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
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