Moderns and Masons

Peter Burke

  • The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century by Joseph Rykwert
    M.I.T., 585 pp, £27.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 262 18090 1

To omit architecture from cultural history would be absurd, but to integrate architecture, with its peculiar blend of abstraction, fantasy and technology, into a general history of culture is considerably more difficult than integrating images and texts. Where they are not obvious, utilitarian or problem-solving, the intentions of architects are remarkably hard to pin down. The limitations of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s famous Outline of European Architecture (1943) illustrate the difficulty. So illuminating in other respects, the book is less than satisfactory in its treatment of buildings as expressions of ‘Western Civilisation’. It communicates a diffuse sense of connection between Michelangelo’s poetry, Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises and late 16th-century churches and palaces, but the nature of these connections remains vague. To be told that the Escorial, say, was ‘more a monastery than a palace’, or that ‘Spanish etiquette stood for a discipline as rigid as that of the early Jesuits,’ does not take us very far towards understanding either the Escorial or the court of Philip II.

An alternative model of the relationship between the history of architecture and the rest of cultural history was offered by the late Rudolf Wittkower in his Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949). Wittkower had two aims. The first was to relate the architectural practice of the Renaissance to contemporary architectural theory: Alberti and Palladio were, as he pointed out, ‘equally great as theorists and practitioners’. His second aim was to relate Renaissance ideas about architecture to ideas about man, nature and Classical Antiquity, more especially ideas about the mathematical structure of the universe and the analogy between musical and architectural harmony and proportions. Narrower in focus than Pevsner, Wittkower achieved a sharper definition of his subject.

The point Wittkower might have made about the Escorial, the point that one of his students, René Taylor, did make, was that it was an attempt to reconstruct that lost master-piece of architectural proportion, the Temple of Jerusalem, as seen by a Spanish Jesuit, J.B. Villalpando. Villalpando interpreted the book of Ezekiel as evidence that God had revealed to Solomon the secrets of musical harmony which were also known to Pythagoras and Plato. The rules of good architecture were thus supported by both reason (mathematics) and revelation.

Another of Wittkower’s students was Professor Joseph Rykwert. In a sense, his exciting new book, The First Moderns, does for the architecture of the 18th century what Wittkower did for the Renaissance. It starts where Wittkower left off, in the late 17th century. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism ended with Claude Perrault. Unlike his brother Charles, Claude Perrault does not normally rate a place in histories of 17th-century thought. Paul Hazard’s classic Crise de la Conscience Européenne (1934) does not mention him at all. Yet Claude Perrault put forward revolutionary ideas in aesthetics. His Ordonnance des Cinq Espèces de Colonnes (1683) ‘broke decisively’ (Wittkower’s words) ‘with the conception that certain ratios were a priori beautiful,’ asserting that it is custom and not reason which leads us to find classical proportions pleasing.

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