Neo-Classicism and Greek Revival: What is Really the Difference?

What is the difference between Neo-Classical architecture and the Greek Revival style? The key is in the proportions of the building; while the Romans certainly copied their architectural style from the ancient Greeks, they were also influenced by their northern neighbors, the Etruscans. Here is a primer on how to tell the difference. First, let’s look at this temple at the ancient Greek city of Paestum, in southern Italy, near Naples. It’s a perfect example of how the Romans were influenced by their neighbors to the south living in the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia.

The proportions of a Greek temple tend to be more squat, with a ratio in the Doric order of the height of the column to its base of 6:1. While the Ionic and Corinthian orders were certainly invented by the Greeks, the vast majority of important Greek temples will be in the Doric order. Eventually, the ratio of columns on the lateral side of Greek temples standardized at 2x + 1 to the number of columns along the front and back. Note the temple at Paestum, being from the Archaic Period, has fourteen instead of thirteen, which became prominent in the Classical Period. Also, Greek temples always, with only a few exceptions, such as the Temple of Athena Nike, possess a colonnade that completely encircles the cella, or sanctuary. The repeating decorative motifs on the lintel are known as triglyphs and metopes. Also as the Roman architect Vitruvius notes, the temple has a three-stepped platform; thus when a worshiper ascended the stairs starting with his right foot, his right foot, not his unlucky left foot, would touch the top step first, in respect to the god of the temple.

Now let’s look to the Tuscan Temple at the corner of Pershing and Kingshighway. It is clearly a Greek Revival structure, even if it breaks some of the rules of Classical Greek architecture. It has insufficient columns on the lateral sides with only ten instead of the proper thirteen; in fact, the columns have converted into Doric pilasters. But the proportions of the front colonnade are correct, and one can see the repeating triglyphs and metopes.

Let us turn then to what Neo-Classical architecture is, then. In my opinion, it is classical revival architecture with more influence from Roman architecture, and less concerned with the exact proportions of the Greeks and more concerned with that of Roman architecture. As Vitruvius noted, certain gods required different architectural styles; more masculine gods required the Doric or Ionic, while more feminine goddesses required the Corinthian order. Now certainly this was violated throughout Rome, but it is an interesting aspect to looking at these styles. At the Temple of Portunus in the Forum Boarum in downtown Rome shows, Roman architecture has much more slender proportions; its attic is not nearly as squat as Greek architecture, and engaged columns predominate, forcing the visitor to enter up the front steps, as opposed to allowing entry from all sides in a Greek temple. The front entryway is most likely the inheritance of the Romans from Etruscan architecture. The Ionic order dominates at the Temple of Portunus; while invented by the Greeks of western Asia Minor, the Romans used it much greater quantities. Columns in Roman architecture are much more slender, with a ratio of height to base of 8:1 in both the Ionic and Corinthian orders, the latter used to great effect in Roman architecture.

Let’s look at the Cupples Mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery; it bears the same proportions of the Temple of Portunus, and features a front entryway dominated by the Ionic order. The smooth shaft columns are also a hallmark of Roman architecture, though the fluted column of the Greeks was also used in Roman architecture. Like many Roman temples, the engaged columns do not continue around the cella, and the pediment is steep, like a Roman temple as opposed to the Greek style.

One Comment Add yours

  1. olympic says:

    Architectural features lost in Greece since the end of the Hella Tzadik. Or the C, smooth (about 1200 BC) until about 700 BC. When the Romans with the wealth, and pick up the point that began with the construction of public buildings from me.

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