Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: Vitruvius

It’s been a few years since I started this blog with its only post thus far belatedly announcing the Age of Aquarius. At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to take up blogging or not, just get the word out on an arcane bit of dubious astrology. In the intervening years, my interests have multiplied and it now seems like a good idea to write about some of them here. One activity I’ve recently taken up is to finally commit to reading many of the classics of pagan antiquity, and it seems best to write reviews of them to clarify my own thoughts and share them with others. I begin with Vitruvius, not because his work is particularly profound, but because the copy I have has been borrowed from a friend for a couple years now, and I would like to return it. Borrowed books are distasteful to me, as I agree with Crowley that any book worth reading is worth owning, so I’ll have to track down a copy to add to my library.

Additionally, this turned out to be rather long – over 4000 words. I decided not to split it in half and, instead, present it as a summary covering the whole book. I make no apologies for length or for dullness; I am not writing this to please anyone but myself and I’ve no cohesive point to make with it. Take it for what it is – my thoughts and notes on a book. Expect future non-review posts to make actual points, court controversial opinions, and perhaps have intended audiences.

Vitruvius wrote his only surviving work, “De Architectura”, sometime around 15 BCE. When it was rediscovered in 1414 and subsequently translated as “The Ten Books on Architecture” it became a major influence on Renaissance art and architecture through the work of men like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Though it would seem likely that it was among the sources for the Renaissance mage Henry Cornelius Agrippa’sThree Books of Occult Philosophy”, I haven’t been able to find any references to Vitruvius in it. The ‘Ten Books’ total roughly 300 pages with each “book” about 30 pages divided into multiple “chapters” of only a few pages each, making it easy to read in small chunks.
Throughout the book are numerous references to classical architectural components and I found myself repeatedly wishing for an appended glossary. Book V begins with a comment about architectural books being difficult to understand due to obscure jargon and Vitruvius promises to explain any rare terms, but he doesn’t really seem to do so at any point and most descriptions don’t lead to understanding through context. Lest whole sections be rendered incomprehensible due to having no idea what many of the nouns mean, the average reader should simply resolve to frequently look up definitions. Among the words to expect: gnomon, entablature, architrave, abacus (not the calculator), astragals, plinth, cymatium, dentils, triglyphs, sima, tympanum, acroteria, mutules, metopes, scaena, tablinum, exedra, oeci, and cavaedium.

Right away, it’s apparent that this is a book replete with ancient pagan philosophy and science, with an indirect relevance to occultism, at least in a historical sense. Vitruvius begins by stating, “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning”, by which he means the seven liberal arts, but also drawing (including perspective drawing with lines converging to a point, an art some have thought was ‘invented’ in the Renaissance), history, philosophy, medicine, and law. The medical theory seems to involve the avoidance of bad winds coming from swamps and building cities in places unexposed to such winds.  Knowledge of history is apparently important so that one can explain odd bits of traditional constructions to clients with charming stories, such as columns carved as people in a certain cultural fashion to remind those people of the burden of their defeat in some war or other.  As a master (archi-) of arts (techne), the idea of the architect as a jack-of-all-trades is echoed in the nearly identical course of study for the 9th century wizard laid out in Picatrix, and informs the polymathic ambitions that later characterize the ‘Renaissance man’. After discussing the fundamental principles of arrangement, eurythmy, symmetry, propriety, and economy, as well as the construction of city walls, Book I ends with an interesting discussion of the winds in sets of 4, 8, and 24, their names and general properties, and the placement of streets to avoid gusts being channeled through them. It also describes a geometric way of determining north by a post in the ground casting a shadow and finding the midpoint between two points in the day when the shadow touches a given circumference.

Although Book II begins with a quaint fable about how solitary wild humans first started congregating in groups around the remains of forest fires, and following this discovery of fire proceeded to form tribes, speak languages, and build houses, the bulk of Book II concerns construction materials: brick, sand, lime, pozzolana (a type of volcanic ash used for cement that will set underwater), stone, and timber. The operating theory for Vitruvian materials science consists of the four elements, making this section largely incomprehensible even to modern magickians who treat the four elements as metaphysical qualities and leave material qualities to the modern elemental theory of chemistry. Vitruvius is likely correct about the properties of the materials he describes, but his explanations for how those properties arise seem rather simplistic and erroneous from a modern perspective. Though we should keep in mind that he was giving the standard scientific understanding of the day, and though we may prefer the greater utility of our modern theories, they may seem just as primitive to scientists a few millennia hence (if there are any). In all cases, we need to be aware of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the Narrative Fallacy, wherein we automatically generate stories to explain the facts of our experience, with little regard for the truth or utility of such stories. It’s usually sufficient just to have a story.

