Friday, 27 March 2009

The Grammar of Antiquity

The other day, I was wondering aloud if a building were Greek Revival or not, and no sooner had this come out of my mouth, than my boyfriend was recommending this book (below, which, thanks to our chronic Amazon habit, we ordered pretty much immediately). It was written by John Summerson (who was the curator at the Sir John Soane's Museum until 1984), and is based on six talks he did for the BBC in 1963.

I can see why it's a classic; Summerson has a knack for talking about architecture in an accessible way, and the book covers everything from Palladian architecture to triumphal arches and Roman baths. It's well illustrated and I like the way he uncovers the playful wit behind what look like highly rational buildings (see his discussion of Michaelangelo's vestibule to the Laurentian Library in Florence, which - with its blind windows and retreating columns - is an elaborate architectural joke). There's also a fascinating final chapter where Summerson looks at modernism's classical roots, with reference to such buildings as the Philharmonic Hall in New York's Lincoln Center.

Here he is on the Greek Revival style:

Till the middle of the 18th century Greek architecture was something of a mystery [in England]. Everybody knew that the Romans had got their architecture from the Greeks... But nobody ever went to Greece. It was a long way off; it was part of the Ottoman Empire and neither an easy nor safe place for the Western traveller... The first Greek Doric buildings built in England were built more or less as curiosities, exotic souvenirs, in the form of temples and porches on gentlemen's estates. But about the turn of the century the conviction that the Greek Doric - and Greek Ionic and Greek Corinthian - were in all ways purer and better than their Roman couterparts had won the day, and the Greek Revival proper had started.

Above: The Oratory, Liverpool, built in 1827 by John Foster in the Greek Revival style. Photograph © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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1 comment:

Eliza Ward said...

I read somewhere that the discovery of Pompeii (which is in Italy, I know) had a major role in bringing back classic architecture and themes. But wasn't Palladio around like two centuries before that, and wasn't he the one who brought it back? Even though I'm interested in architecture, I don't have the energy to read about it (for example, I can look at pictures of mansions, but find descriptions boring)--with the only exception being colonial American architecture. So, Summerson's book sounds really interesting (Roman baths!), but I won't kid myself! Does he mention Pompeii's influence at all?