The Country House/Chapter 4
UT for the trouble of answering your letter I should have been much amused by your remarks upon what, at no very distant period, used to pass for Grecian architecture; but thank heaven we have passed over that barren tract of human invention. Continuing in the same strain, you would fain have me believe you are one of those pilgrims to the shrine of art, who fancy they have now luckily gained a verdant and flowery oasis; or rather that they have discovered the true Eden itself, which it seems is no other than the Elizabethan style; and to complete all, you treat me as the evil spirit, harbouring deadly enmity against this fair paradise.
It is easy enough for you to give your opinions off-hand on these matters, but with us the case is different: the architect finds it less difficult to exhibit his ideas in his design, than to explain all the motives which lead to it,—how the ideas exactly arose, and how far they may have been influenced, either by our studies or our fancy. I must be allowed, therefore, to return to my former examination of the subject of style, and my deduction from such examination.
You will call to mind that the principal different manners which have prevailed in Europe, are, first the Greek style, and the additions made to it by the Roman adaptation of it, then the Gothic in its different periods, and the different treatments of such periods in the different countries; and under this period may be added the partial adoption of the Arabian style in the south. Then this great æra of the revival or Renaissance style, as it seemingly arose in Italy, France, Germany, Flanders, and England. This being, as regards England, your boasted Elizabethan style.
It is only very recently that my attention has been bestowed on that style which in the north of Europe succeeded to the Gothic; whereas, till then, it had been all along imagined that the Italians alone had comprehended the spirit of the antique, and been able to revive it in a newer form of their own; an error against which we should be upon our guard. Why should we not recognize the various modes of treating the antique, as we find them in different countries; and admit them to be all emanations from one common source and principle. In like manner, the Gothic principle or style was in common adopted and worked out through the whole of Europe, and was in common consentaneously abandoned wherever it had flourished; and the elements of ancient architecture became as commonly substituted for it. And this abandonment of the Gothic, it may be remarked, is the first instance in all history, when the creative power of a people (and, by people, I do not mean a single nation, but the whole of Christendom, united by one common religion) has survived the style of architecture, originally invented and brought to perfection by themselves.
This last subject would be an interesting and fertile one to investigate, and would throw considerable light on the development of the human mind throughout Europe. Such consideration, even confined merely as regards architecture, would be one too far from the present subject now to discuss. Since, however, the Gothic as well as the revival of the antique principle have extended over all Europe, in order to attain a knowledge of either, we should not confine ourselves to isolated specimens of particular countries. It is only by taking a survey of the entire field of Gothic architecture, that we can rightly comprehend its varied powers. Is it possible I would ask, from the mere acquaintance with English Gothic to imagine, or from its elements to compose a tower like that of the Minster of Freiburg in Brisgau, or a loggia of similar character to that called the Loggia da Orcagna, at Florence? On the other hand an acquaintance with continental Gothic alone will furnish no idea of the peculiar character of the English perpendicular class. The Renaissance style which is fraught with so much plasticity and variety, springs also but from one root. In like manner as it is impossible for a botanist to understand all the species of one particular family without tracing all that are found in different parts of the globe; so too, is it impossible to become acquainted with the power of any one style of architecture without a similar comparative study of all its specimens, as exhibited in the works of different nations which have adopted it. To the north of Europe must justly be allowed the merit of having exhausted the whole circuit of Gothic architecture, and the application of its principles; this was certainly not accomplished in Italy. It is therefore on this side of the Alps that we observe many of the motives and principles of the Gothic retained to a very late period not disturbed, as was the case in Italy, by types from the antique. At the same time it must be admitted, that when the style founded upon this latter, began to find its way northwards, the two sister arts, painting and sculpture, though they followed in the train of architecture, did not strike root very deeply, but were for the most part treated capriciously and mechanically as mere handicrafts; and this was especially the case in England. It is therefore remarked with some truth, that the Renaissance style is characterized in Italy by greater delicacy and beauty than elsewhere; in France and the Low countries by greater richness, and in England by capriciousness and extravagance. Lest, however, the term itself, Renaissance, should be thought too loose and vague, it may be proper to define it as used to signify "that style which everywhere succeeded immediately to the Gothic."
In Italy, this first period of the proper application of the antique terminates with the tendency of Michael Angelo, to destroy the true proportions of his buildings by colossal details; on the other parts of the continent it disappeared in consequence of the diffusion of M. Angelo's taste by the Jesuits; and in England it terminated at the time of Wren. Accordingly, this architectural period extends very little beyond a single century, commencing in other countries about the time when it was already on the decline in Italy.
