Textual Imaginations: Vitruvius in Archaeological [Re]Constructions.

by Daniel M. Millette.


In the past, architects and archaeologists have often looked to the writings of Vitruvius to understand the monuments of classical antiquity. Yet we know that Vitruvius was one individual living at a particular moment in time, whose writings could not have represented the whole of antiquity's architectural thought. The practice of theoretically [re]constructing monuments according to his design tenets continues in spite of knowing that there are gaps between the rhetoric of De architectura libri decem and the built realities of antiquity. The danger of course, lies in relating theoretical [re]constructions to architectural restorations. This is especially relevant in the study of the classical theatre, where archaeologists seem "eager to adjust their evidence to the Vitruvian plan" (Small 1983: 55), while at the same time some architects seem just as eager to "restore the ruin to the artificiality of its imagined original state" (Frampton 1994: 22).

In this paper the reasons why architectural historians and archaeologists persist in the practice of [re]constructing ruined monuments in spite of inherent problems are explored. This is an 'invented tradition', to use Hobsbawm's (1983) term, which is based in the epistemology of the Vitruvius corpus. A cumulation of tendencies, including the tendency to borrow Vitruvius as a means to render authority to one's work, the tendency to use the ancient treatise within a didactic framework, the tendency to position the old text vis-à-vis the study of archaeological monuments, and the tendency to 'imagine' illustrations within translations and Vitruvius-like architectural treatises, together have made it such that [re]construction of monuments by means of text is accepted within architectural and archaeological professions. Through the acceptance of the practice, 'imaginary' monuments are constructed.

Textual Imaginations: Vitruvius in Archaeological [Re]Construction.

As the only comprehensive architectural treatise surviving from classical antiquity, Vitruvius' De architectura libri decem reveals design ideals that would otherwise not be obvious among the often confusing archaeological evidence. Architects and archaeologists turn to the text to gain insight into the remains of the classical world, frequently producing theoretical [re]constructions of monuments whose form and meaning are no longer clear. It is rare to encounter a discussion of classical architecture that does not mention Vitruvius; indeed, for centuries monuments seem to have been both theoretically and physically rebuilt according to the ideals of Vitruvius.

While Vitruvius' design tenets are of the classical era, it is easily arguable that as classically focused researchers look to Vitruvius for their cues, they adapt and adopt the ideas of a single individual and not necessarily those of the classical world as a whole, even though these ideas were formulated within this wider context. It can further be argued that many theoretical [re]constructions -- and physical restorations -- are new and creative designs; they are, after all, based on present day interpretations. Perhaps more significant is that even when the [re]constructions are theoretical, Vitruvius' text is cited as 'evidence' for these works. In spite of knowing that there are gaps between what Vitruvius described and what was, and is, observable from extant monuments, archaeologists and architectural historians persist in using his text to validate their [re]constructions. As the ancient treatise is used in the production of theoretical [re]constructions and referred to in the architectural restoration of monuments, a process of circular authentication can result, whereby Vitruvius is first referred to for 'theory' and in turn is recalled to buttress the final physical [re]construction. In this paper, the practice of using translations of De architectura libri decem and related treatises is critically examined.


In the discussion of his research on Vitruvius, Pierre Gros highlights that, in spite of being a practice which is problematic, Vitruvius' text continues to be used to [re]construct theatres (1993: 4; 1994: 57). Small makes the same observation, noting that '[s]upplied with Vitruvius' step by step method of design, archaeologists have too often been eager to adjust their evidence to the Vitruvian plan' (1983: 55). Yet the two do not explore the reasons for the persistence of this practice . The temptation to'fill in the gaps' when confronted by a lacuna of clues on the former arrangement of a now ruined monument seems irresistible for both archaeologists and architects. The origin of the practice partly lies in the way Vitruvius' writings have traditionally been interpreted, often without questioning his own modus vivendi and sometimes making the assumption that his design tenets were followed by all designers of the classical world. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on looking for similarities between the instructions outlined in De architectura libri decem and what is -- or was -- observed in the field. When most post-Vitruvian architecture was built in a very different fashion from the examples the ancient architect had drawn on, this practice appears inappropriate (MacDonald 1977: 29).

