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The Tomb of Lars Porsenna and the Architectural Imaginary

Erika Naginski
Robert P. Hubbard Professor of Architectural History
Harvard Graduate School of Design

The Tomb of Lars Porsenna is an incommensurable object of wonder that has haunted the Western architectural imaginary from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Against the backdrop of architecture’s interaction with archaeology, this lecture treats various reconstitutions of the fabled Etruscan royal monument. The cryptic description left us by Pliny the Elder (after Varro) prompted architects from Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to Jean-Jacques Lequeu to evoke an impossibly colossal structure premised on the repetitive logic of stacked geometrical elements. To take Pliny at his word was to confront the engineering of something that defied the Vitruvian mantra of solidity, utility, and beauty—a vexing contradiction on which the likes of Christopher Wren and A. C. Quatremère de Quincy ruminated. It is arguably with the visionary architects of the late eighteenth century—and, especially, Étienne-Louis Boullée and his students—that this contradiction found its most emblematic expression. This talk speculates on why this might have been so, that is, on how it came to be that an ancient megalomaniacal architectural example would have resurfaced in the context of absolutism’s demise.

Mount Holyoke College Art History and Architectural Studies
Co-Sponsored with Five College Architecture

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