Ancient Architecture: A History of Columns and Porticos
Architecture is ever evolving, with many houses and buildings adopting modern designs while others prefer to keep it more traditional. In the case of the latter, it is incredible to think how far back some of the traditional architectural design features we still see today can be traced; one such example is the use of columns and porticos.
From the iconic ionic columns of the Royal Crescent in Bath, to the impressive Portico of San Luca in Bologna, these architectural features have a rich history behind them and are still loved by many today.
Read on as we step back in time and take you through the journey of columns and porticos from ancient times through to modern day.
Columns can serve both a structural and an aesthetic purpose when it comes to architecture, with these purposes being especially prominent depending on where and when they were used throughout history. The first use of columns can be traced back to the Bronze Age (3000-1000 BC), where they appeared in Egyptian, Assyrian and Minoan (Greek - specifically on the island of Crete) civilisations.
Initially, columns were used to develop weight-bearing loads in construction. For example, ancient Persians and Egyptians in particular used interior columns to support their roofs; this is known as post and lintel construction, which is where horizontal elements are held up by vertical elements.
This was seen among the architecture of common folk and the temples of the pharaohs in Egypt. The regular people would support their reed-covered roofs with columns made from bundles of sticks, whilst the pharaohs' temples used columns made of stone, carved to resemble the sticks used in these huts, along with hieroglyphics and holy depictions.
It was in ancient Greece, however, where the trend of using columns as exterior elements - one that has remained prominent for millennia - emerged. One of the most famous examples of columns being used in this way was in the Minoan Palace of Knossos, where columns were used to create large, open space, light-wells and focal points for religious rituals. Originally, they used tree trunks that were turned upside down (to prevent regrowth), stood on a floor base and topped by a capital.
Being used at such a prestigious building, the reference columns held to palaces in turn led to them being associated with authority, which was then reiterated through the use of heraldic motifs and elaborate designs as they transitioned into being made predominantly out of stone.
The production of columns became more standardised and widespread in the 1st century BC thanks to the Romans. They preferred to make their columns as single monolithic shafts in a 6:5 ratio (the column shaft was five sixths of the total length including its base and capital), as can be seen used in the Pantheon - the best-preserved building from ancient Rome.
It is around this time when columns became predominantly used as exterior decorative elements. At this time, the Classical orders (of columns) of architecture were developed as described by Roman engineer Vitrivius in his disquisition on architecture, which we will go on to look at next.
As mentioned, there are five orders of columns in classical architecture, with these still being identifiable around the world today. In order from simple to complex, they are: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.
It is also worth noting that the structure of a column can be split into three; the base, which the rest of the column rests upon, the shaft, which is the main length of the column and the capital, which sits atop the shaft.
Originating in Tuscany, the Tuscan order is the simplest of all columns. It is characterised by a smooth, unfluted, slender shaft and a simple capital, sat atop a base.
The Doric order is not too dissimilar to the Tuscan, remaining another of the most simple forms of column. However, rather than having a smooth shaft, its shaft is fluted. It also does not have a base, sitting on the ground directly and has a tapered shape that is wider at the bottom and slimmer at the top, also with a simple capital.
In his discourse, Vitruvius associated the Doric order with what were traditionally accepted masculine virtues, which was due to the Doric columns’ visual heaviness and strength.
The ionic order is often viewed as a more elaborate take on the Doric, with a fluted yet evenly sized and slender shaft. It sits on a base and has a capital decorated with scrolled volutes on either side.
In contrast to the Doric order, the slim form and volutes that were resemblant of ringlets meant Vitruvius attributed Ionic columns to what was perceived as femininity, especially that of the matron or married woman.
The most extravagant of all the orders (along with the Composite), the Corinthian is much like the Ionic order, however instead of volutes its capital is adorned with stylised acanthus leaves, giving a rich, beautiful and highly decorative appearance.
Vitruvius also drew parallels between the Corinthian order and femininity, though the highly-decorative and elaborate Corinthian columns were specifically associated with youthful maidens, as opposed to more matronly virtues.
Another elaborate design, the Composite order is considered a combination of the Ionic and Corinthian columns. It shares both characteristics from their respective capitals, depicting both the Ionic volutes and the Corinthian acanthus leaves together.
So, what is the link between columns and porticos? A portico is a type of porch leading to the entrance of a building, or extended as a colonnade (a long sequence of columns joined by their entablature), with a roof structure supported by columns.
Porticos were widely favoured and used in Greek architecture, forming the entrances to ancient Greek temples, as well as colonnades running completely around these (which were known as peripteral temples). The use of porticos for temples inspired many other Western cultures, heavily influencing Roman architecture in particular.
One particular person of significance related to the use of porticos is the Venetian Andrea Palladio, who was an Italian Renaissance architect that took lots of his influence from Greek architecture - especially from Vitrivus, who you may remember we mentioned was the one to write the Classical orders.
Palladio is widely considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of architecture. He designed everything from churches to palaces, although he was best known for his creation of country houses and villas - many of which featured porticos. Using porticos, which were typically associated with temple-fronts, for secular buildings was an innovative design choice that Palladio was responsible for.
As such, we now see stone porticos on buildings across the UK and the world, from old country houses (such as The Vyne in Hampshire, which was the first English country house to feature a portico applied to its entrance) to government buildings, and even modern day homes.
Nowadays, many people still show preference to having porticos at the entrance of their homes. Not only do they offer shelter from the elements, but they transform your building’s look to have a timeless appearance that appears more cohesive than having an enclosed porch at the front of your house. They are especially effective if you have a traditional brick house, yet can be made from cast stone to give the same grandeur at a much more affordable price.
Shropshire Brick & Stone (UK) Ltd
Do you think porticos would make for an excellent feature of your property? Here at Shropshire Brick & Stone, we make handcrafted cast stone porticos that can be custom designed to almost any specification.
Our cast stone porticos not only look as authentic as natural stone, but will be much more affordable for you. Furthermore, we also make our columns available in solid or, if you’re looking for better drainage, hollow forms. Whether you prefer the simple style of a smooth column or prefer the traditional fluted design, we are happy to tailor our services to meet your requests.
If you would like to receive your free, no obligation quote, or would like to learn more about our range of services, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Shrewsbury-based team today. We deliver across the UK and even worldwide!