To better understand the tradition of '[re]constructing-according-to-Vitruvius', the Vitruvius corpus must be confronted in an epistemological sense. Indeed, as Georg Germann eloquently put it,

"[l']historien de l'architecture se trouve dans une situation analogue à celle du théologien devant l'histoire des dogmes et l'exégèse des textes: les écritures saintes sont à la théologie ce que Vitruve et ses Dix livres de l'architecture ... sont à l'histoire de l'architecture" (1991: 9).

Whether the ancient treatise is analogous to the holy scriptures is certainly debatable, but clearly it is not possible to separate it from architectural theory and hence, any discussion of the [re]construction of classical monuments. The exploration of this text is guided by three themes: first, authority and authentication; second, didactic[s]; and finally, interpretation and imagination.

Authority and Authentication.

It is tempting to view Vitruvius as an accident of history, there being a host of lost texts related to architecture. Fufidius and Publius Septimius' writings, for example, were mentioned by Vitruvius but are no longer extant (VII: preface). In the same passage he also mentioned at least fifteen other works dealing with subjects ranging from symmetry to mechanics (VIII: 14). With so many irretrievable texts, it is easy to consider the Vitruvius treatise as one that could have also disappeared, but by accident, has survived. Labeling it as an accident of history, however, does seem somewhat hasty. It may be worth considering that the Roman writer's text was preserved at least to some extent deliberately. In fact, the text was quite "valuable, even indispensable centuries [after it was authored]" (Plommer 1973: 33). This 'referencing' may have been linked to the way the Roman writer used established 'authorities' in his own text.

Vitruvius seems to have been preoccupied with giving his written work an authoritative feel, all the while proving to his readers that he was erudite. This was perhaps related to his rather limited building design success, with the Basilica at Fano being the sole design project to his credit. Listing a series of authoritative figures -- mostly Greeks like Leonides, Archimedes and Pyrrhus -- would have been a way of rendering the authoritative feel he sought. While it is possible that naming other writers would have been a way of paying tribute to them, his De architectura libri decem was written in the Hellenic rhetorical style of the time and it is more likely that because Romans respected Greeks, the mention of Grecian scholars would have added credence to his work (Callebat 1993: 45). In this light, Vitruvius gave detailed and concise instructions to make his work as useful as possible, adding to the authoritative feel of the text. When his theatre tenets are used as an example, it becomes clear that he was certainly looking to Greece for his inspiration in describing theatre design.

When he wrote his treatise -- just prior to Augustus taking power at around 14 BC, only one theatre existed in Rome: the theatre of Pompey. Because Roman examples were limited, it is understandable that he would mention that "we cannot show any in Rome" and that one had to go to places away from Rome, to "many Greek cities", to see examples "built of solids" ([B] V: 5.7-8). Curiously, this does not seem to have been taken into account by his contemporaries; just as Vitruvius had looked to the Greeks for examples and 'authority' his own contemporaries looked to him as an example, an 'authority'.

Consider Pliny, who discussed the theatre's vela -- the canvas roof utilised in theatre construction -- in his Book XIX (23-24) and who made general use of the De architectura libri decem. He referred to Vitruvius at least three times as he discussed trees (XVI), paint and colours (XXXV), and stone (XXXVI). His referral to the ancient text highlights two things. First, it shows that the book was well known during the first century AD (Granger 1983: xv), and second, it points out that, from the onset, Vitruvius was referred to as an authority of Roman Imperial architecture. This was in spite of having told his readers (as we have seen in the case of the theatre), that he was basing himself to a great extent on Greek-related observations. Pliny would have hoped to add credibility and render an authoritative feel to his own text and may have employed Vitruvius to this end. Others were doing the same, slowly transforming the old treatise into a definitive authority on architecture.

