Classical architecture

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Sebastiano Serlio's canon of the Classical orders, a prime example of classical architectural theory. Serlio 5 orders peake.png
Sebastiano Serlio's canon of the Classical orders, a prime example of classical architectural theory.

Classical architecture usually denotes architecture which is more or less consciously derived from the principles of Greek and Roman architecture of classical antiquity, or sometimes even more specifically, from the works of Vitruvius. [1] [2] Different styles of classical architecture have arguably existed since the Carolingian Renaissance, [3] and prominently since the Italian Renaissance. Although classical styles of architecture can vary greatly, they can in general all be said to draw on a common "vocabulary" of decorative and constructive elements. [4] [5] [6] In much of the Western world, different classical architectural styles have dominated the history of architecture from the Renaissance until the second world war, though it continues to inform many architects to this day.

Architecture The product and the process of planning, designing and constructing buildings and other structures.

Architecture is both the process and the product of planning, designing, and constructing buildings or any other structures. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art. Historical civilizations are often identified with their surviving architectural achievements.

Ancient Greek architecture

The architecture of ancient Greece is the architecture produced by the Greek-speaking people whose culture flourished on the Greek mainland, the Peloponnese, the Aegean Islands, and in colonies in Anatolia and Italy for a period from about 900 BC until the 1st century AD, with the earliest remaining architectural works dating from around 600 BC.

Ancient Roman architecture ancient architecture

Ancient Roman architecture adopted the external language of classical Greek architecture for the purposes of the ancient Romans, but was different from Greek buildings, becoming a new architectural style. The two styles are often considered one body of classical architecture. Roman architecture flourished in the Roman Republic and even more so under the Empire, when the great majority of surviving buildings were constructed. It used new materials, particularly concrete, and newer technologies such as the arch and the dome to make buildings that were typically strong and well-engineered. Large numbers remain in some form across the empire, sometimes complete and still in use to this day.


The term "classical architecture" also applies to any mode of architecture that has evolved to a highly refined state, such as classical Chinese architecture, or classical Mayan architecture. It can also refer to any architecture that employs classical aesthetic philosophy. The term might be used differently from "traditional" or "vernacular architecture", although it can share underlying axioms with it.

Vernacular architecture category of architecture based on local needs, construction materials and reflecting local traditions

Vernacular architecture is architecture characterised by the use of local materials and knowledge, usually without the supervision of professional architects. Vernacular buildings are typically simple and practical, whether residential houses or built for other purposes.

For contemporary buildings following authentic classical principles, the term New Classical Architecture may be used.



Classical architecture is derived from the architecture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. With a collapse of the western part of the Roman empire, the architectural traditions of the Roman empire ceased to be practised in large parts of western Europe. In the Byzantine Empire, the ancient ways of building lived on but relatively soon developed into a distinct Byzantine style. [7] The first conscious efforts to bring back the disused language of form of classical antiquity into Western architecture can be traced to the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th and 9th centuries. The gatehouse of Lorsch Abbey (c. 800), in present-day Germany thus displays a system of alternating attached columns and arches which could be an almost direct paraphrase of e.g., that of the Colosseum in Rome. [8] Byzantine architecture, just as Romanesque and even to some extent Gothic architecture (with which classical architecture is often posed), can also incorporate classical elements and details but do not to the same degree reflect a conscious effort to draw upon the architectural traditions of antiquity; for example, they do not observe the idea of a systematic order of proportions for pillars. In general, therefore, they are not considered classical archerchitectural styles in a strict sense. [9]

Byzantine Empire Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople. It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe."Byzantine Empire" is a term created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire simply as the Roman Empire, or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as "Romans".

Byzantine architecture architectural style

Byzantine architecture is the architecture of the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire.

Carolingian architecture architectural style

Carolingian architecture is the style of north European Pre-Romanesque architecture belonging to the period of the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th and 9th centuries, when the Carolingian dynasty dominated west European politics. It was a conscious attempt to emulate Roman architecture and to that end it borrowed heavily from Early Christian and Byzantine architecture, though there are nonetheless innovations of its own, resulting in a unique character.

