December 18: Where the Moon Doth Rise with a Dragon’s Face

2016/12/18 § Leave a comment


On this day in 2011 geologists from the University of Leicester and the National Museum of Wales announced the discovery of the exact source of the rock used to create Stonehenge’s first stone circle.


What you MUST know NOW: it’s from an outcrop called Craig Rhos-y-Felin.  It’s located near Pont Saeson in north Pembrokeshire, if you’re keeping track, or making travel plans.  Read all about it right here.

Image: rocks–sorry, we mean monoliths, or trilithons, or whatever, they are very old and very special (Clio’s)

December 04: Barbara the Bodacious

2016/12/04 § Leave a comment


On this day in every year is the Feast of St. Barbara.

St. Barbara is the patron saint of architects and stonemasons.  Her story includes sheep and locusts, a great tower and lightning strikes, teleportation, daughterly spunkiness aimed at an overbearing father, bizarre and violent death, and other great martyrish stuff.  She’s pretty great, and you should probably make a cake for her feast day today, and also study this comprehensive scholarly study of her legend and its cultural significance: Matters of Taste’s Ode to St. Barbara, complete with prayer.

Image: “St. Barbara Crushing her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio (from this source)

December 02: Colossus

2016/12/02 § 1 Comment


On this day in 69 AD Vitellius concluded his term as Roman emperor.

Aulus Vitellius Germanicus was fifty-four years old when he became Roman Emperor on the 16th of April in 69 AD, and was still fifty-four years old when he was assassinated eight months and seven days after taking office.  His two immediate predecessors, Galba and Otho, had not fared much better, also coming and going within the calendar year (the same calendar year).  Just prior to them, Nero had come to an equally horrific end after a more extraordinarily excessive reign (of a whopping four years).

Many of them exaggerated, accounts of Vitellius’ behavior vary.  He was apparently much given to gluttony and excess, certainly a common liability of his position.  But that wasn’t his undoing.  Vitellius was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, even though he tried to get out.  His death came with the rise of Vespasian (09-79 AD), and at the hands of Vespasian’s solders, who had proclaimed their man emperor in the summertime of the fateful year, 69 AD.  Vitellius might not have been much of a scholar or historian, but he understood the pattern of his predecessors’ sudden exits from office, and made fast to concede.  But before he could surrender the trappings of his office, he was attacked, captured and killed in the Forum with his brother and son.

The brutality was certainly unwarranted, but Vitellius’ removal was necessary.  With him out of office, Vespasian was able to sweep into Rome and show the world how an emperor out to act, at least in one particular aspect of the job description, as Builder (and Demolition Man) in Chief.  Ignoring the three stooges who so quickly came and then went to their sticky ends, Vespasian sized up the legacy of Nero, directing the thorough demolition of the hated and odious Domus Aurea.  In the midst of Nero’s great expansive pleasure grounds, Vespasian set about building a gift for the people of Rome: a building that would at once contribute to their enjoyment, show Rome to be the great power it was meant to be, and solidify his approval.  All was accomplished in the relatively quick and straightforward matter of constructing the biggest amphitheater the world had ever seen.

Image: ominous maximus: the Colosseum (from this source)

November 27: The Empress Who Should Have Been Emperor

2016/11/27 § Leave a comment

On this day in 450 Galla Placidia died.

Women’s histories are woefully under-represented as a general rule; the scant attention paid to this extraordinary woman is especially regrettable.  Galla Placidia’s story is woven deeply into the triumphs and trials of the dusk of the Roman Empire.  As daughter of Theodosius I, Regent for her son Valentinian III, consort to the King of the Goths and then to Constantius III, she took part in and observed (when excluded from actual events) the changed nature of the Empire once it was made officially Christian in the late fourth century, the struggles between the Empire and the invading Visigoths (who abducted her, and kept her a long, long time while her witless brother tried to figure out what to do): a whole range of significant events that altered the course of history in that murky threshold between antiquity and the middle ages.

Acting the part of imperial family member and devout supporter of the church, she was a great patron of architecture, directing the restoration of many churches and the construction of new edifices in Rome, Jerusalem, and her primary home, the then-imperial capital of Ravenna.  It is there that she oversaw the construction of her masterpiece, the building dubbed her mausoleum (maybe originally a church; it’s a mystery).   One of the greatest examples of Ravenna’s imperial architecture, which is a curious and brilliant blend of customs drawn from the eastern and western empires, its exterior is typically plain, even homely.  Hidden from view are the clever hollow tubes used to create lighter structural features that comprise the building’s barrel vaults and dome.  The glory of the chapel-mausoleum is its interior: the walls are veneered with luscious varieties of marble, the vaults awash with glorious mosaics.

True credit for architectural achievement is oftentimes skewed by the common (mistaken) assumption that patrons have no sway over design decisions (which are then made by the individual, heroic architect), and the equally absurd notion that in eras that did not record names of “architects” that buildings just sort of “happened” without anyone calling the shots.  The unique character of this building (be it chapel, mausoleum, or whatever) in terms of its planning and extent of its ornament suggests the contribution of one or (probably) more very clever people in its inception.  To think that Galla Placidia, who, but for stupid laws that prohibited her from exercising her skills of leadership, would have been emperor, had no hand in this singular and remarkable building is just as nutty as the laws that kept her from claiming her rightful throne.

Image: interior of the so-called mausoleum (Clio’s)

November 19: 212 Years of the Institut d’Égypte

2016/11/19 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1799 the Institut d’Égypte made a plan to collect and publish scholarly work in a journal, the Description de l’Egypte.

