Writing the Body of Architecture

By Indra Kagis McEwen

A historical study of Vitruvius's De architectura, showing that his purpose in writing "the whole body of architecture" was shaped by the imperial Roman project of world domination.





A historical study of Vitruvius's De architectura, showing that his purpose in writing "the whole body of architecture" was shaped by the imperial Roman project of world domination.

Vitruvius's De architectura is the only major work on architecture to survive from classical antiquity, and until the eighteenth century it was the text to which all other architectural treatises referred. While European classicists have focused on the factual truth of the text itself, English-speaking architects and architectural theorists have viewed it as a timeless source of valuable metaphors. Departing from both perspectives, Indra Kagis McEwen examines the work's meaning and significance in its own time.

Vitruvius dedicated De architectura to his patron Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, whose rise to power inspired its composition near the end of the first century B.C. McEwen argues that the imperial project of world dominion shaped Vitruvius's purpose in writing what he calls "the whole body of architecture." Specifically, Vitruvius's aim was to present his discipline as the means for making the emperor's body congruent with the imagined body of the world he would rule.

Each of the book's four chapters treats a different Vitruvian "body." Chapter 1, "The Angelic Body," deals with the book as a book, in terms of contemporary events and thought, particularly Stoicism and Stoic theories of language. Chapter 2, "The Herculean Body," addresses the book's and its author's relation to Augustus, whose double Vitruvius means the architect to be. Chapter 3, "The Body Beautiful," discusses the relation of proportion and geometry to architectural beauty and the role of beauty in forging the new world order. Finally, Chapter 4, "The Body of the King," explores the nature and unprecedented extent of Augustan building programs. Included is an examination of the famous statue of Augustus from Prima Porta, sculpted soon after the appearance of De architectura.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262134156 508 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 56 illus.


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262633062 508 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 56 illus.


  • ...An exemplar of scholarship in architectural history...recommended.


  • This new, rhetorical Vitruvius deserves to be taken seriously...[a] highly original book.



  • Indra McEwen's book is an elegant and imaginative exploration of Vitruvius's intellectual horizons that allows us to look at *De architectura* with new respect. In her hands it transcends the dimensions of a technical handbook and becomes a window onto the Romans' conceptual construction of their world.

    Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

    Director, The British School at Rome, and Professor of Classics, Reading University

  • Vitruvius has provided architects with guidance across two millennia. At the beginning of a third, McEwen demonstrates, with the authority of considerable scholarship, the significance of an architectural approach in which form and content are in balance. Here we are presented with the kernel of traditional architecture, not just its shell.

    Robert Tavernor

    Professor and Head of Architecture, University of Bath

  • With her vast and nuanced knowledge, Indra McEwen is able to restore Vitruvius's oeuvre to its rightful place within the world of the beginning of Augustus's reign. She demonstrates that the intentions and precepts of De architectura conform to the political and religious context of the period to a greater extent than is generally maintained. The continuity she establishes between Vitruvius's 'perfect man,' Polyclitus's Doryphorus, and the idealized statue of Augustus is bold indeed, but proves its relevance upon reflection and compels us to consider the whole of the Vitruvian project in new terms.

    Pierre Gros

    Université de Provence, France