Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE , written 22 May 1768, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 123-34.

Fryer heads this letter, 'Fragment, or materials of a letter to Mr. Burke? (From Rome.) On Gothic Architecture'. Barry writes in his conclusion, 'I shall close up the paper, with my heartiest respect and good wishes for the whole family', an ending that supports the idea that the essay or 'paper' was part of an extended letter. Its familiar tone, with mention of 'the whole family' suggests that the intended recipient was Edmund Burke.

The absence of a personal mode of address at the start suggests that the preliminary part of the letter, if there was one, is lost. The personal comments in the long concluding paragraph indicate that Barry intended the main body of the letter on Gothic architecture, which reads like an essay, to be part of the letter.

Many of the observations made here recur in Chapter XVI of Barry's Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England (1774) in Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 167-299: these borrowings are indicated in the notes. Barry's drawings of various architectural features are given as numbered figures in the letter. [img] [img] [img] [img] [img] Barry returned to the topic of Gothic architecture in his letter to Burke, [c.4 May 1770].

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The manner of building called Gothic, is generally believed to have been the invention of the Goths,1 as the name imports, and to have been brought into Italy by those barbarians, after they had established themselves upon the ruins of the Roman empire.2 There are others, who believe that this method of building came into Europe from the east.3 As to the former of those opinions, I am persuaded that it would be difficult to produce positive proofs that the northern people had any species of architecture at all before their intercourse with the Romans, or that their habitations were other than holes in the earth, or built of wood, or of mud and chaff, as is still practised in parts of England and Ireland.4

The Irish historians say, that the Domliag of St Kianan,5 built in the eighth or ninth century, was the first stone building erected in Ireland. I can easily conceive that architects might have gone into northern countries, and introduced their art and notions of ornament and magnificence, as the Romans did at Nismes,6 &c. but it contradicts all that we know of the nature of art, to suppose that architecture as an ornamental art, dependent upon designing and sculpture, could possibly grow up of itself in countries where sculpture and the representation of natural objects was not previously studied and practised.

The other opinion of the oriental original of this kind of architecture, will be also found upon examination groundless and chimerical, and is one of those mistakes which men might easily fall into, who are more learned in history and the revolutions of government, than they are knowing in the arts.

It is well known that architecture, as well as all the other arts, fell greatly into decay in the decline of the Roman empire. George Vasari in the proem to his lives of the painters, has taken notice of this, above two hundred years since: he observes, that day after day they declined, and lost by little and little the perfection of design, even before the arrival of the Goths.7 He speaks with great feeling, good sense, and knowledge, on this decline of arts; and he is so just and spirited in the descriptions he has given of the barbarities of Gothic architecture, that I am surprised he did not observe the connexion there was between them, and that it was but the same thing still going on in a state of continued corruption.

The beginnings of the barbarous architecture called Gothic, is traceable in those buildings erected in Italy, even before the arts were much declined, and long before the Goths had any footing there. The number of examples there are of this in all the different parts of architecture growing out of one another and increasing, have convinced me that the Gothic architecture is nothing more than the architecture of the old Greeks and Romans in the state of final corruption to which it had fallen.

The buildings8 erected between the times of Augustus and Adrian9 are as much remarkable for a chaste and manly plainness, as they are for elegance and beauty. The three Grecian orders,10 employed in the buildings erected in this period, are preserved in great purity; and the Roman or composite order used in the arch of Titus,11 was ingeniously enough constructed, and happily united with great simplicity the ornaments of the two Greek orders, from whence it was taken. Hitherto there was nothing reproachable; but there is discoverable12 in the buildings erected after Severus,13 a too great fondness for ornament, and a desire of novelty, and compounding the parts of architecture with a still greater degree of complexity; and as this increased every day in proportion to the growth of effeminacy and decay of knowledge, their inventions, naturally enough, approached nearer barbarity than perfection. It was about this time that a considerable number of works were erected, in which the capitals14 and other ornamental pieces of architecture were in so fantastic a manner; with so little of the true forms remaining that they serve indifferently for all kinds of things, and are with ease converted into candelabrias, chimney pieces, and what not. Examples of this kind of trash may be seen in abundance in the collection of Piranesi,15 who is well known in the world as an engenious16 engraver of ruins and ornaments. He has also published at his leisure hours two books under the title of Magnificenza di Roma,17 &c. in which he has engraved some of those things, and discourses upon them by way of depreciating the Greeks and their practice in the arts.18

