Art Applied to Industry.-VIII. External Architectural decorations.

The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Review
by Sylvanus Urban, Gent.
July-December 1864
London John Henry and James Parker. 1864.

October 1864.

It is not now so many years ago since a distinguished statesman and novelist created a very considerable sensation among the Art world by the enunciation of two propositions. These were, firstly, that in the present day we mistake comfort for civilization; and secondly, that as our houses and public buildings all resemble one another, and are all equally wretched, the best way to remedy the evil would be to hang an architect — instancing the very excellent effect the execution of Admiral Byng had upon the naval service. Whether the remedy proposed would have the desired effect, is a very open question — perhaps it might; but that we are too apt to mistake comfort for civilization, and that our modern houses are lamentably poor and remarkably like one another, is unfortunately but too true, for there is probably not another capital in Europe which can come up to us as regards the uniformity and ugliness of our dwelling-houses, to say nothing of our public buildings. In fact, it would almost appear that the great object of the richest city in the world is to spend as little money as possible on its edifices, and when to this is added the fact that in some twenty-five years, or even less, everything is covered with a thick coating of smoke, one is apt to despair of any improvement. Still the state of things, although unfavourable, is not to be despaired of. Could the law of leasehold be abolished, and could the builder be made to build only on land owned by himself, people would spend a great deal more money on houses which they knew would descend to their children. On the other hand, could some material be found capable of being periodically washed without injury, the smoke nuisance would be comparatively harmless. But before going into this latter question, it may be as well to see with what materials buildings have been constructed or faced in former times, and how such facing or construction has been ornamented.


To begin with the richest material, viz. marble. This can be applied in three ways, i. e. the building may be entirely constructed of it, as the Parthenon at Athens, or it may be faced with it, as the Duomo at Florence, or it may be applied in a thin veneer, as in the various edifices at Venice. It is needless to say that the application of these systems was greatly influenced by the distance of the work from the marble quarries. If, then, we take the first method, i.e. that of the Parthenon, we shall find that the architect had by no means finished his work when he had put the marble blocks together, and had inserted the sculpture; on the contrary, the painfully bright colour of the white marble under a powerful sun necessitated some method by which it might be toned down. This was effected by painting. By this I do not for one moment suppose that large surfaces were covered with coatings of opaque colour; on the contrary, what few remains have come down to our own times tend to shew that the gold and colour was applied in thin lines, but at the same time in strong tints; in fact very much as we see it applied to Parian statuettes. Now the effect of marble thus treated, when viewed from a distance, is that of being suffused with a very delicate tint of the prevailing colour of the painted lines; and in this manner the glare of the white marble was to a great degree counteracted. There is also some reason to believe that the excessive whiteness was occasionally toned down by means of a stain, such as a solution of saffron — more especially as Pausanias mentions the walls of a temple which when wetted gave out the smell of that herb. But the Greek architect did not restrict himself entirelv to lines and ornaments; on the contrary, some portions of the building, although not very large ones, were covered with paint, such as the triglyphs and the backgrounds of the sculpture. Again, there is good reason to suppose, from a passage in Pliny, that the walls behind the columns received colour, and even paintings, and as the columns were comparatively close together, this would have the effect of making them stand out well from the wall without sacrificing the general white tone of the whole building. Again, gilt bronze was largely employed for the accessories of the sculpture, as we see in the Elgin Marbles; and one building is mentioned where the joints of the stones were filled in by thin fillets of gilt metal. In the capitals of the columns of Minerva Polias we find glass beads employed as an architectural decoration: and were it possible for us to go back to the Athens of ancient times, I have no doubt but that we should find a great many things for which we are by no means in the habit of giving the Greeks credit.

Such was the way in which a marble temple was anciently treated. I believe it is a disputed point whether the Greeks, like the Romans, were in the habit of employing coloured marble columns, but that they did not confine themselves to white alone is proved by the string of black marble which may be traced more or less all round the Acropolis, and which probably served as the support of the Gigantomachia.

