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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Christopher Wren

When we think of the designation "Renaissance Man," undoubtedly the first name to come to mind is that of Leonardo da Vinci. The term denotes a man or woman of broad skills and learning in the arts and sciences capable of integrating all that he or she knows into the pursuit of more learning and exceptional creative expression. Down through history there have been great artists and great scientists, but seldom do these two gifts come together in a single individual. If the Italians have their Leonardo, the English can lay claim to having given birth to a man who, in some peoples' minds, may have had an even greater mind and perhaps a greater long-term impact on Western civilization than did Leonardo. His name was Christopher Wren (no relation to Christopher Robin). And where Leonardo's mind had a tendency to be unfocused in that he would often flit from one interest to another leaving in his wake unfinished (and often unsuccessful) projects galore as well as unfulfilled lines of inquiry which might have borne great fruit, Wren was almost his exact opposite in this sense.

Young Christopher was born in 1632 in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England. He was fortunate from birth. He was the son of the Dean of Windsor, the King's chaplain. He was raised in Windsor Castle and as a child, was a playmate of another young boy of great fortune named Charles. Charles later became Charles II, King of England. Christopher was a very bright young lad, did well in school, and before he was seventeen, had invented a weather clock, a pneumatic engine, a device for writing in the dark, and a new language for the deaf and dumb. He went to Oxford where he gained a reputation as a brilliant scientist and mathematician. He was the first to demonstrate the use of opium as an anesthetic and the use of a syringe in transferring blood from one dog to another. Later, his interest in optics led him to become a professor of astronomy, doing much of the groundwork which Isaac Newton later got credit for in his gravitational theories.

Christopher Wren's 1874 design for
St. Paul's Cathedral, London
As a student at Oxford, Wren came upon a book written by a Roman architect. In the mid-1600s, the book was already some fifteen hundred years old. But Vitruvius' On Architecture excited something within Wren At the age of thirty, he went to Rome where he studied the remnants of the civilization Vitruvius had helped build. His first commission was for a new theater at Oxford. He used drawings he'd made from the ruins of the Theater of Marcellus. However, it took a terrible calamity to make of the ambitious young man a real architect. On September 2, 1666, medieval London very nearly burned to the ground. The Great Fire of London destroyed a huge area of the city including St. Paul's Cathedral and some 52 other churches as well. Six days later, Wren presented his old boyhood friend, a complete plan for the reconstruction of the city. He got the job. He was to spend the rest of his life fulfilling the commission. St. Paul's alone took thirty-five years to rebuild. The task was not an easy one. St. Paul's had been a Gothic structure. Wren imposed a Roman face on the plan that today is considered a masterpiece of Neoclassical design. It is second in size and magnificence only to that of St. Peter's in Rome.  Christopher Wren died in 1723. By now Sir Christopher, he was the first to be buried in his new cathedral.
St. Paul's Cathedral as completed in 1711, more than 37 years after construction began

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