Vitruvius & the Roman View of Art

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  • 0:01 Vitruvius
  • 0:45 De Architectura
  • 2:24 Impact on the Arts
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius and discover how his works both reflected and impacted Roman views about art.


Hello and welcome to 6 Minutes. Tonight, we are reviewing the life and career of a great Roman, Vitruvius, the master architect of Rome. Born around 75 BCE and working primarily at the end of the century under the emperor Caesar Augustus, Vitruvius' legacies are immeasurable.

However, Vitruvius doesn't think so, to him, everything can and should be measured. But how can we measure the impact of a citizen with so great an impact on our beloved Rome, someone who served as an officer in the military, a civil engineer, a builder, and an author? Well, Vitruvius, let's start with a look at your impact on art and architecture.

De Architectura

De Architectura
Image of De Architectura

I'm sure all you Romans recognize this. This is Vitruvius' De architectura, a ten-volume treatise on architecture, dedicated to our beloved emperor, Augustus. This book outlines all of the major architectural achievements of Rome, including town planning, temples, columns, aqueducts, mills, domestic heating, surveying, building equipment, and building materials. De architectura was the first comprehensive work on architecture and codified building practices across the empire.

Beyond that, Vitruvius, your work also inspired our Roman ideas about the purpose of architecture. According to De architectura, a structure must have three qualities: utilitas, firmitas, and venustas. In other words, a building must be useful, solid, and beautiful. This basic rule of architecture is known across Rome as the Vitruvian Triad, and I'm sure it will continue to influence architecture for centuries to come.

You viewed architecture as a natural part of nature, comparing it to the way that birds build nests, and this inspires us to see architecture as a natural, beautiful art form. This also meant that architecture, as a reflection of our place in nature, reflects the realities of our lives and society. According to De architectura, the quality of a structure is not determined by its workmanship, but by its relevance to society. Architecture means a lot to us Romans, Vitruvius, and we can thank you for a lot of that.

Impact on the Arts

Now, of course, the importance of your work is not just limited to architecture. Since you see architecture as a reflection of nature, architectural forms and natural forms must be related. In your studies, you realized that this was the goal of the ancient Greeks when they established the first three orders of architecture: the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian temples. This architecture reflected the ratios and proportions discovered in nature, specifically the proportions of the human body.

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