The second way of treating marble is by building the walls of the edifice with brick or rubble, and then facing it with a coating of marble, say from six inches to a foot thick, according to the necessity. The brick or rubble should be so constructed as to allow of the marble being well toothed in, and hence the very rough appearance such wails present when the marble has never been applied, as is so often the case in Italy. Of course it was always right to give time for the wall to settle well before applying the facing, but somehow or other, in nine cases out of ten^ the said facing has been put off indefinitely. The cathedrals of Florence, Sienna, Prato, and Orvieto are instances where it is more or less perfect. In this case the architect generally divided his wall either in horizontal lines or square panels, using for the purpose black, white, and red marble; the red not appearing in any great quantity. The windows, doors, &c., were richly carved and inlaid, while an elaborate tarsia of these marbles, which may be described as a coarse mosaic, (not unlike the Tonbridge-ware patterns enlarged,) ran round the building with the strings, round the arches aud jambs of the windows, round the panels, and in fact almost everywhere. Glass mosaic was also occasionally introduced instead of sculpture. The best example of this sort of work is Giotto's campanile at Florence; and although a great deal of valuable material is expended, and a great deal of human labour, still to my mind the effect is hardly worth the trouble and cost. The contrast of the marbles is violent, and the panel system is but too apt to remind one, as it did Pugin, of a Brighton workbox. This facing system is also to be found in Eastern buildings, but there the ornaments and inlays are far more beautiful and delicate than in the Italian edifices. It has not been my lot to see the larger specimens of marble buildings in the East, and I am unable therefore to speak of their effect. M. Fossati told me that he imagined that St. Sophia at Constantinople was anciently faced with marbles, the spoils of antique temples; all, however, have disappeared, and the buildiug is now plastered over and coloured with red longitudinal bands.

Some of the better fountains in the same city are exceedingly beautiful; they are large square edifices with towers at the angles, faced with marble cut into the most delicate patterns and foliage in low relief, parts of which were doubtless gilt; the grilles, which occupy a considerable portion of the surface and the tops, are in bronze; the overhanging eaves of the high lead-covered roof are boarded underneath, and painted and gilded in various patterns; and the finials on the top of the roof are also gilt. As regards inlaying marble, the Easterns are unrivalled. Some years ago a very considerable quantity of marble was brought into this country from Delhi, and it is even now occasionally to be met with in curiosity shops; the ground is a coarseish white inlaid with black, like slate, green like our Irish green; there is also a yellow marble, and the flowers are formed of cornelian and most beautiful rose-coloured agates.

The examples of the third way of using marble are principally to be found in Venice. Here the columns are solid marble, the walls are brick, and the facing is applied in very thin slabs, secured to the wall by mortar and by metal holdfasts which appear on the outside; the strings, of course, are solid marble, so also is the tracery and moulded work, although the latter is generally avoided, and the arch turned in brick, so that the thin soffit-slabs of marble, when applied, project outward, and thus afford support to the outer casing above. Sometimes the Venetian architect contented himself with making what we should call the dressings only in marble, the walls proper being plastered and painted, sometimes with figures, but generally according to Mr. Ruskin with a diaper, which in the ducal palace has been translated into marble of different colours. In the earlier buildings of a better character, such as St. Mark and the Fondaco del Turchi, the whole facade was covered with thin slabs of marble interspersed with panels containing sculptures, which often had a gold mosaic ground, or with panels inclosing more valuable marbles, such as porphyry or serpentine, as in St. Mark's, where we find marble carving, serpentine, porphyry, and glass mosaic in juxtaposition. As also a piece of architectural colour the west front of St. Mark's at Venice certainly stands unrivalled at the present day, whatever the group of buildings on the rock of Athens may have been. The picture of Capacchio certainly shews us that we have lost something; but after all it has not been very much, being principally confined to the gilding in the upper portions of the buildings, such as the crockets, pinnacles, &c.| some of the ornaments of the latter having been cast in lead.


