried Wollgast (Ed.): Biographies of important technicians . Volk und Wissen publishing house , Berlin 1983, pp. 25-29.
  • Hartmut Wulfram: Literary Vitruvius reception in Leon Battista Alberti's “De re aedificatoria” (= contributions to antiquity. Volume 155). Saur, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-598-77704-3 . At the same time dissertation at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen 2000.
  • Frank Zöllner: Vitruvius's proportional figure. Source-critical studies on art literature in the 15th and 17th centuries 16th century (= manuscripts for art history in the Werner publishing company. Volume 14). Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms 1987, ISBN 978-3-88462-913-0 .
  • John Ward-Perkins, et al : Vitrvuis Pollio . In: Charles Coulston Gillispie (Ed.): Dictionary of Scientific Biography . tape 15 , Supplement I: Roger Adams - Ludwik Zejszner and Topical Essays . Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1978, p. 514-521 .

Web links

Commons : Vitruvius: De Architectura  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files
Wikisource: Vitruvius  Sources and Full Texts
Wikisource: Marcus Vitruvius Pollio  - Sources and full texts (Latin)


  1. The chapters on plaster and stucco, which are usually neglected, in a new translation with detailed commentary by Felix Henke / Laura Thiemann, Vitruv on stucco and plaster - the relevant passages of the 'decem libri de architectura'. In: Firmitas et Splendor (2014), pp. 13–125.
  2. Marcus Cetius Faventinus De architectura compendiosissime tractans ...
  3. The alleged "rediscovery" of Vitruvius by Bracciolini in 1414 in the library of Montecassino is a legend. Bracciolini actually found his Vitruvian manuscript in the monastery library of St. Gallen in 1416, but this was not a rediscovery either, since Vitruvian manuscripts were already known. The early Italian humanists Petrarca and Boccaccio had already dealt with Vitruvius in the 14th century. The decisive factor for the increased reception of Vitruvius in the Renaissance was not an accidental discovery of manuscripts, but the newly awakened interest of the Renaissance in imitating ancient works. Hanno-Walter Kruft, History of Architectural Theory , Munich 1985, pp. 42, 73.
  4. About this issue
  5. ^ About the edition by Cesare Cesarino
  6. Marc van den Broek : Leonardo da Vinci's ingenuity. A search for clues. Mainz 2018, ISBN 978-3-96176-045-9 , p. 30 f.