Books III & IV describe the building of temples, almost entirely consisting of the proper proportions to be used and the geometry involved in ensuring symmetry, which all seems quite arbitrary by modern standards. The theory, of course, is that our buildings should mimic nature, and as evidence the proportions of the human body are described, from which da Vinci drew his Vitruvian Man image.

Proportion is defined as “a correspondence among the measures of the members of an entire work, and of the whole to a certain part selected as standard.” Interestingly, proportion is ‘analogia’ in Greek, from which we get ‘analogy’. As analogical thinking is the basis for the magickal theory of correspondences, this bit of trivia may come up again in future posts. Relevant to the construction of buildings, however, proportions dominate the instructions, ironically often in parallel with more recent drawings showing how far off various classical buildings are from the Vitruvian ideal. 

The greatest emphasis is on columns. Indeed, columns seem more important than walls in the descriptions, with great detail given for things like the proper narrowing of columns of different heights towards their tops such that they appear uniform to the eye, and the number and depth of ‘flutes’ gouged out along their length. Temples are classified by the numbers and arrangements of columns that surround a walled building housing the cult statue. The thickness and spacing (which gets its own word - “intercolumniation”) of columns is of structural concern for holding up the entablature. Artistically, columns come in three main types distinguished mostly by their tops or “capitals”. The Ionic style has what looks like rolled-up scrolls or ‘cushions’ on top, the Corinthian style displays leaves and flowers, and the Doric style is quite plain. The sheer numbers of huge nearly-identical columns required for any given building is impressive, and it’s a pity that the technical details of their manufacture are not given.

Book V discusses public buildings: the forum, basilicas (court houses), the treasury, prison, senate house, theaters, colonnades, bathhouses, palaestras (wrestling fields), harbors, breakwaters, and shipyards. Most of the detail focuses on the design of theaters with special attention to acoustics. Theaters are laid out in semicircles with divisions of areas determined by a dodecagram centered at the front of the stage. Chapter V “Harmonics” describes Greek musical theory, which I found both fascinating and barely comprehensible without further study. This is employed to describe an amplification system used in some theaters consisting of bronze sounding vessels designed to resonate with certain tones (he finally admits they are rare and I wondered if he’d seen them or just read of them and thought they were a good idea). These are then placed at geometric points among the seating for the audience in accord with the harmonic theory.

Book VI covers private houses, presumably for wealthy clients. He admits that if a lesser building must be designed to suit the environment, the available materials, or the limits of the client’s pocketbook, the architect must work within those bounds, holding the ideal in mind and making adjustments carefully. Houses are built around atriums and peristyles, large open spaces in the middle of buildings surrounded by columns, fountains, gardens, and artwork. A great variety of rooms lead off from there and considerations of lighting determine the placement of rooms. Bedrooms and libraries, for example, should have an eastern exposure, while galleries that need even light throughout the day should have windows in the north. Dining rooms differ by season, with Spring and Autumn in the east, Summer rooms in the north, and Winter dining rooms with a southwestern exposure. Country farmhouses require even more rooms for barns, storage, oil presses, and wine presses.

The introduction to Book VI recommends learning as the greatest asset, as one can’t lose it. Alzheimer’s must have been unknown, for he says, “All the gifts which fortune bestows she can easily take away; but education, when combined with intelligence, never fails, but abides steadily on to the very end of life.” He also quotes Theophrastus: “The man of learning is the only person in the world who is neither a stranger when in a foreign land, nor friendless when he has lost his intimates and relatives; on the contrary, he is a citizen of every country, and can fearlessly look down upon the troublesome accidents of fortune. But he who thinks himself entrenched in defences not of learning but of luck, moves in slippery paths, struggling through life unsteadily and insecurely.”

