“When I was in the States recently, I took a photo of a cross section of coral that my daughter is using for her research. After returning to Paris, I noticed that it is identical to an architectural feature that is used on many buildings here, for example at the base of the Louvre. Can you tell me if this feature has a name and anything else about it, such as its origins?”
Mary Kay kindly sent me a photo of her daughter’s coral (pictured above), and I was immediately able to see what she was referring to. It is indeed very similar to a feature that is regularly seen on buildings in Paris (and in many other places around the world). However, the name of this feature has nothing to do with marine organisms, but is in fact connected to a creature that is much closer to most of us – the worm.
Generally found on stones at the base of a building, this gouging or chiselling of a smooth surface is known as vermiculation (from the Latin vermis, meaning worm), and is just one form of an architectural technique known as rustication. It first began to appear on buildings in the rennaissance period, with the Louvre palace being a particularly good example.
Vermiculation on the walls of the Louvre.
Following classical architectural theory, the idea behind using forms of rustication is that they provide a rough, ‘natural’ surface at ground level which give the building a feeling of solidity, and offer a feature that then contrasts well with ornamental stonework and columns on floors above, particularly the ‘piano nobile’.
Although there are several forms of rustication, it is vermiculation which has always been most popular, and the feature continued to be used on buildings in Paris into the 20th century (although in more recent times for purely decorative effect). The link to worms is due to its forms, which are supposed to resemble the shapes left by those creatures in wood or soil, an effect which perhaps also gave a building a more 'living' feel.
The effect seemingly died out with the arrival of the smoothness and simplicity of the art deco movement, and with mass production replacing the craft of the stonemason, it seems unlikely to make a comeback. However, I have found it available today as a motif for a range of materials which you can use inside your house, and one which here has been given a rather interesting name - 'le grand corail'!
Whilst taking a closer look at the vermicular features on the facade of the Louvre, I noticed something a little strange. The feature should stretch up in a column to the top, but on the lower levels the stones have been replaced by more modern models. I'm not sure when this would have been done, but was it perhaps to make it more difficult for potential thieves to get a good foothold? Another possible reason then for the disappearance of this feature on the buildings of Paris!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!