Classical Architecture 101 for Travellers is a series arming curious wanderlusters with the essentials of Classical Architecture to enhance your cultural travel experience. In Part 3, we take a closer look at the decorative details used throughout Ancient Greece and Rome, many of which has persisted through time and evolving architectural movements.
I began researching this series shortly before a road trip through Tennessee and Alabama U.S.A. We had stopped for an afternoon break in the Alabama town of Florence, and I was waiting to place my order at a local coffee shop. It was then I spotted a small bookshelf in the corner and instantly gravitated towards an aged copy of The Grammar of Ornament. The book was penned by English architect Owen Jones, and first published in 1856. It is a treasure-trove of decorative art covering Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Celtic, Medieval and Renaissance styles. A whole book on decorative details – I was going to need a bigger coffee! Alas, after our short stop we had to continue our drive, but I tracked down a copy of Grammar in my local library when I returned home, and have included some of its beautiful illustrations in this post.
A short note on materials
The Ancient Greeks had excellent natural resources to support their architectural exploits. Stone, in particular limestone, is abundantly available in the rocky Grecian landscape and was easy for ancient stonemasons to work with. There was also a rich supply of high-quality white marble, for building and sculpture; and clay for making pottery, roof tiles and architectural decoration.
Decoration and symbolism
Nature was the Ancient’s favoured muse when it came to the decoration of their buildings and handicrafts. Here are a few popular motifs and ornaments that originated in the age when Zeus reigned supreme. Some may already be familiar, as they have been recycled throughout history whenever a reference to classical time and design was desirable. However, you may not recognise their stylised forms or know much of their symbolism.
Triglyphs and metopes
I briefly described triglyphs and metopes in Part 1, in reference to Doric Order entablatures. As a reminder, triglyphs are the repeated sections of three (“tri”) vertical ridges, and metopes are the square spaces in between triglyphs that are plain or filled with relief sculpture. This alternating design harks back to the days when Greek temples were constructed in wood. Triglyphs are stylised representations of what would have been the protruding ends of roof beams, and metopes the spaces in between. The Doric order Parthenon exhibits triglyphs and metopes.
An Akroterion (also spelt acroterion) is an ornament placed on the apex and corners of temple rooves. They take many forms, but honeysuckle, palm fronds or statuettes of gods/goddesses, are dominant in Classical Architecture. In the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece, the goddess of victory—Nike (yes, as in sports brand)—was the model of popular acroteria.
Dentils are a repeating pattern of rectangular blocks that are named for their visual similarity to teeth – though they would make a gappy set of chompers. Like triglyphs, dentils are thought to be a stylised representation of rafter ends, connecting stone structures back to the days of wood construction. Dentils appear in the cornices of Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders. See the Pantheon in Rome for a prime example.
Caryatides and telamones
Caryatides and telamones (or atlantes) are structural columns that are shaped as female and male figures respectively. Examples of these are the Caryatides supporting the entablature of Erechtheion within the Acropolis of Athens, and the telamones that once held up the ruined Temple of Olympian Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily.
Egg and dart
Egg and dart is a continuous, border-like pattern that often adorns the cornice of a building, particularly in the Ionic order. The pattern is a bas relief of alternating egg-shaped forms and arrow or dart-shaped figures. There isn’t any confirmed symbolism behind this design, though some theorise it represents the duality of life – egg for birth and arrow for death; others say it symbolises a shield and spear. Egg and dart remained trendy throughout history and made its way into many successive architectural movements including Beaux Arts, Federal, Georgian Revival, Greek Revival, Neoclassicism, Renaissance Revival and Second Empire. You may even have some egg and dart in your home.
In Part 1 we discussed a distinguishing feature of Corinthian columns being leaf ornamentation. However, these weren’t just any old leaves, they belong to Acanthus spinosus, an endemic Mediterranean plant. The Romans also used Acanthus leaves in their Composite order columns. Again the Pantheon in Rome is an excellent example of Corinthian order architecture in general and Acanthus leaves.
Meanders and waves
When I think of Greek motifs, an angular key (aka fret or meander) pattern is the first to come to mind. The Ancient Greeks were far from the first in history to create patterns from repeating spirals or scrolls, however it was with the Greeks that made the image has stick. The design can in fact be traced back to 6th millennium BCE civilization in Anatolia, Turkey. The pattern is believed to signify the winding course of the Büyük Menderes River that flowed through the region.
Though popular with the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the fret generally didn’t have any symbolic significance for them. In contradiction of this, the Greek’s did adopt the meander to also represent the labyrinth in the myth of Theseus slaying the Minotaur. This can be seen in decoration of items such as pottery.
The Greek fret became super trendy again during the Greek Revival period which occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries, largely in Northern Europe and United States.
The Vitruvian Wave (aka Running-Dog pattern or Wave Scroll) is a rounded variation of the squarish-Greek Key, representing waves or scrolls. The pattern is named after Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollo, who wrote the oldest surviving book on architecture and is the namesake of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
A pilaster put simply, is a faux column. It is the relief of a column carved into a wall as a decorative feature and provides no structural support.
I hope this post-decoded some of the decoration and symbolism you may observe on your travels or at home, and led you a little deeper through the language of architecture. Next up in Classical Architecture 101 for Travellers, is Neoclassicism for Neophytes, exploring one of the most faithful revival periods of Classical Architecture throughout history. If you missed the beginning of the series, you can start here at Classical Architecture 101 for Travellers – All in Order.
Peace, love and inspiring travels,