1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > On the Application of Colour to Architecture

(Part 117)


On none of the subsidiary arts connected with architecture has there been in modern practice so little agreement with all ancient rules or customs as on this. It is only of later years that any one has conceded that the duty of architect is to give the best possible combination of form and colour, and that the completest form of architecture is that which affords examples of such a combination.

For the last three centuries architects have shown almost a contempt for colour, to such a degree; indeed, that the world till lately was taught to believe that purity of style and absence of colour always went together; and that it was only a vulgar and uneducated eye which saw the greatest evidence of good and matured taste in the harmonious application of colour and form. Our sculptors encouraged this feeling by their dislike to the application of colour to their work even when it was purely architectural. Both architects and sculptors found it convenient, apparently, to disencumber themselves of one-half of the responsibilities f their calling, and escaped all obligation of studying the laws of colour, or of entering on the large field of its application to architecture; whilst our painters, partly because they lacked the opportunity, partly, it is true, because their art has ceased to be exercised for the public benefit in the old sense, had ceased to regard wall-painting as their legitimate work, and had so completely sunk into the habit of treating only small subjects in a small way, that it will take an age to develop in them the power of dealing properly with those large wall spaces which present them with the grandest opportunity of achieving real distinction. It is abundantly clear that those who argue against the application of colour to architecture, do so without the weight which the authority of their ancestors would have given them. Of late years much attention has been devoted to this point; there has been considerable discussion, and in the end, though there has been much difference of opinions as to the extent to which colour was applied by the Greeks and Romans, there has been none as to the fact that, at any rate, some introduction of colour was well-nigh invariable in their work. Mr Owen Jones’s Apology for the Colouring of the Greek Court at the Crystal Palace contains, in a small compass, quite sufficient evidence to show how strong is the ground of those who maintain the necessity of colour in classic buildings; and equally valuable is the report, drawn up by the Committee of the Institute of British architects, on the colouring of the Elgin marbles, with Professor Faraday’s analyses of portions of the coatings of marbles brought from several ancient buildings in Athens, upon all of which he makes it perfectly clear that colour was extensively and generally applied. Professor Semper of Berlin, in treating of the origin of architectural polychromy, proves that the Syrians, Persians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Jews, Phoenicians, and Greeks all used colour in their architecture and sculpture; and we may safely conclude, therefore, that there is no country which has been in any way remarkable for its architectural monuments in which the necessity of the combination has been ignored or forgotten. This statement is sufficient on the subject so far as it affects all ancient schools of art.

If we turn to later times we shall discover in all the schools of mediaeval artists a still greater and more pronounced adhesion to the same principle. It seems, indeed, almost superfluous to say that there are most abundant evidences of the fact that the architects of the Middle Ages were seldom satisfied until they had covered their walls with colour; in one place with that in which nature has been so lavish in marble and precious stones; in another with the artificial tints of tiles and bricks; in another with the bright stenciling of gay diapers over entire walls; or, lastly, in the teaching of Scripture story, or legend or history, by the aid of the greatest painters of the day.

If we look for an instant to Italy we shall see what a lesson these artists have left us there. There is, for instance, the Arena chapel at Padua, designed by Giotto, and then painted by him with his own hands in such fashion that, to the present day, this simple little room – some 20 feet by 40 in its dimensions-is one of the greatest pilgrimage places in Europe for all lovers of Christian art; and again, in that far grander work – the noble church so finely stationed on the steep slopes of the Apennines at Assisi-we see how Cimabue, Simone Memmi, Giotto, and many others, helped to cover with pictures, conceived in a really divine spirit, the walls which would otherwise, no doubt, have been resplendent with the less artistic, but still most effective labours of the patient stenciller. The same lesson is taught if we look at the Campo Santo of Pisa, and see how Andrea Orcagna, that great architect, painter, sculptor, and poet, and beside him a succession of artists, among whom we count Buffalmacco, Simone Memmi, Giotto, and Benozzo Gozzoli, helped each in their turn in this illumination of architecture; or at the church and refectory of Sta Groce, and the church and chapter-house of Sta Maria Novella, and the crypt of San Miniato, Florence; or at that masterpiece of decorative art – St Mark’s at Venice- where precious marbles and mosaics rich in gold and bright colour almost dazzle the eye with their magnificence, but combine to make an interior in which none can fail to admit that the effect of the mere architecture of the building has been extraordinarily enhanced.

