21 August, 2006

88. Excuse me for intruding.

In classical Greek architecture, three main designs for supporting columns evolved over many centuries. The first and simplest style was the Doric column, a straightforward pillar with no base and a simple unornamented roundel for a top, or capital. Later came the Ionic style, characterized by a decorated base and a more elaborate scroll-shaped capital. By the 5th century BC, the much more ornate Corinthian column had arrived. The base and column was similar to the Ionic style, but the capital had become an intricately carved profusion of foliage, traditionally canthus leaves.

All three of these styles survived into the Roman era and beyond – all three often being used on the same Roman building, like for instance in the great Colosseum in Rome, where all the columns on the ground level all the way round the huge stadium are Doric, all the columns on the middle level are Ionic, and those on the top level are Corinthian. The Romans had great engineering skill but little original imagination when it came to decorative design.

To the Venetians on the other hand, who had the rich visual vocabulary of Byzantium as well as the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome to play with, no formal design was sacrosanct. Everything was open to creative reinterpretation and column capitals in particular have been used more imaginatively in this city than anywhere else I know.

At a glance, from a distance, this capital on the façade of the Scuola di San Rocco looks like a typical ornate Corinthian capital until you look more closely. Suddenly, you are looking into the wide-eyed and rather startled face of a woman who looks like you have just walked in on her as she is stepping out of the shower, hurriedly sweeping up a frilly robe to not very successfully cover herself.

Who is she, and what is she doing on this building, like a ship's figurehead? I have no idea. What I called a robe could be fronds of seaweed, which might make her a mermaid, but as we can only see her torso, that's just speculation.

On the column capitals around the San Polo markets are all kinds of fish and other seafood, as well as boats and fishing gear, and fishermen and sailors. Around the Doge's palace the capitals are full of all kinds of animals and people, some of them very convincing portraits of obviously real people, with a wide range of facial expressions.

In the days when every part of a stone building was hand-hewn, not just assembled from factory produced components, the building workers didn't just blindly follow an architect's blueprint. Many of the decorative details relied on the expressive skills of the stonemasons who were artists as well as craftsmen and who took pride and care in their work – sometimes adding in amusing touches of their own invention.

This surprised lady might be one of them.

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