Our Complacent Present & Elusive Past

What is wrong with this picture?  

Well, yes, it does seem they’ve left their helmets behind --- but, would they?  

Of course not.  

But then, with their helmets firmly in place, we would not be able to notice the remarkably up-to-date appearance of these Television Vikings with their hipster haircuts and tattoos.

Those missing helmets :

The following image the History Channel Vikings is even more arresting in its absurdity: charging into battle with the upper body fully exposed to harm !?!  And THIS in times when even minor wounds could easily become fatally infected.

For all their unceasing and unforgettable contacts over several centuries with Western Europe as well as the East Roman World (when the anguished prayer, “God save us from the fury of the Northmen” was ceaselessly intoned from the remote Irish and Scottish Isles to the distant Urals), not a single source refers to tattoos (the one mention in arabic is likely nothing more than a figure of speech indicating infidels, that is, savages by definition).  

The currently very popular television series on the History Channel, Vikings purports to tell the tale of the bloody eruption of the historical Vikings into Western Europe during the Carolingian Age through the life of a known historical character, Ragnar Lothbrok.  Of course, this dramatized presentation is primarily meant to entertain, but what it also signals is that our attention today tends to be engaged, and held, almost exclusively by the comfortably familiar, and that we assiduously resist the genuinely unfamiliar.  Whatever aura of the exotic, the distant, the other, that remains in these films is nothing more than an unreflective and thinly veiled pretense.  

Setting aside the deeper issues of story and characterization, even the simple reality of clothing (where just enough of this period is knowable) falls all too predictably in these films into today’s hipster default of dark ragged hues and black leather.  However, surviving evidence clearly points to a Viking enjoyment of bright colors, especially vivid blues and reds, realized in skillfully woven fabrics of wool, linen and silk.  Similarly, Viking armor had little in common with what our film presentations depict.  In the Viking Age their armored panoply belonged to the Late Roman/Early Medieval types which were common throughout the European World.  

Chain-Mail, for example, was very hard to manufacture, largely an imported high-status possession, and only worn in full-blown pitched battles, rather than in raids.  Leather too was prohibitively expensive, thus also high-status.  Armor made in the Carolingian domains was assiduously sought out, either through gift-exchange, trade, or plunder.  The attire of the average warrior was probably mostly his everyday clothing supplemented by a homemade wooden shield and a helmet acquired in battle from the defeated.  His leaders, on the other hand, looked a lot like the very people they were sacking, pillaging, or extorting.  

It should be sobering to discover that an illustration for a popular mid-nineteenth century book gives us a far more authentic glimpse into this distant world.  Needless to say, beyond foreign-made armor, highly ornamented and color-filled imported fabrics were another manifestation of status.  

Here we see the rebel and champion of the old religion, Thorir Hund, in a reindeer-hide tunic, mortally wounding the vividly attired and soon to be canonised King Olaf II Haraldsson (995 - 1030), St. Olave, at the Battle of Stiklestad (a watercolor by Peter Arbo for the 1860 book, Billeder af Norges Historie).

Below is a photograph taken at a large scale reenactment in Poland commemorating a pitched battle late in the Viking Age between Vikings and Wends, an image strikingly consonant with the painting above.  

It is noteworthy that those ambitious European amateurs in Eastern Europe aspire to realising a greater fidelity to the surviving historical evidence than that extremely well funded and shamelessly hyped American enterprise, the so-called History Channel.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831 - 1892), below, offers us yet another image of Vikings engaged in a full-scale armed encounter towards the close of the tumultuous Viking Age, with his well known painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harald Hardrada (1015 - 1066), the much storied King of Norway (and sometime Varangian guardsman at the Imperial Court of Constantinople)  met his surprising end. 

Albert Pierre René Maignan (1845 - 1908) in 1874, in his superb painting in the Musée d'Orsay called “Start of the Norman fleet for the conquest of England in 1066,”  offers us insight into another reality, that of those left behind.  This poignant tableau reminds us that there was much more to the life of a Viking than the bloody melee of raids and pitched battles.  

In subsequent posts we shall turn to this wider perspective.

You can explore more on this topic in the video below:

A Unique Room

Not to be missed! A major exhibition entitled, Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design is presently underway at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but only until September 4th.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Preparation for Festivities (1866)  Source

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Preparation for Festivities (1866)  Source

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) is justly celebrated for his peerless painterly evocations of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  

Alongside the above exhibit on our shores, another exhibition, Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity, which includes more than one hundred works, has recently opened in London, at the Leighton House Museum, and will remain open until the 29th of October 2017.

Together these two exhibitions reintroduce Alma-Tadema the serious artist to the contemporary scholarly art world.  As evidenced by countless calendars and posters, Alma-Tadema has long been popular with the general public.  It is only recently, with the developing interest in the works that the artistic avant-garde of the early to mid-twentieth century rejected, that mainstream nineteenth-century art has again become an object of academic interest and study.

The exhibit in Massachusetts is unique because it focuses on works that are all related to one another. Originally they belonged to a music room in a fifth-avenue mansion, commissioned in 1884 by New York magnate and philanthropist Henry Gurdon Marquand (1819–1902).

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Marquand’s Music Room had two foci.  

The one that is far more familiar to us today is a painting by Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer.  It is now part of the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is presently on loan to the Clark for this exhibit.  This was the work of art around which the Music Room for Henry Marquand was envisioned and designed.  

The second is sui generis, a Steinway Grand Piano the Furniture Gazette in 1887 called, "one of the most superb specimens of elaborately artistic workmanship it has ever been our good fortune to see."  This work too is Alma-Tadema’s artistic achievement.  

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The music room of a great house was both the heart of family musical life and a stage for public musical events.  And the heart of such a room in the nineteenth century was its grand piano.   

Alma-Tadema turned his grand piano into the quintessential grand.  Through his art he made it appear what it was meant to be, the instrument of instruments.  This piano would come to be played by celebrated pianists and composers and would accompany many famous performers.

It is noteworthy that our artist, who through his assiduous studies had achieved a peerless command of the ornamental repertoire of the ancients, from the smallest objects to paintings, sculptures, furniture and architecture, chose not to conjure up an ancient-looking instrument.  Rather, Alma-Tadema employed that ancient ornamental repertoire to both embellish and transform the monarch of nineteenth century instruments into a monumental entity, while allowing it to also remain recognisable as a delightfully performable grand piano.    

For more images of this piano :  images

For hearing and seeing the piano in performance :  in performance.

Another indispensable element of a great nineteenth-century room was its deployment of fabric.  Below is an image from the MET collection of one of Alma-Tadema’s  surviving fabrics from this room.  Note the masterly use of the classic Acanthus Scroll motif which the artist appropriates and magically makes his own.    

Alma-Tadema invited a number of his fellow artists to collaborate on this music room.  While the ensemble is the fruit of this vital collaboration, Alma-Tadema remains very much its designer, and thus the architect of the whole.

Alexis Goodin’s and Kathleen M. Morris’s Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and the Marquand Music Room is a comprehensive and authoritative study of the room he made.

In New York the Metropolitan Museum remains one of the lasting beneficiaries of Henry Marquand’s philanthropy, as he was one of its original founders. Throughout his life Marquand gave many works of art to our continent’s foremost museum.       

Henry Marquand’s music room was not Alma Tadema’s sole interior, nor was it his only work of architecture.  Each of his two London town houses were made to his designs.  Mary Eliza Haweis, in her Beautiful Houses of 1882, observed of the Townshend House: “It is essentially individual, essentially an Alma-Tadema house, in fact, a Tadema picture that one is able to walk through.”  

Now, return to the two paintings depicted above; Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painted works are indeed also architectural works, ones that we move through, inhabit with our mind’s eye.  

Below is a painting by Alma-Tadema’s daughter, Anna (1865–1943), who would become an accomplished painter in her own right, depicting one of the rooms in her father’s house.

See more on Alma-Tadema as a witness to history here:

What Paintings Tell

The above is a late fifteenth century painting in the National Gallery, London, one of a set by an unknown painter now called the Master of the Griselda Legend.  Here we see a fully realized Public Loggia set in an idealized urban landscape, something which is far more easily achieved through painting than building.  


Further along these lines, Sandro Botticelli in his Calumny of Apelles (c. 1494–95), offers us a detailed look inside one completely imagined Loggia.  Though nearly monochrome in coloring, this monumental room is filled with figural sculpture, both freestanding and in relief, framed and bounded by architectural elements.   

