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Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

CHAPTER XXIX.

THE ROOF.

I. The modes of decoration hitherto considered, have been common to the exteriors and interiors of all noble buildings; and we have taken no notice of the various kinds of ornament which require protection from weather, and are necessarily confined to interior work. But in the case of the roof, the exterior and interior treatments become, as we saw in construction, so also in decoration, separated by broad and bold distinctions. One side of a wall is, in most cases, the same as another, and if its structure be concealed, it is mostly on the inside; but, in the roof, the anatomical structure, out of which decoration should naturally spring, is visible, if at all, in the interior only: so that the subject of internal ornament becomes both wide and important, and that of external, comparatively subordinate.

II. Now, so long as we were concerned principally with the outside of buildings, we might with safety leave expressional character out of the question for the time, because it is not to be expected that all persons who pass the building, or see it from a distance, shall be in the temper which the building is properly intended to induce; so that ornaments somewhat at variance with this temper may often be employed externally without painful effect. But these ornaments would be inadmissible in the interior, for those who enter will for the most part either be in the proper temper which the building requires, or desirous of acquiring it. (The distinction is not rigidly observed by the mediļæ½val builders, and grotesques, or profane subjects, occur in the interior of churches, in bosses, crockets, capitals, brackets, and such other portions of minor 344 ornament: but we do not find the interior wall covered with hunting and battle pieces, as often the Lombardic exteriors.) And thus the interior expression of the roof or ceiling becomes necessarily so various, and the kind and degree of fitting decoration so dependent upon particular circumstances, that it is nearly impossible to classify its methods, or limit its application.

III. I have little, therefore, to say here, and that touching rather the omission than the selection of decoration, as far as regards interior roofing. Whether of timber or stone, roofs are necessarily divided into surfaces, and ribs or beams;—surfaces, flat or carved; ribs, traversing these in the directions where main strength is required; or beams, filling the hollow of the dark gable with the intricate roof-tree, or supporting the flat ceiling. Wherever the ribs and beams are simply and unaffectedly arranged, there is no difficulty about decoration; the beams may be carved, the ribs moulded, and the eye is satisfied at once; but when the vaulting is unribbed, as in plain waggon vaults and much excellent early Gothic, or when the ceiling is flat, it becomes a difficult question how far their services may receive ornamentation independent of their structure. I have never myself seen a flat ceiling satisfactorily decorated, except by painting: there is much good and fanciful panelling in old English domestic architecture, but it always is in some degree meaningless and mean. The flat ceilings of Venice, as in the Scuola di San Rocco and Ducal Palace, have in their vast panellings some of the noblest paintings (on stretched canvas) which the world possesses: and this is all very well for the ceiling; but one would rather have the painting in a better place, especially when the rain soaks through its canvas, as I have seen it doing through many a noble Tintoret. On the whole, flat ceilings are as much to be avoided as possible; and, when necessary, perhaps a panelled ornamentation with rich colored patterns is the most satisfying, and loses least of valuable labor. But I leave the question to the reader’s thought, being myself exceedingly undecided respecting it: except only touching one point—that a blank ceiling is not to be redeemed by a decorated ventilator.

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IV. I have a more confirmed opinion, however, respecting the decoration of curved surfaces. The majesty of a roof is never, I think, so great, as when the eye can pass undisturbed over the course of all its curvatures, and trace the dying of the shadows along its smooth and sweeping vaults. And I would rather, myself, have a plain ridged Gothic vault, with all its rough stones visible, to keep the sleet and wind out of a cathedral aisle, than all the fanning and pendanting and foliation that ever bewildered Tudor weight. But mosaic or fresco may of course be used as far as we can afford or obtain them; for these do not break the curvature. Perhaps the most solemn roofs in the world are the apse conchas of the Romanesque basilicas, with their golden ground and severe figures. Exactly opposed to these are the decorations which disturb the serenity of the curve without giving it interest, like the vulgar panelling of St. Peter’s and the Pantheon; both, I think, in the last degree detestable.

V. As roofs internally may be divided into surfaces and ribs, externally they may be divided into surfaces, and points, or ridges; these latter often receiving very bold and distinctive ornament. The outside surface is of small importance in central Europe, being almost universally low in slope, and tiled throughout Spain, South France, and North Italy: of still less importance where it is flat, as a terrace; as often in South Italy and the East, mingled with low domes: but the larger Eastern and Arabian domes become elaborate in ornamentation: I cannot speak of them with confidence; to the mind of an inhabitant of the north, a roof is a guard against wild weather; not a surface which is forever to bask in serene heat, and gleam across deserts like a rising moon. I can only say, that I have never seen any drawing of a richly decorated Eastern dome that made me desire to see the original.

