For Beauty and Grandeur in the World We Build

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Past Lectures and Symposia

The Lost Painting of Classical Antiquity

Sappho Portrait from pompeiiEducated people tend to think of Pompeii’s frescoed walls as ranking among the highest achievements of Greco-Roman antiquity. Leonard Porter, a New York City-based painter, put the matter in perspective during a tour of the National Gallery of Art exhibition, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, and in a generously illustrated lecture at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia.

Porter, who himself works in the classical tradition, observed that the mural decoration at Pompeii is typically derivative and workshop-level, reflecting rather than rivaling the great achievements of Greek painters of preceding centuries. Indeed, Porter emphasized in his lecture, while brilliant works of sculpture and architecture from antiquity have survived, nothing rivaling the masterpieces of painting described by ancient authors has ever been found.

Yet this reality hardly detracts from the immense charm of the richly-hued paintings at Pompeii and nearby sites, or at Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome, where a higher level of artistry is evident. Porter also noted the convincing evidence pointing to remarkable technical advances on the part of Greek painters in the areas of perspective and foreshortening — and even in the employment of light and shade, as opposed to just line and silhouette, in modeling the figure. Porter discussed changing notions of ancient painting since the Renaissance, which largely reflected the amount of archeological evidence available to artists in different periods. He described how more or less imaginative attempts to reconstruct it have influenced modern (i.e., post-medieval) Western art.

The lecture, co-sponsored with the Alexandria Association, and the exhibition tour took place on March 16, 2009.

Death, Politics and Memorials

Joseph BottumThe poet and editor Joseph Bottum’s essay Death and Politics has been hailed as a seminal achievement since it appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of First Things.

The essay analyzes death’s metaphysical ramifications for politics, and leads us to the idea of community not just as an association of the living, but of the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. The essay’s ramifications for the public realm, which is the fundamental expression of community, could not be more profound.

A lecture-symposium sponsored by the National Civic Art Society and Georgetown University’s Toqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy allowed Bottum to further explore modernity’s response to death, while offering a critique of two major commemorative landscapes, Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC, and Arlington Memorial Cemetery. Three distinguished respondents — National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, New Criterion co-editor and co-publisher Roger Kimball, and architecture historian and liturgical scholar Denis McNamara — commented on Bottum’s lecture, entitled “Living With the Dead, Why Cities Need Cemeteries and Nations Need Memorials.” This extraordinary, well-attended event took place on March 17, 2008, at Georgetown University’s InterCultural Center Auditorium.

Historic Preservation

Frank Gehry’s proposed Corcoran Gallery AdditionThe Society sponsored an important and well-attended symposium, Architecture of the Whole: Additions to Historic Buildings and Neighborhoods, in October 2006.

Speakers included the late Professor Paul Spencer Byard of Columbia, a highly influential exponent of preservation grounded in a modernist art-historical outlook, and Professor Steven W. Semes of Notre Dame, who advocates reinforcing the historic character of a given place through the design of architectural additions. Other speakers included Calder Loth of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Sharon Park, then in charge of administering the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings, the standard preservation template.

The symposium took place as part of the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference presented by Restore Media at the Washington Hilton. First Lady Laura Bush wrote a gracious letter of welcome to symposium participants.

The Society also organized a tour of Washington sites illustrating the issues raised at the symposium.

Henry Hope Reed Capitol Luncheon and Lecture

Capitol DomeHenry Hope Reed is the historian of architecture and decoration who, more than anyone, set the stage for the current resurgence of the classical tradition in the arts.

The Society is honored to count Reed among its founding members and to have sponsored a luncheon celebrating his culminating work, The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration, in the Capitol’s magnificent Lyndon Baines Johnson Room. This important event took place on December 1, 2004.

After receiving a brilliant introduction from Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Reed delivered a concise and captivating illustrated lecture about the Capitol.

The Henry Hope Reed Capitol Luncheon and Lecture event was made possible in part through the generous support of Messrs. Andy del Gallo and Kevin Roustazad of Eastern Memorials and Mr. Christopher Forbes.

Alexander Stoddart, Monumental Sculptor

witherspoon statue  princeton university alexander stoddart, sc. In April 2004, the Scottish Classical sculptor Alexander Stoddart spoke about the counter-cultural nature of his vocation in a postmodern age.

Stoddart, who collaborated with architect John Simpson in the sculptural decoration of the new Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, is also known for his civic monuments in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Atlanta, and Princeton, New Jersey. The American Arts Quarterly has hailed Stoddart as “clearly the most important British sculptor of his generation.”

Sponsored by the Society, the Stoddart lecture took place at the Arts Club of Washington.

John Simpson, Classical Architect

Fellows’ Dining Room gonville and caius COllege Cambridge University John Simpson, Arch’t The Society’s first event was an October 2002 lecture by the distinguished London-based classical architect, John Simpson, designer of the new Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, as well as extensive renovations at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and other noteworthy institutional projects. The lecture took place at the Cosmos Club in Washington.

A mannerist and eclectic in the tradition of his compatriots Soane and Nash, Simpson places great emphasis, like other architects in the Prince of Wales’s circle, on solid masonry construction. His Queen’s Gallery project was very favorably reviewed in the British press.