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The Corinthian order as used for the portico of the Pantheon, Rome provided a prominent model for Renaissance and later architects, through the medium of engravings.
The Corinthian order is one of the Classical orders of Greek and Roman architecture, although it was seldom used in Greek architecture. The other two orders were the Doric and the Ionic. (When classical architecture was revived, two more orders were added to the canon, the Tuscan order and the Composite order.)
The origin of the Corinthian Order, illustrated in Claude Perrault's Vitruvius, 1684
The Corinthian order was said to have been invented by an architect, Callimachus, who was inspired by the sight of a votive basket that had been left on the grave of a young girl. A few of her toys were in it, and a square tile had been placed over the basket, to protect them from the weather. An acanthus plant had grown through the woven basket, mixing its spiny, deeply cut leaves with the weave of the basket. Or so Vitruvius said. Claude Perrault incorporated a vignette epitomizing the tale in his illustration of the Corinthian order for his translation of Vitruvius, published in Paris, 1684 (illustration, left). Perrault demonstrates in his engraving how the proportions of the carved capital could be adjusted according to demands of the design, without offending. The texture and outline of Perrault's leaves is dry and tight compared to their 19th-century naturalism at the U.S. Capitol (below, left).
Greco-Bactrian Corinthian capital, found at Ai-Khanoum, northeastern Afghanistan, 2nd century BCE.
A Corinthian capital may be seen as an enriched development of the Ionic capital, though one may have to look closely at a Corinthian capital (illustration, right) to see the Ionic volutes at the corners, perhaps reduced in size and importance, scrolling out above the two ranks of stylized acanthus leaves, and to notice that smaller volutes scroll inwards to meet each other on each side. The leaves may be quite stiff, schematic and dry, or they may be extravagantly drilled and undercut, naturalistic and spiky. In Late Antique and Byzantine practice, the leaves may be blown sideways, as if by the wind of Faith. Unlike the Doric and Ionic column capitals, a Corinthian capital has no neck beneath it, just a ring-like astragal molding or a banding that forms the base of the capital, recalling the base of the legendary basket.
The Corinthian column is almost always fluted. If it is not, it is often worth pausing to unravel the reason why (sometimes simply a tight budget). Even the flutes of a Corinthian column may be enriched. They may be filleted, with rods nestled within the hollow flutes, or stop-fluted, with the rods rising a third of the way, to where the entasis begins. The French like to call these chandelles and sometimes they end them literally with carved wisps of flame, or with bellflowers. Alternately, beading or chains of husks may take the place of the fillets in the fluting, for Corinthian is the most playful and flexible of the orders. Its atmosphere is rich and festive, with more opportunities for variation than the other orders.
The Corinthian order as used in extending the US Capitol in 1854: the column's shaft has been omitted.
In its proportions, the Corinthian column is similar to the Ionic column, though it may be made more slender, but it stands apart by its distinctive carved capital. The abacus upon the capital has concave sides to conform to the outscrolling corners of the capital, and it may have a rosette at the center of each side.
Festive Corinthian capitals on the richly-appointed General Post Office, New York (McKim, Mead, and White, 1913)
The architrave is divided in two or three sections, which may be equal, or they may bear interesting proportional relationships, one with another. Above the plain, unadorned architrave lies the frieze, which may be richly carved with a continuous design or left plain, as at the U.S. Capitol extension (illustration, left). At the Capitol the proportions of architrave to frieze are exactly 1:1. Above that, the profiles of the cornice moldings are like those of the Ionic order. If the cornice is very deep, it may be supported by brackets or modillions, which are ornamental brackets used in a series under a cornice.
The oldest known example of a Corinthian column is in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, ca 450–420 BCE. It is not part of the order of the temple itself, which has a Doric colonnade surrounding the temple and an Ionic order within the cella enclosure. A single Corinthian column stands free, centered within the cella. Quite mysterious, and the archaeologists debate what it is all about: perhaps a votive column? A few examples of Corinthian columns in Greece during the next century are all used inside temples. A more famous example, and the first documented use of the Corinthian order on the exterior of a structure, is the circular Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, erected ca 334 BCE.
Maison Carrée, Nimes, France, 14 BCE
The Corinthian order really came into its own in Roman practice, however, as at the Maison Carrée, Nimes(illustration, right).
Most buildings (and most clients) are satisfied with just two orders. When orders are superposed one above another, as they are at the Flavian Amphitheater— the Colosseum— the natural progression is from sturdiest and plainest (Doric) at the bottom, to slenderest and richest (Corinthian) at the top. The Colosseum's topmost tier has an unusual order that came to be known as the Composite order during the 16th century. The mid-16th century Italians, especially Sebastiano Serlio and Vignola, who established a canonic version of the orders, thought they detected a "Composite order," combining the volutes of the Ionic with the foliage of the Corinthian, but in Roman practice volutes were almost always present.
Simplified Corinthian capital at the Cistercian monastery at Sacramenia, province of Segovia, 12th-13th century
In Romanesque and Gothic architecture, where the Classical system had been replaced by a new esthetic composed of arched vaults springing from columns, the Corinthian capital was still retained. It might be severely plain, as in the typical Cistercian architecture (illustration left), which encouraged no distraction from liturgy and ascetic contemplation, or in other contexts it could be treated to numerous fanciful variations, even on the capitals of a series of columns or colonettes within the same system.
During the 16th century, a sequence of engravings of the orders in architectural treatises helped standardize their details within rigid limits. Sebastiano Serlio; the Regola delli cinque ordini of Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573); the Quattro libri di Architettura of Andrea Palladio, and Vincenzo Scamozzi's Idea della Architettura Universale, were followed in the 17th century by French treatises with further refined engraved models, such as Perrault's.