In what I have just been stating, I must be understood to allude to one uniform aim, namely, the free appropriation and adaptation of the elements of the antique style to modern purposes; consequently it is evident that the so-called Elizabethan style is only one of the links of a progressive series of such attempts. You must, therefore, admit that architecture which is capable of producing independent works out of its own resources, and from its own principles, is degraded to what is little better than mere decoration and scene painting, when, (apprehensive of falling into contradiction and want of harmony, unless it retains all the individual particulars of extant examples,) it timidly strives to imitate the dialect of a single province. How short a time, however, must the impression produced by such mummery last! and how long the impression of a work of architecture is destined to remain! It is because we are ashamed of, or mistrust the results of our own study and conviction, that we venture to exhibit ourselves to posterity, merely as the copyists of examples; the repute of which is already established, and which may be learnt and repeated by rote? At various periods men have shewn themselves either barbarous or puerile in their notions on art; yet never till now such slavish copyists, such mere plagirists, such mocking-birds in style. You may judge by this sally in what an ill humour I am, at finding that you would shut me up in a cage and there make me sing. If you examine your Elizabethan architecture with some little critical attention, you will hardly fail to perceive that, with all its richness of expression, the elementary sounds are no more harmonious than the crowing of a cock, or the braying of an ass.
All this concerns merely the style, as style; for in other respects we often meet with much that deserves praise; convenient arrangement, and contrivance, striking effect, and much cleverness of construction and execution, although so far from being pure or refined, the taste displayed may be decidedly vulgar and coarse. I freely confess that the merits I have just mentioned, were retained in the architecture of the north of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries: I say retained, because the Gothic style that was then abandoned, had been treated with masterly and skill, and shewed disciplined artificers in all that belongs to mechanical execution; consequently, the ability thus produced had only to employ itself upon a fresh task. At the end of the last century, on the contrary, so completely had every thing like a school of the art disappeared, that at the University of Gottingen, architecture was taught as supplementary to the elementary course of mathematics. Is it then to be wondered at that we should have been filled with stupid wonder at the sublime works then newly brought to light, or that we should have set about copying them for the nonce, out of the affectation of classical purity, but without bestowing any study on the peculiar motives to be detected in them, or on the necessary alterations to be made in consequence of new exigences?
If we allow that as far as it proceeded, Grecian architecture is stamped by perfect beauty, it is of little moment to our argument whether it was so comprehensive as it might have been, and had sufficiently developed itself for those purposes which we now more especially require; since the perfection it did actually attain in the direction it took, ought to be sufficient to inspire the artist. It was not necessary that the latter should surrender up the freedom belonging to him as such, and confine himself to following Grecian motives and intentions. In fact, the peculiar charm,—the grace and freshness of Grecian architecture become withered as soon as we begin to treat it according to dry systematic rules. The Vitruvius, capable of legislating for it according to its genius and true spirit perhaps is not yet born! For indulging at such length in these somewhat abstract remarks upon style alone, I must again entreat your pardon. You ask for some more distinct and explicit ideas on the subject; and are apparently, like many others, of opinion, that the remains of a few temples, such as we behold in Stuart and Revett, comprise nearly the whole of Greek architecture. The chief point for our present consideration is, how far it had accommodated itself to buildings for domestic purposes: and here I must remind you that Pliny's description of his villas are still extant. It must, indeed, be confessed that those two residences do not belong to the epoch of Pericles; yet they belong nevertheless to that same series of actual Greek plans and constructions which have been preserved to us at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and which Sir W. Gell's tasteful delineations have rendered so familiar to all. Many remains of the same class in the vicinity of Rome, and more especially in the Golfo di Gaëta, at Puzzoli, and in the environs of Naples, sufficiently attest the fancy and variety with which the ancients availed themselves of the conditions imposed by peculiarities of ground and locality,—contrived to combine the advantages of coolness and shade on the one hand, with the glow of sunshine on the other; to provide a frame and foreground for the prospect from the house; and to produce happily imagined effects and picturesqueness of character by means of the irregularity and declivity of the ground.
Each of those ancient villas presents us with a new idea, and may be taken as an architectural study. Look, for instance, at those examples of the kind on the Lake of Albano and the Gulf of Gaëta, where the dwelling itself is connected with grottoes offering cool retreats, either for sitting in or for the purpose of baths, and upon entering which the visitor is so fascinated by the magic effect of reflected light from the water, that he almost fancies the whole scene to be a visionary and unearthly one. Water, it may be observed, either gushing in a stream, or exhibiting an expanded mirror-like surface, appears to have been considered by the ancients indispensable to the charm of a villa residence. In both the destroyed cities, even the smallest town houses offered upon entering them the reflection of the sky on the surface of the water contained in the basin of the impluvium. In larger dwellings, water was introduced more abundantly, and also in greater variety of modes; and residences upon the coast were built out quite into the sea. Besides much else that they have derived from the ancients, the modern Italians have retained this fondness for the combination of water and architecture, as many of their villas testify. For examples of the kind I refer you to the Villa Madama near Rome, and also to several at Frescati; and yet there the water and the architecture are not so intimately connected as in the villas and houses of the ancients. The climate of the north, in a great measure, prevents our availing ourselves of water as a means of producing reflection of light in the interior; but we may imitate this principle in a due arrangement of light and shade, and also in some cases by the use of mirrors in place of water.
