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The History Behind the Vitruvian Man

by on October 18, 2019

The story sounds like a Dan Brown thriller: Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks contain a skillfully executed, albeit curious image.  A man with two sets of arms and legs poses in the center of a circle and square.  With one set of arms forming a V and one set of legs out-splayed, the figure’s soles and fingertips define the circumference of the circle.  With the other set of arms outstretched and legs straight, the figure defines the perimeter of the square.
Da Vinci

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci. Year c. 1490

Known in Italian as  L’Uomo Vitruviano—the Vitruvian man—the c. 1490 image is perhaps the most recognizable of all Leonardo’s sketches.   A simple internet search reveals literally hundreds of reproductions, adaptations, and parodies.  It may come as a surprise that this sketch, unlike others, did not spring from Leonardo’s fertile imagination, but was designed to illustrate someone else’s ideas:
[I]f a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it.
This passage appears in Book III, chapter 1 of De Architectura, the only comprehensive work on architecture to survive from Classical Antiquity, authored by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.  It’s an interesting concept, to be sure, but what about it would inspire Leonardo to produce one of his most evocative drawings?

Three Pre-Socratics You’ve Likely Never Heard Of

by on October 16, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
As I read and re-read the philosophers, tragedians, poets, and other commentators of the ancient world, I am constantly amazed. The insights they came up with regarding natural and speculative philosophy, nature (and human nature), and the universe oftentimes drop my jaw! More than anything else, it’s stunning how close they were to our modern understanding of physics, the universe, and much of the knowledge we take for granted in the “settled” scientific world we live in today.
It was the pre-Socratic philosophers (Thales, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles, et.al.), however, that really set the stage for all of the great, critical philosophy to come. I like to call their era the “Big Bang” of Western philosophy, as these guys were really “on to something.”
Mosaic of Men discussing

The Philosopher’s Mosaic, villa at Torre Annunziata near Pompeii

They didn’t possess all the wonderful scientific tools we have today (the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope, etc.) to better understand nature and our universe, but they, by mere reasoning and daring to ask critical questions, came up with astonishing insights. Here is a brief overview of three pre-Socratic philosophers you’ve likely never heard of, who, nevertheless, were really “on to something”.

Timeline of Ancient Greek history

by on October 15, 2019

3000 BCE First Settlers: Hunter-gathers begin to settle in what is Greece. A bronze age culture and civilization begins on the island of Crete.
1600 BCE Mycenaean Greece: Bronze age kingdoms in mainland Greece. Powerful kings who ruled centralized states and who built great palaces such as Mycenae.
1194 BCE Trojan War: This was a war between the Mycenaean kings and Troy, a city on the coast of modern Turkey.
1184 BCE Trojan War: The destruction of Troy after the Greeks captured the city by using a Wooden Horse.

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: PART 2

by on October 11, 2019

In November 1977 the ‘archaeological discovery of the century’ emerged from soil below a great tumulus at Vergina in northern Greece. Eventually four tombs and a shrine would be unearthed and dubbed the ‘cluster of Philip II’, the father of Alexander the Great. But the hopeful identification led to a backlash from scholars who questioned the archaeology.
Following thirty years of claims, counter-claims and deep divisions within the academic community, the ‘battle of the bones’ over the identities of the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ buried in Tomb II had led to nothing but a Socratic truth: ‘all I know is I know nothing for sure.’ The cremated skeletal remains from antiquity still lay silent and anonymous, but they had not been devoid of ‘nationalist’ political controversy.

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: PART 1

by on October 9, 2019

By David Grant, Guest Author, Classical Wisdom
On November 8, 1977, ‘Archangel’s Day’ in Greece, an excavation team led by Professor Manolis Andronikos was roped down into the eerie gloom of a rare Macedonian-styled tomb at Vergina in northern Greece. Dignitaries, police, priests and politicians watched on as the first shafts of light in 2,300 years penetrated its interior.
Tomb II emerging from the earth

Tomb II emerging from the earth

What finally emerged from beneath a great tumulus of soil was the ‘archaeological find of the century’, rivalling Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings and Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at ‘Troy.’ After a century of barren digs in the hills backdropping the Thermaic Gulf southwest of Thessalonica, the ‘lost’ nation of ancient Macedon was finally being unearthed.
The removal of the keystone to enter Tomb II

The removal of the keystone to enter Tomb II

Inside the main chamber of the barrel-vaulted structure known as ‘Tomb II’ lay gold and silver artefacts, and exquisitely worked weapons and armour accompanied by invaluable grave goods which suggested the presence of royalty. Within a stone sarcophagus sat a never-before-seen gold chest containing carefully cremated bones wrapped in remnants of purple fabric. In a further gold ossuary in the antechamber and similarly wrapped in a textile, were the cremated bones of a female, surely the dead king’s wife, arranged with a beautiful diadem of gold. A second unlooted vaulted structure, ‘Tomb III’ was unearthed the following year containing the bones of an adolescent, probably a boy, buried with the wealth of a ‘prince’.

Memnon: the Mythical King of the Ethiopians

by on October 7, 2019

One of the most remarkable figures in all of Ancient Mythology is that of Memnon. He was a great hero, not Greek nor Roman, but an African. He was a king of the Ethiopians and he played a critical role in the Trojan War.
Memnon on an Attic Vase

Memnon on an Attic Vase 5th century BC

Origin of Memnon
Memnon was the son of Tithonus, a prince of Troy, and Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. According to legend the goddess swept the Trojan Prince away and took him to the farthest reaches of the earth, known as Oceanus in Greek mythology. The goddess of the Dawn bore the Trojan a son. He was referred to as bronze-armed Memnon and he grew up to be a great warrior.
Memnon enjoyed the great favor of the gods and he retained it for all his life. At some point, Memnon became the king of the Ethiopians. This was an area due south of Egypt and it encompassed not only modern Ethiopia, but also what is now Northern Sudan. Memnon ruled a great kingdom and commanded a large army.