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  • Vitruvius on Vermilion:Faberius’s Domestic Decor and the Invective Tradition
  • Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols

Everything we know, or at least think we know, about Vitruvius derives from de Architectura.1 The outlines of an authorial figure emerge from passing references to relationships, events, and circumstances.2 Vitruvius’s persona truly takes shape, however, through the character foils depicted in brief narratives throughout the text: in Book 10, Callias temporarily unseats the architectus Diognetus from his rightful position at Rhodes by showcasing a design for a (functionally unsound) war machine on a grand scale (10.16.3–8); in Book 7, the painter Apaturius of Alabanda beguiles the populace of Tralles with flashy, yet flawed, paintings before a mathematician intervenes (7.5.5–7); and in the preface to Book 2, the architectus [End Page 317] Dinocrates approaches Alexander the Great with the spectacular idea of transforming Mt. Athos into the statue of a man; the ruler rejects it as impractical (2 pref. 1–4). In some instances, Vitruvius compares himself to his flawed double; in others, he leaves the analogy implicit. Located in far-away places and buried in the past, these straw men allow Vitruvius to define himself and his professional activity in the abstract. Instead of directly confronting rivals in his immediate environment, he shadowboxes.

Faberius, a contemporary Roman homeowner introduced in de Architectura 7, the book on the finishing touches of architecture (de expolitionibus, 6.8.9), interrupts the pattern (7.9.2). As a foil to the authorial persona, he is neither foreign nor remote. Faberius surfaces amidst a disquisition on paint pigments (7.7–14). His ambitious and ill-conceived plan involves minium. In English, we refer to this red pigment (mercuric sulfide) as vermilion or cinnabar. In the ancient Roman world, vermilion colored wax tablets and defined letters on papyrus and stone; it decorated living bodies and statues; and it contributed a vibrant color to wall painting, now referred to as “Pompeian red.”3 Eager to have an elegantly decorated house, Faberius paints all the walls of his peristyle with vermilion. Scarcely a month later, calamity strikes (7.9.2–3):

When [vermilion] is used in the finishing of enclosed apartments, it maintains its own color without defects; but in open places like peristyles and exedrae and so forth, where the sun and the moon can send their brightness and their rays, the part so affected is damaged and becomes black when the color loses its strength. So when many others were also [covering their peristyle walls with vermilion], even the scriba Faberius, since he had wanted to own a home on the Aventine that was elegantly decorated, covered all the peristyle walls with vermilion, which after thirty days became distasteful and discolored. And so he [End Page 318] immediately contracted for other colors to be spread. But if someone is more painstaking and wants vermilion wash to retain its color4

In the text that follows, Vitruvius identifies and corrects Faberius’s mistake using his authorial voice, rather than a mythohistorical mouthpiece. He recommends that a subtilior (“more refined”) “someone” use γάνωσις, a wax-based technique for finishing painted statues (literally, the action of rendering brilliant), to protect his or her walls (7.9.3).5 Science corroborates this account: vermilion when exposed to natural light sometimes blackens.6 The application of wax may have protected the pigment from exposure to chlorine, which catalyzes the light-induced phase change (McCormack 2000, Keune and Boon 2005).7 Whether the Romans used γάνωσις to protect walls, as both Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder (NH 33.122) attest, is unknown. The varying vulnerability of surviving vermilion walls indicates that, while some were crafted in such a way as to be impervious to light, others were not.

Faberius is the only scriba (“scribe”) mentioned in de Architectura, and the title affords him a special relationship to the authorial persona. On the strength of Vitruvius’s description of his own service under Julius Caesar and later Augustus (1 pref. 2–3), Nicholas Purcell identifies (1993) Vitruvius as a scriba armamentarius (a scribe whose duties relate to military engineering). Scribae were the highest class among the apparitores (public servants attending magistrates...


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pp. 317-333
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