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  • Writer's pictureDavid

Why I’m Still a Classicist, Part I

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

What is “Classical?”

If you don’t define yourself, others will do it for you.

For a while I gave up the word “classicist” for “humanist,” to ally myself more closely to the culture of the Renaissance. But since it seems the word classical is being slowly whittled away today by forces in architecture who prefer the mushier “traditional” (which tradition, one might ask), and in figurative art it’s been strangely tied to Realism (as a qualifier, to distinguish Realism before and after Modernism?), I’ve found myself returning to “classical” because it does, or should, imply a set of formal principles that gave a particular shape to Renaissance humanist art and architecture. Using words correctly matters, at least to a classicist. The Classical Humanist Tradition probably says it best.

When Sir John Summerson presented his program The Classical Language of Architecture on the BBC in 1963, he said, “I must begin by assuming some general knowledge. Like, for instance, knowing that St. Paul's Cathedral is a classical building while Westminster Abbey is not; that the British Museum is a classical building while the Natural History Museum at South Kensington is not.” What’s sort of remarkable is how so many architects today would struggle to concur with what Summerson considered common knowledge among his audience at home listening to the radio. For those who want to see anything as “classical” that is traditional, or that they would qualify as good, or that’s merely something that they like, Summerson seems far too narrow in his categorization. But it was, and arguably still is, what most literate people understand by the word classical (maybe only architects can so readily confuse what should be plain).

Canaletto: St. Paul's (classical) in its urban context (not classical) framed by pseudo-Venetian barges on the Thames (classical?)

He was not saying St. Paul’s is good and Westminster is not (although, Wren might have). He was saying there are particular formal characteristics—the use of the orders, primarily, but the whole repertoire of ornament as well, allied to some basic principles of composition and relationship of parts to the whole. Its roots are in Rome (as much Bramante’s as Caesar’s), tapping deeper by inference into Greece. Summerson also, controversially for many traditionalists today, used the word language. He says that classicism is the Latin of architecture (I might argue it’s the Italian). But to use the word language implies a host of ideas about classicism, codified in the Renaissance (especially by Serlio), that distinguish it from the architecture of antiquity. Even though, of course, the Renaissance wouldn’t have called what they did classical, but rather all’antica, or la bella maniera of the ancients.

So, why am I still a classicist? Because, despite an ongoing campaign of deliberate obfuscation, it still means something; because it’s the architecture of Rome and Italy that seduced me almost forty years ago; because it is a language, with internal coherence, principles, and capable of conveying complex meanings; and because, I’m convinced, you can’t be all things to all people. Nosce te ipsum, as the Delphic Oracle would have it (if it spoke Latin). That begins to answer the question for architecture. In the arts generally I’ve already posted something on this, but Part II of this post will address why I consider myself a classical painter (in the Renaissance and Baroque tradition), and not a Realist.

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