VITRUVIUS, BOOK V, CHAPTER 6:
On the planning of theatres



1. Ipsius autem theatri conformatio sic est facienda, uti, quam magna futura est perimetros imi, centro medio conlocato circumagatur linea rutundationis, in eaque quattuor scribantur trigona paribus lateribus; intervallis extremam lineam circinationis, tangant, quibus etiam in duodecim signorum caelestium astrologia ex musica convenientia astrorum ratiocinantur. Ex his trigonis cuius latus fuerit proximum scaenae, ea regione, qua praecidit curvaturam circinationis, ibi finiatur scaenae frons, et ab eo loco per centrum parallelos linea ducatur, quae disiungat proscaenii pulpitum et orchestrae regionem.

Translation

1. The plan of the theatre is to be thus arranged: that the centre is to be taken, of the dimension allotted to the orchestra at the ground level. The circumference is to be drawn; and in it four equilateral triangles are to be described touching the circumference at intervals (just as in the case of the twelve celestial signs, astronomers calculate from the musical division of the constellations). Of these triangles the side of that which is nearest the scene, will determine the front of the scene, in the part where it cuts the curve of the circle. Through the centre of the circle a parallel line is drawn which is to divide the platform of the proscenium from the orchestra.

2. Ita latius factum fuerit pulpitum quam Graecorum, quod omnes artifices in scaena dant operam, in orchestra autem senatorum sunt sedibus loca designata. Et eius pulpiti altitudo sit ne plus pedum quinque, uti, qui in orchestra sederint, spectare possint omnium agentium gestus. Cunei spectaculorum in theatro ita dividantur, uti anguli trigonorum, qui currunt circum curvaturam circinationis, dirigant ascensus scalasque inter cuneos ad primam praecinctionem; supra autem alternis itineribus superiores cunei medii dirigantur.

Translation

2. Thus the stage will be made wider than that of the Greeks because all the actors play their parts on the stage, whereas the orchestra is allotted to the seats of the senators. The height of the stage is not to be more than 5 feet, so that those who are seated in the orchestra can see the gestures of all the actors. The blocks of seats in the theatre are so to be divided that the angles of the triangles which run round the curve of the circie indicate the ascents and the steps between the blocks to the first circular passage. Above, the upper blocks of seats are arranged with alternate staircases facing the middle of the lower blocks.

3. Hi autem, qui sunt in imo et dirigunt scalaria, erunt numero VII; reliqui quinque scaenae designabunt compositionem: et unus medius contra se valvas regias habere debet, et qui erunt dextra sinistra, hospitaliorum designabunt compositionem, extremi duo spectabunt itinera versurarum. Gradus spectaculorum, ubi subsellia componantur, gradus ne minus alti sint palmopede, (ne plus pedem) et digito sex; latitudines eorum ne plus pedes duo semis, ne minus pedes duo constituantur.

Translation

3. The angles which are on the ground floor of the theatre and determine the staircases will be 7 in number. The remaining 5 will indicate the arrangement of the stage. One in the middie should have the palace doors opposite to it. Those which are to the right and left, will indicate the apartments provided for strangers. The furthest two will regard the direction of the revolving scenes. As to the rows of the auditorium where the seats are placed, the seats are not to be lower than 16 inches nor more than 18. The width is not to be more than 2 1/2 feet nor less than 2 feet.

4.Tectum porticus, quod futurum est in summa gradatione cum scaenae altitudine libratum perspiciatur, ideo quod vox crescens aequaliter ad summas gradationes et tectum perveniet. Namque si non erit aequale, quo minus fuerit altum, vox praeripietur ad eam altitudinem, quam perveniet primo.

Translation

4. The roof of the colonnade, which is to be built on the top row of steps, is to be so planned as to be level with the top of the back wall of the stage, because thereby the voice will rise evenly until it reaches the top seats and the roof. For if the roof is not level, the lower it is, to that extent the voice will be interrupted, at the height which it reaches first.

5. Orchestra inter grados imos quod diametron habuerit, eius sexta pars sumatur, et in cornibus, utrumque aditus eius mensurae perpendiculum interiores sedes praecidantur, et quae praecisio fuerit, ibi constituantur itinerum supercilia; ita enim satis altitudinem habebunt eorum confornicationes.

