VITRUVIUS, BOOK II, CHAPTER 9
On timber



1 Materies caedenda est a primo autumno ad id tempus, quod erit antequam flare incipiat favonius. Vere enim omnes arbores fiunt praegnates et omnes suae proprietatis virtutem efferunt in frondem anniversariosque fructus. Cum ergo inanes et umidae temporum necessitate eorum fuerint, vanae fiunt et raritatibus inbecillae; uti etiam corpora muliebria, cum conceperint, ad foetus a partu non iudicantur integra, neque in venalibus ea, cum sunt praegnantia, praestantur sana, ideo quod in corpore praeseminatio crescens ex omnibus cibi potestatibus detrahit alimentum in se, et quo firmior efficitur ad maturitatem partus, eo minus patitur esse solidum id ex quo ipsum procreatur. Itaque edito foetu, quod prius in aliud genus incrementi detrahebatur, cum a disparatione procreationis est liberatum, inanibus et patentibus venis in se recipient. Lambendo sucum etiam solidescit et redit in pristinam naturae firmitatem.

Translation

1. Wood is to be felled from the beginning of autumn to the time which comes before the blowing of the west wind. For in spring all trees become pregnant and discharge all the excellence of their own property into their foliage and yearly fruit. When, therefore, they are rendered empty and moist in their season, they become void and weak by their open structure. Females also, when they have conceived offspring, are not adjudged sound until delivery; and in the case of slaves, they are not guaranteed sound when they are pregnant, because the fertilisation as it spreads in the body draws nourishment to itself from the potencies of the food; and the stronger the offspring is rendered for its ripening, the less solid does it allow that to be from which it is engendered. And so when the offspring is brought forth, what previously was withdrawn to another kind of growth, the body will receive into itself through the empty and open pores. By taking up juices it becomes solid, and returns to the strength of its former nature.

2 Eadem ratione autumnali tempore maturitate fructuum flaccescente fronde, et terra recipientes radices arborum in se sucum reciperantur et restituuntur in antiquam soliditatem. At vero aeris hiberni vis conprimit et consolidat eas per id, ut supra scriptum est, tempus. Ergo si ea ratione et eo tempore, quod est supra scriptum, caeditur materies, erit tempestiva.

Translation

2. Likewise in autumn the leaves wither when the fruits are ripe. The roots of the trees receive into themselves the sap from the earth, and are recovered and restored to their old solidity. But the power of the winter air compresses and consolidates them through that time as is written above. Therefore if the wood is cut in the manner and at the time described above, it will be in season.

3 Caedi autem ita oportet, uti incidatur arboris crassitudo ad mediam medullam, et relinquatur, uti per eam exsiccescat stillando sucus. Ita qui inest in his inutilis liquor effluens per torulum non patietur emori in eo saniem nec corrumpi materiae aequalitatem. Tum autem, cum sicca et sine stillis erit arbor, deiciatur et ita erit optima in usu.

Translation

3. Now it ought to be cut so that the thickness of the tree is cut to the middle of the pith, and left, that the sap may dry out by dripping. Thus the useless fluid which is in the veins flows out through the sapwood, and does not let the watery part die away in it, nor the quality of the wood to be corrupted. But when the tree is dry and does not drip, let it be cut down, and so it will be best in use.

4 Hoc autem ita esse licet animum advertere etiam de arbustis. Ea enim cum suo quoque tempore ad imum perforata castrantur, profundunt e medullis quae habent in se superantem et vitiosum, per foramina liquorem, et ita siccescendo recipiunt in se diuturnitatem. Quae autem non habent ex arboribus exitus umoris, intra concrescentes putrescunt, et efficiunt inanes eas vitiosas. Ergo si stantes et vivae siccescendo non senescunt, sine dubio cum eae ad materiam deiciuntur, cum ea ratione curatae fuerint, habere poterunt magnas in aedificiis ad vetustatem utilitates.

Translation

4. This, moreover, we can perceive about shrubs also. When they are bored through at the base in their proper season and pruned, they pour forth from the pith, through the openings, the excessive and diseased fluid which they contain; and thus by drying they gain durability. But those trees which have no outlets of moisture, swell inside and rot, and are rendered hollow and diseased. Therefore, if by draining when they are standing and alive trees are saved from decay, doubtless when they are felled for tímber, if they are treated in the same way, they will have great advantages in buildings for durability.

