They are both just a little too pert.
After six years here, the fact that I had failed to be moved by the US Capitol, niggled at me. My logic countered: “It stands there resplendent in white, the backdrop of innumerable news reels, draped in every classical detail you can imagine and is the seat of untold power” but instead of feeling its grandiosity, I failed to be swayed. The Pentagon swayed me. I nearly swerved off the road, transfixed, when I realized I was driving alongside its monstrous hulk and even more monstrously sized parking lots (car parks just is not a term that works in this case).
Then during a recent tour of the Capitol (the clockwork mouse was otherwise engaged setting up seating for the State of the Union address) I think I may have stumbled on the problem. It is the dome, that most contentious of architectural features. The Sienese and Florentines are still at each other’s throats over their respective efforts. It is not that the dome is not what it pretends to be, that the fine marble exterior is actually just a multitude of sheets of metal – although that the seat of US government should be surmounted by a deception is interesting in itself – but that the dome is just a little too pert.
The associations of pert along with the suggestive form of a dome soon stirred up an old saying that the perfect breast should fit inside a champagne glass. I enjoyed mentioning this to my 18 yr old brother-in-law who attempted not to splutter into his beer/Gatorade. I was quick to reassure him that I meant the old fashioned champagne glass and not the flute – although I don’t think this was the cause of his confusion.
I now believe there is a similar unwritten rule for domes. A dome rather like a jelly/jello should typically give the impression of having eased itself into place, sinking into its moorings upon the edifice it crowns. The dome on the US capitol has made no such concession and is, instead, being tweaked heavenwards by the nipple with an image of George Washington mid-apotheosis, suspended somewhere beneath like Romulus or Remus.
Jefferson at Monticello, in strict adherence to Palladio, allowed his dome to set every bit like a jelly/jello. In fact his dome appears to mimic the breast/champagne glass rule so closely that, for those who prefer breast to thigh, it might be said that he has gone a little too far in his seemliness. For breast lovers, the dome of St Peters would make for a more voluptuous encounter.
Interestingly there seems to be a chronological progression to bigger and bustier and St Paul’s, I am afraid to say, already smacks suspiciously of an implant but nothing goes as far as the US Capitol. For the modesty of the city, I am thankful that Madonna had yet to appear in one of her more racy armatures or Washington might be saddled with something even more distracting.
As a legal alien (resident or otherwise) and as one who wishes to stay that way – I realise I should hold my tongue on a subject of such national sensitivity. So it was a relief to discover that Charles Bulfinch, author of the very first dome in the US (Massachusetts Statehouse), also had an issue with the matter.
Bulfinch was selected as the architect for the first Capitol dome; however his plans were altered by the Monroe administration which showed a marked preference for white meat in an edifice and demanded that the dome be pumped up. Bulfinch was dismayed to find he was supervising the ascent of an edifice with the proportions of a Perdue chicken* and later in life went on to chronicle the conflict that lead to the loftier-than-decent dome. Had he not himself ‘apotheosed’, he could now attest that even his bastardized dome was a model of decorum by comparison with the modern-day version.
The full Eva Herzigova effect was only achieved later when the Capitol, having doubled in length to accommodate the members of the new States, chose to commission a new dome that actually tripled in size. For a good forty years it stood bashfully aloft, bursting at the seams, until it was eventually agreed that the visual display was really too much. In 1904 the smothered portico heaved a sigh of relief as the entire East front of the Capitol was extended to accomodate its buxom counterpart.
However, building around a dome to accommodate its hovering mass, whilst constrained by the lines of the original building is always going to be tricky to pull off. Who to blame? The British are culpable for having burnt the early Capitol, then the French and the Germans all had a hand in the giant melting pot of politics and decisions. Had it been left solely to the Americans, without the inspiration of Europe’s dusty domes they might have come up with something as fantastic as the columns of the very first Capitol building. Now almost completely subsumed by all the later additions, these columns are topped by corncobs as opposed to the now vulgar and overworked Grecian acanthus leaf. Nothing could be more self-assured, understated and original.
*Perdue is one of the US’s biggest ‘manufacturers’ of chickens. The company has succeeded in developing birds with such an oversized breast that they can only take a few paces before collapsing or breaking a leg. Now were they to have a metal armature things might be different, indeed it is possibly precisely the metal armature that allowed the Capitol dome to outsize its antecedents and not collapse in a flurry of feathers. See the documentary: Food Inc.
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