December 30: THE Academy (and an Almost-Conclusion)

2016/12/30 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1671 the Académie royale d’architecture was founded.

One of several academies founded by the French to set down la pratique parfaite in virtually all fields–in other words, to codify the ideal Frenchness of everything dans le monde–the Royal Academy of Architecture had both specific goals and tremendously broad reach.  As a training ground it ensured that properly educated and directed corps of designers could contribute to the great works to honor the great king, notably Versailles and the Louvre.  But it did much more than ensure the beauty and consistency of seventeenth-century French architecture for the state; it became the core of Classical training in the grand tradition for generations of architects in France and, ultimately, far beyond its borders.  De-royalized at the time of the Revolution, by the early nineteenth century the Academy was back in business as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most successful and important architecture school and tradition ever, anywhere, in the universe.  It brought together the traditions of the Classical world as they were first formed: guides to the identification and understanding and creation of beauty as well as the application of design principles within contemporary practice.  It is the universal, timeless, truly modern way to design and build, and always has been, except for a brief interruption occasioend by a small blip of pestilence–a nasty, hard-to-shake virus still sadly lingering on–that brewed in 1920s Germany among the sorry, misguided followers of a poor ill soul who had lost his ear for the Muse.

As a whole, the establishment of the academies may have been the high point of the Sun King’s reign.  They are a part of a small but significant heritage of tasty patrons cut of royal cloth.  A small club to be sure, but when they have an eye for beauty, there is no stopping them.  And while we may cringe at the excesses and downright grossness of Louis and others in his fraternity–Nero and Napoleon III come quickly to mind–there’s no denying that imperial legacies are not all bad (just take a skipping romp through Early Christian Rome, sixth-century Byzantium, the eigth-century Frankish Kingdomtenth-century China,  seventeenth-century India, eighteenth-century Italy and Russia, and nineteenth-century Vienna). (The previous, as a yearbook, also not a bad way to wrap up this chronicle as we approach the year’s end.)  Maybe it is appropriate then that Louis, who built the place that Thomas Jefferson would one day call “the pit of depravity,” is the one who left the single most important legacy to the world of architecture: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Classicism without end.

Image: Louis XIV, within a few years of founding the Académie (from this source)

December 24: Goth before Goth

2016/12/24 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1764 The Castle of Otranto was first published.

Horace Walpole’s little book was like nothing that had ever been written.  Neither history nor fanciful historical embellishment; nor was it like other novels or plays strung up on a didactic framework of moralizing instruction.  The Castle of Otranto  was a spooky story, one that was set in an eerie medieval castle (oops, spoiler!) in which the churning of characters’ interiors were as important as what they did in the actual physical setting of the place.  Pages and pages might pass explaining the increasing creeping-out of a fair damsel stuck in a dark cellar, knowing someone was down there with her, but not knowing if it were friend or foe.

Now pretty typical boiler-plate fodder for ghost stories and scary movies, Walpole’s approach is pretty much the start of the genre that would become known as Gothick.  In addition to its literary impact, the bestseller also inspired the gloomy and quirky medievalizing style in decorative arts and architecture that swept through the second half of the eighteenth century.  It starts, properly enough, with his own house, Strawberry Hill.  Granted, the villa looks now like the love child of a wonky medieval orphanage and the world’s biggest petit-four (especially after this recent amazing restoration project).  A bit of a carnival, the villa launched a thousand flights of fancy, most notably Edmund Burke’s ridiculously sublime Fonthill Abbey.

Image: illustration from the book; if you don’t know what it’s about, you’ll have to read it!  (from this source)

December 10: The Architect, the King and the Academy

2016/12/10 § Leave a comment

Royal Academy

On this day in 1768 King George III founded the Royal Academy of Arts.

