A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture

A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture

by William Chambers

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“The most sensible book and the most exempt from prejudice that ever was written in that science.” — Horace Walpole.
Born in Stockholm to Scottish parents, taken to London at the age of two and then on to India, William Chambers (1723-96) later studied architecture in Italy and France before finally settling in London. There he gained royal favor as the tutor in architecture of the Prince of Wales (later George III), which proved to be a definite asset throughout his career.
His Treatise, originally published in 1791, was reprinted 32 years later with additional illustrations, articles, and an introduction discussing the qualifications and duties of an architect. This beautifully illustrated reproduction of the rare 1791 edition — originally designed to aid students in their study of architecture — contains 55 superbly engraved, fine-line plates displaying ornate compartments for coved ceilings; plans and elevations of pilaster capitals; pedestals for columns; arches; balusters; and other architectural features.
An extremely influential book on British architectural practices of the eighteenth century, it is still widely regarded as the standard English text on the subject.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486146973
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 10/30/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 10 MB

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A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture

By William Chambers

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14697-3


Of the Origin, and Progress of BUILDING.

Buildings were certainly among the first wants of mankind; and architecture must, undoubtedly be classed, among the earliest antediluvian arts. Scripture informs us, that Cain built a city: and soon after the deluge, we hear of many cities; and of an attempt to build a tower that should reach the sky: a miracle stopped the progress, and prevented the completion of that bold design.

The first men, living in a warm climate, wanted no habitations: every grove afforded shade from the rays of the sun, and shelter from the dews of the night; rain fell but seldom, nor was it ever sufficiently cold, to render closer dwellings than groves, either desirable or necessary, even in the hours of repose: they fed upon the spontaneous productions of the soil, and lived without care, as without labour.

But when the human species increased, and the produce of the earth, however luxuriant, was insufficient to supply the requisite food; when frequent disappointments drew on contention, with all its train of calamities, then separation became, necessary; and colonies dispersed to different regions: where frequent rain, storms and piercing cold, forced the inhabitants to seek for better shelter than trees.

At first they most likely retired to caverns, formed by nature in rocks; to hollow trunks of trees; or to holes, dug by themselves in the earth; but soon disgusted with the damp and darkness of these habitations, they began to search after more wholesome and comfortable dwellings.

The animal creation pointed out both materials, and manners of construction; swallows, rooks, bees, storks; were the first builders: man observed their instinctive operations, he admired; he imitated; and being endued with reasoning faculties, and of a structure suited to mechanical purposes, he soon outdid his masters in the builder's art.

Rude and unseemly, no doubt, were the first attempts; without experience or tools, the builder collected a few boughs of trees, spread them in a conick shape, and covering them with rushes, or leaves and clay; formed his hut: sufficient to shelter its hardy inhabitants at night, or in seasons of bad weather. But in the course of time, men naturally grew more expert; they invented tools to shorten and improve labour; fell upon neater, more durable modes of construction; and forms, better adapted than the cone, to the purposes for which their huts were intended. They felt the want of convenient habitations, wherein to taste the comforts of privacy, to rest securely, and be effectually screened from troublesome excesses of weathers. They wanted room to exercise the arts, to which necessity had given birth; to deposit the grain, that agriculture enabled them to raise in abundance; to secure the flocks, which frequent disappointments in the chace, had forced them to collect and domesticate. Thus stimulated, their fancy and hands, went arduously to work, and the progress of improvement was rapid.

That the primitive hut was of a conick figure, it is reasonable to conjecture; from its being the simplest of solid forms: and most easily constructed. And wherever wood was found, they probably built in the manner above described; but, soon as the inhabitants discovered the inconvenience of the inclined sides, and the want of upright space in the cone; they changed it for the cube: and, as it is supposed, proceeded in the following manner.

