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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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"Some Thoughts on the Origin of Romanesque Architecture"

by Miss Honor Brooke
Volume 7, no. 6, 1896, pgs. 451-461


The subject of Romanesque architecture is surrounded by great associations: it is linked to the youth of nations, and rich in poetical and historical interest; yet it has been treated with much neglect; so much so, that one is not surprised by the look of perplexity, which is called forth by the mention of the subject. Perhaps the obscurity of its origin, and the fact that it developed at a time when western Europe was passing from one convulsive throb of expiring and kindling life to another, may be one cause of its neglect. It survived the rise and fall of many a powerful sovereignty: it travelled from Byzantium to the western shores of Ireland; it lingered longest on the banks of the Rhine, and finally expired before the superior loveliness of Gothic architecture.

A style which witnessed so many changes, and adapted itself to such varied nationalities, slowly developing into such splendour as we witness at Pisa, Lucca and Peterborough, is surely worthy of more consideration than is given to it by writers on this subject!

Why should we look on it merely as a transitional style,--merely as an obscure step to the glory of our early Gothic churches? Why not regard it as a complete style in itself, rightly called Romanesque, since its roots were laid deep in the old Roman Empire? Like some timid plant it lingered long in the ground; nor did it spring in into conscious life until the land which had nurtured it had fallen into the hands of strangers, and the Empire of Rome had passed from the world of fact into the world of ideas. It is partly due to the power of this idea over the minds and imaginations of the people who invaded Italy, that a native architecture was not interfered with by them, nor stifled in its youth, but on the contrary, grew up under Goth and Lombard and Teuton into mature and vigorous life. But though its roots were struck in the time of Rome's greatness, when she conquered and gave laws to the world; yet during that time it could hardly be called an architecture: it was more fitly speaking a system of construction; never relinquished or put aside, but kept in bondage by the perfection and loveliness of the architecture of the Greeks.

One of the two greatest writers of our day divides all architecture into two kinds,--that of the lintel or entablature, and that of the arch. And, roughly speaking, we might call the two systems Greek and Roman manner of building. It is always confessed that the Romans were not an artistic people, but they were aware of the principle of the arch, and made frequent use of it in the construction of their great buildings. It is to this fact that the buildings they undertook owe their individuality, and that look of massive dignity  and strength which strikes the beholder with something akin to awe. To the Roman the arch was everything; to the Greek it was nothing: it might not have existed at all for all he cared about it. He had found harmonious and complete expression for his artistic sense in the horizontal entablature laid on the column: and the exquisite proportion and variety he made to add to its beauty and enhance

l what the Romans would have done with this grand and striking figure had they further developed it,--had they not had the most artistic nation in the world at their gates, and afterwards come into closer connection with them at the conquest of Greece. They became satisfied with taking from their conquered subjects that which they could not, or cared not to develop for themselves,-the beauty and finished excellence of the Greek manner of building.

They acted towards the conquered race as they ever did; preserved all that they thought was worth preserving, and turned Zeus into Jupiter. They did not absolutely throw aside the arch, but they added the Greek manner to their own style of construction,--they adorned their buildings with pediment, column and capital. One frequently sees Roman buildings veneered as it were by Grecian orders.  Take for example the triumphal arches which the late Roman Empire was profuse in raising. Here we have a massive round ardch, against whose flat surface Greek pilasters and entablatures, etc., are placed: the construction si Roman, the decoration is Greek. A style cannot be said to exist until it has a decoration suitable to the principles of its construction, and the buildings jjust named are singularly severe and void of anything ornamental. The Romans found in classic Greece just what they felt a need of--grace and elegance,--and they accordingly masked their round-arched buildings with all the luxury of Grecian detail, column and pediment and entablature. Thus in imitating the Greeks  they lost individuality, and the proper develpment of the construction of the round arch was delayed for centuries. At the same time many buildings arose which might have belonged to Greece itself, and stood side by side with these, which showed the strange mingling of the two methods.  But it was to the detriment of each, for the Romans never developed their own system on account of the partial adoption of the Greek; and the Greek died a slow death at the hand of its captors,,--it faded away like some beautiful plant that suffers from being brought into other soil,--strange to it. But as I said it was fatal to the growth of a native architecture amongst the Romans, it hindered the architectural utterance of the people, until such time as that people had almost ceased to exist as a nation, with the downfall of the Empire, classical feeling declined like everything else, for there was little time for building with barbarian thundering at the gates.

