“Masculine” Civil Architecture in Colonial Brazil

This quarter I am lucky enough to teach a course on Brazilian colonial art. There are hardly any undergraduate courses in the United States that touch on Brazilian art, and I feel really lucky to work at a university that encourages students to expand their interests to include various global topics.

This week I am going to be presenting to my students some of my own research and thoughts on the civil architecture that was constructed in colonial Brazil. Through my own observations, I have noticed that a lot of the civil architecture is constructed with columns and pilasters from the Doric order (an architectural style that developed in ancient Greece).

Example of the Doric order with the plain, unadorned capital, as it appears on both columns and pilasters (rectangular columns embedded into a wall).

I think that this popularity of the Doric order especially interesting, since the Doric order has long been associated as a “masculine architectural style.” In fact, the Roman historian Vitruvius compared the Doric order to the proportions of a man. In his influential writing, On Architecture, Vitruvius explained that the proportions of a man’s foot (in relation to the man’s height) were used to form the Doric order. In contrast, Vitruvius continues to explain that the Ionic order resembles a female, and the Corinthian order can be compared to a slender virgin.1

So, what does this have to do with civil architecture in Brazil? I think that the usage of the Doric order might have had symbolic significance for the European colonists, some of whom probably were familiar with Vitruvius’ text. This “masculine” Doric order would have been in opposition to the Latin American soil, which was considered to have intrinsically female attributes. Annette Kolodny has explored how European colonizers viewed the Americas as having essentially female attributes (“land as woman”), and compared described the American continent to a virgin (“Virgin Beauties”).2 If the American land embodies the qualities that are already interpreted to be part of the Ionic (female) and Corinthian (virgin) orders, then perhaps the Doric order seemed like better point of visual contrast for colonial architecture. But I think that the Doric order is associated with much more than a mere visual contrast to the land. In a way, the rigid, masculine Doric order of the invading colonizers can be interpreted as a masculine European domination over the female Americas.

Muncipal Building (Casa de Camara), Salvador, Brazil, 17th century. Restored in 1960s

This theme of architectural domination and conquest can be extended outside gender binaries, too. Previous scholars, such as Gauvin Bailey, have discussed how the classical characteristics of Latin American architecture could have been used to associate the Spanish and Portuguese with the greatness of the Greek and Roman empires. As colonizers and conquerors of the Americas, the Portuguese and Spanish were building their New World empires, following in the footsteps of their classical predecessors.Therefore, by association, government buildings could embody authority, conquest, and domination. I feel like all of those characteristics can be seen in the Municipal Building of Salvador (see image above). The classical features such as the Doric capitals, Doric pilasters and arcade all reference the glory of previous empires. I also get a sense of domination from the low-lying, horizontal structure itself: the horizontal emphasis suggests that building wants to cover (or dominate) as much surface area of colonial land as possible.

Antonio Landi, Governor's Palace at Belém do Pará, Brazil, 1771. Landi was an Italian architect who moved to Brazil in the middle of his life. Since Landi worked as a professor of architecture in Bologna, I'm fairly certain that he was familiar with Vitruvius' "masculine" interpretation of the Doric order

I also think that Doric capitals also embody a sense of authority, since it is the most austere and rigid of the classical orders. This rigidity is especially apparent to me in the Governor’s Palace at Belém do Pará (see above), where Doric-like features (suggestive of pilasters) are decorated with quoining. The rigid, rectangular quality of the quoining reinforces the strength and rigidity of the structure (and therefore the governor, by extension). Did you notice that this is another horizontal, low-lying structure that dominates as much surface area as possible?

Any other thoughts on the Doric order and colonial conquest? Civic architecture in Brazil is a very under-explored topic in scholarly research, and I’m always up for generating more conversation!

1 See Vitruvius’ “On Architecture,” (1st century BC). Text from Chapter 1 (which mentions the Greek orders) is found here.

2 For more information on the Americas being interpreted as female (or as a woman), see Annette Kolodny, “The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters”(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 4-7.

3 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Art of Colonial Latin America” (London: Phaidon, 2005), 43.


