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Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

CHAPTER XXVII.

THE CORNICE AND CAPITAL.

I. There are no features to which the attention of architects has been more laboriously directed, in all ages, than these crowning members of the wall and shaft; and it would be vain to endeavor, within any moderate limits, to give the reader any idea of the various kinds of admirable decoration which have been invented for them. But, in proportion to the effort and straining of the fancy, have been the extravagances into which it has occasionally fallen; and while it is utterly impossible severally to enumerate the instances either of its success or its error, it is very possible to note the limits of the one and the causes of the other. This is all that we shall attempt in the present chapter, tracing first for ourselves, as in previous instances, the natural channels by which invention is here to be directed or confined, and afterwards remarking the places where, in real practice, it has broken bounds.

II. The reader remembers, I hope, the main points respecting the cornice and capital, established above in the Chapters on Construction. Of these I must, however, recapitulate thus much:—

1. That both the cornice and capital are, with reference to the slope of their profile or bell, to be divided into two great orders; in one of which the ornament is convex, and in the other concave. (Ch. VI., v.)

2. That the capital, with reference to the method of twisting the cornice round to construct it, and to unite the circular shaft with the square abacus, falls into five general forms, represented in Fig. XXII., .

3. That the most elaborate capitals were formed by true or 306 simple capitals with a common cornice added above their abacus. (Ch. IX., XXIV.)

We have then, in considering decoration, first to observe the treatment of the two great orders of the cornice; then their gathering into the five of the capital; then the addition of the secondary cornice to the capital when formed.

III. The two great orders or families of cornice were above distinguished in Fig. V., .; and it was mentioned in the same place that a third family arose from their combination. We must deal with the two great opposed groups first.

They were distinguished in Fig. V. by circular curves drawn on opposite sides of the same line. But we now know that in these smaller features the circle is usually the least interesting curve that we can use; and that it will be well, since the capital and cornice are both active in their expression, to use some of the more abstract natural lines. We will go back, therefore, to our old friend the salvia leaf; and taking the same piece of it we had before, x y, Plate VII., we will apply it to the cornice line; first within it, giving the concave cornice, then without, giving the convex cornice. In all the figures, a, b, c, d, Plate XV., the dotted line is at the same slope, and represents an average profile of the root of cornices (a, Fig. V., ); the curve of the salvia leaf is applied to it in each case, first with its roundest curvature up, then with its roundest curvature down; and we have thus the two varieties, a and b, of the concave family, and c and d, of the convex family.

XV.
CORNICE PROFILES.

IV. These four profiles will represent all the simple cornices in the world; represent them, I mean, as central types: for in any of the profiles an infinite number of slopes may be given to the dotted line of the root (which in these four figures is always at the same angle); and on each of these innumerable slopes an innumerable variety of curves may be fitted, from every leaf in the forest, and every shell on the shore, and every movement of the human fingers and fancy; therefore, if the reader wishes to obtain something like a numerical representation of the number of possible and beautiful cornices which may be based upon these four types or roots, and among 307 which the architect has leave to choose according to the circumstances of his building and the method of its composition, let him set down a figure 1 to begin with, and write ciphers after it as fast as he can, without stopping, for an hour.

V. None of the types are, however, found in perfection of curvature, except in the best work. Very often cornices are worked with circular segments (with a noble, massive effect, for instance, in St. Michele of Lucca), or with rude approximation to finer curvature, especially a, Plate XV., which occurs often so small as to render it useless to take much pains upon its curve. It occurs perfectly pure in the condition represented by 1 of the series 1-6, in Plate XV., on many of the Byzantine and early Gothic buildings of Venice; in more developed form it becomes the profile of the bell of the capital in the later Venetian Gothic, and in much of the best Northern Gothic. It also represents the Corinthian capital, in which the curvature is taken from the bell to be added in some excess to the nodding leaves. It is the most graceful of all simple profiles of cornice and capital.

VI. b is a much rarer and less manageable type: for this evident reason, that while a is the natural condition of a line rooted and strong beneath, but bent out by superincumbent weight, or nodding over in freedom, b is yielding at the base and rigid at the summit. It has, however, some exquisite uses, especially in combination, as the reader may see by glancing in advance at the inner line of the profile 14 in Plate XV.

