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Against Roman Architecture

( Originally Published 1912 )



IN the course of an article published in the I Architectural Record some months ago, my old teacher, Professor Hamlin, quoted with disapproval certain criticisms of Roman art from my youthful work on Mediaeval Architecture. That the ideas in question are such as might readily find no favour with Professor Hamlin does not surprise me. It is entirely orthodox to admire Roman architecture. Of all historic styles it presents the closest analogies with the architecture of the nineteenth century in America. It is the style upon which our modern architectural education is based. It is also, of all historic styles, evidently the least illustrative, the most material. Something over a decade ago, I came to the rather impulsive conclusion that the thoughtless admiration and imitation of the Roman style was producing a deleterious effect upon contemporary American art. In writing my Mediaeval Architecture I felt it almost a duty to do what I could to call attention to the prosaic character of the Roman style.

The difference of opinion between Professor Hamlin and myself is, therefore, deep-seated. De gustibus non est disputandum. In matters of this sort there is no absolute proof to which one can have recourse. It is a question of feeling — really of creed — and as differences of religion are commonly the ones to which men cling most tenaciously, for which they are ready to sacrifice themselves and wrong others, so for the lover of art his æsthetic creed is, perhaps, the most deeply rooted part of his inner being, that which touches him most nearly when questioned by another.

The years that have passed since I wrote Mediaeval Architecture have brought changes in my point of view. Further study has proved to me that the deficiencies of con-temporary art cannot altogether be laid at the door of Rome. I have remarked that, inspired by the same models, Palladio produced an architecture highly intellectual and McIntire an art infinitely refined. Very poor indeed, has been much of the architecture imitated from the most exalted models of Greece and of the Middle Ages. The conclusion seems to be forced that for the production of good architecture it matters little what one copies, but it matters very vitally how.

As for Roman architecture itself, I have come to know it much better since the days when my first book was written. At that time my lips had barely touched the golden cup of Italian beauty. Since, the opportunity has come to linger long in Rome; to draw and photograph among the ruins of the Agro, to poetize with Carducci on the Aventine or in the Baths of Caracalla. Often as I have stood in the august presence of the Roman Forum, it has never been without emotion. I have studied, with a feeling almost of home-sickness, the engravings of the eighteenth century, stimulating my imagination to conceive of the City enhanced by the solitude and silence the modern age so discordantly breaks.

Yet I cannot with intellectual integrity say that my feelings towards Roman architecture have essentially changed in these twelve years. Visions of the magic of Rome, the cypresses of Tivoli, the sweeping lines of the Campagna, the snow-capped encircling mountains, the glorious colour of the weathered brickwork haunt my memory; yet I still see in Roman architecture, as I did a decade ago, emptiness, pomposity, vulgarity.

But very little of ancient Rome has come down to us intact. The charm which invests the Baths of Caracalla or the ruins of the Palatine today was assuredly never dreamed of by the builders. The picturesque masses, the colours, are the work of time — the most clever of artists. To conceive of these Roman buildings as they were, we must have recourse to archæology and modern restorations on paper. But do these imaginary reconstructions give an accurate idea of the æsthetic effect of the architecture as it really was? May we not have missed some touch which possibly redeemed the lack of refinement? Imagine that all the scores of Wagner's Niebelungen Trilogy had been lost, and that some inferior musician should try to rewrite the work on the basis merely of the plot and a few snatches of melody. The result might easily be as meretricious as the restorations of Roman ruins. How can we prove that some-thing like this may not have happened in the case of Rome? When we contrast the actual beauty of the ruins of the Forum with the monotony of the paper restorations, when we note in the latter the lack of balance in the mass' and the excessive symmetry in the details, how can we be certain that the ancient buildings may not have possessed some secret of beauty, some use of colour or of asymmetry unknown to modern archæologists but which redeemed a design that, only because of our lack of knowledge, seems lifeless and banal?

Future investigations may possibly show that Roman architecture was not as dull as it now appears. I fear, however, that this is exceedingly unlikely. The frescos of Pompeii quickly dispel any illusion that the Romans possessed a sense of colour. An abundance of Roman architectural detail has come down to us in good condition; and this, with very rare exceptions, is not such as to lead us to suppose that the Romans possessed sensitive æsthetic perceptions in architectural art. Poor detail is not necessarily incompatible with good architecture (although the modern idea that good architecture must necessarily have bad detail is obviously false) ; nevertheless, the de-tail is apt to be eloquent of the spirit of the whole. When we find detail that is made commercially, mechanically, thoughtlessly, perfunctorily, we have the work, not of an artist but of a materialist, and the larger features of the design are nearly certain to be permeated by the same qualities. The true artist may delight in the broad effect; he may take pleasure in producing that effect in simple materials, but he can never be satisfied with commercial detail. It is this lack of sensitiveness in Roman architecture, the absense of an artistic conscience, the readiness to subordinate all means to the end of an immediate effect, the obviousness, the lack of depth, with which I quarrel. There are two kinds of architecture, as there are two kinds of painting, of sculpture, and of literature. One is artistic, created for the joy of bringing into the world a beautiful thing— material compensation may or may not be given, but is secondary; the other is commercial, made primarily for expediency, for money, for fame. Roman art is of the commercial variety. Of that poetry which breathes so potently from the existing ruins, the same monuments, when new, must have been singularly deprived. They were opportunist structures, lacking in intellectual and emotional content.

