The History of Plaster in Architecture
Rococo and Neoclassical
The vigor of the Baroque and its departure from the purer Classicism of the Renaissance quickly led to controversy among humanists and architectural theorists. In France this culminated at the close of the 17th century in the “Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes” or “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.” At question was whether “modern” society had reached a state of enlightenment surpassing that of the Greeks and Romans (and by implication the Church as well). If this was indeed the case, perhaps there was justification for liberation from the authority of the ancient philosophies and institutions as well.
During the same period France and England were engaged in an economic, military and cultural struggle to decide which nation would become the singular, dominant influential force of a reinvigorated and empowered Western civilization. Among the most significant battlegrounds for establishing each one’s cultural authority was development of a national architecture. France would side with the “moderns” and proceed to develop a powerful secular artistic style that was decidedly their own.
The Baroque may have reached its greatest expression in Germany as an architectural manifestation of the Counter Reformation. However, Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” was determined to capture the emotional power of the Baroque for the glory of the French monarchy. This he did to grand effect in the expansion of the Palais du Louvre and the Château de Versailles. As with church architecture, secular French Baroque floors were plain, walls informed by classical design being relatively unadorned at eye level whereas exuberant grandeur was reserved for the ceilings above.
His great grandson and successor, Louis XV would continue to expand and embellish Versailles and under his regime a residential style was formalized that became the envy of Europeon nobility. Rococo was a significant reinterpretation of the Baroque that would forever change interior design. The intimacy, delicacy and lightness of French Rococo supplanted the exuberance and majesty of the former Baroque. In so doing it created more comfortable, livable spaces. Columns and pilasters were replaced by panelized walls, rich entablatures by soft coves, applied surface ornament in low relief displaced modeled sculpture in high relief. Advances in plaster compositions allowed ornamental appliqués to be applied directly to furniture, doors, panels and wall surfaces alike.
There was a conspicuous materialism associated with French Rococo. Quite often the floors were simple wood parquet, an archetype of the physical earth. Likewise the ceilings, save for a central rosette, were largely unadorned often painted a soft blue in imitation of the literal sky in direct contrast to the Baroque depiction of an idealized spiritual heaven represented with allegorical frescoes and sculpture in high relief. Panelized walls of Rococo featured ornament at eye level, at a human scale of natural asymmetrical forms of flora and fauna as well as the signature “rocaille” shell-like centerpieces evoking turmoil, variety, surprise and movement.
The Rococo was never warmly embraced in England and where the “French style” existed it was generally a more subdued version. The English initially turned to the Gothic for inspiration igniting a revival that frequently utilized plaster in a decorative manner where stone had been originally used structurally. The return to the Gothic has been attributed to the more conservative character of the English; however, one might imagine political animosity also played a role in the rejection of French influences.
Inspired from a visit to the Veneto in 1714, Architect William Kent would lead the charge of bringing England back to its architectural senses, turning to Palladio for inspiration. For the first time since the beginning of the Renaissance the English would be establishing their own decorative style that others, including the French, would soon emulate. In complete contrast to Rococo, the embrace of Palladio’s interpretation of the Classical resulted in a comparatively restrained and ordered aesthetic.
A few years later a Scottish stone mason turned architect by the name of William Adam would also embrace the incoming Palladian influence. In the mid-18th century his sons James and Robert Adam would take a four year tour to Rome to study the recently uncovered ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and other notable classical and early Renaissance sites. The Adams brothers were astute businessmen, patenting their signature “Adams style” designs perfectly suited for reproduction in plaster. Variations of Neoclassical design would dominate English style and that of her former colonies until the early 20th century.
Palladianism in Colonial America
The influence of English Neoclassicism was immediately felt in colonial America, a precursor to a federal style. Although the virgin forests of the continent meant a steady supply of wood for years to come, interior plaster, especially ornamental plaster would see widespread use in fine homes and government buildings. With its Anglican lineage plaster thus became an inherited contribution to an emerging American architectural and cultural patrimony. In many respects the United States has now taken the cultural lead in the Western world. Our next article in the series will explore a brief history of plaster in the United States and the current state of the art.