That these paintings are consistent with a longstanding tradition, and one which applies to artistic production at all scales, can be seen in this next work, Giotto's freestanding Baroncelli Polyptych, painted around 1334 for a family chapel in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, and partially reframed a century later.

Below we see this retable in context, placed upon its altar and set beneath the chapel’s stained-glass liturgically east-facing (ad orientem) window, mediating between the setting of the chapel and the celebrant and offering a focus for the worshipers.   Before us a colonnade frames a vision of Heaven, making present a threshold between us and the transcendent.  And this colonnade is itself bounded, set within its own frame, which provides for it a fitting place upon its Altar.

Giotto's (1267 - 1337) oeuvre has come to be seen as straddling the late Medieval and early Renaissance worlds, working within the Iconic and Liturgical/Theological conventions of the High Middle Ages and bringing a new artistic approach to the figures inhabiting it.  By contrast Dante (1265 – 1321) is usually presented as representing the culmination of the Middle Ages.  And yet, Dante’s realism concerning the depth and breadth of the human condition in the light of the Divine had its direct artistic corollary in Giotto’s naturalism, depicting fully rounded human beings playing out their destiny in the space of a here and now that is bounded by the divine and a setting for the eruption of the transcendent into the everyday.

The work which authoritatively preserves for us the image of a complete artistic whole by Giotto is his Capella degli Scrovegni, a Church constructed immediately adjacent to the Scrovegni Family Palazzo, and both built within the remains of the Ancient Roman Arena in Padua (thus, known more widely as the Arena Chapel).  

Here we are presented with Painting and Architecture working together, through architectural frames; fictive architectural frames structure the entire interior and operate as thresholds into a multiplicity of worlds.  From Giotto’s Arena Chapel to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is a clear artistic  continuum and a short and direct path.  It would be surprising and unusual if Brunelleschi’s work, occurring as it did at the midpoint of this path, did not directly participate in this cultural trajectory and within its cultural/theological matrix.

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Encountering Brunelleschi's final work in the light of Giotto's then --- is quite bracing.  

Nor need we merely speculate that Brunelleschi worked in a similar way.  We can see it clearly in the pulpit he designed for Santa Maria Novella, commissioned in 1443 by the Rucellai family and finished by the sculptor Andrea Calvalcanti, Brunelleschi's adopted son.

Before us are a set of sacred scenes framed within an architectural ensemble which obeys the typological and design conventions of an early Christian church pulpit.  That the elements are in that all’ antica manner, which Brunelleschi was at the time being celebrated for reintroducing, should not distract us from what this work has in common with that of Giotto’s: through architecture, creating a threshold between the here and now --- and representations of the Divine interacting with our world.  

What we have been surveying, then, has been that deeper personal, artistic and cultural/theological context for our pioneering architect, who, suddenly in middle age, had been given the commission in 1419 for his first architectural work, a new institution in Florence called the Ospedale degli Innocenti.  Can we be faulted for striving to visualise that work within its originating living context?  None of this takes anything away from the Ospedale’s also revolutionary character.  But, we should not forget that the pioneering journey Brunelleschi was on was the very one which triggered the Renaissance and led to its mature culmination, the Baroque.  It did not trigger the 1920’s avant garde and all that that movement has wrought.  Nor was it the (much) before-the-fact harbinger of that movement.  For the true harbingers see Kenneth Frampton’s, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture.  

For more on Giotto’s frescoes at the Arena Chapel see below:

Buildings Which Speak

Could this colorful, image-laden portico from the late fifteenth century today give us an insight into what Brunelleschi might have intended for his own first major architectural work, the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence?

This wonderfully vital building is the Loggia of the Ospedale del Ceppo, a Renaissance monument in the once-independent Tuscan city of Pistoia, northwest of Florence.

Well off the well-beaten tourist path, our Ospedale is easily recognized as a version of Brunelleschi's better-known Ospedale in Florence, and like that building this one too was once the public face of a charitable institution. 

Founded in 1277 by a confraternityThe Companions of Santa Maria, the Ospedale del Ceppo was dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the poor.  "Ceppo" (Latin cippus) refers to the hollowed-out tree trunk where, in times past, offerings intended for the poverty-stricken were left and collected.  This Ospedale would become Pistoia's principal hospital following the onslaught of the Black Death in 1348.

Pistoia lost its status as an independent polity in 1401 when it was conquered by the hugely successful and rapidly expanding neighboring Republic of Florence.  In 1456 the Ospedale del Ceppo invited one of Florence's most prolific and versatile architects, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396 - 1472), to restore and expand its buildings. (For more on Michelozzo, see the entry from June 29, 2017) When in 1501 the Pistoian hospital was placed under the direct administration of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, its new directors commissioned a new facade whose arcaded loggia was intentionally modeled after Brunelleschi's for the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. 

The portico's prominent polychrome frieze, made of glazed ceramic, was created from 1525 onward by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni della Robbia (1469 - 1529), and his student Santi Buglioni (1494 - 1576), together with other members of their atelier.  The frieze depicts the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, which are visually separated by figurative representations of five of the Cardinal and Theological Virtues.

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The artistic style of these works is the fruit of the pioneering efforts of the brothers Andrea (1435 - 1525) and Luca (1399 - 1482) della Robbia, who famously developed and promoted the use of glazed terracotta for sculpture, and whose artistic impact can still be seen throughout Tuscany and beyond.  Their vibrant and colorful glazes made their artistic products more durable and more expressive.  By its third generation their atelier had committed itself to exploring a wider polychromic palette.

The Tondi below the frieze were sculpted at the same time by Giovanni della Robbia, here working alone.  They depict the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Glory of the Virgin, along with a number of coats of arms, that of the Medici unsurprisingly being the most prominent . 

And thus this arcade speaks.  Through the language of the figural arts it speaks symbolically, within the conventions of a cultural shorthand, but also directly, as even today we can see right before us charitable actions unfolding, such as people feeding the hungry or clothing the poor.  These scenes are then separated by individual figures, allegories of the virtues, who through the specific objects they hold, and through their dress, signal their allegorically embodied meaning.

And do we not also see, when we look through the eyes of our two-and-a-half-thousand-year artistic tradition, something akin to the Triglyph-and-Metope frieze of the Ancient Greek Doric temple?

Also in Pistoia, there once stood, though only for a fleeting quarter century, another jewel of a building, the Loggia dei Mercanti, which took up and further explored the basic composition of the Ospedale loggia.  The Loggia dei Mercanti, designed by Raffaello Brizzi (1883 - 1946), was begun in 1908 and finished in 1913, on the eve of the Great War, and it graced the city until its gratuitous destruction in 1939. 

Here we again see, though more compactly, the syntax of our High Renaissance Pistoian Loggia with its division into framed and sculpted panels, and the same fruitful union of sculpture and architecture.  Here then is an example of the long-lived momentum of a vital artistic culture stretching back to the Renaissance, and though we are separated from it by decades of modernist design practice, this artistic culture still remains intelligible to us to a considerable degree.

In later postings we will briefly return to this recent Pistoian Loggia, and also turn to the one other surviving Renaissance Loggia in this Florentine colony with extensive ornament.  But next week we'll take a look at a number of paintings to illuminate Brunelleschi's likely intentions for his revolutionary Loggia in Florence.  

What About Those Frames?

What are those splashes of intense color doing here, other than harshly intruding onto the clean, pristine surfaces and crisp architectural framing of Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence?  Aren't these clean, crisp lines and surfaces the very elements we most celebrate in Brunelleschi's architecture?  And aren't they compromised by the animated frescoes we see here under these vaults?  

In reviewing these familiar images, however, we are compelled to notice where exactly those intrusive splashes of color are found: above doorways---thresholds---where they consistently fill up the whole field of the lunettes above them.    

Stepping back, we see, however, that the outer surfaces of the building are not much affected by the various contingencies within the colonnade. 

It is here that we might recall that much of the writing on this monument focuses on its proportions.  Indeed, these are strikingly straightforward, a simple composition in C Major, as it were. 

But is this proportional system what we actually see when we visit or view the Ospedale?  Certainly, to a degree, but demonstrably---not only.  What we see, more directly and insistently than its proportions, are the various relations between the pietra serena architectural elements.  It is true that these elements relentlessly frame spaces and surfaces, from the vaults beyond the colonnade to the walls above and behind it.   

Did Brunelleschi then anticipate that these surfaces and spaces throughout would remain neutral fields, empty and un-ornamented? 

The frescoes we see on the ospedale's walls and vaults quietly suggest, perhaps not.  

The most striking of the vividly colorful frescoes in the portico is found above the central entry.  It is  the work of Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612), a notable Florentine painter, who painted them around 1600.