Having, fays Vitruvius, marked out the space to be occupied by the hut $ they fixed in the ground, several upright trunks of trees, to form the sides; filling the intervals between them with branches, closely interwoven, and spread over with clay. The sides thus compleated, four beams were laid on the upright trunks; which being well fastned together at the angles of their junction, kept the sides firm; and likewise served to support the covering or roof of the building; composed of smaller trees, placed horizontally, like joists: upon which were laid several beds of reeds, leaves, and earth or clay.

By degrees, other improvements took place; and means were found to make the fabrick lasting, neat, and handsome: as well as convenient. The bark and other protuberances were taken from the trees that formed the sides, these trees were raised above the dirt and humidity on stones; were covered at the top with other stones; and firmly bound round at both ends with ozier or cords, to secure them from splitting. The spaces between the joists of the roof, were closed up with clay or wax, and the ends of them either smoothed, or covered with boards. The different beds of materials that composed the covering, were cut straight at the eaves, and distinguished from each other by different projections. The form of the roof too, was altered; for being, on account of its flatness, unfit to throw off the rains which sometimes fell in great abundance; it was raised in the middle, on trees disposed like rafters; after the form of a gable roof.

This construction, simple as it appears, probably gave birth to most of the parts that now adorn our buildings; particularly to the orders; which may be considered as the basis, of the whole decorative part of architecture: for when structures of wood were set aside, and men began to erect solid, stately edifices of stone; having nothing nearer to imitate, they naturally copied the parts, which necessity introduced in the primitive hut; insomuch that the upright trees, with the stones and cordage at each end of them, were the origin of columns, bases, and capitals; the beams and joists, gave rise to architraves and frizes; with their triglyphs, and metopes: and the gable roof, was the origin of pediments; as the beds of materials forming the covering, and the rafters supporting them, were of cornices; with their corona, their mutules, modillions, and dentils.

That trees were the originals of columns seems evident, from some very ancient Egyptian ruins still existing; in which are seen columns composed of many small trees tied together with bandages, to form one strong pillar; which, before stone was in use, became a necessary operation in a country, where no large timber was to be had; and in which, the stupendous size of their structures, constituted the principal merit. Herodotus describes a stately stone building, which stood in the court of the temple of Minerva at Sais, the columns of which were made to imitate palm trees.

The form of the bundle pillar abovementioned, though deriving its existence from necessity, is far from disagreeable; it was evidently a beauty in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, since it was imitated by them in stone: and it seems more natural to suppose, that fluted columns, owe their origin to the intermediate hollows, between the trees composing these pillars, than to the folds of a woman's garment; to which they have but very little resemblance.

Vitruvius, the only remaining ancient writer upon the decorative part of architecture, ascribes almost every invention in that art to the Greeks: as if till the time of Dorus, it had remained in its infant state; and nothing had till then appeared worth notice. And most, if not all the modern authors, have ecchoed the same doctrine. Yet, if ancient history be credited, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and other nations of remote antiquity, had exhibited wonders in the art of building, even before the Grecians were a people.

It must indeed be confessed, that though the works of the Asiatick nations were astonishing in point of size and extent, yet in other respects they were of a nature, calculated rather to give a high idea of the power and wealth of the founders, than of their skill or taste. We plainly fee that all their notions of grandeur were confined to dimension; and all their ideas of elegance or beauty, to richness of materials, or gaudiness of colouring. We observe a barrenness of fancy in their compositions; a simplicity and sameness in their forms; peculiar to primitive inventions; but, even in the early works of the Egyptians, beside their prodigious dimensions; there are evident marks of taste and fancy; it is in them we trace the first ornamental forms in architecture, and to their builders we are most probably indebted for the invention of columns, bases, capitals and entablatures. We likewise read of roofs, supported by figures of Colossal men and animals in the works of the Egyptians, several ages before the introduction of Persians or Caryatides, in the structures of Greece: and of temples, adorned with stately porticos; enriched with columns, and sculpture; and built, before there were any temples in Greece.

