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Historical and Artistic Terms

Words, Words, Words

Ambo: a pulpit (pl. ambones)

Ambulatory: curving aisle around the apse of a church, usually lined with chapels

Ancona: a painted or sculpted altarpiece, especially one set in an architectural frame

Atrium: entrance court of an ancient Roman house or an early church

Arca: a monumental tomb or sarcophagus

Baldacchino: baldachin, a columned stone canopy over an altar

Basilica: a rectangular building, usually divided into three aisles by two rows of columns. In ancient Rome, this was the common form for law courts and other public buildings, and Roman Christians adopted it for their early churches. Today, the term is an honor ific in Catholicism, meaning an important church endowed with special privileges.

Borgo: from the Saxon burh; a suburb or village

Bucchero ware: black, delicately thin Etruscan ceramics, usually incised or sculpted

Bugnato: rustication or bossage, masonry in which the blocks are left rough on the outside, or carved to project from the exterior surface in rectangular or pyramidal (diamond) shapes. also called bugnatura

Campanile: a bell tower

Cardo transverse main street of a Roman castrum-shaped town.

Cartoon: the preliminary sketch for a fresco or tapestry

Caryatid: supporting pillar or column carved into a standing female form; male versions are called telamones

Castrum: a Roman military camp, always neatly rectangular, with a grid of straight streets and gates at the cardinal points; also, a town plan adapted from this (such as Bologna's and those of most other Roman foundations)

Ciborium: a tabernacle—a construction on or behind an altar containing the sacramental host.

Comune: commune, or commonwealth, referring to the governments of the medieval free cities. Today it denotes a local government, whether of a city or village.

Confraternity: a religious lay brotherhood, often serving some specific charitable work

Contrapposto: artistic technique in which a figure is portrayed slightly off balance, with the weight more on one foot, to express either tension or relaxation. Invented in classical Greek sculpture and revived in the Renaissance.

Condottiere: the leader of a band of mercenaries in medieval and Renaissance times

Convento: in Italian, this can mean a convent or a monastery

Cupola: dome

Decumanus: street of a Roman castrum-shaped city parallel to the longer axis; the central, main avenue is called the Decumanus Major.

Dodecapolis: a federation of twelve city-states; a common form of religious or political organization in ancient times (as with the Etruscans)

Duomo: cathedral (used interchangeably with cattedrale)

Exedra: a semicircular recess

Ex-voto: an offering (a terracotta figurine, painting, medallion, silver bauble or whatever) made in thanksgiving to a god or saint.

Frazione: a subdivision of a modern Italian comune, usually a suburb or outlying settlement; sometimes called a locazione

Fresco: wall painting on fresh plaster, the most important medium of Italian art since Etruscan times

Ghibellines: one of the great medieval factions, the supporters of the Holy Roman Emperors against the Popes. The Popes' side was called the Guelphs.

Graffito: originally, incised decoration on a building façade; only lately has the word come to mean spray painted messages in public places.

Greek cross: in the floor plans of churches, a cross with equal arms. The more familiar plan, with a long nave and shorter transepts, is called a Latin cross.

Grotteschi: 'grotesques', decoration with carved or painted faces and foliage, used by the Etruscans and Romans, and back in fashion during the Renaissance

Guelphs: see Ghibellines

Intarsia: inlay work in wood or stone

Liberty Style: the Italian version of Art Nouveau (named from London's Liberty department store)

Loggia: an open-sided gallery or arcade

Lunette: semicircular space on a wall, abaove a door or under valuting

Narthex: an enclosed porch of a church

Palazzo: not just a palace, but any large, important building; the word comes from Rome's Palatium.

Patera (pl. paterae) circular decorative element, usually carved, often taking the form of a rosette.

Pendentives: four curved, triangular pieces, springing from four piers, that help support a dome

Piano Nobile: the first (US second) floor of a palace, the showcase of a residence

Pietra Dura: inlay work in coloured stone

Pieve: a country or village parish church

Podestá: official with executive power in a medieval city, sometimes imposed by a higher power, such as a pope or emperor, and sometimes selected by the comune itself. Comuni would sometimes invite an impartial outsider in for a fixed term as podestá, to resolve differences in times of factional strife.

Predella: smaller paintings on the panel below the main subject of a painted altarpiece

Presepio: a Christmas crib

Putti: flocks of painted or plaster cherubs with rosy cheeks and bottoms, derived from ancient decoration, that infested much of Italy from the Renaissance on

Quadratura: trompe l'oeil (see below) painting, usually on ceilings, in which perspective is employed to make the architecture seem to continue up into the painting, creating an illusion of open, limitless space above.

Quadriga: chariot pulled by four horses

Quadroporticus: a quadrangle, usually arcaded, built on the front of a church; most often seen in early Christian architecture

Quattrocento: the 1400s, in the Italian way of referring to centuries (trecento, quattrocento, cinquecento, seicento, settecento, etc)

Rocca: a fortress

Telamon: (pl. telamones) a column or pilaster carved into a male figure (see caryatid)

Tenebroso: the contrast of darkness and illuminated subjects used to such effect by Caravaggio and his followers

Tessera: one of the stone or glass cubes, or enameled chips, used in mosaics (pl. tesserae)

Triptych: a painting, especially an altarpiece, in three sections (also diptych, quadriptych, polyptych, etc)

Trompe l'oeil: art that uses perspective effects to deceive the eye—for example, to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface, or to make columns and arches painted on a wall seem real.

Tondo: a round relief, painting or terracotta work

Tympanum: the semicircular space, often with a painting or relief, above a church portal

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Emanuel Ravelli