Nor was such practise as this peculiar to mediaeval artists; for the earlier Renaissance men had the same feeling in some degree, and Benozzo Gozzoli has shown us in his exquisite paintings in the chapel of the Riccardi Palace at Florence, and Perugino and Raffaelle in the Stanze of the Vatican, how their work might be best adorned.

But it was not only in Italy-the land par excellence of colour-that men had a true appreciation of its value. It need hardly be told how St. Louis, in the palmist days of the French kingdom, covered the walls of the Sainte Chapelle of Paris with gold and colour and mosaic, and filled its windows with stained glass of the richest hues, so that to the present day it is an example of the most gorgeous colouring it is possible to conceive; or how, in England, when our monarchs wished to rival the zeal and enthusiasm of St Louis, they gave in St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster, an example equally sumptuous and rich in colour: whilst at the same time, not only in our cathedrals, but in almost every parish church throughout our country, traces of more or less colouring are found to have existed over nearly the whole surface of the walls. Taking for granted, therefore, that every one will allow that it was, at any rate, the intention of all architects, as far as possible, to combine colour with form, it remains to be seen how this was accomplished.

There were two great and distinct orders of architectural colourists, the constructional and the decorative. The first were those who built their walls partially or altogether with coloured materials; the second those who so built them that colour might afterwards be added, and with an especial view to its introduction. It is of the works of the former of these two classes that it is right to speak first, because the way in which they did their work was, on the whole, a more thoroughly enduring and proper way than that of the other school. It was also more definitely the work of architects.

The works of the constructional school of architectural colourists must be subdivided into two classes: - 1st, Those in which the coloured materials were part of the substance of the walls, and necessary for the stability of the whole fabric; and 2dly, Those in which the walls were covered with decoration, such as mosaic, or tiles, or thin veneers of marble, which had nothing whatever to do with their structural requirements.

