Neoclassical architecture and the influence of antiquity

In architecture, neoclassicism was the dominant style in Europe during 1750s-1850s, marked by the imitation of Greco-Roman forms. Classical architectural models were adapted or referenced in a range of architectural forms, including churches, arches, temple, house, terraces, garden monuments and interior designs. Later, Neoclassical architecture became an international style, each country held some distinct characteristic in their style. In France, Laugier laid the rational and geometrical groundwork for architecture; in England, neoclassical architecture interweaved with the Picturesque tradition; and Germany, under the influence from France and England, developed a national style with cultural significance.

Before the discoveries at Herculaneum, Pompeii and Athens had been made; the only classical architecture generally known was that of Rome, largely through architectural etchings of Classical Roman buildings by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The new archaeological finds extended classical architecture’s formal vocabulary, and architects began advocating a style based on Greco-Roman models.

In France, Paris, J.-G. Soufflot attempted and very nearly achieved Laugier’s ideal of a classical building in Panthenon (1757-90). Its design exemplified the Neoclassical return to a strictly logical use of classical architectural elements. The fa?ade, like that of the Roman Pantheon, is formed by a porch of Corinthian columns and triangular pediment attached to the ends of the eastern arm. The vaulted hall of Panthenon (fig.2) referenced to the Roman baths (fig.1, Baths of Diocletian, Rome), whose grandiose planning and vaulted halls and chambers became leading inspirations on certain occasions.

The Roman triumphal arch was one of the main sources of Neo classical expression with it tripartite division of four equal columns unequally spaced. The Arch of Constantine, Rome (AD. 315) supplied the idea of the ‘detached’ column with returning entablature and the superin cumbent ‘attic storey’. Several Neo classical architectures made direct reference to the arch, for example, Luigi Cagnola’s Arco della Pace. After Napoleon became emperor in 1804, his official architects Charles Piercier and Pierre Francois-Leonard Fontaine worked to realize his wish to transform Paris into the foremost capital of Europe by adopting the intimidating opulence of Roman imperial architecture. The Empire style in architecture is epitomized by such imposing public works as the triumphal arches at the Carrousel du Louvre, designed by Piercier and Fontaine. Piercier and Fontaine copied the detail of Arch of Constantine (fig.3) and carved into Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (fig.4), Paris (1806-08). There are common features shared between these two arches, this can be evident from several parts of the structure. First, the massive rectangular slab of masonry with three holes in it-the center hole is the main arch, the other two are lower and narrower subsidiary arches. Secondly there are four columns, dividing the arches, that stand on pedestals and rising to an entablature, which breaks out over each separate column and at each of those points of breaking out carries a carved standing figure. Lastly, there is an ‘attic’ storey above the entablature, that makes the background for the figures and is carved in relief and lettered. Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is directly based on the triumphal arch scheme.

Another source was the temple architecture; these were used widely as an antique model for architecture. The best preserved of all Roman temples is the Corinthian Maison Carree at Nimes (c. AD 130). Maison Carree (fig.5) is a typical temple – a rectangular building with an open portico and pediment in front with columns all round – was used as a model for churches widely in the eighteenth century. It is these which have attracted such bored epithets as ‘mere copyism and ‘cold imitation’ to the Neo classical movement. In Paris, the Madeleine (fig.6) by Alexander-Pierre Vignon, begun as a church, was continued by Napoleon as a Temple of Glory but was completed as a church in 1842. It has direct reference to the Maison Carree, resulting a lifeless paraphrase of an antique Roman temple. Theorist Winckelmann would disagree with such approach of direct copyism. He believed the only way to become great ‘is to imitate antiquity’ , but this is far from copying without process of extraction and distillation. The products of copyism will not quality for what Winckelmann described as ideal, intellectual or ‘noble simplicity and calm grandeur’ .

