Pernix Ineptus: De Architectura

PERNIX INEPTUS WAS born in Ostia about 320 a.d., but he spent most of his early life among poor relatives in the country, where the rude huts of the farmers were the only constructions that met his eye. The memory of these early years stayed with him for most of his career, and indeed even his most mature designs were frequently described as “rude” by his contemporaries. None of his buildings has survived, but as he was the nephew of Pernix Illustrius, who was twice consul, Ineptus was commissioned to design a number of important public works. The most celebrated of these were a theater in his native Ostia, in which a natural rock formation unfortunately blocked the view of the stage from most of the seats right of center; a public bath, also in Ostia, which was washed away by a water supply that proved somewhat too generous; and a Christian basilica on the Aventine, which became so unstable as its foundation settled that Pope Quintus IV had it exorcised—a measure that failed of its desired effect, since, according to a contemporary account of the event, the demonic forces threw down the entire west front while the rite of exorcism was being performed.

Although De Architectura is lost, an epitome by one of Pernix’ students survives. The prologue to this epitome tells us that the original work was in eleven books, which Pernix regarded as the perfect number “for the reason that it may be evenly divided into quarters two different ways.” Scholars have not been able to determine what Pernix thought he meant by that.

The first book was a treatment of the geometry that architects employ; to judge by the epitome, Pernix’ geometry was non-Euclidean, but not plausibly so. The second book treated of mathematics, but the epitome omits this subject entirely, on the grounds that Pernix never bothered to teach it to his students.

After that came several books treating of the various orders of architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, and a new order which Pernix claimed as his own invention, and which from his own name he styled the Pernicious. The epitome is frus­tratingly vague on this new order, but it appears to have been based on the “parts of eleven”: that is, the ratios between the various numbers into which Pernix believed eleven could be evenly divided. If the reading in the unique manuscript is correct, the decorations on the capitals were inspired by intertwined tapeworms.

For reasons no longer clear, these books were followed by two books on wine and its effects on the architect. In the epitome, this section is largely incoherent.

The last book, clearly inspired by Vitruvius, was a book of clever mechanical contri­vances. The epitome gives only three of them, which it says may serve as representative examples of the whole: a device for making holes of any desired size in the earth, which appears to be what we should call a shovel; a device for holding any number of items elevated at a certain distance from the floor, which appears to be a table; and a device for preventing sheets of papyrus or other thin and light material from blowing away in the wind, which appears to be a rock.

The epitome ends with an epilogue, from which we learn that Pernix perished when the roof of his own villa, which he had designed for himself, fell in on him, killing him instantly: a death which the author of the epitome regards as proper and fitting for a master who, he says, both lived and died by architecture.