Every one knows that for some time before the arrival of the Goths, the Roman affairs were in the utmost ruin, anarchy, and desperation. Ignorance had altogether supplanted knowledge, and taste in all the arts; and as they built but little, the memory of the old principles of architecture were almost quite worn out amongst them: and, were we to make a summary of all the corruptions which had crept into architecture from the time of Alexander Severus,19 down to the times before the arrival of the Goths, Visigoths, and Longobards;20 how much it abounded on the one hand by affectation and caprice, and on the other, how much it lost by the decay and annihilation of all other arts, we have no reason to imagine that, when Theodoric21 and his successors were inclined to erect new palaces and churches, they could be other than what they were, deformed, disproportionate, and ridiculous, with more labour and profusion of ornaments, than propriety, judgement, or science; so that when the Gothic king Theodoric had erected the churches and palaces at Rimini, Ravenna, Padua, Modena, &c. they were necessarily built in this detestable taste, for this simple reason, because there was no other in the country at that time; and these buildings, as they were rich, ornamented, and extremely unlike any thing that was heathen, became the models of all other Christian churches in Europe; so that this kind of architecture went northwards from Italy, instead of being transplanted from the north into Italy.

That no doubt may remain about this matter, I shall present a few drawings of examples of the different corruptions, as they grew up, one out of the other.

Before the great niche in the pantheon,22 there are two large columns, and their pilasters,23 which are remarkable on two accounts; the flutes are more than the diameter of a circle deep, and the fillets have the extra ornament of half a circle,24 (see fig. 1.)

There is further under and over the flutes, an ornament, (see fig. 2.) but these columns and their pilasters are visibly the work of a different age, and do not belong to the building.

In the very ancient church of St. Agnesi25 are also two columns very beautiful in other respects, which have the flutes and fillets in a manner still more ornamented and fantastic, as in fig. 3.

This is so exceedingly like those ingredients which form the Gothic column or bundle of columns, that by only swelling the convex parts a little more, and sinking the cavities, it becomes identically the same thing.

In the old church of St. Lorenzo without the walls,26 are examples of the flutes and fillets winding about the shaft in the spiral form (see fig. 4.) the transition from this to the twisting of the shaft itself was very easy (see the twisted ones at St. Mark's)27 and I am very certain, from various examples of this to be found in >St. Giovanni di Lateran, and many other places of Rome, that the column preserved in St Peters, and brought from Jerusalem, never did belong to any temple of the Jews,28 but must have been wrought either in Greece after Constantine, in Rome, or Jerusalem (if they will have it so) by Christian artists, in the time of the decline of arts.

The supporting of arches by a single column (and not with a pillar, half column, and imposts,29 as was the ancient practice) we have some examples of in the buildings done about the times of Dioclesian, Constantine, Valentinian,30 &c. The beautiful ancient church of Sf Stephano Rotunda31 is also defective in this and other particulars; the intercolumnation, or the spaces between the columns, came also to be widened out of all rule.

In the church of the Minerva32 at Rome, the ground plan of the pillars which sustain the nave is square, with four half columns (see fig. 5.). The multiplying this makes true Gothic confusion.

