Val d'Arno/Lecture 06

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marble couchant.

137. I told you in my last lecture that the exquisiteness of Florentine thirteenth century masonry was founded on the strength and splendour of that which preceded it.

I use the word 'founded' in a literal as well as figurative sense. While the merchants, in their year of victories, threw down the walls of the war-towers, they as eagerly and diligently set their best craftsmen to lift higher the walls of their churches. For the most part, the Early Norman or Basilican forms were too low to please them in their present enthusiasm. Their pride, as well as their piety, desired that these stones of their temples might be goodly; and all kinds of junctions, insertions, refittings, and elevations were undertaken; which, the genius of the people being always for mosaic, are so perfectly executed, and mix up twelfth and thirteenth century work in such intricate harlequinade, that it is enough to drive a poor antiquary wild.

138. I have here in my hand, however, a photograph of a small church, which shows you the change at a glance, and attests it in a notable manner.

You know Hubert of Lucca was the first captain of the Florentine people, and the march in which they struck their florin on the pine trunk was through Lucca, on Pisa.

Now here is a little church in Lucca, of which the lower half of the fa9ade is of the twelfth century, and the top, built by the Florentines, in the thirteenth, and sealed for their own by two fleur-de-lys, let into its masonry. The most important difference, marking the date, is in the sculpture of the heads which carry the archivolts. But the most palpable difference is in the Cyclopean simplicity of irregular bedding in the lower storey; and the delicate bands of alternate serpentine and marble, which follow the horizontal or couchant placing of the stones above.

139. Those of you who, interested in English Gothic, have visited Tuscany, are, I think, always offended at first, if not in permanence, by these horizontal stripes of her marble walls.

Twenty-two years ago I quoted, in page 287, vol. i., of the "Stones of Venice," Professor Willis's statement that "a practice more destructive of architectural grandeur could hardly be conceived;" and I defended my favourite buildings against that judgment, first by actual comparison, in the plate opposite the page, of a piece of them with an example of our modern grandeur; secondly, (vol. i., chap. v.,) by a comparison of their aspect with that of the building of the grandest piece of wall in the Alps,—that Matterhorn in which you all have now learned to take some gymnastic interest; and thirdly, (vol. i., chap. xxvi.,) by reference to the use of barred colours, with delight, by Giotto and all subsequent colourists.

140. But it did not then occur to me to ask, much as I always disliked the English Perpendicular, what would have been the effect on the spectator's mind, had the buildings been striped vertically instead of horizontally; nor did I then know, or in the least imagine, how much practical need there was for reference from the structure of the edifice to that of the cliff; and how much the permanence, as well as propriety, of structure depended on the stones being couchant in the wall, as they had been in the quarry: to which subject I wish to-day to direct your attention.

141. You will find stated with as much clearness as I am able, in the first and fifth lectures in "Aratra Pentelici," the principles of architectural design to which, in all my future teaching, I shall have constantly to appeal; namely, that architecture consists distinctively in the adaptation of form to resist force;—that, practically, it may be always thought of as doing this by the ingenious adjustment of various pieces of solid material; that the perception of this ingenious adjustment, or structure, is to be always joined with our admiration of the superadded ornament; and that all delightful ornament is the honouring of such useful structures; but that the beauty of the ornament itself is independent of the structure, and arrived at by powers of mind of a very different class from those which are necessary to give skill in architecture proper.

142. During the course of this last summer I have been myself very directly interested in some of the quite elementary processes of true architecture. I have been building a little pier into Coniston Lake, and various walls and terraces in a steeply sloping garden, all which had to be constructed of such rough stones as lay nearest. Under the dextrous hands of a neighbour farmer's son, the pier projected, and the walls rose, as if enchanted; every stone taking its proper place, and the loose dyke holding itself as firmly upright as if the gripping cement of the Florentine towers had fastened it. My own better acquaintance with the laws of gravity and of statics did not enable me, myself, to build six inches of dyke that would stand; and all the decoration possible under the circumstances consisted in turning the lichened sides of the stones outwards. And yet the noblest conditions of building in the world are nothing more than the gradual adornment, by play of the imagination, of materials first arranged by this natural instinct of adjustment. You must not lose sight of the instinct of building, but you must not think the play of the imagination depends upon it. Intelligent laying of stones is always delightful; but the fancy must not be limited to its contemplation.

