The Origins of Neoclassicism

The Origins of Neoclassicism

Neo-Classicism, as its name would suggest, took its aesthetic cues from Greco-Roman architecture. The birth of Neoclassicism happened almost simultaneously across Europe and was founded in rebellion to absolute rule which was exemplified in the Baroque style.

Elements of Neoclassic Style

The basic elements of the Neo-Classical style are taken directly from Classical Architecture. Forms such as pediments, columns, entablatures, colonnades and cupolas feature prominently. According to Soufflot, one of France's premier architects during the neo-classic movement, “strictness of line, firmness of form, simplicity of contour, and rigorously architectonic conception of detail " were all paramount in implementing the “new” style. Classical forms were studied and used as jumping off points for inspiration.

Chiswick House (1729) designed by William Kent and Lord Burlington
Chiswick House (1729) designed by William Kent and Lord Burlington
Soufflot's Pantheon in Paris - Soufflot was one of France's first truly neo-classical architects. He studied in Rome and then upon his return to Paris was influential in spreading the style in France. Corinthian columns to support the pediment.
Soufflot's Pantheon in Paris - Soufflot was one of France's first truly neo-classical architects. He studied in Rome and then upon his return to Paris was influential in spreading the style in France. Corinthian columns to support the pediment.

The quintessential building shape of classical architecture was rectilinear which was oft replicated in neo-classicism. Soufflot's Pantheon is an excellent example as it combines all of these parameters. Another common expression of the neo-classical style much favored during this period was the Triumphal Arch.

Originally developed during the classical period to celebrate a victory in war, it always displayed a central arch that was flanked by two smaller arches in an ABA rhythm. It employed four columns of equal weight and hight that were unequally spaced due to the tripartite division of arches. It's frieze was typically decorated with reliefs that depicted particularly heroic elements of battle as well as with winged females called “Victories.” The structures of neoclassicism almost never followed the mathematical formulas of Greco-Roman architecture but rather designers incorporated the elements they felt best exemplified their vision and omitted the others.

Constantine's triumphal arch in Rome (315 AD.) In Roman mythology Victoria was the goddess of victory and was a major part of Roman society. Multiple temples were erected in her honor and she was worshiped by conquering generals.
Constantine's triumphal arch in Rome (315 AD.) In Roman mythology Victoria was the goddess of victory and was a major part of Roman society. Multiple temples were erected in her honor and she was worshiped by conquering generals.
Arc de Triomphe, Paris 1806 was commissioned by Napoleon during the height of his rule and designed by Piercier and Fontaine. It displays two blind arches on either side of the main arch.
Arc de Triomphe, Paris 1806 was commissioned by Napoleon during the height of his rule and designed by Piercier and Fontaine. It displays two blind arches on either side of the main arch.

Palladianism & New Patronage

During the mid 18th century Neoclassicism was basically defined with Palladian architecture. Palladianism is architecture that is based on the writings of Antonio Palladio (1508 – 1580), a Venetian architect. Palladio, in turn, was influenced by ancient Roman and Greek architecture which he studied and wrote about profusely. His books, I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura (Venice, 1570) have been hugely influential.


During the early part of the 18th century four books were published on Classicism which were to have immense impact. The most influential of these was Vitruvius Britannicus published by architect, Colen Campbell (1676-1729) in 1715. It was a catalog of designs from architects such as Jones, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) as well as himself in which beautiful and detailed engravings introduced its readers to a “new” vocabulary of forms such as the cruciform, colonnades, pediment, portico, loggia, mezzanine and entablature.

Wanstead House was one of the first and most important buildings in the new Palladian era. It was designed by Campbell under the patronage of Sir Richard Child, 3rd Baronet in 1715 and exemplified fine examples of the “new” architectural vocabulary which would serve to influence the designs of subsequent buildings.

Many wealthy patrons, such as Thomas Coke, Richard Child, Henry Herbert, Henrietta Howard and amateur architect Lord Burlington, (1694-1753), never embraced Baroque design, and in fact dismissed it in favor of neo- Palladianism. Campbell was championed as the preeminent designer and patrons instead invested in neoclassical designs which resonated with the sentiments of the New Age.

In 1717 Campbell was appointed by Lord Burlington to redesign his home which would come to be known as Burlington House in the neo-Palladian style. It would become a pivotal moment in the history of English design and architecture that would serve to influence designs across England for a generation.

At the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, Scotland (1822-26), William Henry Playfair (1790-1857) employs a Greek Doric octastyle portico. The building also lacks any superfluous embellishments.

Possibly as a reaction to the flourishes and embellishments of the past era, at times the neo- Palladian style was typified by an almost complete lack of embellishment. Only decoration emblematic of meaning was retained because proponents of the new Palladianism were especially intrigued with the allegorical nature of the movement. Wikipedia states that “an artist... does not repeat... lifeless reproductions, but synthesizes the tradition anew in each work.” No one is more famous for his interpretations of Classicism than the great Scottish architect, Robert Adam (1728-1792) who balked at the trend to strictly follow classic designs and instead used them as a springboard for his own designs. His ideas were more about facades than following the strict mathematical formulas of Palladio and Vitruvius (80-70 BCE – 15 BCE). Adam, Boyle, Campbell, Kent and other prominent architects and the patrons who commissioned them found an accord with the new style that they never shared with Baroque style. While Neoclassicism displayed certain attributes of Baroque design such as symmetry and a kinship with Classical design, it never managed to capture the hearts of the people of England.

Holkham Hall in Norfolk, England designed by William Kent and Lord Burlington under the patronage of Thomas Coke. Kent based his design on Palladio’s unbuilt Villa Mocenigo however, its more austere and has some modifications and (to me) is not nearly as successful as The Royal Scottish Academy in its use of minimalism.

This building demonstrates Adam's interpretation of the most enduring of all Palladian architectural features, the Serlian arch.
This building demonstrates Adam's interpretation of the most enduring of all Palladian architectural features, the Serlian arch.

Pulteney Bridge, Bath, England (1773). It is thought that Adam based his design of this bridge on the rejected designs for the Bridge Rialto in Venice. It is one of only four bridges in the world that have shops spanning both sides.

Neoclassicism vs. Baroque

Neoclassical art focused on form, simplicity, symmetry, proportion and restrained emotion. Unlike the previous era which emphasized drama, contrasts of chiaroscuro, evoking emotion and movement. Where Baroque was ostentatious and exuberant Neoclassicism was understated and reserved. Baroque represented absolute rule while Neoclassicism stood for the people of a New Age in which reason took precedence.

If Baroque represented the decadence of night then Neoclassicism represented the dawning of a new day. And just as day can be thought of as an evolution of night so too, can the neoclassical movement be thought of as an outgrowth of the Baroque era. The former could not have happen without the latter and yet they couldn't be more different.

Article by Anne Alexander Sieder all rights reserved. For hardcore interior design fans, check out my blog www.prettyhaus.com.

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Brupie 6 years ago

It's nice to see articles that are more erudite versus the endless hubs on "How to make money with adsense ... " Thank you.


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edelhaus 6 years ago from Munich, Germany Author

thank you!

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