Big Picture Glossary

It does not make sense to redo what has been done well, and the Glossary of Roberto Piperno’s website, Rome Art Lover, is excellent, partly because it is augmented by well-chosen photographs. Open it in a new tab by clicking here.

I will explain a lot of terms in the podcasts, and I’ll expect listeners to occasionally be willing to look something up, perhaps on Roberto’s site, above, perhaps using Google. Below is a very basic glossary of terms useful for describing what we see in Roman art and architecture. I’ve kept it short enough that you can easily read through it.


Acanthus. The leaf of this plant was used as a decorative motif on the Corinthian capital. The plant turns up often in Roman parks, and even in the Colosseum itself. Corinthian columns are almost equally common, though Bernini chose the Doric Order for St. Peter’s Square.

Aedicule. Small structure intended to house a sacred image or statue, either freestanding or set into the wall of a building.

Altar Panel. Large painting of a religious subject, situated above an altar in a church.

High Relief. A sculpture in which the figures are not freestanding but are still considerably raised or detached from the background to which they are attached. In a bas-relief (“low relief”) the figures are only slightly raised from the surface.

Apse. A semi-circular or polygonal projection of a building, with a half dome or conch (bowl-shaped vault). In churches it is opposite the entrance, at the end of the central nave (sometimes also at the end of the side naves or transept). It surrounds the main altar and the choir.

Arch. An architectural structure supported by columns or pilasters. When a row of arches is linked, it becomes an arcade.

Architrave. A beam, usually resting on a row of columns, and often stretching across the façade of a temple or down the nave of a basilica. It would often have a decorative frieze above it. A cornice or projecting ledge would generally top the frieze. These three elements together are called the entablature.

Ashlar. Large rectangular blocks of carefully dressed stone fitted together to make a wall or other structure. Distinguish it from walls made of irregular stones or of bricks.

Baroque. Style of art popular in Italy and throughout Europe in the 17th century, at the time of the Catholic Counterreformation. Whether correctly or not, it is associated with Bernini, Borromini, da Cortona, Reni, Caravaggio, and other of Rome’s most characteristic artists and architects.

Basilica. In ancient Rome the basilica was a public building which usually served civil purposes such as law courts. It was rectangular with a central nave and side aisles divided by colonnades. The wall at one or both short ends formed a semi-circular or rectangular apse. Roman churches adopted this form, though with only one apse, so they had a clear direction from the less holy entrance to the more holy area surrounded by the apse.

Bas-relief. Low relief, where carved figures do not stand out far from their background.

Baths. Roman baths should perhaps be called “Recreational Complexes.” They included buildings that were used as public baths and meeting places. They usually featured pools with warm, tepid and cold water (known as the calidarium, the tepidarium and the frigidarium). A steam bath was called a laconicum, and a apodyterium was the changing room.Baths also had areas for exercise and, sometimes, libraries.

Battlements. A form of indented wall around the top of castles and towers which may either be defensive or decorative.

Byzantine art. Figurative art which came into being around the 4th century A.D. in the eastern Roman empire. The name derives from Byzantium, another name for Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. The style continued for over one thousand years, surviving until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The earliest works of art date from the 6th century when Byzantine art developed its own particular style. In view of the beauty and influence of Byzantine art, it is hard to believe that the Byzantine authorities decided that it was impious to represent religious subjects and destroyed some of it during two periods in the 8th and 9th centuries. The was called Iconoclasm, “a clash with images,” and it added to the disagreements between eastern and western Christianity. It also led Byzantine artists to head West.

Campanile. A bell tower.

Cartoon. A charcoal drawing made on card used in the making of large works of art, especially frescoes. The outline is then nicked out with a small knife or pricked out with an awl and placed on the surface to be painted. The form is then dusted with coal powder which leaves the outline of the picture to be painted on the surface.

Cathedra. Greek for “chair” or “throne,” is is the sign of a bishop’s authority.

Cathedral. The main church of a bishop.

Choir. Section of a church situated behind the main altar, furnished with stalls and intended for members of the choir.

Cloister. Internal courtyard of a monastery or convent with a portico of slender columns supporting a roof and resting on a low wall.

Coffers. Square or polygonal panels set into a ceiling and often decorated with ornamental motifs. The coffers of the Pantheon form the background for much of this website.

Corinthian capital. it is decorated with acanthus leaves from which small volutes emerge. In Rome, Corinthian capitals are more common than Doric and Ionian columns, though the large portico around the piazza of St. Peter’s features Doric capitals.

Cornice. Horizontal decorative element found where the wall meets the ceiling. Also the uppermost main division of an entablature.

Dome (Cupola). Curved or spherical vault (may also be semi-circular with an oval section) mainly found in religious buildings. The cupola rests on a ‘drum’ with a polygonal or cylindrical external structure and is crowned by a lantern through which light is admitted to the interior.

Dressing. Stone surface of a building, worked to a finish, whether smooth or moulded. Also the decorative stonework around any of the openings.