There is a curious parallelism between the art, the literature and the life of Imperial Rome. I experience the same sensation of in-expressible weariness in studying Roman architecture and in reading of Roman banquets, as, to cite one example among many, in the Satyricon of Petronius. What a bore these feasts, this endless over-eating and over-drinking must have been! How useless the magnificence, the throngs of slaves, the expert cooks able to prepare pork so that the entire company mistook it for duck! As Mr. Clapp renders Palazzeschi:

With luxury's glamour
the table is spread.
Exuberant flowers,
gold vases and silver...
The dishes before them
Change hurriedly ever;
soups steaming and purées
delicious and pâtés
most tasty by thousands:
From gardens forbidden
herbs skilfully seasoned,
woodcock and pheasant
pass by in the dishes
of these the unhappy;
most tender of green things
and sweetmeats the rarest,
incredible sweetmeats,
fruits red as a ruby,
wines too of all colours.

All this effort, this expense of energy, failed of its purpose because there was lacking the spirit of joy. I suspect that the modern contadino takes far greater delight in his pasta and wine in the osteria that nestles among the ruins of the Palatine, perhaps on the very site of the golden house where Trimalchio gloried and drank deep. It is evident that the Romans themselves grew tired of the unending series of gluttonous revels. Petronius doubtless exaggerates the grossness and stupidity of Roman society; he, nevertheless, was an eye-witness to its excesses, and his testimony carries weight. This is how he describes an episode at a banquet, when the fatuous Trimalchio calls his architect (lapidarius) Habinnas and orders his tomb:

"Trimalchio then ordered a copy of his will to be brought, and this he read from end to end, while the whole company heaved sighs. Then looking at Habinnas, he said, ` How about it, my friend? Have you built my tomb as I ordered? I ask you particularly to put at the foot of my statue my little dog, crowns and a box of perfumery. . . . Moreover let the tomb measure one hundred by two hundred feet; and let there be planted about it all sorts of fruit-trees and many vines, for it would be absurd that I should be said to have cultivated my lands while I lived; but neglected those where I must inhabit so long. Therefore I should like to have this inscription placed on the tomb :

This Monument does not belong to my Heirs.

` Furthermore, I shall take care in my will that no one injures me after my death; for I shall appoint one of my freedmen to guard my tomb, to see that no one commits there any nuisance. I charge you also, Habinnas, to sculpture on my tomb ships under full sail [this in reference to the source of Trimalchio's wealth], and my portrait is to show me sitting on a tribunal with five golden rings on my fingers, giving silver coins to the populace out of a sack; for you know well I have given a public banquet and two pieces of money to all who came. You may therefore also represent, if you please, the dining-hall and all the people eating with pleasure. At my right you will place a statue of my wife, Fortunata, holding a dove in one hand and leading a dog on a leash with the other, and you will put there also my dear Cicaron and great jars of wine well corked up. One only of these shall be broken, and a child shall be weeping over it. In the middle of the sun-dial shall be an inscription so placed that any one reading the hour must perforce see my name. As for the epitaph, see if you think this is suitable:

Caius Pompeius Trimalchio, the Patron of Art rests here. He never wished to hear the Discourse of Philosophers. May thou do the same.

`Thanks to Mercury, I have built this palace of mine in which we now are; as you know, it was a house, but now it is imposing as a temple; it has four drawing-rooms, twenty bed-chambers, two marble porticoes, a tower above in which I myself sleep, apartments for my wife, an excellent porter's lodge and slave quarters able to accommodate a thousand persons.'

The satirist has painted for' us most admirably the spirit, not only of Imperial Roman society but of Imperial Roman art. Indeed, of the inferiority of that art Petronius himself is well aware. Farther on in the same satire he explicitly complains:

" The fine arts have perished, and especially painting has left of itself only the least traces. We do not create art, but only criticize that of antiquity (i. e., Greece)."