VII. c is the leading convex or Doric type, as a is the leading concave or Corinthian. Its relation to the best Greek Doric is exactly what the relation of a is to the Corinthian; that is to say, the curvature must be taken from the straighter limb of the curve and added to the bolder bend, giving it a sudden turn inwards (as in the Corinthian a nod outwards), as the reader may see in the capital of the Parthenon in the British Museum, where the lower limb of the curve is all but a right line.84 But these Doric and Corinthian lines are mere 308 varieties of the great families which are represented by the central lines a and c, including not only the Doric capital, but all the small cornices formed by a slight increase of the curve of c, which are of so frequent occurrence in Greek ornaments.

VIII. d is the Christian Doric, which I said (Chap. I., XX.) was invented to replace the antique: it is the representative of the great Byzantine and Norman families of convex cornice and capital, and, next to the profile a, the most important of the four, being the best profile for the convex capital, as a is for the concave; a being the best expression of an elastic line inserted vertically in the shaft, and d of an elastic line inserted horizontally and rising to meet vertical pressure.

If the reader will glance at the arrangements of boughs of trees, he will find them commonly dividing into these two families, a and d: they rise out of the trunk and nod from it as a, or they spring with sudden curvature out from it, and rise into sympathy with it, as at d; but they only accidentally display tendencies to the lines b or c. Boughs which fall as they spring from the tree also describe the curve d in the plurality of instances, but reversed in arrangement; their junction with the stem being at the top of it, their sprays bending out into rounder curvature.

IX. These then being the two primal groups, we have next to note the combined group, formed by the concave and convex lines joined in various proportions of curvature, so as to form together the reversed or ogee curve, represented in one of its most beautiful states by the glacier line a, on Plate VII. I would rather have taken this line than any other to have formed my third group of cornices by, but as it is too large, and almost too delicate, we will take instead that of the Matterhorn side, e f, Plate VII. For uniformity’s sake I keep the slope of the dotted line the same as in the primal forms; and applying this Matterhorn curve in its four relative positions to that line, I have the types of the four cornices or capitals of the third family, e, f, g, h, on Plate XV.

These are, however, general types only thus far, that their line is composed of one short and one long curve, and that 309 they represent the four conditions of treatment of every such line; namely, the longest curve concave in e and f, and convex in g and h; and the point of contrary flexure set high in e and g, and low in f and h. The relative depth of the arcs, or nature of their curvature, cannot be taken into consideration without a complexity of system which my space does not admit.

Of the four types thus constituted, e and f are of great importance; the other two are rarely used, having an appearance of weakness in consequence of the shortest curve being concave: the profiles e and f, when used for cornices, have usually a fuller sweep and somewhat greater equality between the branches of the curve; but those here given are better representatives of the structure applicable to capitals and cornices indifferently.

X. Very often, in the farther treatment of the profiles e or f, another limb is added to their curve in order to join it to the upper or lower members of the cornice or capital. I do not consider this addition as forming another family of cornices, because the leading and effective part of the curve is in these, as in the others, the single ogee; and the added bend is merely a less abrupt termination of it above or below: still this group is of so great importance in the richer kinds of ornamentation that we must have it sufficiently represented. We shall obtain a type of it by merely continuing the line of the Matterhorn side, of which before we took only a fragment. The entire line e to g on Plate VII., is evidently composed of three curves of unequal lengths, which if we call the shortest 1, the intermediate one 2, and the longest 3, are there arranged in the order 1, 3, 2, counting upwards. But evidently we might also have had the arrangements 1, 2, 3, and 2, 1, 3, giving us three distinct lines, altogether independent of position, which being applied to one general dotted slope will each give four cornices, or twelve altogether. Of these the six most important are those which have the shortest curve convex: they are given in light relief from k to p, Plate XV., and, by turning the page upside down, the other six will be seen in dark relief, 310 only the little upright bits of shadow at the bottom are not to be considered as parts of them, being only admitted in order to give the complete profile of the more important cornices in light.

XI. In these types, as in e and f, the only general condition is, that their line shall be composed of three curves of different lengths and different arrangements (the depth of arcs and radius of curvatures being unconsidered). They are arranged in three couples, each couple being two positions of the same entire line; so that numbering the component curves in order of magnitude and counting upwards, they will read—

k

l

m

n

o

p

1, 2, 3,

3, 2, 1,

1, 3, 2,

2, 3, 1,

2, 1, 3,

3, 1, 2.

m and n, which are the Matterhorn line, are the most beautiful and important of all the twelve; k and l the next; o and p are used only for certain conditions of flower carving on the surface. The reverses (dark) of k and l are also of considerable service; the other four hardly ever used in good work.

