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Not the Usual Suspects

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Metamorphic Orders

What more can be said or done about the classical orders? A well-worn Greek genealogical narrative would start with the Doric, followed by the Ionic, and much later the Corinthian; Italy contributed the Tuscan and the Composite, the former ostensibly independently of the Dorians, the latter synthesized from the Ionic and Corinthian. Leaving aside that the sequence is not quite so neat in reality (as Mark Wilson Jones and others have shown), it serves well enough for organizing the sequence, at least according to a Renaissance cast of characters (as Serlio would have it). While Vignola acknowledged the many possible variations of what could be more generically thought of as Composite, it has proven challenging to add to the series, there being nothing much simpler than the Tuscan, nor more elaborate than the Corinthian. Which certainly did not stop fifteenth-century Italy from producing a host of variations on the types, nor seventeenth-century France from challenging itself to come up with its own national order.

18th century French Order

Michelangelo’s Ionic order invented for the Palazzo dei Conservatori is a truly novel addition to the Ionic sub-genera or species. By effectively combining the canonical Ionic with its bolster and the angular Ionic that can be seen on the Temple of Saturn just beyond the Capitoline Hill,

Michelangelo achieved not only a synthesis, but a new reading of the bolster as a scroll. Less noted about his Ionic is its stocky proportions, 8:1 or, Doric: so it is a feminine order with masculine proportions. This is not surprising given his rendering of the female figure in fresco and marble. His invention remained, for reasons not fully understood, confined to Rome (although I have seen them in a passage leading into the Louvre’s Cour Carrée).

While the distinctions between the canonical five are essential to their identities and their ability to function rhetorically (John Onians, Bearers of Meaning), their dissimilarities do tend to segregate them, losing the fluid identity they once had before fifth-century BC Greece or during the fifteenth-century in Italy. Villalpando’s notorious hybrid order from his reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon (Joseph Rykwert, The First Moderns) wasn’t necessarily meant to be used in a modern context, but rather suggested the genealogy was a case of Babel-like fragmentation rather than Vitruvian accumulation.


Between the Solomonic synthesis and the Serlian series there may be another possibility: seeing the orders as a morphing sequence, a linked transformation from one type to another. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in other words, in the form of an architectural language. While they remain distinct, they share more elements in common, facilitating a reading of them as an evolutionary sequence rather than a series of distinct moments.

The Tuscan is a compressed Doric, in its entablature, capital, and base. The Doric has a fluted necking, and its triglyphs are themselves flutes on a smooth frieze, with no implication of a beam end. The Ionic shares the fluting of the Doric necking, its 45° angled volutes and side bolster rationalized from Michelangelo’s Ionic, accommodating a fully voluted capital in the case of corner conditions, and linking it to the last in the sequence, a Composite-proto-Corinthian, or Roman, order. This also has bolsters, a swag linking the volutes, and acanthus buds and nascent leaves, along with volutes stopped with bead and reel.

None of these are exclusively novel. Rather, the novelty lies in thinking about them as a group. Each could accommodate its own variations based on context. They represent one way in which there still may be something new to be said about the orders,

or said in a new way.

More about the Metamorphic Orders on their own page

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