The Tower of the Winds is a timepiece in the form of a building. Vitruvius names Andronicus of Cyrrhus, an expert of astronomy hailing from Macedonia, as its author. Andronicus is recorded as the author of other sundials, including that of the Sanctuary of Poseidon on the island of Tinos, and is probably an actual historical figure who doubled here as architect and technical consultant. Varro writes about the tower around 50 BCE but it is not clear when exactly it had been completed; if it dated to that period, it would mean it belonged to the building programme of the new Roman colonial agora. If we have to agree with Hermann Kienast, who places it about a century earlier, it would have, interestingly, predated the Roman project. All authors however agree on its purpose; the Tower worked as sundial and was topped by a triton-shaped weather vane. Its octagonal plan is a reference to the eight main winds embodied by wind-gods in Greek mythology. The building still stands, but as it has been reused for different purposes in the last 2000 years, it is impossible to reconstruct its original interior and the waterclock that occupied it. In The Antiquities of Athens (1762) the section shows an empty, rather blank space, and only in the plan we see a hint of the machines that would have occupied it originally. It is indeed thanks to this book that the Tower became a popular example of classical architecture; until then, most architects based themselves on Italian examples. John Stuart and Nicholas Revett were the first to publish an extensive report on Greek ruins and the pages they dedicated to the Tower are still compelling today for their clean graphics and fascinating subject matter.
The partnership of Revett and Stuart is the stuff of picaresque novels: while Nicholas Revett (1720-1804) was your typical British gentleman amateur on the Grand Tour, John Stuart's origins were anything but aristocratic. He was in fact the son of a sailor, gifted with unique visual talents; a former painter of fans, he eked out a living in Italy as tourist guide until the fateful meeting with Revett. Eventually, the two would return home to publish their opus magnus and Stuart, nicknamed 'Athenian', would enjoy a couple of colourful decades dividing himself between prestigious design commissions and a rowdy private life (it seems its love of booze and young wenches often stood in the way of completing lucrative jobs). In any case, the book is still today a source of delight: in the case of the Tower of the winds, they represent the building with crisp architectural projections - plan, section, and elevation - without its context. The elevation emphasizes the contrast between the ornate upper part of the tower, and the plainness of its smooth pentelic marble bottom half.
In the elevation one can also see the sundials etched below the frieze. While the interior presents doric features, the exterior is corinthian. However, the choice of representing plan section and elevation is also symptomatic of the fact that here Revett and Stuart are not simply portraying the building, but rather attempting a reconstruction following literary sources such as Varro and Vitruvius. By the mid-1700s, in fact, the porticoes did not exist anymore, and neither did the bronze weather vane. The authors of the Antiquities show us the actual conditions of the buildings in a perspective view that is a more faithful depiction of the building at the time of their visit.
Vitruvius' obsession with the link between time and space, architecture and calendars, is well known; in Book 1 of De Architectura Andronicus is mentioned with the implicit understanding that he was an unrivalled maestro of clock-building, but Vitruvius also discusses other examples closer to home, including one in Rome, a tower with 12 sides instead of 8, to match a different system of categorization of winds.
After the publication of Revett and Stuart's antiquities, the tower became a popular archetype and was widely copied - there is, for instance, an almost literal copy in Oxford, along with many variations and versions throughout the continent.
An astronomer, an adventurer, and an aristocrat: ironically, none of the men who built this tower and gave it a second life was an architect.