Poccetti's fresco, in its captivating charm, is immediately recognizable as indebted to Michelangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel, which, through its mesmerizing and comprehensive authority had already formed the artistic horizons of Poccetti's immediate artistic predecessors, the likes of Pontormo (1494 – 1557), Parmigianino (1503 – 1540) and Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609).

As in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, we have here at the Ospedale a painted composition of sculptural and architectural and human figures, framing painted scenes.  These architectural figures, virtual doors and windows, while providing perches for virtual sculptures and human figures, offer glimpses into worlds beyond.

By way of the mediating art of fresco painting we have the intrinsically related arts of architecture and sculpture working all-together, and conjuring up a mesmerizing Threshold, a window onto a Transcendent World. 

Is this, then, how Brunelleschi intended the framed fields of his architecture, here and elsewhere, to be filled? 

While he was certainly the most celebrated engineer builder of his time---witness his achievement at the Duomo---Brunelleschi was also celebrated in his time as a painter, the inventor of pictorially coherent perspective, a stage designer for festivals, a sculptor, considered equal to Ghiberti, a builder of fortifications, a hydraulic engineer, and an architect of many works, including his crowning achievement at the Duomo, the Lantern to his Dome.   

Looking beyond this painting, and discovering through recent careful scholarship that every one of Brunelleschi's architectural works, other that his very last, the Lantern, is significantly incomplete, we are compelled to re-consider the whole of his architecture in the light of what is demonstrably complete and whole.

Where Brunelleschi's artistic works are complete, they consistently integrate sculpture and painting with architecture.  Brunelleschi's one surviving painting, his Holy Trinity, in Florence's Santa Maria Novella, was a collaboration between himself and Masaccio (1401–1428) where Brunelleschi composed the whole and Masaccio contributed the figures.  This painting presents many of the familiar elements of Brunelleschi's architecture, both planar and volumetric.  Here, along with the human figures, the architectural elements work to frame a vaulted space filled with the Very Icon of the Transcendent.  Human and Divine figures and architectural elements are intimately related: cannot, in fact, be considered separately from one another.

From the evidence of a complete Brunelleschian work, then, we might imagine that the pietra serena elements at his Ospedale constitute not only frames, but also frames for figures and scenes, such as we see in Poccetti's fresco and in Brunelleschi's own Holy Trinity.  As in the Holy Trinity painting, these figured frames are also thresholds, portals into imagined, and transcendent realms.  

Thus, these painted idealized visions, of worlds beyond our everyday-own, present an architecture that is radically at odds with contemporary notions about the meaning and significance of Brunelleschi's architecture.  These contemporary notions anachronistically assert that his architecture was in some sense proto-modern, that its "clean lines" and "pure surfaces" were indicative of a "functional approach", much ahead of its time; or, as the foremost Brunelleschi authority, Howard Saalman put it, Mies van der Rohe "avant la lettre" (Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings, Penn State Press, 1993).  

It is highly unlikely that Brunelleschi's famous frame-works throughout his oeuvre were intended everywhere to be empty.  How he himself might have filled them is the subject of our next essay.

For More on The HOLY TRINITY, See Here: 

The Pazzi, their Chapel, & the Architect

Pazzi Chapel, Florence, 1920: by Sidney Tushingham (Syracuse University Art Collection)

Pazzi Chapel, Florence, 1920: by Sidney Tushingham (Syracuse University Art Collection)

Having recently encountered and contemplated a few painted and photographed views of this famous work of Renaissance architecture, let's now take a closer look at the building itself.  

First, the patrons: the Pazzi family were rivals to the Medici for much of the fifteenth century; theirs is a most astonishing, and sobering, tale of a powerful family's rise and fall.  

A short introduction: The Pazzi conspiracy: The Scholar, the Prince and the Priest. And a bit more on the Pazzi Conspiracy and its aftermath: Part 1 ; Part 2 ; Part 3.

And here, a book on the story:April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici, by Lauro MartinezOxford University Press, 2003

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While some may be drawn to visit the Pazzi Chapel by the lurid history of its patrons, today most visitors come here for its architect.  Innumerable Art History classes present this monument as the culminating work of the pioneering Renaissance master Brunelleschi, best known for realizing the dome of Florence's Cathedral, the Duomo.  

A typical encomium to Brunelleschi's achievement at the Pazzi Chapel

A number of scholars, however, have begun to seriously question Brunelleschi's involvement here.  New ideas were triggered when a thorough exploration of the fabric of the chapel, undertaken in the late 1950's and very early1960's, discovered a number of dated mason's inscriptions embedded in its mortar, giving us fixed dates for when the various phases of the building were built.  These inscriptions date most of the core construction of the building to well after Brunelleschi's death in 1446. 

The body of the building seems to have been begun at foundation level in 1442, when the chapel was consecrated on the fourth of July of that year.  The plurality of the fabric was finished sometime after 1461, when building its dome began.  The monument's ornament, what presents itself to our eyes today, was only being completed in the very year of the Pazzi conspiracy, in 1478!  Also contributing to the mystery, an earlier facade was found hidden behind the present one, revealing that the familiar face of our building represents a substantial change of design in the final phases of the chapel's construction. 

The most accessible scholarly book in English on Brunelleschi, by Eugenio Battisti, "Filippo Brunelleschi: The Complete Work", Rizzoli, 1981 republished in 2012), takes these discoveries into account.  Thus, Mr. Battisti comes to the reasonable conclusion that, while Brunelleschi may have had a hand in the initial design of the work, the architects responsible for completing it were guided by Brunelleschi's already complete Sacristy for San Lorenzo, which the Pazzi Chapel closely resembles in many respects.   

However, the new and indisputable evidence that the Pazzi Chapel was completed long after Brunelleschi's death opened the way for even more radical questions. The historian Marvin Trachtenberg took Battisti's conclusions to the next logical step when, in scrupulously studying the Pazzi Chapel through the lens of Brunelleschi's Sacristy, he concluded that the Chapel was a creative pastiche of the Sacristy by a distinctly different hand and mind: thus, not by Brunelleschi at all.  

What these two buildings have in common is the motif of paired columns framing an arch.  What had made the Sacristy for San Lorenzo radically new, however, in the context of its Late Medieval World, was foregrounding the Ancient Roman Corinthian Order as its primary architectural framework, and through this, ordering linked volumes that derive from the sphere (in other words, Roman vaulting).  In the Sacristy there is a focused clarity of purpose and expression.  This clarity is missing in the Chapel, where for example the columns-arch-motif (later popularized by Palladio) is applied indiscriminatelyconfusing rather than clarifying its complex intersection of volumes.

Trachtenberg made his case that the chapel is not by Brunelleschi in two articles, published in Casabella, a widely recognized Italian journal:

1. "Why the Pazzi Chapel is not by Brunelleschi", Casabella, June 1996

2. "Michelozzo and the Pazzi Chapel", Casabella, February 1997 (Free registration is required!)

Brunelleschi's late work does not revisit his earlier manner, as those who ascribe the Pazzi Chapel to him would have it. For Brunelleschi there are no "repeat performances".  His Tribunes and Lantern for the Dome of Florence's Duomo are radically new, further forays deep into the world of the Ancient Romans, what his contemporaries called "all' antica", the "ancient manner".  In this, and through their specific forms--scrolling volutes, layered elements, elisions, a sculptural three-dimensionality---Brunelleschi's late works prefigure the Baroque of two centuries later.

Here in the lantern, then, we encounter a work so surprising, and so "ahead" of Brunelleschi's own earlier Renaissance style, that it abruptly falls off the radar of pretty much everyone who studies Brunelleschi or the early Renaissance.

More on Brunelleschi's design for the lantern here:

So, why then did the Pazzi, these ruthless competitors of the Medici, ask their architect, Michelozzo, to conjure up a family monument so reminiscent of the Medici family monument?  Perhaps, here is where our modern expectations deceive us.  Perhaps it is the very differences between these two monuments, rather their similarities which were decisive?  Perhaps it was not that the new monument was seen as reminiscent of the older one, but rather, that it was seen as better.  At the very least, it was far more more complete, and certainly full of many more columns.  Perhaps, then, it was that the Pazzi were announcing that they were far better at whatever the Medici were ostensibly good at.

What a photo shows & and a painting reveals

This photograph offers us a characteristic contemporary view of the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, seen here at the end of a long axis next to the Church of Santa Croce.  This is a view we can appreciate through wrought-iron gates even when as here the church grounds are closed.  