It was probably in this light that Frontinus, writing during the first century AD, and making reference to the more ancient author in his Aqueducts of Rome, informed the reader that Vitruvius was the expert when it came to construction and water-related technology (Book I: 25). A short time after Frontinus, Cetius Faventinum discussed construction materials in a work based, for the most part, on Vitruvius (Anderson 1995: 550). He mentioned the ancient writer in his résumé of architecture and debated the construction techniques of the Roman in his De diversis fabricis architectonicae (also known as Artis architectonicae privatis usibus abbreviatus liber), seemingly placing himself at the same expertise level as the older writer. The fact that Cetius Faventinus chose to provide an abbreviated version of Vitruvius' De architectura libri decem speaks for itself; it was obviously perceived as an important work at the time. Another of the followers of Vitruvius, Palladius, authored an agricultural handbook that, in its discussion of buildings, was based to some degree on the more ancient writer's text (MacDonald 1977: 52). As a final example, Apollodorus cited him (during the second century AD) as an expert on architecture (Fleury 1990: XLVII). From the onset then, Vitruvius was referred to as an authority in order to buttress technical narratives and, in turn, render an authoritative feel to writers' texts as they discussed architecture in general and architectural theory in particular.

Using previous authorities to strengthen arguments and give credence to architecture-related texts became the norm in post-Vitruvius architectural discourse. Vitruvius' contemporaries, and later Latin writers, chose to ignore that many of Vitruvius' observations were pre-Augustan and mostly Greek-based rather than referring to Roman experience and practice. As we are about to see, this becomes clearer as Vitruvius' theatre ideals are considered within the later translations and similar treatises:


At first glance, early Medieval designs -- especially those situated away from the Mediterranean -- do not seem to have been designed with reference to Vitruvius' tenets. The Orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, etc.), for example, were utilised very little after 350 AD. Probably as a result of social and economic changes taking place throughout Italy and the rest of the western world, 'classically' designed building types, including the theatre, became much less popular. At the same time, architects were becoming less liberal arts planners and more trades-oriented master builders. Considering the social changes and the corresponding shifts in the building design profession, it is not surprising that the conventional view that Vitruvius' text was lost during the Middle Ages has persisted until the modern era. However, while some authors still note that the treatise was 'recovered' only at the onset of the Renaissance, the view can no longer realistically be considered valid.

The treatise of Vitruvius was most probably available to the students and builders associated with the monastic schools (Frankl 1960: 89); although access to this text must have been carefully controlled and limited in part to the literate, knowledge of the text may well have filtered down to those governing the construction of works within monastic institutions. The apprentices of the, albeit secretive, building lodges that emerged during the fourth and fifth centuries, may thus have had the opportunity to refer to De architectura libri decem (Kostof 1977b: 69). There were numerous copies -- Krinsky (1967) has identified some seventy-eight facsimiles available during the Middle Ages. Builders and apprentices would have found the text's technical instructions particularly useful, especially, for example, in relation to timber, colours and pigments. Considering that the monasteries facilitated building apprenticeship through their schools, designers and builders would almost certainly have referred to the text found throughout their libraries, especially (but not exclusively) for the preparation of church and related building designs. Copies were also held within the royal houses, where the status associated with classical architecture had certainly not completely disappeared. King Theodoric (491-526), for example, undertook to sponsor rebuilding programmes at both Ravenna and Rome and he sponsored the restoration of the theatre at Pompeii according to his own interpretation of the classical ideal. A little later, as Rome continued to decline, classical architectural preservation projects were undertaken in the northern countries (Kostof 1977b: 68). It is difficult to conceive of classical-related building restoration programmes not having included references to Vitruvius' text.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the treatise had gained further popularity within western intelligentsia.

"[A]s soon as the essence of architecture ... [was] considered to be philosophy and mathematics (the divine laws of order and proportion) and archaeology (the monuments of Antiquity), the theoretician and dilettante ... [were] bound to assume a new significance [to the Vitruvian text and the architectural profession in general]" (Pevsner 1943: 188).

In addition to having maintained its authoritative feel and acquiring a didactic quality, there began to emerge a tradition of using the treatise to buttress individual architectural treatises and careers.

Interpretations and Imaginations.

