CLASSICAL COMMENTS: THE TRIUMPHAL ARCH AS A DESIGN RESOURCE

by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council

Calder Loth

The triumphal arch grew out of a tradition originating during the Roman Republic. Victorious generals, known as triumphators, had monumental arches erected to commemorate their victories. Following construction of the arches, the generals were often granted a triumph, a celebratory procession passing beneath the arch. In Rome’s imperial era, triumphal arches were normally restricted to the honoring of emperors. These later arches were decorated with fine sculptures depicting the emperor’s conquests and other deeds.  Nearly forty ancient Roman arches survive in one form or another scattered around the former empire. Most famous are the three imperial arches remaining in the city of Rome: the Arch of Titus (AD 81), the Arch of Septimius Severus (AD 203), and the Arch of Constantine (AD 312).[i] These three arches have inspired imitations throughout the world.  Some of the best known are the Arc de Triomphe and Arc du Carrousel in Paris, the Wellington and Marble arches in London, the Siegestor in Munich, and the Washington Arch in Manhattan.

Arch of Titus

Figure 1: Arch of Titus, Rome. (Loth)

In addition to inspiring freestanding commemorative arches, the ancient arches have also served as design resources for buildings from the Renaissance into the 20th century. The primary models for most modern interpretations have been the Arch of Titus, with its single-arch form, and the Arch of Constantine, with its triple-arch form. In addition to its single arch, the dominant elements of the Arch of Titus are the paired engaged Composite columns and the tall parapet or attic with its inscription panel.[ii] (figure 1) Features defining the triple-arch Arch of Constantine are the free-standing columns supporting projecting entablature blocks topped with statues. It too has a bold attic, which is divided into three sections with the dedicatory inscription in the center panel. (figure 2)

Figure 2: Arch of Constantine, Rome. (Loth)

It is intriguing to observe how many classical works weave the triumphal arch form into their façades, either the single or triple-arch type. Buildings can be so elaborate or so simple that their triumphal arch motif is not immediately apparent, yet the more we become aware of the phenomenon, the more we see the prevalence of its use. Illustrated and discussed below are a dozen buildings, some famous and some merely typical, that apply the triumphal arch as a device to give focus and character to a façade. As we learn from these and many other buildings, the triumphal arch motif has continuing relevance as a useful device that can provide focus and character to classical architecture of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the earliest and certainly one of the most imposing uses of the triumphal arch model is Leon Battista Alberti’s Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, begun in 1462. Generally following the form of the Arch of Titus, the façade is dominated by a huge central arch framed by paired Corinthian pilasters on tall pedestals. The composition departs from the ancient model with its application of a pediment rather than an attic above the main entablature. However, the sheer scale of the church, plus the imaginative adaptation of an ancient form intended for an entirely different building type, demonstrates the early mastery of the classical vocabulary by the Italian Renaissance architects. (figure 3)

Figure 3: Sant’Andrea, Mantua, Italy. (Loth)

Much of our knowledge of ancient Roman buildings stems from Andrea Palladio’s seductive restoration drawings of Roman temples in Book IV of I quattro libri dell’architettura (1570). Palladio also studied Roman triumphal arches and planned to produce a separate book on the subject, but never completed it. Nevertheless, he was well acquainted with these structures and applied an intriguing version of the form to the side elevation of the Loggia del Capitaniato in Vicenza, completed in 1752. Because his treatment of the side is a conspicuous break from the façade, it is believed to have been a late change in design. The theme of the sculpted panels commemorates of the Venetian victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. Like the ancient Romans, Palladio celebrated this triumph with the triumphal arch format. (figure 4)

Figure 4: Loggia del Capitaniato, Vicenza, Italy. (Loth)

Luigi Vanvitelli incorporated an implied triumphal arch into the central pavilion of the Palace of Caserta, the inland seat of the kings of Naples, begun in 1752 and mostly completed by 1780.  With more than a thousand rooms, the palace was one of the largest buildings in Europe at the time.  Set atop a two-tier rustic base, the pavilion follows the precedent of the Arch of Titus, consisting of a large center arch without subordinate arches. Also like Titus’s arch, Caserta uses paired Composite order columns. The pavilion departs from ancient precedent by being capped with a pediment rather than an attic, perhaps assuming that a pediment was more appropriate for a residential building, albeit a huge one. The arch itself frames a large semi-domed niche with an inscription tablet above an elaborate doorway. (figure 5)

Figure 5: Palace of Caserta, Caserta, Italy. (Loth)

