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A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science

Ed. by Wildberg, Christian / Morison, Benjamin

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Volume 46, Issue 4


Natura machinata: artifacts and nature as reciprocal models in Vitruvius

Courtney Roby
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  • Cornell University – Classics, 120 Goldwin Smith Hall Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853-3201, United States
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Published Online: 2013-10-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2012-0041


The De architectura of Vitruvius represents architecture as a discipline blending elements of theory and practice, science and social utility, and Greek and Roman culture. His vision of architecture accordingly embraces both the natural and the artificial, emphasizing the connections between their governing principles rather than a polar or antagonistic opposition. He uses this connection to clarify and simplify his descriptions of both natural systems and mechanical artifacts, and to reinforce each body of knowledge using what is known from the other.

The analogy between the natural and artificial appears as well in other ancient authors, but Vitruvius restructures this analogy in a distinctive way. His version is predicated on the careful observation of a specific set of mechanical artifacts, each chosen because it models some natural phenomenon particularly well. Artifacts that model natural phenomena, such as clocks and celestial models, help the user to visualize natural systems that may not be subject to direct sensory apprehension because of their great size. He insists that mechanical cleverness can elucidate the divinity within the principles of natural phenomena, which would otherwise remain hidden in the heavens. Vitruvius complements this type of modeling with a reciprocal version in which natural phenomena serve as models to shape technological works like theaters.

Throughout the De architectura, Vitruvius proposes a variety of ways in which the natural and artificial can model one another. A material model may replicate the behavior of a natural system which is already known from observation; a material model may replicate unknown but hypothesized behavior of such a system; finally, a hypothesized material model may replicate the hypothesized behavior of a natural system through a kind of thought-experiment. Alternatively, the unknown behavior of one natural system may be hypothesized to resemble the behavior of another natural system known from observation, and this hypothesis applied to the design of man-made artifacts.

From this viewpoint, describing technological artifacts and explaining the natural world are mutually reinforcing activities. So, in composing the De architectura, Vitruvius is not merely attempting to provide a picture of the state of the art of technology in his day, but is at the same time seeking to communicate a particular technologically-informed way of understanding natura itself.

Keywords: Vitruvius; Roman science; scientific models

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Published Online: 2013-10-09

Published in Print: 2013-10-01

Citation Information: Apeiron, Volume 46, Issue 4, Pages 419–445, ISSN (Online) 2156-7093, ISSN (Print) 0003-6390, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2012-0041.

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