Claude Nicholas Ledoux was a revolutionary architect, especially in his approach to the architectural ideal made through geometry. Ledoux was no mere copyist even when he applied conventional details. He designed a number of buildings between 1765 and 1780 in which he attempted to reconcile the traditional elements of French classicism with the new spirit of the antique. Among these were the Chateau de Benouville, Calvados (1768-75) and the Hotel de Montmoreney, Paris (c. 1770-72), both of which feature Ionic colonnades with straight entablatures. The theatre at Besancon, with its cubic exterior and interior range of baseless columns stylistically derived from those at Paestum, dates form 1775-84. Later works like the royal saltworks at Arc-et-Senans (1775-79) and the highly original series of barriers for Paris (1784-89), ensured Ledoux a central role in the evolution of Neo-classical architecture. The Barriere de la Villette (1785-9), consisted of a tall cylinder rising out from a low square block with porticoes of heavy, square Doric piers, shows all the essentials of the style: megalomania, geometry, simplicity, antique detail, formalism, and the use of many columns.

England made the most determined effort to apply the new archaeological information to the creation of a new architecture directly inspired by the antique. Sometimes they changed their context to garden buildings and interior space. There were early architects used information from previous architects like Palladio, but later generation preferred to study the antique models from first hand.

Lord Burlington had anticipated the new wave of enthusiasm for the antique. His knowledge of the antique is based on Palladio’s architecture and his codified and illuminated drawings of the antique. In the Assembly Rooms at York (1731-32), Burlington attempted an archaeological reconstruction of the so-called Egyptian Hall of Vitruvius as interpreted by Palladio. Its original entrance front deployed themes from the baths of ancient Rome, again as seen through the eyes of Palladio, whose drawings of the baths Burlington had purchased.

Burlington and William Kent’s collaboration on the design of Holkham Hall produced the entrance hall of 1734. The problem for interior, which had already faced Palladio, was simply that there was no information as to what the interiors of antique houses were actually like. Kent’s solution was to devise an original interior combining element from Vitruvius’s Egyptian Hall, the colonnaded basilicas of ancient Rome, and the frieze from the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. It also referenced to the plates in that popular work of archaeology Desgodets’s Edfices antiques de Rome (1682) , this is evident in the rich frieze, the coffed cove, and the details of the eighteen fluted Ionic columns from the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome.

In Burlington’s lifetime the Classical Revival got as close to the antique as Palladio would allow. The new generation of architects was not content to see the antique through the eyes of Palladio but wanted to see it at first hand. James Stuart, William Chambers and Robert Adam, who had been energetically involved in archaeological activities and architectural study in Italy and Greece, returned to London. They revolutionized English architecture.

The architectural impact of the Picturesque was the new emphasis it placed on architecture as part of an environment. The Picturesque tradition of England created the English landscape garden, in which a variety of different kinds of structure were placed in relation to carefully composed plantings in order to capture the effect of a painting by Claude or Poussin. Henry Hoare’s Stourhead was an outstanding example of this approach to gardening and garden architecture.

The Somerset House (1776-80) by William Chambers has a subtle and sensitive interaction with the environment. The Strand front of Somerset House, with multiple courtyards and vaulted passages, deliberately echoes the Roman Colosseum. The Colosseum (1st century AD) consisted of several storeys, with different types of order being superimposed. These are orders taken from temple architecture; they are placed appropriately with the strong, plain Doric at the bottom, then the lighter Ionic, followed by the elegant Corinthian and perhaps at the top a Composite. These are featured in Somerset House’s exterior-storey.

The architects’ powers of invention were further stimulated by the growth of the picturesque tradition. In the 1750s, the British architecture was not only move toward a greater archaeological impulse in the design of garden buildings, but also toward the utilization of actual Greek models. In James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s first volume of Antiquity of Athens (1762), they included illustrations of both the major buildings of the Acropolis and the smaller, minor buildings in the city of Athens. These were the Doric Temple, Choragic Monument of Lysicrates and the Tower of the Winds, and they contributed particularly to the process of transformation into garden ornaments for English parks. Stuart erected at Hagley a Greek Doric temple (1758), with baseless columns, appropriate proportions and correct details: it was the first definite example of the archaeologically accurate revival of Greek architecture. This is not an exact copy of any Greek building, but being Doric hexastyle with a column at each side of the cella entrance, it was perhaps inspired by the Theseum in Athens.

