Stones of Venice, The, volume 1



I. If the windows and doors of some of our best northern Gothic buildings were built up, and the ornament of their archivolts concealed, there would often remain little but masses of dead wall and unsightly buttress; the whole vitality of the building consisting in the graceful proportions or rich mouldings of its apertures. It is not so in the south, where, frequently, the aperture is a mere dark spot on the variegated wall; but there the column, with its horizontal or curved architrave, assumes an importance of another kind, equally dependent upon the methods of lintel and archivolt decoration. These, though in their richness of minor variety they defy all exemplification, may be very broadly generalized.

Of the mere lintel, indeed, there is no specific decoration, nor can be; it has no organism to direct its ornament, and therefore may receive any kind and degree of ornament, according to its position. In a Greek temple, it has meagre horizontal lines; in a Romanesque church, it becomes a row of upright niches, with an apostle in each; and may become anything else at the architect’s will. But the arch head has a natural organism, which separates its ornament into distinct families, broadly definable.

II. In speaking of the arch-line and arch masonry, we considered the arch to be cut straight through the wall; so that, if half built, it would have the appearance at a, Fig. LXIX. But in the chapter on Form of Apertures, we found that the side of the arch, or jamb of the aperture, might often require to be bevelled, so as to give the section b, Fig. LXIX. It is easily conceivable that when two ranges of voussoirs were 334 used, one over another, it would be easier to leave those beneath, of a smaller diameter, than to bevel them to accurate junction with those outside. Whether influenced by this facility, or by decorative instinct, the early northern builders often substitute for the bevel the third condition, c, of Fig. LXIX.; so that, of the three forms in that figure, a belongs principally to the south, c to the north, and b indifferently to both.

Fig. LXIX.

III. If the arch in the northern building be very deep, its depth will probably be attained by a succession of steps, like that in c; and the richest results of northern archivolt decoration are entirely based on the aggregation of the ornament of these several steps; while those of the south are only the complete finish and perfection of the ornament of one. In this ornament of the single arch, the points for general note are very few.

IV. It was, in the first instance, derived from the classical architrave,91 and the early Romanesque arches are nothing but such an architrave, bent round. The horizontal lines of the latter become semicircular, but their importance and value remain exactly the same; their continuity is preserved across all the voussoirs, and the joints and functions of the latter are studiously concealed. As the builders get accustomed to the arch, and love it better, they cease to be ashamed of its structure: the voussoirs begin to show themselves confidently, and fight for precedence with the architrave lines; and there is an entanglement of the two structures, in consequence, like the circular and radiating lines of a cobweb, until at last the architrave 335 lines get worsted, and driven away outside of the voussoirs; being permitted to stay at all only on condition of their dressing themselves in medi�val costume, as in the plate opposite.

V. In other cases, however, before the entire discomfiture of the architrave, a treaty of peace is signed between the adverse parties on these terms: That the architrave shall entirely dismiss its inner three meagre lines, and leave the space of them to the voussoirs, to display themselves after their manner; but that, in return for this concession, the architrave shall have leave to expand the small cornice which usually terminates it (the reader had better look at the original form in that of the Erechtheum, in the middle of the Elgin room of the British Museum) into bolder prominence, and even to put brackets under it, as if it were a roof cornice, and thus mark with a bold shadow the terminal line of the voussoirs. This condition is seen in the arch from St. Pietro of Pistoja, Plate XIII., above.

VI. If the Gothic spirit of the building be thoroughly determined, and victorious, the architrave cornice is compelled to relinquish its classical form, and take the profile of a Gothic cornice or dripstone; while, in other cases, as in much of the Gothic of Verona, it is forced to disappear altogether. But the voussoirs then concede, on the other hand, so much of their dignity as to receive a running ornament of foliage or animals, like a classical frieze, and continuous round the arch. In fact, the contest between the adversaries may be seen running through all the early architecture of Italy: success inclining sometimes to the one, sometimes to the other, and various kinds of truce or reconciliation being effected between them: sometimes merely formal, sometimes honest and affectionate, but with no regular succession in time. The greatest victory of the voussoir is to annihilate the cornice, and receive an ornament of its own outline, and entirely limited by its own joints: and yet this may be seen in the very early apse of Murano.

