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Sunday, April 28, 2013

It's All Greek to Me

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Is it Ionic, Doric, or Corinthian?
I was there, only one column still stands.
Anyone who reads my daily musings here probably wants to know a little about art. That being the case you're probably not beyond wanting to know a little about architecture as well. Virtually all knowledge about art, including architecture, falls under the heading, trivia. What good is trivia? Well, to hear my wife tell it, not much, except for cluttering up the mind. It used to be that trivia was useful for ready access to facts and figures, though the Internet has pretty well abolished that reasoning. Albert Einstein, I believe it was, is famously quoted as saying, "I don't remember anything I can look up," and that included his own phone number. I guess today, about the only purpose there is in remembering trivia comes in playing parlor games or trying to impress others with ones intelligence and vast storehouse of knowledge.

The Temple of Zeus ruins, Athens, demonstrates the ancient
Greek penchant for decorating their posts and lentils.
With that in mind, here's a little about architecture. When you "invent" a new line of human endeavor you get to name all its parts. Discounting the crude, post and lintel "architecture" of Stonehenge in England, it was the Greeks who garner the "naming rights" as they explored post and lintel. (The post being a column, the lintel being that which bridges the space between the columns, thus lessening the need for solid stone walls.) The Greeks especially, and I suppose mankind down through the ages, have always delighted in decorating things (above). With wood first, and later stone, that meant carving; and since you have to cut and shape a hunk of stone to make it into a column (unless you're a prehistory Brit) that means you might as well decorate the thing while you're at it. Thus, the most basic understanding of architecture begins with the three major "orders" used to decorate these "advanced" posts and lintels. Today we call the primary decorative device used at the top of the column the "capital," (that which separates the post from the lintel).

Doric decoration as seen
in the Parthenon
The simplest style, thus probably the oldest, is Doric. How do you remember that? I'm a great believer in mnemonics (the Greeks invented them too). Mine rhymes (sort of)--Doric is boring. It's plain and simple, a squished cylinder beneath a squished cube. If it's an important temple, the decoration of the lentil gets a little more complex and Doric columns never have a base, but other than the broad, vertical grooves in the column itself (called flutes) that's about all you need to know about Doric.

The iconic Ionic
Ionic is iconic. Most often when we think of Greek columns we picture the iconic rams horns squished between the column and the lentil with maybe a bit of extraneous decoration thrown in, and this time, a simple base at the bottom. The Ionic is easy to remember because it is so iconic.

Corinthian Convolutions.
The Corinthian capital is named for its capital, Corinth, and is quite convoluted and complex. Pick your mnemonic, any will do, so long as the description starts with a "C." There is always a multi-layered, squished base as well. The U.S. Supreme Court uses Corinthian columns. Victorian era builders of French Beaux Art architecture loved this highly decorated embellishment and often chose it for their Classic Revival, wedding-cake-style extravaganzas (bottom) though sometimes they used Ionic, but never Doric).

So, apart from impressing one's friends, why is it important to know at least a little about Greek architecture? It wouldn't be, except for the fact that the Romans copied the Greeks, then the Italians copied their erstwhile forbearers and French copied them followed, lastly by us Americans who copied the French (and virtually everyone else). Fortunately, we don't do that so much anymore. Classical Greek architecture probably enjoyed one too many "revivals" and even for government buildings, has fallen out of favor. But who knows? It might come back. In the meantime,  with a little mnemonic strategy, it won't be "all Greek to you."

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building (next door to the White House). Beaux Art architecture decorated in Greek fondant with a chocolate marble center.
(The capitals are Ionic.)

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