If the emphasis on using the Vitruvius treatise shifted from authority during antiquity to didactic[s] during the Medieval period, it was only to reflect the changes within the architectural profession; the 'liberal arts' profession had become a more technique-oriented trade. This is not to say, however, that the authoritative impression of the ancient text was no longer present. For the humanists of the early fifteenth century who yearned for a return to Imperial Rome's glory, the reinvigorated emphasis on 'all-that-was-classic' was clear. It included a renewed interest in classical literature and a corresponding appreciation of classical architecture. For this reason, it is not surprising to find that Vitruvius appealed to the humanists.

Humanist scholars found a writer who not only identified and described the tasks involved in building, but described the architectural profession as a 'science' that required both 'theory' and 'praxis' (Ettlinger 1977: 98). This was important because art and architecture in humanism called for the knowledge of such diverse fields as astronomy, anatomy and mathematics. The treatise was thus interpreted within the humanistic framework, with emphasis on scientia, including its six principles of architecture: Arrangement, Economy, Eurhythmy, Order, Propriety and Symmetry (Vitruvius: I: 2.1), which fit well within the 'theory' and 'praxis' tenets of humanist scientific thought, tenets which were accommodated within architectural training. Perhaps more significantly, architectural training itself became amalgamated with the field of archaeology and the practice of measuring monuments in precise detail.

Architects and intellectuals such as Brunelleschi (1377-1446) analysed theatres, among other ruins, and compared their findings to the descriptions and tenets of Vitruvius (Ettlinger 1977: 99; Schevill 1963: 419). Around Brunelleschi's time, the papal authority took on the preservation of antiquities as a priority; we know that Raphael (1483-1520), for example, was given carte blanche by Pope Leo X to halt any construction or demolition work thought damaging to any monument or stone inscription of antiquity (Müntz 1880: 316). In this way, a great deal of importance was given to the study of monuments and the practice of comparing remnants of antiquity to Vitruvius' design tenets became all the more important within architectural training. It was within this intellectual mindset that Alberti (1404-1472) wrote his treatise using the ancient text as a basis for his theory and designs. His version of the Templum Etruscan, for example, was derived directly from the older text, with modifications made in order to suit his theoretical needs (Krautheimer 1961: 66-67; 1963: 45). Within his writings emerged a new way of interpreting Vitruvius; his De re aedificatoria recalled the older text in both form and content, yet had a very different motive.

Alberti wrote his treatise around the year 1452, just as he was taking on the role of 'conservateur des monuments historiques de la papauté' (Germann 1991: 49). With an in-depth knowledge of classical literature and a keen interest in the monuments of antiquity, Alberti fulfilled the humanist ideal of looking to Rome's past for inspiration. His treatise was not written as a direct translation of the ancient text; instead, Alberti tried to use the past in order to understand and influence contemporary techniques and designs rather than faithfully reproducing its ideas (Rykwert et al. 1991: x). In this way, he was able to transform the non-Christian text of Vitruvius into a palatable form for the consumption of humanist and Catholic patrons. Interestingly, most sections, including those discussing the theatre, still described design in a very 'Vitruvian' way, with, for example, suggestions for optimal situating and form based on examples from antiquity (Alberti VIII: 7). There were, however, major differences with his theory of architectural practice.

Vitruvius had described the architect as one who was adept at both practice and theory. Yet in spite of emphasising theory and introducing his architectural tenets in his Book I, Vitruvius' theoretical focus was quickly replaced by an emphasis on technique and craft. We need only think of his long descriptions of building materials and uses to make this clear. Alberti, on the other hand, wanted to use architecture for purposes which fitted the humanists' way of seeing the world. He therefore identified the architect as one who planned and designed art for society as a whole, all the while maintaining a theoretical focus and control over practice. Humanism, after all, was all about humanity being in control of its own destiny. It is significant that Alberti criticised the older writer for not having described the classical monuments that he could observe during the fifteenth century. Alberti could not have known that most of the ruined monuments he was observing had been constructed after Vitruvius' time and, as he interpreted the differences between his own observations and those outlined in the Roman writer's treatise as flaws, chose to undertake corresponding corrections in his own text. Thus observations of Imperial Rome's monuments were used to 'correct' Vitruvius' text. In this way, the text of Vitruvius began to be rewritten with its design tenets redefined according to the ruins of Imperial Rome.