Before getting to the design of houses, Chapter I opens with a rather bizarre theory of racism. Starting with the logic that different climates require different types of houses, he reasons that climates also determine the differing qualities of the races: “In places on which the sun throws out its heat in moderation, it keeps human bodies in their proper condition, and where its path is very close at hand, it parches them up, and burns out and takes away the proportion of moisture which they ought to possess. But, on the other hand, in the cold regions that are far away from the south, the moisture is not drawn out by hot weather, but the atmosphere is full of dampness which diffuses moisture into the system, and makes the frame larger and the pitch of the voice deeper. This is also the reason why the races that are bred in the north are of vast height, and have fair complexions, straight red hair, grey eyes, and a great deal of blood, owing to the abundance of moisture and the coolness of the atmosphere.
                 On the contrary, those that are nearest to the southern half of the axis, and that lie directly under the sun’s course, are of lower stature, with a swarthy complexion, hair curling, black eyes, strong legs, and but little blood on account of the force of the sun. Hence, too, this poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword, but great heat and fevers they can endure without timidity, because their frames are bred up in the raging heat. Hence, men that are born in the north are rendered over-timid and weak by fever, but their wealth of blood enables them to stand up against the sword without timidity.”

Why do the races differ so? Well, you see, if we draw an imaginary line to the pivot point around which the sky revolves (currently Polaris) to our imagining of the southern horizon if the world were a flat disk, we get a triangle, and that resembles a harp-like instrument that the Greeks called a “sambuca” with long strings to the ground in the north producing low pitched notes, and short strings in the south making high pitched notes. Vitruvius thought that the atmosphere was thicker in the northern latitudes and thinner in the south; hence, he believed people in the south had squeaky high-pitched voices and also, incidentally, that it made them smart and clever, whereas people in the north were rendered dull-witted by the dense atmosphere. Only people in the temperate latitudes (i.e., Rome) win the Goldilocks-prize of just the right amount of atmosphere, sun, and moisture so that they can be intelligent, speak with moderately pitched voices, and have enough “blood” to supply the right amount of courage.  With typical Imperial apologetics, he concludes, “Hence, it was the divine intelligence that set the city of the Roman people in a peerless and temperate country, in order that it might acquire the right to command the whole world.” Perhaps this explains why he doesn’t discuss any styles of houses other than Roman and Greek.

Whereas most of the instructions have consisted thus far of proportions, in Book VII we begin to get practical instructions for finishing work like cement floors, stucco, vaulted ceilings, and fresco paintings. But first, as usual, comes a bit of social commentary. This time Vitruvius praises the ancient authors who left books transmitting their knowledge into the future. He condemns plagiarism, deeming it worthy of punishment, and tells a story about the well-read Aristophanes exposing plagiarists when judging a poetry contest. After he gives credit to the many authors he has learned from, he explains how he intends for his compendium of architecture to exceed all previous works on the subject before getting into practical details about building the layers of a floor, slaking lime for stucco, and framing vaultings with wood and mats of reeds. Powdered marble of ever finer grit provides the polished stucco surface, which is then ready for painting.

Before examining the sources of different colors of paint, Vitruvius devotes Chapter V to a rant about how the painting of images that are not realistic representations of things that actually exist is an affront to the principle of propriety and should not be tolerated, yet people with their poor critical faculties applaud the fantastical. “The fact is that pictures which are unlike reality ought not to be approved, and even if they are technically fine, this is no reason why they should offhand be judged to be correct, if their subject is lacking in the principles of reality”. He blames the trend of his day of painting impossible scenes, like plants with human heads, on the proliferation of bold colors that had become available to painters.

Of interest in the sections on colors are a few chemical processes which no doubt caught the attention of the alchemists. First, the extraction of quicksilver from cinnabar is described, and then a process for using quicksilver to recover gold that has been sewn into clothing. A process for oxidizing lead and copper with vinegar to make white lead and verdigris is also explained, as well as a method to make a blue pigment by heating copper with flowers of natron.

