The City and the Text in Vitruvius’ De Architectura

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    Consistently at the beginning and end of books and major sections of De Architectura, Vitruvius reflects on the order in which he presents his material (e.g. 2.10.3; 4.3.3). He frequently stresses that the design of his treatise follows a particular ordo, but never makes explicit what this ordo actually is. The underlying structuring principle, however, is crucial to understanding the treatise’s literary design and architectural theory. On the macro level, as has been little appreciated to date, Vitruvius presents his material in the order in which a city is built from scratch – beginning with the choice of the correct site and the laying out of walls (book 1) and the collection of building materials (book 2), continuing with the construction of different types of building (books 3-7), and finally securing the future flourishing of the city by supplying it with water (book 8), clocks (book 9) and defence mechanisms (book 10). As we read the De Architectura book by book, the matrix of a city comes into being, adaptable according to local conditions or the size of the community (Fritz, 132-3). I argue that this macrostructure also creates an implicit parallel between the creation of a city and the creation of the text itself. As the treatise unfolds, the ideal city comes into being – the De Architectura.

    On the lexical level, the dominant metaphor Vitruvius uses to describe his own text is not the city (or any type of architecture) but the body. The implications of the corpus-metaphor have been explored in detail (Callebat 1989, McEwen 2003, Oksanish 2011). By using it, Vitruvius suggests that unlike his predecessors’ smaller projects, his own work is an organic whole, made up of its membra, its constituent parts. The metaphor conveys the perfect wholeness and completeness of the treatise as well as its harmonious proportions. What it does not readily seem to provide, however, is a natural ordo, a principle of arrangement. This is delivered instead by the process of city construction. The relation between the metaphor of the body and the more subtle, implicit metaphoricity of city construction lies at the core of Vitruvian architectural theory. The two source domains melt seamlessly into one another, since the city is both the result of human design and like a natural organism which grows and develops in accordance with nature – an ideal expressed, for example, in the famous Dinocrates-anecdote (2.praef).

    For Vitruvius, the city offered a natural ordo for a book on architecture, but I propose that the macrostructure of city-building also stands at the beginning of a larger trend in early Augustan literature, which relates to the contemporary concerns of colony foundation, as well as to the Augustan project of ‘re-founding’ Rome. The parallel between city and text appeals to a group of authors writing at the same time as or just after Vitruvius, who set up their projects and textual foundations explicitly to parallel or rival Augustus’ own building of a new Rome. For example, Propertius (4.1A) and Manilius (Astronomica 2.772-87) explicitly compare their literary undertaking to the construction of a city in order to make a point about literary ambition and prestige as well as (in the case of Manilius) arrangement (Fantham, Welch 25-7, Schindler 252-72). Their poetic cities even display the same combination of organic growth and human construction as Vitruvius’ macro-city. Analysis of the macrostructure of the De Architectura thus not only offers important insights into Vitruvian conceptions of architecture and literary ambition, but also throws new light on Vitruvius’ position within the literary environment of early Augustan Rome.

    Callebat, L. (1989), ‘Organisation et structures du De architectura de Vitruve’, in Geertman, H. and de Jong, J. J. (1989) (eds.), Munus non ingratum : proceedings of the international symposium on Vitruvius' De architectura and the hellenistic and republican architecture, Leiden 20-23 January 1987, Leiden, 34-8.
    Fantham, E. (1997), ‘Images of the city: Propertius’ new-old Rome’, in Habinek, T. and Schiesaro, A. (eds.), The Roman Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, 122-35.
    Fritz, H.-J. (1995), Vitruv: Architekturtheorie und Machtpolitik in der römischen Antike, Münster.
    Gros, P. (1992), Vitruve. De L’Architecture. Livre IV, Paris.
    Gros, P. (1994) (ed.), Le Projet de Vitruve: Objet, destinataires et reception du De Architectura, Rome.
    McEwen, I. K. (2003), Writing the Body of Architecture, Cambridge MA.
    Oksanish, J. M. (2011), Building the Principate: A Literary Study of Vitruvius’ “de Architectura”, diss. New Haven.
    Schindler, C. (2000), Untersuchungen zu den Gleichnissen im römischen Lehrgedicht, Göttingen.
    Welch, T. S. (2005), The elegiac cityscape: Propertius and the meaning of Roman monuments, Ohio.
    Originele taal-2English
    Pagina's (van-tot)183-197
    Nummer van het tijdschrift2
    StatusPublished - 2016

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