Hence it may be inferred that the Grecians were not the inventors of ornamental architecture, but had that art, as well as their religion and gods, from the Egyptians: or from the Phoenicians their nearer neighbours, whose skill in arts is said to have been anterior to theirs. Though both were of Egyptian origin.

Diodorus Siculus observes, that the Egyptian priests proved, both by their sacred records, and also by other undoubted testimonies; that not only the poets and philosophers of Greece, travelled anciently into Egypt, to collect their knowledge; but also their architects and sculptors, and that every thing in which the Grecians excelled, and for which they were famous; was originally carried from Egypt into Greece.

The Phoenicians however were very early celebrated for their proficiency in the arts of design; and there is no doubt, but the Greeks availed themselves of their inventions.

We are told that Hiram made two capitals for the pillars Jachin, and Boaz, in Solomon's temple; which, far as can be collected, from the accounts given of them in several parts of scripture, very much resembled the Corinthian capitals, both in form and proportions; though executed some centuries before Calimachus, is reported by Vitruvius, to have invented it at Corinth. The cherubims of Hiram too, or the Colossal figures of men and animals, in the structures of the Egyptians, were prior inventions; and undoubtedly suggested to the Greeks, their ideas of Persians and Caryatides.

And though architecture is certainly indebted to the Grecians, for considerable improvements; yet, it may with confidence be averred, that they never brought the art to its utmost degree of excellence. The art of building, says Leon Baptista Alberti, "sprung up, and spent its adolescent state in Asia; after a certain time, "it flowered in Greece; and finally acquired perfect maturity in Italy; among the "Romans." And whether we call to mind, the descriptions given by ancient writers of Nineveh, Babylon, Thebes, Memphis; the Egyptian pyramids, the sepulchres of their kings, their temples and other publick monuments: or contemplate, among the Roman works; their palaces, amphitheatres, baths, villas, bridges, mausoleums and numerous other, yet existing, testimonies of their splendor; it must candidly be confessed, that the Grecians have been far excelled by other nations, not only in the magnitude and grandeur of their structures, but likewise in point of fancy, ingenuity, variety, and elegant selection.

How distant the Grecians were from perfection in proportions, in the art of profiling, and other parts of the detail; will soon be evident to any impartial examiner, who compares the publications of Le Roi, Stewart, Revett, and other ingenious Levantine travellers; with the antiquities of the Romans: either on the spot, or as they have been given in books; by Palladio, Serlio, Desgodetz, Sandrart, Piranesi, and other authors. The last of those here mentioned, has published a parallel, between the fairest monuments of Greece and Rome; which is recommended to the inspection and perusal, of those who have not yet seen it.

Indeed, none of the few things now existing in Greece, though so pompously described, and neatly represented, in various publications of our time; seem to deserve great notice; either for dimension, grandeur of stile, rich fancy, or elegant taste of design; nor do they seem calculated to throw new light upon the art, or to contribute towards its advancement: not even those erected by Pericles or Alexander; while the Grecian arts flourished most; neither the famous lantern of Demosthenes, nor the more famous Parthenon; which, though not so considerable as the church of St. Martin, in St. Martin's Lane, exclusive of its elegant spire; had for its architects, Phidias, Callicrates, and Ictinus; was the boast of Athens; excited the envy and murmurs of all Greece. We find indeed, in Pliny, and other ancient writers, very pompous descriptions of temples, such as, that of Apollo at Miletus; of Ceres and Proserpine at Eleuses; of the Olympian Jupiter at Athens; and above all, of Diana at Ephesus; one of the seven wonders of the world. But if the Grecian architecture was defective in the time of Alexander, it must have been more so some centuries earlier: and concerning temples built in bogs, and founded upon wool, to resist earthquakes; and of which, the stones were set with sand bags; some doubts may be indulged: as well as of those made of wax, yet resisting the ardor of a Grecian Sun; or those of brass, yet catching fire and melting down.

