NEO-CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE

   The revival of classicism is a recurring theme in the history of architecture. From the earliest establishment of an architectural canon in Ancient Greece and its further codification in Ancient Rome, architects throughout time have been inspired by classicism. In the 800s Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne modeled his palace in Aachen upon the ancient architecture of Rome, which he saw firsthand during his coronation there. Beginning in the 1300s, the earliest stylistic intimations of the Renaissance appeared, developing into a complete classical revival all through the 1500s. It was during this time that an increased interest in the study of Ancient Rome, called antiquarianism, resulted in the first regulations against the destruction of Roman ruins, in the form of a papal bull that disallowed the pillaging of the Roman forum by local stonemasons in search of reusable marble.
   The architectural treatise titled De architectura, written by the Roman architect Vitruvius in the first century BC, was rediscovered in the early years of the 1400s and translated from the original Latin into vernacular Italian; it was widely consulted during the Renaissance for its discussion of the appropriate use of columns, capitals, and other elements of classical architecture. By the Baroque era, architects added to their repertoire of Vitruvian classicism new sources of ancient architecture that resulted in a more varied, often more sculptural and dynamically eclectic, style of construction. Classicism then went through another transformation into the Rococo, in which Vitruvian classicism was entirely replaced by a highly ornate, organic, and decorative style that retained a limited assortment of classical elements. By the middle of the 18th century, however, a confluence of social, philosophical, and political events resulted in the reintroduction of a more overt style of classicism and the introduction of Neo-Classical architecture. Neo-Classicism was named in the 19th century. In the 18th century it was simply called the "new" style.
   The study of Roman antiquity was considered during this century to be an important aspect of the education of aristocrats, who would often complete their university education with a tour of Europe, called the "Grand Tour." While the Grand Tour included Paris, south-ern France, and other important cities in Europe, most travelers spent the majority of their time in Italy. This cultural phenomenon resulted in a lively art market, where tourists would commission their portraits and buy landscapes of Rome, such as the architectural prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, or Venetian landscapes by artists such as Canaletto. These were increasingly popular among English tourists after the publication of John Ruskin's book The Stones of Venice in 1853. New archaeological discoveries aided in the definition of this style, as Herculaneum was discovered in 1737 and Pompeii in 1748. Part of this thriving art market included the collecting of newly discovered Ancient Roman sculpture and pottery, and the hiring of scholars to classify and categorize these objects.
   Cardinal Alessandro Albani built one of the largest collections of ancient art in Rome and hired the German librarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann to study his collection. In 1755, Winckelmann published a small book titled Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, and in 1764 he published The History of Ancient Art. These tremendously important books are taken to signify the birth of the discipline of art history and the enduring importance of classicism in the aesthetic canon of both art and architecture. Winckelmann ultimately gave Albani's collection academic legitimacy, which is a modern concept, as is this self-conscious selection of a particular style based on theoretical reasoning. In his text, Winckelmann provided the first formal analysis of ancient art and did not consider any political, environmental, or religious influences. This is an important distinction, because its purely formal approach gave classicism great flexibility in its use. For example, although it can generally be seen as a reaction to the "frivolous" French Rococo aristocracy, it was also very much an international movement. Also, paradoxically, Neo-Classicism became the style favored by the wealthy, as the classical qualities of simplicity, elegance, order, and virtue were taken over by the upper class to reflect their social status. However, classicism was also used by the middle class as a quest for truth and liberty against governmental corruption.
   This classical revival swept across Europe, where wealthy art patrons who championed the superiority of classicism over the Rococo commissioned the construction of Neo-Classical homes to accommodate their art collections. Neo-Classicism was increasingly seen as morally and intellectually superior to the decadent Rococo and was embraced by those patrons who styled themselves as more enlightened than the older generation of aristocracy. Thus, the Chiswick House, designed by the owner Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, in West London in the 1720s, is modeled on Andrea Palladio 's famous Renaissance Villa Belvedere (Rotunda) located outside Vicenza. The Scottish architect Robert Adam established a more opulent interior design to these English Neo-Classical homes, epitomized by his richly decorated, yet classical Syon House located in Middlesex, England, from the 1760s.
   Neo-Classical architecture involved more than the style of individual homes, however, for it was also employed to regularize streets and neighborhoods. John Wood the Elder was instrumental in introducing this emphasis of classicism to England. His native town of Bath had been a provincial Roman settlement, and his dream was to rebuild the town, then a spa resort, along a better organized and regular classical construction. Although much of his urban plan was never completed, the Circus, a wealthy housing project located in the center of the town, was begun in the 1750s and completed by his son John Wood the Younger. The Circus was named for its circular arrangement of town houses, which opened up at three points in the circle into broad, straight avenues. Each town house, modeled on the Roman Colosseum, had the same three-story façade, which provided a visual unity to the project.
   In France, Neo-Classicism during this period was considered the "true" style of architecture, as seen in the Panthéon (Church of Sainte-Geneviève), begun in Paris in the 1750s by Jacques-Germain Soufflot. This large domed church with a colossal portico topped by a triangular pediment reflects Soufflot's architectural studies in Rome and the Palladian influences that were so prevalent in the 18th century. The chaotic climate that the French Revolution created in Paris resulted in a strange provenance history for the Panthéon, however, and the French ultimately failed to fully establish Neo-Classicism in Paris, although the style enjoyed wide favor in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David and the sculpture of Jean-Antoine Houdon. More than a style, however, classicism was a powerful philosophy in-tricately linked to the French Revolution. Classicism came to be seen as a utopian ideal, in which cities could be efficient and well organ-ized by following the classical ideals of symmetry and order.
   The French Neo-Classical architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux de-signed a city center for Chaux, in southern France. Though never built, it demonstrates these egalitarian notions with a circular plan that has wide streets radiating out from the core and a uniformly de-signed grouping of private houses and government and commercial buildings. Étienne-Louis Boullée was also an architectural idealist, creating both austere Neo-Classical homes as well as very imagina-tive plans that were more theoretically based. His illustration of a the-oretical funerary monument for Isaac Newton, which dates to the 1780s, reveals a massive sphere set into a platform meant to symbol-ize an orbiting planet. Walking into the enclosed cenotaph, the visi-tor would see only a small monument in the corner, lit by small holes in the roof to give the impression of a starry sky. Deeply imaginative, both Ledoux and Boullée designed Neo-Classical monuments not for their contemporary France, but for a better future.
   Neo-Classicism is evident in Germany as well, as seen in the Berlin Altes Museum, built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1820s, and in the United States, where it was the style selected to symbolize the new democratic government established after the War of Independence. Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, in Char-lottesville, Virginia, was modified in the Neo-Classical style after Jefferson's trip to Paris in 1784. In the first years of the next century, Benjamin Henry Latrobe built the United States Capitol in Wash-ington, D.C., in the Neo-Classical style later modified by Charles Bulfinch. From that time, Neo-Classical style endured to inspire ar-chitects throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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