Vitruvius's theories of beauty

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Is it possible to identify a universal sense of beauty - a definition of beauty that can be applied to all people at all times? Don't our ideas of beauty shift and fight and transform themselves in different times and spaces?


This image is by Marcus Vitruvius, the famous Ancient Roman architect. Vituvius's most famous work is entitled Ten Books on Architecture, and was written in approximately 20-30 BC. It is the only text on the subject of architecture to survive antiquity. It was also one of the first texts in history to draw the connection between the architecture of the body and that of the building.


Vitruvius believed that an architect should focus on three central themes when preparing a design for a building: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty).


But the theory of venustas (or beauty) is a very complicated one. Vitruvius thought that a timeless notion of beauty could be learnt from the 'truth of nature', that nature's designs were based on universal laws of proportion and symmetry. He believed that the body's proportions could be used as a model of natural proportional perfection. He wrote of the way ancient scholars examined many examples of 'well shaped men' and discovered that these bodies shared certain proportions. He showed that the 'ideal' human body fitted precisely into both a circle and a square, and he thus illustrated the link that he believed existed between perfect geometric forms and the perfect body. In this way, the body was seen as a living rulebook, containing the fixed and faultless laws set down by nature.


So it followed, according to Vitruvius, that an architect's designs must refer to the unquestionable perfection of the body's symmetry and proportions. If a building is to create a sense of eurythmia - a graceful and agreeable atmosphere - it is essential that it mirrors these natural laws of harmony and beauty.