Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jubilee: a short history of a long tradition

The Queen of Pentacles

From the 2nd to the 5th of June, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years of reign, a landmark anniversary that is cause for celebration in the United Kingdom. We would also be amiss if we didn't note that the Astrologer Royal was doubtless consulted when selecting the spectacularly auspicious end date of the festivities, the same day that Venus, "the Queen of Heaven," begins to transit the face of the sun, which last occurred in 2004 and won't occur again for another 113 years.

In one of nature's boundless displays of beauty, Venus's orbit when seen from earth traces a pentagram over an eight-year cycle known as the grand quintile, succinctly elaborated at; they also created the excellent graphic below (you may need to click on the image to enlarge it for clarity).

The pentagram traced by Venus is actually a fractal one, and when plotted graphically (below) reveals a nexus of symbolic meanings: the five petalled rose (the English rose), the lily (the royal fleur-de-lys) and the alchemical quintessence, the fifth and pentultimate of the classical elements (earth, wind, fire and water), the æther. In short, we are being invited to witness a royal apotheosis, and I for one am expecting a jolly good show.

The Good Sumerians

The celebratory ceremony of the jubilee is as old as civilization itself, a tradition that stretches back through medieval Christianity to ancient Israel and ultimately to Sumer and First Dynasty Egypt, whereupon it is lost to recorded history.

The first recorded ruler to proclaim a jubilee is Enmetena, king of Lagash, an ancient Sumerian city-state. His proclamation of "freedom" (ama-gi, written in cuneiform above and literally translated as "a return to the mother") is documented in a tablet dating from ca. 2400 BC:
A remission of the obligations (ama-gi) of Lagash he instituted.
He returned the mother to the child
and returned the child to the mother,
and a remission
(ama-gi) of interest-bearing barley loans he instituted.
Some fifty years later, a successor king of Lagash, Urukagina, also declared a universal pardon and is the first ruler known to institute reforms to fight inequities and corruption, detailed in surviving tablets such as the following excerpt from a praise poem of his reign. The poem recounts man's eternal subjegation to taxes and takings and is profoundly depressing when one considers that it was written four and a half millenia ago, yet begins with the words:
From time immemorial, since life began,
in those days, the head boatman appropriated boats, the livestock official appropriated asses, the livestock official appropriated sheep, and the fisheries inspector appropriated [fish].... These were the conventions of former times!

Egypt: Run for your throne! Run for your life!

Though adapted over time, the Egyptian Heb Sed, or royal jubilee, was a codified test of the pharaoh's fitness to rule. After 30 years' reign, pharaohs were to prove their physical and mental acuity and stamina by running, singing and performing ritualized dances and ceremonies intended to renew their authority, vigor and divinity.

(Below: a view of the Heb Sed courtyard at Saqqara. In the foreground is the socle representing the double throne of Upper and Lower Egypt, with the Heb Sed pavilions and the famed stepped pyramid of Djozer rising behind.)

During the Heb Sed ceremonies, the pharaoh also raised the djed pillar, a phallic fertility symbol, from which derives, I believe, the English-language double entendre of "raising the dead." Thereafter the festival was repeated every three years until the ruler's death. What scraps of information remain concerning the ceremonies indicate nothing concerning those elements of the Heb Sed not directly involving the pharaoh, so we do not know if pardons were involved as well. However, if we go back to the earliest known incarnation of the Heb Sed, pharaohs who failed the test were ceremonially put to death—indicating that society ultimately governed the pharaoh and not the reverse.

"And on the seventh day He rested"

The Jewish jubilee (from the Hebrew yobhel, or ram's horn, blown on the Day of Atonement) was based on a seven-year cycle of crop rotation; in the Torah, Jehovah commanded Moses that fields and orchards were to lie fallow every seventh year, the sabbath year, or shmita. The jubilee year was celebrated at the end of the seventh year of the seventh shmita cycle, or every 50th year. All debts were erased, all sins forgiven, all foreclosed land returned to its prior guardians and a universal pardon was proclaimed.