XII. If we were to add a fourth curve to the component series, we should have forty-eight more cornices: but there is no use in pursuing the system further, as such arrangements are very rare and easily resolved into the simpler types with certain arbitrary additions fitted to their special place; and, in most cases, distinctly separate from the main curve, as in the inner line of No. 14, which is a form of the type e, the longest curve, i.e., the lowest, having deepest curvature, and each limb opposed by a short contrary curve at its extremities, the convex limb by a concave, the concave by a convex.

XIII. Such, then, are the great families of profile lines 311 into which all cornices and capitals may be divided; but their best examples unite two such profiles in a mode which we cannot understand till we consider the further ornament with which the profiles are charged. And in doing this we must, for the sake of clearness, consider, first the nature of the designs themselves, and next the mode of cutting them.

XVI.
CORNICE DECORATION.

XIV. In Plate XVI., opposite, I have thrown together a few of the most characteristic medi�val examples of the treatment of the simplest cornice profiles: the uppermost, a, is the pure root of cornices from St. Mark’s. The second, d, is the Christian Doric cornice, here lettered d in order to avoid confusion, its profile being d of Plate XV. in bold development, and here seen on the left-hand side, truly drawn, though filled up with the ornament to show the mode in which the angle is turned. This is also from St. Mark’s. The third, b, is b of Plate XV., the pattern being inlaid in black because its office was in the interior of St. Mark’s, where it was too dark to see sculptured ornament at the required distance. (The other two simple profiles, a and c of Plate XV., would be decorated in the same manner, but require no example here, for the profile a is of so frequent occurrence that it will have a page to itself alone in the next volume; and c may be seen over nearly every shop in London, being that of the common Greek egg cornice.) The fourth, e in Plate XVI., is a transitional cornice, passing from Byzantine into Venetian Gothic: f is a fully developed Venetian Gothic cornice founded on Byzantine traditions; and g the perfect Lombardic-Gothic cornice, founded on the Pisan Romanesque traditions, and strongly marked with the noblest Northern element, the Lombardic vitality restrained by classical models. I consider it a perfect cornice, and of the highest order.

XV. Now in the design of this series of ornaments there are two main points to be noted; the first, that they all, except b, are distinctly rooted in the lower part of the cornice, and spring to the top. This arrangement is constant in all the best cornices and capitals; and it is essential to the expression of 312 the supporting power of both. It is exactly opposed to the system of running cornices and banded85 capitals, in which the ornament flows along them horizontally, or is twined round them, as the mouldings are in the early English capital, and the foliage in many decorated ones. Such cornices have arisen from a mistaken appliance of the running ornaments, which are proper to archivolts, jambs, &c., to the features which have definite functions of support. A tendril may nobly follow the outline of an arch, but must not creep along a cornice, nor swathe or bandage a capital; it is essential to the expression of these features that their ornament should have an elastic and upward spring; and as the proper profile for the curve is that of a tree bough, as we saw above, so the proper arrangement of its farther ornament is that which best expresses rooted and ascendant strength like that of foliage.

There are certain very interesting exceptions to the rule (we shall see a curious one presently); and in the carrying out of the rule itself, we may see constant licenses taken by the great designers, and momentary violations of it, like those above spoken of, respecting other ornamental laws—violations which are for our refreshment, and for increase of delight in the general observance; and this is one of the peculiar beauties of the cornice g, which, rooting itself in strong central clusters, suffers some of its leaves to fall languidly aside, as the drooping outer leaves of a natural cluster do so often; but at the very instant that it does this, in order that it may not lose any of its expression of strength, a fruit-stalk is thrown up above the languid leaves, absolutely vertical, as much stiffer and stronger than the rest of the plant as the falling leaves are weaker. Cover this with your finger, and the cornice falls to pieces, like a bouquet which has been untied.

