History of Architecture: Part 3

History of Architecture: Part 3

Byzantine and Medieval Civilization

Before Rome was sacked for the last time the empire had split into dominions: the Western Empire headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Empire in Byzantium (modern day Istanbul, Turkey). The fall of the ancient Roman Empire can be attributed to many causes but the increasing popularity of Christianity was no doubt a contributing factor. Christianity is a monotheistic religion, where one God exists in three unified ‘persons’: God the Father, God the Son of Man (Jesus Christ), and God the spirit. In 313 AD Emperor Constantine petitioned for the Roman empire to become two separate dominions. Byzantium would be the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, of which he would be the Emperor. He changed the name of the capital to Constantinople in his honor and declared himself a Christian becoming the first Roman emperor to do so. Constantine’s predecessor declared that Christianity become the state religion of the Eastern Roman, or the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire would expand to nearly the size of the Ancient Roman Empire and would single handedly spread the Christian religion across Europe, Russia, Near East and Northern Africa.

Portrait of Emperor Constantine. The first Roman ruler to establish Christianity as the state religion.

For whatever reason, Christianity became a very processional religion. It became a worship of pageantry, reciting, and choral singing. This new popularized religion and its functions needed an architecture to support it. It needed a spatial model to help propagate it across the empire and the known world. The solution to this architectural problem would prove to be one of the most influential and repeated design paradigms in the world, even into the 21st century. Christian followers were persecuted by Romans early on and had to hide worship in private houses. By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, there was no official building for Christian worship. To satisfy this need, Byzantine rulers simply used pagan building types from the previous empire and adapted them as the first church buildings. The Roman basilica was of notable influence. Its tall, long, and flexible (or shall I say open concept) plan proved to be a perfect match for Christian worship and would become the primary space of the Christian church. This is why the largest Catholic church in the world is called a ‘Basilica’ and not church - St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Italy. The nave, as it would come to be called, needed a few essential components to make it complete. The apse was added, a semi-circular focal space where the orator and the liturgical chorus would stand, essentially a stage. It was placed at one end of the basilica, or nave, to terminate the procession. Placed parallel to the Basilica, were long but shorter spaces called aisles. They gave access to the viewing areas in the nave. The model for Christian church architecture would receive many nuances and expressions of ornamentation over the next 1500 years. But no matter how varied, these three components, the Nave (Basilica), Apse, and Aisle, would remain essential parts to Christian liturgical spaces and churches. Good examples of early Byzantine christian architecture are Old St. Peter’s Basilica, Aula Palatina commissioned by Constantine himself, and the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The basic components of a basilica plan church adapted from its Roman ancestor building.

The Basilica of Constantine in Trier, Germany.(also called Aula Palatina) built by the Emperor Constantine in 310 AD. It's one of the largest remaining halls from antiquity and a great example of early Christian Church design adapted from a pagan Roman building type. Elements of the basilica are easily seen.

Byzantine architecture also produced the circular planned domed church, an idea undoubtedly influenced by the Pantheon in Rome, a Pagan temple. In floor plan, it's a building essentially comprised of two apses’ pushed together to form a full circle, with a dome over its central space. In these churches, the nave (basilica) and the Apse (or altar) share the same space. An additional circular ring wrapped around this main central space and served as the access aisle. Domed circular plan churches allow more attention to be placed on the altar and provide better viewing access for all. There were many more traditional basilica churches produced than circular basilicas. But circular domed churches produced some of the world’s greatest buildings and would be the precursor for for many future buildings. The church of Santa Costanza (4th century) in Rome is a great example of early modest circular plan Christian churches. But the Hagia Sophia (6th century), in Istanbul is without a doubt one of the most fascinating buildings of any kind and of any period of architecture. For years it was both the largest church in the world and the largest masonry domed building the world. The idea behind this iconic building was to merge the circular basilica plan with the rectangular basilica plan creating an ideal worship space. Now a museum, Hagia Sophia is rich in cultural history as the grandeur of its space has played host to a Christian church, a catholic church, and a Islamic Mosque.