5 Hae autem inter se discrepantes et dissimiles habent virtutes, uti robur, ulmus, populus, cupressus, abies ceteraque, quae maxime in aedificiis sunt idonea. Namque non potest id robur quod abies, nec cupressus quod ulmus, nec cetera easdem habent inter se natura rerum similitates, sed singula genera principiorum proprietatibus conparata alios alii generis praestant in operibus effectus.

Translation

5. Now trees have virtues varying and unlike one with another; for example, oak, elm, poplar, cypress, fir, and the rest which are most suitable in buildings. For the oak has not the same power as the fir, nor the cypress as the elm, nor have the rest by nature the same resemblances one with another. But the several kinds furnished with the properties of their first principles provide in the work various effects.

6 Et primum abies aeris habens plurimum et ignis minimumque umoris et terreni, levioribus rerum naturae potestatibus conparata non est ponderata. Itaque rigore naturali contenta non cito flectitur ab onere, sed directa permanet in contignatione. Sed ea, quod habet in se plus caloris, procreat et alit cariem ab eaque vitiatur, etiamque ideo celeriter accenditur, quod quae inest in eo corpore aeris raritas et est patens, accipit ignem et ita vehementem ex se mittit flammam.

Translation

6. And first, the fir has most air and fire and least moisture and earth. Being thus furnished with the lighter powers of nature, it is not weighed down. It is held together by a natural stiffness, and is not quickly bent by a load, but remains straight in the flooring. But timber which has more heat generates and feeds decay and is diseased by it. Fir is also soon kindled because the rarefaction of the air which is present in this body, and is porous, receives the fire, and so sends forth a vehement flame.

7 Ex ea autem, antequam est excisa, quae pars est proxima terrae, per radices recipiens ex proximitate umorem enodis et liquida efficitur; quae vero est superior, vehementia caloris eductis in aera per nodos ramis, praecisa alte circiter pedes XX et perdolata propter nodationis duritiem dicitur esse fusterna. Ima autem, cum excisa quadrifluviis disparatur, eiecto torulo ex eadem arbore ad intestina opera conparatur et ab infima fusterna sappinea vocatur.

Translation

7. Of the tree before it is cut down, the part which is nearest the earth receives the moisture from theneighbourhood through the roots and is rendered free from knots and moist. The upper part (since by the vehemence of the heat the branches are carried into the air through the knots) is cut off about twenty feet up. It is rough-axed and because of the hardness of the knotted portion is called " knotwood." The lowest portion, however, when it is cut and divided in four directions, and the sapwood is rejected from the same tree, is used for inside work, and is called "deal."

8 Contra vero quercus terrenis principiorum satietatibus abundans parumque habens umoris et aeris et ignis, cum in terrenis operibus obruitur, infinitam habet aeternitatem. Ex eo cum tangitur umore, non habens foraminum raritates propter spissitatem non potest in corpus recipere liquorem, sed fugiens ab umore resistit et torquetur et efficit, in quibus est operibus, ea rimosa.

Translation

8. The oak (quercus robur), on the other hand, abounds in earthy saturations of the elements, and has little moisture and air and fire, When it is buried in foundations, it has unlimited duration. Hence, when it is touched by moisture, not having open pores, it cannot because of its density admit fluids into its substance, but, shrinking from moisture, it stands and is warped and causes cracks in the work.

9 Aesculus vero, quod est omnibus principiis temperata, habet in aedificiis magnas utilitates; sed ea, cum in umore conlocatur recipiens penitus per foramina liquorem eiecto aere et igni operatione umidae potestatis vitiatur. Cerrus quercus fagus, quod pariter habent mixtionem umoris et ignis et terreni, aeris plurimum, provisa raritates umoris penitus recipiendo celeriter marcescunt. Populus alba et nigra, item salix, tilia vitex ignis et aeris habendo satietatem, umoris temperate, parum autem terreni habens leviore temperatura comparata, egregiam habere videtur in usu rigiditatem. Ergo cum non sint dura terreni mixtione propter raritatem sunt candida et in sculpturis commodam praestant tractabilitatem.

Translation

9. But the winter oak (quercus aesculus), because it is blended with all the elements, has great advantages in building. Yet when it is placed in water, it admits the fluid within, through the pores, and losing air and fire is damaged by the operatíon of the humid potency. The Turkey oak and the beech, because they have a mixture of the humid, the fiery and the earthy, and an excess of air, being furnished with open pores, admit moisture and quickly decay. The white and black poplar, the willow also, the lime, the agnus castus, having the fire and air to saturation, the humid in moderation, too little of the earthy, are composed of a lighter mixture, and seem to have unusual firmness in use. Although, therefore, they are not hard owing to the mixture of the earthy, they are rendered white by their porous structure and are convenient to handle in the case of carving.

