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April 4, 2022
Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols Author and Audience in Vitruvius' De architectura Greek Culture in the Roman World series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 238 pp.; 8 color ills. Cloth £75.00 (9780511758591)

Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols’s study marks a fresh approach to Vitruvius’s De architectura (On Architecture, ca. 20s BCE). It is a revision of the author’s 2009 PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge, entitled Vitruvius and the Rhetoric of Display: Wall Painting, Domestic Architecture and Roman Self-Fashioning, whose arguments have been partly presented in other publications. In this important study, Nichols tackles the ten books of Vitruvius’s work on architecture to provide a systematic overview and comprehensive analysis of his authorial persona. She focuses on books six and seven to offer a deeper understanding of Vitruvius’s approach to houses and domestic decoration.

Nichols situates Vitruvius in the cultural milieu of the late Republican period of the Roman Empire to elucidate the rhetorical incentive behind his writing about architecture and art. Vitruvius composed his treatise as the Roman Republic fell and a new Augustan regime arose in its place. In this uncertain period, Vitruvius dedicated his work to his patron Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor. Vitruvius’s purpose in writing was not merely the creation of new knowledge, but the presentation of the complete body of architecture, which was compiled by the ordering and shaping of diverse material. Indra K. McEwen has illuminated the extensive corporeal metaphors in Vitruvius’s text and argued that Vitruvius’s aim was to configure his discipline as an instrument of Augustan world dominion, rather than to provide an accurate and objective view of the contemporary built environment (see, for example, Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture, MIT Press, 2003). Nichols takes this analysis one step further to argue that Vitruvius fashioned his authorial persona and his comments on architecture to appeal to elites and would-be elites who were eager to secure their positions within an expanding empire. She points out that Vitruvius’s project was a product of the intellectual climate of the 40s and 30s BCE during what she calls a “watershed moment in the composition of Latin works that engaged deeply with Greek traditions” (3). She distances her approach from scholarship that has approached De architectura as an expression of “Augustanism” to underline the Republican textual precedents in his work. More importantly, Nichols bridges the two traditions in Vitruvian scholarship, the literary and the scientific and archaeological, to tackle Vitrvius’s theory of architecture and decoration as the cultural product of a society undergoing major social and political change.

Along with an introduction that argues for the need to reevaluate the authorial voice and audience of Vitruvius vis-à-vis his theory of architecture, the book includes five chapters and an epilogue. The first two chapters deal with the authorial persona of Vitruvius in the changing climate of the late first-century BCE; the other three focus on domestic architecture and decoration. For its part, the epilogue centers on the identity of Vitruvius.

Chapter 1 discusses the continuity between Roman and Greek culture to argue that underlying De architectura’s claim to relevance, in the time of change in which Virtruvius lived, is a definition of Romanness as a composite of foreign elements—elements that, while absorbed by Roman culture, maintain their disparate origins. Rome’s appropriation of Greek culture is analyzed through three figures, whom Nichols recognizes as Vitruvius’s key actors in this process: the architect, the author, and the general. Reflecting on these distinct roles, she argues, Vitruvius articulates a coherent approach to incorporating and acknowledging the Greek past and configures “Rome as the rightful heir to the achievements of the conquered land” (41). Chapter 2 underlines the parallels between Vitruvius’s and Horace’s upbringing, education, and status to analyze their deliberate strategies of self-effacement as a mean of self-fashioning. Horace and Vitruvius belonged to the class and station of apparitores (public servants attending magistrates), which was a mixed bag of the rich and the not so rich, freeborn persons and freedmen, members of the equestrian class (the second of the census-based classes of ancient Rome, ranking below the senatorial order) and plebeians (the lower class). Nichols argues that “their testimony suggests that, for men of their status, actions and behaviors within the economy of favours played a crucial role in the formulation of identity” (79). For Vitruvius, the promotion of the status of architecture as a highly complex and learned art as well as his expertise in it is a blunt instrument for defining and advancing authorial power.

In chapter 3, Nichols turns to the well-known interface between houses and elite self-representation in the first-century BCE. Drawing on comparisons with Plautus, Cato, Horace, and Cicero, she reexamines the notions of elegantia (elegance as a positive assessment) and magnificentia (grandeur as a negative assessment) to point to the nuance and elasticity of Vitruvius’s approach and suggest limits to the applicability of his rules and hierarchies. In chapter 4 Nichols deals with the famous Vitruvian criticism of change in Roman painting (De architectura, book 7, chapter 5) and frames this discussion in the context of Roman rhetorical models. She underlines that his critique is embedded in the discourse of decor/decorum—that is, appropriateness. This concept was an essential Roman value but was only vaguely defined in the rhetorical literature, because the concept responded to many shifting spheres and could become a topic of controversy and debate (Ellen Perry, The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 36). Vitruvius’s discussion of decor/decorum underscores the volatility of the concept in architecture and design. Nichols argues that Vitruvius’s critique of Roman painting employs features of contemporary elite discourse to articulate the weighty significance that domestic decoration acquired for personal prestige.

In the final chapter, she extends her contextualized discussion on luxury and moralism vis-à-vis architecture and decoration to focus on Vitruvius’s story of the vermilion walls of the scribe Faberius, again in book 7 of his work (chapter 9, sections 2–3). Here Nichols employs her previous analysis of the importance of the notion of decor in houses and decoration for elite self-representation to shed light on the political incentives behind the critique of the absence of decor. She convincingly argues that such critiques point to the ways in which apparitores like Vitruvius self-fashioned themselves in the emerging social and political landscape of the first-century BCE. The epilogue compares Vitruvius with Mamurra, who held the post of praefectus fabrum under Julius Caesar. The earlier understanding that a praefectus fabrum was Rome’s chief military engineer had encouraged scholars to identify Mamurra as the author of De architectura. It is now understood that it “was something of an umbrella term, but often denoted a senior officer on the staff of an imperial governor or commander in the field” (181–82). Here again, Nichols looks at this controversy with fresh eyes to point out that the similarities in the portrayals of Vitruvius and Mamurra reveal contemporary values and behaviors as well as the norms and prejudices surrounding professional conduct.

This book is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on Vitruvius that, over the past thirty years, has situated his discussion of architecture, art, and aesthetics in the context of Roman rhetorical models of the first-century BCE— including Mireille Courrént’s and John Oksanish’s recent studies Vitruvius auctor: L’œuvre littéraire de Vitruve et sa réception dans la littérature (Ausonius Éditions, 2019) and Vitruvian Man: Rome under Construction (Oxford University Press, 2019). Nichols’s stimulating and elegant analysis sheds light on the author and audience of De architectura as well as the intellectual climate in which it was produced.

Mantha Zarmakoupi
Morris Russell and Josephine Chidsey Williams Assistant Professor in Roman Architecture, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania