In many museums of Classical art and architecture, Vitruvius’ theory about the origins of the Doric order still thrives. Although the majority of scholars agree that his model does not work, many museum curators seem to be fascinated by it. When I started working in Paestum about four years ago, I still belonged to those who sided with Vitruvius.
What fascinated me was the evolutionary narrative, the idea that each element in the Doric temple had a particular purpose and meaning, that there was nothing arbitrary, and that every detail could be traced back to functional economy and constructive necessity. To put it in Vitruvius’ own words: “Each piece has its proper place, origin, and purpose” (… unaquaeque res et locum et genus et ordinem proprium tuetur) (Vitruvius, book IV ch. 2,2, in J. Gwilt, 1826) On this basis, Vitruvius traces the Doric frieze (a canonical element of the Doric temple) back to wooden plaquettes covering the front ends of the roofbeams (triglyphs) and to the plates occupying the spaces between the beams (metopes). The frieze is supposed to “imitate” (imitari) and to “carry on” (persequi) the original function of the metopes and triglyphs (Fig. 1). The deployment of columns, as Vitruvius tells us, equally derives from technical demands, rather than aesthetic considerations. According to the classical author, it was the roof construction that determined the introduction of wooden columns that later were turned into stone: originally, they supported the ridge piece of gable-roof constructions.
Vitruvius and no end
Looking at Classical architecture this way makes sense of an otherwise explicable and perplexing variety of ornaments and forms. Why do temples have columns at all? Why do they conform to certain proportions? Why do Doric friezes have triglyphs, and why are there little bolts (guttae) on the downside of the eaves of the roof (geison)? Vitruvius seems to offer an answer. Everything depends on functional necessity, there are no purely ornamental elements: “Form follows function.” Vitruvius’ theory offers an ideal starting point for laying out a coherent, logical museum tour that is understandable for a large audience.
Today, few scholars are persuaded by Vitruvius’ argument, however. Scholars like Lutz Schwandner and Hermann Kienast have long shown that the available data do not corroborate the evolutionary model established by Vitruvius, who lived and wrote in the first century BC, that is some five or six centuries after the canonical Doric architectural order first appeared in Greece, southern Italy and Sicily. What is more, the ideological implications of Vitruvius’ theory appear highly problematic. In his writings, Vitruvius suggests that the Doric is the outcome of a natural process. He argues that «the perfection of all works depends on their fitness to answer the end proposed, and on principles resulting from a consideration of Nature herself; and they (= the ancient Greeks) approved those only which, by strict analogy, were borne out by the appearance of utility» (Omnia enim certa proprietate et a veris naturae deducta moribus transduxerunt in operum perfectiones, et ea provaberunt quorum explicationes in disputationibus rationem possunt habere veritatis) (Vitruvius Book IV ch. 2,6 in J. Gwilt, 1826). Now, if Nature speaks through classical Greek (and Roman) architecture, what speaks through the architectures of the others (the pre-classical, Barbarian, Oriental, Non-Western)? Vitruvius gives no answer. He seems only concerned with demonstrating that the three canonical orders—besides the Doric, also the Ionic and the Corinthian—are naturally beautiful. However, what is already implicit here is a certain hierarchy established by architectural evolution. There is only one “true nature” (vera natura), and it was the ancient Greeks who discovered and adopted its principles. Logically, other styles and traditions (which Vitruvius does not discuss in his work) must therefore represent either imperfect stages or arbitrary departures from the natural principles.
The underlying scheme is that of historical evolutionism, which in the modern period has been applied also to art, culture, economy, psychology, and politics (from Lamarck to Comte, Spencer, Darwin, Marx…). Evolutionary models are rampant because they seem to make sense of perplexing realities. This is the reason why museum curators who are trained to think about how to communicate complex realities love evolutionary theories. As Paul Carter (2015) has observed, the contemporary academic discourse (we may include museography here) tends to exclude complexity. On the other hand, lack of complexity is seen as a positive side-effect of evolutionary theories. Evolutionary psychology, for instance, is promoted by its advocates as «the long-forestalled scientific attempt to assemble out of the disjointed, fragmentary, and mutually contradictory human disciplines a single, logically integrated research framework for the psychological, social, and behavioral sciences» (Tooby, Cosmides 2005: p. 5). Essentially, evolutionism represents history as a linear progress from the primitive to the complex and modern. What stands at the end—be it the Doric order, science, civilization, or democracy—is seen as a universal achievement. On the other hand, anything or anyone that has not risen to the last stage of the evolutionary process is depicted as lacking something and as still developing. Arguably, evolutionary models that were, and still are, used to justify Western domination over allegedly more primitive and less developed cultures have in Vitruvius one of their earliest advocates. If this is the case, Vitruvius would appear highly relevant to the history of ideas. He appears, however, much less relevant to the history of the Doric. As fascinating as his model may be at first glance, it tells us little or nothing about the historical processes that led to the formation of the Doric canon in seventh/sixth century BC Greece.
A critical museum might therefore want to explain these processes without Vitruvius. Yet, it might aspire to be more than a critique of Vitruvius. While building on the awareness that his evolutionary model is inadequate, it might be worthwhile arguing for a radically different approach, one that abandons any kind of evolutionism. What happens, if we think of the Doric not in terms of progress or evolution, but simply as a dramatic shift in the articulation of sacred spaces? What if we look at the Doric as some kind of “epistemological shift” (M. Foucault) that entailed no objective progress or improvement, but simply replaced one form of ritual environment with another—maybe because the new way of representing space, religion, ritual, myth expressed the new needs and circumstances of those who commissioned and financed the new buildings.
Here the theme of “extinction” comes in. For unlike an evolutionary process, an epistemological shift follows no lines of development, no natural selection, no scale of progress. It usually takes place in the context of social and cultural conflicts. Here, what seems to be an achievement for one, may turn out to be a loss for another. New languages, styles, rituals, economic and political systems replace and repress older ones. Some groups benefit from such processes, others face marginalization, social downgrading, or even extinction. In other words: once we abandon the compass of evolution, the ambiguity of progress emerges. If there is no sequence of stages from primitive to more complex and it is social and cultural shifts that determine the passage from one mode of building to another, older “stages” might not be contained in more recent ones. This has maybe never been as obvious as today, as cultural knowledge, languages, and techniques disappear in an unprecedented rate. Our urbanization, industrialization and globalization represent a collective amnesia whose cost may never be known because so much of what is lost has never been recorded, let alone properly acknowledged and evaluated.
Abandoning the framework of evolutionism therefore means questioning the very possibility of history in the Vitruvian sense. The notion of evolution gave history an overall direction and made it possible to compare different cultures and epochs. Even more: the evolutionary model gave history depth. In an evolutionary perspective, the Doric temples still had something of the primordial wooden architectures that according to Vitruvius stood at their origin. In a similar perspective, in today’s society we can find the archetypes of primordial life. This has far-reaching consequences for historiography. For although we may not be familiar with each and every step in the long development from primitive to complex, from wood huts to stone temples, from villages to cities and so on, evolutionism suggests that there is one line along which all cultures can be assessed and compared, one story that connects them all. Again, this is just what museum curators are looking for: the famous fil rouge that helps to make sense of a variety of objects from different epochs. Without evolution, however, the line falls apart, history becomes an infinite number of histories and fragments of histories that overlay and obscure older fragments. Nothing guarantees that the fragments or “stages” we observe in our historical record are more meaningful or complex than the stages they have overwritten and replaced. If the Doric order is not simply an evolution of older, less-known wooden architectures, nothing implies that those older architectures were less beautiful in their own way, less perfect, less complex and less meaningful. Nor is there any certainty that that we can have the slightest idea of the architectures and religious landscapes of earlier periods through the technique of historical interpolation based on the assumption of natural stages of development. These implications extend far beyond the history of architecture to embrace all aspects of culture that architecture is supposed to represent – indeed the very assumption of representative forms following practical function breaks down. If seen like this, the revision of the Doric from a non-evolutionary perspective has consequences for the history of Greek religion also before the diffusion of the Doric order, given that much of what is commonly assumed with regard to Early Iron Age temples, rituals, and religious ideas has been inferred from later stages as postulated on the basis of an evolutionary model.
I started thinking in this direction while working with colleagues on the architecture section in the museum of Paestum. Paestum, the ancient Poseidonia, has been one of the key sites for the modern adaption of the Vitruvian theory, as the three well preserved Doric temples still visible on the site were relatively easy to reach compared to other sites like Agrigento or Athens (Fig. 2).
From John Soane to Mies van der Rohe, an impressing number of modern architects and architectural theorists have taken inspiration from the site. However, in the Museum, the pieces of a frieze belonging to yet another Doric temple are exhibited. The temple stood near the mouth of the Sele River, about 9 kilometers north of the city and is the oldest one known so far in Paestum, dating from around 570/60 BC, i.e. from the years in which the first canonical Doric stone temples are attested. But what is more: unlike the temples in the city, the old temple on the Sele River was full of images. All the forty metopes known so far are decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from Greek myth. And it is these scenes that to my eyes suggest that the Doric marks a profound shift in Greek temple building, ritual and religion, rather than an evolution stemming from older traditions.
The “Extinction of the Centaurs”
In the local context—Paestum, a Greek colony in southern Italy—nothing in these images appears to be “resulting from a consideration of Nature,” as Vitruvius required the Doric order to be. Nothing “has its proper place, origin, and purpose.” An example may illustrate this quite well: the myth of Heracles and the Centaurs of Mount Pholoe, an episode that is represented on a sequence of six metopes from the Sele temple (Fig. 3). Briefly, the story runs as follows: when Heracles came to the woods of Pholoe in Arcadia, his host, the old Centaur Pholos, opened a barrel of wine that once was given to him by none other than the god Dionysus. The smell of the wine arouses the other Centaurs living on Mount Pholoe, which is a flat-topped table mountain north-east of Olympia. Like all savage and barbarian people, the Centaurs are incapable of keeping their passions under control; they are attracted by the wine to the point of attacking Heracles, who kills them with his bow.
Now consider the migration of this myth:
Place. The myth is not in its “proper place” (locus proper), given that the story is set hundreds of kilometers away and has nothing to do with the local landscape. In fact, we never hear about Centaurs living in Italy.
Origin. The presence of the Centaurs from Pholoe in Paestum therefore also undermines the Vitruvian principle of genealogy (Vitruvius speaks of the genus, that is “origin” or “genealogy” of the canon). The Centaurs are a non-indigenous species that were introduced to Paestum by the Greeks who thereby threatened the local mythological fauna (a process also known as Hellenization). As a matter of fact, we know nothing about the original, pre-Greek mythical inhabitants of the area. Since the local populations did not write their stories down, the Greek rewriting of the religious topography of Paestum, and southern Italy in general, extinguished an unknown number of local genealogies of myths and legends and had a devastating effect on the mythodiversity of the region.
Purpose. The images do not exhibit the stead-y purpose or direction proper to the elements of the Doric temple according to Vitruvius (ordo proper). Unlike the triglyphs in Vitruvius’ model, the images are adapted to new purposes that may have nothing to do with the original function of the represented subjects. According to the majority of scholars, the purpose of the metopes from Paestum was extremely time- and place-specific. In the aftermath of the Greek occupation of the formerly non-Greek territory of Paestum, the episodes on the metopes are interpreted as celebrating the triumph of Greek colonizing virtues over the rough and primitive habits of the Indigenous, “Barbarian” peoples. Heracles represents Greek sobriety, resourcefulness and just measure, the Centaurs subhuman savagery. Unless it leads to a Greek symposium, where music and poetry keep inebriation in check, drunkenness is typical of uncivilized, lawless and violent peoples. Such a reading is closely linked to the colonial setting of the images. It certainly does not correspond to the original “arrangement” (another possible translation for ordo) that the myth once had in Arcadia, which was not a colonial area.