Six years after Hagley, Stuart developed an extraordinary theme of reducing Greek architecture to garden ornaments. The Tower of the Winds, 1764-65 (fig.10) was based on an Athenian building of the Roman period, c. 1st century BC (fig.9). Like its model, this tall octagonal building has two one-storey porticoes with some unusual Corinthian capitals and a two-storey curved exedra. Also, with Monument of Lysicrates, 1764-1771 (fig.8), Stuart followed his source Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, 334BC (fig.7) quite closely, the only missing feature being the sculpted frieze. Stuart erected, between about 1760 and 1771, a Doric temple, a triumphal arch, a tower of the winds, a lantern of Demos thanes, a greenhouse, and a Doric frame for Thomas Wright’s Shepherd’s Monument . The Greek Revival was conceived from the start as part of the Picturesque impact of contrived landscape scenery. This tradition of the Picturesque tended to dissolve any expression of pure neoclassicism.

Robert Adam drew on four main sources to develop his own style. These were the Palladianism of the Burlington-Kent School, the French influence, the influence of the Renaissance masters and the archaeological influence from Italy, Dalmatria, Syria and Greece . The last source was the one that he most enjoyed and most exhaustively exploited. Besides classical archaeology, Adam was interested in the recapture of the Roman style of interior decoration, which he insisted was something totally different from the marble temple architecture. The Adam Style is a personal revision and reconstitution of the antique into which many threads from a variety of sources were drawn and interwoven.

Adam, executed works consisted mainly of the remodeling of existing houses, the most important of which were Osterley Park, Middlesex (1767-69); Syon House, Middlesex (1762-69); and Kenwood House, Hampstead, London (1767-69). At Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (c.1760-70), he completed James Paine’s plan and added a garden front in which the central portion is clearly derived from an ancient Roman triumphal arch, the first use of this form in domestic architecture. This use of antique forms in a new context is a recurring characteristic of neoclassical architecture.

With Syon House, Adam replanned within the shell of a Jacobean House. The result is thoroughly Neo-classical, in the sense that it contains a variety of geometrical shapes, contrasting with each other and each originating in a classical prototype. For example, the entrance hall, based on the basilica idea, is a rectangle with an apsidal end; the dining room is a long room with apses at the ends (fig.11). The interior of Syon Hall has a Doric order with high attic and flat-beamed ceiling. In the adjoining ante-room, the twelve Ionic columns, some of whose shafts, of verd antique, were found in Rome , are partly disposed in the manner of the classical triumphal arch, for example, the support for remarkable entablatures carrying detached figures. The Adam style of interior decoration emerges in the 60s. The Gallery at Syon of 1763-4 (fig.12) is a very long room, in which Adam divided the walls into bays, of which are again subdivided by tiny, slim pilasters, while in these bays there is a subsidiary order of diminutive Ionic pilasters. Enrichments cover nearly every surface. The whole effect is of a delicate interweaving of linear patterns and architecture.

Elsewhere, in Germany, architects developed a severe but inventive style in the 1790s that was indebted to Ledoux as well as to Winckelmann’s call for a return to the spirit of ancient Greek architecture. The great monument of the Berlin school was the Brandenburg Gate (1789-93) by Langhans. Distantly inspired by the propylaea on the Acropolis in Athens, it was the first of the ceremonial Doric gateways to rise in modern Europe. The Greek revival in Germany was linked with the growth of Prussian nationalism and imbued with the supposed moral virtues of the Doric order. The German Karl Friedrich Schinkel transformed Berlin with a series of monuments in a rationalist Greek style, beginning with the New Royal Guardhouse (1816-18). In 1818, Schinkel erected the State Theatre that, apart from the Greek Ionic portico, displayed the most memorable feature of the frequent use of the functionalist pilaster stripe. For these Schinkel cited a Greek source, the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus. Simple geometric silhouettes and archaeological purity of detail go together in the great monuments of later Neo-classicism. Schinkel’s Altes Museum (1824-28) in Berlin presents a fa?ade in the form of an open colonnade of nineteen bays; with its long but undemonstrative Ionic colonnade, it is comparable to Smirke’s contemporary British Museum. Also, Leo von Klenze erected the Valhalla (fig.14) near Regansburg in Bavaria (1830-42) is surely the culmination of the Picturesque vision of setting a temple on high and endowing it with that ennobling power with which Winckelmann had credited Greek art. The Parthenon (fig.13) of the Acropolis (447-438BC) had become favourite model during this period; it is referenced here, as well as many innumerable public buildings all over Europe.

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