Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Corinthian Order

In comparison to the intellectual and even spiritual encodings that make the Doric and Ionic orders and their Egyptian forebears so resonant, the origins of the Corinthian order, the last of the three classical orders to emerge from Antiquity, is much more clear and its symbolic meaning much more self-evident.

The oldest known Corinthian column was found in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, built by the architect Iktinos (who with Kallikrates designed the Parthenon) and dated to circa 420 BC. Curiously, the temple itself (above, an old photograph, before it was roofed for restoration) is Doric, with the Ionic employed within the cella, where a single, freestanding Corinthian column held pride of place. This unusual placement indicates that the column was likely meant to be a votive column and also makes the temple unique in that its architecture boasts all three of the Ancient orders.

During the next century, the Corinthian order remains an interior embellishment and its first documented exterior use occurs in Athens, at the famed Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (above and below), erected circa 334 BC. The diminutive cylindrical tempietto, raised on a cubic base, was crowned by a bronze tripod, the prize that the patron Lysicrates' choir had won in a competition in the Theatre of Dionysus.

The Greeks did not much care for the Corinthian order and employed it sparsely but the Romans used it for just about everything, and it is a bit surprising that this most practical of people chose the most ornate of the Greek orders to make their own. Doubtless, it was exactly the Corinthian order's inherent decorative qualities that most appealed to them, as well as it being the last and least-employed of the Greek orders. In a word, the Corinthian's malleability was key to its success in Imperial Rome: it could be adapted and embellished and its proportions revisited to suit any situation. (Below, a rare Greek temple using the Corinthian order, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens.)

Vitruvius credits the Corinthian sculptor and architect Callimachus with the order's invention, recounting the story that he was inspired by a grave marker for a wellborn girl left by her nurse (first illustration). She had set a basket upon the grave with a roof tile placed upon it to protect the offerings inside, the girl's favorite objects. In spring, an acanthus grew around the basket, its young stalks pressed into volutes by the overhanging tile. Callimachus happened to stroll by and had a Eureka! moment and the rest, as they say, is history—though likely mostly story.

Callimachus was famed for his bravura sculptural technique and is credited with being the first sculptor to undercut and drill marble to create greater relief in drapery, foliage and hair. The elaborately undercut acanthus foliage and volutes of the Corinthian capital, which demands just such sculptural virtuosity, does indeed argue for his authorship. (Below: an early capital from the Tholos at Epidarius.)

Admittedly, we do also find distant precursors in Assyrian architecture, following the same trail that we did for the Ionic, but the extreme ornamental complexity of the Corinthian order and its reliance on naturalistic acanthus-leaf decoration are sure signs that we should not bother to look too deeply for hidden meanings: the Corinthian is a decorative order, a product of Greece's 'baroque' period. It is a bravura flourish, a complex and contrived ornamental outburst—a self-conscious creation. Indeed it may well be that one of Vitrivius' mundane explanations finally happens to be true.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Ionic Order

The Ionic order originated, unsurprisingly, in seafaring Ionia in the early 6th century BC. Culturally, the Ionians were thoroughly Greek and quite naturally they spoke Ionian, a Greek dialect.

Ionia itself was a small but economically and culturally powerful Greek province, actually a ridiculously small coastal enclave (no more than 90 x 55 miles in extent, located near Smyrna in present-day Anatolia, Turkey) that also encompassed the islands of Samos and Chios. Its major city, Miletus, was an important commercial center and Phocaea was a great port. Both cities spawned colonies, spreading Ionian influence throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and with Samos were the backbone of Ionian power and influence.

This loose confederation for a time banded together to form the Ionian League, which was an early and great center of Greek civilization. Its legacies are staggeringly outsized: the foundations of Greek philosophy, geometry and mathematics with the Ionian school of the eminent Thales and his followers Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Archelaus, and Diogenes of Apollonia; the mystery school founded by Pythagoras of Samos, the great geometer and philosopher; and generations of brilliant artists and architects who deeply influenced the development of Hellenic art. In fact, if Western civilization was born in ancient Greece, then Greek civilization can be said to have been born in Ionia.

This Ionian cultural and intellectual explosion ignited in the 6th century BC, at the birth of the Ionic order, and Ionic temples began to appear on the Greek mainland in the following century. According to Vitruvius, the architects Rhoikos and Theodorus of Samos built the first of the great Ionic temples at Samos, dedicated to Hera, circa 580-560 BCE (above, its floor plan and a surviving capital). Though it stood but a decade before being leveled by an earthquake, the temple of Hera at Samos was a remarkably ambitious undertaking, famous throughout the Greek world. Quite simply, it was the first great Greek temple, its footprint large as a soccer field, rivaling in scale and architectural ambition the temples of Egypt. (Below, the temple of Artemis at Ephesius, comparable in period and scale.)

Here, at the very birth of the Ionic order, we are confronted with a truly monumental construction that forces us to rethink our notions of the scale of the Greek temple. To give some sense of this temple's massive size, the Parthenon's stylobate or plinth measures approximately 70 x 31 meters, nearly a third smaller. As Nancy Mitford would say, the temple of Hera at Samos put Greece—or more truthfully, tiny Ionia—on the map.

The Ionic Column

Ionic column shafts, more slender than the Doric, usually stand eight to nine column diameters tall and may be fluted or smooth. When fluted, they traditionally carry 24 flutes, as opposed to 20 for the Doric. The flutes are slightly separated, leaving a thin strip of unfluted column between them known as a fillet, as opposed to the Doric, where the flutes abut at an acute angle. Finally, Ionic columns have a ringed base and square pad that raises them off the stylobate, or temple plinth, an element the Doric lacks completely.

