Giovanni Battista Piranesi

from Opinions on Architecture (1765)

The second part of Piranesi's published response of 1765 takes the form of a Socratic dialogue between the characters Protopiro (who represents the classical "rigorists" seeking to simplify and limit ornamentation) and Didascalo (the mouthpiece for Piranesi). It is a dialogue of the greatest importance to architectural theory because it opens up an entirely new line of theoretical development and reflects the crisis of academic theory in the 1760s — a crisis that would continue until the end of the century. Piranesi wrote it when he himself was making his way back into architectural practice, and he now shifts from his earlier archaeological argument into an architectural one. His villain here is actually Laugier and his reform-minded rationalism. In the first part of the dialogue Protopiro has his way, and in the spirit of Laugier he points out the many abuses of contemporary practice with its over-reliance on ornamentation. Didascalo then usurps Protopiro's reformative purism and sarcastically eliminates nearly everything else from architectural usage, leading him to conclude that if Protopiro and Laugier had their way, everyone would once again be living in primitive huts. In short, Didascalo's argument is a defense of the various traditions of architecture, including its baroque tradition, against the simplicity of classicism, and it rallies around the architect's freedom to invent and re-use traditional forms — in short, eclecticism.

Protopiro. I have given you my opinion.

Didascalo. So it is Greece and Vitruvius? Very well: tell me, then, what do columns represent? Vitruvius says they are the forked uprights of huts; others describe them as tree

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Parere su I'Architettura [Opinions on architecture] (1765), trans. Caroline Beamish and David Britt, in Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Observations on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette. Los Angeles: Getty Publications Program, 2002, pp. 105—6, 107—8. © 2002 by Getty Publications. Reprinted with permission of Getty Publications.

trunks placed to support the roof. And the flutes on the columns: what do they signify? Vitruvius thinks they are the pleats in a matron's gown. So the columns stand neither for forked uprights nor for tree trunks but for women placed to support a roof. Now what do you think about flutes? It seems to me that columns ought to be smooth. Therefore, take note: smooth columns. The forked uprights and tree trunks should be planted in the earth, to keep them stable and straight. Indeed that is how the Dorians thought of their columns. Therefore they should have no bases. Take note: no bases. The tree trunks, if they were used to support the roof, would be smooth and flat on top; the forked props can look like anything you like, except capitals. If that is not definite enough, remember that the capitals must represent solid things, not heads of men, maidens, or matrons, or baskets with foliage around them, or baskets topped with a matron's wig. So take note: no capitals. Never fear; there are other rigorists who also call for smooth columns, no bases, and no capitals.

As for architraves, you want them to look either like tree trunks placed horizontally across the forked props or like beams laid out to span the tree trunks. So what is the point of the fasciae or of the band that projects from the surface? To catch the water and go rotten? Take note: architraves with no fasciae and no band.

What do the triglyphs stand for? Vitruvius says that they represent the ends of the joists of ceilings or soffits. When they are placed at the corners of the building, however, not only do they belie this description but they can never be placed at regular intervals, because they have to be centered over the columns. If they are moved away from the corners, they can then be placed symmetrically only if the building is narrowed or widened with respect to the triglyphs. It is madness that a few small cuts on stone or mortar should dictate the proportions of a building, or that all or some of the due requirements of the building should be sacrificed to them. Thus, the ancient architects cited by Vitruvius held that temples ought not to be built in the Doric manner; better still, the Romans used the Doric without the added clutter. So take note: friezes without triglyphs. Now it is your turn, Signor Protopiro, to purge architecture of all the other ornaments that you disparaged just now.

Protopiro. What? Have you finished?

Didascalo. Finished? I have not even started. Let us go inside a temple, a palace, wherever you choose. Around the walls we shall observe architraves, friezes, and cornices adorned with those features that you just described as standing for the roof of a building - triglyphs, modillions, and dentils. And when those features are absent, and the friezes and cornices are smooth, even then the architraves and friezes will seem to support a roof and the cornices seem to be the eaves. These eaves, however, will drip rain inside the temple, the palace, or basilica. So the temple, the palace, or the basilica will be outside, and the outside inside, will they not? To rectify such anomalies, such travesties of architecture, take note: internal walls of buildings with no architraves, friezes, and cornices.

And then, on these cornices, which stand for eaves, vaults are erected. This is an even worse impropriety than those episkenia on the roofs that we discussed a little while ago and that Vitruvius condemns.

Therefore take note: buildings with no vaults.

Let us observe the walls of a building from inside and outside. These walls terminate in architraves and all that goes with them above; below these architraves, most often we find engaged columns or pilasters. I ask you, what holds up the roof of the building? If the wall, then it needs no architraves; if the columns or pilasters, what is the wall there for? Choose,

Signor Protopiro, Which will you demolish? The walls or the pilasters? No answer? Then I will demolish the whole lot. Take note: buildings with no walls, no columns, no pilasters, no friezes, no cornices, no vaults, no roofs. A clean sweep. [... ]

Didascalo. You would like me to agree with you that the architectural manners laid down by Vitruvius are rational? That they imitate truth?

Protopiro. Rational - highly rational - by comparison with the unbridled license that prevails in construction today.

Didascalo. Aha! Rational by comparison with current practice? And so, if we leave current practice out of it, your rationality disappears at once. The critics, who never let up, will still want the last word; deprive them of the wide scope for indignation that present-day practice affords them, and they will soon turn against the little that you and your friends are prepared to accept. Then, go ahead and say that extremes are dangerous, that too much rigor is really abuse; all the same, the manners in which you build will be judged just as they were or might have been judged when first invented. You call me excessively severe, on the grounds that I am going too far by taking you back to huts in which people have no desire to live; but you would yourselves be condemned for monotonous buildings that people would detest just as much.

Protopiro. Monotonous?

Didascalo. Yes, monotonous, architecturally always exactly the same. As architects, you think yourselves extraordinary, but you would soon become utterly ordinary. When your simple manners of building were first established, why did the successors of those who established them soon begin to find different ways of decorating their buildings? Was it for want of the capacity to equal their predecessors? Surely not, since they had been trained as their pupils; and, all around them, they could see an architecture that was simple enough to be easy to reproduce.

Protopiro. I am not saying that we should do nothing but follow those early manners of building. I don't blame the successors of those first architects for wanting to innovate. But I do blame them for the quality of their innovations, and I blame all those architects who have vied with each other ever since in devising more and more of them.

Didascalo. I suppose you mean architects like [Gian Lorenzo] Bernini and [Francesco] Borromini, and all those others who have failed to bear in mind that ornament must derive from the components of architecture. But, in criticizing them, whom do you think you criticize? You criticize the greatest architect who ever was or ever will be. You criticize the experience of all those many practitioners who from the moment when this kind of architecture was first invented until it was buried beneath the ruins always worked in this way; and the experience of those many who ever since this kind of architecture was first revived have been and are unable to work in any other way. You criticize the very spirit that invented the architecture that you praise; the spirit that, seeing the world still unsatisfied, has found itself obliged to seek variety by the very same ways and means that you dislike. Now if, over the centuries, among all those countless practitioners, the experience of the totality of architecture to date has failed to produce what you are looking for, then how can we avoid concluding that, if everything you dislike were removed from architecture, we would be left with buildings of unendurable monotony? What word other than foolish can we apply to those who flatter themselves that they are destined to find in this art something that has never been found in all these centuries? All the more foolish, in that they cannot even salve their own self-esteem by finding what they are looking for.

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