One of the most literal applications of the triumphal arch form, as well as one of the most admired, is Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Commissioned in 1739 by Pope Clement XII, architect Nicola Salvi gave the earlier Palazzo Poli a new façade to serve as a backdrop for the famous fountain, the theme of which is the taming of the waters. Framed by the central arch, the figure of Oceanus, the personification of all the seas and oceans, is guided over cascading waters in his shell chariot by tritons. With its projecting free-standing columns topped by statues, the façade’s center section closely follows the Arch of Constantine form. Instead of smaller flanking arches, the outer bays have flat-top niches with statuary. The tall attic carries a bold dedicatory inscription. Crowning the attic is the sculpted coat of arms of Clement XII held by angels. Salvi died in 1751 and the fountain was completed in 1762 by Giuseppe Panini, who is famous for his view paintings of Rome. (figure 6)

Figure 6: Trevi Fountain, Rome. (Loth)

The triumphal arch form found expression in 18th-century England in the garden front of Kedleston Hall, the early masterpiece of Robert Adam. Kedleston’s original design, begun in 1759, was by James Paine and Matthew Brettingham. The owner, Sir Nathaniel Curzon, hired Adam as well to design some garden structures. So impressed was Curzon by Adam’s abilities that he placed him in charge of the house. Adam applied his newly acquired mastery of ancient classical architecture to the garden front by setting it off with a triumphal arch directly inspired by the Arch of Constantine. Instead of through arches, Adam used a blind arch in the center to frame the entrance. The flanking niches suggest the flanking subordinate arches. Above the niches are sculpted roundels echoing those on the Arch of Constantine. The precedent is further followed with the freestanding Corinthian columns, the statues on the projecting entablature sections, and the attic with its Latin inscription. (figure 7)

Figure 7: Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, England. (Glen Bowman, Newcastle, England)

Distance from the source did not inhibit Russian architects from drawing inspiration from Rome’s ancient arches. Architect Boris Freudenberg provided an ebullient Beaux Arts version of the triumphal arch in the entrance bay of the Sandunov Baths in downtown Moscow. Not only did this 1895 complex house public bath facilities, it incorporated apartments and commercial space.  Looking past its classical encrustations, we see the basic elements of the triumphal arch: a large central arch, paired flanking pilasters, a bold bracketed entablature, and attic. The central arch is loaded with Beaux-Arts enrichments and is enclosed by a pair of beautiful iron gates. Perched in the arch’s spandrels are horses ridden by music-playing muses. The attic is more compressed than the ancient models, but sports an ornamented cartouche window in the middle. (figure 8)

Figure 8: Sandunov Baths, Moscow, Russia. (Loth)

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Americans were as adept in producing high-quality classical works as the Europeans.  All across the country, the full range of building types: schools, libraries, courthouses, offices, and banks were given a dignity of appearance though the literate application of the classical repertoire, including the triumphal arch. Typical is the small city of Staunton, Virginia, which acquired an admirable version of Caesar’s monument for the façade of the 1903 National Valley Bank, designed by local architect T. J. Collins. The bank, its customers, as well as the city itself, were all celebrated by the presence of this timeless form. (figure 9)

Figure 9: National Valley Bank, Staunton, Virginia. (Loth)

The triumphal arch composition is nearly lost in the exuberance of Julius Raschdorff’s Berliner Dom, the German capital’s monster Lutheran “cathedral.” Its construction was authorized in 1888 by Kaiser Wilhelm II who intended it to be the foremost Protestant church in the world. Finally finished in 1905, the building’s entrance is framed by an enormous arch flanked by paired Corinthian columns. The attic is complete with panels filled with inscriptions, but is interrupted by a central pedimented tabernacle highlighting a statue of Jesus.  With additional statues, the attic is embraced by florid cupolas topped by finials holding German imperial crowns. Like pigeons, angels and various other religious figures roost on convenient ledges throughout. (The domes were badly damaged by Allied bombing and were rebuilt with simpler tops.)  (figure 10)

Figure 10: Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany. (Loth)

In the contest for the globe’s most prodigious classical building, Austria’s Franz Joseph got a jump on his German fellow emperor in 1881 by commissioning the Neue Burg, the gigantic addition to the Hofburg, Vienna’s royal palace. So ambitious was the project that it was not completed until 1913, just four years before the end of the Hapsburg Empire. For its central pavilion, architect Karl von Hasenauer placed a heroic triumphal arch atop a rusticated triumphal arch. With its dominant central bay and paired Corinthian columns, the upper section follows the Arch of Titus form. However, the use of statues above each column gives a nod to Constantine’s monument. The attic panel features the obligatory Latin inscription of dedication. Topping it all off is a balustrade clasped by a gilded double-headed imperial eagle. (Ironically, it was from the Neue Burg’s balcony that Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss, which absorbed Austria into the German Reich.) (figure 11)

Figure 11: Neue Burg, Vienna Austria. (Loth)

