Saturday, September 8, 2012

Motus vocis and ancient acoustics

As a footnote to our discussion the other day of acoustics and to what extent the properties of sound were understood and used in the ancient world (as well as in the Renaissance), see Vitruvius, De Architectura, Book V, Chapter 5: "On sounding vases in theaters" - a remarkable system of placing bronze vases upside down, according to mathematical ratios, at certain intervals in theaters. Also, Book 5 Chapter 8, "On Acoustics," offers a brief discussion of the dissonant, the circumsonant, the resonant, and the consonant. As any technical notion of sound waves seems unknown to Vitruvius, he speaks in terms of the vocis motus  -- the motions of the voice.

Leon Battista Alberti, who was interested in everything, spoke about acoustics in his Renaissance treatise On Building, says Elihu Rubin, an architectural historian:

To prepare for the Urban Design course at Yale that I teach with Alan Plattus and Andrei Harwell, I was re-reading the architectural treatise of Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, written in fifteenth century Florence.  Like his Renaissance peers, Alberti was busy rediscovering the architectural principles and urban practices of ancient Rome. He took inspiration from Vitruvius, the Roman architectural theorist writing in the first century BC.  Like him, Alberti was interested in acoustics, each public building calling for its own reverberative ceiling treatment. 
Acoustics supports the role of architecture as information technology: the building as mechanism for the diffusion of information, propelled by the voice. Acoustics is still an important area of design, especially for concert halls. But electronic amplification has removed, to some degree, that element of building performance that was so crucial to Alberti.
And a recent book explores the configurations of churches in Venice, which employed, according to authors Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti, "knowledge of acoustics derived from Virtuvius, Leon Battista Alberti, and ... Aristotelian-Stoic theories of the spherical soundwave propagation (undulatory theory); and the musical innovation of choral polyphony introduced in Venice by the doge Andrea Grilli."

Also: "Acoustics in the sixteenth century was imperfectly understood because it embraced the undulatory model of the spherical propagation of sound waves. It was not until Sir Isaac Newton that the geometric or optical model, which argued for the linear propagation of sound similar to that of light, became established."

While this may seem well removed from Ovid, in a subsequent post I hope to explore the relevance of his interest in voice and hearing. A warm thanks to our friend Peter D'Epiro for pointing to precisely the sources relevant for our purposes here.

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