Translation

5. As to the orchestra, a sixth part is to be taken of its diameter between the lowest steps. On the wings at either side of the entrance, the inmost seats are to be cut back to a perpendicular height equal to that sixth. Whatever the amount of this cutting off is, fixes the spring of the arch over the passages. in this way their vaulting will have sufficient height.

6. Scaenae longitudo ad orchestrae diametron duplex fieri debet. Podii altitudo ab libramento pulpiti cum corona et lysi duodecumam orchestrae diametri. Supra podium columnae cum capitulis et spiris altae quarta parte eiusdem diametri; epistylia et ornamenta earum columnarum altitudinis quinta parte. Pluteum insuper cum unda et corona inferioris plutei dimidia parte. Supra id pluteum columnae quarta parte minore altitudine sint quam inferiores; epistylium et ornamenta earum columnarum quinta parte. Item si tertia episcenos futura erit, mediani plutei summum sit dimidia parte; columnae summae medianarum minus altae sint quarta parte; epistylia cum coronis earum columnarum item habeant altitudinis quintam partem.

Translation

6. The length of the stage must be twice the width of the orchestra. The height of the pedestal of the back wall above the level of the stage, along with the cornice and moulding, is to be one twelfth of the diameter of the orchestra. Above the pedestal, the columns with capitals and bases are to be of a height equal to one quarter of the diameter; the architrave and ornaments, one fifth part of their height. The parapet above, with its base and cornice, is to be one half of the lower parapet (or pedestal). Above the parapet are to be columns one fourth less in height than the lower ones; the architrave and ornaments a fifth of those columns. If there is to be a third order, the top parapet is to be half of the middle one. The top columns are to be one quarter less in height than the middle; the architraves with the cornices are also to have one fifth of the height of those columns.

7. Nec tamen in omnibus theatris symmetriae ad omnis rationes et effectus possunt respondere, sed oportet architectum animadvertere, quibus proportionibus necesse sit sequi symmetriam et quibus ad loci naturam aut magnitudinem operis temperari. Sunt enim res quas et in pusillo et in magno theatro necesse est eadem magnitudine fieri propter usum, uti gradus, diazumata, pluteos, itinera, ascensus, pulpita, tribunalia et si qua alia intercurrunt, ex quibus necessitas cogit discedere ab symmetria, ne inpediatur usus. Non minus si qua exiguitas copiarum, id est marmoris, materiae reliquarumque rerum, quae parantur in opere defuerint, paulum demere aut adicere, dum id ne nimium inprobe fiat sed cum sensu, non erit alienum. Hoc autem erit, si architectus erit usu peritus, praeterea ingenio mobili sollertiaque non fuerit viduatus.

Translation

7. Nevertheless it is not in all theatres that the dimensions can answer to all the effects proposed. The architect must observe in what proportions symmetry must be followed, and how it must be adjusted to the nature of the site or the magnitude of the work. For there are details which must be of the same dimensions both in a small, and in a large theatre, since their use is the same. Such are the steps, the semi-circular passages, the parapets, the ordinary passages, the steps up, the height of the stage, the boxes; and whatever else occurs to compel us to depart from proportion in the interest of convenience. Similariy if scantness of materials, such as marble, timber and other supplies, meet us in the work, it will not be inappropriate to make slight additions or deductions, provided this is done with taste and so as to avoid a clumsy effect. Such will be the resuit, if the architect in addition to being experienced, is not devoid of a versatile mind and technical skill.

8. Ipsae autem scaenae suas habent rationes explicitas ita, uti mediae valvae ornatus habeant aulae regiae, dextra ac sinistra hospitalia, secundum autem spatia ad ornatus comparata, quae loca Graeci periactus dicunt ab eo, quod machinae sunt in his locis versatiles trigonos habentes in singula tres species ornationis, quae, cum aut fabularum mutationes sunt futurae seu deorum adventus, cum tonitribus repentinis ea versentur mutentque speciem ornationis in frontes. Secundum ea loca versurae sunt procurrentes, quae efficiunt una a foro, altera a peregre aditus in scaenam.