Thus, the “extinction” of the Centaurs as represented on the metopes from the Sele sanctuary is only superficially their killing by the hand of Heracles and the celebration of a Greek founder hero in a new territory: more profoundly, it refers to a prior overthrow of the Indigenous gods in Arcadia and to the transplantation of this civilizational tactic to a colonial environment, where it now expresses the new colonial goal of Hellenization associated, as already indicated, with the sudden and widespread adoption of the Doric style.
As it turns out, the Doric emerges in historical and spatial contexts where the form follows function argument clearly did not apply, and where instead new social, cultural and ethnopolitical environments shaped architectural developments. It characterizes the history of the Doric as involving an epistemic shift promoted by local elites in the Greek cities of the Peloponnese and in the colonies. If seen like this, the Doric loses its natural innocence associated with the argument from inevitability and begins to appear as an oppositional expression of hegemony consciously built on the repression of local, non-elite and non-Greek voices.
The revision of the Doric in non-evolutionary terms contributes to a broader debate about the possibilities of writing history in a post-colonial and post-humanistic framework. Contextualizing the Doric in a specific social and political environment—a “small Greek world” (Irad Malkin) that lasted not more two or three centuries—means pulling it out of the timeless space of natural laws and natural beauty. It means, as I see it, making an attempt to “think Europe as a province” historically (Gayatri Spivak) and “to reconsider the project of the seemingly simple, but impossible, task of harnessing the non-western world to a linear and homogeneous sense of development and ‘progress’” (Iain Chambers). What is important in this context is that the evolutionary model can be understood with particular clarity in one of its earliest and most influential manifestations, the cult of classical architecture. The types of architecture, art, culture, administration that we call “classical” on the grounds that they were preserved while others vanished, are not the prolongation of any evolution. They have replaced and overwritten other styles and forms of expression as a result of technological, political, and epistemic shifts. Studying such shifts means taking note of the fact that history has no genetic memory that secures and preserves recessed traditions, and—despite what archaeologists and historians may imagine—is not even a rubbish heap where fragments of the past can be picked up at leisure and stuck back together. History may be better compared to a digital file that continues to be rewritten; contents remain readable for some time until the space is needed for new data.
Tracing subaltern voices: images and imagination
How, then, could all this be adopted to a museum of classical art and architecture? How could alternative, non-evolutionary narratives look? I admit that we are still looking for answers. One attempt, however, has already been implemented: the new audio guide of the museum will tell the story of the metopes from the Sele River and the myths represented on them from the perspective of an indigenous slave woman (written by Chiara Boracchi, Cinzia Dal Maso and Gabriel Zuchtriegel). This kind of story-telling – obviously with fictional elements, as we know little or nothing about the views of non-Greek subaltern women on Greek myth – helps making it clear that not everybody perceived Classical architecture as the great achievement as it was depicted by Vitruvius and his followers.
 The topics addressed in this paper are the object of a larger study which I am currently working on for Cambridge University Press.
Gwilt J., (translated by) The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in Ten Books, Priestly and Weale, 1826.
Carter P., Metabolism: The Exhibition of the Unseen, Lyon HouseMuseum, 2015.
Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Evolutionary psychology: Conceptual foundations. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), Evolutionary Psychology Handbook. Wiley, New York 2005.
Gabriel Zuchtriegel holds a PhD degree in Classical Archaeology from University of Bonn. He has been fellow of Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, the German Archaeological Institute and the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation and has conducted fieldwork in southern Italy and Sicily. He has taught courses at University of Bonn (Germany) and University of Basilicata (Italy). He has worked for the Soprintendenza di Pompei and is currently in charge of the Museum and Archaeological site of Paestum. Published works include a monograph on ancient Gabii (Latinum), edited volumes, journal papers, and articles in newspapers and popular science magazines.