Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alberti on Beauty and Concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in Nature

Alberti's definition of beauty
: "Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse."

Concinnitas: "When you make judgements on beauty, you do not follow mere fancy, but the workings of a reasoning faculty that is inborn in the mind. It is clearly so, since no one can look at anything shameful, deformed, or disgusting without immediate displeasure and aversion. What arouses and provokes such sensation in the mind we shall inquire into in detail, but shall limit our consideration to whatever evidence presents itself that is relevant to our argument. For within the form and figure of a building there resides some natural excellence and perfection that excites the mind and is immediately recognized by it. I myself believe that form, dignity, grace, and other such qualities depend on it, and as soon as anything is removed or altered, these qualities are themselves weakened and perish. Once we are convinced of this it will not take long to discuss what may be removed, enlarged, or altered, in the form and figure. For every body consists entirely of parts that are fixed and individual; if these are removed, enlarged, reduced, or transferred somewhere inappropriate, the very composition will be spoiled that gives the body its seemly appearance. 

"From this we may conclude, without pursuing such questions any longer, that the three principal components of that whole theory into which we inquire are number, what we might call outline, and position. But arising from the composition and connection of these three is a further quality in which beauty shines full face: our term for this is concinnitas; which we say is nourished with every grace and splendor. It is the task and aim of concinnitas to compose parts that are quite separate from each other by their nature, according to some precise rule, so that they correspond to one another in appearance. 

"That is why when the mind is reached by way of sight or sound, or any other means, concinnitas is instantly recognized. It is our nature to desire the best, and to cling to it with pleasure. Neither in the whole body nor in its parts does concinnitas flourish as much as it does in Nature herself.; thus I might call it the spouse and soul of reason. It has a vast range in which to exercise itself and bloom-it runs through man's entire life and government, it molds the whole form of Nature. Everything that Nature produces is regulated by the law of concinnitas, and her chief concern is that whatever she produces should be absolutely perfect. Without concinnitas this could hardly be achieved, for the critical sympathy of the parts would be lost. So much for this. 

"If this is accepted, let us conclude as follows. Beauty is a form of sympathy and consonance between the parts within a body, according to definite number, outline,  and position, as dictated by coninnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule in Nature. This is the main object of the art of building, and the source of her dignity, charm, authority, and worth." -On The Art of Building in Ten Books, Book IX, Chapter v.

Number: In Alberti's time number was a quantitative relationship between things in a formula. This may sound a little too Desecration, however we must remember that Descartes along with most of the thinkers of his age still looked on numbers as more than just quantitave entities. A number's quantitative value was subordinate to its qualitative meaning, as Alberti goes on to say in the passage directly following that on concinnitas.

Outline: Outline is difficult to understand as it can mean several things. I believe it is directly tied to Alberti's idea of lineamente, or the lines and angles which form the building (as opposed to the material, or structura). Regardless, it is something like the form, or type of the building, in that in the outline informs us of the building's purpose (to some degree this is also accomplished by ornament). Branko Mitrovic, has called lineamente shape, which I think is not far from the truth. 

Position: This has to do with Alberti's use of the term collocation, or the placement of the parts of a body in such a relationship that the the whole which they form has the quality of beauty. 

Concinnitas takes varying numbers of things which have different shapes, and lie in various positions, and composes, (according to "some precise rule") a complete and beautiful whole. We recognize the presence of concinnitas, not through long study or developed taste, but instantly, when by means of the senses, our mind encounters this correspondence or sympathy between multiple elements of a whole, or parts of a body.

Vivat Professores!!!

Dr. Sampo's last day teaching humanities on the Merrimack campus.


Art... in Columbus, Ohio.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lost in wonder at Palladio at the RA

The Royal Academy’s exhibition celebrating 500 years since the great Italian’s birth is a must-see

By Robert Adam
30 January 2009
Andrea Palladio: His Life And Legacy
Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1
January 31-April 13

At the new Palladio exhibition at the Royal Academy, the last small room is labelled “The Mind of the Architect”. This should be the title for the whole show. Here, the hand of the great man on drawing after drawing, sketch after sketch, reveals his soul. The chance to see this collection of drawings and models should not be missed by any architect.

As we look at more and more computer-rendered images today, we lose that vital link between the creative mind of the architect and the finished building that only a hand drawing can deliver. This collection of Palladio’s drawings, many from the RIBA’s incredible collection, is like a beam of sunlight entering a dark chamber of modernity lit only by solitary screens.

Among the collection are the fine rendered drawings for presentation that display the draftsmanship of Palladio, his assistants and other, later architects. But it is the pages from sketchbooks, the muddled combinations of images and the rough notes that take us much deeper.

As a designer, I find it refreshing to see the 17 quickly sketched versions of the plan for the house of Camillo Volpe in Vicenza, each one a minor variation of the other. This is not the cool proportional mathematician of legend who has fooled so many later architects into thinking that a magical combination of proportions delivers greatness; this is the real and fallible designer struggling for the right answer.

You will see Palladio’s enrolment in the Guild of Stonemasons in Vicenza in 1524 next to drawings by architects he admired and portraits of his patrons. Among his drawings is a slightly off-perspective rough sketch of the Arch of Jupiter Ammon in Verona with a measured detail of the cornice. Designs of the City Hall in Brescia are on the same sheet as a casual sketch of Palladio’s left hand, presumably drawn in an idle moment. A letter has designs for a palace and an arch, alongside a series of plans for a terrace of humble dwellings in an uneven city centre site.

This is a working architect engaged on small and practical projects while lost in admiration for the remains of the ancient world all around him. His fascination with classical decoration is shown by the way he abbreviates classical detailing — something all classical architects have to do as they design. While the cornices, architraves and bases are just roughed in on the corners, each identical capital is lovingly drawn.

Drawings are ranged around the edge of the galleries in a cool display of mixed frames of different sizes and little white card models interspersed with occasional contextual paintings and objects. To get to look closely at these images — and look closely you must — you have to pass by a splendid series of large wooden cutaway models of his buildings. This series, started only in 1971 by Franco Albini in Vicenza, has the character of antique models and is a delight.

Eric Parry, who designed the exhibition, has created what he tells me is the “fast lane” through the centre of the show, going past these models. You can stroll through the models and objects on the tables before peeling off to peer at the evenly lit details of drawings and pictures on easel-like panels.

Parry has created a theme for each of the three main galleries. They’re in a chronological sequence, and each tells a different story. The first is brilliantly lit and the walls above have simplified paintings depicting fragments of ruins set against a blue sky.

The second is quite different, with an abstract, deep red striped background taken from a sciagraphic projection of a skewed section through the wall of the famous Venetian Church of the Redentore, which is displayed in model form in the centre of the room.

The third room is “about theatre”. At the exit, occupying nearly the whole wall, is an abstracted, bottom-lit rendition of the frons scenae of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, designed by Parry and painted by his nephew, a set painter. A clever idea — a theatre set turned into a theatre set. The gallery design has little enough of Parry not to spoil the show and just enough to be interesting.

The fourth room is small and plain, and has a card by the door identifying it as “The Mind of the Architect”. Its contents are a delight, but that’s where we came in.