Versailles and France as "Art Capital" of the World

I think Versailles is a big deal. And I don’t mean that the palace of Versailles is big in terms of physical space (that fact is beyond obvious!), but I have long thought that Versailles needs to have more recognition for its role in art history – particularly in terms of why France became the art capital of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Up until this point, I’ve never seen a fantastic explanation for how and why the artistic scene shifted from Italy (and Southern Europe) to France. A lot of possible ideas for this shift could be put forth, such as the establishment of the Academie de peinture et de sculpture (Paris) in 1648. Obviously, this artistic academy helped to promote art and establish France within the artistic scene, but I don’t think that this event caused Europe to focus its attention on France. Likewise, if one looks to the 18th century, it is easy to pinpoint how the establishment of the Louvre museum in 1763 was connected to France’s preeminence among the arts (not only so that artists could study art, but in terms of France becoming a major artistic attraction for tourists).

Although these are both very significant events, I don’t think that either the Louvre or French Academy was the initial cause of a major geographic shift in Europe’s artistic scene. Instead, I really think that it was the redesign of Versailles which brought France to the forefront of the European art scene. Versailles, which originally functioned as a hunting lodge, underwent a major redesign and enlargement in the 17th century. One of the major additions to the palace was begun by the architect Le Vau in 1668. Subsequent additions, remodels, and changes were made over the next several years (including he creation of the “Hall of Mirrors,” which was begun in 1678 by Hardouin-Mansart and Le Brun). Louis XIV finally moved to the palace in 1682, and eventually required his court to live at the palace as well.

Versailles was over-the-top in terms of luxury, space, and design. It was so huge and so ostentatious that it immediately attracted the attention of other countries. In fact, Versailles was so impressive that many European monarchs wanted to model their own palaces after Versailles. Subsequently, Baroque palaces popped up all over Europe. You can see a great compilation of Baroque residences here (complete with photographs). One such Versailles-inspired palace was the Würzburg Residenz, in Würzburg, Germany (1720-1744, shown above). In essence, Louis XVI became a major trend-setter with Versailles. Everyone wanted to live like him. And, consequently, I think that this is the reason that the art world moved to France. Europeans focused their attention to French art and architecture, a focus that would continue for over two centuries.

Although I don’t think that Versailles is the sole reason that the artistic scene shifted to France, I think the remodeling and establishment of court at Versailles are very pivotal points in art history. Obviously, I’m a little biased as a Baroque scholar, but I can’t overlook Versailles on this point. It’s just too big - both physically and metaphorically!

Can you think of historical events which helped to foster (or solidify the presence of) the artistic scene in France?

*Photo of Versailles courtesy of Eric Pouhier, as found on Wikipedia.


"Modern" Gingerbread House

At a Christmas party earlier today, J and I had visions of creating a 20th century gingerbread house that would look something like this:

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Possy-sur-Seine, France, 1929
(image via Wikipedia (ValueYou), under the GNU Free Documentation License, v. 1.3)

Or this:

Frank Lloyd Wright, Kaufmann House (Fallingwater), Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1936-39

Needless to say, our final product was not nearly as fancy:

Let’s just hope that our gingerbread house is as architecturally sound as the Le Corbusier and Wright buildings. Or even more architecturally sound, I should say: Frank Lloyd Wright’s building was in danger of collapse at one point. The terraces of Fallingwater began to droop over time and were considered unstable. In addition, “long-term stress on the main level’s beams resulted in cracks in the beams, causing the floors to sag.”1 The building was restored in 2002, as part of an $11.5 million restoration project.

You know, maybe it’s a little encouraging to know that even Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t a perfect architect. Then maybe I won’t be disappointed if my house has collapsed by tomorrow morning!

(If anyone ends up building another gingerbread house that was inspired by a great architectural work, let me know! I’d love to see a picture. I dare someone to try and build a gingerbread house that based off of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museo.)

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 1017.


Lion’s Head Doorknockers

This past weekend, my family and I traveled to visit the Washington State Capitol Building. It’s always fun for me to identify the different architectural features on such buildings, and particularly to think of Western/European counterparts which may have inspired such features. But as we approached the bronze doors of the capitol (c. 1923-28, see detail on left), I paused. Bronze doors are a common feature in Western architecture, but what about the lion’s head doorknockers? What’s their history? I could think of earlier lion’s head knockers, such as the Ottonian ones on the Hildesheim Cathedral, but I wasn’t sure if there might be an earlier example.

