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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

 

 

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
Joukowsky_Institute@brown.edu

Walking through Providence, one inevitably encounters ironwork at every turn. Worked metal gates, fences, grates, and railings complement the buildings they surround. Often the aesthetic value of this craft lies in the intricate motifs that draw inspiration from a variety of historical periods. Ancient Greece is the dominant influence among these. In fact, one can find a design such as the meander on both an ancient pot in the RISD Museum and on an iron railing across the street. Many of these designs replicated in iron have been translated from many other contexts, such as an architectural setting. We have chosen the example of the First Unitarian Church of Providence to look at the motifs from the iron work in both interior and exterior architecture.

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The First Unitarian Church of Providence

The existing building was completed in 1816 after fire burned down the previous church. The architect, John Holden Greene, regarded it as his masterpiece, and designed it in the neoclassical style. The facade was based on the 1788 design for Boston’s New South Church, by a leading Federal style architect, Charles Bulfinch. The Federal style, which predominates in the interior as well as on the exterior, was a style popular in the early years of the new American nation based on the desire to associate the Republic with the exulted democracies of Greece and Rome. Perhaps ironically however, it drew heavily on the work of English architects such as James Gibbs and Robert Adam, whose particular influence can be seen in the flat stuccoed decoration of the interior. The building survived more or less unaltered until 1966, when a fire started by a lightning strike destroyed much of the plasterwork of the interior and exterior. Fortunately the structural fabric of the building survived due to the combination of stone walls and wooden beams, but the extent of the damage done to the plaster can be seen in the preserved remains that are exhibited on the upper floor of the church. We have used some of these fragments in our examination of classical motifs. The interior that exists today is the product of an extensive restoration project that allows Greene’s design for the church to survive.

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Urns

Pottery is a constant theme throughout ancient history against which archaeologists and historians may compare many things. There are several reasons for this; firstly, the sheer amount of pottery that still exists today surpasses any other artefact from Ancient Greece. Secondly, there is a clear evolution of the shape and decoration of pottery throughout ancient history. Therefore these artefacts can be ordered chronologically according to shape and decoration. Then, historians can place other styles, developments in architecture and cult worship, and artefacts from daily life within this timeline of pottery. Pottery was everywhere in the ancient world and can be seen today in silhouettes and motifs in decorative metalwork and architecture.

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Original wooden urn damaged in the fire of 1966

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Columns

The column is perhaps the quintessential symbol of Ancient Greek architecture. It was born out of structural necessity. However over time intricate carving and decoration transformed the column so that it served not only as a structural element, but also as an expression of beauty and grace. In the periods subsequent to ancient Greece, the revival of the column further transformed its function. The Neoclassical use of the column is purely decorative and the columns themselves serve no supportive function. The defining elements of an Ancient Grecian column include fluting, and one of three capitals; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These age old additions to the column have been imitated throughout history. In fact, a person walking down the street in Providence today could not help but be confronted by these ancient designs, even in the form of a fire hydrant.

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Allusion to the classical column is found even on lampposts and a fire hydrant in the form of fluting

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Volutes

Volutes were used by the Ancient Greeks predominantly in the capitals of Ionic order columns. They appear around the church in numerous contexts. An original plaster volute damaged by the fire can be seen, but they also appear in the flat stucco decoration above the doorways in a manner reminiscent of the ‘Adam style’. In the medium of wood they are found on the capitols of the Ionic columns in the mahogany pulpit, and on the ends of the pews. We found copious amounts of iron volutes in many contexts, and have included some of the more defined ones, including an interesting photograph that juxtaposes an iron volute lantern support with a stone volute elsewhere on the facade of the building.

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Acanthus

The acanthus leaf is the vegetative motif most associated with Ancient Greece due to its appearance on the capital of Corinthian columns. In the church, the acanthus motif existed in the original plasterwork burnt in the fire of 1966, and it can also be seen in context of the restored plasterwork. It also appears in a more naturalised form on the capitals of the four Corinthian columns in the interior. We found an interesting parallel in an iron lamppost that suggests an imitation of the Corinthian column with the upward curling volutes. There are also instances of a more exact acanthus motif, such as on the ironwork of lanterns.

