Friday, May 16, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 11 & 12

Dancing Faun, Pompeii
The online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture is finally over and
done and what an informative course it was! The fact that a course of this depth and quality is offered free to the public is amazing. I'm looking to enroll for another course soon on Greek and Roman mythology. I soon recognized in this course that it was impossible to separate the study of Roman architecture from their mythology. The elaborate ornamentation of Ancient Rome was rich in symbolism. Roman ornament not mere decoration but an act of sympathetic communication collectively understood by a cultured community. I've decided to conclude the series by highlighting a few examples of Roman ornamentation, a pervasive theme throughout the course.


Faunus was the Roman god of the forest and the fields. Perhaps more intimately important to a Roman proud of his history, Faunus was said to have been an ancient king of the Latins, a forefather of Rome's founders Romulus and Remus. The patrician villa, the "House of the Faun" in Pompeii is so named for the dancing Faun excavated there.


Perhaps I took my history lesson from Clash of the Titans as a child but I always thought of Medusa as a hideous monster. The truth is the gorgons were seen as simultaneously endowed with beauty and terror, the writhing snakes of their hair, a symbol of fertility. Furthermore, I was really impressed to learn that the word "medusa" literally means "protector". The head of the Medusa was utilized as a symbol of royal "aegis", shield or protection.

Arcade of the Severan Forum, Leptis Magna


Black Room, Boscotrecase

Swans were associated particularly with the god Apollo and are the subject of a number of legends of the metamorphosis of life, death and rebirth. Apollo was the patron god of the first emperor Augustus and his daughter Julia had swans for decoration at her villa in Boscotrecase.



Sacrificial Instruments

Ritual animal sacrifice was a major occupation of Roman religion. The blood, innards and organs were offered to the gods whilst the meat of the animals was shared communally. Only a flawless specimen was chosen and had to be quickly, cleanly dispatched. A number of Roman temple friezes record various implements utilized. In this example we see a priestly helmet, whip, pitcher, knife, libation dish and axe surrounded by two bucrania or ox skulls.

Temple of Divine Vespasian, Rome


Temple of Diana, Jerash
The acanthus plant was long held as a symbol of life, rebirth and immortality. That is quite understandable as, although attractive, the acanthus is really a weed that is hard to exterminate in its native climate. The acanthus leaf was developed as an ornamental motif for foliated scroll work and notably the Corinthian capital. Vitruvius relays the legendary origin of a young maiden upon whose grave a votive basket with some her personal possessions was left, covered with a roof tile. An acanthus plant sprung up around it, creating a beautiful effect noticed by the famous Greek sculptor Callimachus which provided him inspiration for invention of the Corinthian capital.

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Form of Gothic

Tintern Abbey
Previously, I discussed the "Spirit of Gothic", highlighting the perspective of 19th century author, artist, naturalist John Ruskin from his treatise "The Stones of Venice" wherein he describes Gothic first in terms of its internal nature, the moral characteristic, the mental expression, the source of its power that he simply describes as its Spirit. Ruskin further elaborated on the external identifying physical features, what he describes as the "Form of Gothic". Likewise early 20th century architect and author Claude Fayette Bragdon contributed insightful commentary into what distinguishes the Gothic as a deeply humanistic yet unique architecture in a series of essays collectively entitled "The Beautiful Necessity". Drawing from these two sources I'll attempt to undertake an examination of the true Nature of Gothic, its Spirit as manifested in physical Form.

The Pointed Arch

Worcester Cathedral
Gothic was not the only architecture to have made use of the pointed arch; however, it certainly exploits the form to its fullest potential, particularly noteworthy in the vaulting of its interior ceilings. Western architecture specifically witnessed three developments in ceiling design: post and lintel exemplified by the Egyptians and Greeks, the rounded arch, including barrel vaults and domes reaching a pinnacle of achievement during the Lombardic and Byzantine Romanesque, and finally the myriad of possibilities associated with the pointed arch and resulting vaults of the Gothic. Closely associated with what Ruskin earlier identified as the spirit of Variety, he noted that "capable of perpetual variety, the pointed arch was not merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of millions of variations in itself; for the proportions of a pointed arch are changeable to infinity, while a circular arch is always the same." 

The Acute Gable

We can think of the Gothic ceiling itself really as a gable with curved sides as an arch is truly a continuous curve and can't actually be "pointed". The Gothic ceiling does not serve as the external roof of the structure as occasionally might occur in the domed roofs of the Romanesque. What distinguishes the Gothic gable however, it that the angle declining from its ridge is nearly always acute and severely acute in its best examples. In its natural home of the Northern climates this acute pitch of the roof serves the practical function of preventing heavy snow accumulation. So in a summary to this point we can identify the form of the Gothic roofing system as an acute gabled roof surmounted above a pointed arch or "curved gable".