After doing a little research, I found a really charming article from 1918 that discusses the history of doorknockers. I was surprised to learn that the doorknocker has existed since ancient Greece.1 At this time slaves were often assigned to answer doors, and they were chained to the door in order to prevent them from running away. The predecessor of doorknockers were short iron bars that attached to these chains, which were used as “rappers.”

It appears that the lion’s head design also existed for doorknockers in ancient Greece. In 1942 Sterling Dow mentioned some “heavy handsome lion’s-head door knockers…which escaped the sack by Philip in 348 BC.”2

So, what’s the significance of lion’s head doorknockers?  Did they symbolize anything, or were they just decorative? I haven’t come across any speculation on the subject, but I think that there must have been some symbolism involved. Lions held symbolism in lots of ancient cultures, and often embodied power and strength. I have a theory that lion’s head doorknockers were intended to serve the same symbolic function as the lion statues which decorated the gates of the Hittites (Hattusha Lion Gate, c. 1400 BCE, see above right) and the Mycenaeans (Lion Gate at Mycenae, c. 1250 BCE). In each case, these intimidating lions serve as guardian beasts for the city, as well as symbolize strength and power.  I think the same thing can be said for lion’s head doorknockers, which rest on the doors (i.e. gates) as guardians of a building.

On a side note, though, it’s interesting that not everyone today associates lion’s head doorknockers with such ancient symbolism.  This fascinating study by Zachary McCune mentions a woman who selected a lion’s head doorknocker for her home, but only because the same knocker was found on the door of the UK Prime Minister’s house.  In this woman’s case, it appears that she wanted her knocker (and her home) to have some connection and/or status with this association to the Prime Minister.

Do lion’s head doorknockers have any particular meaning or symbolism for you? Can you think of an ornate doorknocker (of a lion’s head or otherwise) that you particularly like?

1 “The Evolution of the Door-Knocker,” The Art World 3, no. 5 (1918): v, vii-viii.

2 Sterling Dow, “Review: Excavations at Olynthus,” The American Historical Review 47, no. 4 (July 1942): 824.


Baroque Scrolls and Titian Fire Disaster

When I visited Europe several summers ago, there were a couple of things that inspired me to pick up a sketch pad. And I’m not really an artist, so when I’m motivated to draw (and put aside the impulse to self-criticize), I’ve gotta be pretty darn inspired. Santa Maria della Salute (Venice, 1631-1687, shown right) was one of the things that inspired me to draw for a bit. Really, it was the huge baroque scrolls along the drum of the dome that I sketched (click on the image to see the scrolls in better detail).  They are awesome, and I couldn’t help but think about the large volute scrolls that flank the top of some Greek vases (like this one).

Anyhow, tonight I read here that there was a fire in seminary building near Santa Maria della Salute. (When I read about the initial fire, I immediately gasped and thought, “Are the baroque scrolls alright?” But it seems like the fire was concentrated at the nearby seminary.  Perhaps firefighters doused the roof of Santa Maria della Salute to prevent the fire from spreading. Nonetheless, my scrolls were spared! Yay!) However, water did seep in through the roof of Santa Maria della Salute, which has permanently damaged Titian’s David and Goliath (1542-44, shown right). David and Goliath was hung on the ceiling of the church, and seemed to have received the brunt of the damage. There are eight other Titian paintings located in the church, but an initial examination suggests that no damage has been done.

That’s good news, but it’s sad to hear about the ruined work.  I actually gave an empathetic moan when I read a quote by Vittorio Sgarbi (head of Venice’s museum agency) on The History Blog, which has a great post about this unfortunate disaster. Sgarbi rushed to the museum scene after seeing the fire from a nearby restaurant. He then relayed to the press that he saw “water dripping from the painting for over an hour.”

Aw. Poor man. That definitely won’t be the highlight of his career.

Luckily for us, it sounds like this painting will be able to be restored.  I don’t know if the painting can ever be “good as new” (or, er, good as it was before this deluge), but at least this painting isn’t lost forever.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.