The Ten Books on Architecture, 2.1

Vitruvius  translated by Joseph Gwilt

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Of the Origin of Building

1Mankind originally brought forth like the beasts of the field, in woods, dens, and groves, passed their lives in a savage manner, eating the simple food which nature afforded. A tempest, on a certain occasion, having exceedingly agitated the trees in a particular spot, the friction between some of the branches caused them to take fire; this so alarmed those in the neighbourhood of the accident, that they betook themselves to flight. Returning to the spot after the tempest had subsided, and finding the warmth which had thus been created extremely comfortable, they added fuel to the fire excited, in order to preserve the heat, and then went forth to invite others, by signs and gestures, to come and witness the discovery. In the concourse that thus took place, they testified their different opinions and expressions by different inflexions of the voice. From daily association words succeeded to these indefinite modes of speech; and these becoming by degrees the signs of certain objects, they began to join them together, and conversation became general.

2Thus the discovery of fire gave rise to the first assembly of mankind, to their first deliberations, and to their union in a state of society. For association with each other they were more fitted by nature than other animals, from their erect posture, which also gave them the advantage of continually viewing the stars and firmament, no less than from their being able to grasp and lift an object, and turn it about with their hands and fingers. In the assembly, therefore, which thus brought them first together, they were led to the consideration of sheltering themselves from the seasons, some by making arbours with the boughs of trees, some by excavating caves in the mountains, and others in imitation of the nests and habitations of swallows, by making dwellings of twigs interwoven and covered with mud or clay. From observation of and improvement on each others’ expedients for sheltering themselves, they soon began to provide a better species of huts.

3It was thus that men, who are by nature of an imitative and docile turn of mind, and proud of their own inventions, gaining daily experience also by what had been previously executed, vied with each other in their progress towards perfection in building. The first attempt was the mere erection of a few spars united together with twigs and covered with mud. Others built their walls of dried lumps of turf, connected these walls together by means of timbers laid across horizontally, and covered the erections with reeds and boughs, for the purpose of sheltering themselves from the inclemency of the seasons. Finding, however, that flat coverings of this sort would not effectually shelter them in the winter season, they made their roofs of two inclined planes meeting each other in a ridge at the summit, the whole of which they covered with clay, and thus carried off the rain.

4We are certain that buildings were thus originally constructed, from the present practice of uncivilized nations, whose buildings are of spars and thatch, as may be seen in Gaul, in Spain, in Portugal, and in Aquitaine. The woods of the Colchi, in Pontus, furnish such abundance of timber, that they build in the following manner. Two trees are laid level on the earth, right and left, at such distance from each other as will suit the length of the trees which are to cross and connect them. On the extreme ends of these two trees are laid two other trees transversely: the space which the house will inclose is thus marked out. The four sides being thus set out, towers are raised, whose walls consist of trees laid horizontally but kept perpendicularly over each other, the alternate layers yoking the angles. The level interstices which the thickness of the trees alternately leave, is filled in with chips and mud. On a similar principle they form their roofs, except that gradually reducing the length of the trees which traverse from angle to angle, they assume a pyramidal form. They are covered with boughs and smeared over with clay; and thus after a rude fashion of vaulting, their quadrilateral roofs are formed.

5The Phrygians, who inhabit a champain country destitute of timber, choose natural hillocks, which they pierce and hollow out for their accommodation, as well as the nature of the soil will permit. These dwellings they cover with roofs constructed of logs bound together, covered with reeds and straw, and coated with a large quantity of earth. This species of covering protects the hut from the extreme heat of the summer, as well as from the piercing cold of the winter. The weeds which grow in the vicinity of pools are used in other parts of the covering of huts. Each nation, in short, has its own way of building, according to the materials afforded and the habits of the country. At Marseilles the roofs are covered with straw and earth mixed up together, instead of tiles. At Athens, even to this day, the Areopagus, an example of remote antiquity, is covered with clay; and the house of Romulus in the capitol, by its thatched roof, clearly manifests the simple manners and habits of the ancients.

6It is from such specimens we are enabled to form just ideas of the early method of building. Daily practice made the original builders more skilful, and experience increased their confidence; those who took more delight in the science making it their exclusive profession. Thus man, who, in addition to the senses which other animals enjoy in common with him, is gifted by nature with such powers of thought and understanding, that no subject is too difficult for his apprehension, and the brute creation are subject to him from his superiority of intellect, proceeded by degrees to a knowledge of the other arts and sciences, and passed from a savage state of life to one of civilization.

7From the courage which his gradual success naturally excited, and his engagement in those various speculations with which the arts are connected, his ideas expanded; and from building huts he soon proceeded to the erection of houses constructed with brick walls or with stones, whose roofs were of timber covered with tiles. Thus by experience and observation the knowledge of certain proportions was attained, which in the beginning were fluctuating and uncertain; and advantage being taken of the bounty of nature, in her supply of timber and other building materials, the rising art was so cultivated that by the help of other arts mere necessity was lost sight of; and by attending to the comforts and luxuries of civilized society, it was carried to the highest degree of perfection. I shall now, to the best of my ability, proceed to treat of those materials which are used in building, their quality, and use.

8Lest any one object that the order of my treatise on the matters in question be not well arranged, and that this book should have had precedence of the last, I think it proper to state, that in writing a Dissertation on Architecture I considered myself bound, in the first place, to set forth those branches of learning and science with which it is connected, to explain its origin and different species, and to enumerate the qualifications which an architect should possess. Hence, having first adverted to those principles on which the art depends, I shall now proceed to an explanation of the nature and use of the different materials employed in the practice of it. This work not being intended for a treatise on the origin of architecture; that origin, and the degrees by which it passed to its present state of perfection, is only incidentally mentioned.

9This book is consequently in its proper place. I shall now proceed to treat, in an intelligible manner, of the materials which are appropriate for building, how they are formed by nature, and of the analysis of their component parts. For there is no material nor body of any sort whatever which is not composed of various elementary particles; and if their primary composition be not duly understood, no law of physics will explain their nature to our satisfaction.

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