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The Way to Grant’s Tomb

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.1

The Doric spread rapidly from mainland Greece to south Italy and Sicily.2 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 a showcase of ingenious variations on the standard themes.

In the heyday of the nineteenth-century classical revival many European and American cities produced urban spaces where one could find the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders exhibited with textbook clarity. In Munich, Leo von Klenze began to lay out the Königsplatz for King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1816. Over the next half- century it came to feature a Doric temple entrance, or Propylon (with Ionic columns inside, just like its model in Athens), an Ionic sculpture museum on the north, and a Corinthian museum on the south. The Nazis brought the Königsplatz full circle in 1933 with a Doric temple to honor party members killed in the Putsch of 1923.

That for so many centuries architects have had a choice of orders is owing mainly to Sebastiano Serlio (1475- 1554), a painter from Bologna who never quite made it into the first rank of practicing architects but who took up Vitruvius’ distinctions and elaborated his own version of them. Serlio, whose various works have recently been translated, or retranslated, into English,3 went to Rome in 1514 and studied with the men who were rebuilding St. Peter’s: Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo, Raphael, and above all Baldassare Peruzzi, an artist and engineer from Siena who was also the most passionate and creative student of antiquity of his time. Serlio was in on all the secrets of these men. He copied their drawings and amassed a formidable archive on the new architecture of Renaissance Rome. He studied the antique assiduously, sketching the ruins and borrowing other architects’ sketchbooks. He gives a sympathetic picture of himself sitting on the toenail of the colossal statue of a Roman emperor that had recently been moved to the Capitoline Hill. He crawled and climbed over every ruin, and when they were overgrown he surveyed them on horseback.

In 1527 he somehow escaped the horrors of the sack of Rome and made his way to Venice, his archive intact. A great publishing project took shape in his mind. Peruzzi had been so generous with him, why should he not be just as generous with the rest of the world and divulge his knowledge through the medium of the illustrated book? Eventually Serlio planned seven books covering every aspect of ancient and modern architecture: geometry, perspective, construction, antiquity, temples, and palaces, including some of the architecture he had seen going up around him in Rome and much that derived from his third home, Venice.

His first installment (which confusingly enough was numbered as the fourth book in his projected series) was the General Rules of Architecture, published in Venice in 1537 when he was sixty-two. It is a paean to imagination. The ruins that he saw in Rome were more varied and inventive than anything in Vitruvius. However, by the time of his second installment (“Book Three”) in 1540, Serlio had dramatically changed. He now proclaimed Greek architecture, which he never saw himself, as the ideal. The Romans, he wrote, had gotten too rich and grew licentious in their use of the Greek orders. But since Vitruvius is faithful to Greek rules he could be taken as an infallible guide and his writings considered sacrosanct. Like an erstwhile liberation theologian called on the carpet by the Vatican, Serlio became obsessed by orthodoxy. Architects who criticize Vitruvius and indulge in innovation he now calls heretics.

Like his contemporary, the anato-mist Vesalius, Serlio was a master of the illustrated book. His first print is a table of his own version of the five ancient orders: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian (so far all named for places or races), and Composite (a name he invented). (See illustration on page 58.) He worked out a system to classify the endless flotsam of architectural fragments that had survived the shipwreck of the ancient world, although it was more schematic than any ancient architect would have wanted. His table is mostly a pastiche. His Tuscan (or Etruscan) is a plainer version of Roman Doric, itself very far removed from anything resembling Greek Doric. 4 His Composite is made up of parts taken from different buildings that are themselves Roman hybrids, like the Colosseum.

Like a table of verb declensions in a Latin grammar, the chart was an abstraction from a messier reality. But it was also a piece of inspired popularization. The five types of columns are arranged not in the order Vitruvius treats them but simply in the order of increasing slenderness. The ratio of the diameter of the Tuscan column to its height was set at 1:6, the Doric 1:7, the Ionic 1:8, the Corinthian 1:9, and the Composite 1:10. Nothing could be easier for a busy architect to keep in his head.

Remeasured, refined, stretched, and shrunk, these orders were to make their way into the treatises of Vignola, Palladio, Scamozzi, and countless others. Until the avant-garde movements of the Twenties and Thirties and the postwar reforms in American architectural education the orders were ubiquitous. They appear even in the early designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Right through the years of general conversion to modernism some students kept on drawing the orders in the way a premedical student might study Latin, to imbibe a mental discipline and crack a professional jargon, not really ever intending to speak the language. This is how Joseph Rykwert, a young architectural student with modernist convictions, first met them in the 1940s.