Stone is a more difficult material to treat than marble for external decoration, people being generally content to carve it and there to leave it. This was not the case formerly. The temples at Psestum and that of Vesta at Tivoli are worked in a very coarse hard stone, full of holes — a stone that in the present day would probably be rejected for external facing. The Greeks and Romans did not think so: everything is worked in it, and then covered with two thin coatings of plaster; the first stops up the holes and brings it to a fair surface, the latter, which is about one-eighth of an inch thick, is largely mixed with marble dust, so that it can receive a polish. The building had then very nearly the white glaring effect of new marble, and was treated in a similar manner. In the museum at Palermo are some bas-reliefs found at Selinuntum, made of this stone and plastered in the usual manner: some are, it is true, very archaic, but others are postPhidian, and very beautiful works. Stone, again, in the Middle Ages was used in strips, like marble, alternating with stone of other colours, or with brick, as at Verona; in this case the mass of wall is brick, the stone forming a sort of chain, or rather a series of coffers at certain intervals. A very favourite way of using stone, especially during the fifteenth century, was to make it alternate with bricks or flints, so that the wall looks like a chess-board. In Norfolk the surfaces of stone walls, or rather of parts of them, are cut into elaborate tracery or other ornaments, such as letters, &c., and the interstices filled with flints; and if the flints are cleanly broken and nicely squared the effect is very good indeed. Occasionally ornaments are incised in the stone and then filled up with black cement, as in the porches of Notre Dame at Paris, and at St. Etienne at Beauvais; but this process does not often oceur^ and would appear to have been reserved almost exclusively for floors. At other times an effect is got by the jointing of the stone, such as a thin course and a thick one alternately, or by making certain portions of the facing reticulated, as in Notre Dame at Poitiers: of course in this latter case the joints should be kept very wide.

In the Middle Ages we find positive colour and gilding applied directly to stone buildings, but then it was confined to sheltered situations, and was executed in oil or in distemper, covered with oleaginous varnishes; thus there are traces of painting on the statues and architecture of many of the French portaih, such as Amiens, but then they were protected by the great depth of the arch. Coats of arms were generally coloured; the tympana of dormer windows, when protected by the bargeboards, were coloured; and crockets and finials were often gilt. At the Chateau of Blois the windows being deeply recessed from the front, the jambs of the arches which contain them are coloured and gilt. At Florence the projecting machicolations of the Palazzo Publico have emblazoned coats of arms. In fact, our ancestors coloured those parts which could be protected, but, like sensible men, abstained from putting paint where it would be destroyed by the climate.


It must be confessed that brick is not a particularly agreeable material to work with; if used alone it is exceedingly monotonous, and if different colours be introduced a piebald effect is very likely to be the result: used with stone dressings of a warm colour is perhaps as good a way as any to employ it, and if the building is to have any architectural features it will probably be found the cheapest, for bricks become rather expensive articles when they have to be cut, rubbed, and gauged. However, effects can be produced by bricks of different colours, although many attempts of late days in this direction can hardly be pronounced successes. Our own ancestors, for the most part, contented themselves with very sparing reticulations of black glazed bricks. At Verona, Padua, and elsewhere in Italy, a very curious mode of decorating brick-work is adopted. Patterns are formed in the voussoirs of arches by cutting away the surface of sundry of the voussoirs, and then filling up the space so obtained with plaster. At St. Antonio at Padua^ the spaces within the terra cotta arches^ which form the cornice of the cloisters, are thas filled in with plaster, and have had painted ornaments.

In the north of Italy we find a very great employment of terra cotta, one of the finest examples being the Ospidale at Milan; somehow or other the effect is not pleasing, being too apt to conjure up suggestions of the burning city described by Dante. Much of our modern terra cotta is of a very harsh aud bright colour, so much so that it would hardly be an acquisition to any building. A fountain in this Museum, of Austrian manufacture, is an excellent example of what carefully to avoid as regards colour in terra cotta. In our own time a whole medieval church has been constructed of this material, but as the experiment has never been repeated we may presume that it has hardly been a success.