During the long time in which the classical Roman style continued, it seems strange that it never occurred to the builder to place his round arch directly on the capital,--to mak, in fact, the column a support to the arch. This step once taking laid the foundation of a consistent style of architecture. The column indeed was a feature borrowed from the Greek, but with the latter its service was different, for it supported the entablature: it was the beautiful handmaid of a style in which horizontal lines were paramount; but when brought into service as support to the arch, it gave new life to architecture. It brought forward the archin to prominence, proclaiming it to be the chief constructive and decorative feature of the building. Thus it gave a death blow to the entablature: it was the beginning of that glorious series of buildings which we associate with the names of Pisa and Vnice and Durham, indeed I might add Amiens and Westminster; for where would be the greatness of their pillared aisles if it were not in the fact that their soaring arches rest on capitals, adorned with sculptural foliage, of which the ancient Grecian column with its acanthus wreatched capital was the prototype?

We are so accustomed to this feature in medieval buildings, that we hardly pause to think or enquire when it first arose, we can hardly conceive a time when it was a novelty. This one fact, the beginning of what is true Romanesque, the first real development of the round arch system was first accomplished by Diocletian. That Emperor had built for himself a magnificent palace at Spalato, to which on the abdication of the empire in the year 303 he retired. The ruins of this splendid abode are still to be seen. The intelligent traveller will be struck by nothing so much as a row of arches in the vestibule; a colonnade of round arches, each resting on the capital of its pillar. It looks perfectly natural, and nothing new to us; but to the builders of the 4th century it was the opening out of a new era, an era indeed they were slow in entering (for the experiment was not soon again repeated), but one which began for them a future that stretched far into those lands and amongst those peoples they had been wont to call Barbarians.

But this great invention was not immediately followed up. In the history of architectural styles there is no sudden break anywhere, the transition is always slow and characterized at first by the old and new appearing together, until the new has become completely established and the old drops into the past.

The era I am now entering on is looked down upon with contempt by the classic purist, he sees in it nothing but the slow corruption of ancient forms. But a truer insight teaches us, that out of apparent death, a new life springs. The old Empire was slowly dying, but it had made known throughout its vast dominions the usage of the round arch, and it remained for this great constructive principle to assert itself and gather to itself all that was most harmonious to its character and form. It would be impossible to determine the exact time in which Romanesque Architecture actually began, but I hope I have sufficiently established the fact, that as a round arched system, its origin dates from the time of Rome's real greatness--that its development was delayed for centuries, but that in the fourth century it put forth feeble, but certain signs of a new departure and a new life; and with the proclamation of Constantine that Christianity was to be the religion of the state, a new building period arose. The architectural momuments of earlier times supplied the Christians with both the Pagan temples, and the great secular buildings the Basilicas. The temples were with a few exceptions quite unfit for Christian worship, but the Basilicas or Halls of Justice were eminently fitted for it.

There was the long nave ready to receive the congregation, the tribune or apse at one end (from whence the judge was wont to administer justice) became the seat of the bishop with his clergy ranged round the semicircle of the apse.

These Halls of Justice which were furnished with a transept intersecting the nave at one point, already prefigured the cruciform church. The Basilica was in every point the ready made church, it could be used directly as such, and as a type on which other churches might be erected; it formed indeed the model of future churches throughout Western Christendom. The Pagan temples supplied materials for these buildings, their columns were set up again, and all the arrangements were borrwed from the Basilica; but the chief alteration that the new buildings received in Christian hands, was the great invention of Diocletion, i.e. that the arch should rest on the capital of the column, in fact that the latter should form a direct support to the arch. These new buildings offered a striking contrast to the temples, the latter had all their charm on the ouside, the former in the inside. To many people the plain and almost ugly outside of an early Romanesque church is as uninteresting as a Methodist chapel. The long nave, unrelieved on its exterior by buttress or pinnacle, betrays an unvaried monotony of wall-surface, broken only at intervals by a single-headed window;  at one end a low door, at the other the apse, its wall likewise pierced by round-headed window. No tower breaks the monotony of the line of building. The dome or cupola was not unknown to the Romans, but the use of it had declined, and when we meet it again it is in Byzantium. It found scant favour with the western builder; there are indeed a few notable exceptions in Ravenna and Venice, but the reason of this is found in the fact that these cities were in close connection with the East--and so they reproduced Eastern forms. The use of the cupola was rare until Brunellesci formed the daring project of crowning his church at Florence, with such a dome as Michael Angelo declared he would imitate at Rome, his should be "greater but not more beautiful."

