Monday, June 1, 2009

Acanthus

The capital of a Corinthian column is decorated with a repeating leaf-like motif - deeply toothed leaves rise vertically around the top of the column like a crown, their tips curving down. This decorative motif was said to have been first used by the Greek architect and sculptor Callimachus - who, according to the story, was inspired at the sight of an acanthus plant growing on a grave, its leaves growing through and around a votive basket left for the departed.

Or at least, that's the story told by Claude Perrault, a French architect of the 17th century, to explain how he was inspired by ancient classical architecture to use the acanthus leaf motif for a colonnade along the eastern facade of the Palais de Louvre.

Perrault wasn't the first modern designer to be inspired by Callimachus, nor was he to be the last. The Romans copied the Greeks, the Italians continued the practice. And Americans, wanting to add a classical dignity to our national buildings, used it too. Columns at the United States Capitol are crowned with acanthus-leaf decorations.

The facade of the Los Angeles Theatre, on South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, boasts Corinthian columns with acanthus leaf capitals. The French-inspired interior also features pilasters and friezes decorated with acanthus leaf motifs.

I think I first heard the word "acanthus" in high school history, where we learned about Greek architecture. But it didn't mean too much to me, and I certainly didn't think of it as something I would actually plant in my garden.

But here in California, I have acanthus plants in bloom right now. And whenever I look at classic-inspired architecture, I know exactly what inspired Callimachus.

The most commonly grown acanthus is Acanthus mollis. Huge boldly-cut toothed leaves curve up from a central crown in early spring. By early summer, a strong stem rises up above the leaves. White tubular flowers brushed with violet open, starting at the bottom of the stem first.

They are somewhat tender - enjoying, as they do, a so-called "Mediterranean climate" like that of Greece or Italy - or California. They thrive in dry shade - making them a wonderful addition to a drought-tolerant garden.

As the summer goes on, the flower spike ages and then fades. Then the leaves themselves yellow, shrivel and fade, and by autumn disappear entirely. They emerge again in spring.

Perhaps because of its habit, the ancient Greeks associated the plant with death and rebirth, and used it to decorate tombs and memorials.

It has become one of the most commonly recognized decorative motifs in architecture and design.

Here, it decorates a cheap boudoir lamp I bought at Big Lots for $5.00.

Here it's mixed with many other motifs on the elaborately decorated Million Dollar Theatre building in downtown Los Angeles.

On Grand Street in Los Angeles, the acanthus motif, along with wreaths and the equally classic Greek key motif, grace the entry of what once was an elegant residence hotel in downtown Los Angeles, now a down-at-heel fleabag.

Here, at the John Ford House at Heritage Square in Los Angeles, the wood-carver who created these exhuberant decorations used the acanthus motif on column capitals, corbels, and even on the underside of dentils that support the eaves of the roof.

The design can also be found very stylized and spare - its lobed and curling shape only a hint.

Here noted architect Julia Morgan uses a much simpler version of it at the front door of Marion Davies' guest cottage at her fantastic estate on Santa Monica Beach, now the Guest House at the Annenberg Community Beach House.

The classical ornament is so common that it's hard to find fresh and new interpretations of the acanthus, although some designers have tried.

Photo from www.artfulhome.com

Here furniture and fabric designers Mariah Wren and Mark Cooper have a more natural take on the leaf. You can see their other designs at the website Artful Home.


The acanthus plant makes as bold a statement in the woodland garden as it does in decor. You don't need classical colonnades to enjoy this wonderful plant.

25 comments:

Kate said...

Wow; very interesting. I had no idea. Thanks for the early morning lesson in nature and architecture. Your posts are always so enlightening. Thank you!

Queenly Things said...

I swear, you give away more free knowledge in a post than I gather in a day. You are remarkable!!

Gilly said...

I had often wondered what a real acanthus looked like! what a stately plant! No wonder the masons and wood carvers used it as an inspiration, though I am sure you are right and it represented something deep.

I learn something every day!

mo.stoneskin said...

I had no idea.

*planning to scribble acanthus leaves on the walls when he gets home in order to add a touch of classical class...*

Vanilla Lavender said...

Don't you just love those little lamps? I have one of those, they're so cute!

Rose C'est La Vie said...

Fascinating, thank you. And you've done me a favour because those plants peep over my neighbour's wall and I always wondered what they were.

KBeau said...

What a pretty plant. Thanks for the lesson in Greek architecture. I have always liked the acanthyus motif. I have corbels with an acanthus leaf motif on my island.

Woman in a Window said...

Never in a million years would have tied all of those disparate pieces together. Pretty cool.

paintinpatti said...

What a wonderful post! I should think this post should be published in a magazine or newspaper somewhere! WOW! I have a very shady area in my yard and have been considering what to plant there that would bloom. I think you might have inspired me today! Do you think acanthyus could tolerate the desert heat of Palm Springs?

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