XVIII. 1. Abstract lines. I have not with lines named also shades and colors, for this evident reason, that there are no such things as abstract shadows, irrespective of the forms which exhibit them, and distinguished in their own nature from each other; and that the arrangement of shadows, in greater or less quantity, or in certain harmonical successions, is an affair of treatment, not of selection. And when we use abstract colors, we are in fact using a part of nature herself,—using a quality of her light, correspondent with that of the air, to carry sound; and the arrangement of color in harmonious masses is again a matter of treatment, not selection. Yet even in this separate art of coloring, as referred to architecture, it is very notable that the best tints are always those of natural stones. These can hardly be wrong; I think I never yet saw an offensive introduction of the natural colors of marble and precious stones, unless in small mosaics, and in one or two glaring instances of the resolute determination to produce something ugly at any cost. On the other hand, I have 222 most assuredly never yet seen a painted building, ancient or modern, which seemed to me quite right.
XIX. Our first constituents of ornament will therefore be abstract lines, that is to say, the most frequent contours of natural objects, transferred to architectural forms when it is not right or possible to render such forms distinctly imitative. For instance, the line or curve of the edge of a leaf may be accurately given to the edge of a stone, without rendering the stone in the least like a leaf, or suggestive of a leaf; and this the more fully, because the lines of nature are alike in all her works; simpler or richer in combination, but the same in character; and when they are taken out of their combinations it is impossible to say from which of her works they have been borrowed, their universal property being that of ever-varying curvature in the most subtle and subdued transitions, with peculiar expressions of motion, elasticity, or dependence, which I have already insisted upon at some length in the chapters on typical beauty in “Modern Painters.” But, that the reader may here be able to compare them for himself as deduced from different sources, I have drawn, as accurately as I can, on the opposite plate, some ten or eleven lines from natural forms of very different substances and scale: the first, a b, is in the original, I think, the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life; it is a curve about three quarters of a mile long, formed by the surface of a small glacier of the second order, on a spur of the Aiguille de Blaiti�re (Chamouni). I have merely outlined the crags on the right of it, to show their sympathy and united action with the curve of the glacier, which is of course entirely dependent on their opposition to its descent; softened, however, into unity by the snow, which rarely melts on this high glacier surface.
The line d c is some mile and a half or two miles long; it is part of the flank of the chain of the Dent d’Oche above the lake of Geneva, one or two of the lines of the higher and more distant ranges being given in combination with it.
h is a line about four feet long, a branch of spruce fir. I have taken this tree because it is commonly supposed to be 223 stiff and ungraceful; its outer sprays are, however, more noble in their sweep than almost any that I know: but this fragment is seen at great disadvantage, because placed upside down, in order that the reader may compare its curvatures with c d, e g, and i k, which are all mountain lines; e g, about five hundred feet of the southern edge of the Matterhorn; i k, the entire slope of the Aiguille Bouchard, from its summit into the valley of Chamouni, a line some three miles long; l m is the line of the side of a willow leaf traced by laying the leaf on the paper; n o, one of the innumerable groups of curves at the lip of a paper Nautilus; p, a spiral, traced on the paper round a Serpula; q r, the leaf of the Alisma Plantago with its interior ribs, real size; s t, the side of a bay-leaf; u w, of a salvia leaf; and it is to be carefully noted that these last curves, being never intended by nature to be seen singly, are more heavy and less agreeable than any of the others which would be seen as independent lines. But all agree in their character of changeful curvature, the mountain and glacier lines only excelling the rest in delicacy and richness of transition.