Entablature. Picture a decorated horizontal beam that sits on top of columns or pilasters. It is often divided into three members. These are the architrave (bottom), frieze (middle), and cornice (top). This threesome is called the entablature.

Fresco. A technique of painting that consists of applying paint to fresh, damp plaster. The painter can only work where the plaster is fresh and must work quickly, but the result is a resistant surface that incorporates the pigment into the material of the wall. Frescos survive from antiquity, but Rome’s best known examples are from the Renaissance, by Raphael and Michelangelo in particular.

Gothic. Artistic style that developed in France during the mid-12th century and spread throughout Europe and Italy from the 13th to the 15th centuries. In architecture the pointed arch, ribbed vault and flying buttresses are typical features. It is rare in Rome, partly because the popes abandoned Rome in the 14th century, and there was not much money around for new architectural projects on the grand scale. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is the exception.

Icon. Religious image painted on a panel, typical of Byzantine religious and artistic culture. The Russian church later adopted these as items of worship and devotion. Impost.

Inlaid work. Technique of inlaying pieces of stone or wood of different colors to create a design or picture. In Rome, the floors of churches in the High Middle Ages were often done in marble inlays. The Cosmati were famous for their inlaid floors, which came to be known as Cosmatesque.

Lantern. Crowning element of a dome, usually circular or polygonal, admitting light to the interior of the building.

Lunette. Semi-circular space decorated with frescoes or mosaics usually situated above doors or windows where the vault joins the walls. Also used to describe a semicircular section above a painting or bas-relief.

Monolithic column. A column made from a single block of stone, rather than in several sections.

Nave. The main body or central aisle of a church which may be enclosed by walls (church with a single nave), by columns or by pilasters, when there are aisles on each side of the nave.

Oculus. Oval or circular opening or window in a wall or dome.

Oratory. Chapel or other building belonging to a church or monastery, used either for private worship or associations of brethren.

Pillar. Vertical structural member which bears a load – arches, architraves or vaults. It may be square, oblong or polygonal in shape. Romanesque pillars are usually cruciform with a column on each of the four sides; Gothic pillars generally consist of a ‘cluster’ of columns.

Plan. Horizontal layout of a building. Churches often have the form of a cross with two rectangles at right angles to each other. If the rectangles are of the same length and cross at the center, they form a Greek cross; if one rectangle is shorter than the other, intersecting it at about a third of its length, they form a Latin cross. If the shorter arm crosses the very end of the longer section, forming a T, the form is known as a Tau or Saint Anthony’s cross.

Presbytery. Area of a church around the main altar. Reserved for the clergy, it is separated from the central nave by a balustrade.

Reliquary. Urn or container containing some body part of a saint or martyr, which is deemed holy.

Romanesque. A style of the figurative arts – especially sculpture – and of architecture which flourished throughout western Europe from the end of the 10th century until the middle of the 12th century (in Italy until the early decades of the 13th century). Typical features of the Romanesque style are: simple pillars often alternating with composite pillars; cross or barrel vault ceilings; external pilaster strips and buttresses; bays separated by transverse arches supported by clustered columns.

Rosette. A circular design or ornament which resembles a formalized rose; may be painted, sculpted or molded.

Rotunda. A round building often covered with a dome. A large round room or hall, generally in the centwr of a building.

Sacristy. Room attached to a church for the storage of sacred vessels and vestments. Usually also a robing room for the clergy.

Sarcophagus. Coffin in stone, marble or other material. Roman sarcophagi were decorated with bas-relief sculptures on the sides, while Etruscan sarcophagi generally had a statue of the deceased, in a reclining position as though at a banquet, on top.

Spandrel. Triangular surface between the vault of a dome and the vertical piers that support it.

Tabernacle. Niche or aedicule in the shape of a small temple containing a sacred image. Also used for the ciborium, receptacle in the center of the altar for the Holy Sacrament.

Terracotta, glazed. Pottery or china decorated with a glassy finish obtained by combining silica (found in clay) and lead oxide. The pottery thus becomes impermeable and lustrous.

Transept. When a church is shaped like a cross, the transept is the part that crosses the nave.

Tribune. Area consisting of the presbytery and apse of a church. In a Roman basilica the tribune was the semi-circular area where the judges sat; in early Christian churches it indicated the seats behind the main altar where the bishop and clergy sat.

Truss. A triangular load-bearing structure used to support the roofs of churches and other buildings. In Rome, the beams are usually made of wood. In Roman churches, the alternative to a trussed roof is a roof made of stones held in place by vaults.

Tympanum. The semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window.

Urn. The ashes of the deceased are kept in a funerary urn after cremation. Also a container for relics of a saint.

Vault. Vaults are ways of keeping stones in the air with usable space beneath them, as arches do in just two dimensions. In Rome, the two most common forms of vault are 1) Barrel vault – a series of arches placed one behind another to form a tunnel, possibly a very large “tunnel.” 2) Cross vault – where two barrel vaults cross. Looking up at a cross vault, you will see four segments, divided by ribs, with the weight being carried down to four corners. Where the ribs meet at the apex is a keystone serving for both of the barrel vaults.