VII. The most usual condition, however, is that unity of 336 the two members above described, V., and which may be generally represented by the archivolt section a, Fig. LXX.; and from this descend a family of Gothic archivolts of the highest importance. For the cornice, thus attached to the arch, suffers exactly the same changes as the level cornice, or capital; receives, in due time, its elaborate ogee profile and leaf ornaments, like Fig. 8 or 9 of Plate XV.; and, when the shaft loses its shape, and is lost in the later Gothic jamb, the archivolt has influence enough to introduce this ogee profile in the jamb also, through the banded impost: and we immediately find ourselves involved in deep successions of ogee mouldings in sides of doors and windows, which never would have been thought of, but for the obstinate resistance of the classical architrave to the attempts of the voussoir at its degradation or banishment.

Fig. LXX.

VIII. This, then, will be the first great head under which we shall in future find it convenient to arrange a large number of archivolt decorations. It is the distinctively Southern and Byzantine form, and typically represented by the section a, of Fig. LXX.; and it is susceptible of almost every species of surface ornament, respecting which only this general law may be asserted: that, while the outside or vertical surface may properly be decorated, and yet the soffit or under surface left plain, the soffit is never to be decorated, and the outer surface left plain. Much beautiful sculpture is, in the best Byzantine buildings, half lost by being put under soffits; but the eye is led to discover it, and even to demand it, by the rich chasing of the outside of the voussoirs. It would have been an hypocrisy to carve them externally only. But there is not the smallest excuse for carving the soffit, and not the outside; for, in that case, we approach the building under the idea of its being perfectly plain; we do not look for the soffit decoration, and, of course, do not see it: or, if we do, it is merely to regret that it should not be in a better place. In 337 the Renaissance architects, it may, perhaps, for once, be considered a merit, that they put their bad decoration systematically in the places where we should least expect it, and can seldomest see it:—Approaching the Scuola di San Rocco, you probably will regret the extreme plainness and barrenness of the window traceries; but, if you will go very close to the wall beneath the windows, you may, on sunny days, discover a quantity of panel decorations which the ingenious architect has concealed under the soffits.

The custom of decorating the arch soffit with panelling is a Roman application of the Greek roof ornament, which, whatever its intrinsic merit (compare Chap. XXIX. IV.), may rationally be applied to waggon vaults, as of St. Peter’s, and to arch soffits under which one walks. But the Renaissance architects had not wit enough to reflect that people usually do not walk through windows.

IX. So far, then, of the Southern archivolt: In Fig. LXIX., above, it will be remembered that c represents the simplest form of the Northern. In the farther development of this, which we have next to consider, the voussoirs, in consequence of their own negligence or over-confidence, sustain a total and irrecoverable defeat. That archivolt is in its earliest conditions perfectly pure and undecorated,—the simplest and rudest of Gothic forms. Necessarily, when it falls on the pier, and meets that of the opposite arch, the entire section of masonry is in the shape of a cross, and is carried by the crosslet shaft, which we above stated to be distinctive of Northern design. I am more at a loss to account for the sudden and fixed development of this type of archivolt than for any other architectural transition with which I am acquainted. But there it is, pure and firmly established, as early as the building of St. Michele of Pavia; and we have thenceforward only to observe what comes of it.

X. We find it first, as I said, perfectly barren; cornice and architrave altogether ignored, the existence of such things practically denied, and a plain, deep-cut recess with a single mighty shadow occupying their place. The voussoirs, thinking 338 their great adversary utterly defeated, are at no trouble to show themselves; visible enough in both the upper and under archivolts, they are content to wait the time when, as might have been hoped, they should receive a new decoration peculiar to themselves.

XI. In this state of paralysis, or expectation, their flank is turned by an insidious chamfer. The edges of the two great blank archivolts are felt to be painfully conspicuous; all the four are at once beaded or chamfered, as at b, Fig. LXX.; a rich group of deep lines, running concentrically with the arch, is the result on the instant, and the fate of the voussoirs is sealed. They surrender at once without a struggle, and unconditionally; the chamfers deepen and multiply themselves, cover the soffit, ally themselves with other forms resulting from grouped shafts or traceries, and settle into the inextricable richness of the fully developed Gothic jamb and arch; farther complicated in the end by the addition of niches to their recesses, as above described.

