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To what degree were classical influences on architecture adopted and adapted in Welsh building styles 1500-1800?


Fifteenth century Italy saw the revival of a genuine interest in the world of the classical Romans and Greeks. What perhaps began as a scholarly interest into the literary works of the ancient writers such as Cicero, Plato and Aristotle, soon came to influence all aspects of Italian life; values and attitudes, dress, education, art and architecture. It was perhaps the latter which was the most visible, and most widely accessible aspect of this revival. Even the poor, who could not appreciate the literary works of the ancients could appreciate the splendid classical architecture that was rapidly coming to surround them.

Classical architecture differed in some significant ways from that of the Gothic style which was popular in the middle ages. It was a much more organised, precise, pre-planned type of architecture. The entire emphasis was on proportion , balance and harmony. The ancient writer Vitruvius, whose work was dramatically rediscovered by Poggio, declared;

"Architecture consists of Order...Arrangement...Proportion, Symmetry, and Propriety and economy". (1)

There were rules and regulations and certain patterns to follow. All aspects of a building were to correspond to each other, and the facade of a building was to be vertically symmetrical. Doors and windows were to be placed in proportion to each other dictated by mathematical guidelines, with columns there was an order; the Doric first, the Ionic and then the Corinthian, and arches and parapets had certain functions. There were also important characteristic differences between door and windows of the two periods. In the middle ages, doors generally were there for the practical purpose of entry, and excepting for large Churches, and some castles, were no bigger than the average human body in terms of width and height. Windows too generally tended to be small, mullioned, or sometimes only slits to spy out of or shoot arrows. Only buildings such as churches had beautiful adorned windows with coloured glass. Doors of classical buildings tended to be large, showing it's importance, and often adorned with decoration, and placed on steps. Windows were larger and longer, and were semi-circular rather than pointed. The appearance of a building in Classical styles of paramount importance. Buildings were to be grand and elegant, displaying perfect harmony and balance. Arches and Columns, parapets which served a structural function also contributed significantly to the appearances

The first architects of the Italian Renaissance such as Brunelleshci and Alberti made as much use of these classical rules as was possible in their attempt to imitate the works of the ancients. The influences are clear in their works such as Brunelleshci's Dome of the Florence Cathedral, and in his foundling hospital. However, it was with Bramante that Classical styles were truly incorporated into building styles, and his work the Tempietto of Saint Pietro in Montonio, Rome was the first true classical building of the city. However, Renaissance architecture, despite it's similarities with the classical styles did not emulate them completely, and had a culture of it's own. In a sense it was impossible to emulate them precisely, as there was little known about the architectural principles. Apart from Vitruvius's recovered text, and the number of ruins dotting the Italian states, this was a lost world. Also the rules were complicated and it is possible that not all architects fully comprehended them. It is clear that the Renaissance architects generally used the columns, arches and parapets as a decoration alone, not fully aware of the structural function these had had in the ancient world. Although these architects tried to imitate the works of the classics as much as they could, they tended to adapt the ideals to modern needs, and largely confined them to the external appearances of buildings. In some respects therefor, Renaissance architecture was a rather shallow form of the classical, being as Fletcher argues superficial. It is perhaps therefore worth baring in mind that although the architectural style which flourished in Italy in this period, and came to influence buildings all over Europe, was classically orientated and classically inspired, it was different, and it was the adaptation of the classical ideals made by the first Renaissance architects that really exerted an influence. Alberti was important in this respect. He was one of the first architects to show how the ideals could be adapted to modern building needs. The demanded for more elaborate domestic buildings was growing in this period, and Alberti with his designs for showed how classical ideals could be applied to small buildings.

However, the new interest in classical architecture which had taken such a hold of the Italians, was rather slow in taking ground in the rest of Europe. What began in Italy in the fifteenth century, did not effect some areas of Europe until the seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries. One such area was Wales. Wales was separated from Italy by miles of land and sea. She did not experience at first hand the revival of the classical culture, a culture that was not her own. It took time for the ideas that were circulating in southern and central Europe to reach her shores, and when they did, they had been tailored by the winds of the journey. From the very first, when considering the influence of Renaissance, classical architectural styles on Welsh buildings of this period, it is important to emphasis that the influence was limited. However, between the three centuries which separated the Reformation and the Victorian era, a number of changes occurred in Welsh building styles, and the influence of Classical styles and ideals can be discerned.