Far better than terra cotta is majolica — here we obtain beautiful form and imperishable colour. Majolica may be either in relief, or painted on a flat surface; the former is more commonly applied as an external ornament, and is by no means uncommon in Tuscany and the circumjacent parts of Italy. It occurs in the form of friezes, medallions, coats of arms, figures, &c.; but I never, as far as I remember, ever saw a fagade entirely covered with it. There are some most excellent examples in the South Kensington Museum, foremost among which may be cited the coat of arms with its surrounding wreaths, ten feet in diameter; this, like all large examples, is made in several pieces, all of which had to be properly imbedded in the wall. Similar coats of arms occur in the Or San Michele at Florence, and the Palazzo del Podesta at Certaldo is literally covered with them. The inventor of this majolica was Luca della Robbia, a Florentine sculptor, who set himself to invent, or rather re-invent, a stanniferous enamel to cover his terra cotta figures; I say re-invent, for the secret had been known to the Spanish Moors long before. The works of Luca della Robbia now command liigh prices, not only on account of their rarity, but for their own intrinsic value, for Luca was a real artist, and got beautiful feeling and expression in his work. Several of his figures are simply in white, with a lightblue background. Afterwards other colours were added, and sometimes the flesh is left unglazed. But with all this the general effect of the colour of his figures is never thoroughly pleasing, and I am barbarous enough to think that Miuton colours his figures much better.

Glazed earthenware for architectural purposes appears to have been used in Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century, for Erasmus, in his Colloquies, mentions columns of earthenware glazed to represent marble supporting a portico. The medallions in Holbein's gateway at Whitehall were also of terra cotta, but I do not know whether they were glazed. The angels, however, which surmounted the high altar of Henry the Eighth's Chapel, were glazed to represent marble; and as they were executed under the direction of Torregiano, were most probably of Italian workmanship. Luca della Bobbia did not content himself with reliefs; on the contrary, he appears to have painted on majolica as well, if we may trust the series of discs attributed to him, which are preserved in the South Kensington Museum. They represent the labours of the year, and are in three different blues, with black outlines, and white high-lights: they probably formed a decoration for some small building, such as the study of Cosmo the Elder, described by Vasari.

If we want to know what can be done with enamelled majolica, we have only to go to the East. One of the mosques, I think that of Suleyman, has one of its courts covered with large inscriptions and ornaments, painted in blue on white tiles, and I must say that the colour was exceedingly rich, and the result very good indeed. Pieces of plain pottery are found in the campaniles at Rome, and are far more bright than marble would be at that height. Again, several of the churches at Pisa have dishes inserted in their gables; the story being that it was the custom of the Crusaders to bring them home and deposit them in the front of the church as trophies.

In the South Kensington Museum is a figure painted on majolica, manufactured by M. Rousseau of Paris; it was purchased at the Great Exhibition, and it is said that the colours and glazing' have been affixed in one firing — a most important discovery, should this sort of decoration ever come into extensive use. Tlie division lines of the various tiles composing the figure follow the outlines, and thus avoid the confusion which would arise had they been made square; as it is, the joints serve to accentuate the outlines like the leading in stained glass.


Few people would suppose that plaster could be rendered ornamental unless it be cast into moulds, or, as in the last century, worked by hand. If, however, we go to Florence, we shall find that with an artistic people even this material is susceptible of high art. To begin with the simplest decoration. In the vicinity of Florence, the rough walls which divide one vineyard from another are covered with plaster: this plaster when wet is covered with very deep scratches; the principal lines run vertically, and the spaces are then filled up with various patterns. This is without the town: within, we find the graffito. After a building had received the first coat of plaster, a second was appUed, very much thinner and mixed with colour, very often soot, when this was set, a finishing coat was applied over it, and while it was wet the artist scraped it away in various patterns and figures, so as to shew the black ground: the whole, when completed, forms a decoration or picture in black and white. Several houses of apparently the sixteenth century retain this decoration, which in that climate appears to be tolerably durable. It is practised at the present day, and specimens were to be seen at the Florentine Exhibition of 1861. The earliest example I have seen was at Assisi; from the costumd the date might be from 1460 — 1470: it is also noticeable from the fact of the ground being in various colours instead of black. Plaster is also cast in patterns and applied to external surfaces of walls, as in the Alhambra; but then it was probably protected by overhanging eaves. It can be stamped in patterns while wet, as we occasionally see in old half-timber houses in our own country, and even when not stamped it has a very good eflfect if the wood be only painted a dark colour. At Galata the old Genoese houses ai'e made of indifferent brick, and then plastered and painted; there is no moulded work of any kind; all the decoration is obtained by what we call tuck-joints, i.e. projecting ones, which are made of much finer plaster than the ground. These tuck-joints are left white, while the general surface of the wall is a dull grey; the ornamental bands, which do duty for strings, on the contrary, have their grounds coloured red; the window jambs and lintel are simply great stones on the Stonehenge principle, and the cornice is composed of tiles on edge. Sometimes the wall is made to represent alternate courses of stone and tiles; in this case the surface of the sham tiles is coloured red. In some of the plaster I detected little pieces of chopped linen which did duty for hair.