Interior Nave of the Church Santa Costanza in Rome. It's one of the earliest examples of a circular plan church dating back to 4th century AD.  Photo by: Marques King

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Now Istanbul) is the largest circular plan church ever built. Located in an active earthquake zone, engineers still wonder how people of the day were able to build such a structure.It was built in the 6th Century and is the crown jewel of Byzantine/Eastern Orthodox Christian Architecture. 

Europe after the fall of Rome, would experience the Middle or Dark Ages. The Medieval period represents a time where vast amounts of knowledge, technology and history were lost. This dark period would continue until the the Moors and Arabs would reintroduce these ideas back into the continent. But there were still a few major architectural developments that happened during this period. The Romanesque architectural style flourished in many independent Italian States that came to power.. Romanesque architecture is defined by the excessive use of the stone arch in both the interior and the exterior of religious buildings and palaces. However, the most significant architectural development during this time was the Gothic Architectural style. Churches were traditionally very solid, opaque and heavy looking. Developed in France, Gothic churches were more structurally efficient and expressive. This allowed churches to be taller and contain unprecedented amounts of glass, producing magnificent interior spaces.This was made possible by three key components: the pointed arch, fan vault, and flying buttress.These soaring arches and vaults were self supporting, marking some of the first instances where the structure and veneer of a building could be independant. However, the arches and vaults produced very strong outward thrust forces. If not controlled they could cause these massive structures to collapse. To hold the nave and the rest of the church together, flying buttresses were attached to the exterior and provided a strong oppositional force to counter the arches outward thrust. Gothic architecture seems to have been influenced by Islamic architecture and Mosque design. But this is just an opinion of mine. What is fact is that the developments of gothic architecture are the early foundations for what would become modern architecture.

The basic components of Gothic Architecture and the Gothic Cathedral. Pointed Arches, Flying Buttresses and Ribbed (Fan) Vaults were the main components that allowed for tall and light looking structures. 

Entry of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Very elaborate use of the pointed arch 

 Exterior of another French Gothic styled church.

Exterior of another French Gothic styled church.

Inside the Gothic Church of St.Denis. The Gothic Arch allows for tall, thin, light filled, and airy spaces, perfect for the church nave. St. Denis was built in 1140 AD

Renaissance and Baroque Civilization

Resurrection out of the Medieval Era is marked by the birth of Italian Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement that swept across the European continent. This movement was not spurred by major revelations and religious movements. Christianity was still the dominant religion during the early 14th century. This movement was brought about by the private wealth amassed by from Italian merchants and bankers who had a great interest in using the arts as a way to display their wealth. Here, we see the first time in history where private wealth has significant influence on architectural development.

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo di Vinci. Depicts an interpretation of the proportions of common man as defined by ancient architect Vitruvius. This drawing Di Dinci is critical to Renaissance Architecture because it represents a renewed interest in ancient ideals such as natural humanism and simple order..

One of the many 3 part Palazzi ( or palaces in italiano) that arose out of the Renaissance style and abound in Florence. The typical Palazzo consists of a heavy rusticated base ( Piano Terra), a much more refined second floor (commonly called the Piano Nobile) and a rather plain looking third floor (Piano Terzo). This gave the building a dignified sense of order and legibility. 

The Italian Renaissance marks a return to classical principles of architecture and city planning, previously developed by the Romans and Greeks. It marks the discovery of ancient principles, ideas and technology that were lost to Europe for centuries  It also denotes the rise of humanism by celebrating rational thought and an observation of the physical world. The Renaissance represented the rise and enlightenment of the individual man, turning chaos into rational order. With respect to the built environment, Renaissance design was based on pure forms. like squares and circles, symmetry and balance in contrast to the seeming chaos of Medieval design. Rational forms were easily understood and were used to help understand the proportions of everything from the human body to an entire building. Leonardo di Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man best depicts this. The Renaissance was also significant in that it was not only used for churches and castles for nobles. It was a style for the “self-made” wealthy class. Families like the Medici of Florence were patrons of the Renaissance Arts and commissioned numerous projects and sculptures. Infact, the Renaissance was begun here and the best examples of the style can be here in the Tuscan capital.The Duomo of the Florentine Cathedral is considered to be the very first Renaissance building. To this day it is still the largest self-supporting masonry dome in the world  Other notable Renaissance designs are the square of Santissima Annunziata and the Medici Place, both in Florence. The Church of Sant'andrea in Mantua, Italy is famous for its influential facade. The Campidoglio in Rome designed by Michelangelo, is one of the world’s great spaces and the church of S.Maria della Consolazione in Todi, Italy is a perfect example of a Renaissance circular plan church. The most influential building from this period is a miniature circular plan temple called the Tempietto. This small domed structure would be the model for the domes of many great buildings: the U.S.Capitol Building, St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St.Paul church in London, and countless others.


