It is difficult to walk more than a few blocks in any older American city and not come across examples of the Greek architectural orders. They are easy to distinguish. The Doric, the earliest historically, appeared in the Peloponnese relatively suddenly in the mid-seventh century BC. It is a strong and stately order with few surface frills. The columns stand solidly on their platforms with no base. They are relatively short; the surface is incised with shallow vertical grooves; the shafts tend to taper markedly toward the top. The Doric capital stops the vertical thrust of the column like a saucer placed on top of a cigar. Grant’s Tomb in upper Manhattan gives a textbook example of this soldierly style.
But a short walk to Columbia University, five minutes away, takes one as far as a voyage from mainland Greece to the coast of Asia Minor, where the Ionic order flourished. Like most universities Columbia is awash with Ionic, the order of bookish, unmilitary lives. Ionic columns have deep semicircular grooves that modulate the light. They are relatively tall and stand on bases with sinuous, elegant moldings that look as if they had been turned on a lathe.
One of the most sumptuous Ionic capitals in North America is a gigantic specimen of the early fourth century BC from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis that now stands at the entrance to the cafeteria of the Metropolitan Museum. (See illustration on page 60.) It is a tour de force. The decoration that runs around the top of the column, “eggs” separated by little vertical arrows, is so deeply undercut that one could imagine putting one’s hand between the arrows and touching the backs of the eggs. The fronts of the eggs are covered with delicate palmettes—shapes based on the palmate leaf. The capital seems designed to cushion the weight of the beam above it—the entablature—and the cushion is so abundant it curls around the sides in the form of the spiral ornaments called volutes. The first-century Roman architect Vitruvius, who defined and described the orders in his architectural treatise, thought of a woman’s curly tresses whenever he looked at these spirals, while later architects thought of a ram’s horns or seashells.
The Doric spread rapidly from mainland Greece to south Italy and Sicily. The first Ionic, usually associated with the Greek cities of Asia Minor, was fully developed by the early sixth century. Very soon there was contamination and mixing of the two orders, and the Parthenon, notoriously, is a Doric temple with Ionic elements, such as the famous frieze. A third order, the Corinthian, was invented in the late fifth century; with its relatively slender columns and its capital adorned with acanthus leaves, it quickly became the elegant order par excellence of the Panhellenic world. All of this was imported into Rome with the general plunder of Greek art and culture. Rome became a museum of the Greek orders and …