The Sheldonian Theatre – Ancient and Modern

I will continue to blog about the things that I encounter as I teach my Renaissance Special Subject. Today, however, I have found something much closer to my research interest – the history of science in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Today’s thing is very easy to find, and it is very well-worth visiting. It is the Sheldonian Theatre, one of the most important buildings in Oxford University. The theatre was paid for by Gilbert Sheldon (1598-1677), who ended his career as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Why is this building important in the history of science? Firstly, it was built by someone who would now be understood as a scientist. Although Wren is today most famous for his architectural work, of which St. Paul’s Cathedral is the most famous example, he had deep scientific interests. You can see this if you pay close attention to the Sheldonian Theatre.

Outwardly, it looks much like a building in the classical style, designed like so many other buildings in that time in accordance with Roman Architecture. In fact Wren drew inspiration from an ancient Roman building that had been drawn by Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) – the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome.

Design of the floor-plan of the Theatre of Marcellus from Serlio’s Seven Books of Architecture (1540).


Modern Seating Plan of the Theatre

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The Sheldonian Theatre

So does this building just show us that Wren copied ancient architectural ideas, in spite of his own engagement with the most modern ideas of his time? Actually, the answer is ‘no’. One remarkable feature of the building is its flat internal ceiling, which actually supports much of the weight of the roof structure and cupola above it. The ceiling is decorated with (removable) painted panels but in the original design it fulfilled a load-bearing function, something that should have been impossible because there were no timbers long enough to bridge the gap.

The painted panels are beautiful, but they conceal the ingenuity of the design used by Wren.


How did Wren get a flat ceiling that would also help hold up the roof? He turned to the mathematician John Wallis, who came up with an ingenious solution. Rather than explain myself, I quote from the blog ‘Maths in the City‘:

”Wallis’ devised an ingenious pattern of interlocking beams, so that every beam was supported at both ends – either by the walls or by other beams – while every beam also supported the ends of two other beams.  So for every beam, the downward forces from those resting on it are balanced by the upward forces from the beams, or wall, supporting it.   In an impressive feat of calculation, Wallis demonstrated that his geometrical flat floor could carry loads when supported by the walls alone by solving  a set of 25×25 simultaneous equations using just pen and paper!”

This is a model showing us what Wallis’s solution looked like:

Wallis’s Ingenious Solution


Many of Wren’s buildings concealed astonishing technical solutions, based on new ideas in mathematics and physics, beneath a veneer of ancient design rules.

A Letter from Aretino to Michelangelo, September 1537: ‘The World has Many Kings but only one Michelangelo’

I am not a historian of the Renaissance, but this year I am teaching a ‘special subject’ (based on lots of original documents and objects from the time) about the Renaissance in Florence and Venice, 1475-1525. When reading the letters written on the subject of painting and sculpture by Pietro Aretino I have, as I mentioned in my last post, been struck by his attempts to paint pictures in the minds of his readers with words.  In my last post I gave an example of Aretino’s attempt to paint a scene in Titian’s mind (perhaps to encourage Titian to paint something similar with brushes, paints and canvas?).  Here, I want to share with you an amazingly bold letter in which Aretino sought to influence Michelangelo‘s composition of his famous Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel (a chapel in the Pope’s palace in Rome) over the years 1536-1541.  Michelangelo must have been some way along with the work when he received Aretino’s letter of September 1537.

At the opening of the letter Aretino praises Michelanelo for his mastery of outlines and it is fascinating that he seems more preoccupied here with the placement of figures in the scene than in his later letter to Titian, which focuses on colour. Aretino wrote to Michelanelo long before anyone knew what the final painting would look like. But in this letter he seems to be trying to put a scene into Michelangelo’s mind, as if to anticipate or inspire the work. What follows is an astonishingly powerful word picture, a piece of preemptive ekphrasis:

Venice, September 1537:

‘I see Antichrist in the midst of the rabble, with an appearance only conceivable by you. I see terror on the faces of all the living, I see the signs of the impending extinction of the sun, the moon and the stars.  I see, as it were breathing their last, the elements of fire, air, earth and water. I see Nature standing there to one side, full of terror, shrunken and barren in the decrepitude of old age. I see Time, withered and trembling, who is near to his end and seated upon a dry tree-trunk. And while I hear the trumpets of the angels setting all hearts astir, I see Life and Death in fearsome confusion, as the former exerts himself to the utmost in an effort to raise the dead, while the latter goes about striking down the living. I see Hope and Despair guiding the ranks of the good and the throng of evil-doers. I see the amphitheatre of the clouds illuminated by the rays which stream from the pure fires of Heaven and on which Christ sits enthroned among His legions, encircled by splendours and terrors. I see His countenance refulgent with brightness, and as it blazes with flames of sweet and terrible light it fills the children of good with joy and those of evil with fear.’

Aretino, Selected Letters (translated by George Bull) (1976), pp. 110-111

How do you think Aretino did?  We can always compare this extract from his letter (which goes on a bit longer) to Michelangelo’s own completed fresco:

A Letter from Aretino to Titian, May 1544

People often assume that painting and poetry serve completely different artistic purposes; you represent static moments in time with images and tell narrative stories with words. However, the idea that you need images in order to paint is quite a modern one. In the ancient world and Renaissance poets were expected to be able to paint with the words.  Meanwhile, painters often aimed to tell narratives in painting. This is summed up by the Latin expression ‘ut pictura poesis‘, taken from Horace’s Ars Poetica. Poets often tried to evoke painting in their poetry, and this sort of poetry is known as ‘ekphrasis‘.

This is an extract from a letter written by the Italian poet Pietro Aretino to his dear friend the artist Tiziano Vecelli,  better known as ‘Titian‘. In the letter Aretino beautifully describes the colours that he saw in the sky when he one day looked out on to Venice’s Grand Canal. You can even pick out in Aretino’s words a visual stylistic sensibility that is close to Titian’s own. That is, he takes great interest in the effects of colour.

Venice, May 1544:

‘As I am describing it, see first the buildings which appeared to be artificial though made of real stone.  And then look at the air itself, which I perceived to be pure and lively in some places, and in others turbid and dull.  Also consider my wonder at the clouds made up of condensed moisture; in the principal vista they were partly near the roofs of the buildings, and partly on the horizon, while to the right all was in a confused shading of greyish black.  I was awestruck by the variety of colours they displayed: the nearest glowed with the flames of the sun’s fire; the furthest were blushing with the brightness of partially burned vermilion.  Oh, how beautiful were the strokes with which Nature’s brushes pushed the air back at this point, separating it from the palaces in the way that Titian does when painting his landscapes!’

Aretino, Selected Letters (translated by George Bull) (1976), pp. 225-6.