The Corinthian of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli
Classical Comments by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Member of the Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Art‘s Advisory Council.
It would be difficult to name a more romantic vision of an ancient ruin than Tivoli’s Temple of Vesta. The 1st-century B.C. structure stands perched on the edge of a precipice above the cascades of the river Aniene.[i] (Figure 1) Its form is that of a Greek tholos—a circular peristyle structure, in this case one with eighteen columns of which ten remain in situ. Each column is twenty-four feet high with the building’s diameter measuring forty-eight feet—a 1-2 ratio. The original roof form is uncertain. It may have followed Greek precedent by using a shallow timber-frame conical roof covered with tiles. Most restored images, however, show it topped by a dome with a shallow drum and stepped base. Our interest here, however, is the temple’s distinctive Corinthian order. (see Figure 4) It varies from canonical versions by having its two rows of acanthus leaves closely pressed and heavily detailed. In addition, its abacus is decorated with oversize fleurons in the form of hibiscus flowers with spiral pistils resembling coiled snails. Instead of the more standard curved tops, the column flutes have flat tops. Decorating the entablature frieze are plump fruit swags suspended between intact bucrania or bovine heads. Above each swag is a carved rosette. The cornice is devoid of modillions.
The temple has inspired numerous imitations both of its form and/or its atypical Corinthian order. We will look at a number of versions here. Some have capitals and frieze closely copied from the original, and some display more liberally interpreted versions. Many circular garden structures take their inspiration from the temple, but most of them do not replicate the order. These are a different subject and will not be dealt with here.
Both Sebastino Serlio and Andrea Palladio included restored illustrations of the Temple of Vesta and its order in their respective treatises. The depictions of the Vesta capitals in Serlio’s L’Architettura (published in installments 1537-75), and Palladio’s I Quattro Libri (1570), are anything but accurate recordings of the actual order. It’s as if both masters saw the ruin from a distance and assumed its colonnade was a standard Corinthian type. Serlio’s representation shows a generic capital and a plain frieze. (Figure 2) Palladio’s version includes garlands and bucrania in the frieze although his bucrania are skulls rather than intact heads. (Figure 3) His capital, like Serlio’s, is a typical Corinthian capital bearing little resemblance to the temple’s peculiar variation. It is surprising that Palladio did not make a more faithful recording. He clearly admired the order, for he wrote, “The capitals are exquisitely made and carved with olive leaves, so I think it was built in good times.”[ii] We should note, however, that the temple's leaves bear little resemblance to olive leaves and clearly take their inspiration from the acanthus plant.
Figure 2: Sebastino Serlio, The Five Books of Architecture, 1611 English Edition; Book 3, Chapter 4, Folio. 11
Figure 3: Andrea Palladio, The Four Books on Architecture, Tavenor & Schofield Translation (2002); Book 4, p. 93
Probably the earliest reliable depiction of the Vesta order is found in Antoine Baubty Desgodetz’s Les Édifices Antiques de Rome (1682). (Figure 4) This Paris-born architect carefully measured many ancient Roman ruins and took pains to explain in his text how his dimensions are correct and Serlio’s and Palladio’s are not. In the 1771 English edition of his treatise, Desgodetz states: “. . . he [Palladio] has expressed none of the particulars of the capital. . . He draws the ox-heads in the frieze without skin, and so gives only the bones.” [iii] In his detailed description of the capital, Desgodetz makes note of the distinctive oversize flowers, saying : “The roses are very large, and occupy the space between the bottom of the volutes and the top of the abacus, they are composed of six large leaves unparted, shooting from their middle a kind of pistil wreathed like a snail.” [iv]
Figure 4: Antoine Desgodetz, Les Édifices Antiques de Rome; Planche 91
Beginning in the 1740s, the indefatigable Giovanni Battista Piranesi produced copper-plate engravings of a host of Roman monuments both ancient and modern, a project that continued until his death in 1778. Among the numerous subjects of his laser-like observation was the Temple of Vesta. He created more than a half-dozen views of temple, illustrating both its existing state as well as his conjectural restoration. His “as is” views capture the exceedingly romantic flavor of the ruin and its setting. One of his more intriguing engravings has a panel showing the temple’s ruinous state overlaying a restored image. (Figure 5) The partially revealed restored portion depicts Piranesi’s notion of the original roof form—a spreading tiled base for a saucer dome with plinths, and topped with a Roman pinecone. In all his views, Piranesi correctly recorded the temple’s capitals and entablature.
