Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Catherine Saliou (ed.), Vitruve: De l'architecture. Livre v. Collection des Universités de France. Paris: Les belles lettres, 2009. Pp. lxxvi, 434. ISBN 9782251014531. €53.00 (pb).
Reviewed by John Bulwer, European School Brussels 1

Who reads Vitruvius? It seems that in the English-speaking world at least archaeologists and architectural historians don't read Vitruvius in the original because the Latin is too difficult; and the Latinists don't read him in the original because the architecture is too obscure. As a result this author who falls right into the major period of Latin literature is somewhat neglected. There are a number of translations, some with copious illustrations, but no serviceable version of the text with commentary in English. This is not the case in continental Europe where there seems to be plenty of interest in Vitruvian studies, as this volume shows. This edition of Book 5 is the final volume in what is now a complete set of texts and commentaries in French for the Budé edition (Les Belles Lettres). The series began way back in 1969 but has continued under the guidance of Pierre Gros through the 1990s and has now been completed by Catherine Saliou with her text, translation and commentary on Vitruvius' book on public buildings.

Saliou manages to combine all the elements required for an editor of Vitruvius: a knowledge of Latin and Greek, familiarity with the techniques of textual criticism, and knowledge of the current state of scholarship in Roman and Greek art, architecture and archaeology. Her commentary moves seamlessly from a discussion of the text and the grammar and philology of the passage to the implications of the passage for archaeology and architectural history, comparing the relevant material remains in different locations and at the same time supplying detailed plans and figures to supplement her arguments. It is an impressive feat to juggle with all these balls in the air at the same time. She even has to deal with the science of acoustics and music in the passage concerning the resonating vases. Many of the notes in the commentary are more like fully developed essays, and it is rare to find any puzzling or difficult passage that is not discussed. Sometimes what seems to be a straightforward passage is seen to have hidden problems which are then fully drawn out and examined.

Vitruvius devotes Book 5 to public buildings. He examines public spaces, basilicas, the forum, theatres in great detail, public porticoes and promenades, baths, palaestras and finally harbours and docks. The discussion of the theatre takes most space (chapters 3 to 8) and covers the design and shape including the difference between the Greek theatre and the Roman one. The layout of the Roman theatre based on four equilateral triangles contrasting with the Greek theatre based on three squares is clearly demonstrated by plans and figures which are supplemented by a number of plans of actual theatres. This is the heart of the book and Saliou's discussion ranges across music and acoustics to scene-buildings and stages. Ancient theatres were built with resonating vases fitted into their structure to improve the sound, lengthening the reverberation to give it a warmer character or a "wet" sound as opposed to a "dry" one. The vases were tuned to different frequencies, and here Vitruvius follows a Greek source to describe the methods of tuning the vases to different notes. Vitruvius sometimes has difficulty transliterating Greek (a bit like BMCR) and himself admits that this bit is "obscura et difficilis" (5.4.1). Saliou tabulates the names of the notes as they appear in the different editions and manuscripts and in the text prints all terms in Latin, except where Vitruvius specifically refers to Greek usage. The whole question is given further treatment in a separate appendix. Acoustics are also treated in the discussion of the scene-building behind the stage which the commentary makes clear is an integral part of the structure for aesthetic and practical reasons.

The phenomenon of regular bathing was a feature of Roman life. Any sociological discussion of this daily habit should start with reference to chapter 10 of Vitruvius 5. Here the layouts of the different rooms are found in their original form, and the reader will find the sets of baths in Pompeii, familiar from many introductory courses, used to give visual expression to the discussion of the laconicum and the caldarium in the text. Similarly the palaestra is discussed in the following chapter.

Vitruvius has to be read visually at all times. That is to say that the Latin text has to be read with illustrations, diagrams, plans and figures in front of the reader. He becomes a difficult author when you literally cannot see what he means. The best way to read him is perhaps collaboratively, around a large table with images to be viewed and manipulated on a large screen. The single drawback of the Budé edition is that the small format does not allow the pages to lie flat for consultation and comparison, when the reader has to flip back and forth between text and commentary, and the images are reduced to a size small enough to put some strain on the eyes. Full reference is, however, made in each case to the original publication of the figure. Another valuable resource is the number of tables included to make comparisons between different readings of Vitruvius' text, the text and an original Greek source, the treatment of the same topic in another book of the De Architectura and archaeological data.

A major problem the reader of Vitruvius in Latin has to face is to decide what he actually wrote. (This is of course a problem for readers in English translation as well but they may be less aware of it.) A modern text with an apparatus criticus is essential, not because the problems are insuperable or that the text is defective, but the nature of Vitruvius's writing with his technical terms and descriptions and the frequent references to words and architectural features in Greek make exact reading a painstaking process. An examination of a textual problem is often the start of an investigation into the meaning of a particular technical term or phrase. Reference to the Latin text is always likely to be helpful rather than the reverse, and over-reliance on a single translated term will not aid understanding. Saliou is fairly conservative in her text preferring the manuscript reading on occasions where others have corrected the text to save Vitruvius from a perceived error (for example, in praefatio 3, 4.2 and 5.4). She prefers to leave Vitruvius to make his own mistake than to make an unnecessary correction. Each difficult reading is fully argued in the commentary with undogmatic accounts of the possible alternatives and always a clear and firm decision.

The sections on theatres, baths, the palaestra and ports and harbours feature regularly in courses on social history and everyday life. This volume (and the others in the series) indicate that reference to the original text of Vitruvius when these elements of Roman life are presented should be an essential part of such a course. English-speakers now have a splendid new illustrated and annotated translation of all ten books of Vitruvius (Vitruvius On Architecture, Robert Tavernor (Translator), Richard Schofield (Translator) Penguin Classics 2009) which is a valuable tool for Vitruvians, but for anyone trying to read and understand what Vitruvius actually wrote, the now satisfyingly complete edition from Les Belles Lettres is the place to go.

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