XX. Why lines of this kind are beautiful, I endeavored to show in the “Modern Painters;” but one point, there omitted, may be mentioned here,—that almost all these lines are expressive of action of force of some kind, while the circle is a line of limitation or support. In leafage they mark the forces of its growth and expansion, but some among the most beautiful of them are described by bodies variously in motion, or subjected to force; as by projectiles in the air, by the particles of water in a gentle current, by planets in motion in an orbit, by their satellites, if the actual path of the satellite in space be considered instead of its relation to the planet; by boats, or birds, turning in the water or air, by clouds in various action upon the wind, by sails in the curvatures they assume under its force, and by thousands of other objects moving or bearing force. In the Alisma leaf, q r, the lines through its body, which are of peculiar beauty, mark the different expansions of its fibres, and are, I think, exactly the same as those which would be traced by the currents of a river entering a lake of 224 the shape of the leaf, at the end where the stalk is, and passing out at its point. Circular curves, on the contrary, are always, I think, curves of limitation or support; that is to say, curves of perfect rest. The cylindrical curve round the stem of a plant binds its fibres together; while the ascent of the stem is in lines of various curvature: so the curve of the horizon and of the apparent heaven, of the rainbow, etc.: and though the reader might imagine that the circular orbit of any moving body, or the curve described by a sling, was a curve of motion, he should observe that the circular character is given to the curve not by the motion, but by the confinement: the circle is the consequence not of the energy of the body, but of its being forbidden to leave the centre; and whenever the whirling or circular motion can be fully impressed on it we obtain instant balance and rest with respect to the centre of the circle.
Hence the peculiar fitness of the circular curve as a sign of rest, and security of support, in arches; while the other curves, belonging especially to action, are to be used in the more active architectural features—the hand and foot (the capital and base), and in all minor ornaments; more freely in proportion to their independence of structural conditions.
XXI. We need not, however, hope to be able to imitate, in general work, any of the subtly combined curvatures of nature’s highest designing: on the contrary, their extreme refinement renders them unfit for coarse service or material. Lines which are lovely in the pearly film of the Nautilus shell, are lost in the grey roughness of stone; and those which are sublime in the blue of far away hills, are weak in the substance of incumbent marble. Of all the graceful lines assembled on Plate VII., we shall do well to be content with two of the simplest. We shall take one mountain line (e g) and one leaf line (u w), or rather fragments of them, for we shall perhaps not want them all. I will mark off from u w the little bit x y, and from e g the piece e f; both which appear to me likely to be serviceable: and if hereafter we need the help of any abstract lines, we will see what we can do with these only.
XXII. 2. Forms of Earth (Crystals). It may be asked why 225 I do not say rocks or mountains? Simply, because the nobility of these depends, first, on their scale, and, secondly, on accident. Their scale cannot be represented, nor their accident systematised. No sculptor can in the least imitate the peculiar character of accidental fracture: he can obey or exhibit the laws of nature, but he cannot copy the felicity of her fancies, nor follow the steps of her fury. The very glory of a mountain is in the revolutions which raised it into power, and the forces which are striking it into ruin. But we want no cold and careful imitation of catastrophe; no calculated mockery of convulsion; no delicate recommendation of ruin. We are to follow the labor of Nature, but not her disturbance; to imitate what she has deliberately ordained,64 not what she has violently suffered, or strangely permitted. The only uses, therefore, of rock form which are wise in the architect, are its actual introduction (by leaving untouched such blocks as are meant for rough service), and that noble use of the general examples of mountain structure of which I have often heretofore spoken. Imitations of rock form have, for the most part, been confined to periods of degraded feeling and to architectural toys or pieces of dramatic effect,—the Calvaries and holy sepulchres of Romanism, or the grottoes and fountains of English gardens. They were, however, not unfrequent in medi�val bas-reliefs; very curiously and elaborately treated by Ghiberti on the doors of Florence, and in religious sculpture necessarily introduced wherever the life of the anchorite was to be expressed. They were rarely introduced as of ornamental character, but for particular service and expression; we shall see an interesting example in the Ducal Palace at Venice.
XXIII. But against crystalline form, which is the completely systematised natural structure of the earth, none of these objections hold good, and, accordingly, it is an endless element of decoration, where higher conditions of structure cannot be represented. The four-sided pyramid, perhaps the 226 most frequent of all natural crystals, is called in architecture a dogtooth; its use is quite limitless, and always beautiful: the cube and rhomb are almost equally frequent in chequers and dentils: and all mouldings of the middle Gothic are little more than representations of the canaliculated crystals of the beryl, and such other minerals:
XXIV. Not knowingly. I do not suppose a single hint was ever actually taken from mineral form; not even by the Arabs in their stalactite pendants and vaults: all that I mean to allege is, that beautiful ornament, wherever found, or however invented, is always either an intentional or unintentional copy of some constant natural form; and that in this particular instance, the pleasure we have in these geometrical figures of our own invention, is dependent for all its acuteness on the natural tendency impressed on us by our Creator to love the forms into which the earth He gave us to tread, and out of which He formed our bodies, knit itself as it was separated from the deep.