Many decades later we have his long-pondered book, outweighing by far the short, sparkling introduction to classical architecture by John Summerson or indeed anything in the abundant order literature of the past decade.5 Yet, for all its range and erudition The Dancing Column is not a general overview of the orders throughout history but basically a book about their origins in early Greece. Thus it is fundamentally different from an innovative book of a decade ago by John Onians, which devotes brief chapters to Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages, but most of its text to the Renaissance.6

Rykwert’s purpose is to trace the orders to their roots. In the antiquarian literature of the post-Renaissance period are a number of authors who thought that the discovery of the origins of the various Greek capitals would do mankind enormous good because they would shine as examples of ideal beauty, perfect at birth. For example, Poussin’s friend Fréart de Chambray, writing in 1650, thought that all innovation in architecture was degeneration, the work of “low and reptile Souls” who could comprehend neither geometry nor pure form. 7 Through a study of the best models perhaps one could reverse the innovative trend and return to the pure headwaters of the stream, where one would find ideals of unsurpassable beauty.

In his own long exploration Rykwert has been searching for something very different. He is not after Platonic ideals but totems, fetishes, vegetation deities, transvestite gods, blood sacrifice, speaking posts, chthonic magic. Walter Burkert, the Swiss historian of ancient religion, is often cited as his guide to this bloodier and darker side of Greece. But Rykwert also looks back to the work of the early-twentieth-century German archeologist Walter Andrae, the excavator of the ancient city of Assur.8 Andrae was shaped by a German culture which, since Goethe and Schinkel, saw the Ionic as representing the powers of human reason at their height. Excavating the cities of ancient Mesopotamia he had a revelation. He saw that the reed bundles out of which the marsh Arabs of the Tigris-Euphrates delta formed their houses looked suggestively like the Ionic capital. These straw columns took him back to the djed, the sacred reed bundle of the Egyptians. He tried to understand how forms rose from primitive origins to the highest levels to become bearers of a transcendent logos, only then to lose all meaning at the end of the cycle. Hesitantly Andrae opened up a door that he thought would lead to a promised land. Through that door Rykwert has charged.

  1. 1

    Vitruvius used the words “genus” and “species” for the different styles. The word “order” for an architectural system was coined in 1519 by Raphael, working with the humanist Colocci, though they also use the word opere, “works.” (See Ingrid D. Rowland, “Raphael, Angelo Colocci, and the Genesis of the Architectural Orders,” Art Bulletin, LXXVI, 1994, pp. 81-104.)

  2. 2

    J.J. Coulton, Ancient Greek Architects at Work: Problems of Structure and Design (Cornell University Press, 1977), especially Chapter 2, “The Problem of Beginning.”

  3. 3

    Until recently the only English version of Serlio was a partial translation made in 1611 from the Dutch translation of 1606, reprinted as The Five Books of Architecture (Dover, 1982). But now there is a modern translation of Books I-V: Sebastiano Serlio on Architecture, translated by Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks, Volume I (Yale University Press, 1996). Recently Dover Press has reprinted a classic edition of one of the books that Serlio himself never got around to publishing: Serlio’s Sixth Book: On Domestic Architecture, edited by Myra Nan Rosenfield (The Architectural History Foundation and MIT Press, 1979; Dover reprint 1996, with a new preface and all the original drawings but without the Italian text). There is more unpublished material in Sebastiano Serlio, Architettura Civile: Libri sesto settimo e ottavo nei manoscritti di Monaco e Vienna, edited by Francesco Paolo Fiore and Tancredi Carunchio (Milan: Il Polifilo, 1994) and a list of Serlio’s many editions in John Burg, “Serlio: Some Biographical Notes,” in C. Thoenes, editor, Sebastiano Serlio (Milan, 1988), pp. 92-101.

  4. 4

    Serlio’s creation of the Tuscan order out of a passage in Vitruvius, some columns by Bramante, and a fashion for rustic surfaces cultivated in the architecture of Giulio Romano is the subject of an important article by James Ackerman, “The Tuscan/Rustic Order: A Study in the Metaphorical Language of Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1983), pp. 15-34.

  5. 5

    John Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (MIT Press, 1963). Good compendia of recent work on the orders resulted from two colloquia held at the Renaissance Center of the University of Tours: Jean Guillaume, editor, Les Traités d’architecture de la Renaissance (1981) (Paris: Picard, 1988); and L’Emploi des ordres dans l’architecture de la Renaissance (1986) (Paris: Picard, 1992).

  6. 6

    John Onians, Bearers of Meaning. The Classical Orders in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance (Princeton University Press, 1988).

  7. 7

    Roland Fréart de Chambray, Parallèle de l’Architecture Antique et de la Moderne (Paris: E. Martin, 1650), translated by John Evelyn as A Parallel of the Ancient Architecture with the Modern (London: T. Roycroft, 1664; Gregg Press Reprint, 1970).

  8. 8

    Walter Andrae, Die Ionische Säule: Bauform oder Symbol? (Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 1933).

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