This article of Mosaic law is detailed in Leviticus 25: 9-10 (KJV):
Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on... the day of atonement... throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

All roads lead to Rome

Pope Boniface VIII, much more economically stingy than Jehovah but spiritually much more indulgent, proclaimed the first Christian Jubilee on the 22nd of February in the year 1300. In return for 15 days of visits to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul for pilgrims and 30 days for native Romans, the penitent faithful (above) received complete absolution of sin.

No debt relief came with purity of soul, and in fact pilgrims indebted themselves to undertake their journeys; nonetheless, the pope's gesture was enthusiastically received throughout Christendom and began a tradition—initially at fifty year intervals, then for a time 33, reverting again to 50, and finally, with Paul II's proclamationin the late 1400s, settling upon a 25-year interval—that continues to this day. In 2000, John Paul II greatly liberalized the requirements for receiving a Jubilee indulgence, though confession, Communion, prayer for the Pope and freedom from all attachment to sin remain mandatory prerequisites.

The British Jubilee

The tradition of the British monarchy celebrating royal jubilees began with the anniversary of George III's 50th year of reign on 25 October 1809, which was celebrated thoughout Britain and the colonies. A private service was held at Windsor and a grand fete and fireworks were offered at Frogmore.

Queen Victoria, the longest reigning British monarch, also celebrated Gold and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897. Two days of pomp, feasting, processions and fireworks were attended by foreign monarchs and administrators from across the Empire, and witnessed by massive crowds. Of her Diamond Jubilee carriage ride, the Queen wrote in her diary, "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those 6 miles of streets... The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified."

"What would Jesus do?"

Which brings us to the present day: a world engulfed in The Depression that Dare Not Speak its Name and rising calls, amid vertiginously rising national and world debt that has reached truly Biblical proportions, for a Biblical response equal to the problem. For those fond of asking, "What would Jesus do?", it is well worth noting that the only time Jesus ever became violent was when driving the money changers from the temple—literally with a whip. Makes one stop a moment to ponder, doesn't it?

Caveat Victor

Throughout history, human societies have recognized the need for renewal, cleansing and release—a reset button, if you will—to resolve inequities and to relieve injustices and imbalances that would otherwise destabilize them and eventually cause outright collapse. The imperative was so strong, in fact, that the jubilee became enshrined as an essential societal regulator and was sacralized as the Word of God as received by Moses. Whatever one's political persuasion, it cannot be denied that the world today is not only in social, political and financial turmoil, but actual distress.

The causes are far too complex to ever outline here, but if we take a few steps back and consider the proverbial Big Picture, it becomes obvious that long unchecked and exponentially accelerating debt creation, coupled with a steadily increasing concentration of wealth and power, threatens the very fabric of society itself.

Of course, those who have amassed most of the marbles won't like giving some of them back, and other inequities will certainly be engendered in doing so. But if we stay with the game metaphor for a moment, has anyone ever finished a game of Monopoly in peace and harmony, or finished the game at all? Inevitably, when the endgame comes into view, dissension arises and a handswipe—or worse—finishes things off. No one plays things out until there is an actual winner.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: A Hole in the Universe

Keeping in the cosmic vein that kicked off Sunday Spotlight, today we'd like to draw your attention to the fact that astronomers have just recently discovered that the universe has an enormous void in it measuring nearly a billion light-years across—which is massive even by universal standards—and conventional astrophysicists have no ready explanation as to why or what this may mean.
Astronomers analyzing data from a sky survey using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) found a slight "cold spot" in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation that—until this discovery—was thought to infuse the universe, a trace of the state of the universe in its infancy shortly after the Big Bang. Upon analysis, this anomaly was revealed to be almost entirely void of any matter whatsoever, and is of a scale that massively dwarfs other such regions previously detected.

It very well could be that astronomers have located Flatland, and I remember when first being taught about dimensions the vivid explanation that if one put one's 3-D finger through a two-dimensional universe represented by a sheet of paper, it would appear as a large void to its inhabitants. Hmmm.

"What we've found is not normal," said astronomer Liliya R. Williams of the University of Minnesota with equally massive understatement, "based on either observational studies or on computer simulations of the large-scale evolution of the Universe."

Evidence for the Multiverse

Concurrently, another group of researchers led by Hiranya Peiris, a cosmologist at University College London, has run an automated scan of CMB satellite-collected data and announced the discovery of several other vast, lozenge-shaped anomolies, and propose that they may be the first proof of the multiverse theory, and that the newly discovered fields may be areas where other universes are impinging on our own. (Below, their skymap with the impingements in various colors at bottom.)