XVI. There are some instances in which, though the real arrangement is that of a running stem, throwing off leaves up 313 and down, the positions of the leaves give nearly as much elasticity and organisation to the cornice, as if they had been rightly rooted; and others, like b, where the reversed portion of the ornament is lost in the shade, and the general expression of strength is got by the lower member. This cornice will, nevertheless, be felt at once to be inferior to the rest; and though we may often be called upon to admire designs of these kinds, which would have been exquisite if not thus misplaced, the reader will find that they are both of rare occurrence, and significative of declining style; while the greater mass of the banded capitals are heavy and valueless, mere aggregations of confused sculpture, swathed round the extremity of the shaft, as if she had dipped it into a mass of melted ornament, as the glass-blower does his blow-pipe into the metal, and brought up a quantity adhering glutinously to its extremity. We have many capitals of this kind in England: some of the worst and heaviest in the choir of York. The later capitals of the Italian Gothic have the same kind of effect, but owing to another cause: for their structure is quite pure, and based on the Corinthian type: and it is the branching form of the heads of the leaves which destroys the effect of their organisation. On the other hand, some of the Italian cornices which are actually composed by running tendrils, throwing off leaves into oval interstices, are so massive in their treatment, and so marked and firm in their vertical and arched lines, that they are nearly as suggestive of support as if they had been arranged on the rooted system. A cornice of this kind is used in St. Michele of Lucca (Plate VI. in the “Seven Lamps,” and XXI. here), and with exquisite propriety; for that cornice is at once a crown to the story beneath it and a foundation to that which is above it, and therefore unites the strength and elasticity of the lines proper to the cornice with the submission and prostration of those proper to the foundation.

XVII. This, then, is the first point needing general notice in the designs in Plate XVI. The second is the difference between the freedom of the Northern and the sophistication 314 of the classical cornices, in connection with what has been advanced in Appendix 8. The cornices, a, d, and b, are of the same date, but they show a singular difference in the workman’s temper: that at b is a single copy of a classical mosaic; and many carved cornices occur, associated with it, which are, in like manner, mere copies of the Greek and Roman egg and arrow mouldings. But the cornices a and d are copies of nothing of the kind: the idea of them has indeed been taken from the Greek honeysuckle ornament, but the chiselling of them is in no wise either Greek, or Byzantine, in temper. The Byzantines were languid copyists: this work is as energetic as its original; energetic, not in the quantity of work, but in the spirit of it: an indolent man, forced into toil, may cover large spaces with evidence of his feeble action, or accumulate his dulness into rich aggregation of trouble, but it is gathered weariness still. The man who cut those two uppermost cornices had no time to spare: did as much cornice as he could in half an hour; but would not endure the slightest trace of error in a curve, or of bluntness in an edge. His work is absolutely unreproveable; keen, and true, as Nature’s own; his entire force is in it, and fixed on seeing that every line of it shall be sharp and right: the faithful energy is in him: we shall see something come of that cornice: The fellow who inlaid the other (b), will stay where he is for ever; and when he has inlaid one leaf up, will inlay another down,—and so undulate up and down to all eternity: but the man of a and d will cut his way forward, or there is no truth in handicrafts, nor stubbornness in stone.

XVIII. But there is something else noticeable in those two cornices, besides the energy of them: as opposed either to b, or the Greek honeysuckle or egg patterns, they are natural designs. The Greek egg and arrow cornice is a nonsense cornice, very noble in its lines, but utterly absurd in meaning. Arrows have had nothing to do with eggs (at least since Leda’s time), neither are the so-called arrows like arrows, nor the eggs like eggs, nor the honeysuckles like honeysuckles; they are all conventionalised into a monotonous successiveness 315 of nothing,—pleasant to the eye, useless to the thought. But those Christian cornices are, as far as may be, suggestive; there is not the tenth of the work in them that there is in the Greek arrows, but, as far as that work will go, it has consistent intention; with the fewest possible incisions, and those of the easiest shape, they suggest the true image, of clusters of leaves, each leaf with its central depression from root to point, and that distinctly visible at almost any distance from the eye, and in almost any light.

XIX. Here, then, are two great new elements visible; energy and naturalism:—Life, with submission to the laws of God, and love of his works; this is Christianity, dealing with her classical models. Now look back to what I said in Chap. 1. XX. of this dealing of hers, and invention of the new Doric line; then to what is above stated (VIII.) respecting that new Doric, and the boughs of trees; and now to the evidence in the cutting of the leaves on the same Doric section, and see how the whole is beginning to come together.

XX. We said that something would come of these two cornices, a and d. In e and f we see that something has come of them: e is also from St. Mark’s, and one of the earliest examples in Venice of the transition from the Byzantine to the Gothic cornice. It is already singularly developed; flowers have been added between the clusters of leaves, and the leaves themselves curled over: and observe the well-directed thought of the sculptor in this curling;—the old incisions are retained below, and their excessive rigidity is one of the proofs of the earliness of the cornice; but those incisions now stand for the under surface of the leaf; and behold, when it turns over, on the top of it you see true ribs. Look at the upper and under surface of a cabbage-leaf, and see what quick steps we are making.

