Classical Comments: The Bracketed Cornice

by Calder Loth

Among the most influential of all treatises on classical architecture is Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola’s Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture (1562). The work is primarily a manual for drawing and applying each of the orders. It illustrates no designs with the exception of the last plate—Plate 32, a design for a cornice. The design incorporates what is essentially a Corinthian cornice using standard scrolled modillions enriched with acanthus leaves. However, below each modillion is an elongated console occupying a tall frieze area somewhat resembling a Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes. (Fig. 1) This makes for a building crown with strong vertical emphasis. Vignola’s text for the plate states the following: I have used this cornice successfully in my work on the upper part of façades. Although it is my invention, I do not find it inappropriate to place it at the end of this work for those who want to use it. The height of the façade should be divided into 11 parts, 1 of which should be assigned to the cornice and the remaining 10 to the façade.

Vignola, Plate 32 
Fig. 1: Plate 32, Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture

Villa Farnese, Italy                                               
Fig. 2: Villa Franese at Caparola, Italy (Loth)

Palazzo Altieri, Rome 
Fig. 3: Palazzo Altieri, Rome (Loth)

  Philadelphia, Chestnut Street 
Fig. 4: bank buildings, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia (Loth)

  Stearns Block, Richmond                                           
Fig. 5: Stearns Block, Richmond, Virginia (Loth)

Vignola thus is offering a cornice weighty enough to cap a very tall building, a design known to us as the ‘bracketed cornice.’ It would be difficult to name a single plate in any architectural treatise having more widespread influence than Vignola’s Plate 32. Thousands of cornices throughout the Western World owe their appearance directly or indirectly to this illustration of Vignola’s ‘invention.’ One of the earliest uses of the cornice is found on Vignola’s own work: the Villa Farnese at Caparola, completed ca. 1575.  (Fig. 2) The bracketed cornice topping this huge pentagonal structure has to carry not only the building’s upper order but also the entire towering façade. A standard entablature proportioned to the villa’s uppermost pilasters would be too weak. Numerous Italian Renaissance palaces employing bracketed cornices soon appeared. Typical of many is Antonio de Rossi’s Palazzo Altieri in Rome, begun in 1650, its façade given prominence by the Vignola-style cornice. (Fig. 3)
The use of the bracketed cornice underwent an extensive resurgence in mid-19th-century America with the popularization of the Italian Renaissance image or Italianate style for commercial and residential buildings. The Italianate style was a convenient means for introducing patrician elegance to façades in the cities and towns of the expanding young nation. We see dignified examples of this phenomenon in Philadelphia’s mid-19th-century bank buildings, lending a flavor of Renaissance Venice to Chestnut Street. (Fig. 4 ) Many such facades could be produced quickly and cheaply using cast-iron elements as on the 1869 Stearns Block in Virginia, the components of which were produced by Heyward, Bartlett, & Co. of Baltimore. (Fig. 5) Nearly every one of New York City’s Italianate-style brownstones boasts a bracketed cornice. A relatively late but classic example of a Vignola-type bracketed cornice tops the 1920 Ziegler mansion by Sterner & Wolfe on 63rd Street, now the New York Academy of Sciences (Fig. 6)

New York, Ziegler Mansion detail
Fig. 6:  cornice detail, Ziegler House, New York City  (Loth)

The introduction of steam-powered industrial saws in the 1840s made possible an extraordinary variety of wooden brackets for Italianate-style structures. The page of brackets shown in the 1870s catalogue of the J. J. Montague Woodworking Co. of Richmond, Virginia is a tiny sample of the range of brackets commercially available for decorating one’s home or shop. (Fig. 7) The mid-19th-century country house near Odessa, Delaware illustrates how the use of a bold bracketed cornice could transform an American family home into an Italian palazzo. (Fig. 8) Indeed, no matter how humble, a bracketed cornice could link even a 19th-century working-class dwelling to the glories of the Italian Renaissance. (Fig .9

J.J. Montague Co. brackets
Fig. 7:  J. J. Montague Woodworking Company Catalogue, Richmond, Virginia

Italianate House, Odessa, Del.
Fig. 8: farmhouse near Odessa, Delaware (Loth)

We might think that the bracketed cornice has been played out: all that can be said with it has been said. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see a new interpretation Vignola’s invention, in of all places downtown Moscow. There the imaginative architect, Ilya Utkin, has inspired us with his elegant Dvoryanskoye Gnezdo (A Nest of Gentryfolk), a luxury apartment house completed in 2004 and sporting a bold version of the bracket cornice. (Fig. 10)

Oregon Hill House, Richmond
Fig. 9: worker’s dwelling, Oregon Hill, Richmond, Virginia (Loth)

Dvoryanskoye Gnezdo
Fig. 10: Dvoryanskoye Gnezdo, Moscow, Russia (Loth)

Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America: Call for Submissions for the 2011 Arthur Ross Awards

Arthur_Ross-1 Arthur Ross (1910-2007)

Nominations and submissions for the 2011 Arthur Ross Awards are due on Wednesday, December 15, 2010. Established in 1982 by Classical America chairman of the board, Arthur Ross, and its president, Henry Hope Reed, the Arthur Ross Awards were created to recognize and celebrate excellence in the classical tradition. From the beginning, the awards have recognized the achievements and contributions of architects, painters, sculptors, artisans, landscape designers, educators, publishers, patrons, and others dedicated to preserving and advancing the classical tradition.

