Thursday, May 1, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 9 & 10

Arch of Septimus Severus
Leptis Magna
The online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture is coming to a conclusion. I've appreciated how the architectural development of Rome has been correlated to the political and cultural occurrences of the time. As Rome's ambitions grew and their Empire expanded they imposed their culture by means of military force on numerous conquered peoples of the Mediterranean and as far West as the Atlantic. Yet, at the same time these Roman provinces would begin to exert a collective cultural sway on Rome itself. A radical departure from the strictly traditional Roman architecture of Greek and Etruscan origins would occur during this period of expansion.

Rise of the Roman Baroque

Baroque is a term almost exclusively applied to the 17th century stylistic departure from the "Renaissance", the rebirth of the Classical, specifically the architecture of ancient Rome. I've come to realize that the introduction of Baroque forms can not be merely be attributed as a reaction against the constraints of the Classical, a predictable evolution in architecture or credited to the creative genius of a few artistic visionaries. An increasing number of Roman ruins were in fact being uncovered at this time both within Rome itself and among the far flung corners of the former empire. Much of this architecture was unquestionably what we would classify today as Baroque. I'll take this as a fine opportunity to explore features that characterize the Baroque by comparing Classical and 17th century examples.

St. Peter's Square

The accelerated curve of two foci with two corresponding radii. While ellipses and oval approximations became a fascination of 17th century design they certainly found their precedents in Roman Antiquity. Compare Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Baroque masterpiece at left with the Roman ruins of 2nd century Gerasa below.

Forum of Gerasa

Temple of Venus, Baalbek

Associated with the incorporation of ellipses was a general interest in the introduction of curvilinear movement. Francesco Borromini's façade of the church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is considered an icon of the Baroque, its serpentine entablature breaking with the Classical tradition. Nevertheless, we see several Roman examples manifesting a similar movement. A rather well preserved example is the Temple of Venus at Balek contrasts the concavity of the entablature with the convexity of the cella, again with concavity of the inset niches.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek
Colossal Orders

Bigger was better during the Renaissance Baroque. During this period massive façades were erected, the East front of the Louvre and the basilica at Saint Peter's being prominent examples. A solution often employed to conserve the system of proportion was a colossal order of columns that would break through two or more storeys to support the crowning entablature directly from the ground. It is interesting to note the close similarity of the façade of St. Peter's with that of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek some 1,500 years prior.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Broken Pediments

Al Khazneh, Petra

The pediment is nothing more than a formalized gable, the end of a pitched roof. By breaking it, there is a playful acknowledgement that the pediment is merely decorative, it serves no practical function. 17th century architects were having a lot of fun with broken pediments; however, they found numerous precedents from Roman Antiquity, not least of which is a collection of masterpieces in the tomb architecture at Petra.

Il Duomo di Siracusa, Sicily

Severan Forum Basilica

Neither Classical Roman architecture nor that of the Renaissance were timid about ornamentation. However, what distinguishes the Baroque periods is the tendency of enrichment to break free from formalized architectural structure. In extreme cases this serves to dematerialize major supportive elements. Compare the Severan Forum Basilica at Leptus Magna and our own Baroque Revival Congress Theatre in Chicago where in each case the pilasters are overwhelmed, scarcely recognizable as architectural forms.

Congress Theatre, Chicago

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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