10 Alnus autem, quae proxima fluminum ripis procreatur et minime materies utilis videtur, habet in se egregias rationes. Etenim aere et igni plurimo temperata, non multem terreno, umore paulo. Itaque in palustribus locis infra fundamenta aedificiorum palationibus crebre fixa, recipiens in se quod minus habet in corpore liquoris, permanet inmortalis ad aeternitatem et sustinet inmania pondera structurae et sine vitiis conservat. Ita quae non potest extra terram paulum tempus durare, ea in umore obruta permanet ad diuturnitam.

Translation

10. But the alder, which grows next the banks of rivers, and seems a useless timber, has nevertheless some remarkable applications. For it is blended with much air and fire, not much earth, little of the humid. And so frequently alder stakes, being fixed in marshy ground below the foundations of buildings, admit fluid because they have a less quantity in their substance. Hence they remain imperishable to eternity, uphold immense weights of walling, and preserve them without decaying. Thus a timber which cannot endure even a short time above ground, when it is buried in moisture abides for long periods.

11 Est autem maximum id considerare Ravennae, quod ibi omnia opera et publica et privata sub fundamentis eius generis habeant palos. Ulmus vero et fraxinus maximos habent umoris minimumque aeris et ignis, terreni temperate mixtione comparatae. Sunt in operibus, cum fabricantur, lentae et ab pondere umoris non habent rigorem et celeriter pandant; simul autem vetustate sunt aridae factae aut in agro perfecto qui est eis liquor stantes emoriuntur, fiunt duriores et in commissuris et coagmentationibus ab lentitudine firmas recipiunt catenationes.

Translation

11. Now we can best consider this at Ravenna; because there all works both public and private have piles of this kind under their foundations. But the elm and the ash have an excess of moisture, very little air and fire, and are provided moderately with a mixture of the earthy. When they are wrought for buildings they are pliant, and, owing to the weight of moisture, they are without stiffness and quickly bend. In time, however, they become dried up, or the moisture which is in them being cast forth, they are allowed to die off, standing in the open. At the same tíme they become harder, and owing to their pliability they make good joints, both upright and horizontal.

12 Item carpinus, quod est minima ignis et terreni mixtione, aeris autem et umoris summa continetur temperatura, non est fragilis, sed habet utilissimam tractabilitatem. Itaque Graeci, quod ea materia iuga iumentis conparant, quod apud eos iuga zyga vocitantur, item zygian eam appellant. Non minus est admirandum de cupresso et pinu, quod eae habentes umoris abundantiam aequamque ceterorum mixtionem, propter umoris satietatem in operibus solent esse pandae, sed in vetustatem sine vitiis conservantur, quod is liquor, qui inest penitus in corporibus earum, habet amarum saporem qui propter acritudinem non patitur penetrare cariem neque eas bestiolas quae sunt nocentes. Ideoque quae ex his generibus opera constituuntur, permanent ad aeternam diuturnitatem.

Translation

12. The hornbeam has a slight mixture of fire and earth, and is compounded with a full supply of air and moisture; it is not fragile, but is most convenient to handle. And so the Greeks, because they prepare yokes for cattle from this wood, and because among them yokes are called zyga, also call it zygia. There is not less cause for wonder in the cypress and the pine. They have abundance of moisture, equal to the whole mixture of the rest. Because of their saturatíon with moisture, they usually warp in use, but they last for a long time without decay. For the moisture which is within the timber has a bitter flavour. Because of its bitterness it prevents the entrance of decay and of those small creatures which are injurious. And so the works which are executed from these kinds of trees endure an unlimited time.

13 Item cedrus et iuniperus easdem habent virtutes et utilitates; sed quemadmodum ex copressu et pinu resina ex cedro oleum quod cedrium dicitur, nascitur, quo reliquae res cum sunt unctae, uti etiam libri, a tineis et carie non laeduntur. Arboris autem eius sunt similes cupresseae foliaturae; materies vena directa. Ephesi in aede simulacrum Dianae ex ea, lacunaria et ibi et in ceteris nobilibus fanis propter aeternitatem sunt facta. Nascuntur autem eae arbores maxime Cretae et Africae et nonnullis Syriae regionibus.

