Principles of Monumental Form in Antiquity
Principles of Monumental Form in Antiquity
Just as Greeks and Romans recognized heads, necks, breasts, or arms in natural features, so certain architectural formations might be characterized as eyebrows, faces, or other features of the human body. As a recent critic has written: Nature is the archetype of architecture only insofar as architecture is the archetype of nature.
The concept of form is at the very heart of human considerations of architectural meaning, because, without it, no meaning would be possible. By following the notion of form in this chapter it will be possible to consider how important a part buildings played in the attitudes of ancient Mediterranean society. Although symbolic interpretations of architectural form have sometimes been considered, they are usually believed to be most developed during the later imperial and early medieval periods. However, while it is generally widely acknowledged that ideas of late antiquity had their origins in earlier classical culture, architectural symbolism has very rarely been studied for the preceding classical era.
When thinking of monumental architecture in a classical context, most people have certain preconceived ideas about its form. In particular, monumental classical architecture usually means the classical orders, a columnar structure crowned by pediment and entablature.
Criteria of scale, contrast, and surprise must have been among the most important factors in determining a building’s impact and therefore its degree of monumentality. For example, the names of early ziggurat buildings in Mesopotamia make explicit their supposed resemblance to mountains. Similarly, in the Greek world mountains could have althropomorphic qualities, as physical manifestations of the gods; so it was appropriate that the monumentality of Greek temples, the houses of the gods, and later that of secular buildings too was judged primarily by their dimensions. From possibly the eighth century bc, some temples were designed 100 foot long (hekatompeda).
As the most impressive feature of buildings is that they stand up, their system of support is a fundamental part of their monumentality. From early monuments of Mesopotamia onwards, the column was a key element of structural design, and it was not uncommon to personalize the column through anthropomorphic structures which made the action of physical support comprehensible in human terms. BHowever, a vault is capable of distributing a load over a wider area. Its expansion from the base and extension outwards give it a much more dynamic quality, creating movement in all directions.
The subsequent history of monumental architectural form, from the sixth century bc up to the imperial Roman period, can be seen in terms of these two basic systems of architectural support. Because of its stability the column was also a natural image ofindividual human endurance in Greek poetry, and this metaphor may have been commoner in everyday speech In another way, the image of columnar architecture, such as that used by the poet Pindar (5i8—438 bc) for his poetic work—a cliche in later Greek and Latin literature—was to dominate architectural .
Bronze the walls and bronze the pillars that stood beneath, and on its pediment six golden Sirens sang
The clearest evidence of the influence of classical columnar architecture upon notions of monumentality in the Greek world can be seen, of course, in the great religious monuments of the classical period like those on the Athenian Acropolis. But the aesthetic of the columnar fajade viewed from afar achieved real significance from the fourth century onwards. The dominant role of the classical orders can be seen not only in the composition of the fajades, but also in the interior spaces of such structures. For example, in the north propylon of the Asclepieion at Epidaurus, dated to c.300 bc, the monumental exterior is defined by the Ionic order, and Corinthian columns articulate the interior as a monumental unity. Such smaller structures demonstrated the extent of the belief that architectural monumentality required recourse to the classical post-and-beam form.
The curved arch and the vault were introduced as a means of structural support in the Greek world, initially in Alexander’s native Macedonia, but later else where. Although the curved vault remained limited to profane architecture and could not compete with the flat ceiling in Greek temple architecture, the new form acquired philosophical sanction. There is some evidence that in Babylonian and Semitic cosmology the sky or heaven was regarded as a dome or canopy over the earth. In the Akkadian epic Enuma elish, the god Marduk divides his body in two with a sword to create the heavenly vault and the earth. Some Stoic philosophers, such as Chrysippus of Soli (c.280—207 bc) and his successors Hecaton ofRhodes and Posidonius ofApamea (c.i35—c.5i bc), based their understanding of the structure of the world on the vault, rather than the column. Curvilinear forms lent authority to a number ofHellenistic structures.
The basic ornamental language of monumental architecture continued to be defined by the classical orders. However, their use and meaning changed. From perhaps as early as the second century bc, the columnar orders received a semiotic interpretation previously alien to Greek architecture.
The image of good foundations plays a large role in early ideas of architectural monumentality. The link implies that the presence of a substantial foundation was regarded in both Greek and Etruscan—Roman traditions as an important ingredient of monumentality, reflected in the continued use of podia and bases for the most valued statuary images. In the Hellenizing period of Judaism, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, these images underwent no significant change, with the Greek linguistic equivalents, principally the verb oikodomein and its compounds, producing no substantial alteration in meaning.
There is little evidence of such ideas in the Greek world beyond, of course, Plato’s image in his Timaeus of the divine artist (demiourgos) working from a model form or template (paradeigma) to create the world.
