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“Thomas Jefferson’s Architectural and Landscape Aesthetics: Sources and Meaning” – Part 3

By: Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor and Chair, Department of Architectural History

From these books along with travel Jefferson learned about architecture and the type he preferred was controlled by rules that included geometry, symmetry, balance, composition and proportion. The five orders: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite were the controlling element and from them and the size chosen the correct building could be composed. The treatises spelled out specifically the mathematical and proportional relationship of an order and its components, the column, the base, the shaft, the capital, and the different parts of the entablature. He looked very closely at classical precedent and usually followed the rules.  This meant the employment of the order and the proportional schemes and his drawings and notes are filled with calculations.  He was intoxicated with proportions and spent considerable time figuring out dimensions in some cases down to 1/100 of a foot. At the College of William Mary in the early 1760s under the professorship of William Short he developed a “passion” for mathematics which stayed with him.[i] In his Monticello library he owned many contemporary studies as well as classical texts such as the Elements of Euclid, the Works of Archimedes, and a Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements by Proclus, the fifth century, A.D., Neo-Platonist. [ii]  Mathematics and geometry were central to his conception of architecture and its beauty.[iii]

Geometry dominates many of the architectural books Jefferson owned and from them and also the ancient texts he learned about perfect forms such as the sphere encompassed in the Pantheon in Rome.  His drawings for the University of Virginia’s Rotunda emphasize this element. The name Rotunda he took from Palladio who wrote: “Of all the Temples which are to be seen in Rome, none it more famous than the Pantheon, at present call’d [sic] the Rotunda.”[iv] Jefferson describes the drawing for his Rotunda: “The diameter of the building 77.feet, being ½ of that of Pantheon, consequently ¼ it’s area, & 1/8 it’s volume. the Circumference 242.f.”[v] A few years later Jefferson explained again: “The ROTUNDA filling up the Northernmost end of the ground is 77 feet in diameter, and in height crowned by a Dome 120 deg. of the sphere. The lower floor has large rooms for religious worship, for public examinations and other associated purposes. The upper floor is a single room for a Library, canopied by the Dome and it’s sky-light.” [vi]

Noteworthy is that Jefferson never mentions any symbolic element or meaning. Palladio through the Leoni edition did write that the Pantheon “bears the figure of the World, or is round.”[vii] Jefferson was certainly aware that the Pantheon originally was a Roman temple and that the dome form had been appropriated by Christianity and recently had acquired a political meaning with the US Capitol and the State House in Boston.  But Jefferson says nothing, though in his notes he suggests that the interior of the dome be painted a dark blue and sketches a moveable platform with lights from which stars might be projected upwards making it into a planetarium at night. [viii]  This never happened, but one could claim that the ancient dome of the universe at the Pantheon now was the dome of modern science, and revelation was replaced by empiricism and the age of enlightenment. However, this is a historian’s interpretation of Jefferson’s intentions.

The octagon was another form he loved and utilized at Poplar Forest. His source for the octagon included books by Morris, Palladio, William Kent’s Designs of Inigo Jones (1727), and Wilhelm Gottlieb Becker’s Neue Garten und Landschafts-Gebatide (1798-99), all of which contained similar plans. Jefferson had played with the octagon shape over the years but purchased the Becker volume just prior to his final plans for Poplar Forest. The cube was another perfect form and Jefferson placed one at the center of Poplar Forest.[ix]

Quite clearly Jefferson’s lay with the classical aesthetic either that of the ancients (Rome and Greece) or with the more recent classical revival of the 1400 and 1500s in Italy that then spread throughout Europe. For Jefferson and his contemporaries this more recent classicism was viewed as modern. The terminology of art (and other) histories with words such as  “Renaissance” (the period from c.1420 to c1600) was not invented and did not appear in the English language until the mid-nineteenth century. The terms Baroque (c.1600-1750s), and Neo-classical (meaning work from the 1780s to the 1820s) did not come into use until the early twentieth century. Words such as “romantic” and “romance” were certainly in use in the English language but as a “movement” in architecture, garden design and literature they are not employed until the later nineteenth century. The importance of this is, Jefferson’s view of architecture and the past differs from todays, and while he did not care much for the frilly and florid classicism of the Adam brothers in England or the Rocco in France, they were variations on a theme to him. He saw continuity to architecture that stretched back to the ancients. Jefferson was a classicist and disliked what today is called “vernacular,” or the buildings of the common people. Clearly he found no importance in the American “Colonial” (c1607-1720) and “Georgian” (c.1720-1800) [terms not invented until the mid-nineteenth century] in the United States and similarly he paid little attention to the streetscapes of the towns he visited in England and the Continent.