Translation

13. Cedar and juniper, also, have the same virtues and advantages. Just as resin comes from cypress and pine, so from cedar comes the oil which is called oil of cedar. When other things, as, for example, books, are soaked with this, they escape injury from worms and dry rot. The tree is like the cypress in foliage; the wood is of a straight vein. In the temple at Ephesus, the image of Diana, the coffers of the ceiling also, are made of these trees — as also in other famous temples — because of their durability. Now these trees are found especially in the regions of Crete and Africa and parts of Syria.

14 Larix vero, qui non est notus nisi is municipalibus qui sunt circa ripam fluminis Padi et litora maris Hadriani, non solum ab suco vehementi amaritate ab carie aut tinea non nocetur, sed etiam flammam ex igni non recipit, nec ipse per se potest ardere, nisi uti saxum in fornace ad calcem coquendam aliis lignis uratur; nec tamen tunc flammam recipit nec carbonem remittit, sed longo spatio tarde comburitur. Quod est minima ignis et aeris e principiis temperatura, umore autem et terreno est spisse solidata, non habet spatia foraminum, qua possit ignis penetrare, reicitque eius vim nec patitur ab eo sibi cito noceri, propterque pondus ab aqua non sustinetur, sed cum portatur, aut in navibus aut supra abiegnas rates conlocatur.

Translation

14. The larch is known only to the provincials on the banks of the river Po and the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Owing to the fierce bitterness of its sap, it is not injured by dry rot or the worm. Further, it does not admit flame from fire, nor can it burn of itself; only along with other timber it may burn stone in the kiln for making lime. Nor even then does it admit flame or produce charcoal, but is slowly consumed over a long interval. For there is the least admixture of fire and air, while the moist and the earthy principles are closely compressed. It has no open pores by which the fire can penetrate, and repels its force and prevents injury being quickly done to itself by fire. Because of its weight it is not sustained by water; but when it is carried, it is placed on board ship, or on pine rafts.

15 Ea autem materies quemadmodum sit inventa, est causa cognoscere. Divus Caesar cum exercitum habuisset circa Alpes imperavissetque municipiis praestare commeatus, ibique esset castellum munitum, quod vocaretur Larignum, tunc, qui in eo fuerunt, naturali munitione confisi noluerunt inperio parere. Itaque imperator copias iussit admoveri, erat autem ante eius castelli portam turris ex hac materia alternis trabibus transversis uti pyra inter se composita alte, uti posset de summo sudibus et lapidibus accedentes repellere. Tunc vero cum animadversum est alia eos tela praeter sudes non habere neque posse longius a muro propter pondus iaculari, imperatum est fasciculos ex virgis alligatos et faces ardentes ad eam munitonem accendentes mittere.

Translation

15. We have reason to inquire how this timber was discovered. After the late emperor Caesar had brought his forces into the neighbourhood of the Alps, and had commanded the municipalities to furnish supplies, he found there a fortified stronghold which was called Larignum. But the occupants trusted to the natural strength of the place and refused obedience. The emperor therefore commanded his forces to be brought up. Now before the gate of the stronghold there stood a tower of this wood with alternate cross-beams bound together like a funeral pyre, so that it could drive back an approaching enemy by stakes and stones from the top. But when it was perceived that they had no other weapons but stakes, and because of their weight they could not throw them far from the wall, the order was given to approach, and to throw bundles of twigs and burning torches against the fort. And the troops quickly heaped them up.

16 Itaque celeriter milites congesserunt. Posteaquam flamma circa illam materiam virgas comprehendisset, ad caelum sublata efficit opinionem, uti videretur iam tota moles concidisse. Cum autem ea per se extincta esset et re quieta turris intacta apparuisset, admirans Caesar iussit extra telorum missionem eos circumvallari. Itaque timore coacti oppidani cum se dedidissent, quaesitum, unde essent ea ligna quae ab igni non laederentur. Tunc ei demonstraverunt eas arbores, quarum in his locis maximae sunt copiae. Et ideo id castellum Larignum, item materias larigna est appelata. Haec autem per Padum Ravennam deportatur. In colonia Fanestri, Pisauri, Anconae reliquisque, quae sunt in ea regione, municipiis praebetur. Cuius materies si esset facultas adportationibus ad urbem, maximae haberentur in aedificiis utilitates, et si non in omne, certe tabulae in subgrundiis circum insulas si essent ex ea conlocatae, ab traiectionibus incendiorum aedificia periculo liberarentur, quod ea neque flammam nec carbonem possunt recipere nec facere per se.

