Rome Don’t Cost A Thing: A Great Architecture Course From Yale

Yesterday afternoon, after many weeks, I finished a course at Yale University on the history and development of Ancient Roman architecture.

Well okay, not *really*.

I didn’t have to sit any exams, write any papers, or matriculate at Yale in order to take this class. Instead, I was able to watch a series of videos and read accompanying course materials from Yale art historian Diana E.E. Kleiner, Ph.D., covering the development of Roman architecture both in Rome itself and throughout the Roman imperial world. The lectures are a wonderful online resource, but they’re just one example of how you can use technology during your free time to educate yourself about subjects such as art, architecture, and design, without having to go back to school for it.

Dr. Kleiner is the Founding Director of Open Yale Courses, which provides a host of free, online courses to the general public. The closest analogy here is that it’s somewhat like auditing a class, when you don’t receive any credits or submit any work, but you’re very interested in the professor or the subject matter and want to gain greater knowledge for yourself. For me, that’s always been the most enjoyable sort of class: you’re there because you really want to be.

In this particular course, Dr. Kleiner gives an overview of the history and development of Roman architecture, from the misty legends of Rome’s founding by Romulus, all the way through the reign of the Emperor Constantine and the subsequent transfer of the imperial capital to Constantinople. There are 23 lectures in total, and each is well over an hour long. I’ve been watching them in half-hour installments during my lunch breaks for the last couple of months, although you could certainly binge-watch if you wanted to.

Nero

From the 200-series course number, my guess is that this class was designed for college sophomores, so don’t presume that the material is so specialist in nature as to be over your head. Dr. Kleiner does assume that you’ve at least heard of people and places such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, the city of Pompeii, and so on. But that being said, she does take the time to not only explain political and social history, but also to reinforce what she teaches. She makes a point of regularly recalling terminology, characteristics, and individuals who are important in Roman history, particularly with respect to the design and function of buildings.

Even if you are reasonably well-versed in art, architecture, and design, there is a great deal to learn here, and much to take away. For example, one strand of the course examines the evolution of Roman wall painting through four distinct, identifiable styles. After presenting the material, it’s not left by the wayside never to be referred to again. Rather, we come to see how sometimes, what at first only existed in an artist’s image painted on a wall, fuelled the imagination of later architects who executed these two-dimensional fantasies in three dimensions. Thus by the time the course examines the famous Nabataean cliff tombs in present-day Jordan – one of which is the site of the climactic conclusion of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” – we can understand how the architects combined local architectural methods and materials, as well as Greco-Roman classical design, under the influence of Roman wall painting.

Jones

Another area of knowledge which the student comes away with is an appreciation for the differences between Greek and Roman temple design, and how to recognize some of these differences more readily when encountered in everyday life. Many structures which we see on a daily basis such as government buildings, churches, and transportation centers, particularly in this country, are adaptations of Roman designs, but we regularly pass by them without thinking about what ancient buildings their architects were referencing. Dr. Kleiner’s course fundamentally alters the way that you look at such buildings, so that over time you gradually begin to appreciate the subtle differences between what might otherwise just appear to be one pseudo-temple versus another.

The First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia for example, which was built in 1795, incorporates the most important elements of Ancient Roman temple design: elements which we come to recognize as a result of Dr. Kleiner taking the time to point them and reinforce in our minds throughout the course. We can see the placement of this building on a high podium, with a façade orientation, and a deep porch with columns, all of which are characteristic of Roman temple architecture. At the same time however, thanks to the course, we come to appreciate the ways in which this building deviates from a standard Roman temple. For example, although it has the single staircase one expects on a Roman temple, rather than the wrap-around stairs of a Greek structure, this particular staircase is three-sided, which deviates from the usual Roman plan.

Bank

While I strongly urge you to consider “taking” Dr. Kleiner’s course, whether you enjoy studying architecture as much as I do or are just curious to have a better understanding of the buildings that stand around you, the most important thing for you is to take some action. There is a great wealth of material just like this available to you for free, online, 24 hours a day, from some of the best academics, experts, and commentators on the arts. All you have to do is Google it.

