The Ten Books on Architecture, 2.9

Vitruvius  translated by Morris Hicky Morgan

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9Timber should be felled between early Autumn and the time when Favonius begins to blow. For in Spring all trees become pregnant, and they are all employing their natural vigour in the production of leaves and of the fruits that return every year. The requirements of that season render them empty and swollen, and so they are weak and feeble because of their looseness of texture. This is also the case with women who have conceived. Their bodies are not considered perfectly healthy until the child is born; hence, pregnant slaves, when offered for sale, are not warranted sound, because the fetus as it grows within the body takes to itself as nourishment all the best qualities of the mother’s food, and so the stronger it becomes as the full time for birth approaches, the less compact it allows that body to be from which it is produced. After the birth of the child, what was heretofore taken to promote the growth of another creature is now set free by the delivery of the newborn, and the channels being now empty and open, the body will take it in by lapping up its juices, and thus becomes compact and returns to the natural strength which it had before.

2On the same principle, with the ripening of the fruits in Autumn the leaves begin to wither and the trees, taking up their sap from the earth through the roots, recover themselves and are restored to their former solid texture. But the strong air of winter compresses and solidifies them during the time above mentioned. Consequently, if the timber is felled on the principle and at the time above mentioned, it will be felled at the proper season.

3In felling a tree we should cut into the trunk of it to the very heart, and then leave it standing so that the sap may drain out drop by drop throughout the whole of it. In this way the useless liquid which is within will run out through the sapwood instead of having to die in a mass of decay, thus spoiling the quality of the timber. Then and not till then, the tree being drained dry and the sap no longer dripping, let it be felled and it will be in the highest state of usefulness.

4That this is so may be seen in the case of fruit trees. When these are tapped at the base and pruned, each at the proper time, they pour out from the heart through the tapholes all the superfluous and corrupting fluid which they contain, and thus the draining process makes them durable. But when the juices of trees have no means of escape, they clot and rot in them, making the trees hollow and good for nothing. Therefore, if the draining process does not exhaust them while they are still alive, there is no doubt that, if the same principle is followed in felling them for timber, they will last a long time and be very useful in buildings.

5Trees vary and are unlike one another in their qualities. Thus it is with the oak, elm, poplar, cypress, fir, and the others which are most suitable to use in buildings. The oak, for instance, has not the efficacy of the fir, nor the cypress that of the elm. Nor in the case of other trees, is it natural that they should be alike; but the individual kinds are effective in building, some in one way, some in another, owing to the different properties of their elements.

6To begin with fir: it contains a great deal of air and fire with very little moisture and the earthy, so that, as its natural properties are of the lighter class, it is not heavy. Hence, its consistence being naturally stiff, it does not easily bend under the load, and keeps its straightness when used in the framework. But it contains so much heat that it generates and encourages decay, which spoils it; and it also kindles fire quickly because of the air in its body, which is so open that it takes in fire and so gives out a great flame.

7The part which is nearest to the earth before the tree is cut down takes up moisture through the roots from the immediate neighbourhood and hence is without knots and is “clear.” But the upper part, on account of the great heat in it, throws up branches into the air through the knots; and this, when it is cut off about twenty feet from the ground and then hewn, is called “knotwood” because of its hardness and knottiness. The lowest part, after the tree is cut down and the sapwood of the same thrown away, is split up into four pieces and prepared for joiner’s work, and so is called “clearstock.”

8Oak, on the other hand, having enough and to spare of the earthy among its elements, and containing but little moisture, air, and fire, lasts for an unlimited period when buried in underground structures. It follows that when exposed to moisture, as its texture is not loose and porous, it cannot take in liquid on account of its compactness, but, withdrawing from the moisture, it resists it and warps, thus making cracks in the structures in which it is used.

9The winter oak, being composed of a moderate amount of all the elements, is very useful in buildings, but when in a moist place, it takes in water to its centre through its pores, its air and fire being expelled by the influence of the moisture, and so it rots. The Turkey oak and the beech, both containing a mixture of moisture, fire, and the earthy, with a great deal of air, through this loose texture take in moisture to their centre and soon decay. White and black poplar, as well as willow, linden, and the agnus castus, containing an abundance of fire and air, a moderate amount of moisture, and only a small amount of the earthy, are composed of a mixture which is proportionately rather light, and so they are of great service from their stiffness. Although on account of the mixture of the earthy in them they are not hard, yet their loose texture makes them gleaming white, and they are a convenient material to use in carving.

10The alder, which is produced close by river banks, and which seems to be altogether useless as building material, has really excellent qualities. It is composed of a very large proportion of air and fire, not much of the earthy, and only a little moisture. Hence, in swampy places, alder piles driven close together beneath the foundations of buildings take in the water which their own consistence lacks and remain imperishable forever, supporting structures of enormous weight and keeping them from decay. Thus a material which cannot last even a little while above ground, endures for a long time when covered with moisture.

