VITRUVIUS, BOOK V, CHAPTER 8:
On Acoustics



1. Cum haec omnia summa cura sollertiaque explicata sunt, tunc etiam diligentius. Est enim advertendum, uti sit electus locus, in quo leniter adplicet se vox neque repulsa resiliens incertas auribus referat significationes. Sunt enim nonnulli loci naturaliter inpedientes vocis motus, uti dissonantes, qui graece dicuntur catechountes circumsonantes, qui apud eos nominantur periechountes, item resonantes, qui dicuntur antechountes, consonantesque, quos appellant synechountas. Dissonantes sunt, in quibus vox prima, cum est elata in altitudinem, offensa superioribus solidis corporibus repulsaque residens in imo opprimit insequentis vocis elationem;

Translation

l. Now that all these matters are set forth with careful skill, diligent consideration must be given. For we must choose a site in which the voice may fall smoothly, and may reach the ear with a definite utterance and without the interference of echoes. For there are some places which naturally hinder the passage of the voice: the dissonant which the Greek call katechountes; the circumsonant which are named by them periechountes; the resonant also which are called antechountes; the consonant which they name synechountes. The dissonant places are those in which the voice, when first it rises upwards, meets solid bodies above. It is driven back, and settiing down, overwhelms the following utterance as it rises.

2. circumsonantes autem, in quibus circumvagando coacta exsolvens in medio sine extremis casibus sonans ibi extinguatur incerta verborum significatione; resonantes vero, in quibus, cum in solido tactu percussa resiliant, imagines exprimendo novissimos casus duplices faciant auditu; item consonantes sunt, in quibus ab imis auxiliata cum incremento scandens egrediatur ad aures disserta verborum claritate. Ita si in locorum electione fuerit diligens animadversio, emendatus erit prudentia ad utilitatem in theatris vocis effectus. Formarum autem descriptiones inter se discriminibus his erunt notatae, uti, quae ex quadratis designentur, Graecorum habeant usus, latine paribus lateribus trigonorum. Ita his praescriptionibus quit voluerit uti, emendatus efficiet theatrorum perfectiones.

Translation

2. The circumsonant are those in which the voice moves round, is collected and dissipated in the centre. The terminations of the words are lost and the voice is swallowed up in a confused utterance. The resonant are those in which the words, striking against a solid body, give rise to echoes and make the termination of the words double to the ear. The consonant also are those in which the voice reinforced from the ground rises with greater fulness, and reaches the ear with clear and eloquent accents. Thus if careful observation is exercised in the choice of sites, such skill will be rewarded by the improved effect of the actors' voices. To sum up, the outlines of the plans will be marked by these differences among themselves, namely, those plans follow Greek usage which are designed from squares; the Roman theatres from equilateral triangles. Whoever uses these rules, will be successful in building theatres.

COMMENT

Once more Vitruvius pays attention to the problem of acoustics. In chapter 3, 6-8 of this book he gave already a digression about the way the human voice can be perceived in an ondulation of concentric circles. In the following chapters 4 and 5 Vitruvius inserted a large digression about the musical theories of Aristoxenos in order to justify the use of acoustic vases under the seats of theatre buildings.
In fact, a good acoustic was of utmost importance. Sinde Latin as well as Greek are languages in which the flexion of the words is decisive for the meaning of the sentence it is very important that the endings of the words can be fully understood. For that reason each form of echo or reverberation was a serious difficulty when a spoken text had to be understood immediately.

It seems plausible to accept that this chapter is based on the same Greek source as was the previous chapter. Two arguments point in that direction. First, and most decisively, the use of Greek terminology which Vitruvius had to translate in Latin. But, as he often does, to make clear what he means exactly, after the Latin interpretation, he gives the Greek word.
A second argument is the fact that the description starts from a layout in a natural setting: the site must be carefully chosen. This infers seatings along a natural slope or hill side. This was not the common practice in Roman theatre building, where most theatres are free standing buildings and seatings were arranged on elaborate substructures.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

F.Granger, Vitruvius, On Architecture, Cambridge, 1962.
C.Perrault, Vitruve, Les dix livres d'Architecture, Paris, 1673.
T.Peters, Vitruvius, Handboek Bouwkunde, Amsterdam, 1999.
H.Knell, Vitruv Architekturtheorie, Darmstadt, 1985.

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