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Art, Architecture and Historical Terms

A Glossary

Liber ad honorem Augusti of Peter of Eboli

Acroterion (It. acroterio): decorative protrusion atop the pediment of an Etruscan, Greek or Roman temple. At the bottom corners of the pediment such a decoration would be called an antefix.

Ambone: a pulpit, often elaborately decorated

Ambulatory (It. ambulatorio): 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 (It. atrio): entrance court of an ancient Roman house or an early church

Arca: a monumental tomb or sarcophagus

Badia (from abbazia): an abbey or abbey church

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 honorific in Catholicism, meaning an important church endowed with special privileges.

Borgo: from the Saxon burh; a suburb or village

Bozzetto: literally, a sketch; often used for any sort of small-scale model for a projected work, in sculpture, stage design, etc. (sometimes called an abbozzo)

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

Campanilismo: local patriotism: the Italians' own word for their historic tendency to be more faithful to their home towns than to an abstract idea of 'Italy'.

Campo Santo: a cemetery

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

Carroccio: a wagon carrying the banners of a medieval city along with an altar; it served as the rallying point in battles, and its loss would be catastrophic.

Cartoon (It. cartone): 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)

Cenacolo: fresco of the Last Supper, often on the wall of a monastery refectory

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

Condottiere: Leader of a band of mercenaries in late medieval and Renaissance times

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.

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

Crocifisso: crucifix

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)

Entablature (It. trabeazione): the horizontal elements above the columns of a classical building, in ancient temples generally divided into an architrave, frieze and cornice

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. The process is detailed here.

Frontone: see Pediment

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

Gonfalone: a banner hanging on a crosspiece from a tall staff. Descended from the Roman military vexillum, these are the standards of a city, or a neighbourhood or parish. The man who carries it, a high honour and often the title of a civic office, is the gonfaloniere.

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.

Grisaille: painting or fresco in monochrome

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

Impresa: a 'device', or personal emblem. The fashion for these was inspired by French heraldry, and reached great sophistication in the 1400's, often taking the form of an arcane puzzle or rebus. The architect Alberti's was a winged eye.

Intarsia: inlay work in wood or stone

Liberty Style (It. stilo Liberty): 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, above a door or under valuting

Narthex: an enclosed porch of a church

Opus reticulatum: Roman masonry using square blocks laid in a diamond pattern

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

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

Pediment: the gable of a classical building (It. frontone), triangular in shape (or in the Renaissance, sometimes an arc), and usually set over a colonnaded portico. The term is also used for similar decorative forms over windows and doors (timpano). A broken pediment (timpano spezzato) is one where the apex is disrupted, a conceit used by the ancients and revived by Michelangelo.

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 and residence of an urban palace

Pietra Dura: inlay work in coloured stone, perfected in late-Renaissance Florence

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.

Polyptych (It. polittico): an altarpiece made of two or more separate panels: diptych (two panels), triptych (three), quadriptych (four), etc.

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

Presepio: a Christmas crib

Prontezza (literally 'readiness'): the look of alertness, electric immediacy that is an essential part of the early Renaissance style, exemplified in the St George and other sculptures by Donatello.

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

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

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 (It. quadriportico): A square courtyard, especially one built onto the west front of a church; these were a common form in early Christian architecture and occasionally revived, as at Florence's SS. Annunziata.

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

Refectory (It. refettorio): a dining hall

Rocca: a fortress

Sacra Conversazione: A painting of the enthroned Virgin and child, surrounded by saints in an informal setting. Fra Angelico probably painted the first of these, and they soon came to replace the older style of the polyptych for altarpieces.

Sinopia: the cartoon, or layout of a fresco drawn by the artist on a wall before the plaster is applied. Often these are works of art in their own right.

Stigmata: a miraculous simulation of the bleeding wounds of Christ, appearing in holy men such as St. Francis, and often portrayed in art.

Stiacciato: (from schiacciato, 'crushed') technique in sculptural bas-reliefs in which the use of perspective gives an illusion of depth to a work that is in fact extremely shallow, pioneered by Donatello

Telamone: (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)

Timpano: see Tympanum, and also Pediment

Trabeation: also known as 'post and lintel' architecture, using pillars or columns to support beams—the basis of classical architecture

Triptych (It. trittico): 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

Transenna: a marble screen separating the altar area from the rest of an early Christian church

Tumulus (It. tumulo): a prehistoric man-made mound, usually with a burial inside; the Etruscans built many of these

Tympanum (It. timpano): the semicircular space, often with a painting or relief, above a church portal

Voussoir: one of the stones of an arch

Zibaldone: a 'commonplace book', kept by an individual to record reflections, quotes, current events, poetry or anything else from jokes to recipes; some of these are important sources for Renaissance life.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art