Origins of classical architecture
Porch of Maidens.jpg
Caryatids on the Erechtheion, (Athens), an example of a Greek architectural element taken up by later classical architecture.
The fronts of ancient Roman temples like the Maison Carrée in Nîmes have inspired much later classical architecture, e.g. Virginia State Capitol.
Kloster Lorsch 07.jpg
Lorsch Abbey gatehouse (Germany), c. 800, an example of the architectural style of the short-lived Carolingian Renaissance, a first classical movement in architecture.


The emphatically classical church facade of Santa Maria Nova, Vicenza (1578-90) was designed by the influential Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. S Maria Nuova (Vicenza) 20081204-1 retouched.jpg
The emphatically classical church façade of Santa Maria Nova, Vicenza (157890) was designed by the influential Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.

During the Italian renaissance and with the demise of Gothic style, major efforts were made by architects such as Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola to revive the language of architecture of first and foremost ancient Rome. This was done in part through the study of the ancient Roman architectural treatise De architectura by Vitruvius, and to some extent by studying the actual remains of ancient Roman buildings in Italy. [10] Nonetheless, the classical architecture of the Renaissance from the outset represents a highly specific interpretation of the classical ideas. In a building like the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the very earliest Renaissance buildings (built 141945), the treatment of the columns for example has no direct antecedent in ancient Roman architecture. [11] During this time period, the study of ancient architecture developed into the architectural theory of classical architecture; somewhat over-simplified, one could say that classical architecture in its variety of forms ever since have been interpretations and elaborations of the architectural rules set down during antiquity. [12]

Leon Battista Alberti Italian architect

Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian Renaissance humanist author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer; he epitomised the Renaissance Man. Although he is often characterized exclusively as an architect, as James Beck has observed, "to single out one of Leon Battista's 'fields' over others as somehow functionally independent and self-sufficient is of no help at all to any effort to characterize Alberti's extensive explorations in the fine arts." Although Alberti is known mostly for being an artist, he was also a mathematician of many sorts and made great advances to this field during the 15th century. Alberti's life was described in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Sebastiano Serlio Italian architect and painter

Sebastiano Serlio was an Italian Mannerist architect, who was part of the Italian team building the Palace of Fontainebleau. Serlio helped canonize the classical orders of architecture in his influential treatise variously known as I sette libri dell'architettura or Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva.

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola Italian architect

GiacomoBarozzida Vignola was one of the great Italian architects of 16th century Mannerism. His two great masterpieces are the Villa Farnese at Caprarola and the Jesuits' Church of the Gesù in Rome. The three architects who spread the Italian Renaissance style throughout Western Europe are Vignola, Serlio and Palladio.

Most of the styles originating in post-renaissance Europe can be described as classical architecture. This broad use of the term is employed by Sir John Summerson in The Classical Language of Architecture . The elements of classical architecture have been applied in radically different architectural contexts than those for which they were developed, however. For example, Baroque or Rococo architecture are styles which, although classical at root, display an architectural language very much in their own right. During these periods, architectural theory still referred to classical ideas but rather less sincerely than during the Renaissance. [13]

Renaissance European cultural period, 14th to 17th century

The Renaissance is a period in European history, covering the span between the 14th and 17th centuries and marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. The traditional view focuses more on the early modern aspects of the Renaissance and argues that it was a break from the past, but many historians today focus more on its medieval aspects and argue that it was an extension of the middle ages.

Europe Continent in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere

Europe is a continent located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Asia to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It comprises the westernmost part of Eurasia.

John Summerson British architectural historian

Sir John Newenham Summerson was one of the leading British architectural historians of the 20th century.

