During the mid eighteenth century, a turn away from the ornamentation and asymmetry of the Rococo and the Baroque led to an interest in a revived, more pure form of art and architecture. Enlightenment ideals were being disseminated across Europe aided by the 1751-72 publication of the thirty-five-volume strong Encyclopédie and rationale was becoming a key player in the minds of individuals. Diderot’s hesitation over whether to place architecture under the faculty of reason or that of imagination reopened an ancient debate about what the ultimate role of architecture was. Fewer religious buildings were being erected, and the focus was instead turned toward secular buildings with civic or industrial function. Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? coined the phrase sapere aude, or ‘dare to know’ further illustrating the importance science and intellect took on in this period.
Grand Tours had become popular post-university undertakings amongst the wealthy and noble in the UK and Northern Europe, with the men, or ladies with chaperones, visiting Le Havre, Paris, Geneva, Turin, Florence, Padua, Bologna, Venice and Rome. The more illustrious adventures would lead to Naples and the recently discovered archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and then to Greece. This young population gained exposure to ancient traditions and ways of life, bringing classical architectural theory back to Northern Europe upon their return. Books, paintings and sketchbooks were copied and ideas utilised, possibly inspiring Johann Joachim Winkelmann’s Thoughts on Imitation of Greek Works of 1950, in which he stated ‘The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients.’ Responding to all these factors, the Neo- (or new) Classical style was born.
A leading example of the Neoclassical style can be seen in Louis XV’s votive church Sainte Geneviève, Paris by Jacques Germain Soufflot, begun 1757 (re-named Panthéon 1791). This harks back to many elements of classical architecture, including the dome reminiscent of the Pantheon, from where the building gets its most recent name, and the richly detailed Corinthian portico, that indicates the entrance. Juxtaposing it to a church from the same period, Wies Pilgrimage Church, we can see the profound difference between the Baroque style that still pervaded in Austria, and the Revolutionary style that Louis XV’s votive church to Sainte Genevieve emanates. Architect Dominikus Zimmermann bestowed the Wies Church with gold ornamentation, stucco curling off the architectural elements, depressed arches that deceive the eye in a rather Baroque manner, and an altar that combines classical columns with tall bases that stretch up the height of the altar in an un-classical manner.
An extreme example of Neoclassicism is Colen Campbell’s Mereworth Castle, Kent. Building it in 1720s, Campbell clearly took influence from Andrea Palladio’s Villa Rotonda of 1570. The six column wide Ionic porticoes that are situated on each of the four sides and the dome feature in the centre of a square floor plan are just a few of the features that are identical to Rotonda. This style of imitating the work by architect Andrea Palladio from his Quattro libri dell’architettura is not uncommon, and in fact it has coined its own name — Neo-Palladianism. Robert Adam’s north facade for his great manor house near Derby — Kedleston Hall — is an astonishing representation of the Neo-Palladian style, with its massive six-columned Corinthian portico whose pediment hides the dome surmounting the southern central saloon.
As Michael Kitson quite rightly says, ‘Neoclassicism, in sharp contrast to the Rococo, was deeply inspired by theory. Perhaps it is the only movement in the history of art to have been brought into being by critics, philosophers and connoisseurs rather than artists.’ This is what makes Neoclassicism stand out from other eras of art and architecture, in its associations with societal and political context of the time. It was the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Grand Tourism, and the uprising of Napoleon in France, which all led to the development and materialisation of the profound Neo-Classical style. Even after Stuart and Revett’s first volume of The Antiquity of Athens was published in 1762, Leroy stated that the Greeks were surpassable. Just as their style, the Classical, was a harmonious moment on a longer development continuum, so too was contemporary architecture. Copies didn’t need to be made of Classical architecture, as Campbell had done with Mereworth, but instead there was room for the Classical to be interpolated. Neoclassicism didn’t have to simply be a copy, but instead an invention.
First Year Art Historian at Cambridge University and Intern at Private Art Education.