Another very great, though little regarded point of excellence and architectural effect in the latter consists in the covered ambulatories and porticoes, which, indeed, were intended chiefly as a defence against heat and sun, yet recommend themselves equally to us, as affording protection from rain and wind. Nevertheless it is rarely but in cloisters that we find this architectural convenience retained. Great attention seems also to have been paid by the ancients to planning the internal communication in such a manner, that the domestics could pass to and fro, and have access to the different rooms, without incommoding those occupying any of the suite; and in this sort of arrangement they frequently exhibit so much ingenuity and contrivance, that we may study for some time ere we shall be able to surpass them.
For the present, these few hints and suggestions must suffice; but I could discourse to you for days together of the varied effects of light, the manifold diversity of form, the richness of play in regard to decoration, and all the combinations and beauties, both with respect to circumstances of locality and arrangement, that are to be met with in the remains of ancient domestic architecture.
Among other questions which you have submitted for my consideration, is, whether pure Greek architectural forms and details will bear to be united with such a material as coloured brickwork? And by way of removing your doubts, I beg to remind you of the highly praised brick edifices of King Mausolus, described by Vitruvius. Texture and colour of materials are to be considered merely as the vehicle made use of by the artist, and may be employed in one style almost equally as well as in another. Another doubt suggested, is whether arches and vaulting can properly be admitted into the style above-named? Now, were you to consult the Delphic oracle, it would probably return you some such answer as the following: When the edge of an aperture in a wall forms a right angle, the archivolt may still descend to the base without being interrupted by an impost. In vaulting, the diagonal crossing lines must be considered as secondary ones.
Perhaps this will but ill satisfy you, and you will say that, instead of solving one enigma, I have merely added another. Yet of one thing you may be assured, namely, that those difficult problems and mysteries in art, which have been expounded in formal terms, have been already actually decyphered, and explained more clearly by the practical solution of them in productions of art.
It seems you think I have not yet given you any satisfactory reason for my position, that the present improved state, both of painting and sculpture, renders it difficult to reconcile them with the conditions required by Gothic architecture. I admit this would be otherwise were we to go back to the hard dry style of the Van Eyck school. I can only say that such an attempt has been made by some of the best artists in Germany, and that after persisting in the trial for some time, they have now abandoned the imitation of the early German style, and have preferred the Italian. At any rate, my opinion is not contradicted by history, since the latter informs us that the powerful impression produced by the broad handling and simple masses of the ancient works of sculpture, then first discovered in various parts of Italy, had the effect of giving the representation of nature an entirely new direction. It is also a striking circumstance that, owing to the fresh impulse which both painting and sculpture hence received, not only the taste for Gothic architecture declined, but the system itself was opposed both by painters and sculptors, who attempted to make architecture subsidiary to their productions. Such being the case, as they alleged, in regard to ancient art. With what eagerness not only the learned men of Italy, and the architects who were urged on by them to the study of classical antiquity, but also both sculptors and painters, entered the lists against Gothic art, is sufficiently evident from Ghiberti's journal; and again afterwards, when a decided victory had been already obtained over it, from Raphael's report to Leo X. on the ancient edifices and other remains at Rome.
It is perhaps not so generally known, that in more northern countries it was the painters who set up for reformers in architecture. Holbein, there is reason to think, erected the first specimen of the antique in England: the portal of Wilton House, for his patron the Earl of Pembroke, still existing. About a hundred years later, Rubens, with the view of giving the death-blow to the still lingering taste for Gothic architecture in the Netherlands, made drawings of the Palaces of Genoa, and caused them to be disseminated in engravings. At the present day, indeed, we may be excused for smiling at the classical zeal of the worthy Peter Paul, who, in his preface to that collection of designs, inveighs against Gothic architecture as barbarous, at the same time that the plates themselves which he gives, are little better than hideous caricatures of the modern Genoese style, which, at the best is by no means remarkable for purity of taste.
Should Gothic architecture, which is just now employed upon a liberal scale, and with more or less of true feeling for it, in your country ever obtain firm footing there again, depend upon it my professional brethren who have, I think, adopted it without due consideration of the present condition of the other fine arts, will have to encounter serious, and, perhaps, unforeseen difficulties from the painters and sculptors. Were some gifted sculptor to apply himself to architecture, I am persuaded he would drive us all out of the field, for the charm with which that art is capable of investing architecture by a skilful union of the flesh-like sculpture with the hard bones of architecture, would produce an irresistibly fascinating effect.
From this long letter you will collect that, whilst on the other hand I do not mean to be confined either to a servile imitation of a pure Pompean house; so, on the other, I do not mean to be tied down to repeat your Elizabethan architecture, or the Gothic of Germany or England. Nor do I propose to give you a fac-simile of any building of the Renaissance school. To the best of my power, I propose (as the best style) that which adopts the pure broad principles of beauty in building, and which were, I sincerely believe, best propounded by the Greeks; and which all experience has shewn to be best suited to receive addition from the highest style of painting and sculpture; and which are, in fact, parts of architecture. How far I may succeed is another point.
It is indeed difficult in all cases, even to select what is best; but with the most lofty aspirations, I am aware that I may indeed fall very short of the execution of my wishes; perhaps, I have already done myself some harm in this very discussion of style, by preparing you to expect too much