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30 December 2012

Emulation: I.1

News from Hadrian’s World
the Madonna di Loreto and Trajan's Column, from Piazza Venezia
I’m winding up my manuscript on Emulation to deliver to the publisher. It’s been rewarding writing the book, largely because I have learned so much about the nature of emulation, and learning about it has been fueled by trying to describe it in action (as I see it), in historical examples of painting, sculpture, and architecture. I plan on posting examples of the kind of explications I’ve made in the book as a series, at least once a month, until the publication date in year or so. I’ll welcome comments, especially those that will help hone the argument before it’s too late!

But a recent news story has amplified my excitement about one of the book’s speculations, and I’m posting here a trial run of an interpretation of some newly unveiled archeological excavations around the Piazza Venezia (stories in Italian at Corrriere della Sera, in English at The Guardian).

Trajan's Column and fragment of a column
from the temple's portico (?)
One of the examples of emulation that I’ve treated is the Imperial Fora in Rome. The Fora seem to be classic cases of urban architectural emulation, as Caesar rivaled the Roman Forum, then Augustus Caesar’s, etc., culminating in the Forum of Trajan, the ne plus ultra of the fora, but also a case apart. In the emulative spirit, I tackled a vexing aspect of Trajan’s Forum, the fact that no temple has been found (presumably beyond the Column, wherein were interred the emperor’s ashes). It is said Hadrian designed the temple posthumously for his revered predecessor, and that it was the building of which he was most proud—which is saying something for the patron/architect of the Pantheon.

My insight is that the reason the temple has not been found, even though it presumably would have been on axis and thus partly under what is today open ground (i.e. relatively easy to excavate), is that it is in fact under the Renaissance church of the Madonna di Loreto. Antonio da Sangallo’s round (or really octagonal encased in a square) church is the largest, complete Renaissance centrally planned church in Rome. It is twinned by the eighteenth-century church of Ss. Nome di Maria, about which I will have more to say in a future post.

The reason no one to my knowledge has conjectured this is that the church is not on the axis of the Forum. And it is round. My speculations are based on the architecture we associate with Hadrian, his penchant for round or centrally-planned buildings and complexes, and his villa’s capacity to reconcile disparate axes. What if Hadrian’s temple to Trajan was round, was oriented perpendicularly toward the Forum’s axis, and was encased in a partially encircling precinct wall (not unlike Bernini’s church at Ariccia)? The plan here shows a conjectural reconstruction, with a peripteral colonnade to address the fact that the fragment of a 2m diameter column shaft of green marble lying near Trajan’s Column has always been assumed to belong to the portico of the temple, and its size implies an unusually large temple. But if the church, relatively modest in size, is built over the cella, then the temple’s scale could be increased by the colonnade wrapping it, a precursor to the Temple of Venus at Baalbek. See the plan.

the recently revealed curved wall edging the auditoria
But here’s where it gets really interesting, and topical. In recent weeks the Italian press has covered the unveiling of the excavations near the Loreto church for the building of a new metro line. And what I saw for the first time in person last Friday was a part of what has been found, supposedly the site of an auditorium of Hadrian’s (used especially for philosophical discourses). The most exciting part for me is a curved bit of wall that seems to be centered on the Loreto church, and it has been described as part of a street wall. Which, to my mind, seems to confirm my conjectural reconstruction of the precinct wall of the presumed temple.

Find the site at 41°53'45.61" N  12°29'01.10" E

Note that the orientations of the buildings beyond the Trajanic complex are roughly north-south, parallel and perpendicular to the ancient Via Flaminia/Via Lata (the modern Via del Corso); this is, of course, also the orientation of the monumental complexes of the whole Campus Martius.

As the drawings for my Forum plan have evolved only over the last few of months while illustrating the evolving manuscript, it seems downright providential that this new evidence has come to light just now. I would welcome any constructive observations, including illustrated ones, that can help make sense of what seems to be the beginning of a whole new understanding of how the Imperial Fora plugged into their contexts, and even more importantly, the spirit of adventure in the classical tradition that Hadrian's architecture represents.

And, at the start of the new year, I wish everyone who strives to emulate
Buon Anno Nuovo!

