12 July 2019
The Portico Library, Manchester, UK

“I shall now speak of vermillion.” Vitruvius

Works cited:

Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus. The Architecture Of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: In Ten Books. Translated from the Latin by Joseph Gwilt, London: Priestley and Weale, 1826.

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver, London: Secker and Warburg, 1974.


Both texts present a scenario in which a man named Marc addresses an emperor on the subject of building cities.  

Vitruvius, the only Western text on architecture known from antiquity,  is a practical construction guidebook. It is dedicated to Caesar August and was written by the Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio during the first century BC. Its subject matter includes a broad range of categories such as city planning, the architecture of civic, domestic and religious structures, acoustics, color theory, metallurgy, popular history and ornamentation. 

Invisible Cities is a fictional and fantastical imagining of conversations between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the emperor of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century BC. These conversations are centered on the description of cities encountered by Polo on his travels, and are based in Calvino's creative imagination.

How do these texts relate to scenography?

Vitruvius specifically discusses the construction of theaters, both Greek and Roman, in Book 5. He also addresses set design as an art form in his description of the three types of scenes (tragic, comic, satyric), later elaborated on by Sebastiano Serlio. He addresses the practical aspects of set design through discussions of public events, their physical arrangements and the practice of paint and color mixing. 

Invisible Cities  is not concerned with practical matters. It is a description of how cities look and feel, not how to build them. It presents a world of memory and imagination. It is poetic and dreamlike. Its narrative arc challenges time and space. 

Taken together, these texts are a powerful combination. They remind me that a set designer is responsible for both poetry and practice. One must speak to human bodies and the human spirit. Other important themes: collaboration, cultural borrowing, cultural marauding, cultural plagiarism, “jack of all trades, master of none,” creativity, science, imagination, East/West, time, Empire building, magical realism. 

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