143. In the more elaborate architecture of my neighbourhood, I have taken pleasure these many years; one of the first papers I ever wrote on Architecture was a study of the Westmoreland cottage;—properly, observe, the cottage of West-mere-land, of the land of western lakes. Its principal feature is the projecting porch at its door, formed by two rough slabs of Coniston slate, set in a blunt gable; supported, if far projecting, by two larger masses for uprights. A disciple of Mr. Pugin would delightedly observe that the porch of St. Zeno at Verona was nothing more than the decoration of this construction; but you do not suppose that the first idea of putting two stones together to keep off rain was all on which the sculptor of St. Zeno wished to depend for your entertainment.

144. Perhaps you may most clearly understand the real connection between structure and decoration by considering all architecture as a kind of book, which must be properly bound indeed, and in which the illumination of the pages has distinct reference in all its forms to the breadth of the margins and length of the sentences; but is itself free to follow its own quite separate and higher objects of design.

145. Thus, for instance, in the architecture

Vda d148 the door of the baptistry in pisa.jpg

"The Door of the Baptistery, Pisa."

which Niccola was occupied upon, when a boy, under his Byzantine master. Here is the door of the Baptistery at Pisa, again by Mr. Severn delightfully enlarged for us from a photograph.[1] The general idea of it is a square-headed opening in a solid wall, faced by an arch carried on shafts. And the ornament does indeed follow this construction so that the eye catches it with ease,—but under what arbitrary conditions! In the square door, certainly the side-posts of it are as important members as the lintel they carry; but the lintel is carved elaborately, and the side-posts left blank. Of the facing arch and shaft, it would be similarly difficult to say whether the sustaining vertical, or sustained curve, were the more important member of the construction; but the decorator now reverses the distribution of his care, adorns the vertical member with passionate elaboration, and runs a narrow band, of comparatively uninteresting work, round the arch. Between this outer shaft and inner door is a square pilaster, of which the architect carves one side, and lets the other alone. It is followed by a smaller shaft and arch, in which he reverses his treatment of the outer order by cutting the shaft delicately and the arch deeply. Again, whereas in what is called the decorated construction of English Gothic, the pillars would have been left plain and the spandrels deep cut,—here, are we to call it decoration of the construction, when the pillars are carved and the spandrels left plain? Or when, finally, either these spandrel spaces on each side of the arch, or the corresponding slopes of the gable, are loaded with recumbent figures by the sculptors of the renaissance, are we to call, for instance, Michael Angelo's Dawn and Twilight, only the decorations of the sloping plinths of a tomb, or trace to a geometrical propriety the subsequent rule in Italy that no window could be properly complete for living people to look out of, without having two stone people sitting on the corners of it above? I have heard of charming young ladies occasionally, at very crowded balls, sitting on the stairs,—would you call them, in that case, only decorations of the construction of the staircase?

146. You will find, on consideration, the ultimate fact to be that to which I have just referred you;—my statement in "Aratra," that the idea of a construction originally useful is retained in good architecture, through all the amusement of its ornamentation; as the idea of the proper function of any piece of dress ought to be retained through its changes in form or embroidery. A good spire or porch retains the first idea of a roof usefully covering a space, as a Norman high cap or elongated Quaker's bonnet retains the original idea of a simple covering for the head; and any extravagance of subsequent fancy may be permitted, so long as the notion of use is not altogether lost. A girl begins by wearing a plain round hat to shade her from the sun; she ties it down over her ears on a windy day; presently she decorates the edge of it, so bent, with flowers in front, or the riband that ties it with a bouquet at the side, and it becomes a bonnet. This decorated construction may be discreetly changed, by endless fashion, so long as it does not become a clearly useless riband round the middle of the head, or a clearly useless saucer on the top of it.

147. Again, a Norman peasant may throw up the top of her cap into a peak, or a Bernese one put gauze wings at the side of it, and still be dressed with propriety, so long as her hair is modestly confined, and her ears healthily protected, by the matronly safeguard of the real construction. She ceases to be decorously dressed only when the material becomes too flimsy to answer such essential purpose, and the flaunting pendants or ribands can only answer the ends of coquetry or ostentation. Similarly, an architect may deepen or enlarge, in fantastic exaggeration, his original Westmoreland gable into Rouen porch, and his original square roof into Coventry spire; but he must not put within his splendid porch a little door where two persons cannot together get in, nor cut his spire away into hollow filigree, and mere ornamental perviousness to wind and rain.