The classical style had, fairly early in this period, a quite pronounced influence on the building styles of the wealthy in Wales. Classical styles first made their appearance in the beginning of the sixteenth century in the royal residences of Henry the Eighth, such as Hampton Court, and those of the Welsh gentry who frequented the Royal Court were no doubt influenced by the impressive architecture they saw there and were inspired to improve the appearance of their own homes. Another point of contact with the classical ideals was travel and business. Wealthy individuals, such as Sir Richard Clough, who had business connections abroad had the opportunity to see the revival first hand, and become familiar with the styles. By, and during, Queen Elizabeth's reign the beginnings of this influence can be seen in the type of houses that the gentry of Wales had built. The first house in Wales to be built truly in the classical style was Bachegraig near Denbigh, belonging to Sir Richard Clough. It was built on a grand scale, incorporating all the notions of vertical symmetry and proportion, lengthy windows and a central positioned door way. Even the chimneys were arranged in a symmetrical pattern to correspond to the balance of the house. Although Bachegraig was "for a long time the only house to express the Renaissance idea in it's entirety", classical influences can also be seen in other houses of the period such as Trevalyn Hall. One important but latent aspect of Classical architecture was the idea that all buildings should be built to impress. his aspect of classical ideals certainly flourished in Tudor and Stuart Wales. It can clearly be seen in the popularity of the gatehouse, which was erected totally for visual effect rather than defence. These gatehouses clearly show classical influences. The gatehouses of Corsygedol, Merionethshire, and Trefalun in Denbighshire, for example, are both vertically symmetrical and rather ornately decorated, the one of Trefalun even having a colonnaded and arched entrance, which was rather advanced for this period. Into the seventeenth century classicalinfluences are even more pronounced. Tredegar House and Great Castle House in Monmouthshire, Plas Teg and Erddig, all reflect classical influences in their layout and vertical symmetry. Tredegar as well as having these basic qualifications is also rather lavishly ornate, incorporating stone decorations above the pretty semi-circular arched windows, and especially the central placed doorway. Erddig has a more simplistic design, but is no less striking, and its alleged three hundred and sixty five windows, all carefully placed in proportion to each other, contribute to the classical feel of the house. It was in the eighteenth century however, that classical styles reached their height. Now houses incorporated more fully classical columns, arches, the flat front and flat roof decorated by an ornate parapet. The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the flourishing of the Baroque style, which was highly ornamental but had a rather "artificial" quality, but the popularity of this style soon withered away. By 1730, the classical, or more specifically, Palladian styles had overshadowed it. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) from whose work this style derived, during his life had been heavily influenced by the work of Bramante, and he incorporated Bramante's styles into his own. One of the main reasons Palladio was such an influential figure in this period was because the books he wrote on architecture, the most prominent being I Quattro Libri dell Architectura, had been studied quite intensely by Inigo Jones(1573-1652)the first professional British architect, whose work became popular in this century. Several grand houses of the eighteenth century clearly show classicalInfluences. Nanteous (1739), in Cardiganshire, which has a colonnaded portruding front porch,a flat roof and an ornately decorated parapet, and Pickwick hall in Seswick, Denbighshire, has a colonnaded facade, with an even more ornate parapet, which hides the flat roof. However, of alleighteenth century Welsh buildings in the classical style, perhaps it is the Orangery at Margam (1787) that is the finest example of the Classical ideal. Attributed to Anthony Keck it has classical style semi-circular arched windows, a pedimented pavilion at each end, and a raised parapet with floral carvings over the central windows. Classical influences even extend to gardens which as Pallister states was "a form of outdoor architecture . . . with its walls, obelisks statues, fountains and geometrical beds", and these too became increasingly grand as the period wore on. (2)

However, with the exception of country mansions, only a few of the changes that occurred in Welsh building styles during this period can be directly attributed to the Classical influence of the Renaissance. It has been argued that the Tudor and early Stuart period was a transitionary period from the medieval to the more Classically orientated styles. John B Hilling for example states;

"It was part of the metamorphic transition from military and ecclesiastical buildings to the more sedate compositions of classically inspired compositions."

But this is debatable. It is important to emphasise that Classical forms of architecture never came to dominate in Wales, or for that matter in England. Almost as soon as the Classical style reached its height in the eighteenth century, the wheel of fashion turned again, this time back into the past, and the closing decades of the century saw the revival of Gothic and medieval castellate styles, which came to dominate Victorian aristocratic homes. In the late eighteenth century, houses such as that of the Williamses mansion in Bodelwyddan, Denbighshire, which had not long been re-built in the classical style, were modified into the castellate, Gothic manner. Arguably what occurred in the three centuries following the Reformation was not a transition from one style to another, but the evolution of the Vernacular. Classical styles did exert an influence on the development of vernacular buildings, but there were other powerful factors simultaneously exerting an influence, which were also responsible for the way in which Welsh building styles developed in this period.



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