- The Afterlife of Vitruvian Origin Myths in Eighteenth-Century Conjectural Histories of Architecture
Although Vitruvius’s de Architectura remained known and influential throughout the Middle Ages (see, for instance, Schuler 1999 and Verbaal’s contribution to this issue), it was the famous “rediscovery” around 1414 by the Italian humanist and manuscript hunter Poggio Bracciolini that initiated a reception history that would shape architectural thinking until far into the twentieth century.1 As Pierre Gros and Indra Kagis McEwen argue, Vitruvius provided later authors with the “systèmes d’énonciation” or the “body” of architecture: the elements, tropes, and figures of thought that could be brought into play when speaking of architecture (Vitruvius 1992a.xxix and McEwen 2003).
This article focuses on one moment in the reception of a particular Vitruvian trope: the eighteenth-century French interest in, and variations on, the Vitruvian account of the origins of building supplied at the beginning of the second book. The account is a mosaic of contemporary commonplaces on the origins and early history of civilization gleaned from, among others, Lucretius (Vitruvius 1999a.xvii–xx, xxxi–xxxiv, and commentary 64–76; Rykwert 1972). Vitruvius Book 2.1 offers a conjectural history of building before recorded history, with the stated aim of explaining the differences between nations in their use and application of materials. Building is placed in a sequence of skills acquired by humankind at the dawn of [End Page 199] civilization: the development of shelter comes after the control of fire, the art of living in groups, and the use of language. Vitruvius describes how primordial humans, after some early experiments, eventually arrived at a structure with walls of turf covered with an inclined roof. Practice, experience, specialization, reflection, and the gradual development of other arts and sciences led to evermore understanding. Huts were replaced by houses of brick, stone, timber, and tiles, and knowledge of proportions developed. In a final step: “After they had noted what a profusion of resources has been begotten by Nature, and what abundant supplies for construction have been prepared by her, they nourished these with cultivation and increased them by means of skill and enhanced the elegance of their life with aesthetic delights” (2.1; trans. Vitruvius 1999b.35). Vitruvius sustains his conjectures by pointing to contemporary “uncivilized” peoples who at his time were still building in a “primitive” way, discusses two specimens of dwellings developed by the Colchians and the Phrygians, and concludes that every nation has its own way of building best suited to its circumstances and the materials available in the region.
Similar accounts started appearing in French treatises and texts on architecture from the late 1730s onwards. Until then, the literature on architecture had mainly formulated design principles for the benefit of a specialized readership of architects and connoisseurs, but now conjectures on architectural origins appeared conspicuously alongside more technical passages. Early examples such as the 1738 “Dissertation sur ce genre de décorations qu’on appelle les ordres d’architecture” by Amédée-François Frézier, a military engineer of considerable reputation, paid their debt to the Vitruvian model and kept quite close to it. Frézier even copied Vitruvius’s recourse to contemporary examples of primitive dwellings to sustain his reconstructions. Other texts written by practicing architects and educators, such as Pierre de Vigny’s “Dissertation sur l’architecture” (published in 1752), Charles-Étienne Briseux’s Traité du beau essentiel dans les arts (1752), Jacques-François Blondel’s Architecture françoise (1752), and the Treatise on Civil Architecture (1759) by Blondel’s British pupil William Chambers, moved further away from Vitruvius, taking his interest in architectural beginnings in novel directions—in de Vigny’s case, towards a justification of the natural origin of, not the classical, but the Gothic style.
What most distinguished the eighteenth-century texts from the Vitruvian model, however, was how and for what purpose they employed origin accounts: instead of explaining the location-specific use of materials, as Vitruvius intended, the authors discussed here mobilized conjectures on [End Page 200] architectural beginnings to explain, define, or justify the role and prestige of architecture in society. In doing so, they...