An often-repeated refrain on this blog over the years has been that you have a responsibility, as an educated adult, to continue to educate yourself long after you leave formal schooling behind. The onus is on you to make the effort. If you want to better understand the history and development of architecture in the Western world, this is a very fine place to start.

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More Real Than Real: Church Architecture In The Digital Art Of Markus Brunetti

I recently came across reviews of an interesting summer art show out in Hong Kong, for those of my readers who find themselves there over the next few days. Through the end of this week, the Axel Vervoordt Gallery is showing “FACADES”, an exhibition of the work of German photographer and digital artist Markus Brunetti. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a photography show, featuring images of various famous churches – but looks can be very deceiving.

For more than a decade, Brunetti and partner Betty Schöner have traveled around Europe taking high-resolution photographs of every element of carefully selected churches in a wide variety of architectural styles. The structures are chosen for their overall interest and level of detail, and range from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque and beyond. But instead of just standing back far enough to try to take in the entire building, they photograph no more than a few square feet at more of every part of the building’s façade at a time. They then digitally stitch together these images, photoshopping out things like power lines or street lamps, digitally adjusting light levels and colors, and so on, in order to create a single, unified whole. The process can take months or even years to complete.

The end result is an image of an existing building which in a sense does not exist – or at least, does not exist in a way that we can perceive with the naked eye. It’s almost like looking at a very exact blueprint of a façade from an architect’s portfolio, except one with a far greater sense of color, decoration, and spatial depth than what even the most detailed line drawing could hope to achieve. And unlike a photograph, where light, the camera lens, and the human eye bring certain elements into focus and cause other elements to recede, every detail of these buildings is clearly delineated, in a way that was previously impossible for us to see before the advent of highly sophisticated imaging technology.

As the Gallery explains, “[n]ever before have these buildings been rendered in such a way. The fine mosaics, intricate carving, filigree metal work and stained glass are there for us to see, along with the cracks, deformations and decay. These are not simply photographs of façades; they are reconstructions of them, attending to every last idiosyncrasy.”

For those of us who are mere observers and appreciators of art, we can appreciate the enormous amount of work, skill, and carefully attention to detail that went into the creation of these images, which in a sense are more real than real. At the same time, I can imagine artists and historians pouring over these pictures with great pleasure, seeing things all at once which they could never hope to capture from even the best single photograph of one of these buildings, while architects and designers would surely love to be able to study these elements knowing that they are not hampered by this column detail being slightly out of focus or that bit of statuary being hidden by something else. In a way, Brunetti’s work reminds me of 2nd Period Roman wall painting, in which we are forced into experiencing a single perspective, even though we are given the illusion of everything existing in three dimensions at once.

The philosophy or message behind Brunetti’s images is one that I will leave to those who need to find esoteric meanings in things which, of themselves, are extremely interesting works of art. If you love architecture and appreciate technology, the technique used by Brunetti et al. is absolutely fascinating. I would love to see some of these images up close, for clearly these are pictures to get lost in.

FACADES is at the Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Hong Kong through August 26th.

Exhibition

Blacker Than Black: Technology And Color In Art

For most of us, paint colors are something we think about only when we’re engaged in home improvement projects, or when we’re judging renovations made by other people on television. For artists however, selecting the right color of paint can make an enormous difference in the way that their work is perceived, and indeed valued by their patrons. In the past, naturally-occurring materials like gold and gemstones were used to create the most costly pigments. Today however, there is a major battle raging right now over the creation of technologically advanced black paint.

Now, we’re not talking any ordinary, ho-hum, Henry Ford you-can-have-any-color-Model-T-you-want-so-long-as-it’s black, black. Rather, this is a black which is unlike anything you’ve seen before: one that acts in much the same way as a black hole does in space, sucking all light into it, and creating what to the human eye appears to be a two-dimensional surface. In recent years, the search for blacker-than-black paint has become something of a grail quest in the world of Contemporary Art.

Back in 2014, a British tech company called Surrey NanoSystems came up with a carbon nanotube-based fabric, whose color was described as “the new black to end all blacks.” Called “Vantablack”, its creators originally intended for it to be used as a material with military and aerospace applications. As you can see here, an object covered in Vantablack seems to virtually disappear, since the surface of the treated object reflects almost no light whatsoever.