Interesting times we live in. Perhaps many of them...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pavillon d'amour, Neuville-sur-Oise

One of the wonderful things about the Ile-de-France, the region surrounding Paris, is the density of ancient construction and—once beyond the grasp of the hodge-podge of rather depressing suburbs—the beauty and largely intact rural character of the land known as "the great crown." Neuville-sur-Oise is one of these ancient villages, grown around a feudal château, and its pride is one of the most perfect examples of the pavillon d'amour form, so perfect in fact that it negates this hoary architectural cliché of the clichéd age of la douceur de vivre. (Above, our watercolor portrait.)

The octagonally planned pavilion is a true belvedere, magisterially sited on a projecting cut-stone terrace overlooking the river Oise, the massive, canted and chamfered basement suggesting a ship's prow. The building is rather sedate until one considers the voluptuously over-scaled slate roof, another suggestive form evoking the voluminous, curving panniers of an ancien régime court dress.

The property had a brush with fame in the late 18th century, when in 1775 it was purchased by Count Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador to the court of France and confidant and advisor to Marie-Antoinette. Though no documentation exists, it is believed that the pavilion was built earlier, in the mid 17th century, as it literally exudes the quiet sophistication of France's Augustinian Age.

The count brought artisans who had worked on the queen's own apartments at Versailles to embellish the château with fine furniture and exquisitely carved boiseries, and the mistress who undoubtedly inspired the pavilion's appellation was Rosalie Levasseur, who was—in yet another 18th-century cliché—a beautiful opera singer.

The pavilion was restored recently and has become the town's symbol and pride but the Château de Neuville has unfortunately not fared as well and is, inexplicably, a gaping wreck. It is always a mystery how such historic properties, relatively near Paris, can still today remain abandoned and in complete decrepitude.

I always imagine interminable lawsuits by feuding heirs stretching over generations and worthy of Bleak House. At least I prefer this to the idea of the owners allowing the property to rot beyond repair so that the land can be redeveloped, which is most often the case, as French landmark laws have no legal mechanism to force maintenance of most listed properties. However, in truth the still-handsome shell is thankfully slated to be saved and find new life as a retirement home.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reality: an Update

Another Sunday, another Spotlight.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
This Sunday, let's go the whole nine yards, the big enchilada: the nature of reality. Let's look at how things really work, and dig down to the quantum level and see how protons and electrons actually operate, and what they tell us about the nature of reality. Don't worry; I'll keep it simple, but you'll be amazed at what's really going on if you've never been exposed to quantum mechanics before.

Einstein famously said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." So, what did he mean by that, really?

One of the first premises of quantum theory is that the act of observing changes the observed reality. In other words, you will alter what you are observing simply by observing it. Put even more simply, you affect reality simply be being conscious of it.

It sounds crazy, but this highly unsettling premise has been experimentally proven, a good number of times. One of the most famous experimental proofs was set up like this: projecting light through thin parallel slits creates a dispersion pattern on a capture plate behind. If there is no detector, the light registers on the back-plate as a wave pattern; if there is a detector, the light changes state to photon particles and the dispersion pattern is entirely different.

So what's going on here, and what are the implications to be drawn?

Well, we all know Einstein's famous equation, E=mc², which says that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. So Einstein tells us, essentially, that energy is mass and mass, energy. They are just in two different states, like water and ice. In fact, almost 100% of the "real" mass of "solid" objects is actually empty; the near-totality of an atom and its constituent parts actually consists of electromagnetic energy, such as those electrons whizzing about the atomic nucleus in highly excited states.

Okay, still with me? This quantum weirdness was encapsulated by a physicist named Schrödinger, and his famous cat. Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment that pointed out the fundamental paradox inherent in the nature of the smallest units of matter. Imagine you put a cat in a sealed box and whether it lives or dies depends on the energy state of an electron. Since an electron can, at any given time, change from an object with mass into a state of pure energy, and there is no way to know exactly what state it actually is in, since by observing it we alter its state, then the cat is both alive and dead until we open the box to make one of these two states manifest in reality.

