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  • The Vitruvian Middle Ages and Beyond
  • Wim Verbaal

What do we mean when we speak of the Vitruvian Middle Ages? Does the history of Vitruvius in the west not start around 1415 when three humanists dug up the manuscript of the de Architectura from the graveyard that was the monastic library of St. Gallen? Are the Middle Ages not primarily, then, the prehistory of Vitruvius? Are they not likewise the post-histoire of classical thought and knowledge in general?

Even when a broad scholarly public knows that questions such as those above are no longer founded upon any reality, the beliefs behind them still remain decisive in shaping the image and presentation of European cultural history and identity. One need only open at random any book on reception history or the classical heritage and the table of contents will invariably show the same leap from classical or late antiquity to the era of the early humanists—the period from which every history of modern Europe takes its departure. Even those scholars who realize that our knowledge of antiquity is largely determined by medieval textual transmission are hardly ever willing to take the Middle Ages into consideration when discussing the afterlife of classical culture or literature.1

Nonetheless, the Vitruvian Middle Ages do exist. The history of Vitruvius does not start in 1416/1417. The manuscript Poggio and his colleagues discovered in the monastery of St. Gallen was not the sole survivor from the age of antiquity. And Vitruvius had not stayed buried for almost a thousand years in the obscurity of ignorance and monastic [End Page 215] indifference.2 Already in 1967, Carol Krinsky had published an article in which she enumerated seventy-eight Vitruvius manuscripts dating from the eight or ninth to the fifteenth century. More recently, the voluminous study by Stefan Schuler (1999) offers an even more thorough range of manuscripts reaching into the nineteenth century, as well as an exhaustive list of references to Vitruvius during the Middle Ages: quotations, rewritings, mentions, and listings in catalogues. Actually, Edgar de Bruyne had already done part of this work in 1946 in his still fundamental Études d’esthétique médiévale (1946.244–61). His work remains unmentioned, however, by both Krinsky and Schuler.

Yet in spite of this accumulated knowledge about the transmission of Vitruvius during the period known as the Middle Ages; in spite of all the quotations and references to his work by writers of this period; and in spite of his appearances in medieval libraries all over Europe, the question still has to be asked whether one is allowed to speak of a Vitruvian Middle Ages. How must the tag “Vitruvian” be understood for the period between the fall of the Roman empire and the discovery of the manuscript in St. Gallen? How Vitruvian were the Middle Ages? In what sense can Vitruvius be considered a formative force in this period? Does he in any way add to the understanding of these thousand years of western European history?

These are the questions I wish to tackle. I will not pay much attention to the contents of Vitruvius, nor to his transposition into the practical field of architecture. Mine is the contribution of a literary scholar, not of a historian of architecture. Nor is it necessary to redo the work of Stefan Schuler and trace the reception story of the Vitruvian treatise. Rather, Schuler’s exhaustive work forms the starting point for my contribution. I offer an attempt to understand the reception of Vitruvius during the Middle Ages. This is not an easy task, because in spite of the widespread knowledge of cultural differences from either a global or a historical point of view, the Middle Ages remain the blankest space on many people’s personal map of knowledge, both for the general public and for most specialists. They offer the widest opportunity for the most abstruse prejudices and romanticisms, and very few, especially among classicists and literary scholars, dare to venture into these so-called dark ages.3 [End Page 216]

As a result, these two categories of scholars remain the victims of one of the greatest and most admirable deceptions in history: the...


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