Talking Vitruvius in Berlin

vitruvius_flyer_thumbnailLast week Maarten and I attended a most interesting conference on Vitruvius, organized by Serafina Cuomo (Birkbeck college, London) and Marco Formisano (Universiteit Gent/Humboldt Universität Berlin). It brought together scholars from a range of different backgrounds and disciplines, which made for excellent cross-pollination of ideas. The conference also boasted the presence of two major Vitruvius scholars: Elisa Romano, author of -among many other titles- La capanna e il tempio (1987), and Pierre Gros, known for his important critical editions of Vitruvius. Last but not least, in his welcome speech Marco Formisano introduced the undisputed star of the meeting: a genuine Italian espresso machine that churned out dark gold on request. I can recommend this wonderful practice to anybody organizing a conference, since it is sure to supply the attending scholars with fond memories, and raises the general atmosphere considerably!

The conference kicked off with a paper by Wim Verbaal (Universiteit Gent), who demonstrated that our protagonist was all but forgotten in the middle ages, as the Bracciolini-legend would have it. Vitruvius was in fact seen as an authority whose text you did not necessarily need to know, but whose name meant a stamp of authority. Verbaal’s talk was followed by Serafina Cuomo’s eye-opening discussion of ‘tacit knowledge’, a concept revolving around the question of how skill is transmitted. She used the example of riding a bike, a skill on which no treatise has ever been written, yet many people know how to do it. She applied the notion to Vitruvius’ text, which contains a lot of between the lines insider’s knowledge of building that cannot be transmitted -or is deliberately left out- in written text, but has to be taught in person.

Of course there were quite a lot of classicists present, who approached the Vitruvian text from a philological and literary perspective. What struck me in their talks was how intricately connected De Architectura was with contemporary thought, and how broad Vitruvius’ literary horizon must have been. John Oksanish (Wake Forest University) for instance pointed out that Vitruvius’ use of the term ‘brevitas’ was adopted from contemporary writers of universal history, to whom brevity was a positive trait: it meant a solution to the treatment of a vast, chaotic corpus of knowledge. Modern scholars, however, tended to interpret the Vitruvian brevity as typical of technical writers, and valued it less than the conciseness of classical historians. Thomas Habinek (University of Southern California) also highlighted Vitruvius’ immersion in contemporary literature: his origin myth in particular is a mosaic of contemporary philosophical and literary commonplaces, as is his view of the arts as paramount to the development of virtue and wisdom.

I was particularly interested by the last paper of the conference, delivered by Bettina Reitz-Joosse, a colleague at Leiden University. She recently defended her dissertation on building metaphors in Augustan literature, which was also the topic of her talk. It focused on the term ‘ordo’, and the interplay of two metaphors: that of the body, and that of the city. Vitruvius frequently likens the building to a body; but this metaphor does not provide a logical order for his treatise. For this, he turns to another metaphor: glancing at the table of contents, the reader is in fact looking at the building manual of a city.


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