Alberti provided no diagrams with his text. The drawings in later translations such as the Italian translation of De re aedificatoria by Cosimo Bartoli (1550) however, hint at the ways in which Alberti 'corrected' Vitruvius. Consider the theatre: Alberti's version of the Vitruvian Roman theatre ideal seems to have been adhered to. Following the ancient treatise, Alberti's cavea was semi-circular and divided into six main cunei. His description, however, was mechanical and lacking in detail in what may have been an attempt to schematise the design into a model.

As Alberti borrowed the form and presentation of the old text he modified the content to suit his own needs. And he also did something else: When he installed a porticus above the theatre's cavea, for example, he was to some extent imagining the spatial arrangement of this section of the theatre. Vitruvius' description of the upper porticus was vague, and although he referred to the scaenae as having three levels, with the upper level continuing around the higher reaches of the cavea, he provided no detailed description of the upper porticus per se (V: 6.6). Alberti had studied theatres -- post-Vitruvian theatres -- and he extrapolated from these studies to 'correct' Vitruvius. In this way, he was clearing the path for a liberalised use of imagination in [re]constructing not only the theatre, but also antiquities in general.

Two separate processes took place as Alberti wrote his treatise. First, the older text was utilised as a means of reinforcing architectural theory. Alberti called on the older authority to give his own work credence while at the same time using Vitruvius to 'elevate' the architectural profession within the humanist ideal. In doing so, he further entrenched the ancient treatise into an authoritative mode. Along with Pope Leo X's support for the study and preservation of antiquities, Vitruvius' treatise became architectural theory. Second, by adding new design details to Vitruvius' descriptions, he cleared the way for the architectural profession to begin interpreting Vitruvius in a more liberal sense; it was now acceptable to 'correct' the treatise of Vitruvius by imagining how certain spaces should have been described. It was accepted practice to adapt Vitruvius' ideals to new designs, and satisfactory to imagine corresponding illustrative material within translations of the text.

Cesariano, for example, detailed his own version of the Roman theatre's stage building in 1521. Vitruvius had written little about the spatial arrangement of the individual rooms making up the frons scaenae, and Cesariano probably improvised the space using his own measured drawings. The practice continued with others, including Sebastiano Serlio who in 1537 wrote his own architectural dissertation and developed a 'corrected' and imagined theatre that would have fundamental implications for future interpretations of the Vitruvius theatre ideal (Wittkower 1967: 18). In Serlio's Book III, he combined descriptions of ancient buildings, utilising the past -- much like Vitruvius and Alberti had done -- to authenticate and give credence to his own ideas. The result was a manual which would appeal to later theatre designers.

Serlio followed the Vitruvius example and constructed his Roman theatre around a semi-circular orchestra, complete with a six-cunei cavea and a thin proscenium in the front of the scaenae. Unlike Vitruvius however, he aligned the stair segments instead of alternating them from one cunei to the other within the seating tiers. As with Alberti, he was most probably using an example (the theatre of Pola?) in order to adjust the Vitruvius description.

Befitting the period, Serlio provided a perspectival design for the scaenae as he described in detail the laws of perspective in his Book II (3). He distinguished three types that would seem to correspond to those of Vitruvius: the scaenae tragica, the scaenae comica and the scaenae satirica. Here we are provided with a good example of the liberties taken in interpreting the ancient text. Consider first the older writer's descriptions:

"There are three styles of scenery: one which is called tragi [sic]; a second, comic; the third, satyric. Now the subjects of these differ severally from one another. The trajic [sic] are designed with columns, pediments and statues and other royal surroundings; the comic have the appearance of private buildings and balconies and projections with windows made to imitate reality, after the fashion of ordinary buildings; the satyric settings are painted with trees, caves, mountains and other country features, designed to imitate landscape." ([B] V: 8).

From this passage, Serlio constructed an entire set, complete with three corresponding versions arranged in the perspectival layouts now etched within our collective memory. He took the brief descriptions and imagined an intricate decor. He almost certainly incorporated Alberti's conception of 'ideal-city-as-an-imaginary-theatre'. His tragic scaenae with straight-lined streets and cleanly defined buildings with even heights recalled Alberti's theatre; proportion, order and place ruled in Serlio's Vitruvian theatre.

With Alberti, Serlio, and others like Cesariano, we have the sanctioning of observation and imagination-based textual corrections. The original text had not changed; its interpretation had. Beginning with Alberti's enhanced description of the upper portico and eventually the drawings of Serlio, the Vitruvian theatre -- and other building styles -- were corrected and adjusted to construct the buildings of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises. Out of the treatises and translations of Alberti, Serlio, Cesariano and others, a 'revised' and 'corrected' set of buildings and descriptions emerged which did not necessarily reflect those outlined and described by Vitruvius, but instead were imaginary constructions based mostly on Augustan theatre remains. The resulting effect of this new way of seeing antiquities can be highlighted with Palladio's (1508-1580) theatre interpretation.

While Palladio's Teatro Olimpico would eventually have a profound effect on the way architects would interpret the theatre, it is in his sketches in general and his drawings for Daniele Barbaro (1513-1570) that we get a true glimpse at how the Vitruvian text was being corrected and changed. In 1550, Palladio was introduced to Daniele Barbaro who was, coincidentally, preparing a translation of Vitruvius to be published in 1556. The two quickly became collaborators, with Palladio responsible for the translation's illustrations as well as some commentary. By 1570, he became advisor on Vicenza's public buildings and it was upon this nomination that he began to write his own treatise on architecture (Wundram, Pape and Marton 1989: 6).

Palladio was a humanist; theory and practice were thus equally important to him. His own treatise was divided into four books, respectively dealing with materials, masonry and the Orders, dwellings (including his own designs intermixed with re-designed examples of antiquity), and finally, urbanism and public buildings. The text was fragmentary and did not discuss the theatre. This is surprising, considering that he had undertaken detailed studies of the building design for one of the guides to Rome that he had written; the Antichità di Roma (Wittkower 1967: 62). Further, he had produced studies and measured drawings of the theatres at Verona, Pola, Venice and Rome, among others. For his thoughts on the theatre, we must turn to Barbaro's thesis which contains his illustrations.

For Palladio's drawing of the Roman theatre, Vitruvius' four-triangled organising scheme was maintained, though expanded to fit the larger cavea instead of the orchestra, complete with alternating sets of stairs within the seat sections. There are clear similarities with Serlio's theatre in terms of the way the organising triangles were arranged as well as the way the stair segments were positioned. The frons scaenae was improvised with compartmentalised spaces, probably based on a set of measured drawings he possessed. One detail is particularly significant: the entrances to each side of the royal door. These were not shown as lining up with the extended transects of the organising triangles. It almost seems as if the plan of a real theatre was superimposed onto Vitruvius' frons scaenae.

Interestingly, in Palladio's sketch of the theatre Berga in Vicenza, the frons scaenae plan is very similar to the theatre drawing for the Barbaro translation. For the scaenae, Palladio supplied Barbaro with a perspectival scene, also resembling the theatre at Berga. It would seem as if little of this illustrative material was really drawn from the original text that it served. In fact, Barbaro's note that Palladio "had explained and interpreted ... [the theatre] ... with skill of mind and hand" (I: chapter 6) attests to an active design imagination. Barbaro's intent in translating Vitruvius was in part to show that he perceived the architectural discipline as one which did not necessarily stand on its own, but worked in concert with the mind, according to a unique set of laws. This again was part of the humanist view that reflected a following of Aristotle's doctrine based on 'experience' and 'imitation' (Wittkower 1967: 68). It stands to reason, then, that as Palladio collaborated with Barbaro, he reflected a certain 'experience', all-the-while 'imitating' what he saw as the building types of antiquity. A 'scientific' architectural design emerged out of Palladio's drawings for Barbaro and for his own treatise.