XII. The voussoirs, in despair, go over to the classical camp, in hope of receiving some help or tolerance from their former enemies. They receive it indeed: but as traitors should, to their own eternal dishonor. They are sharply chiselled at the joints, or rusticated, or cut into masks and satyrs’ heads, and so set forth and pilloried in the various detestable forms of which the simplest is given above in Plate XIII. (on the left); and others may be seen in nearly every large building in London, more especially in the bridges; and, as if in pure spite at the treatment they had received from the archivolt, they are now not content with vigorously showing their lateral joints, but shape themselves into right-angled steps at their heads, cutting to pieces their limiting line, which otherwise would have had sympathy with that of the arch, and fitting themselves to their new friend, the Renaissance Ruled Copy-book wall. It had been better they had died ten times over, in their own ancient cause, than thus prolonged their existence.

XIII. We bid them farewell in their dishonor, to return to our victorious chamfer. It had not, we said, obtained so 339 easy a conquest, unless by the help of certain forms of the grouped shaft. The chamfer was quite enough to decorate the archivolts, if there were no more than two; but if, as above noticed in III., the archivolt was very deep, and composed of a succession of such steps, the multitude of chamferings were felt to be weak and insipid, and instead of dealing with the outside edges of the archivolts, the group was softened by introducing solid shafts in their dark inner angles. This, the manliest and best condition of the early northern jamb and archivolt, is represented in section at fig. 12 of Plate II.; and its simplest aspect in Plate V., from the Broletto of Como,—an interesting example, because there the voussoirs being in the midst of their above-described southern contest with the architrave, were better prepared for the flank attack upon them by the shaft and chamfer, and make a noble resistance, with the help of color, in which even the shaft itself gets slightly worsted, and cut across in several places, like General Zach’s column at Marengo.

XIV. The shaft, however, rapidly rallies, and brings up its own peculiar decorations to its aid; and the intermediate archivolts receive running or panelled ornaments, also, until we reach the exquisitely rich conditions of our own Norman archivolts, and of the parallel Lombardic designs, such as the entrance of the Duomo, and of San Fermo, at Verona. This change, however, occupies little time, and takes place principally in doorways, owing to the greater thickness of wall, and depth of archivolt; so that we find the rich shafted succession of ornament, in the doorway and window aperture, associated with the earliest and rudest double archivolt, in the nave arches, at St. Michele of Pavia. The nave arches, therefore, are most usually treated by the chamfer, and the voussoirs are there defeated much sooner than by the shafted arrangements, which they resist, as we saw, in the south by color; and even in the north, though forced out of their own shape, they take that of birds’ or monsters’ heads, which for some time peck and pinch the rolls of the archivolt to their hearts’ content; while the Norman zigzag ornament allies itself with them, each zigzag 340 often restraining itself amicably between the joints of each voussoir in the ruder work, and even in the highly finished arches, distinctly presenting a concentric or sunlike arrangement of lines; so much so, as to prompt the conjecture, above stated, Chap. XX. XXVI., that all such ornaments were intended to be typical of light issuing from the orb of the arch. I doubt the intention, but acknowledge the resemblance; which perhaps goes far to account for the never-failing delightfulness of this zigzag decoration. The diminution of the zigzag, as it gradually shares the defeat of the voussoir, and is at last overwhelmed by the complicated, railroad-like fluency of the later Gothic mouldings, is to me one of the saddest sights in the drama of architecture.

XV. One farther circumstance is deserving of especial note in Plate V., the greater depth of the voussoirs at the top of the arch. This has been above alluded to as a feature of good construction, Chap. XI., III.; it is to be noted now as one still more valuable in decoration: for when we arrive at the deep succession of concentric archivolts, with which northern portals, and many of the associated windows, are headed, we immediately find a difficulty in reconciling the outer curve with the inner. If, as is sometimes the case, the width of the group of archivolts be twice or three times that of the inner aperture, the inner arch may be distinctly pointed, and the outer one, if drawn with concentric arcs, approximate very nearly to a round arch. This is actually the case in the later Gothic of Verona; the outer line of the archivolt having a hardly perceptible point, and every inner arch of course forming the point more distinctly, till the innermost becomes a lancet. By far the nobler method, however, is that of the pure early Italian Gothic; to make every outer arch a magnified fac-simile of the innermost one, every arc including the same number of degrees, but degrees of a larger circle. The result is the condition represented in Plate V., often found in far bolder development; exquisitely springy and elastic in its expression, and entirely free from the heaviness and monotony of the deep northern archivolts.


