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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Vitruvius, memory and imagination : on the production of archaeological knowledge and the construction of classical monuments Millette, Daniel M.


As the "Revolution" threatened Rome during the final decades of the Republic, the many landscapes of the city — built, intellectual, social and natural — became inextricably linked within a confused cultural matrix. Vitruvius was not simply observing a set of places; he was living within spaces that, while having lost many of their explicit meanings over time, contained within them implicit, albeit unclear, cultural codes for him to ponder. Vitruvius in fact was not describing Roman architecture as it was; he was describing it as he wished it to be. There are a host of reasons to question the physical exactitude of his examples and subsequent models: The vantage point of a single individual living within a specific place at a particular moment in time was, and continues to be, limited at best. There are geographical and architectural inaccuracies that leave the reader wondering if Vitruvius actually saw much of what was inserted within the treatise. And Vitruvius would have generalized in order to arrive at the broad sets of tenets contained in the books. The "looseness" characterizing the tenets of Vitruvius is precisely what has enabled imaginative interpretations over the centuries. By including drawings within translations, the classical imagination has become fused with memories of what monuments should look like. Linked to this, translated versions of Vitruvius' treatise can be usurped in order to connect ruins more closely to Roman architectural ideals than they may have been in the first place. The translation and annotation project of Jean Gardet and Dominique Bertin in the 1550s is an example of how the treatise of Vitruvius was attached, inextricably, to the antiquities of southern France. The habit of turning to the De Architectura in order to produce a body of archaeological knowledge and in turn to provide "proof for the architectural reconstruction of classical monuments has persisted. In the end, the monument can serve as confirmation for the translated text, and the text re-confirms the monument. In Orange, the use of the treatise by architects has been retraced to show that the reconstructed theater does not correspond, in its rebuilt state, to that which would have stood in its place. Eventually, the habit of turning to Vitruvius was adapted to such an extent that it practically became invisible, with architects and archaeologists turning to it with little thought as to its contextual validity. This is probably why we see so few explicit references to its use in the literature documenting the re-building of monuments; it is only by retracing field notes that the extent to which it was used, even relatively lately, can be assessed. At the same time, classical archaeology has — and continues to — direct its attention to deblayage, remaniements, consolidations and in time, la sauvegarde. The present-day impetus for these activities is closely connected to history, heritage and ultimately, the notion of patrimoine. The difficulty today is that the more we re-build, whether it be for basic cultural consumption or within grander state agendas, the recourse to producing related bodies of knowledge to justify architectural plans has the potential to increase significantly. The understanding of classical architecture within the context of history and heritage must be met by a corresponding comprehension of its temporal, formal and social nature; Vitruvius' words, as I have stressed, do not necessarily depict a material architecture. Vitruvius' architect lived within an urban setting that was highly dynamic and not necessarily readily interpreted. And while Republican spaces derived from a need for function, efficiency, beauty and representation, they were not necessarily or completely redesigned each time they were reused; they were often modified to suit. Notions related to specific and ideal spaces were most probably stored within the minds of the multifaceted designers to be shaped according to particular sets of pre-existing cultural and built conditions as well as geographical settings. And to these, the craftspeople would have added personal interpretations. Today the problems arise when architects and archaeologists, eager to convince themselves and others of their theoretic, forget that we simply do not know what memories resided in the mind of Roman architects.

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