Being about hydrology, Book VIII begins with a brief discussion of the four elements emphasizing how food, water, breath, and warmth are necessary for life and conveniently supplied to us by nature.  There is evidence of an understanding of ecology, particularly the hydrologic cycle, i.e., speaking of Euripides, he says, “Earth, he held, was impregnated by the rains of heaven and, thus conceiving, brought forth the young of mankind and of all the living creatures in the world; whatever is sprung from her goes back to her again when the compelling force of time brings about a dissolution; and whatever is born of the air returns in the same way to the regions of the sky; nothing suffers annihilation, but at dissolution there is a change, and things fall back to the essential element in which they were before.” When talking about rainwater, he says, “The valleys among the mountains receive the rains most abundantly, and on account of the thick woods the snow is kept in them longer by the shade of the trees and mountains. Afterwards, on melting, it filters through the fissures in the ground, and thus reaches the very foot of the mountains, from which gushing springs come belching out.” Also, “Wherever the winds carry the vapour which rolls in masses from springs, rivers, marshes, and the sea, it is brought together by the heat of the sun, drawn off, and carried upward in the form of clouds; then these clouds are supported by the current of air until they come to mountains, where they are broken up from the shock of the collision and the gales, turn into water on account of their own fullness and weight, and in that form are dispersed upon the earth.”

Most of Book VIII describes many legendary springs with strange properties attributed to the different types of soil and the ‘juices’ they contain. Not only are there sulfur springs and hot springs, salty, bitter and sweet waters, but springs that emit oil, or asphalt, or pitch with their water; springs that are good for bathing but will kill those that drink from them, or make their teeth fall out, or make them intoxicated, or cure madness, or induce stupidity, or give good singing voices.  Given the potential dangers of water sources, testing is a good idea before building aqueducts and cisterns to channel and store it. The easiest way is to check the health of the people and animals that drink it, but boiling some in a bronze vessel and checking for sedimentation is recommended for new wells.

Aqueducts require gradients “of not less than a quarter of an inch for every hundred feet”, a task done with leveling tools. Although pipes were commonly made of lead or clay, it was known that lead was poisonous: “lead is found to be harmful for the reason that white lead is derived from it, and this is said to be hurtful to the human system. Hence, if what is produced from it is harmful, no doubt the thing itself is not wholesome.” That last part is interesting to think about in our modern world full of untested chemicals. He cites the deep pallor that plumbers acquire and concludes, “water ought by no means to be conducted in lead pipes”.

Without springs to tap, wells must be dug. The way to find a good place to dig is to look for mists rising from the ground at dawn, as well as looking for vegetation of certain kinds. The dangers of suffocation whilst well-digging are explained as poisonous “exhalations” from the earth, and testing with a lamp flame is recommended, digging air shafts if it goes out.

Vitruvius begins Book IX by lamenting the lavish awards given to the champions of athletic games who provide only momentary entertainment, but none given to the authors of books that help all of humanity continuing into the future. As examples of practical knowledge acquired by such intellectuals, he cites Plato’s solution to making a square twice the area of an initial square using the diagonal of the first square, which he says can’t be done “by means of arithmetic” There was still an idealism of whole numbers at this time. What we now call the Pythagorean Theorem is also cited, using geometry instead of algebra, of course. The story of Archimedes discovering volume displacement in a bath is told, including the interesting bit that after he runs naked through the street crying, “Heureka!” (the Greek in this edition gives a rough breathing mark), he does a series of experiments to determine that a golden crown had indeed been adulterated with silver.

Before closing with a description of sun dials and the mechanics of water clocks, Book IX provides a good description of ancient astronomy. The motion of the stars and planets about the poles is covered in some detail, with the occasional retrograde motion of the planets explained by the sun attracting them when at certain angles and thus slowing and reversing them in their courses. Two theories for the phases of the moon are given. Aristarchus of Samos’ explanation is more or less the modern one, making Berosus’ the more interesting. He thought that the moon was half luminous and half dark, and that the attractive power of the sun kept the luminous half aimed at the sun. A description of the stars composing the constellations of the zodiac, with their beginning and end points includes the interesting fact that the equinoxes and solstices were to fall at one eighth of a sign into the sign that normally begins a season, such that Spring Equinox fell when the sun was one eighth of the way into Aries. This implies a correction for the precession of the equinoxes, but Vitruvius doesn’t mention the phenomenon. A couple chapters are devoted to the arrangements of many of the constellations familiar to us today, some with different names. It was fun to try to follow the descriptions with a star chart. The only mention of astrology is that it originated with the Chaldeans.

