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Steven Lauritano // The Vessel as Architectural Argument

Since its publication in 1721, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s pioneering attempt to produce a universal, visual history of world monuments (from Solomon’s Temple to the Vienna of Charles the VI) has received much scholarly attention.  Nevertheless, the fifth chapter of Fischer’s Entwurff einer historischen Architectur, devoted to a sequence of “Diverse Vases Antique, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, & Modern” continues to confound.  Labeled “anomalous,” or “inexplicable,” Fischer’s vases have frequently been dismissed as “extraneous.”  Most troubling of all, scholars have attempted to disassociate the vessels from Fischer’s larger historical project, positioning them as a curious appendage.  Countering this trend, my research aims to probe the possible connection, implicit in Fischer's work, between objects of decorative art and a theory of history.  I hope to identify the criteria which led Fischer to complement his chronological and geographical sequence of monuments with this specific set of artifacts. What properties and effects of historical building do these vessels help to reveal?


Existing scholarship on Fischer’s “Diverse Vases” primarily aims to identify his source material (from works by Athanasius Kircher to the decorative urns of the Palazzo Borghese).  Such precedent research, while illuminating, fails to elucidate the vessels’ historiographical purpose.  My project begins instead with the compositional structure of the individual plates.  Eight of the thirteen sheets in the Entwurff’s final chapter conform to the same visual schema: a pair of vases occupies the foreground, but they are pushed to the left and the right, leaving a sizable void in the center of the page.  In each case, Fischer fills this opening with an architectural vignette of his own invention.  Vase – Building – Vase: the repeated constellation suggests a dialogical relationship.  One might think, for example, of Gottfried Semper’s much later assertion that “pots are the oldest and most eloquent of historical documents.”  While the majority of monuments depicted in Fischer’s Entwurff can only exist as reconstructions, stitched together graphically from “textual descriptions in ancient histories, commemorative coins and medals, ruins, and other artists’ drawings,” he presents the vases in Chapter V as survivors, carefully preserved in cabinets across Europe.  Perhaps, then, these are the objects capable of traversing otherwise insurmountable distances between lost architectures and the present.