Debunking Vitruvius: An Anti-Hero for ICT Architects

© Roel Wieringa (http://www.cs.utwente.nl/~roelw)

The GRAAL project (http://is.cs.utwente.nl/GRAAL) 

University of Twente, the Netherlands

13 November 2004

 

This text in pdf format

 

Vitruvius is often mentioned in software engineering literature as the first architect whose broad vision of the field is an example for us all. Who was Vitruvius and what did he do to earn our admiration? A search through some resources available on the web yielded the following, sobering information. The sources used are listed at the end of this position statement.

 

Vitrivius lived from about 70 BC to about 25 BC. He was an architect and engineer who served under Augustus and, probably, also under Julius Caesar. Since buildings were designed in much earlier periods, Vitruvius was certainly not the world's first architect. (According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first architect and engineer known by name is Imhotep, who lived in the 27th century BC. He was the chief magician of the pharao's court and designed the step pyramid of Saqqarah,  which can still be admired today. It is the oldest extant  monument of hewn stown in the world. I am glad to know that the first architect was a magician—there is so much more to know about our trade.)

 

It is known that Vitruvius designed a basilic (a kind of roof-covered market) in the city of Fano on the Adriatic sea, but this building has disappeared either because it was torn down or because it decayed into ruins. No other building is known to be designed by him. In Vitruvius' time, architects and engineers were not distinguished and from his writings it appears that for the greater part of his career he served, not as what we would call an architect, but as a military engineer in the Roman army, designing catapults, siege engines etc.

 

Vitruvius did leave behind his ``Ten Books on Architecture'', which cover such diverse subjects as the construction of harbors, clocks, aqueducts, pumps and siege engines. There is a part about contruction materials (stone, wood, etc.), about ornamentation, and about different finishes and colors. Only a tiny fraction of the topics he covered would today be regarded as belonging to architecture.

 

As an architect, Vitruvius cannot have been influential in his own time, because the buildings built at the time do not conform to his guidelines. The architectural guidelines in his books concern classical Greek architecture, preceding the Roman period, and even in part go back to Egyptian architecture. Vitruvius was a reactionary, who wished to return the classical  tradition in the design of temples and public buildings and complains about the practices of his colleagues, who flout the rules of classical architecture.

 

Vitruvius' books survived in the middle ages through a copy available in the palace Scriptorium of Charlemagne. In the Italian Renaissance he became famous for his description of classical architecture, in particular the Dorian, Ionian and Corinthian styles.  His books were the source of precise and practical knowledge of how to design buildings in these styles. Renaissance architects wished to emulate these styles and therefore used his book.

 

Vitruvius gives a lot of rules of thumb useful to the practicing architect. Examples rules of thumb are that the height of a column in a building must be nine  and a half times its thickness, that the distance between columns must be two and a quarters it sthickness, etc. These rules of thumb are simple to remember and they shed light on the way the knowledge of illiterate craftsmen was passed on from each generation to the next. It is for the enumeration of these rules of thumb that Vitruvius is quoted in software engineering as the first known engineer who collected patterns of knowledge and codified them in a book. One project even calls Vitruvius a ``forward-thinking Roman'' (http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~Vit/). In reality, Vitruvius was a backward-looking Roman who wanted to return to architecture practices that were outdated in his time.

 

Since Roman times, handwork was looked down upon by intellectuals. Vitruvius tries to give the architect more status by emphasizing the need for theoretical knowledge. To design a sun dial, he said, the architect must have knowledge of astronomy, to design a theater, he must have knowledge of acoustics, etc. However, these theoretical elaborations are not used to explain the rules of thumb in his books and he admits that in practice, not much theory is really needed. Renaissance philosophers however hoped to discvover the secret of the cosmos by studying Vitruvius' work (skipping the really practical knowledge used by real architects). Vitruvius believed in harmony in nature and he describes human proportions in the same way as the proportions of a building. The so called man of Vitruvius has a palm that has the width of four fingers, a foot that has the the width of four palms, etc. Leonardo da Vinci made a famous drawing of Vitruvian man, who with spread legs and arms can touch the circumference of a circle of which the center is located in his navel. Studying the drawings of Vitruvian man (accessible at the links listed below) reveals an enormous shoe size. Also, the increase in height of man and women since the renaissance  would have given modern Vitruvian man arms the length of which would fit the proportions of a great ape rather than those of the elegant renaissance man pictured by Leonardo. Vitruvius was a man who passionately wanted reality to be the way his theories said it it should be. This is not a good example for software engineers.

Further Reading

Much of the above is based on R. Vermij ``Vitruvius: een antieke bouwmeester over zijn vak'' (in Dutch),  EOS-magazine, Februari 2002, pp. 54—58, accessed on-line at http://www.gewina.nl/dutch/anwfiles/rv_vitruvius.htm on 11 October 2004. The information on Imhotep can be found in the article ``Imhotep'' in the Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed on-line at http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9042182 on 13 October, 2004, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.Vitruvius' The Ten Books on Architecture can be found at http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/vitruvius.html. An English translation of parts is available at http://www.lih.gre.ac.uk/histhe/vitruvius.htm. Facsimiles of drawings can be found at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/george/vitruvius.html.

The Vitruvius project to codify knowledge in software engineering is described  at http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~Vit/. Vitruvian man as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci can be admired at http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/encyclopaedia_romana/architecture/vitruvius.html.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_Vitruvianus gives the proportions of Vitruvian man. On http://rubens.anu.edu.au/htdocs/bytype/arch.sources/vitruvius/index2.html shows that Vitruvian man has an impressive shoe size.