All of this has been preparatory to describing the analemma, for which there is a complex geometric construction. Due to different shadow lengths being cast from gnomons of the same height in different locations, the analemma has to be determined at any given spot so that the hour marks of sundials can be placed and remain correct throughout the year with its changing day and hour lengths. Sundials can thus be of many types, and rather than describe the works of others as his own, Vitruvius simply lists some sundials and their creators, expecting his future readers to be able to look them up.

At last, we come to Book X. Anyone having initially glanced through the book, has likely been waiting for this, as it deals with machines and siege engines. Ancient architects were also engineers, expected to design and build cities as well as the weapons to defend and destroy them.  They also built various mechanical contraptions for practical work and to entertain people at theaters and festivals.

A machine is defined as “a combination of timbers fastened together, chiefly efficacious in moving great weights.” However, it’s the “timbers fastened together” part that matters most, as ladders count. Indeed, “In the climbing class are machines so disposed that one can safely climb up high, by means of timbers set up on end and connected by crossbeams… The climbing machine displays no scientific principle, but merely a spirit of daring. It is held together by dowels and crossbeams and twisted lashings and supporting props.” Of course, the interesting machines run in circles, force air about (pneumatics, such as organs), or hoist weights into new places, and while simple machines like mills, bellows, lathes, and carriages are commonplace conveniences, Vitruvius intends to discuss more rare and complex machines.

First up, due to their utility in lifting and placing stones for construction, are hoisting machines based on various pulley schemes, several of which are described in detail, but would benefit greatly from illustrations (an unfortunate theme in Book X). It’s interesting that Vitruvius thinks machines are derived by copying nature and that they all depend on the combination of linear motion with circular motion, whether simple levers or steelyards, presses or water wheels.  A few machines for raising water are explained including detailed instructions for making a water screw, a device normally credited to Archimedes, but not so by Vitruvius. The force pump of Ctesibius is also described, followed by the water organ which is explained with the caveat that it’s really complicated and he’s doing the best he can to describe it in words. We are referred to the writings of Ctesibius for further details and inventions; unfortunately, his works did not survive. There is an additional chapter on odometers for carts and ships called “hodometers”, the mechanics of which use the circumference of a wheel to measure distance and turn a couple of gears such that a small stone is dropped into a pan every mile. It’s apparent from the description that Vitruvius thought pi was equal to 3 1/8; the cult of rationality at the time expressed itself in the rejection of the existence of irrational numbers. Incidentally, the Roman mile was only 5000 feet.

Since Vitruvius was himself a siege engineer, the descriptions of catapults, ballistae, and scorpions are given as an arcane list of proportions for the various oddly named pieces composing them; again, illustrations would be most helpful. This section also suffers from quite a few lacunae, such that even if we wanted to follow the plans, there would be a lot of guess work. The discussion of battering rams, mobile siege towers, borers, and tortoises is less technical with some bits of history and monstrously huge siege towers described. Protecting all these contraptions from fire involved wrapping them in rawhide, hair mixed with clay, or seaweed imbedded between rawhides. Yet, at the end, he admits that effective defense of a city against such machines is not often done with other machines, but by the ingenuity of some citizen realizing a simple way to disable the machines, such as making a ‘swamp’ of sewage for towers to get stuck in, lowering a noose around a battering ram and hoisting it up with a windlass, or flooding attempts at mining under the walls.

In conclusion, I found Vitruvius to be an enjoyable read from which I learned much, though not quite what I expected. The overwhelmingly complex lists of proportions are never justified by any explanation beyond the aesthetic, while the explanations given for many observations are now known to be completely erroneous. Nonetheless, I now have a better understanding of ancient technology and a greater appreciation for the history of ideas. It is easy for modern people to be bewildered by the accomplishments of the ancients. How did they move those giant stones? Well, they had cranes. We are fortunate that this book was rediscovered and led to the restoration of some of the wonders of antiquity, kick starting the Renaissance. I would hope that some architect/engineer would take up the task of writing a similar volume including a modern understanding of things like Earthships, bicycles, cold storage, windmills, solar devices, radio, and other gadgets not dependent on industrialism as we slide into a deindustrialized future. That is, of course, assuming we get that far.

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