Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Paestum left its mark

THE history of classically inspired architecture in the West is too complex to lend itself to easy definitions. But certainly the Renaissance was a tremendous impetus toward the Roman and Palladian influence until models more closely derived from the Greek came into favor. Palladio (1618-80), working in Rome, established very exact, mathematical rules for the attainment of a classical perfection of proportion, composition, and detail, which were welcomed in his time and adapted to the conditions prevailing in Europe. Both country houses and fine city buildings followed these concepts with their beautiful fluted columns, Ionic and Corinthian capitals, their pediments, arcades, and arches, delighting the eye, satisfying the heart.

Later, handbooks based on Palladian principles were used by craftsmen and masons (sometimes masons pure and simple, sometimes those intellectuals and aristocrats who had become involved with Free Masonry -- the mason is historically an independent and versatile figure).

About these ads

However, about the middle of the 18th century there came a shift from this ``neo-Greek and Italianate'' taste when Winckelmann and other eminent men rediscovered the ancient site of Paestum. They became convinced that on that seacoast below Naples stood the most arresting examples of Greek temples to be seen outside of Athens, and the Roman heritage faded in their esteem.

They proceeded to arouse the world of art and architecture to share their enthusiasm for the Doric order and its ideal proportions. People came to feel that this expressed what was so much needed in government: stability, strength, and order. The English also now fancied that the Doric corresponded with two of their national characteristics -- their penchant for simplicity and their love of nature.

The Temple of Poseidon is the most famous of the three remaining buildings at Paestum, with its double row of columns and their strong Doric capitals; the other two, the Temple of Ceres and the Basilica, are in tune with it. The town had flourished between the 7th and 4th centuries BC; AD 273 it became a Roman colony. Later it withstood Hannibal; in the 11th century it was mauled by the Saracens, and by the 16th it was deserted, apparently forgotten. Its sudden redis-covery brought it to the attention of the public, and it became the fashion for young men on the Grand Tour to go down to these lonely marshes and gaze on the temples, imagining that here was hidden the secret of reason and calm.

It was remembered that this was once a region celebrated for its flowers, that Virgil, Ovid, and Martial had written of the ``twice-blooming roses'' of Paestum. It became a Mecca for artists, among them Piranesi, whose engravings of the site are renowned. A great many oils and watercolors were painted here, and it was an influence on Flaxman and his figure painting.

The burgeoning populations of the cities of Europe were then demanding urban planning, slums were being cleared, squares laid out, and these were decorated with colonnades and columns. It was felt that the Doric, with its moral influence, its stability, was particularly suitable for such ornamentation, and of course was essential for the schools, jails, theaters, bathhouses, slaughterhouses, mausoleums, and practically everything else being built. The influence of Paestum can be traced through Europe to America and to the cantonments and government buildings of British India.

We can see the Temple of Poseidon looming, showy but powerful in the background of this portrait by Rembrandt Peale of William Short, Jefferson's secretary. The young man, elegant but melancholy (it cannot have been altogether easy to have been Jefferson's secretary) is very indicative of his period in this setting.

Another example is this beautiful painting of Hungerford Market, which stood till quite recently above the Thames. We all know the site, though perhaps subconsciously, as halfway down the nearby Hungerford Stairs there once stood a decrepit blacking factory. Here Charles Dickens, aged nine, spent those terrible weeks that nearly broke his heart. From the experience he gained the burning passion for reform that made him so great a champion of the poor.

About these ads

A far cry from Paestum, but a thread runs through all these matters -- the deep wish to better our cities and our lives.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.