Books

Monuments to victory and loss

This is a beautifully illustrated, handsomely printed and thorough, scholarly exposition of the triumphal arch

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


The Roman monumental arch (the term arcus triumphalis only occurs quite late in the Imperial period, notably on two of the many arches erected in North Africa, in what is now Algeria, one at Cirta, of the time of Caracalla (reigned 212-17), and another at Cuicul, built under Severus Alexander (r. 222-35), was a type of formal gateway, set over an axis in commemoration of an event or an individual, through which processions would pass.

The Triumphal Arch by Peter Howell, Unicorn, £50

Many were temporary structures, but several permanent exemplars have survived which have had an immense influence on architectural composition until comparatively recent times. One of their chief functions was to support statuary, notably the quadriga, a chariot pulled by four animals (usually horses), and driven by the individual commemorated.

An influential survivor is the arch of Titus (r. 79-81), Rome, consisting of a massive rectangular structure through which is driven one large arched opening. Engaged with the arcuated block is a Composite Order on a pedestal, and above the entablature of that Order is an attic storey with panels containing the inscriptions.

The coffered vault over the processional path springs from cornices under which are elaborate reliefs, one showing Titus’s Triumph of 71, the Emperor on his quadriga, crowned by Victory, and the other featuring a procession carrying the spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem, including the seven-branched menorah, silver trumpets, and the table with sacred vessels. Now the Order, with its very wide spacing, would make no æsthetic or structural sense on its own, but attached to masonry, especially arcuated forms, it proved to be a potent model for Renaissance architects.

An even grander type of structure was that with a wide central arched opening flanked by two smaller and lower arches, as in the arch of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211), Rome, dedicated in 203, where the inscriptions extend the full width of the attic, and the Order is not engaged, but detached, standing proud of the masonry behind. However, this arch did not actually straddle a road, but stood on a platform reached by steps.

The essence of the form recurs in town gates, altarpieces, funerary monuments, entrances to great estates, façades of great houses

A further, even more elaborate version of the triple-arched type was the arch of Constantine, Rome (c. 315). These two three-arched precedents provided models for Marble Arch, London (1825 — designed by John Nash, originally intended as a grand gateway in front of Buckingham Palace), and for one of the most perfect triumphal arches ever built, the beautiful polychromatic Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Paris (1806-8), designed by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine and Charles Percier-Bassant, the two architects mostly responsible tor establishing the Empire style, though Percier’s part is not acknowledged by Peter Howell in The Triumphal Arch. Dominique Vivant Denon supervised the artistic embellishments. The Carrousel arch differs from the Roman exemplars in that it has a secondary axis at right angles to the main one: arched passages cut through the main elements on either side of the central arch.

A further, brilliant metamorphosis and elaboration of the crossed axes theme was provided by the great Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (1929-32) at Thiepval, by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, where the subordinate sides are also triumphal arches, but this time the arches are astylar (i.e. without columns, so minus any engaged or detached Orders). Even during the Roman Empire there had been astylar versions: the most famous in more recent times is the massive Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, Paris (1806-37), by Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin (1739-1811).

The essence of the form of the triumphal arch recurs in town gates, altarpieces, funerary monuments, entrances to great estates, façades of great houses (e.g. the garden-front of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, of 1765), west fronts of large churches, etc., stripped to essentials or elaborated with extra embellishments.

Elegant versions of freestanding arches include two lovely things in Germany: one is the exquisite Rococo Brandenburger Tor, Potsdam (1770, by Georg Christoph Unger (1743-1812) and Karl Philipp Christian von Gontard (1731-91), and the other is the elegant Neo-Classical Siegestor, on the Ludwigstraße, Munich (1843-54), by Friedrich von Gärtner (1792-1847).

But in St Petersburg is an astounding variation on the triumphal-arch theme, celebrating the victory over Napoléon: this is the Narwa (or Narva) Gate, based on an earlier design for a timber arch of 1814 by Giacomo Antonio Domenico Quarenghi (1744-1817), by Vasily Petrovich Stasov (1769-1848).

Built of brick covered with copper plates, with gilded lettering, it is crowned by a sestiga (chariot pulled by six horses) driven by Victory: the sculptors involved were Baron Piotr Karlovich Klodt von Jürgensburg (1805-67), Stepan Stepanovich Pimenov (1784-1833), and Vasily Ivanovich Demut-Malinovsky (1779-1849) . Now that the copper has weathered, the arch is a startlingly attractive green, showing off the gilding to perfection. Howell thinks the Order of the detached columns is Corinthian: it is not. It is Composite.

Although Howell mentions the Romanesque west front of Lincoln Cathedral (c. 1072-92), now embedded in later Gothic work, as possibly modelled on the Arch of Constantine, in the weakest part of his book he fails to connect his triumphal arch theme with such Romanesque church-fronts as the Madeleine, Vézelay; Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers; S. Gilles, near Arles; the stunning porch of S. Trophîme, Arles; or the truly astonishing façade of Notre-Dame d’Échillais, Charente-Maritime, where the Roman origins are glaringly obvious.

Once he ventures into a consideration of the Renaissance, however, he is on surer ground, correctly pointing out the triumphal arch theme in the work of that uomo universale, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), notably San Francesco, Rimini (from 1450), but, even more thoroughly, at Sant’Andrea, Mantua (from 1470), where not only the façade, but the interior, with its series of overlapping triumphal arches, make overt the debt to Antiquity.

All in all, and despite some photographs having unacceptable converging verticals, this is a beautifully illustrated, handsomely printed (on good quality paper, so very heavy tome), and thorough, scholarly exposition, apart from some very odd lacunæ and one or two puzzling curiosities.

Howell correctly mentions that very grand monument (c. 1569) by Cornelis Floris II (c. 1513/14-75) to Albrecht of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1490-1568), 1st Duke in (not of) Prussia from 1525, in the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary and St Adalbert, Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), but refers to it as though it still exists. I visited Kaliningrad in 2012 and was shocked at the destruction wreaked on that ancient city in 1944-5. Although the Cathedral was re-roofed and partially reconstructed as the result of Perestroika after 1992, there was no sign of any such monument: it was among many great works of art and architecture lost to us for ever. Howell seems to have been unaware of that.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover