The status of architectural theory as a topos of discourse in Western civilization owes much to the fact that the earliest known treatise, De architectura, was written in ancient Rome. Composed about 30 b.c.e. by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (known to the world as Vitruvius), it purports to be the first attempt to write a systematic and comprehensive theory of architecture. By contrast, precedents in Greek literature, cited by Vitruvius but now lost, all appear to have been limited to narrow topics, such as theories of proportion or explications of individual monuments.
Composed in ten parts, or "books," Vitruvius's text broaches many topics. It begins with general matters: the education and professional scope of the architect and the criteria of excellence in architecture. It then proceeds to practical considerations, such as the siting of new cities and the handling of building materials. Aesthetic and functional issues are treated in the detailed prescriptions related to the design of three building types: temples, amphitheaters, and houses. Finally, it deals with technical matters involving machines used for construction or warfare, timepieces, and the handling of water. Out of all this, about one third of the text touches upon still-relevant issues of architectural theory. Much of this third is addressed to the peripteral temple— exalted as an architectural ideal—and focused upon the rules of its columnar orders.
Because we do not know how Vitruvius's treatise was valued by his contemporaries and know virtually nothing of the influence it may have exerted in his own time or later in antiquity, its meaning and value in the Roman context cannot be assessed. Its importance for us lies in what it has meant to subsequent times. Although we know that Vitru-vius was read intermittently throughout the Middle Ages, his example did not inspire anyone during those centuries to set down theories about the design and construction of buildings. Indeed, nearly a millennium and a half would pass before someone would again compose a treatise of this sort. Since then, readers have been both enthralled by the virtues of this treatise and vexed by its defects. However mixed the response, Vitruvius's text has always held the status of archetype, influencing the way the theory of architecture has been posited even to the present day.
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