Figure 5: Giovanni Piranesi: Demostrazione del Prospetto del Tempio di Vesta in Tivoli
Perhaps the most famous and certainly one of the earliest architectural works inspired by the Temple of Vesta is Sir John Soane’s Bank of England, built 1794-98. The Temple of Vesta was Soane’s favorite ruin from antiquity. He visited it during his tour of Italy in 1778-79 and made numerous sketches. He cited the temple several times in his Royal Academy lectures, stating, “The ruins of this temple present an idea of peculiar elegance and rich taste, and make us lament the entire destruction of every part of the columns.”[v] He even used a copy of one of the capitals as a grave marker for his wife’s dog in a courtyard of his museum residence. Soane later acquired a tiny model of the temple crafted by the famous French model maker, François Fouquet (see below). We see a faithful depiction of the Vesta order in the bank’s ground level colonnades. (Figure 6) Soane referenced to the temple’s circular form in the bank’s “ Tivoli corner” at the apex of Lothbury and Prince’s Street. (Figure 7) The frieze was correctly reproduced in this section but Soane embellished the composition by adding amphorae to the top of the entablature.[vi]
An early work that based both its form and order on the Temple of Vesta is Sybilla’s Temple in Pulawy, Poland. (Figure 8) Designed by Piotr Chrystian Aigner and completed in 1801, the structure was commissioned by Princess Izabela Czartroyska to be a museum of artifacts relating to Polish history. The patriotic princess was a champion of liberal ideals acquired from her dialogues with Voltaire, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin while living in Paris. The graceful building, originally known as the Temple of Memory, survives on the grounds of the Czartroyski Palace and is regarded as the first Polish National Museum.
Napoleon III’s extensive additions to the Louvre, carried out in 1852-1857, encompassed nearly a doubling of the palace’s size. His architects, Louis Visconti and Hector-Martin Lefuel, continued the lavish classicism of the palace’s 16th-and early 17th-century sections. For their interior of the Pavillion Mollien, situated on the south side of the Cour Napoléon (now dominated by I. M. Pei’s pyramid), Visconti and Lefuel capped the stair hall columns with a simplified version of the Vesta order. (Figure 9) The capitals have only one row of acanthus leaves but maintain the outsized hibiscus flowers, but with a compressed central bud without a spiral pistil. Full replications of the capital would probably have been too rich for an interior.
We find an eye-catching variation of the temple’s Corinthian order in the entrance porch pilasters of the 1881 Brooklyn Historical Society. (Figure 10) This lavish Renaissance-style edifice is the work of George B. Post, best known as architect of the New York Stock Exchange and the Wisconsin State Capitol. His Brooklyn work is encrusted with red terra cotta ornament executed by the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Co., but with white terra cotta reserved for the porch’s pilaster capitals. Post’s extra touches on the capitals include a short section of fluting draped with swags hung from flowers. Post also treated the astragal as a compressed bead-and-reel molding. The capital shown here enjoys a comfortable companionship with the adjacent terra cotta Indian head.
George B. Post apparently had a penchant for the Temple of Vesta for he used its order again for the façade of Montreal Stock Exchange building, begun in 1903. (Figure 11) His success in gaining the commission for the New York Stock Exchange in 1901 led to his selection for the Canadian project. Though much more compact than the New York edifice, the Montreal Exchange is no less eloquent. For the six-column colonnade dominating its façade, Post employed the Vesta Corinthian with capitals true to the ancient originals. Post, however, improvised in the frieze by substituting lions’ heads for bucrania, a nod to Canada’s British ties. The stock exchange eventually outgrew the building and moved to larger quarters in 1966. Post’s building now houses a theater.
It is curious that an order originally fashioned for a diminutive rural temple was chosen to highlight Palermo’s prodigious Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the second largest opera house in Italy. (Figure 12) Designed by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, the splendid edifice was completed in 1897, twenty-three years after groundbreaking. Basile employed the Vesta Corinthian only for the building’s capitals—including those of the portico columns, engaged columns, and pilasters, all with their outsize fleurons. (Figure 13) The main entablature, however, is a robust standard Corinthian entablature with extra deep scrolled modillions. Nevertheless, the capitals closely follow the ancient precedent with the only modification being the decoration of the abaci with egg-and-dart moldings instead of being left plain.