From the fourth century, however, royal patrons looked beyond the practical purpose of public buildings. They erected public buildings of great size as an expression of their power, measured not in cubits but in stadia, the largest unit of measurement available in the Greek world. It seemed to show that the patron possessed those moral excellences of magnificence (megaloprepeia) and greatness of spirit (megalopsuchia), the latter widely cited as a social virtue in honorific inscriptions and defined by Aristotle as a capacity to dispense wealth harmoniously and to judge what was morally right.
The public visibility of architectural form here is clear. The model was shown ‘to the majority ofthe people, presenting an ideal version of the form that was envisaged. Its aim was not only practical, but metaphoric: to catch the essence of built architecture in microcosm. Thus Vitruvius noted that representations of architecture in ground- plan, elevation, and depth perspective were known in Greek as ideai, representing the conception of a building in the mind of its designer, in the same way that the Platonic idea is a perfect image in the divine world, of which objects in the material world are merely copies.
The Latin term forma, which Vitruvius introduces as a translation for Greek schema and which in later usage is translated simply as plan, corresponds to three different Greek words, eidos, sche-ma, and idea. It was the Roman tool for visualizing buildings, referring strictly not to the drawn plan itself, but to the ideal property of the design, or almost its raison d’etre. Vitruvius distinguishes later between forma and ratio, the former being the ideal property of shape contained within a building and the latter the process of thinking about it by the architect. So, as he writes near the start of his work, architecture is generated, in a kind of scientific theogony, from a parentage offabrica and ratiocinatio. Fabrica is defined as a practising of function (usus meditatio) out of whichever material is needed for the purpose of the plan (ad propositum deformationis).
Although Cicero distinguishes a painting’s real form from its outline (extrema liniamenta), he still regarded these two aspects as being the object’s most fundamental part, the last to fade, and the most important to be preserved. For Statius the form (forma) of a villa’s beata loca was not as visible as the actual sight (visus) of it, but more recognizable than an image (imago) or shadow (umbra). For Sallust the Numidians barbarian houses were similarly oblong, but with curved ends.
Yet, despite that alleged implausibility, the parallel between the world’s creation and terrestrial buildings became an important component of Middle Platonism in the second century.
Parallels are established between the events or processes in a man’s life and those in the history of a building, for instance, between construction and education, climate and circumstance, or collapse and corruption. For Romans, medicine and architecture were analogous arts; both aimed at restoring the failings of the body, whether of a building or a person.
Cicero, on the other hand, expressed admiration for both the dignity of traditional columnar forms and the novelty of new, curvilinear ones. The latter he understood as acquiring authority from the shape of the cosmos.
The reason for the perceived importance of architectural form for Roman politicians seems to have been twofold. Roman builders had to tread a difficult path in creating something architecturally impressive, while avoiding the moral opprobrium attached to building. While Hellenistic monarchs boasted of the enormous scale of their projects, at Rome building a mountain of a villa was thought intolerable’ As Columella wrote: ‘A farmer should build elegantly; but he should not be a builder (aedificator).
The second reason for Roman patrons’ interest in architectural form was its potential value as a symbol of wider ideas. For Roman orators from the late Republic onwards, simple arched or columnar forms could represent ideas, or even whole sentences. An example of the significance of architectural form as a medium of expression is the development of the basilica in the late Republic. Later examples of the type helped to organize the central political area of the city by defining its spatial borders and rationalizing its functions very similarly to the development of agoras in Greek cities.
So the new regime was marked by an increase in the scale ofpublic buildings.
For Pindar, the Temple ofApollo at Delphi with bronze walls and columns was the culmination of a mythical development from two earlier, more primitive versions, the first made of laurel branches, the second from wax and feathers. The latter, to be distinguished from the older ‘house of Romulus’ on the Palatine, may in fact have been a construction ofthe Augustan period, perhaps when the Area Capitolina was restored in 26—20 bc. Its monumental purpose was apparently, as an image of primitive building, to serve as a visual counterpoint to the true monumentality of the great Temple ofJupiter Capitolinus with its gilded tiles, restored by Augustus.
Related to these images was the established notion of the state as a building. The idea of a temple pediment crowning the edifice of imperial power is also expressed in Velleius Paterculus at the end ofhis history of Rome, in his prayer to the Roman gods, Jupiter Capitolinus, Mars Gradivus, Vesta, and any other deity that has lifted this bulk (moles) of the imperium Romanum onto the largest pediment (amplissimum.. .fastigium) in the world, to protect and conserve it and to bring successors to Tiberius who could be strong enough to support the world on their necks.