XXV. 3. Forms of Water (Waves).
The reasons which prevent rocks from being used for ornament repress still more forcibly the portraiture of the sea. Yet the constant necessity of introducing some representation of water in order to explain the scene of events, or as a sacred symbol, has forced the sculptors of all ages to the invention of some type or letter for it, if not an actual imitation. We find every degree of conventionalism or of naturalism in these types, the earlier being, for the most part, thoughtful symbols; the latter, awkward attempts at portraiture.65 The most conventional of all types is the Egyptian zigzag, preserved in the astronomical sign of Aquarius; but every nation, with any capacities of thought, has given, in some of its work, the same great definition of open water, as “an undulatory thing with fish in it.” I say open water, because inland nations have a totally different conception of the element. Imagine for an instant the different feelings of an husbandman whose hut is built 227 by the Rhine or the Po, and who sees, day by day, the same giddy succession of silent power, the same opaque, thick, whirling, irresistible labyrinth of rushing lines and twisted eddies, coiling themselves into serpentine race by the reedy banks, in omne volubilis �vum,—and the image of the sea in the mind of the fisher upon the rocks of Ithaca, or by the Straits of Sicily, who sees how, day by day, the morning winds come coursing to the shore, every breath of them with a green wave rearing before it; clear, crisp, ringing, merry-minded waves, that fall over and over each other, laughing like children as they near the beach, and at last clash themselves all into dust of crystal over the dazzling sweeps of sand. Fancy the difference of the image of water in those two minds, and then compare the sculpture of the coiling eddies of the Tigris and its reedy branches in those slabs of Nineveh, with the crested curls of the Greek sea on the coins of Camerina or Tarentum. But both agree in the undulatory lines, either of the currents or the surface, and in the introduction of fish as explanatory of the meaning of those lines (so also the Egyptians in their frescoes, with most elaborate realisation of the fish). There is a very curious instance on a Greek mirror in the British Museum, representing Orion on the Sea; and multitudes of examples with dolphins on the Greek vases: the type is preserved without alteration in medi�val painting and sculpture. The sea in that Greek mirror (at least 400 B.C.), in the mosaics of Torcello and St. Mark’s, on the font of St. Frediano at Lucca, on the gate of the fortress of St. Michael’s Mount in Normandy, on the Bayeux tapestry, and on the capitals of the Ducal Palace at Venice (under Arion on his Dolphin), is represented in a manner absolutely identical. Giotto, in the frescoes of Avignon, has, with his usual strong feeling for naturalism, given the best example I remember, in painting, of the unity of the conventional system with direct imitation, and that both in sea and river; giving in pure blue color the coiling whirlpool of the stream, and the curled crest of the breaker. But in all early sculptural examples, both imitation and decorative effect are subordinate to easily understood symbolical 228 language; the undulatory lines are often valuable as an enrichment of surface, but are rarely of any studied gracefulness. One of the best examples I know of their expressive arrangement is around some figures in a spandril at Bourges, representing figures sinking in deep sea (the deluge): the waved lines yield beneath the bodies and wildly lave the edge of the moulding, two birds, as if to mark the reverse of all order of nature, lowest of all sunk in the depth of them. In later times of debasement, water began to be represented with its waves, foam, etc., as on the Vendramin tomb at Venice, above cited; but even there, without any definite ornamental purpose, the sculptor meant partly to explain a story, partly to display dexterity of chiselling, but not to produce beautiful forms pleasant to the eye. The imitation is vapid and joyless, and it has often been matter of surprise to me that sculptors, so fond of exhibiting their skill, should have suffered this imitation to fall so short, and remain so cold,—should not have taken more pains to curl the waves clearly, to edge them sharply, and to express, by drill-holes or other artifices, the character of foam. I think in one of the Antwerp churches something of this kind is done in wood, but in general it is rare.
