ARCHITECTURE: (Part 3)
May 15th, 2008
Pagan Rome. The Roman Empire, founded by Augustus Caesar in 27 BC and lasting in Western Europe for 500 years, reorganized world politics and economics. Almost the entirety of the civilized world became a single centralized state. In place of Greek democracy, piety, and independence came Roman authoritarianism and practicality. Vast prosperity resulted. Europe and the Mediterranean bloomed with trading cities ten times the size of their predecessors with public amenities previously unheard of: basilicas (law courts), theatres, circuses, public baths. And these were now large permanent masonry buildings as were the habitations, tall apartment houses covering whole city blocks, or insulae.
This architectural revolution brought about by the Romans required two innovations: the invention of a new building method concrete vaulting and the organization of labour and capital on a large scale so that huge projects could be executed quickly after the plans of a single master architect.
Roman concrete was a fluid mixture of lime and small stones poured into the hollow centres of walls faced with brick or stone and over curved wooden moulds, or forms, to span spaces as vaults. The Mediterranean is an active volcanic region, and a spongy, light, tightly adhering stone called pozzolana was used to produce a concrete that was both light and extremely strong.
The Romans had developed pozzolana concrete about 100 BC but at first used it only for terrace walls and foundations, as, for example, at the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina, erected about 80 BC. It apparently was the notorious emperor Nero who first used the material on a grand scale to rebuild a region of the city of Rome around his palace, the expansive Domus Aurea (Golden House), after the great fire of AD 64 (which he is erroneously said to have set). Here broad streets, regular blocks of masonry apartment houses, and continuous colonnaded porticoes were erected according to a single plan and partially at state expense. The Domus Aurea itself was a labyrinth of concrete vaulted rooms, many in complex geometric forms. An extensive garden with a lake and forest spread around it.
The architect Severus seems to have been in charge of this great project. Emperors and emperors' architects succeeding Nero and Severus continued and expanded their work of rebuilding and regularizing Rome. Vespasian (emperor AD 63-79) began the Coliseum. Domitian (81-96) rebuilt the Palatine Hill as a huge palace of vaulted concrete designed by his architect Rabirius. Trajan (97-117) erected the expansive forum that bears his name (designed by his architect Apollodorus) and a huge public bath. Hadrian (117-138) proud to serve as his own architect built the Pantheon as well as a villa the size of a small city for himself at Tivoli. Later Caracalla (211-217) and Diocletian (284-305) erected two mammoth baths that bear their names, and Maxentius (306-312) built a huge vaulted basilica, now called the Basilica of Constantine.
The Baths of Caracalla have long been accepted as a summation of Roman culture and engineering. It is a vast building, 360 by 702 feet (110 by 214 metres), set in 50 acres (20 hectares) of gardens. It was one of a dozen establishments of similar size in ancient Rome devoted to recreation and bathing. There were a 60- by 120-foot (18- by 36-metre) swimming pool, hot and cold baths (each not much smaller than the pool), gymnasia, a library, and game rooms. These rooms were of various geometric shapes. The walls were thick, with recesses, corridors, and staircases cut into them. The building was entirely constructed of concrete with barrel, groined, and domical vaults spanning as far as 60 feet (18 metres) in many places. Inside, all the walls were covered with thin slabs of coloured marble or with painted stucco. The decorative forms of this coating, strangely enough, were derived from Greek architecture as though the Romans could build but could not ornament. Therefore, what is Roman about the Baths of Caracalla and the other great constructions of the Romans is merely the skeleton.
The rebuilding of Rome set a pattern copied all over the empire. Nearby, the ruins of Ostia, Rome's port (principally constructed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD), reflect that model. Farther away it reappears at Trier in north-western Germany, at Autun in central France, at Antioch in Syria, and at Timgad and Leptis Magna in North Africa. When political disintegration and barbarian invasions disrupted the western part of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, new cities were founded and built in concrete during short construction campaigns: Ravenna, the capital of the Western Empire from 492-539, and Constantinople in Turkey, where the seat of the empire was moved by Constantine in 330 and which continued thereafter to be the capital of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire.
Christian Rome. One important thing had changed by the time of the founding of Ravenna and Constantinople; after 313 this was the Christian Roman Empire. The principal challenge to the imperial architects was now the construction of churches. These churches were large vaulted enclosures of interior space, unlike the temples of the Greeks and the pagan Romans that were mere statue-chambers set in open precincts. The earliest imperial churches in Rome, like the first church of St. Peter's erected by Constantine from 333, were vast barns with wooden roofs supported on lines of columns. They resembled basilicas, which had carried on the Hellenistic style of columnar architecture. Roman concrete vaulted construction was used in certain cases, for example, in the tomb church in Rome of Constantine's daughter, Santa Costanza, of about 350. In the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, erected in 526-547, this was expanded to the scale of a middle-sized church. Here a domed octagon 60 feet (18 metres) across is surrounded by a corridor, or aisle, and balcony 30 feet (9 metres) deep. On each side a semicircular projection from the central space pushes outward to blend these spaces together.
Byzantine Empire. An impressive series of domical churches was built about the same time as San Vitale, especially in the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople. Here in 532-537 the emperor Justinian had his architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus build Hagia Sophia. A low dome 107 feet (33 metres) in diameter is supported on four triangular vaults, or pendentives, so that two half-domes of the same dimension can open at either side. The central space measures 107 by 220 feet (33 by 67 metres). A deep aisle and balcony surround this, opening into it through arcades and blending with it across semicircular recesses. Externally the building is brought to a rectangle that is 220 by 320 feet (67 by 98 metres) on a side, terracing upward by stages to the dominant central dome.
