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Wren brought Rome to London – without ever going there

Wren’s dazzling dome at St Paul’s Cathedral in London (Getty)

He could not afford to go to Rome, so he did the next best thing, says James Baresel

Sir Christopher Wren
By Paul Rabbitts
Shire Publications, 96pp, £9.99/$14

Displaying a typically Victorian aversion to the classicising aesthetics of 17th- and 18th-century architecture, Anthony Trollope once attempted to satirise English Palladian and English Baroque styles by saying that they would be called Italian despite the fact that they did not look like anything found in Italy. The criticism was, of course, a cheap shot. Devotees of 19th-century medievalist aesthetics were even more emphatically opposed to slavishly purist imitation of Italian styles than to Anglicisation of them, while such Anglicisation of Italian styles is merely one instance of the more general law of aesthetic evolution – in which artists and architects take the great work of their professional forebears as models to be in part imitated, in part used as a basis for innovation.

Those interested in learning how the origins of English Baroque represented such a creative use of appreciation for Italian models in the development of a both unique national style and, in so doing, reached the heights of aesthetic excellence, rather than sinking to the caricatured incongruity of Trollope’s imagination, will find a good introduction in Paul Rabbitts’s Sir Christopher Wren, a biography of the man who was arguably the single greatest influence on English architecture in the decades from the late 17th to the early 18th century.

Unlike most architects of his standing, Wren did not choose his profession either out of an uncommonly artistic disposition or due to financial necessity. He did so out of love for geometry, having been in early life set to become one of the more noted mathematicians and scientists. He was a founding member of the Royal Society, contributed to advances in biology and astronomy, and taught the latter subject at Gresham College in London and at Oxford. He was even named by Isaac Newton as one of “the three greatest geometers of our age”.

He did not, however, enjoy writing and was content not only to pass on to fellow scholars the results of his studies but also to allow unattributed publication of them. Architecture allowed him to focus on the mathematical problems involved in design and in construction without needing to teach and write.

At first Wren’s work as an architect was a sideline which he pursued almost as a personal favour to friends and prominent individuals. Only after he was asked to assist in planning a massive renovation of the dilapidated St Paul’s Cathedral did he turn to architecture as a primary form of employment.

Not content with the images of Italian architecture which he had access to in England and unable to afford the cost of a trip to Rome, Wren settled on seeing Paris, where he could at least view considerably more classical- and Baroque-influenced architecture than was to be found in his own country.

By a fortunate coincidence, his visit to the French capital occurred while both the noted Italian architect Fr Guarino Guarini and the greatest master of Roman Baroque, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, were also spending time in the city. Less than six months after Wren’s return to his own home, the nature of the work on St Paul’s for which he had been preparing himself changed dramatically as a result of the Great Fire of London.

The conflagration took five days to subdue. A mere six days later, Wren presented King Charles II with a plan to rebuild the largely destroyed city and was almost immediately appointed to the committee charged with the task of reconstruction.

Wren’s initial plan quickly proved unworkable (in no small part because the fire had destroyed records of property ownership). But he was willing to overhaul his concepts to fit practical exigencies and became a leading figure in the decades-long project. His influence on the architecture of London churches built during that time is only the best-remembered contribution made to the city by a man whose responsibilities were more broadly those of what we would now call an urban planner.

The “Wren churches” include both his own designs and those of collaborators working under his influence and with his approval, though the grandest and the most complex (such as St Paul’s dome) were, of course, very much his own.

Similarly open to misunderstanding is the nature of Wren’s appointment as Surveyor of His Majesty’s Works in 1670. In practice, the position assured that he would at least be informally consulted on matters related to architectural projects undertaken by the government. Officially, it made him responsible only for maintenance, decoration and construction of buildings in the direct possession of the king.

By the time of Wren’s death in 1723, he had established English Baroque as a major and, in fact, fairly eclectic architectural style, one which ranges from buildings demonstrating the strongest Italian influences to thoroughly English ones which anticipate the already developing Georgian style which was soon to gain the ascendency.