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.

Rykwert is in pursuit of a metaphor, that the building is like a body, or at any rate the upright post is like a body, and the body is like the world. Springing out of the subsoil of archaic Greece, with roots in the ancient Near East, this association of body and building, Rykwert believes, gave life to architecture from ancient times up to the seventeenth century, when it began its slow decline. Even then it hung on. Poussin wrote to his friend Fréart to enjoy both the pretty girls of Nîmes and the columns of the temple known as the Maison Carrée, “since the second are merely agèd copies of the first.” Such late traces of the idea intrigue Rykwert, but his search is for the metaphor of the body in the earliest manifestations of architectural thought. For years this has been his ur-quest. A symposium dedicated to his work last year at the University of Pennsylvania was inevitably entitled “Body and Building.”

In outline the book is straightforward as it pursues the idea that the building, or at any rate the column, is like a body. The body metaphor leads Rykwert to investigate the history of the idea of the body itself as microcosm of larger entities, beginning with Egyptian and Greek cosmology, and tracing it through Muslim culture to the Renaissance. Some architectural supports actually do look like bodies—caryatids and telamons—and so he moves early on to these. He then discusses the three Greek orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Finally the two later orders, Tuscan and Composite, each get a chapter.

A simple outline, however, does not mean a short or simple book. An apt subtitle for The Dancing Column might be “A heavily footnoted encyclopedia of the thousand or so themes which interested Joseph Rykwert while ruminating about, and traveling extensively in search of, the origins of the Greek orders.” Medieval encyclopedias are valuable to us not as reference tools but because they preserve echoes of lost worlds of learning. Should all the great research libraries of the modern world perish, thanks to The Dancing Column we would still know the main lines of what has been written since the nineteenth century (and in many cases since the Renaissance) on hundreds of worthy if slightly arcane subjects. Indeed, the book groans under the weight of a passionately eclectic erudition.

The reader will need great stamina to follow all the digressions: on physiognomy, on druids, on astrology and its medieval revival, humoral medicine, the androgyne from ancient Iran to Plato, the Vedic fire altar, the measurement of Christ’s body, the dimensions of Hercules’ feet, Greek musical theory, Pythagorean speculations on the number ten, chryselephantine statuary, the origin of language and the language of gestures, the notion of character from Aristotle to Shaftesbury, the Greek dialects, Renaissance Etruscology, the nail fetish in Africa and in the nail-studded walls of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, and many more, pursued in almost a thousand footnotes and backed up by a bibliography of more than two thousand entries.

To complicate the simple outline further there is the fascination with etymology which often attracts the encyclopedic temperament. Not for nothing was Isidore of Seville’s great seventh-century encyclopedia named The Etymologies. Rykwert hunts many seemingly familiar words to their prehistoric lair in fascinating if slightly baroque notes. Of course he has to probe the roots of order, ordine, Ordnung in its many incarnations. The “canon” or system of proportions that Polykleitos demonstrated in his famous statue, the spear-bearer Doryphoros, is traced to the Assyrian qanu, stick or cane, which evolves into the measuring rod of the ancient geometer or carpenter, then moves into music to stand for a monochord, and then soars up to the works of philosophy, where it means any standard of truth, or the canonical authors. Only at the end of a long life does sclerosis set in for “canon,” when Christians use it to mean anything that must remain unchanged, like the corpus of Scripture or the central text of the Mass. “Mimesis” is traced to ma, to measure, but then moves onto the stage and into the world of crafts, where Plato finds it just at the moment when he is looking for a word to describe the arts of imitation. Captain Cook and Queequeg star along with a slightly seedier cast in the passages that explore the etymology of “tatoo.”

Rykwert has looked for his capitals all over the Mediterranean, as well as in the mountains of Greece and the heart of Anatolia. No site was too distant, no back road too bumpy. Back home he has read up on every excavation with impeccable thoroughness. Thus buried within the larger book we have a smaller, personal encyclopedia of classical sites. Rykwert travels not only as an art historian but also as an anthropologist of the ancient world. One senses the same insatiable curiosity that caused James Frazer’s The Golden Bough to swell to gargantuan proportions. For example, when he is in Ionia looking for the origins of the Ionic he tracks down the cult of Artemis’ Polymaston or multimammia, the patron of suckling animals. Then we encounter the xoana or wooden cult statues. And then we push further back in time and further east to the Mittani, the Hittites, and the Urartians of pre-Greek Anatolia, to Phrygian tomb monuments, to Gilgamesh. The djed raises its grassy head again, and we see the ur-Ionic taking shape from bundles of marsh reeds.

We travel with Rykwert to Bassae, lost in the wilds of Arcadia, where the first extant Corinthian capital was found, said to be designed in the late fifth century by Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon. The remote location of this site preserved the temple intact until 1811-1812, when it was studied and plundered by a British and German expedition. The precious drawings of Karl Haller von Hallerstein show the single Corinthian capital in detail.9 It was seen again in 1817, badly damaged but still in situ. By 1819 it could no longer be found. A few pathetic fragments emerged in the excavations of 1902-1908.