VI. Our own northern roof decoration is necessarily simple. Colored tiles are used in some cases with quaint effect; but I believe the dignity of the building is always greater when the roof is kept in an undisturbed mass, opposing itself to the variegation and richness of the walls. The Italian 346 round tile is itself decoration enough, a deep and rich fluting, which all artists delight in; this, however, is fitted exclusively for low pitch of roofs. On steep domestic roofs, there is no ornament better than may be obtained by merely rounding, or cutting to an angle, the lower extremities of the flat tiles or shingles, as in Switzerland: thus the whole surface is covered with an appearance of scales, a fish-like defence against water, at once perfectly simple, natural, and effective at any distance; and the best decoration of sloping stone roofs, as of spires, is a mere copy of this scale armor; it enriches every one of the spires and pinnacles of the cathedral of Coutances, and of many Norman and early Gothic buildings. Roofs covered or edged with lead have often patterns designed upon the lead, gilded and relieved with some dark color, as on the house of Jaques Cœur at Bourges; and I imagine the effect of this must have been singularly delicate and beautiful, but only traces of it now remain. The northern roofs, however, generally stand in little need of surface decoration, the eye being drawn to the fantastic ranges of their dormer windows, and to the finials and fringes on their points and ridges.

VII. Whether dormer windows are legitimately to be classed as decorative features, seems to me to admit of doubt. The northern spire system is evidently a mere elevation and exaggeration of the domestic turret with its look-out windows, and one can hardly part with the grotesque lines of the projections, though nobody is to be expected to live in the spire: but, at all events, such windows are never to be allowed in places visibly inaccessible, or on less than a natural and serviceable scale.

VIII. Under the general head of roof-ridge and point decoration, we may include, as above noted, the entire race of fringes, finials, and crockets. As there is no use in any of these things, and as they are visible additions and parasitical portions of the structure, more caution is required in their use than in any other features of ornament, and the architect and spectator must both be in felicitous humor before they can be 347 well designed or thoroughly enjoyed. They are generally most admirable where the grotesque Northern spirit has most power; and I think there is almost always a certain spirit of playfulness in them, adverse to the grandest architectural effects, or at least to be kept in severe subordination to the serener character of the prevalent lines. But as they are opposed to the seriousness of majesty on the one hand, so they are to the weight of dulness on the other; and I know not any features which make the contrast between continental domestic architecture, and our own, more humiliatingly felt, or which give so sudden a feeling of new life and delight, when we pass from the streets of London to those of Abbeville or Rouen, as the quaint points and pinnacles of the roof gables and turrets. The commonest and heaviest roof may be redeemed by a spike at the end of it, if it is set on with any spirit; but the foreign builders have (or had, at least) a peculiar feeling in this, and gave animation to the whole roof by the fringe of its back, and the spike on its forehead, so that all goes together, like the dorsal fins and spines of a fish: but our spikes have a dull, screwed on, look; a far-off relationship to the nuts of machinery; and our roof fringes are sure to look like fenders, as if they were meant to catch ashes out of the London smoke-clouds.

IX. Stone finials and crockets are, I think, to be considered in architecture, what points and flashes of light are in the color of painting, or of nature. There are some landscapes whose best character is sparkling, and there is a possibility of repose in the midst of brilliancy, or embracing it,—as on the fields of summer sea, or summer land:

“Calm, and deep peace, on this high wold,

And on the dews that drench the furze,

And on the silvery gossamers,

That twinkle into green and gold.”

And there are colorists who can keep their quiet in the midst of a jewellery of light; but, for the most part, it is better to avoid breaking up either lines or masses by too many points, 348 and to make the few points used exceedingly precious. So the best crockets and finials are set, like stars, along the lines, and at the points, which they adorn, with considerable intervals between them, and exquisite delicacy and fancy of sculpture in their own designs; if very small, they may become more frequent, and describe lines by a chain of points; but their whole value is lost if they are gathered into bunches or clustered into tassels and knots; and an over-indulgence in them always marks lowness of school. In Venice, the addition of the finial to the arch-head is the first sign of degradation; all her best architecture is entirely without either crockets or finials; and her ecclesiastical architecture may be classed, with fearless accuracy, as better or worse, in proportion to the diminution or expansion of the crocket. The absolutely perfect use of the crocket is found, I think, in the tower of Giotto, and in some other buildings of the Pisan school. In the North they generally err on one side or other, and are either florid and huge, or mean in outline, looking as if they had been pinched out of the stonework, as throughout the entire cathedral of Amiens; and are besides connected with the generally spotty system which has been spoken of under the head of archivolt decoration.

X. Employed, however, in moderation, they are among the most delightful means of delicate expression; and the architect has more liberty in their individual treatment than in any other feature of the building. Separated entirely from the structural system, they are subjected to no shadow of any other laws than those of grace and chastity; and the fancy may range without rebuke, for materials of their design, through the whole field of the visible or imaginable creation.


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