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Ionic Order

"Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple."

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture (III.1.1)

Having maintained the engines of war as a military architect for Julius Caesar, Vitruvius dedicated De Architectura to Augustus, his heir, in hope that it would guide the emperor in the rebuilding of Rome. Although the tenets expounded in this treatise, the only one of its kind to survive, were largely ignored, they do preserve the principles of several dozen earlier Greek architects, including Chersiphron and his son, the architects of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of only four temples, which, by virtue of the "great excellence of and the wisdom of their conception they owe their place of esteem in the ceremonial worship of the gods."

It is in Books III and IV that Vitruvius promulgates his aesthetic. Derived from Hermogenes, the architect of the temple of Artemis at Magnesia, these rules on symmetry and proportion define what he calls eustyle (from eu stylos, literally "good column"), an architectural ideal based on the Ionic order as it was developed in Ionia on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia) in the mid-sixth century BC. (In the fifth century, the order appears in Greece, itself, where the best example is the Erechtheum on the Acropolis, below.) 

Hermogenes prescribed a series of proportional relationships for temple colonnades based on the diameter of the column as the module or unit of measure. Ideally, intercolumniation (the space between the columns) should be two-and-a-quarter times the thickness of the column, itself, and the height of the column nine-and-a-half times its diameter. (A column sixty-four feet high, such as Didyma, would be almost seven feet in diameter and stand approximately fifteen feet apart.) Too, more closely spaced columns should be taller and more narrow than those farther apart. It is this sense of ratios and relationships that Vitruvius has in mind when he admonishes the reader to remember that, "in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole." Changing one element requires that others be adjusted as well.

Although it is the spiral scrolls or volutes of the capital that are the distinctive feature of the Ionic order, it is defined as well by the slender proportion of the column, which has twenty-four flutes, and a base (Doric does not have a base but rests directly on the strybolate). The entablature, which is illustrated above, is usually one-quarter the height of the column and has an architrave or epistyle divided into three bands or fasciae, each projecting beyond the other; a frieze, which sometimes was decorated; and a cornice with block-like dentils, in imitation of the supporting beams of a wooden building.


Vitruvius presents a charming story about the origin of the Ionic order, taking the principle that, as a man's foot was one-sixth his height, so a Doric column should be six times taller than its diameter at the base.

"Just so afterwards, when they desired to construct a temple to Diana in a new style of beauty, they translated these footprints into terms characteristic of the slenderness of women, and thus first made a column the thickness of which was only one eighth of its height, so that it might have a taller look. At the foot they substituted the base in place of a shoe; in the capital they placed the volutes, hanging down at the right and left like curly ringlets, and ornamented its front with cymatia and with festoons of fruit arranged in place of hair, while they brought the flutes down the whole shaft, falling like the folds in the robes worn by matrons. Thus in the invention of the two different kinds of columns, they borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned for the one, and for the other the delicacy, adornment, and proportions characteristic of women.

It is true that posterity, having made progress in refinement and delicacy of feeling, and finding pleasure in more slender proportions, has established seven diameters of the thickness as the height of the Doric column, and nine as that of the Ionic. The Ionians, however, originated the order which is therefore named Ionic."

De Architectura (IV.7-8)

The restored ionic capital above is from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

References: Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture (1960) translated by Morris Morgan (Dover Books); Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture (2001) edited by Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe; Art in the Hellenistic Age (1986) by J. J. Pollitt. The illustration is taken from History of Art (1995) by H. W. Janson.

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