The Arthur Ross Awards now encompass eleven categories: architecture, artisanship, community design, education, history and publishing, landscape design, painting/mural painting, patronage, rendering, sculpture, and stewardship. There is a limit of five awards selected each year from across this spectrum of vital and mutually-reinforcing roles, along occasionally with special recognition across categories as recommended by the Arthur Ross jury and affirmed by the board of directors as was the case with the multi-disciplinary salute to scholar, educator, and preservationist (and guest blogger), Calder Loth.

A jury consisting of ICA&CA board members, Council of Advisors, Fellows, and distinguished experts in pertinent professions chooses awardees each year. The 2011 jury chairman is William Harrison, ICA&CA board member and founder of Harrison Design Associates. Details on categories and criteria, submission and nomination requirements, and past winners are available now.


Of Note: ICA&CA's President on Memorializing through the Creation of Dynamic Public Space

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America's president Paul Gunther has written an article for the Huffington Post online examining what goes into creating a successful public memorial space. See his article here:

How Will We Remember Ground Zero? Strawberry Fields Shows the Vital Importance of Good Design

Classical Comments: The Block Modillion

by Calder Loth

The block modillion is a little used classical detail but one meriting greater attention. Hardly any architectural treatises or glossaries make note of it. In fact, it is difficult to find agreement on what to call it.[i]  Among the few 18th century architectural design books to illustrate the block modillion is James Gibbs’s Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732). For plates LX and LXI, Gibbs describes cornices employing block modillions as “block cornices”. The most conspicuous ancient use of the block modillion is seen in the cornices of the main body of the Pantheon in Rome (figs. 1 & 2). Block modillions also survive on the Curia Julia (A.D. 283) in the Roman Forum, but this building was not illustrated in any of the Renaissance or 18th-century treatises.  Detailed drawings of the Pantheon’s block modillions were first published in Palladio’s Quattro Libri (1570). A more precise illustration appeared in Antoine Desgodetz’s 1682 Les Edifices Antiques de Rome (fig. 3). Here we see the modillion essentially as a square block reduced by nearly half by undercutting with a cyma recta curve, replicating the profile of a standard crown molding. Rome’s Coliseum has block modillions in its uppermost cornice; however, they employ a cyma reversa profile (fig. 4).

Pantheon, Rome 2 1. Pantheon, Rome (Loth)


Pantheon, cornice detail 2. Pantheon, upper cornice detail. The raking cornice modillions are restorations. (Loth)


Desgodetz, Pantheon cornice 3. Pantheon cornice, Desgodetz, Les Edifices Antiques de Rome. Plate XI.


Coliseum, modillion detail

4. Coliseum, top cornice detail (Loth) 

For colonial America, Palladio’s and Gibbs’s illustrations of the block modillion probably served as the main sources for the form.  One of America’s earliest uses of the block modillion is the exterior cornice of the 1748 Public Records office in Williamsburg, Virginia (figs. 5 & 6). William Buckland showed that block modillions were suitable for interiors, even in an exotic setting, when he applied them in the cornice of the Chinese Room at Gunston Hall, completed in 1755 (figs.7 & 8).  George Washington also used block modillions for Mount Vernon’s stair hall cornice, but switched to cyma reversa block modillions for the exterior cornice (fig. 9). A source for Washington’s builders may have been Plate XLIII in Batty Langley’s Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1740), a work that includes the design for Mount Vernon’s rusticated pediment window.[ii] We find a 20th-century example on Richmond’s Monument Avenue where block modillions make a bold cornice for a 1929 three-story town house  (figs. 10 & 11). The block modillion cornice, either wood or masonry, can be a distinctive character-defining feature for restrained classical works of the 21st- century.

Public Records Office, CW 
5. Public Records Office, Williamsburg, Virginia (Loth)

Public Records Office CW detail 6.Public Records Office, Williamsburg, cornice detail (Loth)

Gunston Hall, Chinese Room
7. Chinese Room, Gunston Hall, Fairfax County, Virginia (courtesy of Gunston Hall)

Gunston Hall cornice
8. Chinese Room, Gunston Hall, cornice (Loth)

Mount Vernon cornice detail 9. Mount Vernon,Fairfax County, Virginia, cornice detail (Loth




Monument Ave (2324)10. 2324 Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virgina (Loth) 



Monument Ave (2324) detail
11. Cornice detail, 2324 Monument Avenue (Loth) 

[i]The term block modillion is also sometimes used to refer to a plain rectangular modillion.