XXVI. 4. Forms of Fire (Flames and Rays). If neither the sea nor the rock can be imagined, still less the devouring fire. It has been symbolised by radiation both in painting and sculpture, for the most part in the latter very unsuccessfully. It was suggested to me, not long ago,66 that zigzag decorations of Norman architects were typical of light springing from the half-set orb of the sun; the resemblance to the ordinary sun type is indeed remarkable, but I believe accidental. I shall give you, in my large plates, two curious instances of radiation in brick ornament above arches, but I think these also without any very luminous intention. The imitations of fire in the torches of Cupids and genii, and burning in tops of urns, which attest and represent the mephitic inspirations of the seventeenth century in most London churches, and in monuments all over 229 civilised Europe, together with the gilded rays of Romanist altars, may be left to such mercy as the reader is inclined to show them.
XXVII. 5. Forms of Air (Clouds). Hardly more manageable than flames, and of no ornamental use, their majesty being in scale and color, and inimitable in marble. They are lightly traced in much of the cinque cento sculpture; very boldly and grandly in the strange Last Judgment in the porch of St. Maclou at Rouen, described in the “Seven Lamps.” But the most elaborate imitations are altogether of recent date, arranged in concretions like flattened sacks, forty or fifty feet above the altars of continental churches, mixed with the gilded truncheons intended for sunbeams above alluded to.
XXVIII. 6. Shells. I place these lowest in the scale (after inorganic forms) as being moulds or coats of organism; not themselves organic. The sense of this, and of their being mere emptiness and deserted houses, must always prevent them, however beautiful in their lines, from being largely used in ornamentation. It is better to take the line and leave the shell. One form, indeed, that of the cockle, has been in all ages used as the decoration of half domes, which were named conchas from their shell form: and I believe the wrinkled lip of the cockle, so used, to have been the origin, in some parts of Europe at least, of the exuberant foliation of the round arch. The scallop also is a pretty radiant form, and mingles well with other symbols when it is needed. The crab is always as delightful as a grotesque, for here we suppose the beast inside the shell; and he sustains his part in a lively manner among the other signs of the zodiac, with the scorpion; or scattered upon sculptured shores, as beside the Bronze Boar of Florence. We shall find him in a basket at Venice, at the base of one of the Piazzetta shafts.
XXIX. 7. Fish. These, as beautiful in their forms as they are familiar to our sight, while their interest is increased by their symbolic meaning, are of great value as material of ornament. Love of the picturesque has generally induced a choice of some supple form with scaly body and lashing tail, but the 230 simplest fish form is largely employed in medi�val work. We shall find the plain oval body and sharp head of the Thunny constantly at Venice; and the fish used in the expression of sea-water, or water generally, are always plain bodied creatures in the best medi�val sculpture. The Greek type of the dolphin, however, sometimes but slightly exaggerated from the real outline of the Delphinus Delphis,67 is one of the most picturesque of animal forms; and the action of its slow revolving plunge is admirably caught upon the surface sea represented in Greek vases.
XXX. 8. Reptiles and Insects. The forms of the serpent and lizard exhibit almost every element of beauty and horror in strange combination; the horror, which in an imitation is felt only as a pleasurable excitement, has rendered them favorite subjects in all periods of art; and the unity of both lizard and serpent in the ideal dragon, the most picturesque and powerful of all animal forms, and of peculiar symbolical interest to the Christian mind, is perhaps the principal of all the materials of medi�val picturesque sculpture. By the best sculptors it is always used with this symbolic meaning, by the cinque cento sculptors as an ornament merely. The best and most natural representations of mere viper or snake are to be found interlaced among their confused groups of meaningless objects. The real power and horror of the snake-head has, however, been rarely reached. I shall give one example from Verona of the twelfth century.
Other less powerful reptile forms are not unfrequent. Small frogs, lizards, and snails almost always enliven the foregrounds and leafage of good sculpture. The tortoise is less usually employed in groups. Beetles are chiefly mystic and colossal. Various insects, like everything else in the world, occur in cinque cento work; grasshoppers most frequently. 231 We shall see on the Ducal Palace at Venice an interesting use of the bee.