In a country where the material was not a good one, and where the climate was favourable, a very common way of obtaining decoration was to cover the whole surface of the walls with plaster and then paint it. This, according to Mr. Layard, was the case with regard to Babylon, where sunburnt bricks were used, and distinguished it from Nineveh, where the basement was of stone and the superstructure of wood. At Pompdi we see the same thing. In one of the streets a good part of an external wall remains tolerably perfect; it is plastered all over in the usual manner, i.e. marble dust is mixed with the last coating. For six or eight feet high the wall is coloured red, but divided into vertical divisions by white lines. Above, the plaster is jointed like regular stonework, the joints being represented by broad and deep incised lines, which if I remember rightly were filled up also with red.

In our own country during the Middle Ages, paintings were reserved for the insides of dwellings, and we must, therefore, go to Italy for information as regards external paintings. The custom anciently must have been very common, for in spite of the perishable nature of the decoration, nearly every city can shew some one specimen, if not more. Thus in Florence there is the hospital on the north side of the Baptistery of St, John, besides several other houses which are painted in black and white, and therefore difficult to distinguish from graffito. There are one or two houses at Brescia painted in colours, several at Venice, and portions of others at Vercelli. If we read the lives of Maturino and Polidoro in Vasari, we must believe that these artists nlone must have painted the fronts of a vast number of houses in Rome. Our author almost appears to intimate that the fashion went out after the sack of Rome by the army of the Constable Bourbon, when all the artists, including the two in question, had to flee. Vasari distinctly states that Maturino and Polidoro worked only in two colours — in fact, did not make regularly coloured facades like those in Venice and Brescia. He praises them for their introduction of antique ornaments, and for the invention they displayed in their figure subjects. They appear to have enjoyed great popularity, if we may judge of the number of their subjects which were engraved, and their works were executed in imitation of marble and bronze; the colours employed were principally terra verte and terretta.


Having thus described the various ways of ornamenting a fa9ade, it may perhaps be as well to add a few words about the roof. The roof can be covered with lead, slates, or tiles. If with lead, the lead can be partially tinned either before it is put up or after; it is needless to say that the former makes the best job. Remains of historiated lead-work are to be found in various parts of France, e.g. at Chalons-sur-Marne. Sometimes the tinned parts were covered, if in a sheltered place, with a thin coat of transparent oil paint, the lead being left for the outline: this occurs in the lead fliche at Amiens. Gilding is also often applied to lead, but it is not lasting, as the rain washes off the metal in course of time, leaving nothing but the coloured mordant to tell what has been there. Crestings and figures can also be made in lead, and add greatly to the beauty of the roof. They can be equally well applied to slates; which, by the way, were anciently about three times as thick as they are made in the present day. Slates can be procured of various colours, and arranged in patterns on the roofs; they can have their edges rounded, or made into an angle, or otherwise ornamented; but it may be questioned whether anything is preferable to a roof of good green slate, and if there is a good cresting there will be but little occasion either to cut the edges or to mix them with any other colour.

Tiles, also, can be made into any form, and can be coloured and glazed like any other pottery. The cathedral at Mantes possesses a roof of glazed and coloured tiles disposed in an elaborate species of Greek fret, and many of the houses at Dijon have roofs with the different coloured tiles disposed in patterns. At St. Andrea, Yercelli, the pinnacles and spires are covered with tiles in the form of truncated cones, coloured and glazed; and while upon this subject we must not forget the bronze tiles of the Pantheon, so barbarously taken away to make the hideous baldachino at St. Peter's, or the gilded tiles over the bow-window at Innspruck.

