The composite Order, an Overview
Classical Comments by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.
The Composite order is a complex topic; a proper study could be the subject of a lengthy dissertation. In this format, I can only offer general observations and illustrate a sampling of its use. While the Composite appears in works of the Roman Imperial era, it was not identified as a separate order until the early Renaissance. The first to add it to the roster of classical orders was the theorist, Leon Battista Alberti, who termed the order the Italian. In his famous treatise, De re aedificatoria of 1485, Alberta wrote: “. . . for this Order to the Richness of the Corinthian, has added to the Delicacy of the Ionic, and instead of those Ears, has substituted Volutes.”[i] Henceforth, all the major Renaissance treatises, including Serlio’s, Vignola’s, Palladio’s, and Scamozzi’s have defined and illustrated the Composite as a distinct order, resulting in the five orders of architecture. Not all have agreed on its name; it has been called Italian, Roman, and Latin, all in an effort to distinguish it from any Greek origin. However, probably because of Palladio’s preference for Composite, (Italian: Composito) that term has become the standard descriptor for this fusion of the Ionic and Corinthian.
The basic form of the Composite capital consists of the bottom portion of the Corinthian capital (two rows of acanthus leaves) topped by an Ionic capital using angled volutes rather than parallel ones.[ii] Giacomo Leoni’s English translation of Alberti’s original Latin description of the Composite has a quaint ring: “The Front of the Capital, being otherwise naked, borrowed its Ornaments from the Ionic; for instead of Shoots it has Volutes, and Lips of its Vase are carved full of Eggs with Berries underneath them, like an Ovolo.”[iii] Most versions of the Composite capital are similar, but we find little agreement on the treatment of the entablature. Some treatises advocate an Ionic entablature; others call for a more purely Corinthian entablature with scrolled modillions. Palladio was among the first to depict the Composite with a distinctive two-part modillion, which Sir William Chambers defined as “square, and composed of two fascias.”[iv] (see Figure 1 ) This type of modillion existed on some ancient Corinthian temples as shown in Book 4 of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri; but beginning in the Renaissance, this modillion type was normally restricted to the Composite.
Scholars of ancient classical architecture generally agree that the earliest surviving example of the Composite order exists on the Arch of Titus, dating from 81 A.D. (Figures 2 & 3) It is impossible to say, however, if this was the first use of the order. If it was the first, then the order would have been unknown to Vitruvius, who died around 80 B.C. Nevertheless, its half-round columns display fully developed combinations of the Ionic and Corinthian capitals, clearly distinct from the standard Corinthian. We can only guess at what prompted the Romans to create this variant other than a desire to give special emphasis to a monument honoring an emperor’s achievements. Its use here set a precedent for applying what became a separate order to conspicuous imperial works including the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Arch of Trajan at Beneveneto, and the Baths of Diocletian. The Arch of Titus was incorporated into a fortification during the Middle Ages, leaving only the center part to survive. Architect Guiseppe Valadier restored the arch’s original form in 1822. The reconstructed missing sections were executed in travertine to distinguish them from the ancient marble portions.
Andrea Palladio gave new impetus to the Composite order both through his own projects and through his famous treatise, I Quattro Libri (1570). He applied the Composite to some of his most important works, including the Palazzo Valmarana, the Palazzo Thiene [v], and the Venetian churches of the Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore. We see an especially conspicuous example of Palladio’s Composite on the Loggia del Capitaniato in Vicenza’s Piazza dei Signori, built as part of the residence of the captain of the Venetian militia. (Figure 4) The facade has giant half-round columns thrusting through two stories to an entablature that breaks forward over each column. The capitals compare in form and richness to those in the Baths of Diocletian, which Palladio would have known though his study of the ruins of Rome’s baths. Completed in 1572, the loggia came too late for publication in I Quatto Libri. Nevertheless, Palladio showed his partiality for the Composite when he wrote in his treatise that the order is "the best composed and most beautiful.”[vi]
Pierre Lescot (ca. 1510-1578) is credited with introducing Renaissance classicism to France with his design for what is now referred to as the Lescot Wing of the Louvre. King Francis I commissioned Lescot to transform the Medieval Louvre Chateau into a Renaissance-style palace. Lescot’s effort is confined to the east facade of the southwest wing of the Cour Carre, completed in 1551.The richly decorated work, with Jean Goujon’s sculpted panels and other embellishments, established the character of French classicism for scores of buildings to follow, particularly the rest of the Louvre and the lost Tuileries Palace. Lescot’s applied orders included the Corinthian for the ground floor and finely articulated Composite columns and pilasters defining the bays of the main floor. (Figure 5) These and the pilasters of Lescot’s 1549 Fountain of the Innocents nearby are among France’s earliest displays of the Composite order. Lescot’s work may have been influenced by the classicism of Sebastiano Serlio, who came to France in 1541 to advise on the design of the palace of Fontainebleau.
