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An architectural myth

According to Vitruvius, a Roman architect and architecture historian, what we know as the “Corinthian order” was the invention of a Greek architect called Callimachus.

According to Vitruvius, after the death of a young girl in Corinth, her nurse gathered some of her toys and put them in a basket which she then left on top of her grave. To protect the contents, she put on top of the basket a large roof tile, like a lid.

When spring came, an acanthus plant started growing under the basket. Its leaves wrapped the basket and the tile forced the green stalks to curl outwards.

This sight inspired Callimachus to invent a new type of column capital. Famous for his dexterity, Callimachus soon set the basic rules and analogies of what would be called the “Corinthian order” in a series of capitals he made for the Corinthians. Corinth itself has several nice samples of the order, such as the so-called temple E, situated on the hill west of the Roman Forum.

Temple E, Corinth

Standing on stubs of their former columns, three Corinthian capitals bear part of the entablature of the Roman temple that is known simply as E, in Corinth.

During the excavations of the forum, pieces of another column were found. This was free-standing and had the unusual form of a bunch of acanthus leaves. It is now on display in the yard of the site’s museum. During a visit of mine there, I had the luck of seeing it next to a real, acanthus plant in bloom. Human art and its inspiration side by side – can you think of a more serendipitous encounter?

column, acanthus

On the left, the unusual column sculpted like a bunch of acanthus leaves. On the right, an acanthus in bloom. Corinth, museum of the Roman Forum.

With summer approaching, that acanthus plant was a bit wilted, but I have a specimen in better shape in the photo below, this one from the National Garden in Athens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Acanthus plants around a small Roman column. Athens, National Garden.

One comment on “An architectural myth

  1. Pingback: Corinthian style: the truth | Aristotle, Greek tourist guide

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