Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > Art & Architecture > 54. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio

54.  Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (b. ca. 80/70 BCE).  De architectvra. [Rome?: s.n., 1486 or 1487] Avery Library, Classics Collection

Avery Library, a memorial to Henry Ogden Avery, a New York architect who died tragically young, was expressly established to make expensive treatises and plate books accessible to architects and students. It was only quite natural, then, that the first printed edition of Vitruvius's De architectura should enter Avery's collections early on. Eight years after the library's founding, in March 1898, Henry's father, Samuel Putnam Avery-a superlative book collector as well as one of America's first great art dealers-presented a copy of the editio princeps to Columbia University.

Most of the little that is known of Vitruvius's life has been gleaned from his ten books on architecture, probably written around 30-20 BCE. He was a freeborn Roman citizen with a liberal arts education as well as architectural training. His text, the only architectural treatise to survive from Western antiquity, remains the most important document for understanding the built environment of the ancient Roman and Greek worlds. Although no papyrus scrolls of De architectura are extant, medieval manuscripts are preserved. Probably at least two fifteenth-century manuscripts were used by Giovanni Sulpicio, a Roman humanist, to produce this first edition from movable type, which, like the manuscripts, includes little illustrative matter (actually just one woodcut diagram). The book is presumed to have been printed at Rome, current scholarship favoring Eucharius Silber over Georg Herolt as printer.

The Avery copy is the second of two variant printings and is bound (as is often the case) with the first printing of an ancient work on Rome's waterworks, Frontinus's De aquæductibus (Rome?: s.n., 1486 or 1487), in early nineteenth-century diced russia leather, decorated in gold and blind. The annotations of a late fifteenth-century reader appear in its margins. The inside front cover bears S. P. Avery's bookplate with a quote from John Lyly's Euphues: Anatomy of Wit (1579): "far more seemely were it for thee to have thy Study full of Bookes than thy purses full of mony." Avery Library today includes well over a hundred different editions of Vitruvius among its 380,000 some volumes.

Gift of Samuel Putnam Avery, 1898

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