XXXI. 9. Branches and stems of Trees. I arrange these under a separate head; because, while the forms of leafage belong to all architecture, and ought to be employed in it always, those of the branch and stem belong to a peculiar imitative and luxuriant architecture, and are only applicable at times. Pagan sculptors seem to have perceived little beauty in the stems of trees; they were little else than timber to them; and they preferred the rigid and monstrous triglyph, or the fluted column, to a broken bough or gnarled trunk. But with Christian knowledge came a peculiar regard for the forms of vegetation, from the root upwards. The actual representation of the entire trees required in many scripture subjects,—as in the most frequent of Old Testament subjects, the Fall; and again in the Drunkenness of Noah, the Garden Agony, and many others, familiarised the sculptors of bas-relief to the beauty of forms before unknown; while the symbolical name given to Christ by the Prophets, “the Branch,” and the frequent expressions referring to this image throughout every scriptural description of conversion, gave an especial interest to the Christian mind to this portion of vegetative structure. For some time, nevertheless, the sculpture of trees was confined to bas-relief; but it at last affected even the treatment of the main shafts in Lombard Gothic buildings,—as in the western fa�ade of Genoa, where two of the shafts are represented as gnarled trunks: and as bas-relief itself became more boldly introduced, so did tree sculpture, until we find the writhed and knotted stems of the vine and fig used for angle shafts on the Doge’s Palace, and entire oaks and appletrees forming, roots and all, the principal decorative sculptures of the Scala tombs at Verona. It was then discovered to be more easy to carve branches than leaves and, much helped by the frequent employment in later Gothic of the “Tree of Jesse,” for traceries and other purposes, the system reached full developement in a perfect thicket of twigs, which form the richest portion of the decoration of the porches of Beauvais. It 232 had now been carried to its richest extreme: men wearied of it and abandoned it, and like all other natural and beautiful things, it was ostracised by the mob of Renaissance architects. But it is interesting to observe how the human mind, in its acceptance of this feature of ornament, proceeded from the ground, and followed, as it were, the natural growth of the tree. It began with the rude and solid trunk, as at Genoa; then the branches shot out, and became loaded leaves; autumn came, the leaves were shed, and the eye was directed to the extremities of the delicate branches;—the Renaissance frosts came, and all perished.
XXXII. 10. Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit. It is necessary to consider these as separated from the stems; not only, as above noted, because their separate use marks another school of architecture, but because they are the only organic structures which are capable of being so treated, and intended to be so, without strong effort of imagination. To pull animals to pieces, and use their paws for feet of furniture, or their heads for terminations of rods and shafts, is usually the characteristic of feelingless schools; the greatest men like their animals whole. The head may, indeed, be so managed as to look emergent from the stone, rather than fastened to it; and wherever there is throughout the architecture any expression of sternness or severity (severity in its literal sense, as in Romans, XI. 22), such divisions of the living form may be permitted; still, you cannot cut an animal to pieces as you can gather a flower or a leaf. These were intended for our gathering, and for our constant delight: wherever men exist in a perfectly civilised and healthy state, they have vegetation around them; wherever their state approaches that of innocence or perfectness, it approaches that of Paradise,—it is a dressing of garden. And, therefore, where nothing else can be used for ornament, vegetation may; vegetation in any form, however fragmentary, however abstracted. A single leaf laid upon the angle of a stone, or the mere form or frame-work of the leaf drawn upon it, or the mere shadow and ghost of the leaf,—the hollow “foil” cut out of it,—possesses a 233 charm which nothing else can replace; a charm not exciting, nor demanding laborious thought or sympathy, but perfectly simple, peaceful, and satisfying.
XXXIII. The full recognition of leaf forms, as the general source of subordinate decoration, is one of the chief characteristics of Christian architecture; but the two roots of leaf ornament are the Greek acanthus, and the Egyptian lotus.68 The dry land and the river thus each contributed their part; and all the florid capitals of the richest Northern Gothic on the one hand, and the arrowy lines of the severe Lombardic capitals on the other, are founded on these two gifts of the dust of Greece and the waves of the Nile. The leaf which is, I believe, called the Persepolitan water-leaf, is to be associated with the lotus flower and stem, as the origin of our noblest types of simple capital; and it is to be noted that the florid leaves of the dry land are used most by the Northern architects, while the water leaves are gathered for their ornaments by the parched builders of the Desert.
XXXIV. Fruit is, for the most part, more valuable in color than form; nothing is more beautiful as a subject of sculpture on a tree; but, gathered and put in baskets, it is quite possible to have too much of it. We shall find it so used very dextrously on the Ducal Palace of Venice, there with a meaning which rendered it right necessary; but the Renaissance architects address themselves to spectators who care for nothing but feasting, and suppose that clusters of pears and pineapples are visions of which their imagination can never weary, and above which it will never care to rise. I am no advocate for image worship, as I believe the reader will elsewhere sufficiently find; but I am very sure that the Protestantism of London would have found itself quite as secure in a cathedral 234 decorated with statues of good men, as in one hung round with bunches of ribston pippins.