148. Returning to our door at Pisa, we shall find these general questions as to the distribution of ornament much confused with others as to its time and style. We are at once, for instance, brought to a pause as to the degree in which the ornamentation was once carried out in the doors themselves. Their surfaces were, however, I doubt not, once recipients of the most elaborate ornament, as in the Baptistery of Florence; and in later bronze, by John of Bologna, in the door of the Pisan cathedral opposite this one. And when we examine the sculpture and placing of the lintel, which at first appeared the most completely Greek piece of construction of the whole, we find it so far advanced in many Gothic characters, that I once thought it a later interpolation cutting the inner pilasters underneath their capitals, while the three statues set on it are certainly, by several tens of years, later still.

149. How much ten years did at this time, one is apt to forget; and how irregularly the slower minds of the older men would surrender themselves, sadly, or awkwardly, to the vivacities of their pupils. The only wonder is that it should be usually so easy to assign conjectural dates within twenty or thirty years; but, at Pisa, the currents of tradition and invention run with such cross eddies, that I often find myself utterly at fault. In this lintel, for instance, there are two pieces separated by a narrower one, on which there has been an inscription, of which in my enlarged plate you may trace, though, I fear, not decipher, the few letters that remain. The uppermost of these stones is nearly pure in its Byzantine style; the lower, already semi-Gothic. Both are exquisite of their kind, and we will examine them closely; but first note these points about the stones of them. We are discussing work at latest of the thirteenth century. Our loss of the inscription is evidently owing to the action of the iron rivets which have been causelessly used at the two horizontal joints. There was nothing whatever in the construction to make these essential, and, but for this error, the entire piece of work, as delicate as an ivory tablet, would be as intelligible to-day as when it was laid in its place.[2]

150. Laid. I pause upon this word, for it is an important one. And I must devote the rest of this lecture to consideration merely of what follows from the difference between la3dng a stone and setting it up, whether we regard sculpture or construction. The subject is so wide, I scarcely know how to approach it. Perhaps it will be the pleasantest way to begin if I read you a letter from one of yourselves to me. A very favourite pupil, who travels third class always, for sake of better company, wrote to me the other day: "One of

Vda d155 the story of st john - the advent.jpg

"The Story of St. John. Advent"


Vda d159 the story of st john - the departure.jpg

"The Story of St. John Departure."

my fellow-travellers, who was a builder, or else a master mason, told me that the way in which red sandstone buildings last depends entirely on the way in which the stone is laid. It must lie as it dots in the quarry; but he said that very few workmen could always tell the difference between the joints of planes of cleavage and the—something else which I couldn't catch,—by which he meant, I suppose, planes of stratification. He said too that some people, though they were very particular about having the stone laid well, allowed blocks to stand in the rain the wrong way up, and that they never recovered one wetting. The stone of the same quarry varies much, and he said that moss will grow immediately on good stone, but not on bad. How curious,—nature helping the best workman!" Thus far my favourite pupil!

151. 'Moss will grow on the best stone,' The first thing your modern restorer would do is to scrape it off; and with it, whatever knitted surface, half moss root, protects the interior stone. Have you ever considered the infinite functions of protection to mountain form exercised by the mosses and lichens? It will perhaps be refreshing to you, after our work among the Pisan marbles and legends, if we have a lecture or two on moss. Meantime I need not tell you that it would not be a satisfactory natural arrangement if moss grew on marble, and that all fine workmanship in marble implies equal exquisiteness of surface and edge.