Still with me? All right, now let's look at human consciousness and intention. First stop, Princeton University's Engineering Department and the now-terminated Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, which was founded by Robert Jahn, Dean of the school of Aerospace Engineering, and his associate, Brenda Dunne. PEAR describes itself as the "Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena." The findings reported by the PEAR project have caused enormous consternation in psychology circles, followed by grudging acceptance. Here's why:

Utilizing a tightly controlled protocol, Jahn and Dunne studied the effects of conscious intention on the output of random event generators, or REGs, devices that generate random events, most often of an electronic nature. After 25 years of research they unequivocally demonstrated that ordinary human “operators” could significantly influence the devices either locally, at distances of thousands of miles, and/or off-time, that is the effect could be deliberately demonstrated up to several weeks after initiating the experiment.

Simultaneously Jahn and Dunne studied remote perception between humans, that is, the ability of a person at the laboratory to know where someone else was at a secret remote location. Indeed, they found that the percipient knew the nature of the location, selected at random and foreign to both of them, before the remote individual knew where he was to go. Again, a temporal anomaly. These results, all statistically significant to a very high degree, indicated not only that humans could be in “touch” with each other through unknown processes of communication and that they could influence machines by thought alone, but because of the spatial and especially the temporal anomalies, the linkage could not be electromagnetic in nature.

Other experiments demonstrated that intention, per se, was not necessary to produce an anomalous output by the REG. When operators were quiescent or focused on an alternative task, the REG would still react, but in a form that was quite different from when intention was being used. And each operator had their own “signature” or pattern of REG output, that held true no which of several kinds of REGs were employed in an experiment. In group meetings the REG would react anomalously whenever the members of the group would become particularly excited and remain “normal” when members were unexcited.

In other words, those coincidences and synchronicities we've all experienced—such as when you think of an old friend for the first time in years, and you get a message from him or her soon thereafter—are not such coincidences at all. Each and every one of us has a quantifiable, albeit slight, ability to influence reality, and to make manifest our intentions. The New-Age mantra that we create our own reality is hokum but nonetheless we do, slightly, influence reality at all times, simply through our thoughts. There is a mass of ironclad, scientific proof lying behind this statement.

Oh, I almost forgot. It has also just recently been proven that quantum effects work backwards into the past, in a kind of even more mind-bending time-travel entanglement. And we also have Hardy's Paradox: "When Lucien Hardy proposed that one could never reliably make inferences about past events which hadn't been directly observed, a paradox emerged which suggested that whenever one attempted to reason about the past in this way they would be led into error." Oh great! you might be thinking (thus mucking up what you'd just thought an instant before). Well, luckily at least this paradox has been resolved by a team having devised extremely complex experimental protocols, "showing that there is a way, even in quantum mechanics, in which one can quite consistently discuss past events even after they are over and done... without disturbing them." We should be thankful to science that at least the past has been somewhat nailed down, indirectly, after a century's effort.

As Einstein famously said, "Time is an illusion, though a persistent one."

Still with me? All right, let's go a bit further down the rabbit hole by digging further into quantum mechanics. It is also axiomatic that, at any given time, due to the nature of subatomic particles, a principle known as Wave-Particle Duality, that not only will an electron reach a state of pure excitation, thus becoming a wave and having no mass at all, but that all of the other particles making up that atom will do so together in sync, and the atom will momentarily vanish. Of course, given enough time, all the atoms in your car or desk or house or you yourself will find themselves in phase and those objects, too, will blink out of existence for an instant. In fact, the entire universe will blink out of existence for an instant; this is inevitable, given infinite time. (This is the seeming paradox that may—or may not—kill Schrödinger's cat.)

You'll remember that the act of observing light changed it from waves (energy) into mass (particles, in this case, photons). In other words, observing it made the light manifest into photon particles; otherwise, it would simply be immanent, an energy wave. This strongly suggests—since the entire universe is made up of particles that are convertible from mass to energy and back again, and do in fact do this as a matter of course—that it is the act of observing that makes immanent energy cohere into matter. In other words, if there was no one alive to experience the universe, it would simply remain as energy, a potential, and not manifest itself into the material world.