But if archaeology situates the first Corinthian capital in Bassae, Vitruvius recounts a myth that held a great spell over Renaissance writers. A maiden of Corinth (Serlio calls her Corinthia) died before marriage and was buried. Her nurse collected her favorite cups and put them in a basket which she laid over her tomb. On top she placed a brick (not like our bricks but a large flat tile square in shape) to hold the basket down. As it happened the basket was left sitting on a hidden acanthus root, which put forth its leaves and stalks with the first spring rains. The plant grew up around the basket and the tendrils began to curl back down when they touched the underside of the brick, which protruded out over the rim of the basket.

Most passersby would have sensed only the tragedy of the early death and the pathetic gesture of the nurse, who thought a brick would protect her offerings and give them a few more weeks of eternity. Callimachus, the sculptor, inventor, and bronzesmith, katatechnos as Vitruvius calls him, (“artificial,” “artful”), or maybe katatexitechnos (“the man who pines away because of art”), saw instead an objet trouvé, a perfect mixture of man-made and natural forms. He modeled a new order on it. Perhaps he had the brilliant idea of arranging acanthus plants cast in bronze over a basket carved in stone. The late fifth century was the right time for such a discovery. The old Doric capital, however much it had slimmed down over time, was too horizontal, and the Ionic, with volutes only on two sides, had a hard time of it at corners. A new architecture that sought slenderness and vertical continuity needed a new kind of capital. So the Corinthian was invented, the virginal order, slender as a young girl.

Vitruvius, and most of the commentators from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, saw only the aesthetic implications of a charming story. But since early in this century, when in the wake of The Golden Bough an interest was kindled in the more primitive aspects of Greek religion, the Vitruvian story has taken on another dimension. Acanthus leaves are associated with burial, funeral vases, and rebirth: this is rich anthropologist bait, and Rykwert pounces on it. 10 He leaves it to other books to give us the proportions and precise leaf forms of this most popular of all orders. Instead he gives us the etymology and botany of the acanthus plant, its connections with the Scottish thistle and the Assyrian palmette, its funereal symbolism. We study the shrine of Aphrodite at Sikyon where the acanthus weed grew in abundance. We conclude with a famous column at Delphi, on top of which three girls were sculpted dancing around a holy acanthus.

Etymology, archeological reports from countless sites, two millennia of commentary and afterlife, digressions in every direction that a lively anthropological curiosity can take—all this makes for a hefty tome, a one-man nonalphabetic encyclopedia that requires much concentration from readers. Many will despair of getting through the book cover to cover.

But eclectic learning pursued with conviction over a lifetime can be impressive in particular ways. Who else will put Vitruvius, Bataille, Heidegger, Vernant, Burkert, Serlio, and Le Corbusier, however uncomfortably, into the same work? To combine twentieth-century concerns with an intense interest in Greek archaeology can be illuminating. For example, in a passage on Greek “refinements,” the almost imperceptible curvatures and inclinations of the columns and plane surfaces of Greek temples, Rykwert brings in an unexpected comparison. Edwin Lutyens read the early literature on refinements and designed a memorial for the dead of the Great War with verticals slightly inclined, so that, if projected upward, they would all meet a mile in the sky. The book is peppered with interesting comments on modern architecture seen with a classical sensibility.

The Dancing Column contains coruscating criticism as well, especially of the grand savants who celebrated Doric culture but never bothered to look hard at the monuments. Heidegger gets unusually low marks for philosophizing—about both Van Gogh and Greek temples—without looking carefully at them. Still worse, Gottfried Benn, in an essay of 1934 that he called the “Doric World,” envisaged a Doric that drew strength from “naked violence, arbitrary power, racial pride, [and] homoerotic antifeminism.” Could he have been thinking of the Doric temples built by Carthaginian slaves for the Sicilian tyrants? Vital art, Benn argues, will only be created in such conditions. Rykwert traces this military vision back to Carl Otfried Müller (d. 1840), mythmaker for the Prussian state. But he objects to it deeply, and will have none of “those dumb Doric temples wrought by blond, brutish, naked sun-bronzed Dorians, which mutely draw strength out of the rock.” No Doric temple, Rykwert tells us, is dumb or mute. It is more likely to be stained, inlaid, and covered with gilt bronze trophies, painted ornaments, and inscriptions. “‘Buttonholing’ or ‘garrulous’ would seem a more appropriate description.”

At the end of this long exploration of wild lands, the intrepid author returns to the architecture of our century as a mild-mannered critic of the contemporary scene. Rykwert is a kind of modified Modernist, critical of Miesian sobriety and against dumb, mute architecture of any kind. For him the late twentieth century produces architecture that is nothing but “raw commodity disguised in gift wrapping.” But he is against postmodernism, too, and he is not in the least enthusiastic about the prospect of a classical revival. Hellenism offers no directions but shows us “what we are entitled to expect from our buildings…. We should protest…when we are given short change.” On this cryptic note the mighty saga ends. The Dancing Column refuses to offer prescriptions for the architecture of the future. Love of Greek form motivated the study, and a quest for primitive origins drove it along, but at heart it is a celebration of encyclopedic culture with its power to enlighten and to exhaust.

This Issue

September 24, 1998