[ii]Cyma reversa sill brackets are illustrated on Plate XL of Langley’s book.

Calder Loth is the Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute's Advisory Council.

He was the 2010 recipient of ICA&CA’s Board of Directors Honor Award.


Cumberland River Floods Cumberland Architectural Millwork

On Saturday, May 1, and Sunday, May 2, 2010, back-to-back 500-year storms dumped well over a foot of rain on Nashville, Tennessee. The Cumberland River overflowed flooding downtown Nashville for the first time since the U.S. Army built flood-control dams on the Cumberland River in the 1940s. More than 30 persons were killed in the floodwaters, and the damage to businesses and homes was enormous.


Sitting on the north bank of the Cumberland  River is Cumberland Architectural Millwork. Co-owner Martin S. Roberts III is a founding board member of the Tennessee Chapter. When the heavy rains continued all day on Sunday, and the news began reporting widespread flooding, Roberts headed down to inspect his shops and make sure all was well. As of Sunday evening, the river was almost three feet below floor level of his lowest-lying building, the casework shop. The river at that point was higher than it had been in years, and the word went out that it had crested. Roberts went home in hopes they were right.


However, the unprecedented rains outstripped all predictions. When Roberts arrived back at work Monday morning, the casework shop was already inundated. Eventually, more than three feet of water would flow through the building.


The millwork shop, which sat a little higher across the street, was within inches of being flooded. Roberts and his workers began furiously moving computers, files, drawings and millwork to higher ground. This last-minute effort saved most of the millwork and important files, but when the Corps of Engineers saw that Old Hickory Dam was dangerously near overtopping, they made the decision to open the floodgates, and the Cumberland rose still higher, flooding the millworks shop with a foot of water.


By Tuesday, the water level had dropped enough that workers could begin cleaning up the millworks shop. One day later, Roberts’ employees were working again, churning out millwork even while the cleanup went on around them.


The caseworks shop across the street would take six weeks to come back on line. Trucks hauled off 38 30-yard dumpsters full of materials lost to the flood damage, and almost all the casework and millwork equipment were total losses. But by the end of June, all the lost equipment had been replaced and the shop was fully functional and productive once again.


ICA&CA Tour to Buenos Aires in Photographs

The inaugural ICA&CA tour to Buenos Aires (May 15 - 22, 2010) was a huge success. See highlights below in photographs by tour participant, ICA&CA Professional member, and Sponsor of the Forum and Classicist,  Michael Vella of Vella Interiors.

Presidential Palace Casa Rosada (1870)The Presidential Palace Casa Rosada (1870). That’s our group at the bottom, left  hand corner.

Teatro Colon

The Teatro Colon, considered one of the most important Opera Houses in the world. The Theater has been closed for massive renovations during the last year and was scheduled to open a week after this photo was taken. We were permitted to tour the interior while workers were punch listing.

Palacio Paz

Palacio Paz. Built 1902 for wealthy families who divided their time between Paris, London and Buenos Aires.

Copy of Buenos Aires 137

Our group at the Palacio Pereda, now the Brazilian Ambassador’s residence. (That’s Michael Vella at the far left)

2nd floor Stair Hall of the Boshe Palace The 2nd floor Stair Hall of the Boshe Palace, residence of the US  Ambassador.

Bosche Palace interior The paneled walls of one of the rooms at the Bosche Palace.

Rear elevation of the Bosch Palace The magnificent rear elevation of the Bosch Palace.

Entry Hall of the Boshe Palace Great image of the Entry Hall of the Boshe Palace.

Copy of Buenos Aires 204 The group at the main stair of the Boshe Palace. The plaque behind us notes that Franklin Delano Roosevelt resided there for a few days in 1936.  

Copy of Buenos Aires 210 An image of the modern urban architecture outside the Fortabat Museum 

Copy of Buenos Aires 213 A colorful fruit stand in TIGRE

Palacio San Martin Palacio San Martin. Image of courtyard.

Palacio San Martin Palacio San Martin. Image of courtyard.

Street elevation of the Palacio San Martin Street elevation of the Palacio San Martin

Copy of Buenos Aires 312 Our group after dinner and a tour at the Jockey Club.


Classical Comments by Calder Loth

 NOTE: This is the first of a series of short essays for the Classicist Blog by Calder Loth on various aspects of Classical architecture.