Remember, the observer, simply by observing, affects what is observed. This is not so far from the quite-serious proposition made by several physicists that reality is a 2-D holographic projection, akin to a video game, and we are living in a very advanced version of the Sims.

There, the nature of reality isn't so hard to understand in the end, is it? Of course, coming to terms with it is another matter entirely. But as you ponder, let's offer Einstein the last word as well:
Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Perrault Brothers and the Fate of Classicism

During the polemical ferment of France in the 1660s, Louis XIV's minister-factotum Colbert and the Perrault brothers, Charles and Claude, laid the intellectual foundations undergirding France’s political and cultural ascendancy. The Perraults played a central role in the adoption of classicism as the French state's de facto official architecture, and in turn classicism's transplantation from Italy to France had a decisive effect on the evolution of Western architecture, as a newly unhobbled France—with a population of over 20 million (greater than that of the rest of Europe combined) and an administration of rare ambition and matching competence—overtook Italy to finally claim its proper place as the first power of Europe.

Architecture had long been understood as the most tangible manifestation of the power and taste of princes, and so it is no surprise that it became intimately integrated with politics in a court where everything was considered to have political utility and a propagandistic dimension. However, the profession—long-neglected due to decades of civil unrest and the dearth of commissions during Louis XIV's long regency—had fallen into a state of disarray which demanded urgent, remedial attention.

This crisis was quickly redressed; in fact, it lasted less than a decade, and by the mid-1670s the negative impact of several initial architectural missteps (most notably Versailles itself) was effectively erased by the extraordinary efficacy and reach of the propaganda machine installed by Colbert and the cultural élite functioning under his direction, with Charles Perrault (above), also author of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, acting as his chief architectural assitant. Architecture became so thoroughly enmeshed with the fabrication of the glory of the Sun King, and he in turn with the glory of France, that even today a halo of magnificence serves to protect this closed circle of eternal verities by its blinding influence.

One of the main elements of this hermetic structure is the doctor and architect Claude Perrault’s myth of a French classical tradition stretching back to the late fifteenth century, elaborated in the introduction to his translation of Vitruvius. Perrault's work was on the most basic level an attempt to appropriate Vitruvius—the personification of the Roman roots of the classical tradition—for France, as well as a means to create a classical pre-history to legitimize the adoption of Italian classicism as France's official state architecture.

Scouring France’s architectural history for native classicists and constructing an architectural Pantheon from them became a preoccupation of the Académie, as its members attempted to build a stair—however fragile—between French vernacular architecture and the state-sponsored classicism of the reign of Louis XIV. Tellingly, Perrault (below) whined in his introduction to Vitruvius that generations of Italian architects had conspiratorially hoarded their knowledge of classicism, and as proof he cited the dearth of Italian architectural treatises (frankly one has to laugh at his shamelessness).

All this was simply a desperate attempt to backfill an irreducible historical void, for there is a sharp break in French architecture between the hybrid classical/vernacular as practiced at mid-seventeenth century and the state-sponsored classicism that resulted from Bernini’s voyage to Paris in 1665. Indigenous French architecture, which Colbert took for granted as the most tangible symbol of royal power and authority save for exploits of war, could not be implicated as being unworthy of the role the royal administration had defined for it, and thus history had to be manipulated to bring the past into alignment with the needs of the present.

Classicism, that noble enterprise reborn with the Italian Renaissance, was adopted wholesale by France in the wake of Bernini’s passage. (The great Roman sculptor and architect had remarked while viewing Paris from the heights of Meudon that the city was like a carding comb: a forest of chimney pots unrelieved by any monument worthy of notice, ancient or modern, excepting its great gothic churches.) The cultural bureaucracy under Colbert's direction—which may as well be called the Perrault brothers' cabal—undertook a two-pronged effort to first efface Bernini's influence, primarily by vicious slanders directed by Charles, and secondly to erase any trace that France had ever known a time before classicism at all by Claude's fabrication of a made-to-order classical pre-history, anchored by a false legitimacy based on patently ridiculous claims to France’s inheritance of the legacy of Imperial Rome. It thus comes as no surprise that early in his reign, Louis XIV was more often represented as Caesar Augustus, Rome's great emperor, than he was as Apollo, god of illumination and the arts.

