The Ten Books on Architecture, 4.1

Vitruvius  translated by Joseph Gwilt

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Of the Origin of the Three Sorts of Columns, and of the Corinthian Capital

1The Corinthian Column is, except in its capital, of the same proportion as the Ionic: but the additional height of its capital makes it taller and more graceful; the Ionic capital being but one third of the diameter of the shaft in height, whilst that of the Corinthian is equal to the thickness of the shaft. Thus, the two thirds of the thickness of the shaft, which are added to its height, give it, in that respect, a more pleasing effect.

2The other members which are placed on the Columns, are borrowed either from the Doric or Ionic proportions: inasmuch as the Corinthian itself has no regular settled rules for its cornice, and other ornaments, but is regulated by analogy, either from the mutuli in the cornice, or the guttæ in the architrave, or epistylium in the Doric order; or it is set out according to the laws of the Ionic, with a sculptured frieze, dentils and a cornice.

3Thus, from the two orders, by the interposition of a capital, a third order arises. The three sorts of columns, different in form, have received the appellations of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, of which the first is of the greatest antiquity. For Dorus, the son of Hellen, and the Nymph Orseïs, reigned over the whole of Achaia and Peloponnesus, and built at Argos, an ancient city, on a spot sacred to Juno, a temple, which happened to be of this order. After this, many temples similar to it, sprung up in the other parts of Achaia, though the proportions which should be preserved in it, were not as yet settled.

4But afterwards when the Athenians, by the advice of the Delphic oracle in a general assembly of the different states of Greece, sent over into Asia thirteen colonies at once, and appointed a governor or leader to each, reserving the chief command for Ion, the son of Xuthus and Creüsa, whom the Delphic Apollo had acknowledged as son; that person led them over into Asia, and occupied the borders of Caria, and there built the great cities of Ephesus, Miletus, Myus (which was long since destroyed by inundation and its sacred rites and suffrages transferred by the Ionians to the inhabitants of Miletus), Priene, Samos, Teos, Colophon, Chios, Erythræ, Phocæa, Clazomenæ, Lebedos, and Melite. The last, as a punishment of the arrogance of its citizens, was detached from the other states in a war levied pursuant to the directions of a general council; and in its place, as a mark of favor towards king Attalus, and Arsinoë, the city of Smyrna was admitted into the number of Ionian states,

5which received the appellation of Ionian from their leader Ion, after the Carians and Lelegæ had been driven out. In this country, allotting different spots for sacred purposes, they began to erect temples, the first of which was dedicated to Apollo Panionios, and resembled that which they had seen in Achaia, and they gave it the name of Doric, because they had first seen that species in the cities of Doria.

6As they wished to erect this temple with columns, and had not a knowledge of the proper proportions of them, nor knew the way in which they ought to be constructed, so as at the same time to be both fit to carry the superincumbent weight, and to produce a beautiful effect, they measured a man’s foot, and finding its length the sixth part of his height, they gave the column a similar proportion, that is, they made its height, including the capital, six times the thickness of the shaft, measured at the base. Thus the Doric order obtained its proportion, its strength, and its beauty, from the human figure.

7With a similar feeling they afterwards built the temple of Diana. But in that, seeking a new proportion, they used the female figure as the standard: and for the purpose of producing a more lofty effect, they first made it eight times its thickness in height. Under it they placed a base, after the manner of a shoe to the foot; they also added volutes to its capital, like graceful curling hair hanging on each side, and the front they ornamented with cymatia and festoons in the place of hair. On the shafts they sunk channels, which bear a resemblance to the folds of a matronal garment. Thus two orders were invented, one of a masculine character, without ornament, the other bearing a character which resembled the delicacy, ornament, and proportion of a female.

8The successors of these people, improving in taste, and preferring a more slender proportion, assigned seven diameters to the height of the Doric column, and eight and a half to the Ionic. That species, of which the Ionians were the inventors, has received the appellation of Ionic. The third species, which is called Corinthian, resembles in its character, the graceful elegant appearance of a virgin, in whom, from her tender age, the limbs are of a more delicate form, and whose ornaments should be unobtrusive.

9The invention of the capital of this order is said to be founded on the following occurrence. A Corinthian virgin, of marriageable age, fell a victim to a violent disorder. After her interment, her nurse, collecting in a basket those articles to which she had shewn a partiality when alive, carried them to her tomb, and placed a tile on the basket for the longer preservation of its contents. The basket was accidentally placed on the root of an acanthus plant, which, pressed by the weight, shot forth, towards spring, its stems and large foliage, and in the course of its growth reached the angles of the tile, and thus formed volutes at the extremities.

10Callimachus, who, for his great ingenuity and taste was called by the Athenians Catatechnos, happening at this time to pass by the tomb, observed the basket, and the delicacy of the foliage which surrounded it. Pleased with the form and novelty of the combination, he constructed from the hint thus afforded, columns of this species in the country about Corinth, and arranged its proportions, determining their proper measures by perfect rules.

11The method of setting out the capital is as follows. Its height, including the abacus, is to be equal to the diameter of the lower part of the column. The width of the abacus is obtained by making its diagonal from opposite angles, equal to twice its height. It will thus have a proper front on each face. The faces of the four sides of the abacus are to be curved inwards from its extreme angles, equal to one ninth of its extent. The thickness of the lower part of the capital must be equal to the diameter of the top of the shaft, exclusive of the apotheosis and astragal. The height of the abacus is a seventh of the height of the whole capital;

12the remainder is to be divided into three parts, one of which is to be given to the lower leaf, the middle leaf will occupy the space of the next third part, the stalks or caulicoli will be the same height as the last named, out of which the leaves spring for the reception of the abacus. Large volutes are generated from these, which branch out towards the angles. The smaller volutes spread out towards the flowers, which are introduced in the centre of each abacus. Flowers whose diameters are equal to the height of the abacus, are to be placed in the central part of each its faces. By attention to these rules the Corinthian capital will be properly proportioned. Other sorts of capitals are however placed on these columns, which, differing in proportion, and standing on a different sort of shaft, cannot be referred to any other class; but their origin, though the detail be changed, is traced to, and deduced from the Corinthian, the Ionic, and the Doric, their only differences arising from a variation of the arrangement of the sculpture on them.

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