The ground plan of the pillars which support the nave of the duomo of Sienna,33 is also the same identically with this. The half columns are at least double the length they should be, and the capitals Corinthian, deformed a little. Some have the three tier of leaves, others are formed upon the same model of those capitals of trophies, &c. at St. Lorenzo at Rome. The Corinthian capital corrupted, is most visibly traceable in almost all the Gothic capitals. Sometimes they play with, and enlarge the scrolls34 so as to give some idea of the remains of the Ionic (fig. 6.) and at others they introduce trophies of crosses, holy lambs, Holy Ghost, &c. (fig. 7.) In the idea of the forementioned capitals of trophies of the ancients at St. Lorenzo, the base is for the most part attic.35

In the second arcade36 of the second floor of the amphitheatre of Titus,37 is the same kind of roof as that in the baths of Dioclesian, Figures 8, and 9.38

The very nature of those arcades in the amphitheatre of Titus, made it necessary to use this kind of arched roof meeting in a point in the centre of four pillars, as the arcades cross one another; the necessity there was for passing from one arcade into the other, and of presenting the eye in all situations with such a portion of the building as to keep up an idea of the whole together, made this manner of arching necessary and proper, and the shortness, and solidity of the pillars, which sustain the arches, and the just proportion they bear to the voids between, gives a happy satisfaction to the eye.

The corruption and caricatura of this manner of arching, by only raising the points of centre a little higher, gives exactly the Gothic roof, and the great number of breaks, introduced by the corruption of the other parts, fills it up with that chaos of divisions and subdivisions, which compleats39 the detestable characteristic of Gothic architecture. A more minute inspection of the roof of the amphitheatre, and of that of Dioclesian, with an attention at the same time, to the Gothic roof of the church of the Minerva,*40 and other gothic churches, will furnish a number of other proofs. But thus much has been sufficient for me before I close up this matter, that the Goths have been particularly fond of the Corinthian; and this order is traceable in all their corruptions, as may be seen at St. Giovanni,41and other places. In a word, suppose the Greek or Latin cross, a form given to build a church of, and suppose the different corruptions of columns, arches, roofs, breadths, and heighths42 we have instanced, to take place in it, it produces a Gothic cathedral. (See figures 11, and 12.) The flourishes & c. in fig. 12, are supposed to be of their own invention, and added by way of coup de maitre.43 And indeed the number of new buildings erected at Constantinople, must have furnished an ample field for the improvements of all the corruption of architecture.

But to return to the Gothic arch. The absolute origin and cause why the pointed arch came to be introduced, was the confounding the circular and square forms together, and the ill understanding of some few examples of the ancients, where the necessity of things constrained them to use those forms together. Besides the example cited from the amphitheatre of Titus, there is to be seen in Adrian's villa at Tivoli,44 a number of the chambers which are square, and as there was a necessity for covering them with a vaulted roof, the four sides met in a common point in the centre of the ceiling, by which means each side of the ceiling gives exactly the same form of a Gothic arch, although they are in reality made up of half circles, crossing one another. Others are arched only from two sides—as, see figures, 13, 14.

There is at the duomo of Viterbo,45 a range of arches in the manner expressed in fig. 15. And there are many examples of such kind of arches at Venice; particularly in the arching made use of in the second floor of the cloisters at St. Mark's palace.*46 St. Mark's palace is a great repository of the corruptions we have been talking of; some columns are too short, others too long, the scrolls of the Corinthian capitals made of leaves turned up, turned down, pine apples pineapples, and in some, the real scrolls are used both in the centre, and at the angles. In the centre of some of the capitals, where the central scrolls, &c. should come, they have indiscriminately placed, lion's lions' heads, masks, half figures, &c. In other Corinthian capitals, they have placed pigeons in the angles where the scrolls should be. In the Corinthian capitals in the church of St. Mark,47 for the scrolls they have put rams, with their feet coming down upon the first tier of leaves; in others the scrolls remain, and the leaves are thrown backwards as if they were blown by the wind. Some capitals are inclining more to the Ionic, with a large heavy member of a cima recta48 fantastically ornamented with foliage. The same is to be seen at Bolsena,49 Sienna, and other places, where the bell of the capital is sometimes covered with a sort of basket-work of true lovers knots,50 the ends of which form the scrolls at the angles. (See fig. 16, 17, 18.) In the lower order of columns at St. Mark's, the capitals have eight faces, and upon the eight angles, are leaves, &c. in the form of scrolls, and in the centre of the eight faces, over a tier of leaves, are placed half figures fiddling, &c. There is the greatest confusion of all in these capitals when they come together, when four three-quarter columns are projected from the angles of a square pillar, as in figure 19.

