roman domes -- 5/21/24

Today's excerpt -- from Saving Michelangelo's Dome by Wayne Kalayjian. The advancements in architecture in Roman civilization:

“There is a tendency to dismiss Roman architecture as a shallow derivative of what the Greeks had previously invented, but to the contrary, there was a revolution in architectural thought taking place about two thousand years ago that undermines this mythology. These Romans had developed fresh ideas about spatial planning, ornamental technique, grandiosity in scale, and new kinds of materials to use for construction (like concrete). Many were discussed by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who, after retiring from Julius Caesar's vanquishing army, changed careers and became an architect. We know him as Vitruvius, and he wrote Ten Books on Architecture, which became a comprehensive guide of tips and techniques needed to solve all sorts of thorny problems in construction. By the early 1400s, Ten Books on Architecture had become compulsory reading for aspiring architects and builders everywhere, including those at St. Peter's Basilica, like Leon Battista Alberti, Donato Bramante, Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Giorgio Vasari, Della Porta, Fontana, Carlo Maderno, and even Michelangelo. Vitruvius used ‘definite rules’ to elevate the art of construction and to improve ‘the welfare of society in general,’ and his masterwork became one of history's most influential publications.

“Though Vitruvius cited them only twice, it is no coincidence that domes entered the lexicon of Roman architectural practice just a short time after Ten Books on Architecture was published. For the next 1,600 years, domed structures would be vaulted in greater numbers and in a way that would conspicuously shape the architectural character of Europe. Over time, they came to crown the most prominent and fashionable buildings of their day, especially churches. Many were built in Rome and along the Italian peninsula, in western France, the Balkans, and in Asia Minor, while some of the most inventive were raised in far-off Armenia, between the Black and Caspian Seas. But they were expensive and complicated to build, so they tended to be smaller in scale and with dimensions that were often governed by the limitations of construction, like the lengths of a timber beam that could be pragmatically sawed and used for temporary support (known as falsework or centering).

Exterior view of St. Vitale

“When their spans were shorter and easy to manage, builders could rely on traditional techniques and small innovations to maintain the delicate balance of vertical and lateral pressures that were inherent to domed structures. The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna was a fine example and was raised around the year 530 C.E. Its distinctive design had incorporated hollow earthen pots made of clay—rather than much heavier brick or stone—to reduce the dome's weight and thereby lessen its lateral thrust.

“Most domes sat on a podium, known as a drum (or tambour), many stories above the ground. The drum served a vital role since it bore the brunt of the dome's thrusting force. It was connected to a network of other, underlying components--known as a squinch and a pendentive--that transferred the pressure from the dome above to the ground below. Pisa Cathedral was built around the year 1100 and was among the most visually dramatic of these assemblies. Its drum and elegant patterns of structural framing sat some ten stories above the Campo Santo (Holy Field) and supported an elliptically shaped dome that launched another forty feet toward the sky. The design was, and remains, an architectural jewel that is rightfully celebrated for its refined proportions and exotic ornament, though the cathedral is commonly upstaged by its adjoining, and more renowned, leaning tower.”



Wayne Kalayjian


Saving Michelangelo's Dome: How Three Mathematicians and a Pope Sparked an Architectural Revolution


Pegasus Books


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