The first class was that which was, on the whole, both the best and the most frequently adopted. The few examples which we see in this country, and, indeed, generally throughout the north of Europe, belong to it. The poverty of England in coloured stones or marbles will account sufficiently for the comparative rarity of the examples we can adduce. Among them are many of the Northamptonshire churches, -- as Irchester, Strixton, and St. Peter’s, Northampton-which are built with horizontal bands or courses of dark red and light stones used alternately; in other districts we find courses of stones and flint alternated, as in the church at Penton Mewsey, near Andover, and in a gateway at Rochester. In others flint and stone are used, but with inferior effect, in a regular chequerwork over the whole surface of the wall. In the church standing close to the north side of Rochester Cathedral, a course of chequer-work in flint and stone is introduced under one string course, and two courses of flint separated by one of stone under another. The churches of Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk abound in examples of tracery, and other devices formed by cutting out patterns in the stone, and filling them in with carefully-cut and faced flints of very dark colour, so as to produce a very elaborate system of decoration in two tints. In the cloisters of Westminster Abbey the groining is executed in chalk, with occasional lines of dark stone at regular intervals. Our red brick buildings are constantly diapered with patterns in black. The interiors of our churches, when not painted, were usually left with the natural colour of all the stone work – whether wrought or not – visible on the interior, an arrangement which, though rough and rugged in character, certainly gives a great amount of natural colour in a low key, but infinitely more agreeable to the eye than the cold expanse of plaster generally visible in the public buildings. Finally, throughout the 13th century the use of polished marble columns, of a colour much darker than that of the materials of the wall, is one of the most marked features in all the best English work, and cannot properly be omitted in any catalogue of modes of coloured construction. Everyone of these arrangements is noticeable as having been introduced intentionally, and with a sole view to variety of colour. In France examples are much more numerous than in England, and the very interesting church at Vezelay is an early instance of the alternated use of dark and light stones in the interior as well as the exterior. Sta Maria in Capitolio, at Cologne, has some good remains of the same kind; and St An ne’s Kloster, at Lubeck, is built with alternate courses of red brick and stone. It is in Italy, however, that we find the most plentiful store of examples of this kind of work, of which a few may be mentioned. The cathedral, baptistery, and the buildings generally in Pisa and Lucca are built, both inside and out, with white stone courses, with thin courses of black marble occurring at about every fourth course. This is a very delicate and effective mode of dividing, the wall space. The baptistery and campanile of the cathedral at Pistoia. And the campanile of Siena, are built in almost equal courses of black and white. In Genoa we find the same equal division of the courses in the facades of the cathedral, and of the churches of San Mateo and San Stefano. At Bergamo the porch of Sta Maria Maggiore is executed in red, white, and grey marble. It is of three divisions in height, the highest stage being entirely of grey marble; the middle stage has all the moulded parts of red, and the arches and their spandrels of grey marble; the space at the back of the porch and over its main arch are built in equal courses of red and white marble; the groining is in black, red, and white marble, fitted to diamond-shaped, panels, and all the shafts are of red marble. The whole design depends for effect almost entirely upon the arrangement and counter-changing of the three primary colours, the white becoming by age sufficiently yellow to take its place very well as one of them. similar to this in the colours of its marbles is the 13th century front of the Broletto or town-hall at Como; but here the courses are very irregular in their height, and not arranged upon any symmetrical rule. The campanile of the cathedral at Florence is the last example of this class that need be mentioned, and it is the very finest of all; here the component colours are red marble of Perugia, green serpentine, and white marble (the two latter have the effect at a slight distance of being black and yellow), but these colours are further varied by the introduction of very elaborate patterns inlaid in delicate marble mosaic on almost every available space, whilst glass mosaic is introduced behind sculpture in the stages near the ground, in order to make the figures as distinct as possible, It is important to observe that, in this unsurpassed work, Giotto showed not only his sense of the value of colour, but equally his felling for true architectural proportion. No building was ever more carefully designed in outline, in detail, and in colour, as to make it one of the most worthy of study of any work in Europe. Here it may observed, that in the doorways of St Mark’s,Venice, we have examples of exquisite beauty, of sculpture of foliage and figures in marbles set off by a ground filled in entirely with mosaic, similar idea to the way in which figures are set upon a mosaic ground in Giotto’s work at Florence. In the great church of San Petronio at Balogna , the flat space between the two stone moulded plinth is of red marble, and above the plinths the walls are all of red brick. This coloured plinth is very fine in its effect, and dignifies the whole building. The upper part of the Ducal Palace and the house called the Ca’d Oro’ at Venice, are examples of coloured chequer-work over the whole surface of the wall. In the Ducal Palace this is arranged so as to form a regular diaper divided by lines of white and grey marble.The monument of Can Signorio. One of the Scaliger family, in the churchyard of San Maria I’Antica at Verona,is a good example of the successful application of coluored materials to works of delicate details. It is a softy erection, composed of a great canopied monument in the center, with a number of smaller canopied niches rising out of it, or standing upon shafts around it. The base is all of red marble, the niches have red marble columns, white gables, and red pyramids above them. the central mass is mainly of a yellowish tint, with white marble niches and pinnacles of red marble, and, owing to the extend to which the colours are counterchanged, the effect is very good. the west doorway of Sta Anastasia, and the north doorway of San Fermo Maggiore, both at Verona, are beautiful examples of the simple alternation of white, red, and grey marbles in the jamb and arches; and in both these cases the extreme beauty of the effect appears to be owing to the delicacy and harmony of the tints of the marble employed, and to the absence of the very violent contrasts of colour which are sometimes seen.

