Neo-Classicism & the New Age


The overtly grand design of baroque and rococo styles were gradually transformed from 1640 – 1750 as there returned a preference for more ordered architecture; thus began the era of early neoclassicism. With the excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748 and the coinciding publication of books including Antiquities of Athens (1762) by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, who discussed the virtues of “. . . noble simplicity and calm grandeur”1 of Greco-Roman art were central in moving this information forward. Moreover, through the writings of German art historian Johann Winckelmann who urged artists to study and “. . . imitate its {Greco-Roman art} timeless, ideal forms . . .”1 was passionately welcomed by the international circle of affluent artists that gathered in 1760s Rome – the “new age” had begun. This embrace of classical architecture had never before been experienced by such an expansive audience that included the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Russia. The period of Neoclassicism is considered to be dominant from 1750 – 1850.


The adaptability of the Neoclassical style was exhibited in using the Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan and Doric orders in such grand proportions they became known as the Colossal order. These columns were increased through stacking them and accentuating the feeling of height; colonnades, rotundas, and porticoes were created to further highlight this grandeur. The use of layered cupolas and inner cores “. . . added strength to domes. . .” and “. . . aggrandizing the civic buildings, churches, educational facilities, and large private homes that they topped.”2


It is generally thought that Neoclassicism started in earnest in France. At the end of Louis XVI’s reign and during the first Napoleonic Empire as high society wished for Classical elements to their private residences and commercial architecture followed suit and redesign became part of the urban landscape. The architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux rose to prominence as the most mythical of the French architects that incorporated Neoclassical features in his work. He was simpler and bolder with Classical columns and used repetitive square sections that were applied as a returning motif.


The Rotonde de la Villette (1786) presents rotundas, porticoes, Greek temples and apses in typical Neoclassical style. Another examples of his work can also be seen in the The Conseil d’Etat in the Palais Royal in Paris, it features arches, columns and Classical symmetry.


While the French may have popularized Neoclassicalism, the transitional roots of the style derive from Roman Classical design and then further heightened with the subsequent excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. One of the better known Italian architects was Antonio Rinaldi. The interesting aspect of his career was he was born and trained in Italy but created most of his Neoclassical works in Russia for the Count Orloy. Two of his most well known creations were private residences – Marble Palace on the Palace Embankment in St. Petersburg (Illustration #3) and the Gatchina Castle. The Marble Palace with its Corinthian columns, arched windows and recessed ledges presents Neoclassical grandeur. The materials range from marble (32 shades) to rough-grained granite and dolomite. The Gatchina Castle had a triumphal arch that was built to form a monumental entrance; incidentally a gift from Catherine the Great to Count Orlov for his efforts in managing a plague outbreak in Moscow.


The other notable Italian architect was Giuseppe Piermarini best known for his design of La Scala. Located in Milan, Italy it is one of the opera world’s most famous houses. It boasts an interior with parallel balconies and boxes that are divided with extensive columns and gold filigree designs. The exteriors has porticos, arches, Corinthian columns and many well appointed sculpted accents along with a trapezoidal edifice in symmetrical harmony. Although La Scala has undergone subsequent renovations over the years (due to fire, political will and maintenance) it still captures the Neoclassical features of its time.


For British architects to be convinced of the merits of Neoclassical style was reliant on the influences of Christopher Wren. The interpretation that Wren had of the new St. Paul’s Cathedral together with his views of the Classical architecture of Vitruvius placed him in a highly influential position. This was particularly evident when he was appointed to the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. His abilities as a draftsman and his ability to recreate such appointments as timber roof trusses, interior cupolas and large courtyards secured him an authoritative place with other British architects. These included Kent, Nash and Adam among others. Britain’s adaptation and formidable embrace of Neoclassical forms were noticed around the world and hence affected the subsequent designs of buildings over many years.


The country that adopted the Neoclassical form more than any other and sought to draw on British design was the United States of America. One of the most prominent examples is The United States Capitol. This was due to this young country wishing to “. . . assert the government’s power and relate it to that of the Roman Empire. . .”3. Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe has been centrally accredited with its design that features the Neoclassical dome (created by Thomas Ustick Walter) that has come to symbolize democracy. This building houses both the Senate and the House of Representatives and Latrobe created a rotunda that shows historic paintings and a frieze of American History and a canopy with an over 4,000 sq ft. fresco painting entitled The Apotheosis of Washington. Other features include the Small House Rotunda, the Small Senate Rotunda that allow for air circulation and natural light reflections, the Hall of Columns that consists of high ceilings and 28 fluted, white marble columns that line the corridor.


The interiors have semicircular, coffered ceilings and decorated in dark red and gold fabrics; nothing has been spared in the grandeur of this design. The exterior columns support the pediment and central dome and were composed under the influence of the Pantheon in Rome.


Other examples of the United States Neoclassical buildings can be seen in Monticello House by Thomas Jefferson and the White House by James Hoban.


Photo Credits:

Chesma Gallery of the Gatchina Palace 1877, St. Petersburg
Architect Antonio Rinaldi


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Daniel Borden, , Architecture, A World History, Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY, ISBN 978-0-8109-9512-3, Page 287.



Gardner, Helen, Art Through the Ages, Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., ISBN 0-15-503769-2, 1926, Page 846.