By Calder Loth
March 31, 2011
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Classical America's Advisory Council.
The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates stands in the heart of the Plaka, the historic quarter of Athens at the base of the Acropolis. (Fig. 1)[i] Erected in 334 B.C., the compact structure is only thirty-three feet high but displays the most elaborate version of the Greek Corinthian order surviving from ancient times. This rendition of the Corinthian is unique to this monument. Since its recording and publication by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett in the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens (1762), the Lysicrates Corinthian has been utilized to enrich important Greek Revival buildings on both sides of the Atlantic. (Fig. 2)[ii]
Figure 1. Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens (Loth)
Figure 2. Plate III, Chapter IV, Vol. 1, Antiquities of Athens
Like the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus, the Lysicrates monument was erected to commemorate winning first prize in a chorus performance. The prize, a bronze trophy in the form of a tripod supporting an urn, was placed on top of the monument’s fancy carved finial. The appearance of the trophy is recorded in bas-relief figures on the frieze behind the monument’s column capitals. The monument stood partially encased in the walls of a French Capuchin monastery when Stuart and Revett encountered it in 1751. They published their drawing of its existing state in The Antiquities of Athens along with their measured drawings. (Fig. 3) The monastery burned in 1821. Its ruins were then demolished, leaving the monument a free-standing structure as originally built.
Figure 3. Plate 1, Chapter IV, Vol 1, Antiquites of Athens
Despite a late 19th-century restoration and subsequent conservation efforts, the monument’s column capitals have badly eroded and only hint at their original delicacy. We have to look at Stuart and Revett’s carefully delineated detail of the order to sense the sinuous movement of the capital’s ornaments. (Fig. 4) The flutes of the Lysicrates shaft curve outwards at the top like leaves. Above is a hypotrachelium or groove, a feature normally seen on Greek Doric capitals. Instead of two rows of fully developed acanthus leaves we have a row of small plain leaves and then a row of voluptuous acanthus leaves interspersed with rosettes. Then next are swirling caulicoli or stems, which flow into the volutes. The abacus is treated with a sweeping concave edge. Perhaps we can better appreciate its distinctive qualities by comparing it with a standard Roman Corinthian capital such as depicted by Abraham Swann. (Fig. 5) Even with its two rows of acanthus leaves, the Roman Corinthian order, while beautiful, appears staid by comparison.
Figure 4. (detail) Plate VI, Chapter IV, Vol. 1, Antiquities of AthensFigure 5. Plate XI, Abraham Swann,The British Architect (1758)
Although the Lysicrates capital is richly sculpted, its entablature is a relatively plain version of the Ionic entablature. As we see in Swann’s illustration, the standard Roman Corinthian entablature is enriched with scrolled modillions, egg-and-dart moldings, and other ornaments. We might note that the Lysicrates frieze is decorated with figures depicting the story of Bacchus and the Tyrrhenian pirates, but such figures are rarely if ever applied in reproductions of the order.
Because of its complexity the Lysicrates Corinthian capital is difficult to execute, thus examples of its use are relatively scarce. Nevertheless, some of the finest Grecian-style buildings employ the order and it is always a treat for architecture enthusiasts to encounter it. The order began to appear on various structures in Britain soon after its publication in The Antiquities of Athens. James Stuart wasted no time in designing a copy of the monument as an ornament for the grounds of Shugborough, Staffordshire, completed in 1769. Perhaps the earliest use of the order in America is found in Statuary Hall, formerly the U.S. Capitol’s House of Representatives chamber, completed in 1817. (Fig. 6) The semi-circular room, with its screen of columns, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who introduced the use of Greek orders to this country. Latrobe departed from the original model by adding rectangular modillions in the cornice.
Figure 6. Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. (Loth)
Two of the most ambitious uses of the Corinthian of Lysicrates are found in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Merchant’s Exchange, built in 1832-34, incorporates a colonnade of the order both in the rounded east front and in the recessed portico opposite. (Fig. 7) William Strickland, the building’s architect, was introduced to Greek orders while studying under Latrobe. Strickland crowned his design with an adaptation of the Lysicrates monument for its cupola. The cupola was later removed but a reproduction was installed during a mid-1960s restoration. (Fig. 8)[iii] The cupola’s capitals, however, are not exact copies of the ancient originals.
Figure 7. Merchant's Exchange, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Loth)
Figure 8. Cupola, Merchant's Exchange, Philadelphia (Loth)
Strickland passed on his knowledge of Grecian orders to his famous protégé, Thomas U. Walter. In 1832, Walter won the competition for the design of Founder’s Hall for Philadelphia’s Girard College. The design called for an immense temple-form marble structure with a peripteral colonnade of Lysicrates columns. (Fig. 9) The columns themselves are nearly twice the height of the original monument and probably are the largest columns ever executed using the Lysicrates Corinthian. It is regrettable that with both the Merchant’s Exchange and Founder’s Hall, misguided intentions for safety led to the hacking off of the volutes from the column capitals, forever disfiguring both of these great landmarks.
