You are here

The Art of Building in the Classical World: Vision, Craftsmanship, and Linear Perspective in Greek and Roman Architecture

The Art of Building in the Classical World: Vision, Craftsmanship, and Linear Perspective in Greek and Roman Architecture

By John Senseney. Pp. xv + 245, figs. 95. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $90. ISBN 978-1-107-00235-7 (cloth).


This book is a valuable contribution to a recent tradition of writings that have sought to get inside the working processes of Greek and Roman architects, starting perhaps with Coulton's Ancient Greek Architects at Work: Problems of Structure and Design (Cornell 1977). The series continues with DeLaine's The Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome (JRS Suppl. 25 [Portsmouth, R.I. 1997]), Wilson-Jones' Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven 2000), Taylor's Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process (Cambridge 2003), Lancaster's Concrete Vaulted Construction in Imperial Rome (Cambridge 2005), and this reviewer's own commentary and illustration for Rowland's translation of Vitruvius' Ten Books on Architecture (T.N. Howe [Cambridge 1999]). Figuring significantly in this discussion is Lothar Haselberger's discovery of the full-scale compass-and-ruler working drawings on the walls of the Didymaion.

The book is organized in an introduction on methods of interpretation of architecture and four chapters. The first chapter discusses some peculiarities of reduced-scale drawing and "ichnography" (plan drawing), relating them to Platonic ideai, and chapter 2 takes the issue further and argues that there is a common pre-philosophical use of the concept of ideai that comes from a shared background in craft, astronomy, and building. The third chapter discusses the invention of scale drawing as the progeny of traditional practices in craft and astronomy, and chapter 4 investigates how the common use of ruler- and compass-scale drawing in the Hellenistic period lead to changes in design practice, particularly in Roman architecture.

The book's argument can be reduced to the following: as with all writings on process in ancient architecture, there is a mundane practical focus. In Senseney's book, this is the development of a type of reduced-scale drawing called by Vitruvius (1.2.2) "ichnography" and is characterized by the "repeated habits of drawing by the use of compass and straightedge." The author argues that the origin of this was part of a common experience of the craft world shared by philosophy, the public, and the arts. Plato used the experience, presumably of watching artisans, to develop the metaphor of the ideai, or rational order, created by the demiourgos (public craftsman) that underlies the phenomenal world. Painters used it to develop radial vanishing-point perspective, and architects began to use it first to lay out column fluting (a craftsmanly activity) and to design a new type of theater, and then, at least from Pytheos on, used it to design the underpinnings of Hellenistic modular grid temples. The starting point of the book is Vitruvius' assertion that "astronomers and musicians [and others educated in artes liberales] discuss certain things in common" (1.1.16), but Vitruvius is a late representative of that tradition. The author argues that Vitruvius in fact represents a point when the world of intellect had detached itself from the common experience of the craft world, which occurred approximately in the fourth century B.C.E. What Vitruvius preserves is that this type of drawing was a standard part of the liberal arts trained "professional" architect. In fact, it was just after Vitruvius' time that the creative manipulation of this kind of compass-and-ruler drawing on reduced-scale drawings was the origin of the dynamic space-positive vaulted architecture with syncopated rhythms of curve and rectangle, which was essential to the "concrete revolution."

Senseney reserves judgment as to whether ichnography existed in sixth- and fifth-century B.C.E. temple designs, but he argues that if so, it had little effect on integrating design. Instead, as Coulton (1977, 64) has argued, creativity and refinement in early temple design could be served in this period for controlling plastic masses by adjusting the arithmetical proportions of existing buildings to achieve the desired effect. This required knowledge of the proportional dimensions of existing buildings and a list of the proportions of the new one, not a plan drawing. As the author points out, even today, many building craftsmen do not know how to read plans (161).

The author argues for a probable common craft knowledge shared between Platonic philosophy, nascent astronomy, and nascent architecture in the course of the later fifth and fourth centuries. The type of compass-and-ruler drawing that we know from Vitruvius (1.1.16) as the basis of the geometrical forms of trigona and in tetragona—triangles and squares nested within a circle—which are best known as his basis for the design of the Greek and Roman theaters, may have been indebted to craft practices (such as fluting columns) and formed the basis of the invention of perspective, based on circles and radii.

The author then hypothesizes when the invention of perspective could have occurred, whether with Agarthakos of Samos as early as the 470s or 460s or later in the century. He assumes the existence of compass-and-rule drawn perspective by the end of the century by connecting this with an ingenious, though risky, analysis of a speech in Aristophanes' Birds (999–1009) (414 B.C.E.), which implies the use of a protractor ("curved ruler") to suggest the creation of a fantastical circular city in the air. He hypothesizes that this might represent an innovative early circular layout of the Theater of Dionysos that may have surrounded the audience at the time; otherwise, the first circular stone seating is dated to ca. 370 B.C.E. The first use of circle-and-radius geometry to organize space (including perspective) therefore seems to occur in "the specific context of spaces designed for large gatherings of people focused on specific actions and speakers" (134).

The next best evidence of this type of drawing is in the compass-and-ruler working drawings of Didyma using axial and radial protraction to design column entasis and the arrangement of column flutes, which constitute the transition to scale drawings. This, however, is still not necessarily an integrated design, but rather instructive craft drawings. The author argues that there is a certain transition between the older dimension-listing type of design and the later inchnographies, in that there is a penchant for simple numerical relationships (e.g., 3:4) in the compass-and-rule scale drawings that govern curvatures at the Parthenon and Didyma. Whether ichnographies were ever employed in the fifth century, Senseney argues convincingly that by the time of Pytheos and the Temple of Athena Polias at Priene (ca. 340 B.C.E.) and Hermogenes (ca. 220 B.C.E.), the use of compass-and-ruler-scale plan drawings were the principal aid to designers to order large areas of space. The controlling use is clearest in theaters and round temples but is also a controlling feature of gridded modular buildings such as Priene and Temple A at Kos (ca. 170 B.C.E.).

The driving point of the book is that by Vitruvius' time, this type of control of design by drawing with compass and ruler was commonplace, at least among the more educated professionals and intellectuals, who equated it with cosmic ideai, and less a common shared culture of craft, intellect, and popular life. The intriguing conclusion of the book is that Vitruvius' generation embodies the habits, which were shortly to become the creative geometrical play by which Roman architects would shape the radically different dynamic space-positive architecture from the play of cross-axial apse and rectangle.

One wishes this were an easier book to read, but the author never overstates his argument as he weaves a pattern of hypotheses, critically examining possibilities all the way. There are numerous drawings, but one wishes perhaps to have a bit more illustration of the small encyclopedia of known compass-and-ruler drawings to get a better sense of the context of these drawing habits. This book is largely for the specialist, but it leaves interesting challenges for how these results can be integrated with earlier work on process in Greek and Roman architecture.

Thomas Noble Howe
Southwestern University and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation

Book Review of The Art of Building in the Classical World: Vision, Craftsmanship, and Linear Perspective in Greek and Roman Architecture, by John Senseney

Reviewed by Thomas Noble Howe

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Howe

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <fa> <span> <i>
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.