Animate Ornaments and Illuminating Asides in the Art of Building: how experience impacts the aesthetics of architecture, by Lisa Landrum

This paper shows how a certain assertion and aside in Alberti’s Art of Building presents ethos (in the sense of appropriate conduct or cultural practice) as a kind of lively ornament integral to aesthetics. Following an analysis of the key passages, this paper demonstrates how such lively or animate ornaments fit into Alberti’s complex notion of beauty. Finally, by engaging select examples of public spaces, this paper reveals how Alberti’s aside on ornament can help present-day architects to envision ethics as both the root and fruit of aesthetics—as both the basis and benefit of good design. My proposed paper commences in this way:

In the midst of the thirteenth chapter of the seventh book on the Art of Building, Alberti makes a provocative assertion regarding ornament. Alberti sets up this assertion by having previously described the many ornaments belonging to a column (7.6-9); by having established the column as principal ornament to a temple (6.13); and by having designated the temple as the greatest ornament to a city (7.3). One can already discern the nested and contingent nature of this topic. Having discussed these and other fixed ornaments relating to a city’s temple, Alberti then shifts his discourse to the ritual practices performed in a temple, asserting:

There are other sorts of ornaments also, not fixed, which serve to adorn and grace the sacrifice; and others of the same nature that embellish the temple itself, the direction of which belongs likewise to the architect (7.13, Leoni Translation).

What sort of unfixed ornaments did Alberti have in mind? A few lines later he tells us: the majestic charm of aromatic light emanating from well-disposed candelabras would adorn and grace both the rite of sacrifice and the temple (7.13). In this image one can recognize the unfixed quality, or subtle activity, of candle wax and flame, and further appreciate how such animating ornaments would positively embellish life at the temple. Yet, this charming image takes on broader significance by the way Alberti presents it. For, in between his assertion that there are sorts of ornaments that are “not fixed” (non stabilia) and his splendid example of illumination, Alberti interrupts himself with a puzzling aside. “It has been a question—”, he asks us again to consider:

—which is the most beautiful sight: a large square full of youth employed about their several sports; or a sea full of ships; or a field with a victorious army drawn out on it; or a senate-house full of venerable magistrates; or a temple illuminated with a great number of cheerful lights (7.13 Leoni Translation)?

This complementary series of images serves in part to amplify the luminous ornament that Alberti, in the end, recommends for the temple. But this rhetorical detour offers more than amplification, since with it Alberti gathers a series of analogous ornaments that are in some ways comparable to the many charming lights: sporting youths, sailing ships, parading armies, and venerable magistrates. Are we to infer that these vital agents, or cultural agencies (sporting, sailing, parading and deliberating), are ornaments of the same unfixed sort as illumination by candlelight? Are we, further, to suppose that the anticipation and consideration of such ornaments “belongs likewise to the architect”? This paper argues that indeed we should.

Lisa Landrum, University of Manitoba, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Landrum, L. (2012) Animate Ornaments and Illuminating Asides in the Art of Building: how experience impacts the aesthetics of architecture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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