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Romanesque Architecture

( Originally Published 1915 )

We saw in the chapter on Early Christian Architecture that it was the basis on which another great style was built up.

The name of this next great style is Romanesque. With the development of the Romanesque, buildings became much more numerous, and we find in Italy different styles of Romanesque, such as the Tuscan, and the Lombard, and elsewhere still others, for example, the Norman in England, and the German Romanesque in Germany. Pisa cathedral is the best and most typical of all of the Italian Romanesque buildings.

We ought, of course, to think a little of the times when it was built. Pisa was famous when Rome was a hamlet. Cities, in the Italy of those days, were the strongholds of great political parties, and one city fought against another the bloodiest and bitterest battles that can be imagined. The fights were often long and terrible, and the steps of their beautiful townhalls, and even their churches, and streets, sometimes ran red with blood. Now one city would be victorious, and now another. The whole beautiful land which today we know as Italy was simply a group of separate bits and each bit was torn by factions within itself. As this was the case for several centuries, say from the eleventh to the fourteenth, we may as well remember the names of the two great parties in these strifes, namely, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.

To travel in Italy, and not to read and hear of Guelf and Ghibelline, would be almost impossible, and it was while these great factions lived and fought in Italy so ferociously that the Romanesque architecture flourished. For, in spite of bloodshed and loss, commerce made great progress. Cities became richer than ever before, and desired to make themselves more splendid than their rival neighbors. The very feudal system, which fostered war, carried with it the monastic system, which gave refuge to the men who loved peace, and the arts of peace, and partly through this system and these men, the noble art of building grew and flourished.


Romanesque is used to indicate the style of Christian architecture founded on Roman architecture, which prevailed throughout Western Europe from the early Christian to the rise of the Gothic, except where the Byzantine is found. It grew out of the Basilican architecture, already described, and the two have many features in common; chiefly in that the openings were always arched with round arches. Round arches are salient feature of Romanesque architecture, and the windows were usually small, owing to the necessity for keeping the walls strong to support the outward pressure of the roof.

The roof was sometimes of timber and sometimes vaulted stone. Vaulting means any solidly built arched roof over a building. Transepts, or the arms of the cross figure, were a feature of most Romanesque churches, and we see sculpture taking an important part in the ornamentation. We may get a comparative view of three styles by noticing how the Byzantine differed in certain points from both. The arrangement of the light is similar in the Basilican and in Romanesque churches, but the Byzantine churches opended for light chiefly upon the ring of windows which encircles the base of the central dome, and sometimes of all the domes.

The columns in Basilicas were antique, often taken from other buildings. In Romanesque buildings, a great variety of columns appeared; shafts being freely introduced to decorate doors or arcades to such an extent as to be a great feature of this style. The capitals differ widely from the classic. In the Byzantine, small columns appear as a decorative feature also.

The ornaments alone would be a life-time study. In general, the Basilican moldings were few and crude, mosaic being their chief decoration. In both Byzantine and in Romanesque, especially in its later development, moldings became more elaborate, and ornamental carving came to be of more importance, though not so indispensable as in the Gothic that was to follow. Mosaic is of less importance in Romanesque churches and color decoration partakes more of the character of fresco. The pictorial character of the decoration was wonderfully effective for, though rich and gorgeous, it was always solemn and ecclesiastical.

We must also speak of the towers which, in Italy, were built separately, and made such a picturesque feature of these churches. The Bell Towers of Italy are a part of her landscape, and are so well suited to it that they seem to have grown up with the trees.

The baptistery, which was usually circular, and detached, was also a characteristic feature. In fact the baptistery was sometimes built first and used for a church, as at Florence.

The wheel, or rose window, appeared and became a feature of the Romanesque.

Remember particularly that the vaulted roofs were supported solely by the walls which had to be of great thickness and solidity, and that the windows and openings were made rather small so as not to weaken the walls. We shall see how a desire to do away with this heaviness caused so many changes as to produce in time an entirely new and distinct style the Gothic.

Comparing the interiors, the basilica was plain without, gorgeous within, venerable but not forbidding, while the Byzantine was still more gorgeous within, rich and Oriental in color, even splendid, yet more solemn and impressive, suggesting ceremonial and pageantry. The exterior with its domes gave a pleasing sky-line; far more pleasing than the barn-like basilica. The Romanesque interior, though much like the basilica, was richer and more varied, and yet it was heavy compared to Gothic. The Romanesque is often called a picturesque style, largely on account of its towers. This feature was used by the American architect Richardson in many of the libraries and city halls of America.

In Romanesque buildings, the trussed roof is supplanted by great stone vaulted roofs.

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