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Historical and artistic terms

Words, words, words

Narthex at St Mark's

Altana: roof terrace of a Venetian house, where the leadies would repose and bleach their hair blonde in the sun

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

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.

Bocca di Leone: one of the message boxes in the form of a lion's mouth, placed around Venice during the rule of the Council of Ten, intended for anonymous denunciations

: casa, a word the Venetians preferred to palazzo for even the grandest mansions

Campanile: a bell tower

Chiaroscuro: monochrome painting using only light and shade, always more popular in Venice than elsewhere in Italy

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

Confraternity: a religious lay brotherhood, often serving some specific charitable work. In Venice, where they were key to the city's social cohesion, they are called scuole.

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

Cornu: the peculiar 'horned' cap worn by Doges

Cupola: dome

Etoimasia: in Byzantine symbolism, the 'preparation of the Throne' for Christ at the Last Judgment

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.

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

Iconostasis: a transenna (see below) in a Byzantine church, often more eleborate and decorated

Intarsia: inlay work in wood or stone

Loggia: an open-sided gallery or arcade

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

Matroneum: the elevated woman's gallery around the the nave of a church. Segregating women at mass was a Byzantine practice that spread to Italy in the 6th-7th centuries

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

Portego: the main hall of Venetian house

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

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

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

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

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)

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

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.

For geographical words, see here.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Harshlight, Creative Commons License