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Fans

The fan motif derives from its use as part of the palmette, a representation of a palm leaf in Ancient Greece. The fan motifs that we encountered in ironwork occurred above doorways in the form of fan windows. The ironwork was needed, as glass panels the size of the whole window were not yet technologically possible. However the ironwork takes on a decorative as well as a practical function. The corresponding motifs in the church are found in the corners of the lower ceiling, and also in imitation of a fan window above the mahogany pulpit.

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Geometric Motifs

900 BCE marked the advent of the Geometric period in the Mediterranean. This period is defined by the strong elements of design that adorned everything from pottery to statuettes. These characteristic angular patterns largely consisted of “squares, triangles, lozenges, oblique strokes...battlements, zigzags and meanders” (Biers, 122). The meander resembles a squared off view of a cresting wave, and holds such aesthetic value that it is still a common decorative motif in ironwork and interior architecture.

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Clearly similar, if not identical, motifs and symbolic representations of objects from Ancient Greece have impacted centuries of architects and craftsmen. The motifs have transcended the boundaries of artistic medium, time and scale. In fact, it is impossible to avoid elements of Ancient Greek art and architecture as you walk around Providence today.

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The photos we have included of the interior focus in on specific mouldings and motifs, and do not do justice to the visually stunning interior. In order to provide a better idea of this interior, we have included a panorama of the inside of the church.

Panorama.MOV (on Vimeo.com)


Posted at Nov 06/2007 05:20PM:
Michael Bohl: By looking at urns , volutes, acanthus leaves, fans, etc., you really show how Greek archaeology is represented today beyond just the basic column. I think it is great that you looked for so many motifs and found them all over the place, it really helps make a connection.


Harry Kashdan: It's great that you investigated the heritage of Greece in iron. I've often felt like all of the neoclassical is contained in marble structures, but your project really shows that the classical designs come down to us in all sorts of materials, and gives a great new perspective on elements on the classical past we have around us today.


Posted at Nov 09/2007 12:01AM:
Carissa Racca: I have lived in Providence for almost twenty-one years and when I reviewed your project, I failed to realize how much of Greece and Rome is represented in our everyday lives. It is true that we often associate the neo-classical with stone or wood, but your project makes it clear that it has been rendered in many different forms.


Posted at Nov 09/2007 09:25AM:
Reem Yusuf:

The focus on one location contributed immensely not only in my understanding of the specific elements of the structure but also in providing a comprehensive context by presenting relating surroundings in the site. I enjoyed looking at the Greek architectural and decorative styles that were illustrated in materials other than white marble. I think you have touched on a critical point that is, the misconception of “The Greek Style” in modern time. Nevertheless, the idea of utilizing Greek objects, such as pottery, in architectural decoration that serves no function nor is put in a context, is a modern perception.


Posted at Nov 11/2007 07:54PM:
chris witmore: Excellent work Elise and Evie. Nice topic. Clear structure and you have integrated photos well.


Posted at Nov 11/2007 08:29PM:
Alicia Hernandez: I really enjoyed the structure of your project. It was interesting to see each element discussed individually, and in giving multiple examples you showed that neoclassical elements are prevelant throughout providence in various forms.


Posted at Nov 15/2007 03:07PM:
Jacob Combs: This is a great project, and you can really tell just how much work and attention you put into it. I love the detail you give about each design element and then relate to Providence rather than the other way around. Your history is comprehensive and informative. And the writing is a pleasure to read. Nice work.


Posted at Dec 04/2007 12:12AM:
Harry Anastopulos: Pottery! I didn't even think of including a discussion of pottery in my initial survey of Providence's Greek heritage. In terms of archaeological finds, pottery is everpresent and important for many reasons (material culture studies, dating, etc.). Overall, though, this is really nice work.