Vitruvius first laid his idea about symmetry in the Ten Books that posits that the human body can be made to fit inside a circle and a square. The modern man is not a stranger to Vitruvius principles of symmetry for it was well illustrated in the iconic diagram of Leonardo Da Vinci that permeates in our books, novels, and even mass media although we may not fully understand its meaning.
Vitruvius was a Roman writer, architect, and engineer, in the first century BC who attributes the perfect proportion of man himself to be a template for creating a perfect proportion in architecture in erecting temples (or building). To quote Vitruvius on his idea of using man himself as a reference for architecture, he wrote “The central point of the body is the navel: for if a man was laid supine with his arms and legs extended, and a circle was drawn around him . . . the extremities would touch the circumferential line; and in the same manner . . . it will also be found to agree with the square; for . . . the breadth is equal to the height, the same as in the area of a square”. (Vitruvius 46a). From this principle of Vitruvius, order, symmetry, harmony, and beauty was achieved in architecture where all the members, proportions and ornaments of a building and its arrangements unites with its general architecture to form a beautiful, perfect and complete whole.
The measurement and proportion of the human body as it relates to architecture was articulated in Vitruvius calculation that “the human body in such a way that they face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowermost roots of the hairline should be one-tenth [of the total height of the body], the palm of the hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger should measure likewise; the head from the chin to the crown, one-eighth; from the top of the chest to the hairline including the base of the neck, one-sixth; from the center of the chest to the crown of the head, one-fourth. . . The other limbs, as well, have their own commensurate proportions, which the famous ancient painters and sculptors employed to attain great and unending praise” (Vitruvius b). Translating this in architecture meant the harmony of all the parts of the work that different parts agree with the completed form using certain parts of the building as a standard of measurement to denote symmetry. Applying this principle to the temple (of which the building was called during Vitruvius time), symmetry may be calculated “from the thickness of a column, from a triglyph, or even from a module; in the ballista, from the hole, in a ship, from the space between the tholepins, and in other things, from various members” (Fundamental principles of architecture).
This can be likened to the harmonious relationship of the various part of the human body such as how the palm relates in size with the head and how each part of the head relates to each other to form a symmetrical face. These principles of symmetry by Vitruvius did not only prove beneficial in architecture but also in the arts as well. Sculptures, painters and various artists were and still are echoing the validity of Vitruvius symmetry that helped them achieve beauty in their works (Lester).
Symmetry is a proper agreement between the members of the work itself, and the relation between the different parts and the whole general scheme, in accordance with a certain part selected as a standard. Thus in the human body, there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings. In the case of temples, symmetry may be calculated from the thickness of a column, from a triglyph, or even from a module; in the ballista, from the hole, in a ship, from the space between the tholepins, and in other things, from various members” (Fundamental principles of architecture).
In sum, Vitruvius’s principle of symmetry in architecture can be traced from the human body that by itself is not governed by the laws that comprise the physical world but rather the world in itself in microcosm. The body is not a just geographical shape but actually, a metaphysical proposition where the physical world can infer to as its template as it erects its temples or buildings. In a way, the cliché that a man’s body is a temple took a literal meaning in Vitruviu’s principle. Just like the human body where each part relates to a certain proportion to its other parts, architecture to has to relate its various components to a certain part to achieve proportion and symmetry. This principle about symmetry may be as ancient as Vitruvius, but its validity transcends beyond architecture to include other endeavors such as the arts that are in need of symmetry.
Fundamental principles of architecture.
Lester, Toby. “THE OTHER MAN”. Smithsonian, 00377333, Feb2012, Vol. 42, Issue 10.
Vitruvius P. De Architectural Book III, chapter 1. English translation from Latin by Granger F. Vol I. London: I & J Taylor, 1791: 45-46.
Vitruvian Principles. Ten Books on Architecture, c. 25 BCE, Rowland and Howe translation, New York, 1999http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/oconnell/renrev/vitruvius.htm