‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Anyone with an interest in architectural history cannot get away from the importance of classical temples, classical architecture and sculpture. This is what young men (and some women!) studied whilst on the Grand Tour. The aristocratic young gentlemen, the aspiring gentry, artists or the architect in training took off across Europe for around two years. The Jacobeans started the custom of the Grand Tour once peace with Europe made it relatively safe. The 18th-C Grand Tour took place after a young gentleman completed his university education (at either Oxford or Cambridge). Although often such young gentlemen did not finish their degrees or even go to university before then ventured off on their elite adventure. After 1789 the French Revolution and travel became increasingly difficult and the trip across Europe came to a halt. The young patrician would have to make do with travelling in Britain.

The grand tourist was accompanied by a tutor or elder companion. The purpose was to develop the learning that would elevate their cultural sophistication back home. The gentry and aristocracy needed ideas of how to lay out their country estate, model their house, act in society and have an understanding of sensibilities and appreciate art – to demonstrate their knowledge of philosophy, painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture, classical mythology, landscape and garden design. They needed spaces to show the collection they gathered on their travels and always a place to hang their Grand Tour portrait.

Whilst Rome was the main destination it was important to understand what the Greek classical world had been. The Egyptians were thought to have provided the wisdom that the Greeks inherited and developed (although Plutarch thought it originated with the Greeks). The Greeks were the culture that whilst developing thought also innovated and created high art and inspiring architecture. Romans were about military might, engineering and building an empire. However, the Romans took what the Greeks had created (and Etruscans – Roman temples are inspired from this source too) and directly copied (as in statues) or replicated the inspiration into their own version of art and architecture. Elite Romans even spoke Greek!

The geographer Strabo wrote

For while the Greeks are thought to have been successful in the foundation of cities because they paid attention to the beauty and strength of their sites, their proximity to some port, and the fineness of the country, the Romans took great care of the things that the Greeks neglected, such as road paving, aqueducts and sewers.[i]

The Greeks built their scared sites with great views, high up and often temples that are seen from the sea. The Roman emperor Hadrian (r. 117 -138 AD) boosted Greek buildings with Roman engineering. Peace and culture flourished under his leadership which had been started by his predecessor, Trajan. In Rome, Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon. He was a great admirer and promoter of the Greeks. In Athens his focus was to make it the empire’s capital of learning and cultural sophistication. He built a monumental gateway and completed the colossal Temple of Olympian Zeus. Hadrian’s library in Athens was built in AD 132.

View of the Greek city of Selinunte, Sicily (founded 628 BC). Greeks built at stunning locations!


Greece (as part of the Ottoman Empire) was dangerous and difficult to visit before the mid 18th C. The Society of Dilettanti (‘delight’), founded by Francis Dashwood in 1734, sought to back the study of ancient Greek and Roman art & architecture and promote neo-classicism. It was the movement behind establishing the Royal Academy (founded 1768). The society funded an expedition to Athens which was headed up by James “Athenian” Stuart and Nicholas Revett. Their work, The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece, was published in 1782.

But if the 18th-C grand tourist wasn’t able to get to Athens, where could he or she see Greek buildings or temples in Italy?  Paestum was a Greek city on the Italian east coast about 60 miles south of Naples with temples dating from circa 550 BC. It was not an easy place to get to for the grand tourist to get to and took stamina and bravery. An easy solution was to collect the engravings of important temples that were not easily accessible from Rome.

The artist was a key component of the education around the classical buildings (as well as creating grand tour portraits to take back home). Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 to 1778) was an archaeologist, architect and artist. He was known for his etchings of Rome. He went to Paestum. Piranesi created engravings which could be bought or ordered when the grand tourist got back home. Avanzi degli Edifici di Pesto (Remains of the Edifices of Paestum) was published in 1777-78.

With the excavations of the rediscovered Herculaneum (rediscovered 1709) starting in 1738, followed by Pompeii in 1748 (rediscovered 1693), further interest in classical art and architecture was stimulated. These excavations and the objects were a key driver in the growth of the neo-classical.