Perrault’s classical canon was simply pure propaganda (even the Spanish Habsburg's Escorial somehow got on the list) and served to obscure the Italian parentage of French classicism and thus held an important political dimension at the onset of an era of aggressive French adventurism in Europe. With the appropriation of Renaissance classicism by the cultural bureaucracy, absolutism supplanted humanism as the ideology underpinning architectural expression, and architecture became inextricably enmeshed with state policy and the manipulation of history to promote Louis XIV’s gloire—that is, the myth of the young, untried king’s power and omniscience, his generative force and semi-divine status.

Claude Perrault's Vitruvian project was instrumental in defining the theoretical boundaries and concerns ruling French classicism, but he also played a crucial role in facilitating its adoption by architects by devising a system for the practical application of classical principles, which he published as The Ordinance of the Five Columnar Orders According to the Methods of the Ancients in 1683. The work was an extraordinarily important manifesto couched as a practical “how-to“ guide to architectural composition, and its widespread adoption and numerous translations had a profound impact upon the course of classical architecture.

The treatise reflects Perrault’s dismissal of humanist principles and his promulgation of Descartian rationalism, with its view of a mechanistic universe. Perrault dismissed the quasi-mystical theoretical trappings which had enveloped the five columnar orders, but in so doing destroyed the fusion between meaning and proportion that imbued Renaissance classicism.

His underlying thesis was crucially incomplete, for Perrault concentrated solely upon codifying a single set of “perfect“ proportions for each of the five columnar orders (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite) while ignoring the larger, determinant question of the proportions of the building being ordered. Specifically, Perrault attempted to deduce a single formula for the internal relationships between the constituent elements of each of the orders, which he deduced by measuring a range of Ancient precedents and establishing a mathematical mean from them. To put it quite bluntly, Perrault invented cookie-cutter classicism, one size fits all.

In classicism, the building’s proportions were paramount and were ruled by the application of geometrical precepts derived from Greek harmonics and mathematics—namely, the Pythagorean geometrical progression of prime numbers and their relation to musical chords, elucidated in Plato’s Timaeus and encapsulated by the Harmonia mundi, the Music of the spheres (below). The proportions a classically trained architect selected to guide his design were comparable to the tonal key chosen by the composer of a musical work, and they in turn determined the choice and treatment of the columnar order that regulated and imposed hierarchy upon the composition.

The orders themselves, far from being static entities whose proportions could be scientifically deduced and quantified, were rather a kind of Platonic ideal, universal in theory but infinitely adaptable in their particulars. Thus they were a closed but elastic system that remained internally coherent, even though their constituent measures (the length of a column in relation to its diameter, for example) were logically varied in response to an architect’s intent and the proportional “key“ he employed.

Unaware or uninterested that a higher level of ordering principles was inextricably enmeshed in the humanist philosophy he dismissed, Perrault never properly addressed the question of the proportions of buildings. Though the French Académie pondered the question and several members also likened proportion to musical composition, these deliberations offered little more than vague platitudes—a feeble echo of the intellectual coherence and direct applicability of humanist principles.

The translation of classicism into a French idiom and its subsequent dissemination had far-reaching historical impact. The wide dissemination of Perrault’s treatise on the orders—which became a massive bestseller throughout Europe for over a century—was instrumental in pushing these principles into obscurity and depriving classicism of the greater part of its creative potential, an impoverishment compounded by the pedantic regimentation of the Académie. (One would be quite interested to know what these savants must have thought about Michelangelo's elongated yet massive, unfluted and volute-less Ionic/Doric columns—in pairs, no less—at the Laurentian Library in Florence, for example.)

Claude Perrault's conception was fully at odds with his subject, for classicism was an art whose fundamental aim was to transcribe Platonic ideals into stone and to express the poetry of the spheres with captured space. In essence, Perrault reduced a complex and nuanced art to the simplistic application of formula—a process of deracination that led to increasingly formulaic designs and that doubtless hastened classicism’s demise.