The Institut had been formed the year before, as part of Napoleon’s grander efforts in Egypt.  Organized like a proper French academie, it was populated by serious scholars divided into departments that focused on mathematics, natural history, political economy, literature and arts–the last being Denon’s group.  The organization of a publication would spread the findings of the institute to a broader world from its position in the “orient.”

The Institut changed names and locations as the fortunes of its kingly patrons rose and fell, finally coming to rest in Cairo in 1880.  The collection swelled to hold over 200,000 historic texts and thousands of artifacts.  While it served scholars from around the world, it was also (unusually for an institute of this caliber) open to the public, centrally located in a fine Neo-Classical building near Tahrir Square.

On December 11, 2011 the Institut was caught in the crossfire (literally) of political revolution that spilled out of Tahrir Square, caught fire, and was devastated.  An original series of Denon’s great work was just part of the loss of the day, as the artifacts and scholarship collected across two centuries, and encompassing developments that stretched the millennia, literally went up in smoke.

Image: (from this source)

November 10: Making Glass [Boring]

2016/11/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1959 US Patent 2,911,759 was issued for the manufacture of float glass.

People have been glazing windows ever since they started making windows.  Don’t let Laugier fool you: that original primitive hut had windows that were not capricious.  People need enclosed spaces to live, since they don’t fare very well in nature, but they don’t want to live in the dark.  Primitive Man carved holes in his walls, then filled them with something that would keep the rain and bugs out and let the light in–maybe a light cloth, or a piece of vellum smeared with animal fat.  Primitive Man thought that was good enough.

Primitive Man, Jr., thought a hard, impermeable material that did not smell of rotting animal fat was a better idea.  Initially, only rich Post-Primitive folks could use thinly cut alabaster or pieces of glass (made necessarily small by the process in which they were cut from large discs created by blowing large cylinders that were sliced on one side and flattened out).  The technology limited the size a piece of glass might be, and meant that they would be necessarily bumpy or wavy.  By the nineteenth century, Industrial Revolution Man figured out how to make longer glass by rolling sheets through a special machine or casting them on an iron surface.  Either way, the glass required laborious (and expensive) polishing–reminding us that a cheap-looking building like the Crystal Palace was really pretty expensive, and reminding us why it was a long time before we see this amount of glass in one place for a long time.  But even when clients were willing to shell out, architects had the good sense to use glass in concert with other materials that were more amenable to aesthetic traditions.

In the early twentieth century a number of Belgians developed methods for drawing molten glass up from a tank, which lowered the production costs dramatically.  Remember that the structural technology required to make glass and metal buildings existed for generations already; it’s only in the twentieth century that architects and their clients decide this might be a thing to try; the sinking cost of glass may have assisted the theory for transparency that becomes more prominent in these decades.  This was just in time for–or maybe prompted by–the new emphasis on glass in architectural design in the hands of the early Modernists, from nutty-but-lovable Expressionist Bruno Taut to the more successful-but-dour Walter Gropius.  Theirs was the last step before the mid-twentieth century breakthrough with float glass.  Sir Alastair Pilkington and Kenneth Bickerstaff (whose names ought to have been written for a Monty Python sketch but are, in actual fact, for real) figured out how to create continuous ribbons of glass on a layer of molten tin, which is the method still used for most window glass in the early twenty-first century.  Finally, super-big pieces of glass, predictably smooth and clear, very inexpensive, and completely void of aesthetic interest without further manipulation.  Glass was already the preferred material for loads of Modernists who were having their way with cities around the world, and continue to do so.  Architects have matched the cheapness and banality of float glass with equally cheap (-looking) and banal buildings.  Behold: Boston, Chicago, London, Dubai, Detroit, Beijing . . . etc., etc., etc.

Back in the day architects understood that the mass of a building should be sculpted to enhance the natural play of light and shade on a facade.  It’s the non-transparent stuff that is fun to look at and easy to live in.  Glass can work with opaque materials in interesting ways, but when it takes over the design, there’s just not much that the building can say any more except “I am a big shiny thing.”  Glass is a convenient way to fill in the necessary holes in architecture to let light in.  Glass is not a building material; it is an enclosure material.  When it takes over, architecture is necessarily thin, brittle, dull.  But it does make a much crunchier setting for, say, Transformers movies–which may be all the evidence necessary to argue for an all-glassy world’s aesthetic and cultural merit.

Image: making cylinder glass, which is, maybe not surprisingly, much more visually intersting than making float glass (from this source)

October 28: You Will Conquer

2016/10/28 § Leave a comment

On this day in 312 Constantine had a vision.

It was the night before Constantine’s battle against Maxentius for control of Rome, a clash that is known for its location on and around a bridge over the Tiber River.  As he dreamed, Constantine was visited by other-worldly power that showed him the sign of Christ (the Chi Rho), and communicated the simple message: in this sign you will conquer.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge (which is still there) was decisive in catapulting Constantine into leadership of the Empire.  Constantine eventually ended the Tetrarchy, under which four people had somehow shared rule of portions of the Empire.  He knit it back together as a proper, single Empire.  As its emperor, he commenced typical emperorish activities, including ordering the construction of buildings–big basilicas, fancy triumphal arches.

But of greater consequence, and in response to the legendary success he enjoyed at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine legalized Christianity and subsequently embarked on a huge campaign to build in service to the Christian church.  A slew of monuments and churches in the Holy Land (like this and this) and throughout the Empire (most importantly this) were directed by Constantine and his family; he began the most significant program of church construction anywhere.  In short, the vision was the first step in public architecture for public use, inaugurating one of the most important developments in architectural history the world over.

Image: another source records that Constantine first saw The Sign in the daytime, in the brightness of the sun.  Bernini drew it and then made a monument that stands at the Vatican (from this source)

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