The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Monday, 29 September 2008

32. Gorgeousness in matter and meanness in manner

The Barleycorn family have been making use of their National Trust membership and taking advantage of the weekend's 2p per litre dip in the price of petrol, visiting two of the nation's cherished tourism honeypots : Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. Barleycorn Sr is disgruntled to note that Places of Interest seem to have universally dispensed with wordy plaques and notice boards and are now all proud to inflict an mp3 player and headphones on the touring classes. In opening the audio guide to Windsor Castle spent a fair bit of time explaining what arrow slits and battlements are and the scenarios in which they might have been employed, after which it explained nothing, having been switched off.

At Stonehenge it seemed reasonable to dispense with whatever facts and fancies may have comprised the tour contents, as I am fairly sure, having read the odd newspaper article here and there concerning whichever latest archaeological speculation about the site, that precious little indeed is known about the stones or exactly who put them there and how. EB9's brief article reasonably reports suggestions that the stones weren't erected by the Romans, but most probably by druids, perhaps between the 1st BC and the 6th century AD. Although I am entirely confident that later archaeologists have rightly put vastly earlier dates to the structures, it is interesting to note the remark in EB9 that "Stonehenge was first mentioned by Nennius, in the 9th century, who asserts that it was erected in commemoration of the 400 nobles who were treacherously slain near the spot by Hengist, in 472."

Looking to see what else Britannica may have on the subject of Stonehenge, the Index directed me to volume II and the article ARCHITECTURE, by T. Hayter Lewis, Professor of Architecture, University College, London and George Edmund Streep, late Royal Academician. I found myself entirely distracted from my purpose by a caustic and unsparing attack, quite startling in its vehemence, on the architectural merits of St Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It would make an entertaining audio tour of the site.

"[...]The front of St Peter's is not more distinguished by its magnitude than by its littleness and deformity. [...]It is divided into three unequal stories, within the height of the columns, whose entablature is surmounted by a windowless attic. In length it is frittered into a multitude of compartments, between which not the slightest harmony is maintained, while tawdriness and poverty are the distinguishing characteristics of its detail. A total absence of everything which produces grandeur and beauty in architecture, marks, indeed, the whole of the exterior of the edifice, except the cupola, than which, if its bad connection with the building out of which it grows is overlooked, architecture seldom produced a more magnificent object. Internally, the structure is open to similar praise and similar dispraise. Gorgeousness in matter and meanness in manner characterise the interior of St Peter's, except the sublime concave which is formed by its redeeming feature without.

[...]The tawdry and inappropriate sculptured decorations of the Renaissance school can nowhere be criticised with more advantage than in St Peter's. It is not too much to say that, throughout the interior, there is scarcely an ornament which is not offensive ; whilst not one of them has the slightest natural connection with, or use in, a sacred building. Perhaps sculpture never reached so profound a bathos as the hideous cherubs which are stuck, like petrified acrobats, against all the piers of St Peter's ; and when we hear of such a building being treated as a model for our guidance in the completion of St Paul's, we are driven devoutly to hope that St Paul's may never in that sense be completed at all. Few people ever seem to trouble themselves to look at any part of St Peter's except the entrance front and the dome. If they would examine the rest of the exterior, they would find it to be a building without one other redeeming feature, or a single grace of outline or detail, and so absolutely unscientific in its constructional arrangements as to be beneath contempt as a complete work of architecture."

St Paul's Cathedral : beneath contempt, ha! Put that in yer pipe and smoke it, ye cherub-obsessed Italianate fops. (More of this article can be read at the ever-indispensable

My brief and inadequate examination of the article does not reveal which of the two authors is responsible for this particular passage, but it does not seem to be beyond the bounds of possibility that George Streep, late Royal Academician, may indeed have been carried from this mortal coil by a fit of apoplexy after penning this spirited and sustained diatribe.

(Apoplexy, as this same volume usefully informs us, being "commonly understood to apply to a fit of sudden insensibility occurring in connection with some diseased condition of the brain.")

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