XXXV. 11. Birds. The perfect and simple grace of bird form, in general, has rendered it a favorite subject with early sculptors, and with those schools which loved form more than action; but the difficulty of expressing action, where the muscular markings are concealed, has limited the use of it in later art. Half the ornament, at least, in Byzantine architecture, and a third of that of Lombardic, is composed of birds, either pecking at fruit or flowers, or standing on either side of a flower or vase, or alone, as generally the symbolical peacock. But how much of our general sense of grace or power of motion, of serenity, peacefulness, and spirituality, we owe to these creatures, it is impossible to conceive; their wings supplying us with almost the only means of representation of spiritual motion which we possess, and with an ornamental form of which the eye is never weary, however meaninglessly or endlessly repeated; whether in utter isolation, or associated with the bodies of the lizard, the horse, the lion, or the man. The heads of the birds of prey are always beautiful, and used as the richest ornaments in all ages.
XXXVI. 12. Quadrupeds and Men. Of quadrupeds the horse has received an elevation into the primal rank of sculptural subject, owing to his association with men. The full value of other quadruped forms has hardly been perceived, or worked for, in late sculpture; and the want of science is more felt in these subjects than in any other branches of early work. The greatest richness of quadruped ornament is found in the hunting sculpture of the Lombards; but rudely treated (the most noble examples of treatment being the lions of Egypt, the Ninevite bulls, and the medi�val griffins). Quadrupeds of course form the noblest subjects of ornament next to the human form; this latter, the chief subject of sculpture, being sometimes the end of architecture rather than its decoration.
We have thus completed the list of the materials of architectural decoration, and the reader may be assured that no effort has ever been successful to draw elements of beauty from 235 any other sources than these. Such an effort was once resolutely made. It was contrary to the religion of the Arab to introduce any animal form into his ornament; but although all the radiance of color, all the refinements of proportion, and all the intricacies of geometrical design were open to him, he could not produce any noble work without an abstraction of the forms of leafage, to be used in his capitals, and made the ground plan of his chased ornament. But I have above noted that coloring is an entirely distinct and independent art; and in the “Seven Lamps” we saw that this art had most power when practised in arrangements of simple geometrical form: the Arab, therefore, lay under no disadvantage in coloring, and he had all the noble elements of constructive and proportional beauty at his command: he might not imitate the sea-shell, but he could build the dome. The imitation of radiance by the variegated voussoir, the expression of the sweep of the desert by the barred red lines upon the wall, the starred inshedding of light through his vaulted roof, and all the endless fantasy of abstract line,69 were still in the power of his ardent and fantastic spirit. Much he achieved; and yet in the effort of his overtaxed invention, restrained from its proper food, he made his architecture a glittering vacillation of undisciplined enchantment, and left the lustre of its edifices to wither like a startling dream, whose beauty we may indeed feel, and whose instruction we may receive, but must smile at its inconsistency, and mourn over its evanescence.
63 The admiration of Canova I hold to be one of the most deadly symptoms in the civilisation of the upper classes in the present century.
64 Thus above, I adduced for the architect’s imitation the appointed stories and beds of the Matterhorn, not its irregular forms of crag or fissure.
65 Appendix 21, “Ancient Representations of Water.”
66 By the friend to whom I owe Appendix 21.
67 One is glad to hear from Cuvier, that though dolphins in general are “les plus carnassiers, et proportion gard�e avec leur taille, les plus cruels de l’ordre;” yet that in the Delphinus Delphis, “tout l’organisation de son cerveau annonce qu’il ne doit pas �tre d�pourvu de la docilit� qu’ils (les anciens) lui attribuaient.”
68 Vide Wilkinson, vol. v., woodcut No. 478, fig. 8. The tamarisk appears afterwards to have given the idea of a subdivision of leaf more pure and quaint than that of the acanthus. Of late our botanists have discovered, in the “Victoria regia” (supposing its blossom reversed), another strangely beautiful type of what we may perhaps hereafter find it convenient to call Lily capitals.
69 Appendix 22, “Arabian Ornamentation.”