The neo-classical was further boosted by the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). He wrote 3 books before he was murdered in Trieste in 1768:

1755 – “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture”

1762 – “Remarks on the Architecture of the Ancients” – he looked at the Greek ruins of Paestum. Also, in 1762 he wrote – “Letter About the Discoveries at Herculaneum”.

1764 – “The History of Art in Antiquity”– phases of Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman art,

He looked intensely at the sculptures. Prior to his work it was assumed that the Romans as the height of civilisation. He realised Roman sculptures were copies of Greek sculptures. He realised that the Greeks had the aesthetic primacy. A key example would be the Apollo Belvedere (mid-2nd C AD) – now in the Vatican Museum – which was a copy of an original Greek Bronze.

Greek sculpture (as Roman) was not the pure and white marble we see today from the Roman copies or the Parthenon Frieze (in the British Museum) – they were brightly coloured.

There was also an interest in volcanos in the 18th C. Some on the grand tourists would climb up Mount Vesuvius. Vesuvius erupted in 1770 and whilst never witnessing it, the artist Joseph Wright of Derby (1732-1797), did some 30 paintings of its eruption. He was travelling in Italy in the years from 1773-75. The even more adventurous grand tourist might be able to hire a yacht and sail to Sicily. On Sicily is the active stratovolcano, Mount Etna, which rumbles on with frequent eruptions. Tourists can stroll around its summit today.

In Sicily some grand tourists may have made it to the Greek remains at Agrigento.


The Greek city of Agrigento, overlooking the sea, was founded circa 582-580 BC. The ‘valley of the temples’ which is a ridge rather than a valley has several monuments. The temples date from the 6th and 5th C BC (The Archaic into the Classical Period).

The Temple of Concordia dates from circa 440-430 BC. It is one of the best-preserved Doric temples (along with the Parthenon and temples at Paestum).

Temple of Concordia, Agrigento, Sicily.

Notes on Greek Temples:

  • The Greeks did not employ the arch – their temples are rectangular and symmetrical.
  • The interior of Greek temples are now empty, but would have contained a giant statue of the relevant god or goddess.
  • They temples where brightly decorated.
  • Originating in sacred groves, the natural temples developed into wooden structures before they were made of stone. The stone buildings replicated the wooden ones – the guttae – peg like structures that repel rainwater they are under the triglyph of the frieze and in the underside of the projection above the frieze (mutules – have 3 rows of 6 guttae), are a hangover from wooden pegs. The triglyphrepresented the wooden bean that held up the roof.
  • The metope on the frieze and tympanum on the pediment would have been decorated with pictures of relevant images, myths or stories.
  • The column shafts were originally monoliths (i.e., one solid piece of stone). Later the Greeks created drums which required one piece to be fitting on top of another. This was quite an art as the width of the columns varies from base to top.
  • The roof would have been terracotta.
  • Vitruvius describes the proportion of the temples. The proportions are relevant to the human body.
  • Not just geometry and mathematics but also illusion – Vitruvius describes how the stylobate platform (upon which the columns rest) increases towards the middle otherwise it would seem to the eye that it is slightly hollowed. The risers are uneven to match.
  • Entasis – The columns are not just straight – they vary in width as the they rise from the base (slightly wider towards the mid portions) – it is not clear as to why. Perhaps to give the illusion of strength and height or reflect the way certain trees grow.
  • Vitruvius states that the Doric order columns should have 20 flutes.
  • The temenos – the area around Greek temples – would have contain plants and trees. Reminiscent of the sacred grove.
  • Greek temples are open with steps all around the base. Roman temples have front steps only.


Agrigento: Temple of Hera Lacinia (circa 450 BC)

Agrigento: Temple of Heracles (late 6th C BC)

The Doric can be found in unusual places. The Cathedral of Syracuse is built on and an original Greek temple:

Syracuse Cathedral built 1725-53.

Doric columns along an aisle of the Cathedral of Syracuse. Originally the Temple of Athena (circa 5th C BC).


[i] Myrto Hatzimichali, ‘Strabo’s Philosophy and Stoicism’, The Routledge Companion to Strabo, ed. Daniela Dueck, (Abingdon-on-Thames: Taylor & Francis, 2017), p. 14.