The use of 'imagined' theatres to produce 'corrected' renderings of Vitruvius' theatre has continued into the twentieth century. In his translation of Vitruvius, Morris Hicky Morgan (1960) used both approaches. Firstly, he provided a drawing of what appears to be a generic Roman theatre, and secondly, he provided the reader with a drawing of the theatre at Aspendus. While the impression one gets from the former is that it was derived from Vitruvius' description, its resemblance to the theatre at Aspendus is clear.

Morgan's schematic comprises a cavea whose upper level is crowned with a single colonnaded portico. The cavea is made up of two levels with a single circulating corridor separating the two. The pulpitum area is entered on each of its sides by spaces cut out of the seating arrangement, and the stairs alternate from one maenium to the other. With the exception of the scaenae/cavea width differences, the theatre of Aspendus is almost identical in form to the schematised version produced by Morgan. Situated in the province of Pamphylia in southern Asia Minor, the theatre was built some time during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80 AD). Bieber noted that this theatre was the "final culmination of the practical as well as representative ideas of Roman theatre architecture" (1961: 208). Indeed, it probably was, but this is not a theatre built during Vitruvius' time; it was erected some two hundred years after Vitruvius had researched his own text.

Vitruvius was not talking about the apex of Imperial Rome's provincial architecture of the second century AD; he was writing about his studies of a few Roman structures and many Greek ones. He left his instructions vague, however, and mentioned that there would indeed be variation. On theatre proportion, for example, he wrote that 'it is possible ... that in all theatres these rules ... should answer all conditions and purposes, but the architect ought to consider ... to what extent it may be modified to suit the nature of the site...'([A], V; 6.7). Clearly, when he reflected on 'the nature of the site', he was considering the site-specific limitations and realities; he almost certainly would have recognised that different places dictated different designs. Thus, he incorporated a certain amount of flexibility in his instructions.

It is the flexibility that Vitruvius built into his theatre discussion that has enabled subsequent interpreters of the original text to imagine their own versions of the classical building styles. But clearly, imagination is not necessarily based solely on the ideas of a text: imaginations are enhanced by personal experience including visits to ruins, other textual references and so on. Because of the looseness of the Vitruvius tenets, [re]constructed theatres and other monuments have tended to 'fit' the tenets; it has thus been relatively easy to [re]construct classical monuments. As we have seen, when Palladio drew his version of the Vitruvius theatre for Barbaro's translation, he borrowed heavily on his own observations of the theatre at Berga. Similarly, Morgan's version of the theatre for his own translation of Vitruvius seems to borrow from the theatre at Aspendus. Although Morgan's translation is without the 'corrections' that Alberti and others would have undertaken, the use of a generalised illustration based on a real theatre to imagine a corresponding theoretical model reflects a similar 'correcting' process.

Finally, we go back to our initial question: Why is there such a persistence in using Vitruvius' text as definitive evidence in archaeological [re]construction? As we have seen, the answer to this question seems to lie within the juxtaposition of traditionally accepted 'tendencies' that have evolved since Vitruvius' era: Firstly, the tendency to borrow Vitruvius as a means of rendering authority to one's work; secondly, the tendency to use the treatise within didactic frameworks; thirdly, the tendency to position the text vis-à-vis the study of archaeological monuments; and fourthly, the tendency to use 'imagined' illustration within translations of the text and similar treatises. Through the cumulation of these tendencies the Vitruvian treatise has been canonised, whereby [re]construction by means of the text has become accepted and condoned within the architectural and archaeological professions.


This paper originated from within my thesis in Advanced Studies in Architecture at the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture. I am indebted to Dr. Sherry McKay for her insights and suggestions. The shortfalls are my own.

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About the Author

Daniel M. Millette has a Master of Arts degree in Cultural and Historical Geography, as well as a Master of Advanced Studies in Architecture degree from the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture. He has spent eight years researching Vitruvius and Roman theatre architecture and six years excavating at the theatre at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges in the French Pyrennees.

© Daniel M. Millette 1997

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