Thank you Carolingian Copyists for Preserving Vitruvius

by sharonlacey

Manuscript Copies of the Text

Despite the commonly held belief that Vitruvius was a Renaissance rediscovery, his text was significant throughout the Middle Ages. Vitruvius’s architectural treatise exists in fragments of agrimensorial texts from the sixth century, but the oldest surviving complete copy of Vitruvius’s de Architectura is British Library MS Harley 2767 written around the year 800. Ten other Vitruvian manuscripts were based on this Carolingian copy.

We know Vitruvius was known to medieval scholars like Alcuin of York and Einhard, and his student Vussin, Hermann the Paralytic, Hugo of St. Victor, Gervaise of Melkley, Vincent of Beauvais, William of Malmesbury, Petrus Diaconus, Albertus Magnus, Jean de Montreuil, and others. Also, medieval scholars such as Theodorich of St. Trond and Hildegard von Bingen were influenced by his system of proportions based on the human figure. Writers like St. Hildegard  ‘used Vitruvius to reinforce the idea that Christ crucified relates to the cruciform church plan’. When Goderamus was named abbot at Hildesheim, he possessed a copy of Vitruvius’s De architectura, which paleographic evidence suggests had been copied in Cologne in the ninth century. This Carolingian copy of Vitruvius is signed by Goderamus, the first abbot of St. Michael’s. Either the entirety of his ten books on architecture or excerpts were available in the libraries at Reichenau, Murbach, Gorze, in the South, Tyrol, Bamberg, Regensberg, Fulda, St. Gall, and Melk. Copies of his text were available at Toul and in the Low Countries in the eleventh century.  And in the twelfth century, the text was known at Rouen, Cluny, and Montecassino. By the mid-fifteenth century it was widely known in Italy, all English centres of learning, Spain, and Poland. Curiously, during the medieval period, Vitruvius appears to have been more widely known and copied outside Italy. There is no evidence of Vitruvius’s influence as an author in Italy until the Renaissance when Petrarch and Boccaccio reference him. In Italy they are building on top of Roman architectural foundations, so perhaps there was less need for textual authority and certainly there was less need to revive still extant classical architecture.

Indirect knowledge of Vitruvius’s work is more difficult to quantify. Some scholars suggest a mixed tradition based on a combination of textual sources that include Vitruvius. Presumably, the eighth-century author of the Mappae Clavicula knew Vitruvius’s De architectura. Fairly early in the transmission of Vitruvius’s text, it was fused with technical manuals such as the Mappae Clavicula. This collection of recipes for preparing pigments has some information in common with the Ten Books on Architecture. It is noteworthy that in the library catalogue at Reichenau of 821-2, the Vitruvius is listed immediately before volume one of the Mappae Clavicula. It is unknown whether either of these manuscripts was illustrated since they no longer exist. In the case of the Sélestat manuscript, the Mappae Clavicula, and M. Cetius Faventinus’s De artis architectonicae liber precede the entire text of Vitruvius. Combining his text with other technical manuals may suggest his work was of interest to men of praxis as well as men of letters. However, the surviving copies do not show the signs of workshop use one would expect. Another source of secondhand knowledge of Vitruvius was Pliny’s Natural History. Isidore of Seville and Palladius used both Pliny’s work and the abbreviated version of Vitruvius made by M. Cetius Faventinus.

Vitruvian Influence in the Medieval Period

When determining the impact Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture had in the medieval period, one must look beyond the practical uses of the text as a building manual. Although Vitruvius’s recipes and advice about materials were likely useful to builders and his ideas about proportion were employed in numerous medieval structures, his text influenced scholars from outside the architectural profession. Medieval readers were interested in the text as a theoretical and aesthetic document and inherited much from Vitruvius regarding the language of architectural discourse, as well as ideas about geometry and numerical significance. In addition to supplying medieval readers with the terminology to describe architectural elements, De architectura was hugely influential on depictions of architecture and on writings about aesthetics. When Vitruvius’s ideas were applied to actual building practice, medieval architects often misinterpreted his version of Greek architecture, or they willfully altered it to their contemporary needs. Another possible reason why medieval architecture that borrows from Vitruvius’s ideas may not look like Ancient Greek or Roman structures is that theirs is a purely textual knowledge rather than a practical application. There may be reason, however, to assume ecclesiastical architecture did incorporate Vitruvian ideas that were based in real domestic architecture because the quattrocento scholar Biondo asserted that ‘early monasteries were built on the ruins of ancient Roman houses’.

Judging from the manuscript tradition of Vitruvius’s text, which is similar to that of Pliny’s Natural History, medieval readers were less interested in artistic activity in Antiquity than they were in the descriptions of artistic materials. Pigments and descriptions of natural phenomena were excerpted and left their impact on other kinds of literature, such as bestiaries, lapidaries, and herbals. There are several existing manuscripts in which individual recipes were copied as literature independent from the entire text. The Lucca manuscript, translated into Latin around AD 750-800, is one such early craft treatise. It has recipes in common with Vitruvius, as well as Pliny, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides. Two examples from Leiden, MS 1310 and MS 1302, also illustrate this occurrence of piecemeal copying of Vitruvius’s treatise. In MS 1310, several isolated recipes follow the text of Vitruvius and appear to be in the same scribal hand. It is reasonable to include this information as an appendix to Vitruvius, but in MS 1302 the recipes appear at the end of a late-9th early-10th century collection of classical texts, which are non-technical and literary in nature. Again, this additional information is written in a hand and format indistinguishable from the literary part of the text. Presumably one of the texts was used as an exemplar, and earlier recipes were preserved in subsequent copies because the recipes that were originally added at the end of a codex began to be perceived as integral.