While a popular station on the touristic pilgrimage trail because of its association with Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Dome of Florence's Duomo, this building turns out to be something of a mystery

Here we see the chapel from another angle, in a painting from 1885 by Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905) , "La Cappella dei Pazzi; Il chiostro di Santa Croce a Firenze".  The painting shows another characteristic view of the chapel, this one particular to the 19th and earlier centuries. 

This view reflects the fact that our chapel was once also a chapter house, a place for meetings of the governing body of the Franciscan Monks to whom the church of Santa Croce once belonged.  In this capacity the chapel was closed to the outside world, accessible only though its cloister. 

The courtyard and the columns of its cloister were therefore once the primary frames for viewing and experiencing the Pazzi chapel, a fact reflected in this painting, where we see the chapel simultaneously framed by the columns of the cloister and an intrinsic part of its contemplative courtyard. 

 

We see how this original context can be dramatized through the artistry of the artist in this second painting, from 1858, by Carl Georg Anton Graeb.  When we compare the two paintings the immediate difference that presents itself is that of the foreground.  Carl Graeb includes so much more of the cloister, envelops us in it. 

We also look in vain for the campanile which towers over the chapel in Orlando Borrani's painting; Graeb eliminates it to fix our attention on the chapel. Though securely in the middle ground of his view, Graeb pulls the chapel into the foreground of our experience through its framing and placement in the image, the play of light and shade, and the suppression of potentially competing elements such as the bell tower. 

Fine as Borrani's painting is, it is Graeb's which more fully makes use of painting's artistic possibilities, and takes fuller advantage of compositional technique to dramatise its subject while pulling the viewer into its orbit. Paradoxically, there is a compelling realism to Graeb's painting despite its clear distortions of angle and form. 

Contrast this sense of heightened and dramatised reality with what a photograph taken from a similar angle shows us. Here it is not just that the vegetation and glare obscure the Pazzi Chapel.  In the photograph the cloister does not soar.  It appears smaller, it is not monumental, entirely everyday.  The cloister in the painting, on the other hand, not only frames an exceptional building but also parakes of its special qualities, acting as both frame and extension.

The original context for the Pazzi chapel, seen here in a painting of 1718, was fundamentally changed when the smaller adjacent courtyard was demolished, opening the chapel to a direct view from the street.  This new, direct, and uninterrupted view tends to dis-enchant the chapel in a similar way to the photograph above.  No longer a personal discovery, a surprise, the chapel is now a public exhibit, competing for prominence with the adjacent church. Now foregrounded, the chapel takes pride of place in the new world of tourism, a changed reality that seems flat and de-natured indeed when one considers the Pazzi chapel's original role within its local Franciscan world. Further, there are real-world connections between presenting the world in a disenchanted way and creating new, unenchanting realities. 

You can find more on the dramatizing artistic possibilities of painting, and the pitfalls of the one-point realistic perspective we see in photography, here:

 

 

What Are These Kids Doing Here?

In Albany a pair of sculptures frame the entrance to the New York State Education Building, designed by Henry Hornbostel and completed in 1912.  The bronze sculptures were created by Charles Keck (1875-1951) and dedicated in 1913. 

These sculptures serve a more than merely picturesque purpose.  By their size, the precious bronze they're made of, and their high level of enrichment and ornamentation, the sculptures are full participants in the architecture of the Education Building and an essential part of its decor. They are major focal points in themselves as well as the main framing elements for the building's entrance.  For all these reasons the sculptures belong to a special category of sculpture, that of architectural sculpture.

This means they play a major role in conveying the purpose and character of this building, which is concerned with education and specifically the education of the young.  The major figures in these two sculptures are therefore children, engaged in the process of learning.  A closer look, however reveals a larger vision for educating the young, where the sustained focus of learning is balanced by play.  Thus, we are offered a diptych, and between the two sets of sculptures we are given a meditation on the whole of childhood.  Above the children  we also find a flock of roosting owls.  As attributes of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, the owls also represent wisdom.  Here they preside over youngsters who, through various activities embodying the dynamic of learning, are growing towards wisdom.

There is also more to these sculptures than the figures of just children and owls. The other parts of this ensemble--indeed the larger part of the whole---are made up entirely of architectural elements.  The children are perched on A highly enriched classical columnar base, itself set upon lion-headed feet.  Above the children rises the form of an urn crowned by owls which carry a set of linking wreaths in their beaks. The entire urn is made up of the Acanthus 'leaf' in its various forms, from compact to fully-manifest, a form we recognize as belonging to the capital of the Corinthian column. For the same reason we might think of the whole urn as Corinthian, that is, expressing organic sculptural form through the representative curves and contours of the leaf. The inclusion of all these architectural elements--along with their specifically architectural character that in this case is Corinthian, is also part of what makes these examples of architectural sculptures.

 

Furthermore, the sculptural and architectural elements are working together to create EVEN LARGER architectural elements, in the form of giant lamp standards that frame the building's main entrance.  These lamps light the threshold of this institution in a metaphorical sense as well as a literal one.  The bulbs of the lamp at the top of the sculpture, for example, also represent the wisdom already identified with the owls supporting them, the light of learning.  The children, the owls, even the light-bulb lamps are all Iconic Figures, speaking to the purpose of the institution in the cultural shorthand of recognizable symbols and motifs. 

This cultural shorthand extends to the entire composition, which we can recognize as a giant candelabrum, itself an element of classical furniture on a monumental, architectural scale.  Such candelabra are well known from many Ancient Roman examples, and they have their origins in the Greek Classical Period. 

In all these varied ways the Arts of Architecture and Sculpture can work together to make a greater, even a magical, whole. This is what sculptor Charles Keck created here.

For more Images of the Candelabra

 

An Ancient Greek Painting on Fifth Avenue?

Until June 24th, you can see a rare example of an Ancient Greek painting: in New York, at the Onassis Cultural Centre.   

This ancient painting from Pompeii, which once graced the peristyle of the House of the Tragic Poet, depicts Agamemnon about to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, a disturbing story first told by Homer in the Iliad, Book II. This painting, however, follows the version performed in Athens in the late fifth century B.C., the finale of Euripides's play IPHIGENIA IN AULIS.  

Nor is this just any painting, but rather a Roman copy of a lost Ancient Greek masterpiece, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by a late fifth Century B.C. master, Timanthes.  This painting in a middle-class Roman context is akin to us framing a poster of a world-famous painting bought at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a world without photography, moreover, the Pompeiian painting cannot have been a direct replica of the Greek original.  Rather, it is a copy of a copy of copies, where each step in the chain of transmission is mediated through the talent and knowledge of the individual copyist working from copybooks. Very few of these artisans would have been able to work from the original. 

And so we have here an echo of a lost Ancient Greek work that is also known to us through descriptions in Cicero and Quintilian.  Nonetheless, this Roman painting of a Greek painting probably does preserve for us something of the composition and the palette of Timanthes' work. 

As to the quality of the original, this reflection of Rubens has something to tell us:

"Who amongst us, if he were to attempt in reality to represent a celebrated work of Apelles or Timanthus, such as Pliny describes them, but would produce something absurd, or perfectly foreign to the exalted greatness of the ancients? 

Each one, relying on his own powers, would produce some wretched, crude, unfermented stuff, instead of an exquisite old wine, uniting strength and mellowness, outraging those great spirits whom I endeavor reverently to follow, satisfied, however, to honor the marks of their footsteps, instead of supposing—I acknowledge it candidly—that I can ever attain to their eminence even in mere conception,"

How central the Greek original was to the European artistic imagination can be readily studied in books and in articles such as this one: '"The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" in French and German Art Criticism, 1755-1757', H. Fullenwider, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 52. Bd., H. 4 (1989), pp. 539-549.

How central the Greek original was to the European artistic imagination can be readily studied in books and in articles such as this one: '"The Sacrifice of Iphigenia" in French and German Art Criticism, 1755-1757', H. Fullenwider, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 52. Bd., H. 4 (1989), pp. 539-549.

We also stumble onto Timanthes’s masterpiece in Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's charming (and riveting) painting, "A Collection Of Pictures At The Time Of Augustus", of 1867.  Here, while it clearly dominates the 19th century painter's composition, curiously, it does not hold the attention of the depicted Roman audience, where even the person closest to the painting is but absorbed by the ornament of its golden frame, not the painting itself. How much like museum-goers today, at the Metropolitan Museum, for instance, where the visitor is too often overwhelmed by a plethora of competing masterpieces accumulated over time.