Notre-Dame de Paris


Palazzo Ducale
Aside from ornamental enrichment there are really two types of foliation that are manifest in Gothic architecture, both being associated with the pointed arch. The first is the general outline of the pointed arch itself, necessary as its greatest potential structural weakness is the possibility of giving way on the sides if receiving downward force upon the point above. The practical solution obtained was to integrate cusps on either side, although not intended precisely to imitate foliage, would imbue as Ruskin observed "the same characters of beauty which the designer had discovered in the leaf." Hence the architectural term "foliation" meaning "leafy or leaved" to describe this type of opening.

Bishop's Eye, Lincoln Cathedral
The spirit of Naturalism keenly expresses itself with second expression of foliation characteristic of the Gothic, that of foliated traceries filling windows and portals. Again, this was not in direct imitation of nature but drew upon her as a source of inspiration as Ruskin opines, "The idea that large Gothic structure, in arches and roofs, was intended to imitate vegetation, is, as above noticed, untenable for an instant in the front of facts. But the Gothic builder perceived that, in the leaves which he copied for his minor decorations, there was a peculiar beauty, arising from certain characters of curvature in outline, and certain methods of subdivision and of radiation in structure. On a small scale, in his sculptures and his missal-painting, he copied the leaf or thorn itself; on a large scale he adopted from it its abstract sources of beauty, and gave the same kind of curvatures and the same species of subdivision to the outline of his arches, so far as was consistent with their strength, never, in any single instance, suggesting the resemblance to leafage by irregularity of outline, but keeping the structure perfectly simple, and, as we have seen, so consistent with the best principles of masonry."  

Clustered Columns

In my previous post I had affirmed that Gothic architecture might very well be the most humanistic architecture ever conceived. I would point to the principal means of support, the system of columns to uphold this contention. Like the pointed arch the clustered column allows for a myriad of adaptations whereas the single shafts of the Classical orders (admittedly of anthropological origins and humanistic themselves) establish whilst constraining the proportional variations possible in the resultant architecture of which Ruskin provides the following critique, "we must no more expect to derive either pleasure or profit from an architecture...whose pillars are of one proportion, than we should out of a universe in which the clouds were all of one shape, and the trees all of one size." 

Amiens Cathedral
Gothic cathedrals are known for their ascending heights. However, whereas the Renaissance solution for a similar effect such as at St. Peter's was to enlarge the column, creating colossal orders, the Gothic masons found a means through the articulation of the clustered column to maintain a scale in relation to the individual, a point well articulated by Claude Bragdon, "architecture is not necessarily the most awe-inspiring which gives the impression of having been built by giants for the abode of pigmies; like the other arts, architecture is highest when it is most human. The mediaeval builders, true to this dictum, employed stones of a size proportionate to the strength of a man working without unusual mechanical aids; the great piers and columns, built up of many such stones, were commonly subdivided into clusters, and the circumference of each shaft of such a cluster approximated the girth of a man; by this device the moulding of the base and the foliation of the caps were easily kept in scale."


Amiens Cathedral
Symmetry, specifically bilateral symmetry certainly provides an obvious state of balance. This occurs vertically of course in the human body, at least if dividing facing its front or back. Nevertheless, nature provides numerous alternative states of equilibrium of which Bragdon highlights an example familiar to all of us, "If one were to establish an axial plane vertically through the center of a tree, in most cases it would be found that the masses of foliage, however irregularly shaped on either side of such an axis, just about balanced each other." He goes on to illustrate how that principle of balance was well understood by medieval builders and informed their work, "A far more subtle and vital illustration of the law occurs when the opposed elements do not exactly match, but differ from each other, as in the case of the two towers of Amiens, for example. This sort of balance may be said to be characteristic of Gothic."

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, May 5, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 61 - 70


The angular Ionic capital is a variation having all sides identical, manifesting volutes. It is particularly useful for resolving the aesthetic of outside corner conditions.

Taken from Roman precedent, Vincenzo Scamozzi successfully canonized the angular capital in his 1615 architectural treatise L’Idea della Architettura Universale.


Pilasters resemble rectangular columns but being in low relief (commonly one fifth projection) are strictly decorative applications providing no structural support of the entablature above.

Pilasters typically do not have entasis or diminution yet otherwise conform to the details of the main order.


An engaged column has at least half to three quarters of its shaft exposed. It maintains the entasis or diminution of a free standing column and likewise performs a functional role of support of the entablature.


In Classical architecture the ‘entablature’ is the superstructure resting atop piers or columns that consists of, from bottom to top, the architrave, frieze and cornice. The name derives from the Latin ‘intavolare’ meaning to place on a table.

Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings

Could you guess that these rectangular ornaments come from the Latin term for tooth, ‘denticulus’? When dentils are a feature of a cornice the entablature is said to be ‘denticulated’.

Traditionally dentils have a height twice their width and are separated by a distance two thirds their width. A theory of their origin is that they represent the cantilevered ends of beams used to support a projecting upper storey.