A faithful replica of the Temple of Vesta order is displayed in the famed collection of plaster casts in the Carnegie Museum of Art Hall of Architecture. (Figure 14) So impressed was Andrew Carnegie by the numerous plaster casts assembled for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition that he determined to create a permanent display of casts for his Pittsburgh museum. Plaster casts offered a convenient means for appreciating and studying great examples of architecture and sculpture that otherwise were difficult to visit, especially at the time. Carnegie formed a committee of leading architects to select architectural elements to copy. Maintained as originally installed in 1907, the Hall of Architecture preserves America’s largest assemblage of casts of architectural icons. The Vesta cast accurately reproduces not only the capital but also the frieze with its bucrania properly fleshed out and not skulls.
Soane’s bank of England apparently made the Vesta order fashionable for financial institutions. When the Guardian Savings & Trust Co. of Cleveland commissioned the firm of Walker & Weeks to remodel the former New England Building of 1895, the architects chose the Vesta Corinthian for the banking hall. The resulting space is defined by flanking colonnades echoed by matching pilasters along the walls, creating a space with the grandeur of a Roman basilica. (Figure 15) The column shafts are crafted in pink Georgia marble. The beautifully modeled capitals are almost double the size of the originals. (Figure 16) Such a room made borrowing or saving money seem a noble act. Now a branch of the PNC Bank, the current owners have maintained the room’s original splendor.[vii]
Among the more conspicuous displays of the Vesta Corinthian is the imposing Haier Building on Broadway and West 36th Street in New York City. (Figure 17) This grand structure was originally built in 1922-24 for the Greenwich Savings Bank, a venerable institution chartered in 1833. Faced with Indiana limestone, the building was designed by York & Sawyer, a New York firm specializing in banks and best known for its Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan. The Vesta order, faithfully reproduced for the giant scale colonnades, heroically dominates the Broadway building’s three main elevations. (Figure 18) The bank closed in 1980. Since 2002, the building has served as headquarters of Haier America, a branch of the Haier Group, a multinational appliance manufacturing firm based in China. Haier makes main interior spaces available for events.
Another creative variation on the order was developed for Moscow’s Red Army Theatre, a gigantic edifice in the shape of a five-pointed star, erected 1935-1940. The theater is one of the city’s numerous monumental works carried out under Stalin to glorify the Soviet Union. Like many of the era’s Soviet architects, Karo Alabyan and Vasily Simbritsev, the theater’s designers, were well versed in the classical language and produced informed interpretations of the orders. (Figure 19) Here they maintained the large hibiscus flowers of the Vesta capitals, but substituted wheat heads with buds and tassels in place of some of the acanthus leaves. A wreath of wheat sheaves frames the Soviet hammer and sickle.
The most recent replica of the Temple of Vesta is barely eight inches tall. (Figure 20) In 2011, London’s famed Sir John Soane’s Museum commissioned Timothy Richards, the brilliant architectural model maker, to produce an exact copy of Soane’s own model of the temple. The original model, made around 1820, was among the group of twenty models crafted by the great French model maker, François Fouquet, son of the equally able modeler, Jean-Pierre Fouquet.[viii] Soane purchased the collection in 1833, which included two models of the Temple of Vesta, one showing its ruined state and one showing it complete. The restored version has a series of statues around the base of the dome, a conjectural embellishment. Richards studied the original model for several months in order to determine Fouquet’s manufacturing process. Like the original, Richards’ model was cast in several sections and subsequently assembled. Although matching exactly in appearance, Richards used a harder plaster formula than Fouquet’s to guarantee long-term durability. The Soane Museum makes Richards’ model available in a limited edition. [ix]
The examples shown here are only a sampling of the many works whose designers have turned to the Temple of Vesta for inspiration. Regrettably, the creators of this lovely ancient structure remain unknown. They may have been Greek, for the temple’s form closely follows Greek precedent. Nevertheless, they gave us a work of lasting beauty, one that we hope will continue to inspire architects into the future.