Its capital is far and away the Ionic order's most remarkable feature, and the capital's most important characteristic is its bi-fold symmetry, or directional orientation, in contrast to the Doric's radial unity. That the Ionic capital has clearly defined faces and sides is a crucial observation to keep in mind as we go digging through the byways of ancient civilizations looking for its predecessors. If it is a truism that "the lie is different at every level," then it also holds that the truth is also different at every level, and builds accretively, and the Ionic order presents us with a multitude of precedents and influences.

The Ionic capital's volutes, also popularly called "eyes," have led to the painfully simplistic speculation that the Ionic column can be interpreted anthropomorphically, with the fluted shaft depicting a woman's toga-clad body and the capital her head (and, one supposes, the volutes must then depict Princess Leia's hair).

Others have proposed that the spiraling volutes depict rams' horns or nautilus shells, and here we are moving much closer to the truth. The principle underlying both those physical forms is the Fibonacci sequence, a simple arithmetic progression that regulates and balances natural growth, including those rams' horns and nautilus shells and all matter of things from artichokes to tree branches, pine cones, fern heads and so on. You'll also find it topping the neck of classical string instruments such as violins, violas and cellos—the element called, appropriately enough, the scroll.

Fibonacci, otherwise known as Leonardo of Pisa, was the first to publish this arithmetical progression (0; 0+1=1; 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13...) in 1202, gaining him lasting fame. But alas, like just about every other bit of knowledge of this nature, he was simply publicly disseminating elements of the ancient occult knowledge of the Egyptian mystery schools for the first time. In truth, this formula was part of the Sacred Geometry of ancient Egypt and was also known to the ancient Vedic civilization as well.

Out of Egypt (again)

And how did the occult knowledge of the ancient mysteries, the precious high knowledge of the Egyptian priestly class, escape Egypt to become known to Greece and then to the West? Through those wily, intrepid seafarers, the ancient Greeks, of course. A number of very old, very famous Greeks—among them Thales, Plato and Pythagoras—made quite some names for themselves after traveling to Egypt to become initiates of the mysteries.

These renowned sages were hardly solitary pilgrims. As we mentioned in our earlier post on the Doric, Greeks and Egyptians were carrying on a robust economic and cultural trade in the Archaic period and the Ionians were at its forefront; when the first Ionic temples were being built, Ionia was in the midst of an Egyptian trade boom.

According to Pliny, the very form of the great temple of Hera at Samos, a grid of 8 x 21 columns covering roughly 50 x 100 meters, evokes the Egyptian Labyrinth at Hawara, a vast mortuary complex of twelve courtyards (and according to Heroditus, who had visited) over 3000 rooms built for Pharaoh Amenemhat III, the last great king of the 12th dynasty. The Labyrinth (above, a recent computer-generated reconstruction) was one of the wonders of the Ancient world and far more famous in antiquity than the Great Pyramid. Tragically, the Romans used Hawara as a quarry and with customary thoroughness so completely effaced the complex that, even after major excavations, reconstructions of the Labyrinth are still based almost entirely on ancient descriptions. Nonetheless, Pliny specifically mentions the temple of Hera at Samos, with its dense grid of columns, as one of the world's great labyrinths, comparable to the Egyptian Labyrinth, famed for being so bewildering that one had to visit with a ball of string or a native guide. (Below, a view of the pronaos of the temple of Artemis at Ephesius.)

When we seek out the earliest recognizable Archaic precursors to Ionic columns, we first find ourselves on the isles of Lesbos and Troas, birthplace of the Aeolic capital, composed of two robust volutes bracketing a palmette. The Lesvs were great poets and pre-eminent seafarers and colonized the coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia, or contemporary Turkey), and the Aeolian city of Smyrna was admitted to the Ionian league circa 650 BC, unsurprisingly bringing us full circle back to Ionia's doorstep. (Below, an Aeolian capital from Neandria in Troas, an ancient city on the Turkish coast not far from Ionia).

Obviously, this abstracted floral motif is an adaptation of Egyptian lotus and papyrus capitals, and indeed one of the earliest recognizably Ionic capitals, which rotates the Aeolian volutes to link them horizontally, creating a pad, has been found in the Greek enclave of Naukratis in Egypt (below).

Assyrian Roots

Formally, the Ionic capital's directionality indicates that its earliest precursors were cap blocks meant to span and support beams and lintels, a construction technique most elaborated in Assyrian architecture. Egypt had fallen under control of the Assyrian empire in Archaic times, and a simple glance at early Assyrian capitals and particularly those used at Persepolis (both below), indicates that the ultimate inspiration for the Ionic springs from Assyria. (Though Persepolis was begun a century after the appearance of the Ionic, its architecture exhibits an extremely high level of refinement, indicating a long prior tradition.)

In fact direct proof of influence and exchange can be found in the remnants of the temple of Hera at Samos, where one finds sculpted stones bearing much the same doubled volutes as at Persepolis (below).

Clearly, the Assyrian capital holds a welter of meanings—those at Persepolis have three tiers of symbols: bulls, volutes and lotuses, like a triple-scoop ice cream cone. Other Assyrian precursors depict flowers, humans and rolled papyrus or parchment scrolls (below).

The Ionic abstracts and conflates all these symbols, and this was its genius. The horned bull of Taurus of the Assyrians; the Egyptian lotus; the papyrus scroll, symbol of human intellect; the Fibonacci sequence, sacred geometry encoding nature's growth—all these meanings come together in the volutes of the Ionic capital—a great fusion of ancient knowledge and a symbol above all of the glory of ancient Ionia.

Next: the Corinthian order