Monday, September 26, 2022

The Geometry of Ionic volutes, as drawn by those who used them


Ionic volutes, those curly ends of Ionic capitals, with these wonderful curves!
How were they drawn? 

This post began as an exploration of the use of practical geometry vs. the use of the golden section in construction.  In all my research I found no references to the golden section as a construction tool.

So, what to do with the images and descriptions I found? Write about them!

Here are the instructions, written by the designers, master builders, architects, and those who used these volutes. 

First, of course, is Vitruvius. He writes, in the 1st c. BCE,  "As for the drawings of volutes so they are properly coiled with the use of a compass, and the way they are drawn, the form and the principal of these will be set down at the end of the book.' * 

Unfortunately, those drawings at the end of his book are lost. 

Beginning about 1540, many architects, builders, historians, professional and amateur, measured the Ionic volutes still extant, those created during the Greek and Roman empires.

Giacomo Barozzi de la Vignola published his engravings in 1562. The illustration  is from the English translation of Vignola by John Leeke in 1669. Vignola begins by noting the reference lines and then the small square in the circle in the upper right corner of the page, 'A'. "Having drawn the Cathetus (the vertical guideline) of this first voluta and the other line S square to it, the said eye is divided in the manner expressed above in the figure A..." 17 lines, total, all quite easy to follow.


Andrea Palladio and Sebastiano Serlio worked at the same time as Vignola and probably knew him. 

 Here is Palladio's drawing in his 4 Books of Architecture, First Book, Plate IXX, 1570. 

Serlio's On Architecture, was written before 1550.  Serlio takes 32 lines to explain how to draw the volute.  He includes, "This matter (as I said) consists more in the practice than in the art because making it diminish both to a greater or lesser extent is dependent on the architect's judgement in placing the point of the compass a little higher or a little lower. The size of the band should not always be all the same."

If you look carefully at Vignola, Palladio and Serlio's drawings, you will see that they do not quite agree about the location of those 2 first lines, the cathetus and its perpendicular. They probably had measured different volutes. Later writers mention which volutes they think to be most perfect.

Serlio's treatise was translated from Italian to Dutch to English in 1611. A complete English translation of Palladio wasn't available until after 1715.


Batty Langely's The Builder's Director or Bench-Mate, was published in 1745, London, a compilation of "all that is useful to Workmen,... and at so easy a Rate, as to be purchased by any common Labourer." He includes variations for Ionic capitals: 'modern' and 'ancient' all of which are explained by 'Minutes and Parts'. This is his first drawing of 6.

Batty Langley's books continued to be published after his death in 1751, and were available in the Colonies.


William Pain published similar 'practical builder' pattern books at about the same time. Here is his Plate XVI from The Practical House Carpenter, or Youth's Instruction, London, 1794, for volutes with parts. He writes that he has included " ... all the measures figured for practice: to draw it, set the compasses at the angle a in the profile..." He rewrites the earlier instructions given by others and reminds the reader again that he has included "the measures all figured for practice."




 Owen Biddle's pattern book, The Young Carpenter's Assistant, 1805, Philadelphia, includes these less flowerly drawings and instructions.




 Asher Benjamin's  American Builder's Companion, originally published in 1804,  includes similar diagrams.




However, his revised 1827 edition includes the drawing above and also this diagram. "Plate F, From the Inside of the Portico  of the Temple of Minerva, at Athens." 

"Fig. 1. Volute of the capital, with the measurements in feet, inches, tenths, hundredths, & etc."

A footnote explains how to read Feet, Inches "and the decimal parts". 


The Architect, or Complete Builder's Guide, written in 1839,  has  this drawing, Plate X.  Asher Benjamin notes, "The  carver will find it to his advantage to imitate these drawings faithfully, and thus escape the censure deservedly cast upon the many clumsy, awkward productions of this capital, which may be seen in both town and country." 

 Benjamin's books were published through the 1850's.


Then there's a break - I've found no English language 'how-to' pattern
book instructions on volutes during the height of the Industrial Revolution.
Ionic volutes were used: here on c.1896 porch columns. Probably these were created by craftsmen for a company which specialized in plaster and wood composites. They are probably available today.



In 1903, in The American Vignola, William Ware describes how to construct a volute, "The vertical line a b, Fig 91, through the center of the eye of the Volute, and the horizontal line c d, will mark in the circumference of the eye the four corners of the square within which a fret whose angles may serves as centers..."* 

6 sentences;  22 lines of instructions. This is a small drawing at the bottom corner of a page.

Architectural Graphic Standards' first edition was published in 1932.  This page in every edition  I own:  2nd -1936, 3rd -1941, 4th -1953,  5th - 1966,  but not the 8th - 1988. 

The pages are quite yellow - I've toned them down here to make them more legible.



The 8th edition of  Architectural Graphic Standards, 1988, no longer dedicated a page to Ionic details. 

The last 2 pages of the book, titled  Classical Orders at the top and CLASSIC ORDERS at the bottom, are a crowded introduction to centuries of architecture. 

Here's about 2/3 of the second sheet. The architects who complied the page are credited not their sources. 

Do I have a conclusion? Not really. 

I looked for the Golden Section and didn't find it. I read convoluted and simple language as people who knew construction explained with words how to draw something complex.  Many descriptions expected experience using compasses. I appreciated the authors who said, "Practice!" Words help; they are not a substitute for drawing.

Books not listed here are in my bibliography:

Asher Benjamin, Practice of Architecture and The Builder's Guide, new introduction by Thomas Gordon Smith, De Capo Press, New York, 1994.

Batty Langley, The Builder's Director or Bench-Mate, published first in 1754, London, reprint, publisher unlisted.

William Pain,  The Practical House Carpenter, or Youth's Instruction, London, 1794. reprint by Dover Publications.

Ramsey/Sleeper, Architectural Graphic Standards, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York

Giacomo Barozzi daVignola, Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture, John Leeke, translator, published by William Sherwin, London, 1669.

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, edited by Ingrid D. Rowland, Thomas Noble Howe, Cambridge University Press, 1999

*Wm. R. Ware, The American Vignola, 1903, Dover Publications, 1994, p. 30. 

*Book 3, Chapter 5, paragraph 8,  translation by Ingrid D. Rowland; Viruvius, 10 Books on Architecture, Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Nobel Howe, Editors, Cambridge University Press, 1999.


johnleeke said...

Neat to see my 8th-great grandfather, John Leeke, referenced.

--John Leeke,
American Preservationeer

Jane said...

I thought you'd enjoy that! I'm glad you saw it.