I may not know art, but I know what I like: Neoclassical Architecture

Let’s face it: most of us haven’t got a clue about art.  Such a short word, yet so complicated.  I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately (though I’m not sure why!) and so I decided to spend some time learning about art.  I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far.  Maybe it will be helpful to you as well!

The first thing to know is that art is like history: it’s divided into different “periods.”  In  the many parts of this series so far I’ve looked at art up to around 1760.  Most of the posts have dealt primarily with painting, but in this one, I’m going to talk mainly about architecture.  This period is called Neoclassical (“new classical”) because people at that time (between 1760-1840 or so) were becoming very interested in the many excavations of ancient sites around Europe and Asia.  Architects started created building styles based on those that were found in ancient Greek and Roman cities and towns. 

Neoclassical architecture is still seen throughout the world, even in some unlikely places.  Let’s start by looking at some of the ancient buildings that inspired the Neoclassical architects.

Greece Athens Acropolis 4

Probably the most famous of all the ancient building is the Parthenon in Athens.  This is the view from the back, coming up the hill (the Acropolis.)  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

2009 Athens Temple of Hephaistos 02

For me, though, the best place to see a Greek temple without all the crowds (AND in much better condition) is away from the Acropolis, in a little secluded place of its own.  This picture above shows that place: the Temple of Hephaestus (or Hephaistos), in Athens.  It was built in the 5th century BC.  This temple is especially important for historians because it is the only ancient Greek temple which still has its original roof, and appears essentially as it was originally built.  And it’s NEVER crowded!  

This classical style of construction was used widely throughout the ancient world.  Here are pictures of temples in other countries that used similar plans.

2007 Agrigento Temple of Concord 04

This is the Temple of Concordia, near Agrigento, on the island of Sicily, in Italy.  It was also built by the ancient Greeks in the 5th century BC and later used by the Romans, who gave it its current name.  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

These next two pictures show the stoa (covered walkway) that surrounded the agora (marketplace) of ancient Athens.

2009 Athens Ancient Greek Agora Stoa of Attalos 08

2009 Athens Ancient Greek Agora Stoa of Attalos 01

The Romans copied much of the architecture of the Greeks, as you can see in this next picture.

2010 Lebanon Baalbeck Roman Temple of Bacchus 04

Located in the Roman city of Heliopolis, in the province of Phoenice Libanensis (now Lebanon), the Temple of Bacchus was built between 250-150 BC.  The ornamentation in this temple was copied by scholars, who put those illustrations in their books.  Those books were widely read by artists throughout Europe in the Neoclassical period, and they were copied on many Neoclassical buildings across the world.  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

2009 Ephesus Library of Celsus 06

The Library of Celsus, in Ephesus, Turkey, was built in the 2nd century AD to serve as the tomb of a Roman governor of the province of Asia.  All around the tomb was built one of the largest libraries in the ancient world (only the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum were larger.)  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Rome itself has some impressive ancient buildings.  The three that were most-copied by the Neoclassical architects were the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, and the Pantheon.

Here are two views of the Colosseum.  Constructed in the 1st century AD, it remains the largest amphitheater ever built.  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

2007 Rome Colosseum 02

2008 Rome Colosseum 05

The Arch of Constantine was built in the 4th century AD to celebrate the triumph of Roman Emperor Constantine over one of his rivals.   (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

2008 Rome Arch of Constantine 10

Certainly one of the most imitated classical buildings is the Pantheon in Rome.  It was built in the 2nd century AD, and has functioned as a Christian church since the 7th century.  It was a unique construction in the ancient world: a rectangular “porch” in front, attached to a huge circular temple area behind.  This circular area (called the rotunda) features an absolutely STUNNING ceiling with an oculus, a circular opening in the center of the dome.  It may not sound so stunning to you, but the following factoids might change your mind!    Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome.  The height to the oculus from the floor and the diameter of the interior circle are exactly the same: 142 feet (43 m).  This place is an engineering masterpiece!   (UNESCO World Heritage Site)


You might be wondering why they’d leave a hole in the roof.  The oculus is large enough (27 ft/8.2 m wide) to allow the entire temple to be illuminated by natural light.  It allows rain to come in, but drains were built to carry away the water away.  And that rain cooled the building down in the summer!  The oculus also keeps the air fresh and circulated in the entire building.


