Repeating Ornament

The capitals of the thirty six lower set of columns of the Doge’s Palace in Venice are all unique. Their ornament uses a very similar leaf pattern, but above the leaves there is a different carving on each of the sides of its octagonal shape. In this way every column is not merely used for support and its capital for decoration, but it has its own story to tell for those passing by.

capital of the doges palace, sketch by John Ruskin

Since every capital took a long time to carve by hand, there was no reason to repeat the ornament on every capital. Repeating a very intricate ornament would only do it injustice as it is a real sculpture, not a simple pattern, in the same way a painter wouldn’t create the same painting twice, and indeed in those days painting was very close to the art of carving column capitals for paintings were used to decorate the interior of a palace, much the same way the capitals and other architectural ornament is used to decorate the exterior.

Modern mass production techniques ensure that we can create perfectly repeating ornament when we desire to. Today, we make one original, and this original is then cloned indefinitely using whatever technology at our disposal. Hand carving thirty six columns would take a very long time and would be very expensive, so the sort of work we see at the Doge’s Palace is never seen today in architecture that works with historical styles.

What’s great about the design of the Doge’s Palace is that there is plenty of monotony there to balance the unique elements, and indeed, most of the designs there do repeat themselves perfectly. But this only creates more contrast for when the ornament does not repeat itself, when the viewer can see and experience the individual carvings on the great capitals.

It is of course immensely beneficial to be able to cheaply repeat complex patterns, but when we use such techniques in modern design we have to also consider what we lose. We lose the chance to elevate ornament to a higher level, and we degrade complex ornament that we use by repeating, for it goes from being a unique design that can stand on its own to a decorative pattern.

This is one reason why decorative arts today are not considered to be in the same league as real art, whatever that may be. At the time of the construction of the Doge’s Palace, however, there was no such distinction for its walls were painted by Tintoretto and Titian. There, art was used as decoration – they were one and the same – and its decorative function in no way degraded the paintings and their message.

With modern technology, repetition is cheap. What we lose by always repeating ornament is not merely the chance to give the viewer something more special, but the idea that decoration can be something higher than a pattern, for that is just what it becomes when a design is copied and pasted a thousand times. The idea that you can spend hours or days on a single ornament and leave it be without multiplying it becomes more alien, and so the art of decoration is separated from other sorts of art that are highly regarded. In turn, that art becomes less useful for decorative purposes, and is designed in a way that can be displayed in any art gallery or room, rather than one specific intended location.

April 2012