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  • Vitruvius and the Programmatics of Prose
  • John Oksanish

This paper reconsiders Vitruvius’s attitude toward literary auctoritas (“authority”) in the context of two related types of historiographical writing: so-called “universal” or “world” history and chronography. In short, I want to know what it means that de Architectura shares so many of the alleged aims, benefits, and programmatic features of these particular kinds of history writing, especially when Vitruvius’s architectural subject matter is neither clearly universal nor traditionally historical.1


The preface to Book 5 of de Architectura begins with something of a complaint. According to Vitruvius, his technical subject matter resists the sonic bells and whistles of poetic texts and lacks the sequences of events that are natural to narrative historiography:

Those who have revealed their ingenious thoughts and teachings in more sizeable books (amplioribus voluminibus), imperator, have added exceptionally immense authority to their writings (“maximas et egregias adiecerunt suis [End Page 263] scriptis auctoritates”).2 I wish the subject of my pursuits was also accessible, so that size would increase authority even in these writings (“ut amplificationibus auctoritas et in his praeceptis augeretur”). But this is hardly as easy as people think. You see, you don’t write about architecture [About Architecture] as you write history or poems. History automatically holds onto readers because it offers changing expectations of new things. And the meter and rhythm of the songs of poetry, the elegant arrangement of words, and the articulation of ideas among the individual characters of the verses—they lead the reader’s senses all the way to the end without offense. But this is not possible when composing architectural writings, since terms derived from the peculiar needs of the art dull the senses with their strange language. Therefore, since these terms are not obvious by themselves and their meanings are not evident in usage, the wide-ranging writings of the authorities in the field will only give readers vague ideas in dense and clumsy language unless they are condensed and explained in a few, crystal-clear sentences (“late vagantes scripturae, si non contrahentur, et paucis et perlucidis sententiis explicentur”). And so, when I give obscure terms and proportions from the parts of buildings, I will explain them briefly so that they can be committed to memory; the mind will be better able to recall them this way (“ut memoriae tradantur, breviter exponam; sic enim expeditius ea recipere poterunt mentes”). Likewise, because I realized that the city was swelling with public obligations and private business (“distentam occupationibus civitatem publicis et privatis negotiis”), I judged it best to write on a small scale so that those who read it could quickly understand it in the small space of time available (“paucis iudicavi scribendum, uti angusto spatio vacuitatis ea legentes breviter percipere possent”).3 [End Page 264]

Vitruvius may seem at first blush to admit to the kinds of literary failure of which his stylistic detractors have often accused him. To write about architecture (and thus About Architecture), he implies, is to forsake the auctoritas that writers of other works enjoy. However, we should proceed cautiously in the face of this apparent diffidence: Isocratean echoes in the passage imply that Vitruvius’s modesty is false—or at least highly qualified.4 That is, if Vitruvius employs the truism that writing about architecture differs from writing poetry and history, he does so with good reason. To what end, then?

Vitruvius’s remarks on poetic rhythm and historiographical narrative are important, but will not be treated here,5 as they are locally subordinate to “bigger” problems of literary authority and amplificatio, a rhetorical term of art that denotes the addition of grandeur and impressiveness in two, related, respects: “vertical” amplificatio suggests the addition of loftiness (i.e., qualitative grandeur); “horizontal” or “broadening” amplificatio implies, for all intents and purposes, a quantitative increase in length (Lausberg 1998 §400–09). Vitruvius evidently sees both kinds of amplificatio as off-limits. His explanation for why history and poetry differ from architectural literature, for instance, suggests qualitative differences in style and the nature of content. However, a series of etymological puns makes it clear that amplificatio qua size or length is his...


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pp. 263-280
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