“Remember that the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” – John Ruskin
The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Neoclassical. For three centuries successive ages of philosophers, principally rejecting the yoke of the Church, concurrently left superstition and sentiment behind to embrace science and reason. But a generation of the philosophers' children felt their fathers had overreached. A world of reason was fast becoming a world devoid of sense. For many of this next generation of philosophers of the Romantic era it wasn't enough to think, they had to use their innate capacity for feeling to help understand themselves, society and even the physical world.
|Porte del Paradiso|
Ghiberti, 15th century
Ruskin by far considered beauty the brightest "Lamp" or virtue that could be embodied in a work of any architecture that might be called good. He opens his essay on beauty with the declaration, “the value of architecture depended on two distinct characters: the one, the impression it receives from human power; the other; the image it bears to the natural creation...all beautiful lines are adaptations of those which are commonest in the external creation”.
The Classical Orders
Ruskin subsequently precedes to illustrate the aforementioned premise with a consideration of the three principal orders of Classical or Greco-Roman architecture: the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
|The Parthenon, 5th century B.C.E.|
Ruskin next addresses the other prominent features of the order, namely the column shaft and capital, “The fluting of the column...was imitative in origin, and feebly resembled many canaliculated organic structures. Beauty is instantly felt in it, but of a low order...the Doric capital was unimitative; but all the beauty it had was dependent on the precision of its ovolo, a natural curve of the most frequent occurrence.” The ovolo Ruskin refers to was called the “ekinnos” by the Ancient Greeks, so named because of its resemblance to, or perhaps better stated imitation of the skeletal body of the sea urchin. The canalis, or shallow flutes of the shaft too resembled the channels often encountered in shellfish such as the sea scallop.
Again, the Ionic order like the Doric depends on the abstraction of natural forms for its expression of beauty. The most notable, perhaps defining feature being the conspicuous volutes representative of many spiral growth patterns in invertebrates and vegetation. However, Ruskin reserves particular praise for the Egg & Dart motif going so far as to say that its “perfection, in its place and way, has never been surpassed”, offering the following detailed explanation:
“Simply because the form of which it is chiefly composed is one not only familiar to us in the soft housing of the bird’s nest, but happens to be that of nearly every pebble that rolls and murmurs under the
surf of the sea, on all its
endless shore. And that with a peculiar accuracy; for the mass which
bears the light in this moulding is not in good Greek work, as in the
frieze of the Erechtheum, merely of the shape of an egg. It is
flattened on the upper surface, with a delicacy and keen sense of
variety in the curve which it is impossible too highly to praise,
attaining exactly that flattened, imperfect oval, which, in nine
cases out of ten, will be the form of the pebble lifted at random
from the rolled beach. Leave out this flatness, and the moulding is
vulgar instantly. It is singular also that the insertion of this
rounded form in the hollowed recess has a painted type in the plumage
of the Argus pheasant, the eyes of whose feathers are so shaded as
exactly to represent an oval form placed in a hollow.”
|The Erechtheion, 5th century B.C.E.|
|Thermae Stabianae, Pompeii |
“Thus the Corinthian capital is beautiful, because it expands under the abacus just as Nature would have expanded it; and because it looks as if the leaves had one root, though that root is unseen. And the flamboyant leaf mouldings are beautiful, because they nestle and run up the hollows, and fill the angles, and clasp the shafts which natural leaves would have delighted to fill and to clasp. They are no mere cast of natural leaves: they are counted, orderly, and architectural: but they are naturally, and therefore beautifully, placed.”
|Library of Hadrian at Athens, 2nd century C.E.|
In the continued consideration of the “Lamp of Beauty – Part II, Monstrosities” we will examine some of what Ruskin perceived as ugliness, certain abuses that developed during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods.
Contributed by Patrick Webb