A Glossary of Architectural Terms

Ambone—A pulpit, either serpentine or simple in form, erected in an Italian church.

Apse—The half-rounded extension behind the main altar of a church; Christian tradition dictates that it be placed at the eastern end of an Italian church, the side closest to Jerusalem.

Atrium—A courtyard, open to the sky, in an ancient Roman house; the term also applies to the courtyard nearest the entrance of an early Christian church.

Baldacchino (also ciborium)—A columned stone canopy, usually placed above the altar of a church; spelled in English baldachin or baldaquin.

Baptistry—A separate building or a separate area in a church where the rite of baptism is held.

Basilica—Any rectangular public building, usually divided into three aisles by rows of columns. In ancient Rome, this architectural form was frequently used for places of public assembly and law courts; later, Roman Christians adapted the form for many of their early churches.

Caldarium—The steam room of a Roman bath.

Campanile—A bell tower, often detached, of a church.

Capital—The top of a column, often carved and usually categorized into one of three orders: Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian.

Castrum—A carefully planned Roman military camp, whose rectangular form, straight streets, and systems of fortified gates quickly became standardized throughout the empire; modern cities that began as Roman camps and that still more or less maintain their original forms include Chester (England); Barcelona (Spain); and such Italian cities as Lucca, Aosta, Como, Brescia, Florence, and Ancona.

Cavea—The curved row of seats in a classical theater; the most prevalent shape was that of a semicircle.

Cella—The sanctuary, or most sacred interior section, of a Roman pagan temple.

Chancel—Section of a church containing the altar.

Cornice—The decorative flange defining the uppermost part of a classical or neoclassical facade.

Cortile—Courtyard or cloisters ringed with a gallery of arches or lintels set atop columns.

Crypt—A church's main burial place, usually below the choir.

Cupola—A dome.


Forum—The main square and principal gathering place of any Roman town, usually adorned with the city's most important temples and civic buildings.

Grotesques—Carved and painted faces, deliberately ugly, used by everyone from the Etruscans to the architects of the Renaissance; they're especially amusing when set into fountains.

Hypogeum—Subterranean burial chambers, usually of pre-Christian origins.

Loggia—Roofed balcony or gallery.

Lozenge—An elongated four-sided figure that, along with stripes, was one of the distinctive signs of the architecture of Pisa.

Narthex—The anteroom, or enclosed porch, of a Christian church.

Nave—The largest and longest section of a church, usually devoted to sheltering or seating worshipers and often divided by aisles.

Palazzo—A palace or other important building.

Piano Nobile—The main floor of a palazzo (sometimes the second floor).

Pietra Dura—Richly ornate assemblage of semiprecious stones mounted on a flat decorative surface, perfected during the 1600s in Florence.

Pieve—A parish church.

Portico—A porch, usually crafted from wood or stone.

Pulvin—A four-sided stone that serves as a substitute for the capital of a column, often decoratively carved, sometimes into biblical scenes.

Putti—Plaster cherubs whose chubby forms often decorate the interiors of baroque chapels and churches.

Stucco—Colored plaster composed of sand, powdered marble, water, and lime, either molded into statuary or applied in a thin concretelike layer to the exterior of a building.

Telamone—Structural column carved into a standing male form; female versions are called caryatids.

Thermae—Roman baths.

Transenna—Stone (usually marble) screen separating the altar area from the rest of an early Christian church.

Travertine—The stone from which ancient and Renaissance Rome was built; it's known for its hardness, light coloring, and tendency to be pitted or flecked with black.

Tympanum—The half-rounded space above the portal of a church, whose semicircular space usually showcases a sculpture.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.