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Auguste Choisy’s Vitruve: Translation within a Graphic Transmission

Hilary Bryon

Since the coincident development of printing technology and the re-discovery in the sixteenth century of various Vitruvian manuscripts, De Architectura, there has been much fascination and speculation regarding illustration and the architectural treatise. Absent the nine, (ten, or eleven) figures cited in various Vitruvian manuscripts, Fra Giocondo, Cesariano, and the French collaborators, Martin and Gougon, were among the first to conceive and transmit reproducible images reflecting the written text.  Other textual and visual interpreters followed in an enterprise that extends to the present. Despite the fact that illustrators of Vitruvius undertook to depict descriptions from the same text, the drawings are quite diverse. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, most of drawn translations cannot be characterized as objective demonstrations; the images, nay interpretations, were often self-serving, functioning to illustrate an end particular to each individual translator. These architect-scholars had varied priorities and their ends extended to the political, philological, utopian, anthropomorphic, and practical.

Embedded in this tradition, among the textual and figural translators of Vitruvius’ theory of architecture, is the nineteenth century French engineer, Auguste Choisy (1841-1909).  Not only did Choisy engage in a “strictly literal” translation of Vitruvius’ text from the original Latin into French, but he paired this first volume with a second devoted exclusively to an analysis–both literary and graphical. Choisy’s graphic translations merit scrutiny due to his distinction for the graphic representations accompanying his many earlier scholarly publications, most notably L’art de bâtir chez les Romains (1873) and Histoire de l’architecture (1899). While the drawings accompanying these other works could almost stand alone as they didactically demonstrate the buildings and principles under discussion, this is hardly the case with his depictions in Vitruve (1909). On first glance, the drawings accompanying Choisy’s Vitruvian analysis appear to be reduced to the point of inscrutability, however this presentation aims to convey that in context Choisy’s drawings are carefully controlled translation devices of Vitruvius’ literal descriptions.

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