San Diego Union Tribune:

"Renaissance Man"

Lisa Jardine's 'On a Grander Scale' doesn't do justice to Christopher Wren, or to his genius

Reviewed by James Robbins

March 2, 2003

Christopher Wren was one of the world's greatest intellects, and his life spanned one of history's most tumultuous eras. As chronicled in Lisa Jardine's new biography, the greatness and diversity of his intellectual achievements invite comparison to Brunelleschi and Da Vinci.

Wren was born in 1632. The son of Dr. Christopher Wren (the Dean of Windsor, Register of the Garter, and chaplain to Charles I, Defender of the Anglican Faith), the younger Wren was a childhood friend of Charles II. Before he could enjoy the benefit of his royal connections, however, he would have to survive the English Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, personal exile and Cromwell's Puritan Protectorate. Luckily for Wren, the Restoration brought his playmate back to the center of power in 1660, and Charles II's royal patronage helped Wren become surveyor general and, arguably, England's greatest architect.

By the time he was 30 years old, Wren had established himself as one of the world's leading authorities in mathematics, astronomy, physiology, meteorology and technical engineering. At 16, he authored a treatise on spherical trigonometry; Sir Isaac Newton later identified him as one of the greatest geometers of his time. At 19, he invented a device for "double writing." In his early 20s, Wren experimented at Oxford, along with Robert Boyle and Dr. Thomas Willis, with blood transfusions and helped establish the possibility of delivering medicine through injections. Together with Robert Hooke, he invented a new system for calculating longitude at sea.

Wren used microscopes to make measured drawings of insects, and he used telescopes to make his era's finest map of the moon. He was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham College at 25, and then Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford at 29. He was a founding member of the Royal Society, the greatest scientific body of its time.

Wren did all this before becoming the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, Greenwich Hospital and more than 50 churches destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. How could a biography of such an inventive genius be boring?

Jardine finds a way. She squanders 75 pages in discussions of the Royal Order of the Garter. She further limits her audience by quoting, frequently and extensively, from 17th-century sources replete with the nonstandard spelling and grammar of the time. And then, as if by osmosis, she adopts that style as her own. Consider this sentence (ironically placed under the subheading "Order Out of Chaos"):

"Before we leave the civil war years, and the personal histories on whose details, come the Restoration, those concerned would choose not to dwell, there is one link, altogether unnoticed today, which deserves our further attention - one which has already cropped up several times in the course of our story."

Wren is no easy subject for a biographer, since most of his writings were unpublished and have been lost. Unlike his friend John Evelyn, or his associate Samuel Pepys, Wren was not a diarist, and little is known of his personal life. Jardine tries to compensate by inference from the few facts that are known, but her conclusions often seem forced, and at times, laughable. She writes of Wren's friendship with Robert Hooke, for example, "Neither Hooke nor Wren ever formed as lasting a relationship with any other person. It might, indeed, be argued that the glaring absence of a sustained, passionate relationship with a woman on either man's part derived in some way from their shared traumatic childhood experiences, which permanently eclipsed and overshadowed all other kinds of feeling."

It might, on the other hand, be argued that the absence of a sustained, passionate relationship in Wren's life is derived more directly from the fact that both of his wives died.

Some of the inferences that might be made from the available facts of Wren's life are missing entirely. Almost incredibly, Jardine fails to mention the coincidence of Wren's trip to Paris in 1665 with the arrival of the Great Plague in London. With the onset of Black Death in London, Charles II's court retreated to Hampton Court Palace, and Wren traveled to Paris to meet Bernini and discuss the reconstruction of the Louvre. Meanwhile thousands - estimates vary from 17,000 to more than 100,000 - of London's commoners died. Wren didn't return to London until after the king believed it safe in February of 1666, staying in Paris even after war had broken out between England and France.

He came back in time to witness the Great Fire of London in 1666, which burned 373 acres inside the city walls and 63 acres outside, destroying 87 churches, 13,200 houses and the city of Shakespeare. The Great Fire put an end to the Great Plague and gave birth to the city of Christopher Wren.

The crown jewel of Wren's London, of course, is St. Paul's Cathedral, a building Wren had begun to study even before the fire. In 1663, Charles II had appointed him to a royal commission charged with the transformation of Old St. Paul's into a suitable symbol of the magnificence of the Anglican - and his family's - Restoration.

Wren and his friend John Evelyn argued that such a symbol could not be produced by half-measures. In Wren's words, the cathedral should be largely replaced rather than repaired, since it was "both ill designed & ill built from the beginning." The discussion dragged on until the Great Fire ended the debate by destroying Old St. Paul's along with seven-eighths of London. Now more than ever, Charles II desired a monument for the ages, a symbol of the power granted him by divine providence - and a symbol that could turn public opinion away from the belief that the fire was a form of divine punishment.

Immediately, Wren began to petition for the opportunity to redesign the entire city, seizing on the great calamity as a chance to abandon the old street system and adopt a new plan with broad boulevards, grand monuments, sweeping vistas and a great new quay along the Thames. Jardine describes Wren's utopian plan as "an ambitious, Paris-influenced radial design." While Wren's planned quay along the Thames was certainly influenced by his trip to Paris, the radial design of Paris as we know it today wasn't established until Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann's plans were adopted almost 200 years later.

Even with the help of the Great Fire, Wren's plan would have necessitated land acquisition through seizure and forced resettlement, and ultimately it was rejected as reminiscent of the kind of absolutism that cost Charles I his head. Wren's consolation prize was the commission to rebuild St. Paul's and the city's churches.

Jardine writes about Wren's architecture as a cultural rather than an architectural historian. She avoids critical assessments and fails to explore any underlying aesthetic philosophy. Was Wren, one of the greatest mathematicians of his era, drawn to the Renaissance notion that there were mathematical ratios, knowable by man, underlying harmonic proportions in music and architecture? Jardine doesn't answer the question; she never even asks it.

"On a Grander Scale," in the end, will be of interest mainly to scholars of the 17th century, and is most useful as a guidebook to original materials; Jardine's footnotes are extensive and her bibliography is excellent. (For architectural aficionados, of course, another guidebook to Wren's work is hardly necessary.)

Sir Christopher Wren died in 1723. His epitaph, inscribed on his crypt in St. Paul's, is one of the most famous in England: "Reader, if you require a monument, look around." Most readers would be well advised to skip this book and do just that.

James Robbins is a principal at Robbins Jorgensen Christopher, a multidisciplinary design firm with offices in San Diego and Newport Beach.

On a Grander Scale

The Outstanding Life of Sir Christopher Wren

Lisa Jardine

HarperCollins, 600 pages, $34.95

James Robbins is a principal at RJC Architects Inc., a multidisciplinary design firm based in San Diego.