Few buildings are more familiar than the temples of Paestum; yet the moment when the traveler first comes in sight of works of untouched Hellenic skill is one which is simply overwhelming. Suddenly, by the side of a dreary road, in a spot backed indeed by noble mountains, but having no charm of its own, we come on these works, unrivaled on our side of the Hadriatic and the Messenian strait, standing in all their solitary grandeur, shattered indeed, but far more perfect than the mass of ruined buildings of later days. The feeling of being brought near to Hellenic days and Hellenic men, of standing face to face with the fathers of the world’s civilization, is one which can never pass away. Descriptions, pictures, models, all fail; they give us the outward form; they can not give us the true life.
The thought comes upon us that we have passed away from that Roman world out of which our own world has sprung into that earlier and fresher and brighter world by which Rome and ourselves have been so deeply influenced, but out of which neither the Roman nor the modern world can be said to spring. There is the true Doric in its earliest form, in all its unmixed and simple majesty. The ground is strewed with shells and covered with acanthus-leaves; but no shell had suggested the Ionic volute, no acanthus-leaf had suggested the Corinthian foliage. The vast columns, with the sudden tapering, the overhanging capitals, the stern, square abacus, all betoken the infancy of art. But it is an infancy like that of their own Herakles; the strength which clutched the serpent in his cradle is there in every stone. Later improvements, the improvements of Attic skill, may have added grace; the perfection of art may be found in the city which the vote of the divine Assembly decreed to Athene; but for the sense of power, of simplicity without rudeness, the city )f Poseidon holds her own. Unlike in every retail, there is in these wonderful works of early Greek art a spirit akin to some of the great churches of Romanesque date, simple, massive, unadorned, like the Poseidonian Doric.
And they show, too, how far the ancient architects were from any slavish bondage to those minute rules which moderns have invented for them. In each of the three temples of Paestum differences both of detail and of arrangement may be marked, differences partly of age, but also partly of taste. And some other thoughts are brought forcibly upon the mind. Here indeed we feel that the wonders of Hellenic architecture are things to kindle our admiration, even our reverence; but that, as the expression of a state of things which has wholly passed away, nothing can be less fit for reproduction in modern times.
And again, we may be sure that the admiration and reverence which they may awaken in the mind of the mere classical purist is cold beside that which they kindle in the mind which can give them their true place in the history of art. The temples of Paestum are great and noble from any point of view. But they become greater and nobler as we run over the successive steps in the long series by which their massive columns and entablatures grew into the tall clusters and soaring arches of Westminster and Amiens.