From The Guardian September 11 2011
Georgian architecture: how to identify the Greek orders
What are the Greek orders, and how do they differ from the Renaissance Roman?
Until the later 18th century, the source for all classical architecture in Britain was ancient Rome, rediscovered in the Renaissance and transported north. Rather liberal interpretations of Renaissance classical forms were often used in 16th-century Britain, though applied with more care by 17th- century courtier and architect Inigo Jones. The baroque movement from the late 17th century again took more liberties.
From the early 1700s, however, there was an intellectual movement towards rationality, and away from imaginative interpretation. As better scholarship and a deeper understanding of archaeology grew, theorists in Britain and in France began to reject what they deemed to be the highly subjective Renaissance interpretations of Roman architecture. At the same time, they renounced the decadence and decoration of the baroque, favouring instead the perceived purity of ancient Greek forms. By the end of the 18th century, as knowledge of ancient Greece improved, architects were turning to the Greek "orders" – a kind of architectural grammar, first developed in Greek architecture then adapted and extended by the Romans.
Before the mid-18th century, knowledge of Greek architecture was sketchy, because most of what had been ancient Greece was part of the Ottoman empire and few had actually studied the sites at first hand.
But in 1751 the English architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett travelled to Athens to make detailed studies of its relics, and, in 1762, published their findings in the hugely influential The Antiquities of Athens. Their French counterpart Julien-David Le Roy had published the first accurate drawings of the Acropolis a few years prior, and thus an accurate body of knowledge of classical Greek architecture began to grow. So it was that the Greek orders – the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – came to be seen as the purer and more natural forms.
The Greek Doric columns are squatter and more massive than the Roman versions – the "entasis" or swelling of the column is often more pronounced, and the capital is larger, projecting further over the shaft. They are without a base, placed instead directly on the "stylobate" – the top step of the colonnade's platform. The Greek Doric shares with its Roman counterpart a frieze, made up of grooved triglyphs (three vertical bands) and metopes (rectangular blocks), and a plain, unadorned capital. The column is usually cut with flutes, much as in the Roman Doric, but is sometimes found unfluted. The Doric revival was an important element of neoclassicism, when the primitive aspect of the order was celebrated rather than denigrated as crude.
The Greek Ionic order, which originated in the mid-sixth century BC in Asia Minor, is, much like the Roman Ionic, elegant and pretty. The columns are slender and almost always fluted, with fillets or flat plain bands between the flutes; in Hellenistic buildings, columns are often found with a plain or faceted, but not fluted, lower section of the shaft. The characteristic elements of the order are, as in the Roman Ionic, the scrolled capital and the dentilated cornice (one which sports a row of dentils or small blocks underneath), while, in Hellenistic buildings, the frieze is frequently omitted.
The Greek Corinthian order originated in Athens in the fifth century BC, and differs only slightly from the Ionic – the primary distinction being the two rows of acanthus leaves that sprout from its capital. The frieze is often lavishly sculpted and surmounted by a dentilated cornice. The columns are invariably fluted, with fillets running between the flutes.
In their 1762 treatise, Stuart and Revett published drawings of particularly elegant Corinthian capitals they had studied in Athens, on a small monument near the Acropolis dating back to 334BC, the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. Taller and more ornate than most other versions of the Greek Corinthian, this Lysicrates capital was often copied in 18th-century Britain. It comprises a lower band of sprouting leaf shapes, surmounted by a larger band of lush acanthus leaves interspersed with flowers and topped with large volutes (scrolls) below the abacus (the topmost section of the capital, a flat four-sided slab). The abacus is moulded with a sculpted anthemion – a leafy motif – in the middle of each side. This voluptuous decoration embodies the beauty and grandeur that the Corinthian order has always symbolised.