152. You will observe also that the importance of laying the stone in the building as it lay in its bed was from the first recognized by all good northern architects, to such extent that to lay stones 'en delit,' or in a position out of their bedding, is a recognized architectural term in France, where all structural building takes its rise; and in that form of 'delit' the word gets most curiously involved with the Latin delictum and deliquium. It would occupy the time of a whole lecture if I entered into the confused relations of the words derived from lectus, liquidus, delinquo, diliquo, and deliquesco; and of the still more confused, but beautifully confused, (and enriched by confusion,) forms of idea, whether respecting morality or marble, arising out of the meanings of these words: the notions of a bed gathered or strewn for the rest, whether of rocks or men; of the various States of solidity and liquidity connected with strength, or with repose; and of the duty of staying quiet in a place, or under a law, and the mischief of leaving it, being all fastened in the minds of early builders, and of the generations of men for whom they built, by the unescapable bearing of geological laws on their life; by the ease or difficulty of splitting rocks, by the variable consistency of the fragments split, by the innumerable questions occurring practically as to bedding and cleavage in every kind of stone, from tufo to granite, and by the unseemly or beautiful, destructive or protective, effects of decomposition.[3] The same processes of time which cause your Oxford oolite to flake away like the leaves of a mouldering book only warm with a glow of perpetually deepening gold the marbles of Athens and Verona; and the same laws of chemical change which reduce the granites of Dartmoor to porcelain clay bind the sands of Coventry into stones which can be built up half-way to the sky.

153. But now, as to the matter immediately before us, observe what a double question arises about laying stones as they lie in the quarry. First, how do they lie in the quarry? Secondly, how can we lay them so in every part of our building?

a. How do they lie in the quarry? Level, perhaps, at Stonesfield and Coventry; but at an angle of 45° at Carrara; and for aught I know, of 90° in Paros or Pentelicus. Also, the bedding is of prime importance at Coventry, but the cleavage at Coniston.[4]

b. And then, even if we know what the quarry bedding is, how are we to keep it always in our building? You may lay the stones of a wall carefully level, but how will you lay those of an arch? You think these, perhaps, trivial, or merely curious questions. So far from it, the fact that while the bedding in Xormandy is level, that at Carrara is steep, and that the forces which raised the beds of Carrara crystallized them also, so that the cleavage which is all-important in the stones of my garden wall is of none in the duomo of Pisa,—simply determined the possibility of the existence of Pisan sculpture at all, and regulated the whole life and genius of Nicholas the Pisan and of Christian art. And, again, the fact that you can put stones in true bedding in a wall, but cannot in an arch, determines the structural transition from classical to Gothic architecture.

154. The structural transition, observe; only a part, and that not altogether a coincident part, of the moral transition. Read carefully, if you have time, the articles 'Pierre' and 'Meneau' in M. Viollet le Duc's Dictionary of Architecture, and you will know everything that is of importance in the changes dependent on the mere qualities of matter. I must, however, try to set in your view also the relative acting qualities of mind.

You will find that M. Viollet le Duc traces all the forms of Gothic tracery to the geometrical and practically serviceable development of the stone 'chassis,' chasing, or frame, for the glass. For instance, he attributes the use of the cusp or 'redent', in its more complex forms, to the necessity, or convenience, of diminishing the space of glass which the tracery grasps; and he attributes the reductions of the mouldings in the tracery bar, under portions of one section, to the greater facility thus obtained by the architect in directing his workmen. The plan of a window once given, and the moulding-section,—all is said, thinks M. Viollet le Duc. Very convenient indeed, for modern architects who have commission on the cost. But certainly not necessary, and perhaps even ^convenient, to Niccola Pisano, who is himself his workman, and cuts his own traceries, with his apron loaded with dust.

155. Again, the redent—the 'tooth within tooth' of a French tracery—may be necessary, to bite its glass. But the cusp, cuspis, spiny or spearlike point of a thirteenth century illumination is not in the least necessary to transfix the parchment. Yet do you suppose that the structural convenience of the redent entirely effaces from the mind of the designer the æsthetic characters which he seeks in the cusp? If you could for an instant imagine this, you would be undeceived by a glance either at the early redents of Amiens, fringing hollow vaults, or the late redents of Rouen, acting as crockets on the outer edges of pediments.