You can watch an excerpt of one of Michael's discussing our painting context below: 

 

 

Hidden in plain site

Our sole surviving Ancient Roman writer on Architecture, Vitruvius, condemned the prevailing style of Wall Painting as it depicted buildings which could not exist in the actual three dimensional world:  

"because similar forms never did, do, nor can exist in nature. These new fashions have so much prevailed, that for want of competent judges, true art is little esteemed. How is it possible for a reed to support a roof, or a candelabrum to bear a house with the ornaments on its roof, or a small and pliant stalk to carry a sitting figure; or, that half figures and flowers at the same time should spring out of roots and stalks? And yet the public, so far from discouraging these falsehoods, are delighted with them, not for a moment considering whether such things could exist." - Book VII, Chapter 5, Section 4 

And yet, these paintings of an apparently fanciful architecture were scrupulous reproductions of ancient paintings documenting the wooden stage sets of the fifth-century B.C. Athenian Dramas, such as those of  of Sophocles and Euripides. 

Calyx-Krater Fragment

Calyx-Krater Fragment

Here we see the left wing of a stage, in form derived from Temple architecture, but realized in wood, and attenuated in form, thus distancing itself from the "real".  And here we also see the characteristic ornaments of the Doric and Ionic manners together, enclosing a volume three dimensionally rendered within which the actors are depicted: all this easily imagined as also rendered in contemporary low relief.  

Thus a sanctuary architecture evokes the setting of the principal places of these ancient dramas, shrines and palaces.  

We see all this fully realized in the Painting found in the House of Augustus.  The stage frames a central painting, depicting an outdoor sanctuary.  The foreground can be read as a tripartite Stoa, opening out, in its centre, toward a sacred grove, its out of the everyday world aspect signaled by elongated proportions, with ornamental Theatrical Masks on the parapets. And the doors, on stage-left and right stand, ready to reveal the actors of our play, perhaps Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus.  

Painting from the Room of the Masks in the House of Augustus, on the Palatine in Rome.

Painting from the Room of the Masks in the House of Augustus, on the Palatine in Rome.

The primary life experiences of our Roman writer, Vitruvius, is illuminating.  He spent the better part of his life as an artillery engineer in the Legions of Julius Caesar and Augustus, working with wood, metal and rope to construct machines: catapults and wall shattering crossbows.  He was thus predisposed to construction, to what woks, to the real of a practical man.  The Real of the Iconic, the Symbolic, which most of his everyday contemporaries delighted in, was sadly closed to him. 

Roman ornamental Wall Painting reveals but one artistic expression of Ancient Greek Drama.   It also informed Greek Pedimental Sculpture - see below for an excerpt exploring these ideas, or you can listen to the full lecture here.  

The Art of Architecture : A history of exhibitions


Join us for the opening reception of 'Art of Architecture' - A Celebration of the Traditional Approach to Architecture. 

 

March 2-April 7;  Opening: March 2, 6-9PM

Eleventh Street Arts  - 46-06 11th St (at 46th Ave), Long Island City, NY 11101

 

Artists & Architects Included: 
Atelier & Co. | Steve Bass | Anthony Baus | Patrick Connors | Niki Covington | Andrew Dodson | Ferguson and Shamamian Architects | Fairfax and Sammons Architects | David Genther | Michael G Imber Architects | Peter Pennoyer Architects | Corey Strange | Abigail Tulis | Charlotte Worthy Architects | and more...


Section Rendering of the portico of a villa by Irina Shumitskaya, Atelier & Co. Irina is a graduate of the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg. The Repin is, as far as we know, the only school in the world to have maintained a continuous practice of teaching the art of academic architectural drawing.

Section Rendering of the portico of a villa by Irina Shumitskaya, Atelier & Co. Irina is a graduate of the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg. The Repin is, as far as we know, the only school in the world to have maintained a continuous practice of teaching the art of academic architectural drawing.

Atelier & Co. is dedicated to continuing the practice of hand drawing and rendering in architectural design. Since the Renaissance, architects were trained first and foremost as painters and sculptors. The art of architectural drawing grew out of the artistic practice of the studios of the 15th and 16th centuries. Though architectural practice evolved into an independent profession, the training of architects continued to emphasize painting and drafting in the schools.

This tradition - which reached its apex in the late nineteenth century at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris - was carried into the 20th century by graduates of the École in the United States. With the arrival of the European modernists at the start of the second World War the teaching and practice of academic architectural painting declined until it had all but disappeared by the 1970’s.

Since that time a number of key exhibitions and publications helped generate a revival of interest in the subject. Many of us who have carried this on today, got our inspiration from these shows and books. Included here are some highlights: 

1.     The Museum of Modern Art is not the first place you would think of crediting with the revival of interest in the art of traditional architectural painting. But from October 29 1975-January 4, 1976 MoMA put on a small but remarkably influential show entitled ‘The Architecture of the École des Beaux Arts’. Curated by Arthur Drexler, it introduced to the public and to many in the architecture world the amazing achievements of the architects­ –French and American­–who had been trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

 

2.     I was too young to see the MoMA show (anyone who did, please write in and leave us your impressions in the comments section) but in 1983 the IBM Gallery in New York put on the first of several important shows organized by the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris of the work of the Grand Prix laureates at the Villa Medici in Rome. A group of us drove down from Toronto to see it. It was the most inspiring and influential exhibition I saw during my time as an architecture student.

 

3.     This was followed by another exhibition in 1986. Drawings made of the major archeological sites in Rome and their restorations were equally astonishing and inspiring, giving me a lifelong passion for the antiquities of Rome and the great work done throughout the nineteenth and early 20th by the best architects of the École.

 

4.     In 1986 Leon Krier published an edition of the Archives d’Architecture Moderne (AAM) on the work of John Blatteau. This was the first time I had seen the work of a contemporary architect consciously reviving the techniques of watercolor wash rendering practiced by the École. When I was a graduate student at Princeton I wrote to John and had the privilege of working for him in his office. John had fallen in love with the École while he was a student at Penn and had taught himself the rendering techniques form some of the key books. As far as we can find out there is no online record of this publication nor does it seem to be available from any of the book dealers. (If anyone knows of a source for this book please let us know!)

 

5.     Classical America made it a central part of their mission to publish important books from the École. First republished in a Norton edition with an introduction by John Blatteau and Christiane Sears, this student edition of the volumes published by Hector D’Espouy of the Grand Prix drawings from the École is an indispensable and affordable introduction to the greatest drawings by the Prix de Rome winners.

 

6.     Of the many great books that were published on the École drawings, this is one of our favorites! The quality of the reproductions is very high. It shows a range of renderings in full color from large scale details to building complexes in plan, elevation and section, and covers much of the history of the École. It is beautifully hardbound (unlike the exhibition catalogues whose bindings tend to come apart over time).

 

7.     One of the most recent books on the subject is Jean Paul Carlihan and Margot Ellis’s great book on the many Americans who went to the École at the end of the nineteenth century and through the middle of the twentieth. The book has superb illustrations of the work of the American students-from sketch problems through finely finished architectural wash renderings. The tradition of attending the École that began with Richard Morris Hunt and H.H. Richardson helped transform American architects into artists of international stature–and American architecture went from a parochial eclecticism to the splendor of the White City when cities large and small across the country were given their most beautiful buildings.


 

Reading List : Single Family Homes in the 1920s & 30s

We've been working hard on a new collaboration to make good architectural design accessible for small-scale, high-end residences in the Western States of the U.S. (more on that soon!)

Michael Djordjevitch, our in-house historian, has been deep in research and emerged with a solid reading list. First up, a selection of great inspiration classics on single family homes in the 1920s and 30s: 

500 Small Houses of the Twenties, Henry Atterbury Smith (Dover Architecture) 

500 Small Houses of the Twenties, Henry Atterbury Smith (Dover Architecture) 

 
Flagg's Small Houses: Their Economic Design & Construction, 1922, Ernest Flagg (Dover Architecture)

Flagg's Small Houses: Their Economic Design & Construction, 1922, Ernest Flagg (Dover Architecture)

 
Smaller Houses of the 1920s: 55 Examples, Ethel B. Power (Dover Architecture)

Smaller Houses of the 1920s: 55 Examples, Ethel B. Power (Dover Architecture)

 
 
Elegant Country and Suburban Houses of the Twenties, Charles S. Keefe (Dover Architecture)

Elegant Country and Suburban Houses of the Twenties, Charles S. Keefe (Dover Architecture)

 
American Country Houses of the Thirties, Lewis A. Coffin (Dover Architecture)

American Country Houses of the Thirties, Lewis A. Coffin (Dover Architecture)

 

 

Time Travelers

This painting: by Gustave-Clarence Boulanger, called, The Rehearsal of 'The Flute Player' and 'The Wife of Diomedes'; completed in 1861, represents an event in the atrium of Prince Napoleon’s Pompeian house in Paris.  The painting, on exhibit at the Musee D'Orsay, is now part of the collections of the Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

Prince Napoleon, Napoleon-Joseph Bonaparte, a cousin to the Emperor Napoleon III, had built a house in the Pompeian manner at 18 Avenue Montaine in Paris.  This residence was a creation of the Architect, and Grand Prix de Rome winner, Alfred-Nicolas Normand, along with the celebrated painter Jean-Leon Gerome, and contained an Atrium with Impluvium, seen here, a Triclinium, and a Xystos, along with other elements inspired by Roman and Greek Antiquity.  