There are other examples of buildings decorated with inlaid ornaments which belong to this class; such are some of the French churches, as e.g., those throughout the Puy de Dome, of which we may select as a typical example Notre Dame-du Port, Clermont Ferrand. Here the lower part of the walls is of uniform colour, the windows have alternate voussoirs of light and dark stone and the wall above them is entirely covered with a mosaic diaper; the walls are crowned by a heavy cornice supported on corbels, between each of which the space is filled in with a star in mosaic. Similar examples occur at S. Etienne, Nevers, in Poitou, on the banks of the Loire, and frequently in volcanic districts where dark and light materials, tufa and scoriae, abound, and suggest the treatment which has been adopted. Some of the churches at Pisa are very beautifully and delicately enriched with inlaying. The little church of San Matteo has round all its arches inlaid chevrons, diamonds, or triangles, and a line of inlaying under the moulded eaves cornice of the aisle. The front of San Michele, also in Pisa, is covered with inlaid patters filling in the spandrels, or following all the architectural lines of the arcading, with which the whole upper portion is covered; similar inlaid patterns are to be seen between corbels under the tympanum of the south door of San Paolo, Pistoia. An inlaid pattern is carried along under the string-course below the aisle windows of the Cathedral of Lucca, and here, as in the other examples which have been given, the inlaid material is dark, on the white ground of the stone wall, and the object of its introduction was, no doubt, to give as much emphasis as possible to important features. In the case of the windows at Lucca the label is of dark marble, whilst the rest of the head of the window is white. In the church of San Domenico, Perugia, a window arch is built of grey stone, with occasional voussoirs of red, and on these, in order to make them as conspicuous as possible, small rosettes are carved. Another window in the same church has alternate voussoirs of red and white stone, and a red shaft for a monial. In the Palazzo Publico of Perugia the cornices and strings have ranges of corbels, the spaces between which are filled in with red marble to make the shadow deeper and more effective; in the windows, the shafts are of red marble; and in the doorway the tympanums is of red marble, with figures in white in front of it. The west front of Lucca Cathedral is inlaid in the most elaborate manner, the upper part with illustration of field sports, and the lower part with geometrical patterns. Here, too, and in Giotto’s campanile at Florence, the shafts themselves are inlaid in the same way as the rest of the work.

In the arcades outside the walls of San Fermo Maggiore, and in the windows of the little church opposite the cathedral, at Verona, great effect is produced by the ingenious combination of brick and stone; and throughout the north of Italy examples of this sort of arrangement of colour occur, and there is none more easy of imitation or reproduction with good effect at the present day and in our own country. In Sant’ Antonio, at Padua, an arcade of brick and stone in the west front has all its spandrels filled in with red marble; and the case of the east end of the church at Murano will be remembered by all who have read Mr Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. Here the substance of the walls is red brick for a few feet from the ground, and above that a rather coarse yellow brick; red brick is used in place of labels, &c., and courses of marble, cut in triangles and alternately coloured and carved, are also introduced. The examples here given are enough to show, at any rate, the general prevalence of a love of colour in the Middle Ages throughout Europe.

It would be somewhat beyond the scope of the examination of such a subject from its architectural side to go at any length into the mode of decorative painting, which was almost universally adopted at the same time. In this application of colour all countries agree, and there is hardly room to doubt the beauty and expediency of the practice. The passage to the chapter-house at Salisbury, the early church of St Mary at Guildford, the chapels at the east end of Winchester Cathedral, are interesting English examples of early work. The Norfolk screens and roofs are still more interesting and beautiful works of the richest description, and so numerous were these that at one time no church seems to have been thought furnished which had none of this kind of decoration. These had every portion of their moulded surfaces adorned in the richest way rich gold and colours, whilst their solid panels were covered with pictures of single figures or subjects. English roofs were decorated in the same fashion, and of these the finest examples are in Peterborough Cathedral and St Alban’s Abbey. If we turn to the pages of illuminated manuscripts we shall find views of towns in which whole houses are decorated with masses of colour on the outside to distinguish them from their neighbours. And in rather later times, as we see in Florence, in Brescia, at Augsburg, at Meran, and often elsewhere, mot brilliant effects were produced by painting subjects on the external walls of palaces and houses. But, generally speaking, beautiful as this sort of decoration was, it erred rather in ignoring to a considerable extent the architecture which it adorned,-unlike the earlier works, where the effort of the colourist was usually and rightly to make all the mouldings or members of the work decorated more distinct and intelligible than they can be in the absence of colour. Without coloured illustrations of an elaborate description it would be impossible to explain any or all the features of architectural polychrome. But enough has been said to show that the subject is one not only of interest to architects, but of importance to all who care for architecture, for it is hardly possible that works such as those which have here been shortly referred to should be passed over by the student or amateur of architecture as though they had no interest for us, and it may be confidently asserted that modern schools of architecture cannot with safety ignore so interesting a development of the art. (T. H. I. – G. E. S)

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