It would obviously be untrue to maintain that all Roman architecture lacks artistic vitality. Probably no generality is ever strictly true. The stucco reliefs of certain tombs on the Via Latina were modelled by a man or men who felt beauty, and who were singularly successful in transmitting that impression by a few powerful strokes on the wet plaster. Occasionally, in the carved ornament, as in the arch of St.-Remi, a real artist showed what life could be given to a traditional motive. Such flashes, however, only deepen the general impression of perfunctoriness in Roman work. Notwithstanding the variety of type, the skill in planning and engineering, the varied materials, the colossal scale (perhaps even because of the latter), the art as 'a whole is joyless, like a painful task performed more or less conscientiously, without enthusiasm. One feels intuitively that the builders cared little for the selfish Caesar's in whose honour they erected triumphal arches and palaces; that they cared little for the populace to shelter whom they built unending colonnades on the streets and forums, and least of all for the temples to strange, cold gods. The yoke of the taskmaster lies heavy upon their arm, as it lies upon the arm of a worker in the modern factory.

It is by this token, perhaps, that the failure of Roman architecture is most clearly proved. For the essence of all great art is joy: the joy of grandeur, the joy of poetry, the joy of gloom, the joy of tears perhaps, but always joy. The genius imbues the object of his 'art with a spark of this divine joy, so that it may awaken in others the same, or a kindred, emotion. Many may feel such emotion with-out the ability to express it; many may have the ability for expression without feeling the joy to communicate. Such will endeavour in vain to simulate or force an emotion which is not genuine. They may succeed in deluding even the keenest critics for a while, but the eternal difference in value abides unchanged, unchangeable. If there be not joy in creation, all is in vain.

The truth of this may be illustrated in a sister art. If the Virgin of the Rocks at London were an original by Leonardo da Vinci, its importance would be incalculable. If it is a copy of Leonardo's painting by his pupil, Ambrogio d'a Predis, all the world will esteem it much less. In either case the picture is intrinsically the same. The keenest critics have been proved quite capable of mistaking the copy for the original. Is the original prized and the copy depreciated because we are such fools as to be guided in our artistic preferences by a name? I think not. The Paris original possesses an intrinsic value which the London copy lacks. The absoluteness of this value continues none the less to exist, even if it be mistaken by critics who happen to have gone astray. The value of an original lies in the fact that it communicates to us directly the conception — the impression of joy — of the creator; whereas in a copy the impression is almost necessarily blunted by transmission through another hand.

I have often heard architects, in speaking of some projet, use the phrase, " great fun." In fact, the words have almost become current architectural slang. They are vastly significant. They express simply, and without pretention, that joy which is equalled by no other, the joy of creative work. The element of joyousness is thus not altogether lacking in our modern architecture. It is to be regretted that it does not more often extend downward from the architect to his office force, and that it is frequently crushed out entirely by the combined forces of steam heat, plumbing and labour unions.

There remains, it is true, a deep mystery in Roman architecture. If we grant that it is lacking in the spirit of joyousness, and that joy is the essence of great art, how are we to explain the admiration, the adulation, that for centuries have been heaped upon the Roman style? It is necessary, first of all, to con-cede that it is no new thing for artists, and even for critics, to mistake a crow for a swan. The vogue of the eclectic painters, whose art is so closely akin to that of ancient Rome, lasted until yesterday. Perhaps we have already touched upon the inner essence of the matter in discussing the relative values of original and copy, and the necessary inferiority of the latter. Roman art is a copy, a free copy with variations, but still a copy. For long centuries, the original remained unknown. It was unsuspected that Roman architecture was a copy. Men praised it for a beauty it possessed only at second hand. Winckelmann set the modern world upon the track of discovering the original. When Greek architecture had once been brought to light, the inferiority of the Roman replica became manifest. It was at once clear, and recognized by architects, critics and public alike (at least in America), that the spirit of joy, of enthusiasm, of poetry, was present in Greek work, and that Roman architecture possessed these qualities only by reflection. There ensued the Greek revival. However, a little knowledge proved a dangerous thing; modern architecture imitated from the imperfectly comprehended Greek was seen to be less successful than that inspired by the more tangible Roman style. Hence the profession sought to reinstate the sadly shattered idol on her paper throne.

Furthermore, in accounting for the popularity of Roman architecture, we must constantly bear in mind that the art exists only in imagination. Each person has had to reconstruct his own visual image of the appearance of the buildings. Former centuries did not possess our prosaic archæological information. Inspired by the beauty of the ruins, a Piranesi might imagine Roman art fired with an originality, a joyousness, which the Romans never knew. Many architects, notably our own Thomas Jefferson, have done precisely this. Thus the shade of Rome was shrouded with phantom glory.

From what has been said, I think, it will be evident that I must continue to differ from Professor Hamlin on the question of Roman art. What I felt instinctively, intuitively, as a boy, has been confirmed by the most careful study and thought of which I am capable. I believe, and I believe deeply, in Greek, Romanesque and Gothic. I believe in the Italian Quattrocento, and the American Colonial, even in the Barocco, if you will, but I refuse to bow down before the Goddess Rome.



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