The word architecture is so broadly and so narrowly used that one may hardly venture to employ it until she has determined the limit of its application. It is impossible to eliminate from architecture the factor of usefulness, though this is larger in some structures than in others. In some, it predominates, and then people are disposed to call it engineering. But architecture is distinctively the art of design or of composition, and the term may be applied to structures which, though they may have no claim to beauty of detail, give evidence, in the composition and proportions of their masses, that their builders had a care for appearances, and purposely aimed at producing an effect of dignity and elegance suitable to the character of the monument. It is in this sense that we shall consider the term.
The aqueducts of Rome have been amply and exhaustively treated by writers in ancient and modern times. Books and papers have been written upon them from the point of view of the engineer and of the archaeologist, from Frontinus, the Orator Aquarum of the Emperor Trajan, to the famous archaeologists of our day. Architectural writers have either omitted all reference to them or have mentioned them only to say that they do not properly belong to the architectural domain. But wherever stone is dressed and laid in regular or symmetrical courses, the elements of architectural design are in evidence; any building in which string courses appear, or in which the openings are symmetrically disposed, illustrates a theory of composition and is consequently to be recognized as architecture; and where moldings and decorative details are employed in connection with symmetrical design a structure meets the requirements of even the most superficial definition of the art.
The earliest of the Roman aqueducts that were constructed above ground, could boast of many, if not all, of these elements; the first of them, belonging to the republican era, was not only built of the most carefully cut and fitted blocks of stone but consisted of a series of piers and arches, designed with the utmost regard to symmetry and proportion, was relieved by projecting string courses, where these were required to break the monotony of the surface and to give finish and character to the design, and was embellished at intervals with carved moldings.
Later, under the Empire, we find patterns wrought in stones of different colors to adorn the arches and the side of the water conduit, and moldings made by allowing courses of brick to project and cutting them into a desired form. In short, the architecture of the best Roman period can be well studied from an examination of the aqueducts alone. Here we may study the dry, cut stonework which characterized the republican period; the concrete, faced with stone or brick, of the Empire; or design as illustrated in the proportions of mass and space, and in the enrichment of buildings by means of the studied disposition of materials.
The Roman architects when they built for pleasure drew upon Greek art to furnish decorative details and concealed the true nature of their construction by a sham of entablatures and columns. When they built for utility, they were no longer bound to employ imported ornament and depended upon their native sense of symmetry and proportion and upon the use of simple moldings or of color to secure a sufficiently pleasing effect. The aqueducts are thus perhaps the most truly national structures erected by the Romans, simple, truthfully structural, without the pretense of columns or ornamental entablatures.
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