As a reaction to late baroque and rococo forms, architectural theorists from circa 1750 through what became known as Neoclassicism again consciously and earnestly attempted to emulate antiquity, supported by recent developments in Classical archaeology and a desire for an architecture based on clear rules and rationality. Claude Perrault, Marc-Antoine Laugier and Carlo Lodoli were among the first theorists of neoclassicism, while Étienne-Louis Boullée, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Friedrich Gilly and John Soane were among the more radical and influential. [14] Neoclassical architecture held a particularly strong position on the architectural scene c. 17501850. The competing neo-Gothic style however rose to popularity during the early 1800s, and the later part the 19th century was characterised by a variety of styles, some of them only slightly or not at all related to classicism (such as Art Nouveau), and eclecticism. Although classical architecture continued to play an important role and for periods of time at least locally dominated the architectural scene, as exemplified by the "Nordic Classicism" during the 1920s, classical architecture in its stricter form never regained its former dominance. With the advent of Modernism during the early 20th century, classical architecture arguably almost completely ceased to be practised. [15]

The Glyptothek in Munich, designed by Leo von Klenze and built 1816-30, an example of Neoclassical architecture. Glyptothek, Konigsplatz, Munich, Alemania02.JPG
The Glyptothek in Munich, designed by Leo von Klenze and built 181630, an example of Neoclassical architecture.


As noted above, classical styles of architecture dominated Western architecture for a very long time, roughly from the Renaissance until the advent of Modernism. That is to say, that classical antiquity at least in theory was considered the prime source of inspiration for architectural endeavours in the West for much of Modern history. Even so, because of liberal, personal or theoretically diverse interpretations of the antique heritage, classicism covers a broad range of styles, some even so to speak cross-referencing, like Neo-Palladian architecture, which draws its inspiration from the works of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio who himself drew inspiration from ancient Roman architecture. [16] Furthermore, it can even be argued (as noted above) that styles of architecture not typically considered classical, like Gothic, can be said to contain classical elements. Therefore, a simple delineation of the scope of classical architecture is difficult to make. [17] The more or less defining characteristic can still be said to be a reference to ancient Greek or Roman architecture, and the architectural rules or theories that derived from that architecture.


In the grammar of architecture, the word petrification is often used when discussing the development of sacred structures, such as temples, mainly with reference to developments in the Greek world. During the Archaic and early Classical periods (about the 6th and early 5th centuries BC), the architectural forms of the earliest temples had solidified and the Doric emerged as the predominant element. A widely accepted theory in classical studies is that the earliest temple structures were of wood and the great forms, or elements of architectural style, were codified and rather permanent by the time we see the Archaic emergent and established. It was during this period, at different times and places in the Greek world, that the use of dressed and polished stone replaced the wood in these early temples, but the forms and shapes of the old wooden styles were retained, just as if the wooden structures had turned to stone, thus the designation petrification [18] or sometimes "petrified carpentry" [19] for this process.

This careful preservation of the primitive wooden appearance in the stone fabric of the newer buildings was scrupulously observed and this suggests that it may have been dictated by religion rather than aesthetics, although the exact reasons are now lost in the mists of antiquity. And not everyone within the great reach of Mediterranean civilization made this transition. The Etruscans in Italy were, from their earliest period, greatly influenced by their contact with Greek culture and religion, but they retained their wooden temples (with some exceptions) until their culture was completely absorbed into the Roman world, with the great wooden Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol in Rome itself being a good example. Nor was it the lack of knowledge of stone working on their part that prevented them from making the transition from timber to dressed stone.

See also

Related Research Articles

Classical order Styles of classical architecture, most readily recognizable by the type of column employed

An order in architecture is a certain assemblage of parts subject to uniform established proportions, regulated by the office that each part has to perform. Coming down to the present from Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman civilization, the architectural orders are the styles of classical architecture, each distinguished by its proportions and characteristic profiles and details, and most readily recognizable by the type of column employed. The three orders of architecture—the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—originated in Greece. To these the Romans added, in practice if not in name, the Tuscan, which they made simpler than Doric, and the Composite, which was more ornamental than the Corinthian. The architectural order of a classical building is akin to the mode or key of classical music; the grammar or rhetoric of a written composition. It is established by certain modules like the intervals of music, and it raises certain expectations in an audience attuned to its language.

