Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100)

San Michele Maggiore (Pavia), Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 332, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy, Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
San Michele Maggiore (Pavia), Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 332

Romanesque architects concentrated on large churches with rounded arches and wide aisles to fit the masses

Plans of Leaning Tower & Baptistery (Pisa), Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 314, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
Details of Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 330, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
Details of Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 332, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
Cathedral of Pisa, Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 313, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)

The Romanesque took its inspiration and rounded arches from ancient Rome (hence the name). Romanesque architects concentrated on building large churches with wide aisles to fit the masses who came both to hear the priests say Mass, but mainly to worship at the altars of various saints.

But to support the weight of all that masonry, the walls had to be thick and solid (meaning they could be pierced only by few and rather small windows) resting on huge piers, giving Romanesque churches a dark, somber, mysterious, and often oppressive feeling.

Modena's Duomo (12th century) marks one of the earliest appearances of rounded arches, and its facade is covered with great Romanesque reliefs; Cremona's Duomo is no slouch either. The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan (11th–12th century) is festooned with the tiered loggias and arcades that would become hallmarks of the Lombard Romanesque.

When Pisa became a major medieval power, it did so through a huge shipping empire, and with this trade came contact with eastern and Islamic cultures. As Pisa poured its 11th-century prosperity into building a new religious core and cathedral, it adapted many of the decorative elements it had picked up from these eastern contacts. The style that was developed in Buschetto’s Duomo and the associated baptistery and bell tower (yes, the one that leans) came to define a new style that quickly spread across the north of Tuscany called the Romanesque.

The purest, earliest form that arose in Pisa and Lucca—known, sensibly, as the Pisan-Luccan Romanesque—was characterized most strikingly by horizontal stripes of marbles—green and white and later, in Siena, black and white—on the facades and eventually some interiors as well.

The later form of the movement that was adapted in Florence (the baptistery, San Miniato al Monte, and Badia Fiesolana) and Pistoia (San Giovanni Fuoricivitas and, although later somewhat altered, the Duomo) was called the Florentine Romanesque. While on the surface it was very similar to the Pisan-Lucchese school, it was practiced along much stricter lines of a geometry gleaned from Classical architecture—a predecessor to the mathematically proportional architecture of the Renaissance.

Identifiable Romanesque features

  • Rounded arches. These load-bearing architectural devices allowed the architects to open up wide naves and spaces, channeling all the weight of the stone walls and ceiling across the curve of the arch and down into the ground via the columns or pilasters.
  • One wide aisle, or a nave flanked by two narrow aisles separated from the nave by lines of rounded arches resting on columns or on square stacks of masonry called piers. These arches allowed the architects to open up wide naves and spaces, but the builders could only support them by making the walls thick, piers huge, and windows infrequent and small, giving Romanesque churches a dark, somber, mysterious, and often oppressive feeling.
  • Blind arcades. Decorative band of "filled in" arches, the columns engaged in the wall and the arches' curves on top protruding mere inches. Set into each arch's curve is often a losenge, a diamond-shaped decoration, often inlaid with colored marbles.
  • Stripes. This banding was created by alternating layers of white and light gray stones in the construction. It was typical of the Pisan-Romanesque style. The gray got darker as time went on, and by the late Romanesque/early Gothic (e.g. Siena's Duomo) often became a zebra of black and white stripes.
  • Stacked facade arcades. Another typical Pisan-Romanesque feature was creating a tall facade by stacking small, open-air loggias made of mismatched columns atop one other to a height of three to five levels.
  • Transepts. The Romanesque also added to the basilica plan a wide cross-corridor called a transept near the altar end, and often an apse (the rounded space behind the altar) at the holiest, east end of the church. Soon this sacred east end began to sprout chapels, sometimes as two (or more) smaller apses flanking the main one, sometimes the main apse was enlarged to accommodate a fan of mini-chapels. As these apsidal radiating chapels grew in number, architects added an ambulatory, a curving corridor separating the altar area from the ring of smaller chapels.
Photo gallery
  • San Michele Maggiore (Pavia), Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 332, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Plans of Leaning Tower & Baptistery (Pisa), Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 314, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Details of Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 330, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Details of Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 332, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Cathedral of Pisa, Italian Romanesque Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 313, Romanesque architecture (AD 800–1100), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)

Where to find Romanesque architecture in Italy

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The Battistero (Photo by Kiste11)
Baptistery
Pisa: Around Campo dei Miracoli

A massive drum-like Romanesque base with a Pisano-designed Gothic skullcap of a roof

 
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A detail of the 14C frescoes in the apse (Photo by Laurom)
Free

A Romanesque masterpiece with great 14C frescoes

 
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The Atrium (Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST)
Free
Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio
Milan: San Vittore

From this 4C church, St. Ambrose—bishop of Milan when the city was briefly capital of the Western Roman Empire—had a profound effect on the development of the early church

 
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A mountaintop abbey with great views and Romanesque frescoes

 
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Abbazia di Piona
Northern Lake Como

A Romanesque Abbey making superior monastic hooch on a Notehrn Como lake peninsula

 
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transport
Free
Gravedona
Northern Lake Como

A northern Lake Como town with a pair of nice Medieval churches

 
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 (Photo by Mac9)
Free
San Miniato al Monte
Florence: Oltrarno

A gem of a Romanesque church perched atop a hill overlooking Florence

 
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A tiny Romanesque church in Bellagio

 
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The Amalfi Cathedral (Photo by Jorge Royan)
The Duomo
Downtown Amalfi

The gorgeous cathedral of Amalfi: Cattedrale di Sant'Andrea di Amalfi, the Museo Diocesano di Amalfi, and the Chiostro del Paradiso, or Cloisters of Paradise

 
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The Parma baptistry is one of the glories of Italian Romanesque architecture

 
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One of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in northern Italy

 
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The gorgeous, mosaic-columned cloisters of the Monreale Cathedral—formally known as the Chiostro Santa Maria la Nuova

 
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Candy-colored Gothic frescoes in a forgotten San Gimignano church

 
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transport
Duomo
Città Antica di Verona

The Romanesque Cattedrale di Santa Maria Matricolare has paleo-Christian roots and a painting by Titian

 
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Apse (Photo by kraen)
Free

The oldest church in Rome preserves some its most glorious medieval mosaics

 
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The Romanesque cathedral with 16C frescoes by Correggio and others

 
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Piazza dei Signori
Città Antica di Verona

A genteel piazza surrounded by Gothic and Renaissance palazzi

 
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Civate
Lecco

A town by a smaller lake S of Como with Romanesque churches

 
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Bardolino
Garda's eastern shore

A Lake Garda town famous for its wine since antiquity

 
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Toscolano-Maderno
Garda's eastern shore

A beach town and Romanesque church on Garda's western shore

 
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The cathedral of Assisi (Photo by Luca Aless)
Duomo
Assisi centro storico

The Romanesque-Gothic cathedral of Assisi and its small museum

 
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A detail of Jonah and the Whale form one of the two medieval pulpits (Photo by Berthold Werner)
Free
The Duomo
Downtown Ravello

Ravello's "cathedral" has some lovely Romanesque mosaics and carvings

 
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 (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
Free
Santa Maria in Aracoeli
Rome: Tiber Bend

The sad story of the Santo Bambino at the Capitoline church

 
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The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island (Basilica di San Bartolomeo all'Isola) (Photo by Vlad Lesnov)
Free
St. Bartolomeo all'Isola
Rome: Lower Tiber Bend

An ancient church of healing on Tiber Island

 
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No, the picture isn't askew; the church is (Photo by Samuele Manfrin)
Free
San Michele degli Scalzi
Pisa: Along the Arno

The evening-more-leaning tower of Pisa (bonus: leaning church)

 
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The facade (Photo by Luca Aless)
Free
San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno
Pisa: Along the Arno

The oldest church in Pisa with a lovely Romanesque chapel

 
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The octagonal church (Photo by Luca Aless)
Free
Santo Sepolcro
Pisa: Along the Arno

An octagonal Romanesque church by the Arno

 
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A Crucifixion carved by Giovanni Pisano (Photo by Jordiferrer)
Free
San Nicola
Pisa: Along the Arno

A Romanesque-Gothic church with a Giovanni Pisano inside

 
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Santa Maria dei Servi
Terza di San Martino

A Romanesque church with lovely altarpieces

 
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Pieve di San Leolino
Florentine Chianti

A Romanesque church with some lovely altarpieces

 
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The medieval frescoes (Photo by Allie Caulfield)
Free

A small Sirmione church with medieval frescoes

 
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transport
Free
San Pietro
Assisi centro storico

A pretty little Romanesque church

 

The rudiments of a Roman temple

 
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