Vantablack

In 2016, sculptor Anish Kapoor signed an exclusive deal with the creators of Vantablack, becoming the sole artist in the world permitted to use Vantablack in his work. This caused an uproar in the Contemporary Art community, which wanted to gain access to this blacker-than-black substance. A hashtag campaign was undertaken on social media called “#ShareTheBlack”, trying to convince Vantablack’s manufacturers to allow wider use of the material. Ultimately, this descended into the childishness that one has come to expect from social media.

Fortunately for the Contemporary Art world, despite its regular criticism of capitalism in an effort to bite the hand that feeds it, free-market competition has come to the rescue. For now an American company, NanoLab, Inc., has come up with its own version of carbon nanotube black, called “Singularity Black” – and unlike Vantablack, it will be available to anyone to use. On its website, NanoLab describes how the pigment works, which I won’t even attempt to explain it to you because I don’t fully understand it myself. Those of you who have science backgrounds will no doubt appreciate the technology at work here, whereas for my part, being a giant nerd, I appreciate the fact that it was most likely named “Singularity” for reasons related to Star Trek.

While the technology involved in the creation of these new pigments is new, this is not the first time that the art world has obsessed over the production of a particular paint color. If you’ve studied any art history, then you know that purple was highly prized by the Ancients: particularly that which came from Phoenicia, where there was an entire industry dedicated to the creation of what was known as “Tyrian Purple” from the labor-intensive processing of a particular species of sea snail. It was so costly and taxed so heavily under sumptuary laws, that its use was normally reserved to monarchs. One of my favorite objects in art history featuring this pigment is the magnificent Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th Century illuminated Book of the Gospels that was created for the Byzantine Emperors.

Purple

Later on, the color blue came to hold enormous importance in Western art, from the Middle Ages up through the Baroque era. Although there were many ways to obtain blue from readily available sources such as indigo plants, the most prized and costly type of blue was typically called “aquamarine”. It was made from ground-up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that had to be imported to Europe, primarily from present-day Afghanistan. Aquamarine was so expensive to produce, that many archives still preserve the written contracts between patrons and artists executed during these centuries, specifying the amount, quality, and cost of the highly prized blue pigment to be used in different parts of a particular commission.

The quest for the perfect blue made works such as Philippe de Champaigne’s “Jesus Among The Doctors” (1648), shown below, very expensive to produce. Notice how the blue mantle of the Virgin Mary is a very different hue than the blue of the sky behind her, which would have been painted using a less costly pigment. If you see an Old Master painting like this, where there are figures dressed in blue, and the blue garments seem to glow and stand out from the other blues in the picture, it’s almost certainly a lapis lazuli-based blue paint that you’re looking at.

Finding

With the arrival of the Modern Age, we also arrive at the color dominance of black. If purple was the most prized pigment of the Romans and Byzantines, and costly blue helped to define Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art, then without question black is the single most important color in Modern and Contemporary Art. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the more prominent movements in art history over the last century have relied heavily upon black paint. For example, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” (1937) – arguably the most important painting in all of 20th century Art – is essentially a monochromatic painting, dominated by the color black.

Picasso

Certainly Modern and Contemporary artists have looked to other colors as well, and individual artists are often associated with their use – both Marc Chagall and David Hockney loved blue, for example, albeit very different shades of it. But whether you examine the work of important artists painting in the styles of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art, they’re all relying heavily on the use of the color black – as these examples show:

Magritte

Pollock

Rothko

Warhol

As artists begin to play with these new, incredibly dense blacks, which are unlike any black pigment in the history of art up to now, we are left with some tantalizing questions. Which is better, Vantablack or Singularity Black? What new and interesting works of art will we see emerge from the use of this previously unknown form of black paint? How will these new, technologically advanced pigments hold up over time? Will they continue to grab the eye, centuries from now, in the way that say, a Renaissance painting featuring blues made from lapis lazuli still does? Or will they prove to be little more than a fad, with a limited impact on art history?

Only time will tell.