When using craft treatises to reconstruct artists’ methods, one must keep in mind that discrepancies between the texts being copied in a particular time and place and the workshop practices of that time and place arose for many reasons.  One which the 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti complains of was the imperfect transmission of texts. Another reason is simply that texts and practices were transmitted in an independent and unrelated way.

In the rare extant manuscripts of Vitruvius that include illustrations, these drawings demonstrate a combination of influences. The appearance of architecture in the renderings borrows from the aesthetic of the medieval minor arts as well as some descriptions in Vitruvius’s text.  As Anat Tcherikover notes, the draftsman of the Sélestat manuscript exhibits an interest in diagramming Vitruvius’s words rather than depicting real architecture. The images of Doric and Ionic columns do not appear to be informed by observation of the Antique architectural originals and are instead related to an erroneous understanding of the text. Also, several scholars note the similarities between the Sélestat diagrams and such works as the Arnulf ciborium, or a Carolingian ivory in Munich depicting the Holy Sepulchre. Given the Carolingian taste for miniaturized architecture, it makes sense that the impact of Vitruvius would be felt in the medieval minor arts.

The manuscript tradition of Vitruvius’s De architectura in the Carolingian period and later centuries, suggests his influence was pervasive across many aspects of the medieval culture. Like so many texts from Antiquity that survive only in later copies, Vitruvius’s work makes it possible to assess the transmission and preservation of texts for both antiquarian and practical interests. That his treatise survived for posterity when Varro’s and the other authors he mentions fell into obscurity indicates medieval copyists perceived his work either as useful for its novel information or as confirmation of their own aesthetic principles. In its fragmentary and excerpted forms, the extant copies are evidence the work gained appeal as a practical and functional craft guide. The individual recipes and methods in abridged versions of Vitruvius found their way into other craft treatises like the Mappae Clavicula. In the cases of complete copies of the Ten Books on Architecture, these manuscripts suggest that among the Carolingians there was an interest in the preservation of classical texts in general, and for more speculative reasons, an interest in Vitruvius in particular. L.W. Jones notes that at the scriptorium at Cologne, where he surmises the Harley 2767 manuscript was created, the gatherings in this copy were arranged flesh side out, like in ancient books, and opposite of that used in most ninth-century manuscripts. This arrangement signifies, ‘It [the manuscript] is to be considered a conscious revival’. Classical texts qua texts are appreciated during the Carolingian renaissance, which is undoubtedly one reason for Vitruvius’s survival. Even the more specific contributions Vitruvius made to medieval culture are largely textual in nature. As already mentioned, his practical guidelines and information on pigments are incorporated into many other craft treatises, and his architectural terminology is adopted in other works of aesthetic discourse. Even when his ideas were applied to actual building practices, it was his words, which were interpreted and transformed into visual guidelines for architectural plans, diagrams, and projects.

As a polemical text in its own time, De architectura had a theoretical significance that differed from its practical purpose.  Although the Carolingian reception and transmission of Vitruvius served different cultural needs from its original status in the time of Augustus, the text maintained verbal significance separate and distinct from its practical use.

Works Cited in this Post

Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. by Peter Goodman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982)

Clarke, Georgia, ‘Vitruvian Paradigms’, Papers of the British School at Rome, 70 (2002), 319-346

Clarke, Mark, The Art of All Colours: Mediaeval Recipe Books for Painters and Illuminators (London: Archetype Publications, 2001)

Conant, Kenneth J., ‘The After-life of Vitruvius in the Middle Ages’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 27.1 (1968), 33-38

Eco, Umberto, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. by Hugh Bredin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)

Fernie, Eric, The Architecture of Norman England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Gneuss, Helmut, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: a List of Manuscripts or Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001)

Isager, Jacob, Pliny on Art and Society: The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art, (London: Routledge, 1991)

Jones, Leslie Webber, ‘The Provenance of the London Vitruvius’, Speculum, 7.1 (1932), 64-70

Krinsky, Carole Herselle, ‘Seventy-Eight Vitruvian Manuscripts’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 30 (1967), 36-70

McClendon, Charles B., The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005)

Ogilvy, J. D. A., Books Known to Anglo-Latin Writers from Aldhelm to Alcuin (670- 804), (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Society of America, 1936)

Pellecchia, Linda, ‘Architects Read Vitruvius: Renaissance Interpretations of the Atrium of the Ancient House’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 51.4 (1992), 377-416

Pollitt, J. J., The Art of Rome c. 753 BC-337 AD: Sources and Documents, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966)

Reynolds, L. D., ed., Text and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)

Riché, Pierre, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993)

Sellers, Eujénie, The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art, trans. by K. Jex-Blake (Chicago: Argonaut, Inc., Publishers, 1968)

Tcherikover, Anat, ‘A Carolingian Lesson in Vitruvius’, in Medieval Architecture and Its Intellectual Context: Studies in Honour of Peter Kidson, ed. by Eric Fernie and Paul Crossley (London: Hambledon Press, 1990), pp. 259-267

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, trans. by Ingrid D. Rowland, comm. and illus. by Thomas Noble Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)