In general he avoided the architecture that today is labeled “medieval” and/or “Gothic;” this for him was simply not worthy of study.  He says very little about the great medieval cathedrals that dominated most of the cities he visited and their major purpose was as he advised in his “Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe:” “Go to the top of a steeple to have a view of the town and its environs.” [x] Horace M. Kallen, one of the earliest writers on Jefferson’s aesthetics claimed “Gothic” meant “ignorance, confusion, weakness, superstition and cruelty,” and of course its period was called ‘the dark ages.’[xi] Actually while Jefferson was abroad and indeed beginning a few years earlier the Gothic or Gothick began to experience a small revival especially in England.  Several books had been published such as Batty Langley’s Gothic Architecture (1742)   and while Jefferson owned one of Langley’s books, he apparently never acquired this one. Another book of importance was Sir Horace Walpole’s Some Antidotes on Painting (1762) which—in spite of title–was an attempt to make “Gothick” the national style of England.  Jefferson never owned the book but Walpole’s Gothick revival house, Strawberry Hill (1749+) was very well known. While Jefferson visited Alexander Pope‘s  famous grotto of at Twickenham, and also Lord Burlington’s house Chiswick, across the Thames and both very close to Strawberry Hill he apparently avoided Walpole’s house though he would have passed by it on the road.

The employment of Gothic derived details on small follies had become popular in the English garden and Jefferson saw several examples perhaps most importantly, James Gibbs’s Gothic folly, The Temple of Liberty, 1741, at Stowe Garden in the midlands.  What he thought of such an identification we do not know, he does not mention it though his notes on Stowe are extensive and he purchased a guide book while there in April 1786. [xii] The employment of the “Gothick” as noted had nationalistic implications and many of the gardens he visited on the tour with John Adams in 1786, were built by Whigs, and contained political symbolism, but he says nothing.[xiii]

Actually Jefferson did experiment, at least mentally with some Gothic elements for back in 1771 he noted in his Account Book a scheme for creating a “vale in the park” of Monticello dominated by “ancient and venerable oaks,” and other trees and plants and “in the center of it erect a small Gothic temple of antique appearance.” The intent was for a burial spot for his family but he went on elaborating the scheme with a grotto and a cascade, and at least one more temple which he describes as “the roof may be Chinese, Grecian, or in the taste of the Lantern of Demosthenes at Athens.”[xiv]  The idea of garden follies stayed with him and again in 1804 he makes notes for a “Garden Olitory” and “Garden or pleasure grounds,” in which he specifies temples based upon different models including classical, Gothic, and Chinese, a virtual museum of architecture. Unfortunately he never built this group of follies but it indicates two important aspects of Jefferson’s aesthetic interests, he was eclectic and landscape required a different method of composition than the classicism he normally applied to buildings.

Jefferson’s eclecticism went in several directions. He did play with other styles and owned Sir William Chambers’ Designs of Chinese Building, Furniture . . . (1757) which was certainly a source for his “Chinese” roof noted above and also the “Chinese railings” he employed at the University of Virginia and also Monticello. [xv] Also certainly eclectic or a disavowal of the rules of classicism was his employment of the different facades for the pavilions at the University of Virginia.  A fundamental rule of classicism is symmetry and balance and hence each façade should be the same, but they are not.  He explained this in a letter to Dr. William Thornton that they should be “models of taste and good architecture, & of a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for the architectural lectures.”[xvi] Education is the principle purpose for Jefferson’s rule breaking of classical composition, but the willingness to do so points to another source of his aesthetics, the landscape and nature and the revolution taking place in English gardens.  For Jefferson classicism stopped with the building, the landscape in which it was set was subject to a different set of rules.


[i]  TJ  to William Duane, October 1 1812 Paul L. Ford, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson  (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1892 and 1904) XI: 267-268.

[ii] Sowerby  Catalogue, IV: 20-26.

[iii] Rachel Fletcher, “An American Vision of Harmony: Geometric Proportions in Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia” Nexus Network Journal vol. 5 no. 2 (Autumn 2003).

[iv] Giacomo Leoni,  The Architecture of A. Palladio in Four Books (London: 1742)  II:IV, xx28

[v]  Jefferson, notes on drawing N-331, Jefferson Papers, UVA

[vi] Jefferson, “An explanation of the Ground Plan of the University” March 3, 1825,  Jefferson Papers, UVA

[vii]  Leoni, The Architecture of A. Palladio II:IV, xx, 28.

[viii] Jefferson, Specification book, July 18, 1819, 3. Jefferson Papers, UVA.

[ix]  S. Allen Chambers, Jr.,  Poplar Forest and Thomas Jefferson (Forest: Corporation for Poplar Forest, 1993), 33.

[x]  TJ, “Hints,” in  Wilson, Jefferson Abroad, 249

[xi] Horace Kallen, “Jefferson’s Garden Wall,” American Bookman, Winter 1944, 79

[xii]  TJ, “Notes of a Tour of English Gardens, “ in Wilson, Jefferson Abroad, 67.

[xiii] Sidney K. Robinson, Inquiry into the Picturesque (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)

[xiv]  Jefferson quotes in Edwin M. Betts,  Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, 1766-1824. (Philadelphia:  American Philosophical Society, 1944) 25, 26.

[xv] Jefferson drawing no. 309, Jefferson Papers, UVA

[xvi]  TJ to Thornton, May 9, 1817, Jefferson Papers, Mss. Library of Congress, DLC.

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