Search This Blog


16 July 2016

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Or, Is There Such a Thing as Classical Creativity?

So-called Arch of Drusus, Rome
My interest in emulation was as an antidote to the modern compulsion for imitation among classicists, a defeatist attitude motivated by longing for lost glories and the lack of ability to reach them again without directly replicating them. Emulation, I’ve argued, was actually the dominant mode of classical artists and architects vis-à-vis their forebears; imitation was for novices and amateurs. At least until the late eighteenth century.

But emulation, I argued in my book, was mostly an aspect of formal rivalry; Renaissance artists and architects strove, beyond that, to be intellectually inventive—novel, “creative,” capable of bizzarrie and extending the tradition. Neither conservative nor nostalgic, the Renaissance was an optimistic time that privileged invention, that fecund word that they would have used instead of our word creativity, because they would have said only God can be creative (making something out of nothing). What we humans can do is invent, discover, find ideas. Not rehash old ideas, but find new ways of thinking by digging into the past, revivifying the past by reinterpreting it.

In architecture the evolution of forms and types was primarily motivated by meaning. The Romans combined their older triumphal vaulted passage (fornix) with triumphal columns to create a new type, the arcus, during the time of Augustus. The accumulation of typologically legible elements—vault/arch and column—yielded a more complex meaning and created a new type. One hears occasionally in classicist circles of the “fornix motif,” but the thing being described—a trabeated surround to an arch—was neither proper to a fornix nor was it a motif. The triumphal arch (arcus) more commonly deployed columns en ressaut, emphasizing their autonomy as freestanding columns, not part of a bay-spanning system. Here’s a short video I’ve created illustrating the evolution of the type:

The Theater of Marcellus Seen from the Campidoglio
What is called a “fornix motif” should really be known as a “theater system,” since it was in fact proper to the façades of Roman theaters (and amphitheaters), and it formed not so much a motif (a detachable, discrete ornamental form) as a repetitive system of articulation. This too was a Roman invention. And both the nature of the triumphal arch and the theater façade were clearly understood by Renaissance architects who developed a properly linguistic use of classical forms—systematic, articulate, meaningful—to invent a new kind of architecture, capable of evolution while remaining legible and expressive.

Porta Savonarola, Padova, by G. M. Falconetto

That is what we lost with neo-classicism and the Beaux Arts, and what we need to recover if we really want a renaissance today. It takes careful looking at the past, careful reading of the best historians, and the recovery of skills that the artists of the Renaissance had. An act of will, in other words.