Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Plagiarism of the Heathens Detected: John Wood, the Elder (1704-1754) on the Translation of Architecture and Empire

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Plagiarism of the Heathens Detected: John Wood, the Elder (1704-1754) on the Translation of Architecture and Empire

Article excerpt

Tucked into the cover of Sir John Soane's copy of Bath architect John Wood's The Origin of Building: or, The Plagiarism of the Heathens Detected (1741) are the reading notes of Sir William Chambers. They deliver a hasty and bruising synopsis: "this book contains a good deal of Learning a great deal of Enthusiasm and some nonsense the Author is so desirous of proving his favorite System that he confounds dates wrests meanings cites falsely and in short Sticks at nothing to accomplish his design."1 Even with that, Chambers was far from being Wood's least sympathetic reader. In a letter to William Stukeley, the dogmatic William Warburton judged Wood's "a most ridiculous Book," its author "a great fool."2 Wood separately earned Stukeley's enmity with his Choir Gaure, Vulgarly called Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain (1747), which presumed to correct the antiquarian's interpretation of that "Druidical Temple."3 Wood's handling of uncommon matter, guided by a belief in the literal truth of revelation and the authority of Mosaic dispensation, continues to cause consternation. In her delineation of Wood's "system of architecture," Eileen Harris usefully corrects the impression produced by a less patient historian who deemed the treatise a "stupefying mass of Scriptural summary and exegesis amplified with reference both to pagan and Christian writers of antiquity, and to modern scholars."4 This thorny bramble of text is where a reading of Wood's prophetic view of architectural history needs to commence. This was Wood's vineyard to tend.

The point of this essay is not to vindicate Wood's treatise, in spite of (or because of) its strained argument and barely tolerable style. Rather, it is to address the persistent difficulties encountered by Wood's readers by examining what sort of reader Wood himself made of sacred, profane, and apocryphal texts. Narrowly viewed as an attempt to reconstruct the plan and proportions of the Mosaic Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temples, Wood's treatise appears a lesser and somewhat late contribution to a widespread early modern polemic that engaged architects, scholars, antiquarians, and exegetes, notably including Sir Isaac Newton.5 James Bennett and Scott Mandelbrote's exhibition catalogue, The Garden, the Ark, the Tower, the Temple (1998), is an indispensable guide to the revenant sacred architectural landscape these rational and faithful seekers produced. Yet the startling originality of Wood's treatise resides in his accusation against the heathen Vitruvius, the presumable "Father of Architecture." For it was he who allegedly committed the culminating act of plagiarism Wood set out to detect. The "Hypothesis" of Wood's treatise, articulated in the cumbersome form of a Matthew pericope, intended to attach the authority of the Vitruvian canon: "Rendering unto Cassar, the things which are Caesars, and unto God, the things which are Gods."6

This crucial facet of Wood's plot of architectural history - that is to say, history as the legacy of plagiaristic depredation - has not been adequately addressed in the responses his treatise has to date produced. A description of the Tabernacle and Temple was the necessary vehicle for Wood's discussion of the origin of building. But his guiding concern was for the mistaken posterity of these sacred models. His central argument is as follows: "Architecture has been the chief Cause of the Glory and Envy, as well as of the Ruin of Kings and Kingdoms, Emperors and Empires, each Potentate endeavoring to outdo the other in Works that wou'd render him most remarkable to Posterity."7 In making his case, Wood restored an ancient theory of universal history, translatio imperii (translation of empire), as centrally articulated in the Book of Daniel. Guided by Daniel's prophecy, and its sustaining "Hope" for a messianic kingdom in opposition to the oppressive kingdoms of this world, Wood equates translation - invariably the result of conquest and plunder - with plagiarism, which term, frustratingly enough, he never explicitly defines. …

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