The Tempietto, designed by Baroque architect Donato Bramante, is the ancestor to just about evefy significant domed building that has come after it including the dome of St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and the US Capitol Building.


The Baroque movement immediately followed the Renaissance Movement. Unlike the Renaissance - where its primary supporters and patrons were bankers, merchants, and self-made ‘Bawses’ - Baroque was developed solely as a propaganda tool for the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther, had gained heavy momentum and was a direct threat to the power and influence of the catholic church. A counter-reformation movement was begun by the church which called for internal reform and an arts and educational movement with the sole intent of winning people back to Catholicism. The church called this initiative Baroque. The goal was to appeal to the emotions of the faithful through extremely dramatic, elaborate, exaggerated, and theatrical art and architecture. Renaissance ideals were adopted and exaggerating sculpting structures that looked more like scenes from a playwright than a building. Facade fronts seemed to jump out at viewers due to the depth and shadows they created. Instead of circles. ovals and ellipses became the popular forms of choice because the uneven axes increased the grandeur of a space.The use of convex and concave curves was also key in creating the desired emotional effects. Intense paintings of religious scenes were also employed to heighten the effect. The ceilings of churches were adorned with the most elaborate and colorful murals of bible stories and chapels contained carefully crafted stone sculptures of angels and saints with such precise detail that they almost seemed real. What Baroque produced was a physical experience that pulled on the emotions and passions of believers. Whereas the Renaissance was built of rationality, Baroque was built on compelling narratives told through art and architecture. It was a very beautiful style, but perhaps it stirred up the wrong feelings. Or, it wasn’t as effective as it was designed to be. Whatever the case, institutional movements like the Baroque combined with the tyranny of monarchical governments, spurred revolutions across the world and would produce the foundations for a new architecture free of propaganda, ornament, meaning, and institutional monumentality. This style of architecture and city planning would arise to be called, Modernism.

Front facade of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Designed by Michelangelo, the church was used as a billboard for the Catholic Church, invoking an emotional appeal to the masses.

Sant, Ivo. easily one of my favorite Baroque spaces ever. The drama is built up by the elongated linear space, and the rounded apse entry at the end. The acoustics in this bad boy are also very ama

Baroque church in Rome,  San Andrea della Valle.

San Carlino alle Quatro Fontante in Rome is a Baroque Style Church designed by architect Francesco Borromini. It's one of my personal favorites from this era and I think it summarizes what the Baroque Style became at the height of its popularity.. 



Do you have a desire to travel more and make memorable experiences from the places you visit? If so, check out my latest E-Book, THE URBAN PORTRAIT: LEARNING THROUGH DELIBERATE TRAVELING, available for purchase by digital download. Click the link below to get your copy today!

These are all books that I own. Each of them will add tremendous value to your continued education on the subject just as they have for me. Enjoy!

- Francis Ching and homies, "A GLOBAL HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURE", 2010.

- Marian Moffett and homies, "BUILDING ACROSS TIME: AN INTRODUCTION TO WORLD ARCHITECTURE", Vol. 2, 2003. (the version I own)

- Marian Moffett and homies, "BUILDING ACROSS TIME: AN INTRODUCTION TO WORLD ARCHITECTURE", Vol. 4, 2012. (newest version)

- A.W. Lawrence, "GREEK ARCHITECTURE", 5th edition, 1996. 

- J.B. Ward-Perkins, "ROMAN IMPERIAL ARCHITECTURE", 1992. 





- Martin Luther, Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci, The Medici Family, Filippo Brunelleschi, Christians, Constantine, Romans.


History of Architecture: Part 4

History of Architecture: Part 4

History of Architecture: Part 2

History of Architecture: Part 2