Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Illuminating Byzantium

Henry C. Mercer is a central figure in the development of the American Arts & Crafts movement. He is doubly important as an archaeologist. He excavated native American sites, directed the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, and began a field of vernacular tool studies. His life highlights the intimate connection between the epistemologies of archaeology and the arts as they were defined by Charles Norton, whose arts curriculum informed Mercer's rebellion.

Mercer is best known for his revival of Pennsylvania German pottery traditions at the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown. What is less known are his researches in Byzantine pottery. In the tradition of John Ruskin (via Norton), Byzantium was instrumental in the conception of the new aesthetics of handicraft, labor ethics, and the attention to process over product.

Last week, F&M art history majors, minors, and faculty visited Mercer’s architectural masterpiece, his concrete house Fonthill (1908-12). One of the many things that struck my attention during this visit is the incorporation of electrical illumination within the architecture. This is particularly evident in the Saloon room. The octagonal concrete piers are hollow. Electrical wiring travels through the cavity and then folds out at the height of the capital. The wiring then drips down the exterior of the column. Fastened to the concrete, the wiring concludes with a bare light bulb that illuminates the room about 7 ft above ground level. My sketch above tries to illustrate the arrangement.

The tiles, which are more Byzantine than Pennsylvania German in effect, are thus illuminated by modernity’s amenities. The simplicity of the electrical wiring that travels through the interior cavity and emerges out of the pier capitals is profound. As the piers are concrete masonry, the bare light bulb rests directly on the pier. It is easy to miss this architectural detail. For me, it exemplifies modernity’s illuminated Byzantium, where the rich aesthetic surfaces of glazed pottery reflects the shimmer of bare incandescent light bulbs. The nakedness of the light and the bareness of the concrete are surreal in their simplicity and their tactile emanations.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States