Georgian architecture set of architectural styles current between 1720 and 1840

Georgian architecture is the name given in most English-speaking countries to the set of architectural styles current between 1714 and 1830. It is eponymous for the first four British monarchs of the House of Hanover—George I, George II, George III, and George IV—who reigned in continuous succession from August 1714 to June 1830. The style was revived in the late 19th century in the United States as Colonial Revival architecture and in the early 20th century in Great Britain as Neo-Georgian architecture; in both it is also called Georgian Revival architecture. In the United States the term "Georgian" is generally used to describe all buildings from the period, regardless of style; in Britain it is generally restricted to buildings that are "architectural in intention", and have stylistic characteristics that are typical of the period, though that covers a wide range.

Ictinus was an architect active in the mid 5th century BC. Ancient sources identify Ictinus and Callicrates as co-architects of the Parthenon. He co-wrote a book on the project – which is now lost – in collaboration with Carpion.

Post and lintel building system where horizontal elements are held up by vertical elements

In architecture, post and lintel is a building system where strong horizontal elements are held up by strong vertical elements with large spaces between them. This is usually used to hold up a roof, creating a largely open space beneath, for whatever use the building is designed for. The horizontal elements are called by a variety of names including lintel, header, architrave or beam, and the supporting vertical elements may be called columns, pillars, or posts. The use of wider elements at the top of the post, called capitals, to help spread the load, is common to many traditions.

Ionic order Order of classical architecture characterized by the use of volutes in the capital and a base moulding on the columns

The Ionic order forms one of the three classical orders of classical architecture, the other two canonic orders being the Doric and the Corinthian. There are two lesser orders: the Tuscan, and the rich variant of Corinthian called the composite order, both added by 16th-century Italian architectural writers, based on Roman practice. Of the three canonic orders, the Ionic order has the narrowest columns.

Classicism art movement

Classicism, in the arts, refers generally to a high regard for a classical period, classical antiquity in the Western tradition, as setting standards for taste which the classicists seek to emulate. The art of classicism typically seeks to be formal and restrained: of the Discobolus Sir Kenneth Clark observed, "if we object to his restraint and compression we are simply objecting to the classicism of classic art. A violent emphasis or a sudden acceleration of rhythmic movement would have destroyed those qualities of balance and completeness through which it retained until the present century its position of authority in the restricted repertoire of visual images." Classicism, as Clark noted, implies a canon of widely accepted ideal forms, whether in the Western canon that he was examining in The Nude (1956), or the literary Chinese classics or Chinese art, where the revival of classic styles is also a recurring feature.

Classical may refer to:

Giant order architectural order that extends in several levels of height or plants, and in which the columns or pilasters go through at least two floors

In classical architecture, a giant order, also known as colossal order, is an order whose columns or pilasters span two storeys. At the same time, smaller orders may feature in arcades or window and door framings within the storeys that are embraced by the giant order.

Regency architecture

Regency architecture encompasses classical buildings built in the United Kingdom during the Regency era in the early 19th century when George IV was Prince Regent, and also to earlier and later buildings following the same style. The period coincides with the Biedermeier style in the German-speaking lands, Federal style in the United States and the French Empire style. Regency style is also applied to interior design and decorative arts of the period, typified by elegant furniture and vertically striped wallpaper, and to styles of clothing; for men, as typified by the dandy Beau Brummell, for women the Empire silhouette.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to classical architecture:

Roman temple ancient temple of the Roman culture

Ancient Roman temples were among the most important buildings in Roman culture, and some of the richest buildings in Roman architecture, though only a few survive in any sort of complete state. Today they remain "the most obvious symbol of Roman architecture". Their construction and maintenance was a major part of ancient Roman religion, and all towns of any importance had at least one main temple, as well as smaller shrines. The main room (cella) housed the cult image of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, and often a small altar for incense or libations. Behind the cella was a room or rooms used by temple attendants for storage of equipment and offerings. The ordinary worshiper rarely entered the cella, and most public ceremonies were performed outside, on the portico, with a crowd gathered in the temple precinct.

