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  • Art and Oikeiosis in Book 2 of Vitruvius de Architectura
  • Thomas Habinek

Already in 1987, Elisa Romano described the first chapter of Book 2 of de Architectura, in which Vitruvius considers the origin of the art of architecture, as the most widely studied section of the treatise (1987.108). Yet despite the long tradition of scholarly investigation, including important contributions by Pierre Gros, Thomas Cole, and, most recently, Mireille Courrént, there is still more to be said about the intellectual infrastructure of Vitruvius’s account (Cole 1990, Vitruvius 1999a.xxxi–xxxiv and 64–81, and Courrént 2011a).

My concern is not with sources per se, important as they are, but with understanding the content and structure of Vitruvius’s own argument as it would have been experienced by a contemporary or later reader. As Professor Romano rightly observes,1 Vitruvius’s origin story is a mosaic of philosophical and literary commonplaces. I would like to argue that the pattern of this mosaic transmits important insights and assumptions about the relationship between the physical universe and artistic practice. My more specific claim is that Vitruvius is one of a cluster of authors who find in the Stoic theory of oikeiosis, or conciliation between individual and universe, a justification for artistic activity as an exemplary way of living in accordance with nature. Although individual aspects of Vitruvius’s account overlap with texts or arguments of Democritus, Lucretius, Aristotle, and others, the parallel he develops between the emergence of the arts from within human experience and his own practice as a writer is best understood in relation to Stoic discussions of the role of the arts in the [End Page 299] pursuit of wisdom. Like other authors of his era, Vitruvius assumed rather than defended an understanding of the universe as a continuous, dynamic whole and of human beings as embedded within, rather than eccentric to it. This understanding helps to explain both the appeal of Vitruvius to later generations and the difficulty of assimilating his artistic values to those grounded in metaphysical or alternative physical assumptions.2

At the outset of Book 2, after a preface describing the encounter between Alexander the Great and the architect Dinocrates, Vitruvius sets out to recount the ancient beginnings of physical inquiry and the origins of civilization as transmitted by earlier writers (2 pref. 5).3 Human beings, he explains, originally lived scattered lives, like animals, in forests and caves.4 Eventually, they began to gather at sites where fires had been spontaneously generated by tree branches rubbed together by winds. There, while sharing the benefits of fire, they created language, which in turn led to “human concourse, deliberation, and social life” (2.1.2). Exploiting their natural upright status, which allowed them to gaze upon the magnificence of the universe (2.1.2), as well as the power of their hands and fingers, they began to create shelters. Their judgment (iudicia, 2.1.3) improved through practice and competition, and they took full advantage of the different materials they found in their particular locales, such as oak shingles in Gaul, logs in Pontus, or mounds in Phrygia, and thereby acquired the art of building. “When all of this had initially come to pass and nature had not just endowed the human nations with sensations (sensibus), but had also armed their minds with ideas (cogitationibus) and plans (consiliis) and subjected the other animals to their power, then, to be sure, having progressed step by step (gradatim progressi) from the fabrication of buildings to the rest of the arts and sciences, they led humanity from a wild and rustic life to a settled one” (2.1.6).

Although Vitruvius retrospectively asserts that his aim is to describe not the origin of architecture so much as the development of particular building types in accordance with available resources (2.1.8), [End Page 300] in fact, his narrative interweaves observation concerning historical practice with reflection on the nature and methodology of an art, or ars.5 Just as early men observed (animadverto, 2.1.1; cf. sensibus, 2.1.6), signified (significo, 2.1.1), pondered (cogitationes, 2.1.2; cogitationibus et consiliis, 2.1.6), discussed...


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