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Clarifying Classicism

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review Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture A new translation by Ingrid D Rowland with commentary and illustrations by Thomas Noble Howe. Cambridge University Press, 1999. 333pp. £50

Fifteen years ago I tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the idea of a new translation of Vitruvius to British publishers. A few years later, the American Classical architect Thomas Gordon Smith embarked on a similar venture with Ingrid Rowland as translator. The partnership foundered. Many years on, this book is the culmination of Rowland's enterprise, now with a different partner, Thomas Noble Howe, an architectural historian.

A new translation is long overdue, to provide an alternative to William Hickey Morgan's serviceable but obscure version of 1914 or the dry and apparently less accurate Loeb Classical Library parallel text of 1931 by Frank Granger.

There can be no underestimation of the importance of Marcus Pollio Vitruvius' Ten Books. They were written in Italy just before the birth of Christ, at which time they were only one of many treatises on architecture. Their survival when all the others were lost made them important in the Middle Ages and phenomenally so in the Renaissance.

They were the foundation of all theoretical architectural writing from the fifteenth century onwards. Alberti, Serlio, and Palladio based their books on Vitruvius. In his treatise lies the origin of the modern concept of an architect as a liberally educated professional. All post-Renaissance Classical architecture is built on the dual foundations of archaeology and Vitruvius, and his architectural principles of 'firmness, commodity and delight' are still quoted by the most radical Modernists.

That particular translation of the Vitruvian principles has long been superseded but has nonetheless hung on. Morgan called them 'durability, convenience and beauty'; Granger used 'strength, utility and grace'. Rowland translates them as 'soundness, utility and attractiveness', which is modern without being anachronistic. This is the style throughout her translation - she brings Vitruvius to life. She lets you feel his indignation at his competitors 'who not only lack knowledge of architecture but even of construction techniques' and be grateful that architects today are not subject to the ancient Ephesian contract of employment.

In a work as important as Vitruvius, accuracy in translation is important. In respect of the design of houses, for example, Morgan's 1914 version states that, while there is a standard, it is something 'from which we should not hesitate to vary'. In 1931 Granger puts it differently, saying that there is a standard 'from which modifications are to be correctly deduced'. The meanings are quite opposite. Rowland settles the matter in plain English: there is a system 'on the basis of which any change can be incorporated without hesitation'.

The translated text is excellent but it would have been improved by a more expansive commentary. There is so much background to Vitruvius that requires detailed explanation. The Roman house, Roman town planning and Roman engineering are so intimately bound up with Roman life that much more than expanded textual notes are required to make full sense of the text.

It is a great pity that, in such a seminal book, the illustrations should be so poor in quality. While they can be informative, the crude, sketchy, sometimes laughable images compromise their message. I was particularly offended by a tracing of Sheila Gibson's reconstruction of the Forum of Augustus: not only was the original much better but the source is not credited.

Worst of all, we are now faced with a politically correct Vitruvian man. The famous figure of the proportions of a man in a circle and a square (best known in Leonardo da Vinci's version) is now a Vitruvian man/woman. The ridiculousness of this is made apparent by the illustration itself: the thoroughly masculine female half only serves to demonstrate that, in matters of human proportion, it is precisely the difference between men and women that is important. A point that was made by Vitruvius himself.

Despite these disappointments, this is an important publishing event in the study of architectural history. With Vitruvius now made less obscure, we can see with much greater clarity the inherent flexibility of the Classical system at the time when there was no such thing as Classical architecture - only architecture.

Robert Adam is principal of Winchester Design/Robert Adam Architects

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