There is no country so favourable to the study of the Romane (text missing)

e can never be so satisfactory or so beautiful as a pointed style, but it has certain capacities of grandeur and massiveness, with a sentiment of great completeness and honesty when carried out consistently; and with appropriate decoration it has as legitimate a claim to admiration as the Greek or the Gothic: and yet by some it is looked down on as a corruption of the classical Roman, and by others as a mere stepping-stone to the medieval pointed styles. But there are those who feel the interest that gathers roudn the early age of our era--that time when the old was giving way to the new, when the warm life-bllod of the Northern nations was being infused iinto the body of the decrepit and dying Empire. The magic interest of those times has cast a charm and a richness of association round every building connected with them, and supremely in those who witness to the coming o fa new order of things, for each building has its own tale to tell, engraven on on its walls, and each building acts like a beacon-light to guide us from point to point on the obscurity that hangs over those early ages.

Perhaps there is no spot in the whole of Italy which witnesses to an age so completely passed away as the now desolate town of Ravenna. Here we stand as it were on an isthmus between two worlds--the world of ancient Imperial Rome, and the world of Goth and Teuton. Here we see the Sepulchral Chapel that the daughter of Theodosius built for herself, where her remains repose and those of her husband and son--the only tombs of the Caesars that have never been disturbed. And here we find the palace and the tomb. The palace now in ruins is of a very early form of Romanesque, akin to the so-called "Saxon style" of England. It is the first time that small pillars, supported on brackets, had been seen in Italy,--the first time that small pillars had been introduced as division of windows, reminding one at once of St. Benet's, Cambridge. As to the door, it is round-headed, a great change from the square-headed doorways of classical times. Unfortunately this noble building was destoryed by Charlemagne, who carried off its pillars and marbles to decorate his own buildings across the Alps. The hoble character of Theodoric is well represented in the splended church he erected in this, the city of his choice--a gloriosu procession of saints is represented in mosaic on the walls above the arches, beariing gifts to the Holy Child and His mother. We can well afford to lose the triforium, when its place is so amply supplied by this rich decoration.

On the reconquest of Italy under Justinian, there came a brief period of transient splendour to the eastern empire. It is at Ravenna, and here alone, that we find traces of that far-off period. San Vitale still remains as it came from the hands of architect, thirteen hundred years ago, its cupola, its mosaics, the capitals to its columns, all record its eastern origin. Its contemporary at Constantinople, St. Sophia, may have been more magnificent, but to us it has not the same intense interest, for the desecrating hand of the Mahometan has destroyed all but its construction.

In San Vitale, as well as in Theodoric's church, we notice a peculiar feature--the arches are round-headed, and rest on columns (the spoils of heathendom) the capitals of which are very like those of San Marco at Venice; but hte arches do not rest directly upon the capitals, they have a stilted appearance in consequence of something else being thrust between. The same effect is produced in Charlemagne's church at Aachen, which it is believed he borrowed from Sam Vitale. The pillars in Charlemagne's church (especially of the gallery which surrounds the upper part of the circular church) have the strangest appearance, forming, as it were, a second capital placed on the first. When I saw this first, my idea was that the pillars, robbed from some ancient building, had been foudn too short to do their work without the introduction of this which, for want of a better word, I have called a second capital. But I believe this is not the fact--the truth lies, rather, that the arch resting directly on its support was a novelty still, and that the builders, not having qiute got over the notion that columns ought to support an entablature, left a remnant of the latter above the capital. This is to me the most satisfactory way of accounting for a feature which must strike the most casual observer on going into the churches of Ravenna and that of Charlemagne. Although the churches at Ravenna are all glorious within, the same cannot be said of their outside. They are built chiefly of brick; their bell-towers, which are round like those of Ireland, are of later introduction (probably due to the Lombards). There is little to disturb the dullness of their exteriors; in this we see how they had left the pagan temple behind, which had such a varied outside in column, frieze and sculpture. The noble church at Torcello (near Venice) which is many centuries later than its type at Ravenna, boasts of an exterior equally monotonous, and unsuggestive of the precious marbles and beautiful sculpture which is found iwthin. The visitor has reason to be surprised at the beauty that awaits him when he enters.