So shorn, apparently quite in ignorance, of its living, humanist roots, French classicism quickly devolved to the formulas employed by Jules-Hardouin-Mansart, the first and most successful student of Perrault's precepts. The compositional ease Perrault’s ideas afforded him found their ultimate fruit in the remarkable lack of scholarly interest in Hardouin-Mansart (the first monograph of his work was only published some five years ago), even though he was one of the most prolific architects in history and almost single-handedly defined (and designed) the architecture of the Age of Louis XIV. And this is because Hardouin-Mansart's designs are a simulacrum of classicism, a projection of gloire simplified and aggrandized to serve the needs of a monarch who in his maturity was less the leader of a kingdom than he was the figurehead of a vast state bureaucracy.

(Below, Hardouin-Mansart in action: the right-hand wing is the original Enveloppe of Versailles, at left his massive palace-by-the-yard northern addition; a nearly identical pendant was built to the south)

In turn, Hardouin-Mansart's stylistic hegemony and its limited repertoire would crowd out the experiments of the pioneering generations of French classicists and impose itself upon France, and Europe, for well over a century. Add to this the fundamental difference between the French and Italian conception of building—the Italian sculpts a cubic mass, while the Frenchman aligns rectilinear blocks in an accretive fashion—and the end result is Haussman’s Paris, its endless boulevards lined with uniformly handsome and nearly indistinguishable limestone apartment blocks. (Every Parisian has at least once left the Métro distracted and stood, hopelessly disoriented, wondering if he got off at the right stop.)

In the face of increasingly numbing standardization, architects abandoned the search for meaningful form and were seduced by the glittering attractions of novelty, engendering successive waves of historical pastiche in both the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (below, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton). Toward the end of both periods, committed classicists sought a corrective, reinvigorating classical vocabulary with new forms and a return to clarity and purified volumetrics.

Ultimately Perrault’s legacy is ambiguous. Turning to Italy in the seventeenth century, classicism also suffered decline as humanist culture waned, and Perrault’s principles, riding a swelling wave of French political, military and cultural influence, seem simply to have accelerated the inevitable. Perrault undoubtedly banalized classicism, but in so doing offered the key to its widespread adoption and thus played a critical role in fostering the extraordinary flowering of neoclassicism in eighteenth-century Europe.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Music of the Spheres

Being fascinated by all aspects of physics, from quantum to astro, I was literally bowled over by this short video by the Dutch freelance video editor, Sander van den Berg. With simple genius, he has assembled countless still photos from the Voyager and Cassini missions to Saturn and Jupiter, creating a short (less than 2 minute) video of staggering beauty and grace.

As you ponder the aching beauty of the rings of Saturn, in mythology our first sun, which was cast out to become Kronos, father of time, ponder also the death-knell of Dark Matter, that Harry Potteresque, magical, virtually undetectable mass—roughly 23% of the mass of the universe, presumably—that was cooked up to hold everything together. Apparently, it does not exist.

Enjoy; a real-life space odyssey and learning that science cannot account for the vast majority of the universe seem to be the perfect subjects to launch our Sunday Spotlight of not-to-be-missed content pulsing through the internet tubes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Peleş Castle

Peleş Castle, like Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz, is so perfect in its way, so zeitgeistig, that if it didn't already exist it would have to be created. Far more successfully than even the famed Neuschwanstein Castle built by Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Romanian alpine estate incarnates 19th century troubadour romanticism.

This post will be short on text and long on photos, simply because the property is so extraordinarily visually seductive—but its history is very short. (We highly recommend that you click on any photo to launch the enlarged photostream.) The castle was the brainchild of Carol I, Romania's first monarch, who discovered the achingly picturesque alpine scenery in 1866, then ordered purchase of 500 square miles to form the royal estate of Sinaia in 1872.

The king rejected three initial proposals as too simplistically historicist and lacking inspiration, but the scheme of German architect Johannes Schultz delighted him. Construction began in 1873 and the castle was inaugurated a decade later, though major elements, most notably the main tower (which rises 217 ft.), were added over later years until the estate reached its final form in 1914. An amusing pseudo-anachronism: Peleş was the first castle to be fully wired for electricity from the outset, with its own generator building.

This amazing confection, melding Tyrolian, Germanic and Italian Renaissance styles into a tour-de-force of historicizing scenography, features typically bombastic fin-de-siècle rooms encrusted with ornate woodwork, but like all follies, the interiors are simply an excuse for the exterior.

The castle, today a state-run museum, holds important collections of swords and armor and also of art, including most notably three works by the young Gustav Klimt.