Buildings of the American Renaissance could be as grand as royal palaces or as low-key as a small-town post office.  The more restrained “Main Street” look is seen in the 1909 Wisser Hall, the original library building at Fort Monroe, the moated military base in Hampton, Virginia. Architect Francis B. Wheaton gave character to the façade by cleverly weaving the triumphal arch form into the composition. The arch is implied by a Diocletian window above the pedimented entrance. Plain brick pilasters are used instead of freestanding columns. A low parapet, set off by ramped end sections, substitutes for the usual blocky attic. Despite these simplifications, the triumphal arch configuration is clearly discernable. (Wheaton was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Department and had previously been employed in the office of McKim, Mead and White.)  (figure 12)

Figure 12: Wisser Hall, Fort Monroe, Virginia. (Loth)

We see one of America’s grandest usages of the triumphal arch as architectural symbol in John Russell Pope’s addition to the American Museum of Natural History on New York City’s Central Park West. Dating from 1936, Pope’s monumental entrance is part of the memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, whose father was one of the museum’s founding members. The central element of Pope’s wing follows the Arch of Constantine type with three main divisions separated by freestanding columns supporting projecting entablature sections. Like Constantine’s arch, each entablature block is topped by a statue.  Crowning the composition is a huge attic complete with the requisite inscription (but this time in English). Instead of the Corinthian or Composite orders favored by the ancients, Pope employed a Roman Ionic order. Pope had a penchant for the Ionic; he used it in many of his major works, including the National Gallery, the Jefferson Memorial, and Constitution Hall. (figure 13)

Figure 13: American Museum of Natural History, New York City. (worldsbestspot.com)

Modern applications of the triumphal arch are rare, yet the form remains a useful one, and can give focus and dignity to a composition, classical or otherwise. A handsome variation on the triumphal arch theme is Alan Greenberg’s 1997 Tommy Hilfiger anchor store (acquired by Brooks Brothers in 2003) on Beverly Hills’ fashionable Rodeo Drive. As with other examples, the central arch is expressed with a large Diocletian window. The flanking bays are treated with subordinate arches following the Constantine precedent. Greenberg departed from the ancient model by having his columns and entablature at half level. Like Alberti, Greenberg crowned his composition with a pediment rather than an attic with an inscription panel, the latter perhaps being too imperious for a haberdashery. (figure 14)

Figure 14: Brooks Brothers Store, Beverly Hills, California. (Loth)

The examples presented here are just a taste of the many buildings here and abroad whose form has been inspired by Rome’s triumphal arches. These ancient structures were designed to stir up a sense of awe and celebration. Properly interpreted and applied, the form can yet instill a sense of awe and celebration in modern works. The usefulness of this device should not be overlooked.


[i] Rome has three additional arches:  Drusus (9 BC), Gallienus (262 AD), and Janus (4th century AD). These are not particularly impressive or well known, and have had minimal influence. Fragments of the Arch of Augustus (29 BC), located in the Roman Forum, survive, but its exact appearance is conjectural.

[ii] Except for its center section, much of the original fabric of the Arch of Titus was lost when it was incorporated into later structures. Its original form was restored by architect Giuseppe Valadier in the 1820s, using travertine instead of marble to distinguish the original parts from the reconstructed ones.

4 Responses to CLASSICAL COMMENTS: THE TRIUMPHAL ARCH AS A DESIGN RESOURCE

  1. Good piece! But of course the arches, which took years to build, couldn’t feature in the triumphs themselves; those had only temporary arches, usually made of greenery. The arch itself is a conventional monument–the convention of which I’ll be explaining in my forthcoming book.

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  2. Kelly Price says:

    Dear Mr. Johnson: You are entirely correct. The earlier, Republican era arches were temporary and may or may not have been replaced with permanent arches. The surviving Imperial-period arches, of course, took years to build, and the events and triumphs they honored took place well before. Thank you for the clarification. Calder Loth

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  3. Pingback: Triumphal Arch as a Design Resource – Calder Loth on Classicist Blog « Civism and Cities

  4. Beautiful buildings, Calder. Graduates of the Ecole des Beaux Arts frequently used triple triumphal arches to announce important public buildings. In New York see the Metropolitan Museum, Grand Central Terminal and the main branch of the New York Public Library. Many American cities have examples. In Washington, I think of examples in which the arch was a little more downplayed, as at Union Station and the Pan-American Union.

    The Washington Square Arch in New York was originally part of a small tradition of temporary monuments in the city. Built across 5th Avenue 5 blocks north of Washington Square in plaster and wood for the Centennial of President Washington’s New York Inauguration, it was so popular that it was rebuilt in marble in the square, which was already named for Washington.

    A temporary monument that was not rebuilt was the Dewey Arch. I have a photo of it here that also shows Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden in the background. An old photo of the Washington arch, still open to traffic, is here.

    John

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