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Italian Romanesque - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )



The Romanesque Period in Italy may be taken to date approximately from the eighth to the twelfth century.

(a) Central Italy.—The basilican type of church was closely adhered to during this period ; for Italians were slow to adopt a new system of construction and preferred to concentrate on beauty and delicacy of ornamental detail, while the architectural character was much governed by Classic traditions. The most pronounced features of facades were the ornamental arcades which rose one above the other, sometimes even into the gables (pp, 257 A, 258). This decorative use of arcaded galleries is one instance of the employment of an architectural feature having a constructive origin. When a wooden roof was placed over a vault there was no need to continue the solid external walls above the springing of the vault, as wooden rafters exerted little thrust (p. 215 ) ; hence this upper portion of the wall could be pierced or arcaded (p. 267 E, G), and this arcading came to be employed, especially by the Pisans, as a decorative feature, and sometimes even entirely covered the western facade (p. 257). In a similar way the battlemented parapet, primarily designed for defence, was used as a decorative feature on window transoms, and elsewhere in English Gothic buildings (pp. 408 M, 366 G J). The use of marble for facing for walls distinguishes Romanesque architecture in Italy from that of the rest of Europe (p. 259 A). The churches had, for the most part, simple open timber roofs ornamented with bright colouring. Byzantine influence was strong in Ravenna and Pisa, which developed their own peculiar styles. Campanili or bell-towers, which seem to have originated in the sixth century, for carrying the bells which summoned Christians to prayer, now became an integral part of the church group, and henceforward gave special character to ecclesiastical architecture.

(b) North Italy.—Romanesque art in this district shows influence from north of the Alps, where the principal innovation was the development of the ribbed vault which brought about the adoption of many new constructive features. The churches are basilican in type, but naves as well as side aisles are vaulted and have external wooden roofs. Aisles are often two storeys in height, while thick walls between the side chapels act as buttresses to resist the pressure of the vaults. The flat, severe entrance facades stretch across the whole church, thus masking externally the division of nave and aisles. There is often a central projecting porch, with columns standing on the backs of crouching lions and a rose .window above to light the nave (p. 267 J). The gable is characteristically outlined with raking arcades which had originated in the eaves arcades round the apses. The general character became less refined, owing to the increased use of stone and brick instead of marble, and ornament shows a departure from Classic precedent, and portrays, with an element of the grotesque, the rough outdoor life of the invaders from the north. The Comacine masters, a privileged guild of architects and sculptors originating in Como, carried out church building and characteristic decoration during the eleventh century, not only in the north, but also in other parts of Italy, and it is contended that their influence spread even as far as England.

(c) South Italy and Sicily.—The changing architectural character can be traced through Byzantine, Mahometan, and Norman rule, and each successive period carried with it something from the past. Byzantine influence predominates in the plans of such buildings as the church of the Martorana at Palermo, where the dome, supported on four columns, covers the square central space. Mahometan influence is specially seen in the coloured marble and mosaic decoration of interiors (p. 266 A) and in the use of stripes of coloured marbles externally. The sturdy Norman character is displayed in the construction of the cathedral of Monreale. It is natural that the churches should have either the dome of the Byzantine or the wooden roof of the basilican type, and they are seldom vaulted.



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