Armenian Architecture In The Eyes Of Italian Scholars

The remarkable compositions of Armenian architecture put Armenian architectonics among the unique phenomena of medieval civilization.

To analyze the construction equipment of the Middle Ages, to study its influences, and to evaluate the prerequisites for the development of the culture of a given country means to a certain extent illuminate the process of formation of national architectural images where the connection between nature and the human worldview plays a crucial role.

According to the statement of Italian researcher and architect P. Cuneo, the peculiar Armenian architecture “has been in contact with other civilizations as a result of invasions – Arabs from the south (8th century) and Seljuk Turks (12th century) and Mongols (14th century) from the east. Armenians have also been in contact with the Georgian nation in the north in the era of the stubborn Byzantine-Persian rivalry.

And all these peoples naturally experienced the influence of the Armenian architectural culture that was in many ways more mature and developed.”

A significant contribution to the study of the history and theory of world architecture has been made by a new generation of Italian architects. It is pleasant to note that many of its representatives are extremely interested in our architecture.

In particular, the multi-volume work “Practical Architecture” by Professor L. Carbonara and the historical essay “Religious Architecture” by L. Benvollo give an interpretation of the Armenian style based on a multilateral analysis of architectural phenomena.

The same approach is characteristic of T. Breccia Fratadocchi, P. Cuneo, E. Costa, and de Maffei (Institute of Medieval Arts of the University of Rome) whose articles can be found in the recently published voluminous catalog “Armenian medieval architecture” (published by De Luca, Rome).

The main idea in the interpretation of the mentioned authors is as follows – Armenian architectural monuments with constant simplification use the expressive capabilities of various combinations of stone pylons, arches, vaults, and domes.

For Armenian masters, the organic unity of these different elements is mainly based on a perfectly clean geometric structure. The geometric “model” that underlies the formation of the whole is clearly revealed in its structure. On the other hand, construction is the result of studying the objective world and applying a certain building system based on experimental science.

“The peculiar talent of Armenians in the field of exact sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy, is well-known and determines their tendency to an experimental approach,” writes T. Breccia Fratadocchi.

Therefore, in an architectural composition, functional requirements are determined by the idea of creating an ideal volumetric structure. For this reason, some parts of Armenian architectural monuments are not divided but rather united.

This approach is followed by, for example, the Tanaat temple in Syunik (5th-6th centuries), the Garni basilica (4th-5th centuries), and Diraklar (4th-5th centuries) where the presence of the sacristy and auxiliary rooms from the outside is not accentuated.

Aside from these, we can note the three-nave basilicas of Kasakh (4th-5th centuries) and Yeghvard (6th century) with gable whole roofs, as well as the three-nave basilicas of Tsitsernavank (Karabakh) and Khohotsvank (Demiryan, south of Lake Van) where the main nave is higher than the side ones and is illuminated by longitudinal windows walls (western solution).

The interconnected pillars and arches in the basilicas are harmoniously balanced, and the support arches embrace the vault. The transitions from one element to another are smooth, barely accented by capitals or ornaments. The internal space and external volume form a monolithic unity of individual architectural elements, in the creation of which an aesthetic understanding of form played a decisive role.

In Armenian structures, “the walls forming the core of the masonry were faced with hewn blocks on both sides. The solidity achieved in this way made it possible to neutralize loads, minimize static tasks, and concentrate the main concern on organizing architectural spaces in simple and clear geometric forms” (T. Breccia Fratadocchi).

As you know, structural European issues and the tasks of balancing forces dominated European medieval architecture, so their form was dictated by a dynamic solution of the internal spaces, whether it be in Romanesque or Gothic architecture.

The Armenian architect considered the integrity of forms and their purity essential of architecture. The stone models of central-domed churches preserved in the museums of Yerevan, Zvartnots, and Erzurum are brilliant evidence of such a perception of form.

Summarizing this idea, T. Breccia Fratadocchi claims that the circle, sphere, and other geometric shapes are the generalized truths through which the Armenian builder expressed the cosmic value of art and religion. To have a general meaning, the form must be simple and “readable”. In such circumstances, the use of ornaments should be limited and barely emphasized, as is inherent in Ani’s architectural style.

In the earliest Armenian structures, a separate volume, even if there was one (such as the two triangular niches in the eastern wall of the Ptghni single-span domed hall or arched brows on the facades of Aruch), was compact – the external does not follow from the internal but rather includes (contains) it and is in harmony with its surroundings.

Dome structures such as Mastar and Artik with multifaceted apses forming a cross have not been further developed. Buildings such as the Hripsime Temple began to predominate instead. These buildings were cruciform inside and had round rooms and a domed drum on supported by squinches.

P. Cuneo writes that among the “churches of the 6th-10th centuries, about 12 buildings of this type are known – Hripsime, Akhtamar, and others whose origin is basically purely Armenian.

This is confirmed by the study of not only the mentioned monuments but also a previously unknown and recently discovered structure. This is the so-called Kizil Kilise Church (Red Church) located in Western Armenia.

The interest caused by this temple is significant. Given that the details of some solutions make it similar to the temple of Hripsime, its combination of architectural features and style could have served as its prototype.

This church located between the Van and Urmia Lakes is apparently destined to conclusively prove that the Hripsime type is purely Armenian (rather some vague “Caucasian” type) since the Red Church is the oldest known representative of its style.

Based on the general plan and the proximity of location, we can affirm that it has also served as the prototype of the so-famous Akhtamar church built in the 10th century on the shore of Lake Van.”

Having become acquainted with the history and culture of a given people, it is impossible to confuse the forms created by it with the forms of other peoples. Armenians, as Italian scholars noted, were able to create hundreds of variations of the same theme and constantly establish new connections between architectural compositions, i.e. humans and nature.

Creating new forms, Armenians, therefore, do not worship them but express the freedom of their being. “Through their architectural works, they demonstrate their active participation in the formation of nature and their activities in the creation, planning, and effective research of the objective world,” writes P. Cuneo.

The connection of the architectural composition with nature is twofold. Therefore, the organic integrity of the Armenian structures is twofold as well – its two components are the “external volume” and the “internal space”. The inner space obeys the laws of reflected light, while the outer volume obeys the laws of direct sunlight.

From this point of view, form is a black and white reality. T. Breccia Fratadocchi, emphasizing this, cites as an example the dome of the Armenian churches that can only “symbolize the sky from within because the heavenly arch is incomprehensible and is impossible to depict.”

Armenian builders have covered the dome with a conical roof that concentrates the entire body of the church around itself as a symbol of faith which dominates the area. That is why the bell towers in the Armenian churches are an alien and inorganic element.

It is no coincidence that in Sanahin and Haghpat, Armenian craftsmen have erected the bell tower as a separate building. In the Armenian buildings, the interior space is mostly devoid of tiles and wall paintings – instead, it is completely streamlined and completed so that you can cover the whole with one glance.

The inner space is an “inner world full of deep meaning”, and from the outside, a “radiant structure” appears before us. Moreover, Armenian monuments located in different, sometimes unexpected places, as P. Cuneo notes, are the product of the development of certain initial themes and are witnesses of how diverse and at the same time united the culture of the country is.

These are, in general terms, the ideas of Italian scholars about Armenian architecture.

Original post by Armen Zaryan,

Photo Angelina Janoyan
Photo Angelina Janoyan
Photo Angelina Janoyan
Photo Angelina Janoyan
Photo Angelina Janoyan

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