XXI. The fifth example (f) was cut in 1347; it is from the tomb of Marco Giustiniani, in the church of St. John and Paul, and it exhibits the character of the central Venetian Gothic fully developed. The lines are all now soft and undulatory, though elastic; the sharp incisions have become deeply-gathered 316 folds; the hollow of the leaf is expressed completely beneath, and its edges are touched with light, and incised into several lobes, and their ribs delicately drawn above. (The flower between is only accidentally absent; it occurs in most cornices of the time.)

But in both these cornices the reader will notice that while the naturalism of the sculpture is steadily on the increase, the classical formalism is still retained. The leaves are accurately numbered, and sternly set in their places; they are leaves in office, and dare not stir nor wave. They have the shapes of leaves, but not the functions, “having the form of knowledge, but denying the power thereof.” What is the meaning of this?

XXII. Look back to the XXXIIIrd paragraph of the first chapter, and you will see the meaning of it. These cornices are the Venetian Ecclesiastical Gothic; the Christian element struggling with the Formalism of the Papacy,—the Papacy being entirely heathen in all its principles. That officialism of the leaves and their ribs means Apostolic succession, and I don’t know how much more, and is already preparing for the transition to old Heathenism again, and the Renaissance.86

XXIII. Now look to the last cornice (g). That is Protestantism,—a slight touch of Dissent, hardly amounting to schism, in those falling leaves, but true life in the whole of it. The forms all broken through, and sent heaven knows where, but the root held fast; and the strong sap in the branches; and, best of all, good fruit ripening and opening straight towards 317 heaven, and in the face of it, even though some of the leaves lie in the dust.

Now, observe. The cornice f represents Heathenism and Papistry, animated by the mingling of Christianity and nature. The good in it, the life of it, the veracity and liberty of it, such as it has, are Protestantism in its heart; the rigidity and saplessness are the Romanism of it. It is the mind of Fra Angelico in the monk’s dress,—Christianity before the Reformation. The cornice g has the Lombardic life element in its fulness, with only some color and shape of Classicalism mingled with it—the good of classicalism; as much method and Formalism as are consistent with life, and fitting for it: The continence within certain border lines, the unity at the root, the simplicity of the great profile,—all these are the healthy classical elements retained: the rest is reformation, new strength, and recovered liberty.

XXIV. There is one more point about it especially noticeable. The leaves are thoroughly natural in their general character, but they are of no particular species: and after being something like cabbage-leaves in the beginning, one of them suddenly becomes an ivy-leaf in the end. Now I don’t know what to say of this. I know it, indeed, to be a classical character;—it is eminently characteristic of Southern work; and markedly distinctive of it from the Northern ornament, which would have been oak, or ivy, or apple, but not anything, nor two things in one. It is, I repeat, a clearly classical element; but whether a good or bad element, I am not sure;—whether it is the last trace of Centaurism and other monstrosity dying away; or whether it has a figurative purpose, legitimate in architecture (though never in painting), and has been rightly retained by the Christian sculptor, to express the working of that spirit which grafts one nature upon another, and discerns a law in its members warring against the law of its mind.

XXV. These, then, being the points most noticeable in the spirit both of the designs and the chiselling, we have now to return to the question proposed in XIII., and observe the modifications of form of profile which resulted from the 318 changing contours of the leafage; for up to XIII., we had, as usual, considered the possible conditions of form in the abstract;—the modes in which they have been derived from each other in actual practice require to be followed in their turn. How the Greek Doric or Greek ogee cornices were invented is not easy to determine, and, fortunately, is little to our present purpose; for the medi�val ogee cornices have an independent development of their own, from the first type of the concave cornice a in Plate XV.

Fig. LXIII.

XXVI. That cornice occurs, in the simplest work, perfectly pure, but in finished work it was quickly felt that there was a meagreness in its junction with the wall beneath it, where it was set as here at a, Fig. LXIII., which could only be conquered by concealing such junction in a bar of shadow. There were two ways of getting this bar: one by a projecting roll at the foot of the cornice (b, Fig. LXIII.), the other by slipping the whole cornice a little forward (c. Fig. LXIII.). From these two methods arise two groups of cornices and capitals, which we shall pursue in succession.


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