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Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

CHAPTER XXIV.

THE ROLL AND RECESS.

I. I have classed these two means of architectural effect together, because the one is in most cases the negative of the other, and is used to relieve it exactly as shadow relieves light; recess alternating with roll, not only in lateral, but in successive order; not merely side by side with each other, but interrupted the one by the other in their own lines. A recess itself has properly no decoration; but its depth gives value to the decoration which flanks, encloses, or interrupts it, and the form which interrupts it best is the roll.

II. I use the word roll generally for any mouldings which present to the eye somewhat the appearance of being cylindrical, and look like round rods. When upright, they are in appearance, if not in fact, small shafts; and are a kind of bent shaft, even when used in archivolts and traceries;—when horizontal, they confuse themselves with cornices, and are, in fact, generally to be considered as the best means of drawing an architectural line in any direction, the soft curve of their side obtaining some shadow at nearly all times of the day, and that more tender and grateful to the eye than can be obtained either by an incision or by any other form of projection.

III. Their decorative power is, however, too slight for rich work, and they frequently require, like the angle and the fillet, to be rendered interesting by subdivision or minor ornament of their own. When the roll is small, this is effected, exactly as in the case of the fillet, by cutting pieces out of it; giving in the simplest results what is called the Norman billet moulding: and when the cuts are given in couples, and the pieces rounded into spheres and almonds, we have the ordinary 277 Greek bead, both of them too well known to require illustration. The Norman billet we shall not meet with in Venice; the bead constantly occurs in Byzantine, and of course in Renaissance work. In Plate IX., Fig. 17, there is a remarkable example of its early treatment, where the cuts in it are left sharp.

IV. But the roll, if it be of any size, deserves better treatment. Its rounded surface is too beautiful to be cut away in notches; and it is rather to be covered with flat chasing or inlaid patterns. Thus ornamented, it gradually blends itself with the true shaft, both in the Romanesque work of the North, and in the Italian connected schools; and the patterns used for it are those used for shaft decoration in general.

V. But, as alternating with the recess, it has a decoration peculiar to itself. We have often, in the preceding chapters, noted the fondness of the Northern builders for deep shade and hollowness in their mouldings; and in the second chapter of the “Seven Lamps,” the changes are described which reduced the massive roll mouldings of the early Gothic to a series of recesses, separated by bars of light. The shape of these recesses is at present a matter of no importance to us: it was, indeed, endlessly varied; but needlessly, for the value of a recess is in its darkness, and its darkness disguises its form. But it was not in mere wanton indulgence of their love of shade that the Flamboyant builders deepened the furrows of their mouldings: they had found a means of decorating those furrows as rich as it was expressive, and the entire frame-work of their architecture was designed with a view to the effect of this decoration; where the ornament ceases, the frame-work is meagre and mean: but the ornament is, in the best examples of the style, unceasing.

VI. It is, in fact, an ornament formed by the ghosts or anatomies of the old shafts, left in the furrows which had taken their place. Every here and there, a fragment of a roll or shaft is left in the recess or furrow: a billet-moulding on a huge scale, but a billet-moulding reduced to a skeleton; for the fragments of roll are cut hollow, and worked into mere 278 entanglement of stony fibres, with the gloom of the recess shown through them. These ghost rolls, forming sometimes pedestals, sometimes canopies, sometimes covering the whole recess with an arch of tracery, beneath which it runs like a tunnel, are the peculiar decorations of the Flamboyant Gothic.

VII. Now observe, in all kinds of decoration, we must keep carefully under separate heads, the consideration of the changes wrought in the mere physical form, and in the intellectual purpose of ornament. The relations of the canopy to the statue it shelters, are to be considered altogether distinctly from those of the canopy to the building which it decorates. In its earliest conditions the canopy is partly confused with representations of miniature architecture: it is sometimes a small temple or gateway, sometimes a honorary addition to the pomp of a saint, a covering to his throne, or to his shrine; and this canopy is often expressed in bas-relief (as in painting), without much reference to the great requirements of the building. At other times it is a real protection to the statue, and is enlarged into a complete pinnacle, carried on proper shafts, and boldly roofed. But in the late northern system the canopies are neither expressive nor protective. They are a kind of stone lace-work, required for the ornamentation of the building, for which the statues are often little more than an excuse, and of which the physical character is, as above described, that of ghosts of departed shafts.

VIII. There is, of course, much rich tabernacle work which will not come literally under this head, much which is straggling or flat in its plan, connecting itself gradually with the ordinary forms of independent shrines and tombs; but the general idea of all tabernacle work is marked in the common phrase of a “niche,” that is to say a hollow intended for a statue, and crowned by a canopy; and this niche decoration only reaches its full development when the Flamboyant hollows are cut deepest, and when the manner and spirit of sculpture had so much lost their purity and intensity that it became desirable to draw the eye away from the statue to its covering, so that at last the canopy became the more important of 279 the two, and is itself so beautiful that we are often contented with architecture from which profanity has struck the statues, if only the canopies are left; and consequently, in our modern ingenuity, even set up canopies where we have no intention of setting statues.

IX. It is a pity that thus we have no really noble example of the effect of the statue in the recesses of architecture: for the Flamboyant recess was not so much a preparation for it as a gulf which swallowed it up. When statues were most earnestly designed, they were thrust forward in all kinds of places, often in front of the pillars, as at Amiens, awkwardly enough, but with manly respect to the purpose of the figures. The Flamboyant hollows yawned at their sides, the statues fell back into them, and nearly disappeared, and a flash of flame in the shape of a canopy rose as they expired.

X. I do not feel myself capable at present of speaking with perfect justice of this niche ornament of the north, my late studies in Italy having somewhat destroyed my sympathies with it. But I once loved it intensely, and will not say anything to depreciate it now, save only this, that while I have studied long at Abbeville, without in the least finding that it made me care less for Verona, I never remained long in Verona without feeling some doubt of the nobility of Abbeville.

XI. Recess decoration by leaf mouldings is constantly and beautifully associated in the north with niche decoration, but requires no special notice, the recess in such cases being used merely to give value to the leafage by its gloom, and the difference between such conditions and those of the south being merely that in the one the leaves are laid across a hollow, and in the other over a solid surface; but in neither of the schools exclusively so, each in some degree intermingling the method of the other.

XII. Finally the recess decoration by the ball flower is very definite and characteristic, found, I believe, chiefly in English work. It consists merely in leaving a small boss or sphere, fixed, as it were, at intervals in the hollows; such 280 bosses being afterwards carved into roses, or other ornamental forms, and sometimes lifted quite up out of the hollow, on projecting processes, like vertebr´┐Ż, so as to make them more conspicuous, as throughout the decoration of the cathedral of Bourges.

The value of this ornament is chiefly in the spotted character which it gives to the lines of mouldings seen from a distance. It is very rich and delightful when not used in excess; but it would satiate and weary the eye if it were ever used in general architecture. The spire of Salisbury, and of St. Mary’s at Oxford, are agreeable as isolated masses; but if an entire street were built with this spotty decoration at every casement, we could not traverse it to the end without disgust. It is only another example of the constant aim at piquancy of effect which characterised the northern builders; an ingenious but somewhat vulgar effort to give interest to their grey masses of coarse stone, without overtaking their powers either of invention or execution. We will thank them for it without blame or praise, and pass on.


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