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Entasis : the scale of ideal figures.

Preamble: Adjustments of scale or refinements which imbue lightness or weightiness in tectonic

elements are in the field of architecture

often referred to with the term entasis .

An early usage of which may

be found with a root in enteinein Greek etymology (Oxford English Dictionary : 1972) without an architectural interpretation and in English -

‘to strain’ . As a noun entasis is considered cognate with a Latin counterpart

- intentio though associated with Stoic philosophy during the 3rd century BCE and intentionality (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy : 2005). Chrysippus discusses a philosophy of visual experience (later picked up by S. Augustine in a commentary)

which relates extending the visual

cone to the object from an observer.

Similar notions may be found

in prints of the sixteenth century AD, treating of a new term perspective which was disseminating through prints in the schools of continental Europe.

Whether such terms are applied to tectonic or the human

figure is to be explored in the following essay.

Common usage of

entasis is reserved for tectonic elements in the field of architecture.


Entasis : the scale of ideal figures. The way a building for social purposes is constructed relates to social behaviours, civic aspiration and in several respects a human perception of scale.

Many social aspects of building are both complex

and assumed, that is incorporated uncritically.

Perhaps a revision of

a recurring human concern with the monumental would introduce a more sympathetic and accessible setting for figurative works in the future and turn up a partial history of perspectives, review one or two major examples and critically guide an reassessment of invention with the human figure. During the era of early figurative depiction, especially in 6th century Greek culture, social and mythic scenes are depicted on ceramic vessels (Room 69 the British Museum, via main staircase, upper floor) without the conventions now expected.

Linear profile images abound centuries before

the silhouette portrait became popular.

Combinations of a square on

frontal with side profiles are invented and variations developed over several centuries until notions of torsion, turning and obliqueness metamorphosed into the naturalism associated with fine linear figures of the 4th century BC (G. Richter :1970) and Hellenistic period following. How may the figure be situated in the social and urban context ? By using a canon perhaps to guide scale or engage with a tectonic grid, embracing scale adjustments and urban siting or placement. This term canon refers to an early practice to develope scale and measure from the human figure.

An intrinsic social value given to


figurative studies is apparent from the evident mastery of human figures some five centuries before other, landscape or tectonic elements; and may be considered in the examples of lively figures within stilted renderings of naiskoi.

Not until first century AD are aspects of

diminution with distance, approximate co-ordination of oblique surfaces towards a vanishing point of and a recession of planes across the observers’ line of sight addressed (F Duberry, J Willats : 1972) A canon within the figure rather later becomes developed extrinsically to embrace en-framing panels of figures, to regulate doorways, rooms and columns with a harmonic progression.


a harmonic progression or pattern from the human figure is intrinsic to some notions of proportion.

A sense of the gigantic arises from a

relationship of the self to the giant doorway, figure or on a much larger and abstract scale i.e. in the ziggurat or domed space in St. Sophia. There is a notion of animation or modulation in objects which embraces diminution over distance, further smaller, nearer larger and under-pins a sense of perspective prior to the adoption of any system. Our social and civic fabric in cities present the larger than human scale, wherein a sense of diminution with distance and height is often to be found (K Elam : 2001).

Civic structures respond to many influences, yet

a desire for formal propriety may modulate the weightiness of scale rather than contrasting giant scale over and against human scale. As with a perceived tapering of towers or column shafts with increasing height, there is a diminution over distance of built forms in


the landscape, which taper with gnomic progression and also with a gentle curvature.

If such a curvature given further consideration there

may be found a sense of a ‘harmonic restored’ by accentuating a swelling of column shafts, an inclination or ‘batter’ towards the centre and the gentle curving sweep of long facades, entablature stepped plinths and similar structures in the landscape. modulation of the weightiness of scale.

This becomes a

An accentuation of the

perceived weightiness or an articulation of visual impact within what is perhaps a wider phenomena of scale.

Such purposes are to restore

harmony or achieve lightness or a comfortable delight for social or civic dignity.