The two immense columns, which stand near the water, in St. Mark's palace, were brought from Constantinople or Greece. The capital and cornice51 are of white marble, and the column is granite, and in good proportion, although badly wrought in the member (o)—See figure 21.

Of the twisted columns52 in St. Mark's there are four, two of them of oriental alabaster53 in good proportion as to the heighth and diameter of the shaft, on which the flutes and fillets twist round in a spiral manner. The fillets are half round, and about seven in number, so that this was antecedent to the twisting of a bundle of little columns together, as is seen in the cloisters of St. Giovanni di Lateran at Rome, and other places. As these fillets are so few in number, and the flutes so deep, they have exactly the appearance of a bundle of little columns twisted; and by only lessening the number of them, or cutting through the flutes, it is the exact Gothic at St. Giovanni. See one of the twisted columns at St. Mark's, figure 22. The workmanship of these columns is bad, and seems of the time of the successors of Constantine.

There is on the outside of St. Mark's church figures cut in porphyry,54 of the most base and shocking workmanship that can be well imagined; and yet the ancient sandal is figured upon the feet, and is like that sort of half boot used by the Emperors. They have crowns upon their heads, &c. but no Gothic monument in England is worse executed.*55

If you will permit my continuing upon a subject, in which I am not likely to be tiresome, I will now give you some account of the modern architecture here,56 though as it is a subject that I have long laid aside, what I shall say is rather the effect of observation accidentlyaccidentally made, as the different objects fell in my way. In my opinion fewer structures of merit have rose57 at Rome in any way since the revival of the arts, than people seem to think. The architects of the fifteenth century were much offended with the Gothic way of building in former ages, and were desirous of restoring the science to the way of the Greeks and Romans; but whether the employers would have it, that the new structures should be in conformity to some favorite notions, or differ in respect to general form from the heathen temples, or whether the artists, through a desire of some little originality, might incline to it; certain it is, that a material difference lies here, and I believe it will be found generally true, that the form or ground plans, which they substituted in the place of the ancient ones, were rather something which they retained of the Gothic way, than any new invention of theirs; so that were a man to suppose Goths to have schemed out a work, and laid the Ichnography58 of it, and that it was reared up after, by people imitating the Greeks in little divisions, and things regarding execution, it would be found not unlike the generality of the works of architecture built since the revival at Rome. Of this, even St. Peter's is an instance; Bramante's design for it59 is like every thing I have seen of his, exceedingly beautiful, and entirely in the antique gusto of the Pantheon, Mole of Adrian, 60&c. He was succeeded in it by Baldassar Perrugi, and Sangallo:61 the last of whom possessed altogether a perplexed trifling Gothic gusto, and had so poisoned the essentials of the work, that notwithstanding he was succeeded by Michael Angelo,62 (who is I think rather an Antigoth than a Greek) yet enough remains still to make it utter confusion to all spectators, who would be desirous of looking over St. Peter's as one building, and consequently giving the idea of some general form. But we must do the justice to Michael Angelo to say that he removed as many of Sangallo's impertinencies, as his credit at the court allowed him to do, which by reason of an ungenerous faction formed against him, was not much. That great man is in my opinion rather heavy in the generality of his lesser buildings, but certainly, had he in this work been master of the first planning of things, we may venture to affirm him better qualified for such a large work, than any man at that time at Rome, and certainly would have been more original, at the same time that he was less Gothic than any other. All modern discoveries in architecture, of configurations of cornices and pediments, grouping of columns, &c. are to me certainly Gothic, as may be seen in Borromini, Pozzo,63 and others. I shall conclude this with pointing out the only two modern buildings I like throughout, which are Bramante's little model of a temple at St. Pietro Montorio,64 and Raffael's house,65 both of them beautiful in the last degree, and worthy of any age. Did I permit myself to launch out upon the Pantheon, the Colliseo, the temple of Vesta,66 &c. you would regard it rather as the raving of enthusiasm, than cool reason, and therefore to get out of the way of temptation, I shall close up the paper, with my heartiest respect and good wishes for the whole family.

J.B. James Barry

May, 22, 1768.