Vitruvius: place and the theatrics of life

Tonight I lay down the fascinating but dense Fear: a Cultural History and start on the novel Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel. The book, which focusses on Thomas Cromwell as a guide to Tudor court life, starts with a classic quote, as many good books do. I wish to share it here with you

“There are three kind of scenes, one called the tragic, second the comic, third the satyric. Their decorations are different and unalike each other in scheme. Tragic scenes are delineated with columns, pediments, statues and other objects suited to kings; comic scenes exhibit private dwellings, with balconies and views representing rows of windows, after the manner of ordinary dwellings; satyric scenes are decorated with trees, caverns, mountains and other rustic objects delineated in landscape style.”

Vitruvius, De Architecture, on the theatre, c.27BC

This quote is so rich of meaning. Hillary Mantel,  I believe – but I’ll still have to find our if I am right –  uses it to introduce us to Tudor life as theatre. The use of words of Vitruvius also seem to suggest that whether life is a tragedy, comedy or satyr depends on your point of view, the point of view being determined by ones social status. And Thomas Cromwell is known for travelling along the stairs of social class: travelling through the woods as a mercenary, being a private citizen and clerk, and then rising up to be Chancellor.

But let’s leave out Tudor court and Mantel’s intentions for a while.

These are the questions that spring up in my mind:

  • What binds the satyrs to the woods? Do the trees invite satire?
  • Does city life or political life invite tragedy?
  • How is comedy connected to our homes, to family life, to neighbourly relations? Is comedy even possible without the notion of the private home?
  • How do humans relate to specific places? How do places instil differing ways of thinking?
  • And why have I never heard of Vitruvius before, the man who gave the Leonarda daVinci’s Vitruvian Man his name? The man who has received the title of First Architect?
Comedy and Tragedy. What does the mask of the satire look like?

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