This Scene captures a rehearsal, on a night in 1860, for the upcoming inauguration of the Villa, bringing together, among others, the critic and poet Theophile Gautier and the playwright Emile Augier, along with several actresses from the Theatre-Francais.  The subsequent gala event, on the 14th of February, 1860, attended by the Emperor and his Court, would include several plays by Emile Augier and Alexandre Dumas.  According to the published program for the performance, the venue "had been closed for repairs for 1800 years." 

Boulanger was then asked by Prince Napoleon to copy his painting directly onto the wall of his home.  Sadly, this lovely ensemble only survives through this painting, a number of renderings and drawings, and a few photographs.  Vandalized during the Commune of 1871 the building was then demolished in its entirety in 1891.  

Presiding over the Scene is a Statue, which, at a glance, could very much be that of the Emperor Augustus.  However, a much closer look at the image, and the documentation, reveals it to be that of Napoleon I as Legislator, sculpted by Eugene Guillaume, and realized in 1859.  

All the figures in this painting are clad in Roman clothing, and thus contribute to the sense that we are looking at a scene from Antiquity.  However, the grouping of figures introduces a discordant note.  

The two figures on the far left seem to be very much set apart, peering into our scene as if they had suddenly stumbled into an unexpected world.  And, the two principal groups in the scene's center and right seem not to be aware of these two men.  

Could it be that our two puzzled and agitated gentlemen, while sharing the same space of our rehearsing actors and their supporting friends do not, in fact, share the same time?  It seems rather, that they are two actual Romans, time travelers, who, having stumbled into the mid-nineteenth century, are now puzzled by encountering so familiar a world.  

This rendering by Normand represents the mosaic floor and Impluvium of the Atrium. 

This, and the following two images by Normand record the Antechamber to our Atrium. 

Our closing image is that of a watercolor by the Italian Painter Luigi Bazzani, entitled 'Maidens in a Classical Interior."  It offers a reconstruction of a partially surviving Atrium revealed through the 19th century excavations of Pompeii. 

The Column, the First Architecture, and the Great Hall of New York's Penn Station

Given my previous discussion, compactly foregrounding the Classical in Architecture, what follows should be self-evident.

The question addressed here is, Why are the columns in the Great Hall of New York's Penn. Station so Indispensable?: that is, why No design in Any of the "modern" idioms would, or Could, be an Adequate substitute. 

The first image, is from a set-design by Charles Percier, Pierre Fontaine, and Jean Thomas Thibault: the play “Elisca, or Maternal Love,” produced in Paris in 1799 (Act I).  This drawing is currently on exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in NYC.  While channeling Eighteenth-Century speculations on the Origins of Architecture, the image's artistic presentation of them transcends their crippling utilitarianism. In foregrounding The Tree, as standing in-between, between the earth and the sky, this Painting foregrounds that Iconic part of the natural world which most Poetically resonates with Our shared condition, Plato's Metaxy: of Also, always and everywhere, living In-Between.

It is no accident then, that the prototypical Tree, whether for the Minoans, the Egyptians, or for their Heirs, the Classical Greeks, is a shared fundamental Icon. This embodied-through-Architecture Icon, in the fullness of its cultural meaning, is first encountered, in our human unfolding, in those paradigmatic Pyramids of Egypt. 

 Thus, when we encounter Great Columns in Charles McKim's splendid Great Hall at New York's Pennsylvania Station, they resonate, powerfully, to us as human-beings, no matter our particular cultural formation. Through our schooling, we have been taught to believe that columns, in architecture, support.  And, of course, they do so, as elements of a Construction.  

But, lets pause for a moment, and take in this Great Hall of Charles McKim's.  What are these Great Columns, here, Actually doing? 

They are doing exactly what they were doing in McKim's Roman prototypes, anchoring the billowing vaults. To put it a bit differently, we do not Feel the great vault Pressing Down on these vast columns: rather, the opposite.  The columns are strangely stretched, yet balanced, between the vault and the ground. 

For a nuanced discussion of all this first turn to Geoffrey Scott's "The Architecture of Humanism."  Leon Battista Alberti, in his "De Re Aedificatoria" offers these striking observations: that the Column, as a Sculptural Form Is The Very Chief Ornament of Architecture; further, that it is through Ornament, as such, that Beauty "shines forth."  Thus, the sculptural form of the Column is therefore intrinsic to Architecture, as such, in the fullness of its meaning. 

Beyond the Great Hall at Penn. Station are the even more overtly billowing glass and steel vaults of the great Train Hall. And, of course, while less sculpturally articulated, they are spontaneously read In-Context: that is, the more compact is seen in the light of the more articulated. 

And let us not overlook the monumental light-standards within the Great Hall.  They very much stand as intermediaries between the great columns, and us; a kind of sculptural Grove.  

For Alberti, even more overflowing with Beauty, than the Column, is The Statue.  In Context: in Alberti, the Column stands as that Part of Architecture which most fully embodies its reality, as an Art, existing in-between the Arts of Sculpture and Painting on the one hand, and the Arts of number and geometry on the other.  Thus the Orders: each, always, as one-of-five, capture, foreground, and embody that spectrum between the figural and the numeric/geometric which is the Realm of Architecture (much more on all-this in later postings). 

 There are two Sculptures at the Threshold of the Great Hall.  The Hall, and the Station overall, could use more.  Dominique Papety's lovely painting of 1839, "Les Femmes à la Fontaine", in the Musée Fabre, is a vivid Treatise through the Visual on the above.  

Little further, then should need to be said about our non-classical offerings.  The two stand for the utilitarian and the expressive.  The first would be even more banal and oppressive in reality than the images suggest.  The second, a giant sculptural reification of frantic movement would be even more oppressive. 

Our closing image is that of another stage-set, this one for a film starring Judy Garland, in which our Great Hall played a role.  Let it stand for the ever haunting Platonic Form of McKim's Great Station awaiting its re-birth in the here and now, so that once again, travelers from the south may enter this Great City as beings which reach for the sky rather than ones which burrow into the depths of the earth. 

Infrastructure, Architecture and Donuts

A visual rebuttal to the NY Times putting forth yet another proposal with no account for design and architecture in such a classic symbol of culture and important part of our infrastructure...They essentially proposed a giant glass donut.

Take your pick! We can't let this happen. #rebuildpennstation

Visit our friends over at ReThinkStudio to learn more about what a better rail system and infrastructure could mean to NYC.

Why Rome? The Eternal Question

Almost every year someone asks me the question: ‘Why Rome?’ They usually mean why do I go there almost every year.

The answer to the question is larger than that though­: why Rome, in the end, for all of us? Why Rome for the artists of the renaissance, for the Grand tourists, for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for two centuries.  

The simple answer is that the study of art is the study of its great masterpieces. There is a higher concentration of those masterpieces in Rome than anywhere else in the world. Most of my trips over the years have been with students and colleagues, visiting some of the less well-known and less easily accessible masterpieces to study, draw, and paint.

My kids and I love the  book 'This is Rome' by Miroslav Sasek more than any other bedtime reading. One of their favorite pages is the one dedicated to the piazaa of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine. They love it - as do many of the people who visit it - for the view of St. Peter's that can be seen through the keyhole of the entry portico to the villa. 

As the only major built work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, it is one of Rome’s least well-known small masterpieces. This entry documents a visit we made to the grounds of the villa (residence of the Grand Commander of the Knights of Malta) and its church, S. Maria in Priorato, in 2012.

What have been your experiences of Rome? We want to hear from you!

Two Scales, and Kinds of Ornament

In the course of the design development in the office, a bit of quick research on the Egyptian Palm Capital was called for: a few images, so as to direct the painting of a stylized Palm Capital by our interior decorator, in our case to be realized in a Art-Deco manner. 