Such, then, are some of the ways by means of which our ancestors made their houses pleasant objects to themselves when living, and studies hereafter to their descendants. Now let any one go into Harley-street, Baker-street, or any other respectable thoroughfare, and look at the houses, and then ask himself whether they are either beautiful objects or things to study. Carefully looked into, they resolve themselves into very dirty brick walls, pierced with a certain number of square holes, one house exactly resembling its next neighbour. I protest, in spite of modern opinion, I like the painted stucco of Belgravia better than what is called the honest brick of Bakerstreet; the stucco can be re-painted and made clean, but hardly the brick. Although thus much may be said for the plaster, if it be once neglected it rapidly goes to the bad, for instance, the exterior wall of the Colosseum, in Albany-street, has not been painted for some time, and looks anything but what it should.

We must always bear one thing in mind, and that is the London smoke and its attendant acids and gases: it is said that its influence extends to no less a radius than forty miles, and if we wish to counteract it, we must face our dwellings with some imperishable material which will afford no lodgement for the smoke to penetrate, and which will sustain without injury a periodical cleansing by means of a fireengine.

Now marble will hardly fulfil these conditions, seeing that it has a great faculty of losing its polish and getting its surface disintegrated in this climate; thus, the celebrated Marble Arch has been twice scraped and cleaned within the last fifteen years: so that marble will not do. Granite does appear to keep its polish, but then it is very expensive, and very hard to work, and not of a very pleasant colour. Stone is not very successful: if soft, it soon decays; if hard, like Portland, it gets very white in some parts and very black in others; this parti-colour I have heard poetically compared to ebony and ivory, but I am afraid that there is more ebony than ivory, and indeed we should only be too glad to dispense with it altogether. Stone cannot be cleaned except by scraping, which involves a scaffold, and cannot be often repeated; the same objection holds good with regard to. brick or terra cotta, except that when dirty it is of a much more disagreeable colour than stone. Graffito-plaster and paintings are all open to the same objection, viz. that of getting intensely dirty, without much power of being cleaned. We have, therefore, as far as I can see, but three courses open to us: the first is, to build the window-dressings, doors, &c. in majolica, plaster the walls between, paint them with subjects, and then cover them with large sheets of plate glass: this is the first. The second would be to supply the place of the paintings covered with glass, by means of mosaics. Now these mosaics might be made in various ways: 1. they might be of glass chopped up in the regular manner, as Signer Salvieto does it; 2. or made of sticks of glass broken off short, in Mr. Fisher's manner, (see the stained glass exhibition); or they might be manufactured in earthenware and glazed. I do not think unglazed tesserae would do, as the smoke would stain them like bricks. It is by no means necessary that these mosaics should represent subjects, although it would be a gain for them to do so, on the contrary, they might be diapers, and the tesserae might be made like some discovered near Babylon, viz. in the shape of cones, with the bottom part glazed. Some system might also be found for making figures in pieces of stained glass, foiling them from behind, and then embedding them in mortar or lead. Messrs. Powell, of Whitefriars, have invented something of this kind, but I am afraid that their material would be too porous for external use. We now come to majolica, which with mosaic would, I think, solve the problem before us. It should be remembered that, thanks to Messrs. Minton and other manufacturers, we can now obtain majolica both in relief and painted; it is true that at present it is rather dear, but should an increased demand arise, it would doubtless go down in price. M. RoussePs system would give us great advantages in the pictorial part of the work, while it would rest with the manufacturers generally to give us a glaze that would not shine too much in a side light, and at the same time would stand the frost. With these advantages I really see no reason why we should not have buildings in smoky London glowing with imperishable colour, while the other processes would still be applicable in country places beyond the reach of the fumes of London. At present we are building in stone, and brick, and plaster, which we well know in a few years will be so black that no ornaments can be distinguished. With painted majolica and mosaics all this would be changed; but people can hardly be expected to spend much money on their houses as long as they know that they are building for the benefit of the landlord and not of their descendants; hence a change in the law of leasehold is the very first thing required. In the meantime, the study of the numerous beautiful objects in the South Kensington Museum and elsewhere will do a vast deal, as it has already done, for the diffusion of a correct taste both in drawing and colour; and were the study of the figure more general with ornamentistSy we might possibly arrive at good results rather sooner than we generally believe.

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