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  • Reading Dismemberment:Vitruvius, Dinocrates, and the Macrotext
  • Marco Formisano

How to read, how to categorize de Architectura? Vitruvian scholarship has been much involved in defining the literary genre of this peculiar Latin text. Scholars have often problematized the question as to whether Vitruvius’s work should be considered “technical” writing. More recently, it has convincingly been argued that this text is not a Sach- nor a Handbuch and that the definition of technical writing does not fit here—or at least not completely.1 Mireille Courrént, for instance, rightly insists that Vitruvius’s work is not a technical text but a “literary work” and, as such, “the expression of an individual.”2 This perspective is doubtless correct, since it fully acknowledges the complexity of this unique Latin text and goes well beyond the discussion of generic attribution that, in the past, characterized the study of ancient literatures.

Nonetheless, I would further suggest that the argument that this is “not a technical treatise but a literary work,” can really be expanded to many or nearly all ancient texts that we today continue to label as technical. For as I argue elsewhere, the kind of individuality Courrént emphasizes in the case of de Architectura can also be found in other ancient technical texts belonging to disciplines such as medicine, the art of war, agriculture, and many others (Formisano 2016). But there is more: the approach to Vitruvius’s text, as to any other technical or scientific text, has usually been to read it first and foremost as a text on a particular field of knowledge, in this [End Page 145] case architecture. The value of this approach is clear enough, but I would like to emphasize that while reading a text—and for a number of reasons that I cannot discuss here, especially an ancient text—we should always distinguish between its topic and the voice of the text per se in its uniqueness and individuality. Each text has its own textual values and features and its own rhetoric that often goes well beyond its topic, but also beyond any literary genre to which every ancient text unavoidably seems to belong.

A text is, in fact, always both more complex than its pure content and simpler than the erudite apparatus of scholarly reconstructions suggests. Accordingly, Vitruvius’s text is, of course, on architecture, but it cannot be reduced only to that. This is not to say that previous scholarship has not observed the complex, ambiguous, and rather elusive textuality of this work, but such discussions lack a unifying conceptual frame. A theoretical discussion seems necessary in order to better understand the diverse critical statements that acknowledge the difficulty of any attempt to classify de Architectura by exposing some of its contradictory aspects that resist interpretation. Usually, in order to emphasize the “literariness” of an ancient technical or scientific text, scholars focus on two interrelated aspects: the use of elaborated rhetorical strategies that display the literary culture of the authors and those authors’ intertextual relationships with other authors. In the case of Vitruvius, for instance, scholars who are interested in shedding light on the literariness of de Architectura draw attention to his relations with other writers considered more literary, such as Cicero, Lucretius, and Horace. This is the usual practice among classicists, who implicitly believe that the literariness of a given text is assured almost exclusively by means of its intertextual resonances: the fewer these are, the less literary a text is.

In this article, I consider Vitruvius’s work from another angle by emphasizing that any text always speaks in its own language and that this language cannot be reduced to its topic. On the contrary, sometimes a text even undermines and subverts its own content, whether implicitly or explicitly. Many scholars, as I mentioned, insist on the literary quality of de Architectura, and in doing so, set up a contrast between the literary and the technical. But I would argue that any ancient text, of whatever genre or quality, is always literary for us: the many centuries between us and the time of composition confer on it a natural literariness that is maintained and increased by our academic and...


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