As, in the original context, the top surfaces of the capital are modeled not just through pigment, but also three-dimensionally, yet ours could not be, and also to give our painter some creative scope, a broader collection of Egyptian Capitals was provided, with some of the designs painted onto an un-modeled conical surface, usually of the Open Papyrus Type.

What follows are some reflections occasioned by that initial set of images. Enjoy!

The Egyptian Palm Capital, already in its fully developed form, goes back to the Old Kingdom.  It continued to be used, as one of a set of plantiform capital types, throughout the course of Egyptian History, even to the Ptolemaic and Roman period.  Here we see it in one of its late manifestations at the Temple of Isis from Philae.

The Egyptian Palm Capital, already in its fully developed form, goes back to the Old Kingdom.  It continued to be used, as one of a set of plantiform capital types, throughout the course of Egyptian History, even to the Ptolemaic and Roman period. 

Here we see it in one of its late manifestations at the Temple of Isis from Philae.

These plates are derived from various recensions of 19th century studies, such as the Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien by Karl Richard Lepsius and The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones. They allow us a glimpse into the multiplicity of Egyptian capital types, even when restricted only to the plantiform.

These plates are derived from various recensions of 19th century studies, such as the Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien by Karl Richard Lepsius and The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones. They allow us a glimpse into the multiplicity of Egyptian capital types, even when restricted only to the plantiform.

With this image from Auguste Racinet's L'Ornement Polychrom, we see the stylized Papyrus on the right and Lotus on the left framing a few of their classic respective foreground monumental manifestations.  The Palm capital below stands out as not belonging to this family.  Yet it cannot be ignored as starting in the early Old Kingdom it was the dominant column type at various periods . 

With this image from Auguste Racinet's L'Ornement Polychrom, we see the stylized Papyrus on the right and Lotus on the left framing a few of their classic respective foreground monumental manifestations.  The Palm capital below stands out as not belonging to this family.  Yet it cannot be ignored as starting in the early Old Kingdom it was the dominant column type at various periods . 

However great the apparent family resemblance, this is not a yet more stylized Egyptian capital.  It is chronologically and geographically substantially distant, Ancient Greek.  It was found in Athens, Greece and dates to the second century B.C..  It belongs to the Stoa of Attalos II, and is the capital of the inner columns of its second story. 

However great the apparent family resemblance, this is not a yet more stylized Egyptian capital.  It is chronologically and geographically substantially distant, Ancient Greek. 

It was found in Athens, Greece and dates to the second century B.C..  It belongs to the Stoa of Attalos II, and is the capital of the inner columns of its second story. 

In Athens, it is related to a capital type usually associated with this building, called, since the eighteenth century, the Tower of the Winds, after the sculptures of the celebrated ancient eight winds on its eight faces. 

In Athens, it is related to a capital type usually associated with this building, called, since the eighteenth century, the Tower of the Winds, after the sculptures of the celebrated ancient eight winds on its eight faces. 

This is a far more familiar image of this building, from Stuart & Revetts's The Antiquities of Athens, showing the building as restored. The porticoes were interpolated from traces on the body of the building and architectural fragments found in the vicinity of the monument.

This is a far more familiar image of this building, from Stuart & Revetts's The Antiquities of Athens, showing the building as restored.

The porticoes were interpolated from traces on the body of the building and architectural fragments found in the vicinity of the monument.

This image shows the Capital of the porches in relation to its Entablature and Shaft.  This plate would have a huge influence on American architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the South.  As a result, today we call this capital type the Tower of the Winds Order.

This image shows the Capital of the porches in relation to its Entablature and Shaft.  This plate would have a huge influence on American architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the South.  As a result, today we call this capital type the Tower of the Winds Order.

However, as this photograph attests, in Athens there survive many versions of this capital type.  This set is found right next to our tower, and within the archeological zone of the Roman Agora.  In the scholarly literature our capital is usually referred to as belonging to the Pergamene Type.  So many manifestations of this capital were found in the site of the ancient city of Pergamon by the German archaeologists who first excavated there, that they concluded this type was first created in this major Hellenistic City. 

However, as this photograph attests, in Athens there survive many versions of this capital type.  This set is found right next to our tower, and within the archeological zone of the Roman Agora. 

In the scholarly literature our capital is usually referred to as belonging to the Pergamene Type.  So many manifestations of this capital were found in the site of the ancient city of Pergamon by the German archaeologists who first excavated there, that they concluded this type was first created in this major Hellenistic City. 

However, earlier in the nineteenth century Charles Cockerell came across, and published a similar capital from the lower sanctuary at Delphi which turned out to be centuries older than those at Pergamon or Athens. It belongs to the Treasury of the Massaliots, dated to the late Archaic period.

However, earlier in the nineteenth century Charles Cockerell came across, and published a similar capital from the lower sanctuary at Delphi which turned out to be centuries older than those at Pergamon or Athens. It belongs to the Treasury of the Massaliots, dated to the late Archaic period.

Far older though, and from the island of Crete is a capital currently residing in the Herakleion Museum and found in the Ancient site of Arkades. Dating to the Bronze Age, which ended in 1200 B.C., it is a product of the culture of the Minoans, who ruled Crete throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. On its abacus is found an ornamental motif, the spiraling wave pattern. This pattern is an ornamental motif which can be seen throughout the full spectrum Classical tradition, at all scales and across the full range of material artifacts. Whatever its origins in the bronze age might have been (it is already present in Paleolithic Art), for us it foregrounds the centrality of Motifs and Ornament in both Practice, and Reflection upon practice.

Far older though, and from the island of Crete is a capital currently residing in the Herakleion Museum and found in the Ancient site of Arkades. Dating to the Bronze Age, which ended in 1200 B.C., it is a product of the culture of the Minoans, who ruled Crete throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Ages.

On its abacus is found an ornamental motif, the spiraling wave pattern. This pattern is an ornamental motif which can be seen throughout the full spectrum Classical tradition, at all scales and across the full range of material artifacts.

Whatever its origins in the bronze age might have been (it is already present in Paleolithic Art), for us it foregrounds the centrality of Motifs and Ornament in both Practice, and Reflection upon practice.

So, what can this contemporary project, the Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi contribute to the issue of Ornament, Motif, and meaning? At the very least, it strongly indicates that Robert Venturi was onto something important when he broadly categorized architectural forms into "Decorated sheds," or "Ducks" (Learning From Los Vegas, 1972/1977).  We need not unconditionally embrace the whole of his theory if we observe that the Capital Gate Tower is a "duck" of a striking sort.  While eschewing traditionally recognizable surface ornament, it itself is One Massive Piece of Ornament.

So, what can this contemporary project, the Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi contribute to the issue of Ornament, Motif, and meaning?

At the very least, it strongly indicates that Robert Venturi was onto something important when he broadly categorized architectural forms into "Decorated sheds," or "Ducks" (Learning From Los Vegas, 1972/1977).  We need not unconditionally embrace the whole of his theory if we observe that the Capital Gate Tower is a "duck" of a striking sort.  While eschewing traditionally recognizable surface ornament, it itself is One Massive Piece of Ornament.

This section through the Capital Gate Tower, Abu Dhabi, a tour de force of engineering, comes with this illuminating passage; “It is the first building in the world to use a pre-cambered core with a built-in lean of 350 millimeters that has been engineered to straighten with the addition of the upper floors. It is also the first building in the world to use vertical post-tensioning of the core to counter movement and support stresses created by the building’s overhang.” - Jeff Schofield, Associate, RMJM   Celebrating the lengths to which its makers have resisted Gravity, the passage draws our attention to this buildings intrinsic meaning: that it is a Monumental Ornamental Motif which embodies the Denial of Natural Order. Far from escaping the Horizon of Ornament, this building falls wholly within the transgressive category of Sculpture Masquerading as Architecture. in Aristotelian (also Albertian) terms, Architecture, inhabiting the Mean between Geometry/Number and Sculptural/Iconic Form, any drift into these extremes becomes a Vice with respect to the Excellence that is Architecture. 

This section through the Capital Gate Tower, Abu Dhabi, a tour de force of engineering, comes with this illuminating passage; “It is the first building in the world to use a pre-cambered core with a built-in lean of 350 millimeters that has been engineered to straighten with the addition of the upper floors. It is also the first building in the world to use vertical post-tensioning of the core to counter movement and support stresses created by the building’s overhang.”

- Jeff Schofield, Associate, RMJM

 

Celebrating the lengths to which its makers have resisted Gravity, the passage draws our attention to this buildings intrinsic meaning: that it is a Monumental Ornamental Motif which embodies the Denial of Natural Order.