At first fight, it may appear extraordinary, that a people so renowned in arms; so celebrated for poetry, rhetorick, and every fort of polite learning; and who carried sculpture farther than any of the ancient nations; should be so deficient in architecture: yet upon farther consideration, many reasons will occur why it necessarily should be so.—Greece, a country small in itself, was divided into a number of little states; none of them very powerful, populous, or rich: so that they could attempt, no very considerable works in architecture; having neither the space, the hands, nor the treasures that would have been necessary. "It must be "owned, says Monsieur D'Ablancourt, that Greece, even in the zenith of her "greatness, had more ambition than power: we find Athens flattering herself with "the conquest of the universe, yet unable to defend her own territories, against the "incursions of her neighbours: and who can refrain from laughter at the "Lacedemonians; rivals in same with the Athenians; yet, in despair, and reduced to sue "for peace; by the loss of four hundred men."—The lake of Moeris would have deluged all Peloponnesus, and ruined all Greece; Babylon would have covered Attica, and more men had been employed to build that city, than there were inhabitants in all the Grecian states. The Egyptian labyrinth, was a hundred times larger than that of Crete; and more materials have been employed in one of the Egyptian pyramids, than were used in all the publick structures of Athens.

If, at the same time it be recollected, that Greece, while divided into many governments, was constantly harrassed with domestick wars, and from its union, always in an unsettled situation. That, an uncommon simplicity of manners prevailed among the Grecian states; and the strictest maxims of equality, were zealously adhered to in most of them; it will be easy to account for the small progress made by the Greeks in architecture. Demosthenes observes, that the houses of Aristides, Miltiades, or any other of the great men of their time; were no finer than those of their neighbours: such was their moderation, and so steadily did they adhere to the ancient manners of their country. One of the laws of Lycurgus ordained, that the ceilings of houses should only be wrought by an ax; and their gates and doors be left rough from the saw; no other tools than these, being permitted: which law, was so scrupulously observed among the Lacedemonians; that when King Leotychidas, saw at Corinth a ceiling, of which the timbers were neatly wrought; it was so new a fight to him, that he asked his host, if trees grew square in that country. It seems indeed, as if these sumptuary laws of Lycurgus, had made a general impression; and inspired the Greeks, rather with contempt than veneration, for splendid structures: even in their best time, they accounted it an effeminate folly, to be ostentatious in that respect. "All the states of Greece, fays Plutarch, "clamoured loudly against Pericles for decorating Athens like a vain fantastick "woman, and adorning it with statues and temples, which cost a thousand "talents."

What magnificence the Grecians displayed in their structures, was confined to their publick buildings; which were chiefly temples: wherein there appears to have been nothing very surprising, either for dimensions; ingenuity of contrivance; or excellence of workmanship. Greece, almost constantly the theatre of war; abounded not like Italy, in magnificent villas; where the richest productions of art were displayed. Their publick roads were not adorned with mausoleums, to commemorate their heroes; nor the towns, with arches or bridges to celebrate their triumphs. The Grecian theatres were inconsiderable, compared with those of the Romans; the numachiae and amphitheatres, unknown amongst them; as were also the thermini, in which the Romans affected so much splendor.

In latter times indeed the Greeks, particularly the Athenians; abated of their original severity; the orator abovementioned observes, that in his time, there were some private houses more magnificent than publick edifices: but this does not appear to have been very common, and consequently could not be productive of much additional splendor; even Alcibiades, the most luxurious Greek of his time; for he was accused of wearing a purple cloak, and of sleeping upon a bed with a canvas bottom; doth not seem to have been better lodged, than other Athenians; excepting, that his house was painted.


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Table of Contents


Of the Origin, and Progress of BUILDING.,
Of the Parts which compose the Orders of Architecture, and of their Properties, Application, and Enrichments.,
Dover Books on Art and Art History,
Medieval Art through Eighteenth-Century Art,
Nineteenth-Century Art,
Pictorial Archive,

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