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Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

Editor-in-Chief: Danesi, Marcel

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Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.478

Agenzia Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario e della Ricerca: Classe A

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Volume 2009, Issue 175


The semiotics of the Vitruvian city

Alexandros Ph. Lagopoulos
Published Online: 2009-06-05 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/semi.2009.047


The Vitruvian city in De architectura is founded on an eight-part windrose. Vitruvius describes how to trace the direction of the eight winds astronomically and relates the tracing of the street network of the city to the form of the windrose, but his description is extremely laconic. Ever since the Renaissance, the customary interpretation is that the form of the proposed city is radial-concentric, a pattern that exercised a powerful influence on the Renaissance model city. However, a close reading of the text shows that the Vitruvian city has a grid plan, following the general Roman model.

But the city also has a symbolic significance for Vitruvius. This has escaped the great majority of scholars, because they isolate Vitruvius's description of the city's form and orientation from its immediate context, that is, his general urban discourse, and further from the entirety of his work. Interpretation has focused on the practical dimension of the city, since Vitruvius pleads for a salubrious city with a specific relation to the direction of the winds. But the winds have strong connotations, since they correspond to one of the four cosmic elements, and these elements are such an essential part of Vitruvian planning theory that they even define the site to be chosen for a city. I argue that the Vitruvian windrose, in addition to being an aesthetic device, is an abridged cosmogram. The windrose is founded on numbers considered perfect, and the city emerges from the perfect geometrical figure of the circle and the marked qualities of the square. Since the geometrical complex of the windrose-cum-city almost coincides with Vitruvius's geometry of the human body, the city also has an anthropomorphic connotation.

Keywords:: Vitruvius; semiotics of space; history of urban planning; symbolic anthropology

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Published Online: 2009-06-05

Published in Print: 2009-06-01

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2009, Issue 175, Pages 193–251, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/semi.2009.047.

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