What is it about?

This article describes Giorgio Scarpa’s bionic model of “Aristotle’s lantern” – the mouth of the sea urchin. As of 2019, Scarpa’s model was the only known, complete, and working physical analogue of the urchin's remarkable mechanism. The model, built around 1970, has inspired designs for a medical instrument (TU Delft, The Netherlands, 2014) and a space exploration vehicle (UCSD, California, 2016).

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Why is it important?

Scarpa's approach of pure exploration is still valid for research in the 21st century. Understanding nature and gaining aesthetic pleasure by constructing analogue systems that are not copies, can be rewarding in itself, and lead to unexpected practical applications. This article documents a one-of-a-kind project by a pioneer of bio-inspired design, and introduces scholars and scientists to Scarpa's work in bionics, topology, and rotational geometry.


Since my time as a student of Scarpa's in the 1970s in Sardinia, Italy, I always felt that the world of art and design ought to know about this reserved but brilliant artist and designer. Although himself mentored by noted Italian designer Bruno Munari, who promoted him by including two of his books in the Design Notebook series, Scarpa always shied away from publicity and fame. I am delighted that his work can now begin to reach a wide and varied audience and I thank Leonardo journal for the opportunity. I am now working on other projects inspired by his work, especially relating to origami and meta-materials, and I hope to share some of this research in the near future.

Associate Professor of Information Design Pino Trogu
San Francisco State University

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This page is a summary of: Giorgio Scarpa’s Model of a Sea Urchin Inspires New Instrumentation, Leonardo, April 2019, The MIT Press, DOI: 10.1162/leon_a_01384.
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