The symbolic religious buildings of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Japan, and Greece stood apart from the surrounding cities and stated a religious belief in every detail. The Byzantine church, however, was buried in the new masonry city, another domical block like the baths and basilicas nearby. But symbolic expression found a new and powerful medium in the illusionistic decoration of the vast interior church spaces. The interiors of the Baths of Caracalla had been decorated with fragments of Greek architecture, and the walls of Nero's Domus Aurea had been painted in fantastic stage architecture and landscapes. Now the interior of the Byzantine church was covered with glass mosaic pieces. These depicted Biblical scenes and images of saints set against a continuous gold background. The mosaics at Hagia Sophia have been plastered over, but an impression of the original effect survives in the smaller, later churches at Daphni and Hosios Loukas and, especially, San Marco in Venice, begun in 1063. Here the walls of the space are made to disappear in a glow of mystical light, and the worshiper seems to be carried up into the court of Heaven with Christ and all the saints.
Islam. Roman concrete vaulted construction was paralleled and indeed preceded by brick vaulted techniques evolved in Mesopotamia during the thousand years before the birth of Christ. This tradition created a sophisticated type of palace design, seen, for example, in that at Ctesiphon, near Baghdad, built in AD 550. It was passed on to the Islamic dynasties after the foundation of that aggressive religion in 622. Islam, like Christianity, required large covered interior spaces. Also like Christianity, it first created such spaces by the erection of broad wooden roofed enclosures divided by lines of columns, as are seen in the Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, built between 786 and 987. Vaulting was restricted to palaces. In the 12th century, however, masonry vaulting was used in Persia to span the wide spaces of the "Friday" Mosque at Isfahan. Here four deep tunnel vaults open from each side of a courtyard with a dome extending the vault on the side facing toward Mecca. This became the model of the great Egyptian and Iranian mosques of the 16th and 17th centuries. It is seen expanded in scale and ornamented in glowing blue ceramic tile in the Royal Mosque (Masjid-i-Shah) at Isfahan. With their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans developed a type of mosque that combined the Persian type, especially its tile decoration, and the single domical space of the Byzantine church. The celebrated architect Sinan built a series of mosques in the 16th century that displayed a structural resourcefulness and decorative refinement equal to that of his European contemporaries of the High Renaissance. The Islamic tradition closed impressively with the Taj Mahal, erected in Agra, India, in 1630-48, during Muslim rule. It is a domical tomb monument covered in carved marble.
Romanesque. For seven centuries, from 300 to 1000, Europe was a shambles of crude wooden houses and churches. This was in sharp contrast to the continuation of Roman building techniques in the Byzantine and Islamic empires in the East. There had been only one short break in these Dark Ages: the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) was marked by the erection of his palace and palace chapel (792-805) at Aachen (now in Germany), which is a copy of San Vitale in Ravenna. Shortly after 1000, however, a miraculous transformation occurred. Large masonry churches were simultaneously begun all over Europe. The 11th-century monk Raoul Glaber wrote that it was as if the continent was putting on "a white mantle of churches." This was religious architecture built by anonymous architects according to symbolic prescriptions.
A new period of architecture commenced, called Romanesque today because it was the reproduction of Roman vaulted style. The methods of construction were the same, although often very crudely carried out, but great originality was shown in interior spatial planning and in exterior massing and decoration. A new type of church evolved that is excellently represented in St. Sernin at Toulouse, built from about 1080 to 1120. The plan is cross-shaped instead of centralized as at Hagia Sophia. The longest of its four arms extends westward and is the nave. It is crossed by shorter transepts and is balanced by a short chevet, or head, where the altar is set in front of a semicircular end-wall roofed with a half dome. Each arm has an aisle on either side below a high balcony, or triforium. These arms are vaulted with simple half-cylindrical barrel vaults and are narrow so that the intersection, or crossing, is less important for the tiny dome inside than for the tall tower built in tiers above it on the exterior. In the chevet the aisles are carried around the curved end as an ambulatory from which open individual semicircular chapels.
Romanesque churches of this type are in France and northern Spain and Italy and have been called pilgrimage churches because they stand along the route of pilgrimage roads leading to San Juan Campostella. Relics were displayed for veneration in the chapels around the chevet, and sleeping space for pilgrims was provided in the triforium.
Other similar Romanesque church types developed all over Europe. Along the Rhine River large churches were built with narrow, vaulted naves, no transepts, and groups of tall towers at both ends. In northern France the Norman Romanesque evolved with skilful vaulting and pairs of tall towers at the west facades. This style was carried to England by William the Conqueror after 1066 and produced the Anglo-Norman Romanesque of Durham and Ely cathedrals. The Romanesque's most striking manifestation was probably in Italy, among the ruins of the ancient Roman Empire and near the continuing Byzantine culture. Here trading cities were experiencing new prosperity. The Venetians, beginning in 1063, built San Marco with five domes, an elaborate imitation of Byzantine architecture. In Pisa, beginning in 1053, a complex of structures was built a cathedral, bell tower, baptistery, and monumental cemetery of sparkling coloured marbles covered with carved decoration, in part Roman, in part fantastic and barbarian.
Continuing …'ARCHITECTURE: (Part 4)'
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