After presenting at the EAHN conference in Brussels, I had a moment to walk around the city and enjoy something new to me. My reaction reminded me of something I had seen in Sicily (as is often the custom): The Teatro Massimo in Palermo and its pedimental inscription “L’Arte Rinnovo il Popolo e Ne Rivela la Vita…Art renews the population and reveals life.” Seeing a new city is invigorating and approaching it as a Classicist is a type of exam, but also a type of payoff from many previous exams. I admired the triglyphs on the Neoclassical (but still exuberant) Bourse. I marveled at the neoclassical Triumphal Arch at the Parc du Cinquantenaire, and was reassured that the forms, architectural orders, and symbolic weight of Classical monuments we often discuss in 1A03 and elsewhere resonate far and wide across time and space.
What really captivated me about the city, however, was Art Nouveau. I got the chance to see the Maison Cauchie, and marveled at the engraved composition of the five senses. Even in the Art Nouveau style, the severity of the Classical and the decadence, drama, and tantalizingly charged style of the Hellenistic are echoed so that they partially betray the term “nouveau.” Glass, often stained glass, windows and dramatic flourishes of narrow iron made me feel as thought the Maison Horta (Horta Museum) were Pompeian fresco styles designed in full.
A quick tour around the city instantly demonstrated that this experience is the reward for a Classical education. The city unveiled itself as a playground of styles that either directly embraced the Classical world and deliberately evoked their venerability, or meaningfully turned away from the Classical tradition to create a clashing visual and functional contrast (I think this is why I love the Brutalist style so much – it is an expression of freedom from Classical tradition and a complete reinterpretation of public, visual, spatial and architectural objectives of a building). As the great poet wrote, “we buy with contrast.”
Small moments such as these made Classical Architecture, and Classics in general, immediate and relevant. It becomes clear to any observer that the Classical portion is just a few pieces of the puzzle and there many more that follow in place after them. The experience is the reward for studying this material: the jumble of names, dates, locations, sponsors, architects and artists that get lobbed out in 1A03, 2B03 and 2C03 were suddenly contextualized; it was then possible to see them not as a chore to master, but as the object of intellectual curiosity to chase back following the immediate visual input. In short, connecting the Triumphal Arch in Brussels with those of Septimus Severus and Constantine in Rome, and especially the entranceway to the Forum of Trajan (among others) scratched an intellectual itch.
This experience is not limited to European capitals; the same fascination and wonder can be developed in downtown Hamilton and Toronto or nearly wherever the Summer has taken you: turn on your sense of exploration and wonder the next time you go out: there will be a payoff to it, and to the investment you have already made in Classics.