Far from escaping the Horizon of Ornament, this building falls wholly within the transgressive category of Sculpture Masquerading as Architecture. in Aristotelian (also Albertian) terms, Architecture, inhabiting the Mean between Geometry/Number and Sculptural/Iconic Form, any drift into these extremes becomes a Vice with respect to the Excellence that is Architecture. 

Here, in this Ancient Egyptian Icon, we see the Pharaoh Seti, the First of that Name, enacting The Mystery of the “Raising of the Djed” at his Temple to Osiris at Abydos.  This scene is found in the culminating Osiris Chapel.  The Djed Pillar is an Iconic Hieroglyphic form whose origin goes back to the very beginnings of Ancient Egyptian iconography. Note, Seti is Raising, not Lowering this Column, one here Crowned with the orb of Ra, the sun, in the form of a Royal Crown.

Here, in this Ancient Egyptian Icon, we see the Pharaoh Seti, the First of that Name, enacting The Mystery of the “Raising of the Djed” at his Temple to Osiris at Abydos.  This scene is found in the culminating Osiris Chapel.  The Djed Pillar is an Iconic Hieroglyphic form whose origin goes back to the very beginnings of Ancient Egyptian iconography.

Note, Seti is Raising, not Lowering this Column, one here Crowned with the orb of Ra, the sun, in the form of a Royal Crown.

In this next image, found in, Thebes, in the Valley of the Queens, in the tomb of Nefertari, the Consort of Seti-the-First's Successor, Ramses II, the Queen is represented making an Offering to the God Ptah, in the Form of Osiris, and standing before a Djed Pillar, while also holding a Djed Scepter.   The Djed is a multifaceted Hieroglyphic Form.  While intrinsically associated with Osiris, and concurrently signifying stability and continuity, is also found in the most fundamental of Iconic scenes, the Creation of the Cosmos, where among its various multivalent manifestations is its representing the Ur life-form emerging out of the primal mound. 

In this next image, found in, Thebes, in the Valley of the Queens, in the tomb of Nefertari, the Consort of Seti-the-First's Successor, Ramses II, the Queen is represented making an Offering to the God Ptah, in the Form of Osiris, and standing before a Djed Pillar, while also holding a Djed Scepter.  

The Djed is a multifaceted Hieroglyphic Form.  While intrinsically associated with Osiris, and concurrently signifying stability and continuity, is also found in the most fundamental of Iconic scenes, the Creation of the Cosmos, where among its various multivalent manifestations is its representing the Ur life-form emerging out of the primal mound. 

This gold signet ring, one of four recently discovered in Greece, near Nestor's Pylos, in a miraculously undisturbed tomb as a part of a burial of a wealthy Bronze Age Warrior, returns us to the world of the Minoans.  Minoan Crete, situated just across the sea from Egypt, traded with this most venerable Ancient Nile Civilization for the many centuries of the existence of the Minoan Sea Empire, from its infancy through to its fiery end.  While a culture long traveling its own distinct trajectory, the Minoans, and their immediate heirs, the Mycenaeans, could not but help to be drawn into the Egyptian cultural orbit, especially since the Egyptians had long attained their classic form while Crete was still emerging out of its Neolithic beginnings.  Thus, the challenging task of unraveling the mystery of the Minoans, given the lack of a surviving literature, necessarily includes a looking south to Ancient Egypt.  On this gold signet ring we see five elaborately dressed female figures, the three on the left apparently dancing, while the two on the right raise their right hands in a gesture of worship.  Both groups stand on the seashore, facing a mountainous landscape atop of which stands a shrine framed by Palm Trees, out of which grows some sort of bush.  Each element of this striking scene finds many parallels in surviving Minoan iconography.  The two emphatically present Palm Trees are striking in their computational preeminence, and in their naturalism.

This gold signet ring, one of four recently discovered in Greece, near Nestor's Pylos, in a miraculously undisturbed tomb as a part of a burial of a wealthy Bronze Age Warrior, returns us to the world of the Minoans. 

Minoan Crete, situated just across the sea from Egypt, traded with this most venerable Ancient Nile Civilization for the many centuries of the existence of the Minoan Sea Empire, from its infancy through to its fiery end.  While a culture long traveling its own distinct trajectory, the Minoans, and their immediate heirs, the Mycenaeans, could not but help to be drawn into the Egyptian cultural orbit, especially since the Egyptians had long attained their classic form while Crete was still emerging out of its Neolithic beginnings. 

Thus, the challenging task of unraveling the mystery of the Minoans, given the lack of a surviving literature, necessarily includes a looking south to Ancient Egypt. 

On this gold signet ring we see five elaborately dressed female figures, the three on the left apparently dancing, while the two on the right raise their right hands in a gesture of worship.  Both groups stand on the seashore, facing a mountainous landscape atop of which stands a shrine framed by Palm Trees, out of which grows some sort of bush.  Each element of this striking scene finds many parallels in surviving Minoan iconography. 

The two emphatically present Palm Trees are striking in their computational preeminence, and in their naturalism.

One of the treasures of the Heraklion Museum, on the north shore of Crete is this Columnar Lamp. The discovery and cultivation of the olive played a significant role in the emergence of the Aegean World in the Middle Bronze Age.  One of its primary objects of trade was olive oil, a marvelously versatile product.  One of its indispensable roles was providing light.  This lamp, in its columnar form and capital, directly calls to mind one distinct type of Ancient Egyptian Plant-Form Column.  Note how it both emphatically stands, yet soars, while it gently cradles its basin of oil for its glowing overhanging wicks.  It would appear that the capital is comprised of overhanging palm fronds. 

One of the treasures of the Heraklion Museum, on the north shore of Crete is this Columnar Lamp. The discovery and cultivation of the olive played a significant role in the emergence of the Aegean World in the Middle Bronze Age.  One of its primary objects of trade was olive oil, a marvelously versatile product.  One of its indispensable roles was providing light. 

This lamp, in its columnar form and capital, directly calls to mind one distinct type of Ancient Egyptian Plant-Form Column. 

Note how it both emphatically stands, yet soars, while it gently cradles its basin of oil for its glowing overhanging wicks.  It would appear that the capital is comprised of overhanging palm fronds. 

In the context of all the above, the wobbling Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi speaks of a distinct take on an Architecture in its World.  For the moment, let us enjoy in this image the line of palm trees, valiantly holding their own in the looming presence of this strange thing, which somehow stand while threatening to fall.

In the context of all the above, the wobbling Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi speaks of a distinct take on an Architecture in its World.  For the moment, let us enjoy in this image the line of palm trees, valiantly holding their own in the looming presence of this strange thing, which somehow stand while threatening to fall.

Our initial set of Images, however, offered in all innocence but the call of urgent pragmatism, to guide an artist in realizing a contemporary bit of architectural ornament (a capital in a current project in our office), nonetheless cannot escape the nexus of meaning in which all human fashioning is embedded.  A closing image for this first blog posting, a Minoan ceramic jar (there are stone ones as well) also from the Heraklion Museum in Crete, this one dated to circa 1700-1650 B.C..  One distinctive aspect of Minoan Art is its apparent Naturalism.  Here we have, on this artifact, depicted undeniable Palm Trees.  And yet, in this same art we see this form as the ubiquitous Palmette, bridging the Bronze Age and succeeding Worlds: all these forms, Motifs and Ornaments. From Henry hope Reed, Jr.'s, The Golden City, of 1959, when the so called Modern Movement was in its early unchallenged ascendancy: "A building without ornament , said George Santayana, is like the heaven without stars.  And an architecture without ornament is no architecture at all."

Our initial set of Images, however, offered in all innocence but the call of urgent pragmatism, to guide an artist in realizing a contemporary bit of architectural ornament (a capital in a current project in our office), nonetheless cannot escape the nexus of meaning in which all human fashioning is embedded. 

A closing image for this first blog posting, a Minoan ceramic jar (there are stone ones as well) also from the Heraklion Museum in Crete, this one dated to circa 1700-1650 B.C.. 

One distinctive aspect of Minoan Art is its apparent Naturalism.  Here we have, on this artifact, depicted undeniable Palm Trees.  And yet, in this same art we see this form as the ubiquitous Palmette, bridging the Bronze Age and succeeding Worlds: all these forms, Motifs and Ornaments.

From Henry hope Reed, Jr.'s, The Golden City, of 1959, when the so called Modern Movement was in its early unchallenged ascendancy:

"A building without ornament , said George Santayana, is like the heaven without stars.  And an architecture without ornament is no architecture at all."