25 November 2012

Learning from Letarouilly

a new expanded edition out now from Dover
Paul-Marie Letarouilly’s Edifices de Rome Moderne, and to a lesser extent his subsequent volumes on the Vatican, have shaped our perception of the Renaissance ever since their publication in 1840. Their reprints as part of the American Renaissance at the turn of the last century, and again in the 1980’s, acknowledged their unparalleled role in unpacking Renaissance Rome in ways that could be useful to modern architects. In this John Barrington Bayley’s Letarouilly on Renaissance Rome holds a unique place, because it is part reprint of, part meditation on, both the Rome Moderne and Vatican volumes. Part of Classical America’s mission of making available the knowledge of the past that architects once had had, Bayley’s book was also his view of Letarouilly’s value, and the value of Rome generally, to an American audience. This is, as I have written elsewhere, still a controversial point. If there is such a thing as “American” architecture it is surely a melting pot—or more of a minestrone—of various cultures and movements; but its standards, at least as regards classicism, have to depend on European and British models. Just as Rubens saw the Genoese palazzo as an excellent model for Antwerp’s burghers, architects like Charles McKim saw Letarouilly as a font of forms for American building—from libraries to residences. As Bayley recognized, the great mediator of that Roman Renaissance resource was Paris, and that city features heavily in his text.

Letarouilly on Renaissance Rome is organized by type—piazza, courtyard, palace, etc.—or place—Palazzo Massimo, the Vatican—and each chapter is introduced by Bayley’s observations. This has the advantage of giving greater clarity to the order of the plates, and of having a mediating voice to make sense of them. The new edition from Dover includes fifty additional plates of both Rome and the Vatican, with a new introductory essay that puts Bayley and Letarouilly in context.

Other Letarouilly efforts are ongoing elsewhere. At the University of Oregon Prof. Jim Tice and his team have been working to insert Letarouilly’s plans in their Nolli plan context, tremendously useful for understanding each. Prof. Kevin Hinders at the Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has spent years photographing extant Roman buildings from the same vantage point as Letarouilly’s views.

This passion for a French architect’s engravings of Renaissance Rome is sponsored as much by the love of Rome itself as the plates. Without that passion no great work can be done, and without acknowledging the transcendent value of Rome no great work can be built.

28 October 2012

Emulators of the World, Unite

Every artist has to decide for themselves, at some early stage of their careers, how they see themselves in relationship to the past. Even the most avant-garde artist makes such a choice, if by negation. For those interested in engagement with tradition, that choice often falls to some kind of imitation—whether literal replication, or the pessimism behind presumed inferiority with respect to the past. Who today, one could ask, would have the hubris to think they can rival Bernini, or Cortona, or Borromini? Yet that is how they saw their relationship with each other, and their contemporaries with them: emulation, rivalry by imitation, or competitive deference are each different ways of describing the same thing—a critical optimism about the possibility of exceeding one’s contemporaries or predecessors.
            I had the chance to see the wonderful Guardi show at the Museo Correr in Venice a couple of weeks ago, and learned that Guardi’s compositions often began with a Canaletto print—which he then transformed and translated into his own idiom of composition and brushstroke. It partly explains the often unconvincing perspectives in Guardi’s work that they are imitative without fully comprehending, but his brushwork comes off instead as a deliberate challenge to his more successful contemporary’s increasingly mechanical painting technique. Guardi was not mimicking Canaletto, he was challenging him—partly on Canaletto’s terms, partly on Guardi’s own. If their critical fortunes have oscillated vis-à-vis each other, it is only to say that they can never be confused with each other, that their affinities only serve to highlight their differences.
            In another way, I saw the opening of a show in which I participated, of foreign artists working en plein air in Civita Castellana; the work of today’s plein air painters is a unique case of a living emulative tradition, where every artist acknowledges in some way or another the achievements of Corot and other models. The same might also be said of the genre of still life.
            Maybe only a handful of fresco artists plays on the same emulative field; with so little opportunity there is really no emulative camp of classical figurative painters; portraiture, but its particular nature, resists comparison with previous work, except among the most elemental compositions (all the rhetorical staffage of Old Master portraiture is anathema today). In architecture most classicists are too timid to be emulative, and the opportunities are not there in reality to prove them wrong (if we had a culture of paper architecture maybe the comparison could be made, but I may be the only practicing architect today who values that).