All of these ornaments are associated with the entablature frieze of the Doric architectural order.
The name ‘triglyph’ derives from Greek, meaning ‘three glyphs’ (γλύφω)or carvings. The two indentations in the middle are obvious and you can notice two half glyphs on either side making a total of three complete gylyphs. The design is thought to represent the ends of three hewn and chamfered wooden planks bound together to form a beam for support of the attic.


The ‘taenia’ is the thin strip below the triglyph, marking the separation of the frieze above and the architrave of which it is the top most member. ‘Taenia’ is also of Greek origin (ταινία) meaning ‘ribbon’ or ‘tape’. Some may recognize it as the medical term for tapeworm.


The Latin word for ‘rule’ (like regulation), it the little bar directly below the taenia, aligned with the triglyph further above.


These small conical shape elements under the regula are the ‘guttae’, Latin for ‘drops’. Architectural historians theorize they may be decorative vestiges of an earlier wooden architecture where pegs were driven into the beams above to secure them.


In the Doric architectural order, the ‘metope’ are the square spaces situated between the triglyphs. The Greeks typically would fill them with sculptural representations of emblems of sacrifice in their temple architecture. The Romans continued this tradition and also would use them for displaying trophies or simple decoration in buildings of the state.

The term is of ancient Greek origin literally meaning the ‘hole’, ‘opē’ (ὀπή) that is ‘above or beyond’, ‘meta’ (μετά), meaning above the architrave.

In the Renaissance example of the Tempietto, we see that various items of the Catholic sacrament have replaced the pagan Greek emblems.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 9 & 10

Arch of Septimus Severus
Leptis Magna
The online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture is coming to a conclusion. I've appreciated how the architectural development of Rome has been correlated to the political and cultural occurrences of the time. As Rome's ambitions grew and their Empire expanded they imposed their culture by means of military force on numerous conquered peoples of the Mediterranean and as far West as the Atlantic. Yet, at the same time these Roman provinces would begin to exert a collective cultural sway on Rome itself. A radical departure from the strictly traditional Roman architecture of Greek and Etruscan origins would occur during this period of expansion.

Rise of the Roman Baroque

Baroque is a term almost exclusively applied to the 17th century stylistic departure from the "Renaissance", the rebirth of the Classical, specifically the architecture of ancient Rome. I've come to realize that the introduction of Baroque forms can not be merely be attributed as a reaction against the constraints of the Classical, a predictable evolution in architecture or credited to the creative genius of a few artistic visionaries. An increasing number of Roman ruins were in fact being uncovered at this time both within Rome itself and among the far flung corners of the former empire. Much of this architecture was unquestionably what we would classify today as Baroque. I'll take this as a fine opportunity to explore features that characterize the Baroque by comparing Classical and 17th century examples.

St. Peter's Square

The accelerated curve of two foci with two corresponding radii. While ellipses and oval approximations became a fascination of 17th century design they certainly found their precedents in Roman Antiquity. Compare Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Baroque masterpiece at left with the Roman ruins of 2nd century Gerasa below.

Forum of Gerasa

Temple of Venus, Baalbek

Associated with the incorporation of ellipses was a general interest in the introduction of curvilinear movement. Francesco Borromini's façade of the church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is considered an icon of the Baroque, its serpentine entablature breaking with the Classical tradition. Nevertheless, we see several Roman examples manifesting a similar movement. A rather well preserved example is the Temple of Venus at Balek contrasts the concavity of the entablature with the convexity of the cella, again with concavity of the inset niches.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek
Colossal Orders

Bigger was better during the Renaissance Baroque. During this period massive façades were erected, the East front of the Louvre and the basilica at Saint Peter's being prominent examples. A solution often employed to conserve the system of proportion was a colossal order of columns that would break through two or more storeys to support the crowning entablature directly from the ground. It is interesting to note the close similarity of the façade of St. Peter's with that of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek some 1,500 years prior.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Broken Pediments

Al Khazneh, Petra

The pediment is nothing more than a formalized gable, the end of a pitched roof. By breaking it, there is a playful acknowledgement that the pediment is merely decorative, it serves no practical function. 17th century architects were having a lot of fun with broken pediments; however, they found numerous precedents from Roman Antiquity, not least of which is a collection of masterpieces in the tomb architecture at Petra.

Il Duomo di Siracusa, Sicily

Severan Forum Basilica

Neither Classical Roman architecture nor that of the Renaissance were timid about ornamentation. However, what distinguishes the Baroque periods is the tendency of enrichment to break free from formalized architectural structure. In extreme cases this serves to dematerialize major supportive elements. Compare the Severan Forum Basilica at Leptus Magna and our own Baroque Revival Congress Theatre in Chicago where in each case the pilasters are overwhelmed, scarcely recognizable as architectural forms.

Congress Theatre, Chicago

Contributed by Patrick Webb