George Bähr German architect

George Bähr was a German architect.

Parvise open space in front of and around a cathedral or church

A parvis or parvise is the open space in front of and around a cathedral or church, especially when surrounded by either colonnades or porticoes, as at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Festoon decoration

A festoon is a wreath or garland hanging from two points, and in architecture typically a carved ornament depicting conventional arrangement of flowers, foliage or fruit bound together and suspended by ribbons. The motif is sometimes known as a swag when depicting fabric or linen.

The Classical Language of Architecture is a 1965 compilation of six BBC radio lectures given in 1963 by Sir John Summerson. It is a 60-some page discussion of the origins of classical architecture and its movement through Antiquity, Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Georgian periods. A discussion of the rules and elements in classical terms of the Orders, architectural harmony of design, are included. In 2017 it remains in print in several countries, in illustrated editions of about 144 pages, with 119 illustrations, plus small diagrams. For the original radio broadcasts the BBC published a booklet with 60 photographs of the buildings discussed, which were expanded in the book editions.

Fluting (architecture)

Fluting in architecture consists of shallow grooves running along a surface.

Gibbs surround

A Gibbs surround or Gibbs Surround is a type of architectural frame surrounding a door, window or niche in the tradition of classical architecture otherwise known as a rusticated doorway or window. The formula is not fixed, but several of the following elements will be found. The door is surrounded by an architrave, or perhaps consists of, or is flanked by, pilasters or columns. These are with "blocking", where rectangular blocks stick out at intervals, usually alternating to represent half the surround. Above the opening there are large rusticated voussoirs and a keystone and a pediment above that. The most essential element is the alternation of blocking with non-blocking elements. Some definitions extend to including arches or square openings merely with alternate blocked elements that continue round the top in the same manner as the sides, as in the rectangular windows of the White House's north front basement level.

Hugh Honour British art historian

Hugh Honour FRSL was a British art historian, known for his writing partnership with John Fleming. Their A World History of Art, is now in its seventh edition and Honour's Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay (1961) first set the phenomenon of chinoiserie in its European cultural context.

John Fleming (art historian) British art historian, born 1919

John Fleming was a British art historian, known for his writing partnership with Hugh Honour. Their A World History of Art, first published in 1982, is now in its seventh edition. Fleming's Robert Adam and His Circle in Edinburgh and Rome (1961) won the Bannister Fletcher Prize and the Alice Davis Hitchcock Medal.

Neo-Historism, also known as Neo-Historicism, comprises artistic styles that draw their inspiration from recreating historicist styles or artisans. This is especially prevalent in styles used in revival architecture. Through combination of different styles or implementation of new elements, Neo-Historism can create completely different aesthetics than former styles. Thus it offers a great variety of possible designs.


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  2. Watkin, David (2005). A History of Western Architecture (4 ed.). Watson-Guptill Publications. pp. 6–8. ISBN   0-8230-2277-3.
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  7. Adam, Robert (1992). Classical Architecture. Viking. p. 16.
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  10. Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 7–8. ISBN   0-500-20177-3.
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  12. Evers, Bernd; Thoenes, Christof (2011). Architectural Theory from the Renaissance to the Present. 1. Taschen. pp. 6–19. ISBN   978-3-8365-3198-6.
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  15. Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. p. 114. ISBN   0-500-20177-3.
  16. Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986). Dictionary of architecture (3 ed.). Penguin Books Ltd. p. 234. ISBN   0-14-051013-3.
  17. Summerson, John (1980). The Classical Language of Architecture. Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 7–8. ISBN   0-500-20177-3.
  18. Gagarin, Michael. The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Greece and Rome. Vol. 1. Oxford [u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. 210. ISBN   0195170725
  19. Watkin, David. A history of Western architecture. 4th ed. London: Laurence King, 2005. 25. ISBN   1856694593

Further reading