05 September 2012

Drawing, and Drawing Well

Tangible Standards

S. Carlo ai Catinari and its Convent, Rome
Michael Graves’ editorial on drawing in the New York Times has sparked many reactions in the architecture community. I reviewed his book of drawings from his time in Rome several years ago, and over the years have given copies of his excellent essay on “The Necessity for Drawing: Tangible Speculation” to my students, since I like him am concerned not only that students don’t draw, they don’t really know what drawing is for or how it works in the design process.

But let me take this in another direction. Drawing has been in crisis longer than the advent of the computer. From the moment architects abandoned the accumulated knowledge of the classical tradition in the middle of the last century, drawing has become one of those things, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, that is not so remarkable that it is done well, but that it is done at all. Naïve drawing, which Graves cultivated as much as Le Corbusier, Hejduk, and Krier, became a slightly disingenuous, aw shucks, I’m just sayin’ kind of performance, not wanting to be measured against real drawing achievements from the past while asserting the value of the hand in the face of an increasingly faceless, technologically-driven profession.

Fountain of Tivoli, Villa d'Este
But people like John Blatteau and Steve Bonitatibus were simultaneously revivifying classical drawing for architecture, especially wash rendering; and in the art world many artists were recovering the skills of accurate figurative drawing. Some remarkable draftsmen like Randy Melick have made themselves absolutely measurable against the finest draftsmen of the past. This has been hard won, but perhaps even harder among architects than artists since there were fewer threads of continuity across the middle of the century in architecture.

If drawing is in crisis it is certainly due to ever more sophisticated software; but it is also due to ever less able draftsmanship among the profession’s “leaders.” Let me say, though, that it is wholly within our abilities, and incumbent on us, to not only draw, but draw well. Drawing should be desirable, something worth emulating. Just drawing for its own sake won’t cut it.
Diogenes and Alexander, modello

I’m just sayin’.

all drawings on this post © David Mayernik

18 August 2012

Emulation and Imitation

Making Distinctions

I’ve been writing a lot lately toward my book on Emulation, and have increasingly realized how little appreciated is emulation as a primary means of operation in the Renaissance and Baroque, but also how often it is conflated with imitation. In fact, I think imitation as a mode of artistic production, rather than an aspect of artistic formation or apprenticeship, is one of the consequences (and parallel causes) of neoclassicism in the later eighteenth century. Until then, and after the Middle Ages, imitation of artistic models was either a part of an artist’s atelier formation, or a defining characteristic of provincial or journeyman artists without aspirations to novel achievement. What almost all the artists and architects we think of as masters were doing was, in some way or another, emulating—or rivaling—either contemporary or past masters; this was not always eristic, or critical, but it did provide a competitive framework for artistic achievement. In other words, this is how artists saw themselves vis-à-vis their peers, and how they wanted to be evaluated. The nature of emulation is inherently optimistic, and I would argue the nature of academic classicism after the eighteenth century is either pessimistic (too imitative) or too engaged by style rather than ideas.

That being said, I have realized that I have been framing my own self-education in the classical tradition as an emulative exercise for the last thirty years, whether consciously or not; what was conscious was my sense that I only imitated to apprehend information, never to define myself. For better or worse I have wanted to be considered not an imitator of some Old Master model, but a legitimate “contemporary.”

As a model of a process of self-education I’m posting here two small exercises in modeling: one a copy of a bozzetto of Bernini’s Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, the other an original high relief medallion of the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The intentions of the former are fairly self-evident: apprehend the technique and energy of Bernini’s model, not as a literal copy but as a free copy, where some sense of the looseness of technique is a condition of speed and spontaneity. The medallion, on the other hand, is an exercise in modeling a relief that tends toward sculpture, and wanting to suggest narrative within the tightly prescribed boundaries of the frame. As an emulative exercise it does not take on any particular model, but is meant to be invested with the plasticity of form of Bernini’s rivals’ (Algardi) and followers’ (Guidi, etc.) exercises in high relief, and Bernini’s concern for the concetto. The kind of thing, in other words, one might have done in Rome around 1700.