Renaissance artists, particularly the Italians, established a tradition of depicting Biblical events in heroic settings, often grand classical ones. This practice was a means for emphasizing the importance of the message, making sure that viewers appreciated the divine connotations. Culminating such works is Paolo Veronese’s huge representation of the Wedding Feast at Cana, competed in 1563. (Figure 6) Originally commissioned for San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, it was plundered by Napoleon in 1797 and has since been displayed in the Louvre. Veronese showed Christ and the wedding guests sumptuously dining in surroundings worthy of the Emperor Diocletian. In the background of this majestic stage set, we see accurate renderings of Composite columns, the order reserved by the Romans for their most special projects. This prompts the question as to whether Jesus ever saw any real Composite capitals. They may have existed in Caesarea Philippi, but Jesus is not recorded to have actually entered that colonial Roman city. In any case, the wedding feast, actual or apocryphal, undoubtedly occurred in more modest circumstance.
Figure 7. Altarpiece capitals, St. James’ Church, Goose Creek, South Carolina (Loth)
Figure 8. Altarpiece, St. James’ Church, drawing by James S. Seel, (detail), Plantations of the Carolina Low Country (1938)
Claiming a first or an earliest is always dangerous, but the altarpiece of St. James’ Goose Creek in South Carolina’s Low Country may well be colonial America’s oldest, if not first, fully developed use of the Composite order. The beautifully crafted capitals crown paired pilasters supporting a broken scrolled pediment, a composition framing the east window. (Figures 7 & 8) The tiny church was completed in 1719; its altarpiece, including the pilasters, is assumed original to that date. A description of 1727 noted the church as having columns [pilasters] painted in marble.[vii] Moreover, St. James’ is the only colonial church to retain its original carved royal arms in situ (of King George I), which here is set in the broken pediment. We can only speculate on what pattern book may have been the reference for the order. The altarpiece predates the English treatises of Gibbs, Ware, Chambers, or Langley. In addition, the capitals do not match illustrations of the Composite order in the treatises of Palladio, Vignola, or Scamozzi.
One of America’s most famous doorways highlights the river facade of Westover, the well-known colonial plantation house on Virginia’s James River. The stone composition, long kept painted, consists of Composite order pilasters supporting a broken ogee pediment and a full entablature with pulvinated frieze. The design is a replication of Plate XXVI in William Salmon’s Palladio Londinensis (London, 1734), described as a “Frontispiece and Door of the Composite Order.” (Figures 9 & 10) Historians have long held that Westover was built in the 1730s for William Byrd II. Dendrochronology, however, indicates a construction date in the 1750s. Since Byrd II died in 1744, the house’s first occupant would have been Byrd’s son, William Byrd III, and it would been he who acquired the doorway. Most likely, the doorway was executed in England and shipped to Virginia for assembly. Less likely, it was carved on site by artisans brought over for the purpose. Either way, the doorway has inspired hundreds of imitations, but few using the Composite order.
The 18th-century English architectural treatises by James Gibbs, Isaac Ware, Sir William Chambers, and various others provided primary design sources for the five orders. Most of these writer/architects based their depictions of the orders on illustrations in the 16th-century treatises of Palladio, Vignola, and Scamozzi. Among these British works, perhaps the most elegantly illustrated is Chambers’ A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, first published in 1759. (Figure 11) Though his depiction of the Composite order is only subtly different from others’ versions, he stated that it “is an invention of my own; in which I have attempted to avoid the faults, and unite the perfections of those [Palladio, Scamozzi, and Vignola] above mentioned.”[viii] Chambers applied a less enriched Composite order on the sprawling complex of London’s Somerset House (built 1776-96), his principal architectural work. Here he used a plain Ionic entablature, perhaps more fitting for a government office building, where his enriched entablature would be better suited for a palace or a church (Figure 12)
What may be the largest example of the Composite order ever executed is found on the facade of Rome’s Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Dating from the Early Christian era, the basilica was largely rebuilt in the late 1640s under the direction of Francesco Borromini. Its facade, however, was not commissioned until nearly a century later, in the reign of Pope Clement XII. The Florentine architect, Alessandro Galilei, won the design competition, which included twenty-three entries. Construction began in 1733, with completion in 1736. For a work of such enormous scale, Galilei elected to use the highest of the orders. (Figures 13 & 14) Supporting the central pediment are paired engaged columns, topped by Composite capitals some eight feet high. The order is repeated for the pilasters framing the flanking bays. Galilei’s use of pilasters on high pedestals is reminiscent of Palladio’s Palazzo Valmarana, which also employs the Composite order with over-size pedestals. Even today, Galilei’s facade remains one of the world’s most imposing architectural statements.
Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia incorporated all five classical orders as a means for encouraging architectural literacy among the students, giving them actual models to observe. Jefferson used the Tuscan for the colonnades fronting the student rooms. The ten pavilions, housing the classrooms and faculty residences, displayed different versions of the Roman Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. However, Jefferson saved the Composite for the dome room of the Rotunda, the library structure modeled after the Pantheon. (Figure 15) Supporting the galleries of this impressive space was a colonnade of paired columns in the Composite order of Palladio. Tragically, the grand room was destroyed when the Rotunda burned in 1895. The space was reproduced with design modifications and various inaccuracies in 1976. Shown is a photograph of the dome room taken prior to the fire. Students rescued Alexander Galt’s statue of Jefferson from the burning building.
Boston Architect Asher Benjamin (1773-1845) is responsible for spreading the Greek Revival style throughout the land. His several pattern books illustrating the application of Greek orders and details to doorways, mantels, window frames, and other modern features, became standard references for architects and builders from coast to coast. Most of Benjamin’s books contained images and narrative descriptions of the orders, both Roman and Greek, but with an unapologetic preference for the Greek. In his 1839 Practice of Architecture, Benjamin offered his own version of the otherwise strictly Roman Composite order, giving it a Grecian cast in the treatment of the volutes with their drapery-like swags in the canals. (Figure 16) His description of this novel order states: “Again, in each face of the upper part of the capital, the stiff awkward form of the Roman Ionic capital has given place to the graceful Grecian. The latter change cannot fail to be approved by all those who are judges of this art.”[ix] Benjamin’s order is beautiful indeed. Alas, I know of no instance of its use.
Figure 17. Mokhovaya Street Apartment House, Moscow (Igor Palmin for Landmarks of Soviet Architecture, 1917-1991)....
Figure 18. Detail of Mokhovaya Street Apartment House (Igor Palmin for Landmarks of Soviet Architecture, 1917-1991)...
During the 1930s, the Soviet leadership determined that Russia needed an architecture that reflected the country’s greatness and history, something that Constructivism, the term for Russia’s version of the International Style, was unable to do. With the founding of the All-Russian Academy of Architecture in 1933, the classical style was established as the official image for the nation’s architectural enterprises. One of the first buildings to exhibit this new attitude was Ivan Zholtovsky’s 1934 apartment building on Mokhovaya Street, in the shadow of the Kremlin. With its giant half-round Composite columns and broken entablature, Zholtovsky’s apartment house design was directly inspired by Palladio’s Loggia del Capitaniato. (Figures 17 & 18) The elegant building signaled that Moscow’s citizens were entitled to the palatial architecture formerly reserved for aristocracy. Its huge, boldly crafted capitals are among the 20th-century’s rare examples of monumental versions of the order. Zholtovsky studied and traveled extensively in Italy. Prior to the Russian Revolution, he designed a Moscow mansion that is a close copy of Palladio’s Palazzo Thiene.
Contrasting with Zholtovsy’s grand edifice are the many American buildings of the first half of the 20th century employing stock capitals. Typical are Richmond Virginia’s numerous apartment houses fronted by porticoes with columns mass-produced by architectural supply companies. During the 1920s, a trend developed for people giving up their urban Victorian houses in favor of commodious, low-maintenance flats. These apartments were well-appointed with many modern conveniences. The porticoes gave them an aura of grand mansions and provided two or more levels of outdoor seating. Any of the five orders could be used; the Composite, though not common, was readily available. (Figure 19)
The overall rarity of the Composite order on 20th-century structures raises the question as to whether the Composite has a place on 21st-century works. So far, examples are very few, but the order is not extinct. British architect Quinlan Terry applied the Composite to Ferne Park, a country house complete in 2003. Duncan Stroik enriched the interior of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College with Composite order pilasters.[x] Several architectural supply companies still offer canonically correct Composite capitals. It falls to the architect to determine the appropriateness of the order, and to decide what signal he/she wishes to make with its use. The Composite is the highest and most elaborate in the hierarchy of the orders, an order originally developed for grand imperial projects. Like a rich Christmas pudding, it is best to reserve it for special occasions.