Interest in the architecture of the ancient world was raised by the discovery and excavation of two ancient Roman cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 1700s.  Here are two views: the first of Herculaneum, and the second from Pompeii.  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)


Italy Pompeii 026

Since I’m never shy about expressing my opinion, I will say here that Pompeii is far more famous, but Herculaneum is MUCH more impressive (and far less crowded!)

So that’s a quick view of some of the most important buildings of the original “Classical Period“, the places that were copied by the Neoclassicists. Let’s look at what those “modern” architects came up with!

The French were great imitators of Classical architecture.  In the early 19th century, to celebrate the successes of Napoleon’s armies, the French government erected this:


However, Napoleon was sent into exile before it was finished, and it became a Roman Catholic church, known today as La Madeleine.

Napoleon also wanted a “triumphal arch” so he’d have somewhere to march through on his victory parades, and so he ordered the building of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which stands just west of the Louvre Museum.  It was designed to celebrated Napoleon’s victories of 1807, and was finished in 1808.  (This is not the Arc de Triomphe that most people think of when they think of Paris: THAT one is much larger, and is at the other end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.)


The French, however, were also copying a much more recent arch: one built by the hated Prussians in Berlin!  Yes, we’re talking here about the Brandenburger Tor, known in English as the Brandenburg Gate.  Built in the mid-1700s by Prussian King Frederick William II, the gate’s design is based upon the Propylaea, the ceremonial gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. 


And speaking of Germans…..the Neoclassical style was the one most preferred by Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Hitler even had plans drawn up for the complete renovation of Berlin (which his architect, Albert Speer, called Welthauptstadt Germania, or “World Capital Germania“.)   Most of these plans never came to fruition because the war ended badly for the Nazis, but one building that was partially completed still stands as a monument to Nazi ambitions (and was clearly influenced by the Roman Colosseum.)  This was the Kongreßhalle in Nürnberg (Nuremberg), which was intended to be the center of the annual Nazi Party rallies in that city.  Here’s an outside view, followed by a panoramic shot of the interior.



The people on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta wanted to erect a monument to a beloved leader, Sir Alexander Ball.  The monument’s design was inspired by the Temple of Hephaestus, as you can see in the photo below.  The monument was built in 1810, and is located in the Lower Barrakka Gardens, in Malta’s capital city, Valletta, and is visible from the city’s Grand Harbor.   (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Ball Monument Valetta

One of the original buildings at the University of Virginia (USA) is The Rotunda.  It was designed by Thomas Jefferson, and built between 1822-1826.  Jefferson wanted the structure to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason“, and he stated that his design was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

UVA Many of the architectural elements found in the ancient buildings we’ve looked at can be found in one of the world’s greatest art museums, the Prado in Madrid, Spain.  It was begun in 1785 and opened in 1819.


For Americans, the most recognizable Neoclassical building in the US has to be the US Capitol Building in Washington DC.  The original building was begun in 1791 and completed in 1800, though many familiar features (like the dome and the two sets of wings on either side of the original building) were added later.


Neoclassicism has always been popular in Russia.  Some of the most beautiful buildings from this period are in Russia.  I will end this post with two of my absolute favorites.

This first one is the Mikhailovsky Palace in St-Petersburg.  Built in the early 1800s, it is now the home of the State Russian Museum.   (UNESCO World Heritage Site)


St-Isaac’s Cathedral in St-Petersburg is one of the largest churches in the world.  It was built between 1818-1858.  The influence of the Classical world is evident!   (UNESCO World Heritage Site)


I hope you enjoyed this architectural tour!  In the next art post, I’ll be looking at Romanticism!

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