While George was amenable to the arts in general, as is seen in his willingness to be “tutored,” so to speak, by architect William Chambers, it was Chambers who provided the spark of inspiration to get the Academy off the ground.  Chambers (1723-96) was something of a globe-trotter, having started life sweeping around the world as an agent of the Swedish East India Company.  Perhaps it was this exposure to art traditions–not just the art itself, but also the training of artists and the role that art might hold in one place or another–that encouraged him to encourage the king to jumpstart artsiness in the British capital.

The Academy opened with the purpose of providing a training ground for painters and sculptors (primarily, but institution-less architects also made use of it as well, even after they got their own club, finally, well into in the nineteenth century).  It also provided proper venues for exhibitions that would not only elevate the position of artists in society but also educate the public in a proper taste–the one articulated by the academicians, of course, first led by Sir Joshua Reynolds the Marvelous (the Academy’s first president and author of its first course of lectures).  The Academy keeps growing and has moved several times, now residing in Burlington House, where it continues to still be pretty fabulous at what it does.

Image: “The Royal Family viewing the exhibition of the Royal Academy,” etching by P.A. Martini after J.H. Ramberg, 1789 (from this source)

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)

November 21: From Indenture to Architect

2016/11/21 § 1 Comment

During this month in 1759 William Buckland was released from indenture.

The English system of indenture, which was founded sometime in the middle ages, was a means by which one party would promise service in some sort of manual activity for a set number of years (usually three) in exchange for a lump payment in some non-monetary manner from another party: a piece of land, a voyage across the sea.  The latter was arranged by countless immigrants to the New World, including Buckland (1734-74).

Buckland had served an apprenticeship as a joiner (a fussy sort of carpenter) under his uncle in Oxford and came to the colony of Virginia with George Mason’s brother Thomas in 1755.  After completing his indenture agreement with Mason, he established his independence as a joiner and master.  He had already established a reputation not only as a skilled mechanic responsible for the interiors of great houses like Gunston Hall (George Mason’s house) but also for the design of the fine interiors made by the crew under his supervision.  With his reputation for exhibiting taste and managing execution, and the growing wealth of his business that allowed him to accumulate a few choice books, it was an easy matter for Buckland to establish himself as an architect and to be accepted as a gentleman.  Two very different achievements–the former much more common in colonial America than the latter–, both of them are captured in Peale’s portrait of the finely-dressed, superbly-bewigged gent with his drafting implements at the ready.

Image: William Buckland, portrait by Charles Willson Peale (from this source)

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 09: Kristallnacht

2016/11/09 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1938 Nazis commenced a three-day spree of destruction that targeted places where Jews lived, worked and worshipped in cities across Germany and Austria.

During the pogrom thousands of buildings were destroyed–houses, schools, businesses and an estimated 1,000 synagogues.  (The extent of the attack is illustrated in this map.)  The shattered glass that collected in the streets during the nighttime raids in cities like Berlin, Dusseldorf, Dresden, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Salzburg and Graz, inspired the name Kristallnacht.  It’s a terribly pretty-sounding word that sounds like it might refer to a holiday, perhaps one of those festivals that seeks to brighten the lengthening winter evenings instead of describing a string of nights in which Jewish communities were subject to devastating terror.  The sudden destruction of buildings to demoralize or cripple–if not wipe out–a culture, is nothing new: witness nineteenth-century Beijing, fourth-century Nicomedia and fourth-century BC Persepolis, among so many horrible examples.  Kristallnacht bears a heinous distinction among them for its immediate scale and its position as the inaugural event of the Nazi Party’s Final Solution.

Some say that Kristallnacht had a sort of silver lining: reports of the devastation to Jewish cultural institutions spread quickly through Europe and overseas, and turned whatever opinion about Hitler’s party that had somehow remained ambiguous staunchly against the Nazis.  Regrettably and shamefully, the outrage of those foreign nations was not turned to action quickly enough to save the 30,000 who were arrested during Kristallnacht and sent to concentration camps, nor the 5,970,000 who would follow them to their death.

Image: a synagogue in Baden-Baden (from this source)

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