The Ionic Temple on the Ilissus, Athens 

Though much altered and deteriorated, the diminutive Ionic temple on the bank of Athens’ Ilissus River survived into the mid-18th century. Enough ancient fabric was intact for James Stuart and Nicholas Revett to record it and publish restoration drawings in the first volume of their monumental work, The Antiquities of Athens (1762). The ruin was taken apart for its materials around 1778 and the Ilissus River is now covered under the sprawl of modern Athens. Nevertheless, with its simple elegance, the temple’s Ionic order became a favorite for Greek Revival buildings throughout America. The temple apparently had sculpted frieze decorations; however, Stuart & Revett’s elevation shows a plain frieze, which appealed to architects and builders. The frieze decorations were suggested with faint lines on a detail illustration. Other distinguishing features of the order are the Greek ovolos employed for the abacus and taenia, the plain architrave, and the graceful swag connecting the volutes. The order was subsequently published in several American pattern books, including Minard Lafever’s The Modern Builder’s Guide (1833), but the eight plates in The Antiquities of Athens remain the primary source.

S&R Temple on the Ilissus, ruin Temple on the Ilissus (as found), Chapter II, Plate I, The Antiquities of Athens

S&R, Temple on the Iissus, elevation Temple on the Ilissus, restored elevation, Chapter II, Plate III, The Antiquities of Athens

S&R Ionic, Ilissus, detail Temple on the Ilissus, detail of order, Chapter II, Plate VI, The Antiquities of Athens

Among the more conspicuous uses of the order are the entrances on several Washington Square town houses in New York (1833), the hall colonnades of Alexander Jackson Davis’s North Carolina State Capitol (1840), and Minard Lafever’s Sailors’ Snug Harbor complex on Staten Island (1833).  Perhaps the earliest American use of the order is found on George Hadfield’s former Washington, D.C. City Hall (1820), now part of the district’s courts complex.  A 20th-century example is John Russell Pope’s Baltimore Museum of Fine Arts (1929). In the latter three examples, the architects chose to leave the column shafts unfluted. The order remains an appropriate choice for modern classical works. 

  NYC, Washington Sq. Washington Square town house entrance, New York City (Loth)

NC State Capital, Ionic Interior capital, Old North Carolina State Capitol, Raleigh (Loth)

Sailors' Snug Harbor, portico Sailors’ Snug Harbor, entrance portico (Loth)

  Washington D.C. city hall detail Washington, D.C. former City Hall, portico detail (Loth)

Baltimore Museum detail Baltimore Museum of Art, portico detail (Loth)

Calder Loth is the Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute's Advisory Council.

He was the 2010 recipient of ICA&CA’s Board of Directors Honor Award.

The 2010 Rome Drawing Tour in Photographs and Drawings by Participant Greg Shue

Day 1: Sketching at the Campidoglio (below)


Day 1: Pencil Sketch of Campidoglio by Greg Shue


Day 2: Sketching at Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza- view of courtyard


Day 2: Watercolor Sketch of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza by Greg Shue


Day 2: The Pantheon- view looking through the front door 

Day 3: Palazzo Farnese - view from cafe in Piazza Farnese


Day 3: Villa Farnesina - rear elevation

2010-06-15 05.21.51 

Day 4: Courtyard at Villa Farnese in Caprarola

Day 4: Statues at the casino garden at Villa Farnese in Caprarola

DSCF3633 Day 5: Piazza del Popolo - the northern entrance to Rome

Day 5: Sant'Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona


Day 6: Grave site in The Protestant Cemetery - acanthus plant is also mournfully drooping across the wall

Day 6: Santa Maria in Trastevere - view of Cappella Avila


Day 6: The group sitting down for the farewell dinner after sharing sketches from the week


2010 ICA&CA Summer Professional Intensive Report

On Saturday, June 5th, students, faculty, and staff gathered for the Final Critique, marking the end of the 2010 Summer Professional Intensive.  This year's group of students was truly remarkable in that it was the first ICA&CA course for all.  Below you'll find a list of students, and a sampling of the work they produced over the course of their week at the Institute.


Thanks to faculty, students and staff for making this year's Summer Professional Intensive a success! 

Taksit J. Dhanagam, Cheverly, MD 
Gerald Forsburg, Mount Jackson, VA 
Kathryne Knight, Dallas, TX 
George Logusch, Silver Spring, MD 
Peter Miller, New York, NY
Qing Xue, Mishawaka, IN



Gerald Forsburg, President and Principal Designer at Shenandoah Design, LLC, had this to say about the program:

“The Summer Intensive was chock full of information and instruction that I have been hungering for since architectural school.  I often felt like I was shunned for wanting to learn classical architecture in school.  At the ICA, I was not only welcomed with open arms, but encouraged to pursue my passion of the classics.  I had to re-awaken concepts, such as proportion, that had been driven from me during my postmodern education years ago.  I am elated to have found the ICA and look forward to attending more courses, programs, lectures and instructional trips!”


Arthur Ross Award Pre-party Videos from Editor at Large