Comparative Composite Orders

The Composite order is a more artificial invention of Renaissance writers than the other four. Many Roman Corinthian versions exhibit what might be termed proto-composite characteristics, especially in the treatment of the capital, but it does not emerge as a separate order in Roman architecture, and it is unknown to Vitruvius.

Indeed, as Mark Wilson Jones has pointed out, Roman architects show considerable pragmatism both in the way their orders are proportioned and in mixing elements from different orders, but the overall arithmetical control they exert over proportions makes it clear that this flexibility is deliberate and by no means illiterate.16

Serlio's pioneering version is frankly idiosyncratic. He derives the entablature from the uppermost superimposed external order of the Colosseum, merging frieze into cornice with a series of massive curved brackets set in the frieze and supporting the corona. He also illustrates details of some particularly ebullient capitals and bases including one of Roman origin in which winged horses are substituted for the volutes. The logical progression of his orders permits him to allot a height of 10 diameters to the column, with which all subsequent authorities concur except Scamozzi who prefers 9% diameters for his 'Roman' order, in order to emphasise the view, which he shares with Chambers, of its inferiority to the Corinthian.

Vignola offers alternative forms for the Composite entablature. As well as the somewhat pedestrian denticular version shown in the plate, he evolves from Serlio's bracketed entablature a much more graceful bracket which contains clear references to the Doric, both in the vertical grooving with which it is adorned and with the spacing, which leaves square metopes in the frieze to be enriched with bas-reliefs. Summerson has pointed out how this particular idiom caught the imagination of nineteenth-century English classicists.17

Despite his reservations, Chambers produces a handsome version of the order, claiming the capital as purely his own interpretation and deriving the proportions of the entablature from both Tuscan and Ionic examples. For the architrave he borrows from Vignola, giving it only two faces separated by an enriched cyma reversa, as indeed do most authors, whilst the cornice, derived from Scamozzi, follows the Corinthian, but with square modillions substituted for the curved consoles. The order of Palladio, and its derivatives by Gibbs, Perrault and Scamozzi, all again suffer from lack of height in the entablature, each being only 2 diameters in height. All have square modillions in the cornice; Scamozzi acknowledges the Ionic ancestry of the order in his triple-faced architrave. Perrault works out the logic of the mathematical progression of his orders, arriving at a column height of 10 diameters, his loftiest order.

16. Mark Wilson Jones, Principles of Roman Architecture, pp. 109 et seq.


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