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