Translation

8. The scenery itself is so arranged that the middle doors are figured like a royal palace, the doors on the right and left are for strangers. Next on either side are the spaces prepared for scenery. These are called periaktoi in Greek (revolving wings) from the three-sided machines which turn having on their three sides as many kinds of subject. When there are to be changes in the play or when the gods appear with sudden thunders, they are to turn and change the kind of subject presented to the audience. Next to these the angles of the walls run out which contain the entrances to the stage one from the public square and the other from the country.

9. Genera autem sunt scaenarum tria: unum quod dicitur tragicum, alterum comicum, tertium satyricum. Horum autem ornatus sunt inter se dissimili disparique ratione, quod tragicae deformantur columnis et fastigiis et signis reliquisque regalibus rebus; comicae autem aedificiorum privatorum et maenianorum habent speciem profectusque fenestris dispositos imitatione communium aedificiorum rationibus; satyricae vero ornantur arboribus, speluncis, montibus reliquisque agrestibus rebus in topeodi speciem deformati.

Translation

9. There are three styles of scenery: one which is called tragic; a second, comic; the third, satyric. Now the subjects of these differ severally one from another. The tragic are designed with columns, pediments and statues and other royal surroundings; the comic have the appearance of private buiidings and balconies and projections with windows made to imitate reality, after the fashion of ordinary buildings; the satyric settings are painted with trees, caves, mountains and other country features, designed to imitate landscape.

COMMENT

In this chapter Vitruvius elaborated a mathematical method for the planning of a Roman theatre. There are three sections in this text:

Layout of the cavea and its relation to the stage

The whole system starts from a circle. In this circle four equilateral triangles are drawn and equally distributed around the circumference. The seven angles in the top half of the circle (D F G H I K E) mark the places of the flights of steps which divide the cavea in six wedged seating blocks: cunei.
The diameter of the circle (line D - E) defines the front of the stage while the baseline of the triangle whose topangle marks the central flight of steps (line A - B) defines the location of the back wall of the stage (scaenae frons). The place of the central doorway in this back wall is given by the line H - M on O while the location of the secondary doors is given by the lines G - L on P and I - N on Q. Finally the points R and S indicate the location of the versurae. These are three-sided pivoting devices on which pieces of scenery could be fixed. The entrances to the theatre are above the line D - E. They are given by an indentation in the rows of seats of a sixth of the length of the line D - E.

Proportions of the stage

The width of the stage is twice the diameter of the orchestra. The depth is fixed by the points of the inscribed triangles. The height is variable but should be no more than 5 feet.

Proportion and composition of the back wall of the stage

The composition is closely related to the length of line D - E. Vitruvius supposes a scaenae frons with three superimposed orders. The measures of the lowest order are dictated by the length of D - E while the measures of the two higher orders are related to the proportions of the lowest order. So the height of the pedestal on the stage equals one twelfth of the length of D - E; the height of the columns (with their bases and capitals) on the pedestal equals one quarter of D - E; the height of the architrave above these columns equals one fifth of the height of the columns.
The height of the pedestal of the second order equals half the height of the lower pedestal; the height of the columns on top of this pedestal is a quarter less than the height of the lower columns; the height of the architrave is again one fifth of the height of the columns in the second order.
Finally the pedestal of the third order equals half the pedestal of the second; the height of the columns is a quarter less than those of the second order and the height of the architrave is again one fifth of the height of the columns.
From this text we can make following scheme. Given an orchestra with a diameter of 24 metres (which is not unusual) we obtain these numbers from top to bottom:

Part of the wallHeight
Architrave 30,675 m
Column 33,375 m
Pedestal 30,5 m
Architrave 20,9 m
Column 24,5 m
Pedestal 21 m
Architrave 11,25 m
Column 16 m
Pedestal 12 m

This makes a total height for the scene wall of 20,2 m. If we add to this number the maximum height of the stage (5 feet = 1,48 m) and a neutral superstructure as finishing of the whole complex and bearer of eventually sound boards we may suppose a total height of this construction which comes close to the diameter of the orchestra. At the same time this is the height of the whole theater building. So it is possible to suppose that Vitruvius equals implicitly the diameter of the orchestra to the height of the building.