Translation

16. The flame seizing the twigs around the wood, rose skyward and made them think that the whole mass had collapsed. But when the fire had burnt itself out and subsided and the tower appeared again intact, Caesar was surprised and ordered the town to be surrounded by a rampart outside the range of their weapons. And so the townspeople were compelled by fear to surrender. The inquiry was made where the timber came from which was unscathed by the fire. Then they showed him the trees, of which there is an abundant supply in these parts. The fort was called Larignum following the name of the larch wood. Now this is brought down the Po to Ravenna; there are also supplies at the Colony of Fanum, at Pisaurum and Ancona and the municipia in that region. And if there were a provision for bringing this timber to Rome, there would be great advantages in building; and if such wood were used, not perhaps generally, but in the eaves round the building blocks, these buildings would be freed from the danger of fires spreading. For this timber can neither catch fire nor turn to charcoal, nor burn of itself.

17 Sunt autem eae arbores foliis similibus pini; materies earum prolixa, tractabilis ad intestinum opus non minus quam sappinea, habetque resinam liquidam mellis Attici colore, quae etiam medetur phthisicis.

De singulis generibus, quibus proprietatibus e natura rerum videantur esse comparatae quibusque procreantur rationibus, exposui. Insequitur animadversio, quid ita quae in urbe supernas dicitur abies, deterior est, quae infernas, egregios in aedificiis ad diuturnitatem praestat usus, et de his rebus, quemadmodum videantur e locorum proprietatibus habere vitia aut virtutes, uti ea sint considerantibus apertiora, exponere.

Translation

17. Now these trees have leaves like those of the pine, the timber is tall, and for joinery work not less handy than deal. It has a liquid resin coloured like Attic honey. This is a cure for phthisical persons.
Concerning the several kinds of trees, I have set forth the properties of which they seem to be naturally composed, and the manner in which they come to grow. The inquiry follows why the pine called Highland in Rome is inferior, whereas the so-called Lowland pine furnishes striking advantages for durability in buildings. On this topic I will set forth how they seem to acquire defects or excellences from the properties of their localities, so that they may be more obvious to the inquirer.

COMMENT

Wood was a very important material in Roman architecture. It was used in ceilings, floors, stairs, foundations, roof constructions, etc. In this chapter Vitruvius gives us an enumeration of the many kinds of wood that were used in his time. Again he speaks from his own experience as engineer and architect. His list contains 18 different kinds of wood of which he gives us the qualities and properties. Unfortunately we do not learn the purposes of these sorts of wood; as he already did on other occasions Vitruvius explains these qualities from his point of view about the four elements: earth, air, water, fire. As we have seen in other chapters his enumeration is once again rather dull; that's why he inserts the history of the larch at the end of the chapter.

If we want to get a better idea about the use of these different kinds of wood we must go to Greek architecture. The Greeks also knew a great variety of wood the purposes of which are well documented in Greek (and partly Roman) literature, where our main source is the work of Theophrastus, a natural philosopher of the 4th century B.C. who wrote a book about plants. We may assume that these purposes were the same in Roman architecture.
Oak was used for columns, timber, ceilings, carpentry, scaffolding, engines, foundations;
Fir was used for columns, timber, ceilings;
Vine was used for columns, carpentry (not mentioned by Vitruvius);
Pine was used for timber;
Cedar was used for timber, ceilings, carpentry;
Cypress was used for timber, ceilings, carpentry;
Walnut was used for timber, ceilings, foundations;(not mentioned by Vitruvius)
Olive was used for smaller parts of timber (not mentioned by Vitruvius in this chapter);
Palm was used for timber, carpentry (not mentioned by Vitruvius);
Acacia was used for timber (not mentioned by Vitruvius);
Beech was used for timber, scaffolding;
Dogwood was used for ceilings, carpentry (not mentioned by Vitruvius);
Thuya was used for ceilings, carpentry (not mentioned by Vitruvius);
Boxwood was used for ceilings, carpentry, engines (not mentioned by Vitruvius);
Elm was used for ceilings, carpentry, scaffolding;
Lime was used for ceilings, carpentry, scaffolding;
Ash was used for carpentry.

Bibliograhpy

Les dix livres d'architecture de Vitruve, Corrigés et traduits en 1684 par C. Perrault, Paris, 1684.
Vitruvius, De Architectura libri X, ed. F. Granger, London, 1962.
Ton Peters, Vitruvius, Handboek bouwkunde, Amsterdam, 1999.
R. Martin, Manuel d'architecture Grecque, Paris, 1965.
A. McKay, Vitruvius, architect and engineer, London, 1978.
H. Knell, Vitruvs Architekturtheorie, Darmstadt, 1985.




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