11One can see this at its best in Ravenna; for there all the buildings, both public and private, have piles of this sort beneath their foundations. The elm and the ash contain a very great amount of moisture, a minimum of air and fire, and a moderate mixture of the earthy in their composition. When put in shape for use in buildings they are tough and, having no stiffness on account of the weight of moisture in them, soon bend. But when they become dry with age, or are allowed to lose their sap and die standing in the open, they get harder, and from their toughness supply a strong material for dowels to be used in joints and other articulations.

12The hornbeam, which has a very small amount of fire and of the earthy in its composition, but a very great proportion of air and moisture, is not a wood that breaks easily, and is very convenient to handle. Hence, the Greeks call it “zygia,” because they make of it yokes for their draught-animals, and their word for yoke is ξυγἁ. Cypress and pine are also just as admirable; for although they contain an abundance of moisture mixed with an equivalent composed of all the other elements, and so are apt to warp when used in buildings on account of this superfluity of moisture, yet they can be kept to a great age without rotting, because the liquid contained within their substances has a bitter taste which by its pungency prevents the entrance of decay or of those little creatures which are destructive. Hence, buildings made of these kinds of wood last for an unending period of time.

13The cedar and the juniper tree have the same uses and good qualities, but, while the cypress and pine yield resin, from the cedar is produced an oil called cedar-oil. Books as well as other things smeared with this are not hurt by worms or decay. The foliage of this tree is like that of the cypress but the grain of the wood is straight. The statue of Diana in the temple at Ephesus is made of it, and so are the coffered ceilings both there and in all other famous fanes, because that wood is everlasting. The tree grows chiefly in Crete, Africa, and in some districts of Syria.

14The larch, known only to the people of the towns on the banks of the river Po and the shores of the Adriatic, is not only preserved from decay and the worm by the great bitterness of its sap, but also it cannot be kindled with fire nor ignite of itself, unless like stone in a limekiln it is burned with other wood. And even then it does not take fire nor produce burning coals, but after a long time it slowly consumes away. This is because there is a very small proportion of the elements of fire and air in its composition, which is a dense and solid mass of moisture and the earthy, so that it has no open pores through which fire can find its way; but it repels the force of fire and does not let itself be harmed by it quickly. Further, its weight will not let it float in water, so that when transported it is loaded on shipboard or on rafts made of fir.

15It is worth while to know how this wood was discovered. The divine Caesar, being with his army in the neighbourhood of the Alps, and having ordered the towns to furnish supplies, the inhabitants of a fortified stronghold there, called Larignum, trusting in the natural strength of their defences, refused to obey his command. So the general ordered his forces to the assault. In front of the gate of this stronghold there was a tower, made of beams of this wood laid in alternating directions at right angles to each other, like a funeral pyre, and built high, so that they could drive off an attacking party by throwing stakes and stones from the top. When it was observed that they had no other missiles than stakes, and that these could not be hurled very far from the wall on account of the weight, orders were given to approach and to throw bundles of brushwood and lighted torches at this outwork. These the soldiers soon got together.

16The flames soon kindled the brushwood which lay about that wooden structure and, rising towards heaven, made everybody think that the whole pile had fallen. But when the fire had burned itself out and subsided, and the tower appeared to view entirely uninjured, Caesar in amazement gave orders that they should be surrounded with a palisade, built beyond the range of missiles. So the townspeople were frightened into surrendering, and were then asked where that wood came from which was not harmed by fire. They pointed to trees of the kind under discussion, of which there are very great numbers in that vicinity. And so, as that stronghold was called Larignum, the wood was called larch. It is transported by way of the Po to Ravenna, and is to be had in Fano, Pesaro, Ancona, and the other towns in that neighbourhood. If there were only a ready method of carrying this material to Rome, it would be of the greatest use in buildings; if not for general purposes, yet at least if the boards used in the eaves running round blocks of houses were made of it, the buildings would be free from the danger of fire spreading across to them, because such boards can neither take fire from flames or from burning coals, nor ignite spontaneously.

17The leaves of these trees are like those of the pine; timber from them comes in long lengths, is as easily wrought in joiner’s work as is the clearwood of fir, and contains a liquid resin, of the colour of Attic honey, which is good for consumptives.

With regard to the different kinds of timber, I have now explained of what natural properties they appear to be composed, and how they were produced. It remains to consider the question why the highland fir, as it is called in Rome, is inferior, while the lowland fir is extremely useful in buildings so far as durability is concerned; and further to explain how it is that their bad or good qualities seem to be due to the peculiarities of their neighbourhood, so that this subject may be clearer to those who examine it.

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