XVI. We have not spoken of the intermediate form, b, of Fig. LXIX. (which its convenience for admission of light has rendered common in nearly all architectures), because it has no transitions peculiar to itself: in the north it sometimes shares the fate of the outer architrave, and is channelled into longitudinal mouldings; sometimes remains smooth and massy, as in military architecture, or in the simpler forms of domestic and ecclesiastical. In Italy it receives surface decoration like the architrave, but has, perhaps, something of peculiar expression in being placed between the tracery of the window within, and its shafts and tabernacle work without, as in the Duomo of Florence: in this position it is always kept smooth in surface, and inlaid (or painted) with delicate arabesques; while the tracery and the tabernacle work are richly sculptured. The example of its treatment by colored voussoirs, given in Plate XIX., may be useful to the reader as a kind of central expression of the aperture decoration of the pure Italian Gothic;—aperture decoration proper; applying no shaft work to the jambs, but leaving the bevelled opening unenriched; using on the outer archivolt the voussoirs and concentric architrave in reconcilement (the latter having, however, some connection with the Norman zigzag); and beneath them, the pure Italian two-pieced and mid-cusped arch, with rich cusp decoration. It is a Veronese arch, probably of the thirteenth century, and finished with extreme care; the red portions are all in brick, delicately cast: and the most remarkable feature of the whole is the small piece of brick inlaid on the angle of each stone voussoir, with a most just feeling, which every artist will at once understand, that the color ought not to be let go all at once.

XVII. We have traced the various conditions of treatment in the archivolt alone; but, except in what has been said of the peculiar expression of the voussoirs, we might throughout have spoken in the same terms of the jamb. Even a parallel to the expression of the voussoir may be found in the Lombardic and Norman divisions of the shafts, by zigzags and other transverse ornamentation, which in the end are all swept 342 away by the canaliculated mouldings. Then, in the recesses of these and of the archivolts alike, the niche and statue decoration develops itself; and the vaulted and cavernous apertures are covered with incrustations of fretwork, and with every various application of foliage to their fantastic mouldings.

XVIII. I have kept the inquiry into the proper ornament of the archivolt wholly free from all confusion with the questions of beauty in tracery; for, in fact, all tracery is a mere multiplication and entanglement of small archivolts, and its cusp ornament is a minor condition of that proper to the spandril. It does not reach its completely defined form until the jamb and archivolt have been divided into longitudinal mouldings; and then the tracery is formed by the innermost group of the shafts or fillets, bent into whatever forms or foliations the designer may choose; but this with a delicacy of adaptation which I rather choose to illustrate by particular examples, of which we shall meet with many in the course of our inquiry, than to delay the reader by specifying here. As for the conditions of beauty in the disposition of the tracery bars, I see no hope of dealing with the subject fairly but by devoting, if I can find time, a separate essay to it—which, in itself, need not be long, but would involve, before it could be completed, the examination of the whole mass of materials lately collected by the indefatigable industry of the English architects who have devoted their special attention to this subject, and which are of the highest value as illustrating the chronological succession or mechanical structure of tracery, but which, in most cases, touch on their �sthetic merits incidentally only. Of works of this kind, by far the best I have met with is Mr. Edmund Sharpe’s, on Decorated Windows, which seems to me, as far as a cursory glance can enable me to judge, to exhaust the subject as respects English Gothic; and which may be recommended to the readers who are interested in the subject, as containing a clear and masterly enunciation of the general principles by which the design of tracery has been regulated, from its first development to its final degradation.

91 The architrave is properly the horizontal piece of stone laid across the tops of the pillars in Greek buildings, and commonly marked with horizontal lines, obtained by slight projections of its surface, while it is protected above in the richer orders, by a small cornice.


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