The chapter ends with some remarks about the different kinds of scenery that were in use in Roman theater: tragic, comic and satyric.

So far for the text of Vitruvius. But this text, how detailed he might seem, has some shortcomings. Vitruvius starts from a circle with four inscribed equilateral triangles to define the orchestra and the different parts of the theatre. Doing this he limits himself to the visible interior aspect of the building. Nothing is said about the outside façade that hides the supporting structures of the cavea. Although a certain number of theatres were built on natural slopes, a majority of them were free standing buildings, built on a level surface. This is certainly through for the theatres which Vitruvius must have seen in his days in Rome: the theatre of Pompey and the theatre of Marcellus which was under construction.
Nothing is said about the supporting structures themselves although these are a most important part of a free standing theatre building. These substructures could consist of an artificial slope between supporting walls filled in with earth or of a series of superimposed vaults in masonry or concrete. These two ways of building the seating rows are totally different and they have a major influence on the circulation of the public in the theatre. But Vitruvius ommits this important feature.
In the text much attention is given to the proportions of the three orders in the scene wall (scaenae frons) but nothing is said about the number columns and their intercolumniations; equally we are not informed about the framing of the three doors in the scene wall: valva regia and to the left and right of this the hospitalia; moreover the scene wall is described as seen from the inside of the theatre but nothing is said about the aspect of the rear (street) side of this wall and how the relation to eventually additional buildings (like colonnades (cfr. Ostia)) was made.

Influence of this text on theatre building

In Vitruvius' days theatre building was a relatively new item in Roman architecture and it could be expected that his precepts were followed when new theatres were erected. But if we look through the archeological evidence it is impossible to find a theatre that corresponds to this system. Vitruvius himself saw this problem when he wrote his text. Like in the former chapter (V, 5) where he is unable to name a theatre where sounding vases are applied, now he says in period 7 that his system must be adapted according to the local circonstances and depending on the skills of the architect.

First there is the distribution of the wedged blocks in the seating rows (cunei) which in the vitruvian system is fixed by the points where the top angles of the inscribed triangles touch the perimeter of the orchestra. This results in 7 flights of steps and 6 cunei. On the first view this seems a valable system that can be used everywhere without problem. But looking through the catalogue of theatres I could only find 17 examples where this system was adopted and 2 where it is rather dubious (theatre of Pompey in Rome of which nothing is left and theatre of Byblos in Lebanon).

Then there is the position of the aditus maximi, the entrances to the theatre. According to Vitruvius these lay above the line D - E. In reality in most theatres we can see a downward shift of these entrances. Due to this shift the line D - E can run through the middle of the entrances or even above them. This has consequences for the position of the pulpitum, the front wall of the stage. The downward shift of the entrances implies an equal downward shift of this wall resulting in a narrowing of the stage. To counterbalance this narrowing it was necessary to shift down the wall of the scaenae frons as well. This results in a placement of this wall far below the line A - B.

Finally there is the position of the doors in the scaenae frons. In the vitruvian system these are placed very close to each other. In reality there is a clear shift to the exterior of the points P an Q.

With this remarks we can say that the vitruvian system had no followers at all. It must be seen as a theoretical approach written in a period of much reflection on this new form of architecture. Although theatres were not unusual in the late republic outside Rome, in Rome itself thetatre building started only in the augustan age (with the theatre of Pompey as precursor ). It is normal that in this context architects, philosophers, policymakers, formulated proposals and solutions to tackle the problems of designing this new architecture.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

F. GRANGER, Vitruvius, on architecture, London, 1962.
H.P.ISLER, Vitruvs Regeln und die erhaltenen Theaterbauten, in H.Geertman & J.J.De Jong, Munus non ingratum, pp. 141-153.
F.SEAR, Vitruvius and Roman Theater Design, in American Journal of Archeology, 1990, pp. 249-258.
P.GROS, Le schéma vitruvien du theâtre Latin, in Revue archéologique, 1994, pp. 57-80.
P.GROS, L'architecture Romaine, 1. Les monuments publics, Paris, 2002
F.SEAR, Roman theatres, an architectural study, Oxford, 2006.

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