Figure 9. Founder's Hall, Girard College, Philadelphia (Loth)
Another ambitious use of the Lysicrates order was undertaken with New York’s Colonnade Row, also known as LaGrange Terrace, the design for which is attributed to Ithiel Town and James Dakin. Erected in 1832-33, the row of nine town houses, fronted by a grand two-story colonnade, was meant to emulate John Nash’s terraces in London’s Regent’s Park. The project went one better than Nash in the use of marble for its columns instead of stucco. The row has not fared well. Five of the nine houses have been demolished and the Sing Sing marble used for the columns is chipped and weathered (Fig. 10)
Figure 10. Colonnade Row, New York City, (Loth)
The problems of weathering were overcome at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, completed in 1845. (Fig. 11) Here, Thomas S. Stewart, also a member of the Philadelphia architectural fraternity, had the portico’s Lysicrates capitals crafted in cast iron, a material that will never suffer the erosion of stone, the chipping of stucco, or the rotting of wood. The iron capitals remain as crisp as the day they were installed. (Fig. 12) The model for St. Paul’s was Stewart’s St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Philadelphia, which also has cast-iron Lysicrates capitals.
Figure 11. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia (Loth)
Figure 12. Portico capital, St. Paul's Episcopal Church (Loth)
The expense and difficulty of carving the Lysicrates capitals caused its use for domestic works to be exceptional. Moreover, the order was overly monumental for most houses; the simpler Doric, Ionic, or Tower of the Winds orders were considered more suitable. However, houses enriched with the Lysicrates Corinthian are occasionally encountered. A handsome example is the Chisholm-Alston house in Charleston, a wooden mansion sometimes attributed to Charles F. Reichardt, who used the Lysicrates order on his demolished Charleston Hotel. (Fig. 13) Other prominent houses displaying the order are Milford, near Pinewood, South Carolina, erected in 1839-4, and the opulent 1855 mansion at Belle Grove plantation in Louisiana, which burned in 1952.
Figure 13. Chisolm-Alston House Charleston, South Carolina (Loth)
A European architect heavily steeped in Greek classicism was Theophilus Hansen, a native of Denmark who studied under Karl Friedrich Schinkel.[iv] In 1837, Hansen moved to Athens where he designed a series of imposing Neoclassical public buildings employing the Greek architectural vocabulary, including the Lysicrates order. These buildings were seen as monuments of Greek culture and nationalism. Following his relocation to Vienna in 1846, Hansen crowned his career with his design for the Austrian Parliament Building, erected in 1874-83 on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. (Fig. 14) For this opulent structure Hansen employed the Lysicrates Corinthian on its main portico and wings, as well as in the building’s famous columned hall. Although the portico capitals followed the ancient model, Hansen departed from precedent in the entablature by appending Roman-style scrolled modillions.
Figure 14. Austrian Parliament Building, Vienna (Loth)
Another European master of the Grecian mode was Ernst Ziller, a native of Saxony. Ziller studied under Theophilus Hansen and became a leading designer of Greek classical-style buildings following his permanent move to Athens in 1864. Among his most distinguished works there is the National Theatre of Greece, completed in 1901. (Fig. 15) As with several of his other works, Ziller drew on the Monument of Lysicrates to enrich his scheme. The column capitals are faithful replicas of the order except that instead of applying anthemions to the abacus, Ziller placed tridents. As with Latrobe and Hansen, Ziller took liberties with the cornice, using a more standard Roman Corinthian type with scrolled modillions.
Figure 15. National Theatre of Greece, Athens (Loth)
Like a rich dessert, the Corinthian of the Monument of Lysicrates is not an order for over-indulgence but one to be saved for special occasions. Regrettably, its use today has all but vanished. A perusal of architectural supply company catalogues could find no commercially available Lysicrates capitals. Nevertheless, this elegant order is a brilliant jewel of the classical architectural repertoire and should not be forgotten.
[i] The monument is sometimes referred to as the Lantern of Demosthenes[ii] Measured illustrations of the monument were published in Julien-David LeRoy’s The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece (1758), but they lacked the accuracy of Stuart and Revett’s illustrations and had comparatively little influence on contemporary designs.[iii] Strickland later applied a much larger and more fully developed copy of the monument for the cupola on his Tennessee State Capitol, completed in 1859.[iv] Hansen is also referred to as Theophil von Hansen.
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