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When confronted with defining what constituted protected speech in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Jacobellis v. Ohio, the Justices did not have an easy time of it. At issue was the definition of obscenity. Emanating from this case was Justice Potter Stewart’s well-known dictum, “I know it when I see it.” I would hardly equate the Corinthian Order with what the Justices had to consider in Jacobellis case. Yet, it seems that when trying to define the concept of classicism, “I know it when I see it” seems just as valid for us as it was when a difficult-to-define concept was presented to the Court almost six decades ago. While we frequently consider what comes under the definition of classicism, few have crystallized what it means.

Several years ago, when I had the honor of serving as a board member for the Mid Atlantic Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), whether or not we should include a definition of “classical” in our mission statement came up. It made sense on some level that an organization that was charged with maintaining such precepts as those that came down to us from antiquity should define its terms. It was important that so that our members would have a clear understanding of the organization’s goals. This proved a far more complex task than it would appear. Ultimately, we decided that we could manage without a precise definition because our mission was clear.

This conclusion is partially true. We all agreed that the term did not refer to a style. Instead, it was more of an idea as to what cultures thought of and employed as their best traditions. This was easy to understand in the context of another frequently-used, yet never really clearly-defined term “classical antiquity.” If we all agreed that the best building traditions (at least in Western societies) came down to us from the Greeks (but which periods? Hellenic? Archaic? Classical?) and the Romans (kingdoms? Republic? Empire?), then we understood the parameters of what was built, and perhaps what should be built. In many years of studying architecture and the building trades, I never encountered a clear definition of what this meant either. Are we still stuck with “I know it when I see it?”

In looking at building traditions, we can refer to dozens of sources telling us what the “shoulds” are that constitute classicism manifested in the built environment. On some level, understanding the individual definitions of Palladio, Vignola, and Chambers is easier than trying to understand the topic more generally. Beauty and order were reduced to measurable systems that helped each generation and each set of builders understand what was expected of them. “Classicism” became more of an edict for what was “correct” rather than anything else. A system of “shoulds” or “musts,” carefully organized, described, and codified, became the hallmark of classicism.

This is a place to start, but does it answer the question as to which traditions fall under the rubric of classicism? We are confronted with another set of issues when we examine other sets of traditions that evolved under the Romans. How do we understand traditions that are related to, but are not necessarily the progeny of, what we typically consider classical? Vitruvius, in Chapter I of The Ten Books on Architecture, shares the idea that the earliest civilizations exchanged methods about how buildings were to be built:

In 2018 at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, the exhibition Islamic Art and Florence From the Medicis to the 20th Century chronicled the long-lasting and reciprocal exchanges between the city and the Islamic world during a 500-year period. The gallery’s director notes that the Italian Renaissance would not have existed without the contributions of Islamic scholarship, that Florence’s interaction with the Muslim world originated in the Middle Ages, escalated with the Medicis, and continues to today. Shouldn’t we consider these cultural exchanges as how we might reconsider our definition?

In that same year, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles mounted an exhibition titled Beyond the Nile, Egypt and the Classical World. This exhibition explored the interplay between these cultures from the Bronze Age to Roman times. We seldom consider the exchange of cultures that shared traditions but seem to focus only on one set of traditions. Given that, perhaps it’s better that we don’t have a clear definition of classicism. Do we really know it when we see it?

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