The Empire was represented as a great bulk (moles) that might at any moment collapse, and therefore needed an Atlas or a Hercules to sustain it on his shoulders; alternatively, in the Basilica Paulli rebuilt in ad 22, it was the Phrygian barbarian caryatids of purple Docimian marble (pavonazzetto) who seemed to uphold this symbol of Rome’s domination. Under Augustus the columnar orders could be used to express the new social order. Thus the superimposed orders of Tuscan—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian adorning the exterior of the auditorium of the Theatre of Marcellus seemed to symbolize not only the threefold hierarchy of ancient society, but the specific regulations of the new Lex Julia Theatralis, according to which the theatre rows were arranged for senators in the lowest ten rows, equestrians above them, and free citizens above that. Although not so explicitly coordinated, the columnar displays of the scaenae frons of imperial theatres, especially the central niche, sometimes known as the porta regia, originally crowned by a pediment as at Orange (Arausio) in southern France (Fig. 8), depended for their social impact on the same symbolic patterns associated with these basic monumental forms.
The triangular pediment remained the most sacral monumental symbol and the highest sign of social honour. Like his adoptive father Julius Caesar before him, Augustus was granted the right for his house on the Palatine to be crowned with a pediment, which enclosed a corona civica of oak leaves. The form had implicit associations with royalty and divinity, and so it became common later to highlight the emperor’s divine authority by showing him in front of a pedimented temple facade, especially the raised platform of the templum rostratum in the Roman Forum (Fig. 9). On one coin the emperor Domitian appears to be shown seated in a domical shrine resembling a triangular pediment, the letters S. C. (Senatus Consulto, by decree of the Senate’) perhaps indicating the Senate’s sanction of this honour (Fig. 10).126 But the Latin word for ‘pediment’, fastigium, had other than purely architectural associations. It symbolized an individual’s personal honour and rank, as Livy, for example, applies it to the early heroes of the Republic. For Tacitus, Germanicus was a man ‘of high fastigium , above all because he possessed tribunician power. Yet it was in architecture that this figurative use of the term was manifest. It is notable that, from the first century ad, many honorific arches and similar structures tended to include a pediment within the attic, although it had no structural function.
The arch itself remained a potent architectural symbol during the first century, undergoing successive modifications. There was a tendency to distinguish the central keystone from the other voussoirs, particularly through figured decoration, and in Nero’s Parthian Arch of 64 and its successors this became a separate element altogether, expanded into a console linking arch and entablature (Fig. 11). There is some reason to believe that this change was interpreted at the time in political terms, with the enlarged console taken as an image of Nero’s tyrannical power and contempt for the Senate. Nero’s arch also enlivened the role of the columns in the design of the honorific arch, which henceforth were free-standing elements projected forward from the facade.
Nero, of course, is only an extreme example of the obsession of Roman patrons with aedificatio. Likewise, the survival of trompe I’ailarchitectural paintings on the walls of houses, most impressively at Torre Annunziata (Oplontis), with display of columns, pediments, and arched forms, offers a hint that those forms may have been considered as having symbolic, as well as simply decorative, importance. In public buildings, the use of pediments in unexpected places, as over the arches of the bays on the north side of the amphitheatre at Nimes (Fig. 12), shows a freer use of this vocabulary, with architectural elements treated like icons. The change is reflected in the layout of actual buildings. Unlike the earlier Baths of Agrippa, those of Trajan have a symmetrical layout, with rooms arranged in a systematic way, as repeated symbols around a compass-like cross- axis.
From the later first century the improvement in construction techniques and in the materials used for the caementa that formed the core of Roman concrete vaults137 encouraged patrons to believe that architecture could be manipulated to convey an infinite variety of meanings. Advanced and more flexible building techniques allowed builders to create unusual geometrical forms from what seemed an assemblage of unpromising and unattractive timbers, metals, and mortars oflime and rubble: ‘shapeless raw materials were transposed into building solids by inverting natural processes. This representation, which may have adorned a Flavian tomb monument, gave contemporary building projects a mythic status similar to that of the foundation of Rome depicted on the Basilica Paulli.
No wonder, then, that with Hadrian the traditional Roman passion for aedificatio appears almost as an obsession. Familiar with the memory-palaces of the rhetor Metrodorus of Scepsis, he was said to be able with his own prodigious powers of memory to recall the forms of all the buildings he visited across the Empire. In planning the Temple of Venus and Rome, ‘the largest temple ever constructed at Rome, inaugurated on the city’s birthday festival, the Parilia, on 21 April 121 and sited on the Velia ridge above the Roman Forum, Hadrian pointedly sent Apollodorus his own sketch plan. Again Apollodorus criticized the design, this time for the lack of a raised site. Even if this account is not historically accurate, its significance should not be underrated. Hadrian’s personal taste may well also have influenced the restoration ofAgrippa’s Pantheon in the Campus Martius, for which a great dome was constructed that cannot have been solely the design of the traditionalist Apollodorus.