As these considerations apply to public spaces (SE Rasmussen :

1964) as well as civic structures could this also be applied to a public figure ?

Whether situated high above the observer or perhaps by grand

scale overlooking the observer, a relationship of self to the elevated or monumental figure may be considered as an extension of other proportional relationships which serve to orientate within the texture of our built environment.

As in the smaller to the larger, the observer below to the

elevated, there is a variable proportion as the mobile observer



looming larger on approach, a foreshortening with increasing elevation –

moves in a scalar dynamic

participating in a wider notion of entasis.

In a provisional review of this nature it may be appropriate to continue with entasis as a familiar term into a new figurative context, rather than venture another.

So some figurative works may engage


with entasis on account of their scale, elevated situation, proportions or canon.

A well regarded example for consideration is the Michelangelo

Bounarroti David, both in terms of elevated situation [intended for the pediment (A Gill : 2002) of Florence Cathedral] and scale at some 5.8 metres tall.

It is sometimes suggested this figure (to be) situated on

the pediment is proportionately refined to offer a canonic proportion to the observer below, perhaps also avoiding some perceived loss of a comfortable delight or appearing to be without presence to the observer in the square below.

Such a process of adjusting and refining

proportions in this way would both engage with a wider notion of entasis and can be referred to as a type of anamorphism (i.e. a change in form so when seen from below to appear within a proportional canon).

Much discussion of anamorphic elements relates to painting, so

the tribute to Michelangelo is that here is a rare application to sculpture. When examples in painting are cited there is often an exploration of context and viewpoint, which is supported with photographic materials in Holbein’s The Ambassadors S. Foister et. al (1997). can be followed up with a pinhole camera

However, this

print A. FĂźss (1996) with

some analysis of simple sight-lines, for the David human proportions are adjusted and refined, though not however of an anamorphic type.


at a modest elevation foreshortening is not counter-balanced in the shoulders or the upper torso, where the expected diminution is apparent in the figure 1 (a pinhole print).

There are however other aspects



noticeably large hands for example apparent in the figure 2 (with the anastigmatic lens).

So proximity matters, but not the angle of view

or direction of approach by an observer -

nevertheless a significant

scalar adjustment, a concern with perceived weightiness which points towards a more symbolic sensibility. So we may see a more fluid approach to proportion within the field of entasis when considered as an approach to refinement, purposed to imbue perhaps a variety of concerns in social or civic figures situated within the urban fabric.

A canon developed for social and civic

purpose, a regular metric adjusted or refined.

Where adjustment

imbues lightness or weightiness entasis becomes a sign of the social significance of the human figure in built form.

Post - script : Further study and fruitful attention may be given to another piece, the Bruges Madonna as an apparent difference of scale is found between the adult figure and the child.

The head of the child is somewhat

larger even than the seated adult so reversing expectations.


such a piece need not be dependant on a specific site or location for an interplay of scale which reveals a perhaps symbolic relationship


between an observer and the figures.

Unlike the David the Bruges figures

are not site-specific to an exposed urban space; within a social and architectural field; though further attention may be given to an unknown context which it is assumed would be accessible to an observer.

[10] the Bruges Madonna – the Victoria and Albert Museum Š the author 2004 (with anastigmatic lens).


References :

Fred Dubery (1972) John Willats

Perspective and other drawing systems. Pub.Herbert Press.

Kimberly Elam (2001)

Geometry of Design. Pub.Princeton Architectural Press.

Susan Foister (1997) Ashok Roy Martin Wyld

Holbeins’ Ambassadors. Pub. London National Gallery

Adam Füss (1996)

Pinhole photographs. Pub.Smithsonian Institute

Anton Gill (2002)

Il gigante, Florence, Michelangelo and the David. Pub.London Review

S. Eiler Rasmussen (1964)

Experiencing Architecture. Pub. Chapman and Hall.

Gisela Richter (1970)

Perspective in Greek and Roman Art. Pub. Phaidon.

© Colin David May 2005


Entasis: the scale of ideal figures.