156. Again: if you think of the tracery in its bars, you call the cusp a redent; but if you think of it in the openings, you call the apertures of it foils. Do you suppose that the thirteenth century builder thought only of the strength of the bars of his enclosure, and never of the beauty of the form he enclosed? You will find in my chapter on the Aperture, in the "Stones of Venice," full development of the æsthetic laws relating to both these forms, while you may see, in Professor Willis's 'Architecture of the Middle Ages,' a beautiful analysis of the development of tracery from the juxtaposition of aperture; and in the article 'Meneau,' just quoted of M. Viollet le Duc, an equally beautiful analysis of its development from the masonry of the chassis. You may at first think that Professor Willis's analysis is inconsistent with M. Viollet le Duc's. But they are no more inconsistent than the accounts of the growth of a human being would be, if given by two anatomists, of whom one had examined only the skeleton, and the other only the respiratory system; and who, therefore, supposed—the first, that the animal had been made only to leap, and the other only to sing. I don't mean that either of the writers I name is absolutely thus narrow in his own views, but that, so far as inconsistency appears to exist between them, it is of that partial kind only.

157. And for the understanding of our Pisan traceries we must introduce a third element of similarly distinctive nature. We must, to press our simile a little farther, examine the growth of the animal as if it had been made neither to leap, nor to sing, but only to think. We must observe the transitional states of its nerve power; that is to say, in our window tracery we must consider not merely how its ribs are built, (or how it stands,) nor merely how its openings are shaped, or how it breathes; but also what its openings are made to light, or its shafts to receive, of picture or image. As the limbs of the building, it may be much; as the lungs of the building, more. As the eyes[5] of the building, what?

158. Thus you probably have a distinct idea—those of you, at least, who are interested in architecture—of the shape of the windows in Westminster Abbey, in the Cathedral of Chartres, or in the Duomo of Milan. Can any of you, I should like to know, make a guess at the shape of the windows in the Sistine Chapel, the Stanze of the Vatican, the Scuola di San Rocco, or the lower church of Assisi? The soul or anima of the first three buildings is in their windows; but of the last three, in their walls.

All these points I may for the present leave you to think over for yourselves, except one, to which I must ask yet for a few moments your further attention.

159. The trefoils to which I have called your attention in Niccola's pulpit are as absolutely without structural office in the circles as in the panels of the font beside it. But the circles are drawn with evident delight in the lovely circular line, while the trefoil is struck out by Niccola so roughly that there is not a true compass curve or section in any part of it.

Roughly, I say. Do you suppose I ought to have said carelessly? So far from it, that if one sharper line or more geometric curve had been given, it would have caught the eye too strongly, and drawn away the attention from the sculpture. But imagine the feeling with which a French master workman would first see these clumsy intersections of curves. It would be exactly the sensation with which a practical botanical draughtsman would look at a foliage background of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But Sir Joshua's sketched leaves would indeed imply some unworkmanlike haste. We must not yet assume the Pisan master to have allowed himself in any such. His mouldings may be hastily cut, for they are, as I have just said, unnecessary to his structure, and disadvantageous to his decoration; but he is not likely to be careless about arrangements necessary for strength. His mouldings may be cut hastily, but do you think his, joints will be?

160. What subject of extended inquiry have we in this word, ranging from the cementless clefts between the couchant stones of the walls of the kings of Rome, whose iron rivets you had but the other day placed in your hands by their discoverer, through the grip of the stones of the Tower of the Death-watch, to the subtle joints in the marble armour of the Florentine Baptistery!

Our own work must certainly be left with a rough surface at this place, and we will fit the edges of it to our next piece of study as closely as we may.

  1. Plate 5 is from the photograph itself; the enlarged drawing showed the arrangement of parts more clearly, but necessarily omitted detail which it is better here to retain.
  2. Plates 6 and 7 give, in greater clearness, the sculpture of this lintel, for notes on which see Appendix.
  3. This passage cannot but seem to the reader loose and fantastic. I have elaborate notes, and many an unwritten thought, on these matters, but no time or strength to develop them. The passage is not fantastic, but the rapid index of what I know to be true in all the named particulars. But compare, for mere rough illustration of what I mean, the moral ideas relating to the stone of Jacob's pillow, or the tradition of it, with those to which French Flamboyant Gothic owes its character.
  4. There are at least four definite cleavages at Coniston, besides joints. One of these cleavages furnishes the Coniston slate of commerce; another forms the ranges of Wetherlam and Yewdale crag; a third cuts these ranges to pieces, striking from north-west to south-east; and a fourth into other pieces, from north-east to south-west.
  5. I am ashamed to italicize so many words; but these passages, written for oral delivery, can only be understood if read with oral emphasis. This is the first series of lectures which I have printed as they were to be spoken; and it is a great mistake.