From out of the ashes rose the world’s most powerful republic.
In 1748, a construction crew digging on the slopes of Mt. Etna in Italy uncovered what appeared to be the ruins of a Roman settlement. They began to excavate, and engineers and historians were called in. What they found was more than just a settlement. It was way more. It was in fact an entire Roman city, buried in volcanic ash. It was completely intact and frozen in time, with streets and homes and businesses, artwork and furnishings, markets and spas and temples and stadiums, as well as, sadly, the perfectly preserved remains of many the city’s inhabitants, who had instantly died the moment that Etna erupted on August 24, 79AD.
And then, in 1763, the team uncovered a plaque that read, “Rei publicae Pompeianorum.” That’s the moment when the name “Pompeii” seared itself onto the collective consciousness of the world. Soon after, whenever young aristocrats and scholars made their “Grand Tour” of Europe, they would add a visit to Pompeii to their itinerary. They would be amazed. And when they returned home, they would be inspired to create a new style of design and architecture that we now know as “Neoclassicism.”
Neoclassicism gets its inspiration from the Greek appreciation of humanity and the human form, and from the Roman quest for perfect proportion. At its heart are the writings of Marcus Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer who literally wrote the book on Roman design, “De architectura” in the 1st century BC. Vitruvius argued that perfect design proportions are revealed and defined by the human body. Specifically, when a person stands with arms extended at 90 degrees, a square is formed between the vertical length of head-to-toe and the horizontal length of fingertip-to-fingertip. Meanwhile, if a person stands with arms and legs extended at 45 degrees, a perfect circle circumscribes their limbs. (Da Vinci would later illustrate this in his famous drawing, Vitruvian Man.) Using this perfect circle-square relationship, Vitruvius argued, architects could design the most beautifully simple, perfectly balanced, and well-proportioned buildings. Imagine that: perfect spaces designed for humans, by humans, inspired by the human form.
Now here’s the funny historical twist: just as this Neoclassical rage really got blazing, a new political entity was taking shape halfway around the world. In 1776, a bunch of renegade English colonies in America broke free from their mother country. In 1781, they won their independence. In 1783, they were officially recognized. But then, when they tried to form a new government… they failed miserably. Since they all had been oppressed by the King of England, they all shared an instinctive fear of centralized political power. And nobody trusted anybody else to wield it.
However, they also shared a common burning ambition to build something important. Something that could last forever and that might one day be as powerful as, say, ancient Rome. And so they looked to Rome for inspiration, and for a lasting model. After years of arguing, in 1789, perhaps inspired by the theories of Vitruvius, and with a desire to form “a more perfect Union,” they created a new form of government.
It was completely aware of human strengths and weaknesses; it granted but also limited power; it was simple yet all-encompassing; and it was perfectly balanced. They encapsulated it in a miraculous document they called the Constitution of the United States.
And then they went one step farther. Since they were a new country with new thinking, they wanted a new name for what they were doing. A new word that signaled their new way of looking at things, their new way of working together, and the new forms they would use to build their future.
From out of fires of Pompeii, something new from something very old: the Americanized version of Neoclassicism.
They called it Federalism. And it would burn brightly at the heart of this new republic.