By Calder Loth
March 1, 2012
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.
The study of classical architecture introduces us to a multitude of terms for the various parts of the orders. For many it is a completely new vocabulary, one often difficult to learn. An investigation of the etymology of the words can be helpful for remembering many of the terms and understanding their rationale. As with so much specialized terminology, numerous objects received their names because they reminded people of familiar, similar-looking things. We see this happening in scores of different categories. For instance, we call the control device on an instrument panel a button. The glass vacuum vessel encasing an incandescent electric light is a bulb. The name given to the symbol for a program on a computer screen is an icon. (And don’t forget the mouse.) This naming phenomenon is particularly prevalent in classical architecture. For this month’s essay, I have taken terms for elements of the entablature and capital of the Tuscan order and explored why they are called what are and where their names came from. I hope this simple exposition will serve to foster a more informed appreciation of the classical language of architecture. I hope also to explore the etymology of additional classical features and details in future Classical Comments essays.
The image I have used for this investigation is a detail of the Tuscan order illustrated in Abraham Swan’s The British Architect (1758), which offers some of the most precise and beautiful depictions of the classical orders.
Denotes that the word is a term defined in the list.
Figure 1. Abacus
ABACUS (Figure 1): The abacus is the slab topping a capital. The term derives from the object’s resemblance to the square wooden board on which ancient students sprinkled dust or sand in which they did figuring using their finger. We more commonly associate the word abacus for the frame holding rows of beads used for mathematical calculation, mainly in third-world areas. In either case, an abacus is primarily a device on which one performs calculations. Abacus is a Latin word and comes from the Greek, abax, meaning slab, and ultimately from the Hebrew, abhaq, for dust. The architectural abacus is square in plan in all the orders except the Greek and Roman Corinthian, and the Composite, where the sides of the abacus are concave. Other than the Greek Doric, where the abacus is plain, the abacus can be composed of various moldings and can be enriched with carved decorations
Figure 2. Architrave
ARCHITRAVE (Figure 2): The architrave is the bottom element of the classical entablature*. The first syllable, arch, is from the Greek arkhos, meaning chief, or ruler or highest rank. This obviously gives us such terms as archangel or archbishop. The second syllable, trave, is a version of trabs, the Latin word for a beam or timber, also a tree trunk. From trabs, we get the terms trabeated, a flat beamed lintel, and trabecula, a small supporting beam. Hence, in ancient wooden construction, the architrave was the chief structural timber beam, the member supported by the columns. In the classical entablature*, the architrave can be divided into two or more overlapping planes or fascias*. The architrave is usually left plain in the Tuscan and Greek Doric orders (though not in the example shown).
Figure 3. Astragal
ASTRAGAL (Figure 3): The astragal is the convex or half-round molding separating the neck of the column capital* from the shaft, a molding common to the Tuscan, Roman Doric, Roman Corinthian, and Composite orders. Though we see it in some Ionic orders, it usually is pressed against the echinus and not conspicuous. The word stems from the Latin, astragalus, and the Greek, astragalos, the name for the ball of the ankle joint or bone. Hence, the molding projects from the shaft in a half-round shape, as does the anklebone from the ankle. The etymological root of the word is os or ost, the Latin for bone. From this, we get such terms as osteology, osteoid, and osteomyelitis. The original ancient function of the architectural astragal may have been as a band placed around the top of a wooden columns shaft to inhibit splitting.
Figure 4. Bed Moldings
BED MOLDINGS (Figure 4): The bed moldings comprise the collection of moldings, always two or more, between the fascia* and the frieze*, beneath the soffit* in an entablature*. The word bed is believed to have its roots in Old Teutonic as a descriptive for a dug-out place. Hence, the bed moldings are embedded in the void sheltered by the soffit. In the example shown, the bed moldings consist of an ovolo and a cavetto*, separated by a fillet*. The ovolo (or quarter-round), named for its ovoid or egg shape, is often carved as an egg-and-dart molding. In the other orders, the bed moldings often include a dentil course.
Figure 5. Capital
CAPITAL (Figure 5): We all know what the capital is, but for consistency’s sake, we must include it here. The capital, of course, is the series of features at the top of the column shaft, bearing the load between the shaft and the entablature*. The various elements of the Tuscan capital: abacus*, echinus*, necking*, and astragal*, are sculptural representations of features that in primitive wooden construction had clearly defined structural functions. Capital derives from caput, the Latin word for head, which is the root for numerous English, French, and Italian words, including capitalism and capitulate.
Figure 6. Cavetto
CAVETTO (Figure 6): The concave-shaped cavetto is one of the bed moldings*, and is usually employed as the bottom bed molding in the Tuscan and Ionic entablatures. It can also serve as the cymatium*. Cavetto is the Italian word for the Latin cavus, the term for a cave or a hallowed out place. Cavus also gives us such words as cavity, cavern, and, of course, concave. The Greek root of the Latin word is keu from which we get such words as cup—a hollowed out vessel. The cavetto molding is useful for covering the joint between a vertical and horizontal plane.
Figure 7. Cornice
CORNICE (Figure 7): The cornice is the topmost of the three-main divisions of the entablature*. Its basic form includes the cymatium*, fascia*, soffit*, and bed moldings*. In orders other than the Tuscan, the cornice can include various architectural features such as modillions, mutules, dentils, and numerous carved moldings. The Greek root of cornice is korone (see cymatium below).
Figure 8. Cymatium
CYMATIUM (Figure 8): The cymatium is the uppermost molding in a classical cornice*. Its curved profile denotes its original function as a gutter at the eaves of a roof. The Greek derivation of cymatium is kumation, which is the diminutive of kuma, meaning swollen or wave-like. From this we get such words cumulus—a swollen cloud, or accumulate. The cymatium in the Greek Doric order normally has an elliptical profile. In other orders, both Greek and Roman, it usually has an S-shaped profile, called a cyma recta. The cyma recta consists of a concave curve topping a convex curve, as opposed to a cyma reversa, where the curves are reversed. The cyma reversa is sometimes seen as the bottom molding of the bed moldings.* The cymatium may also be called the crown molding. The Latin root for crown is corona, a garland or wreath. It derives from the Greek word korone, meaning anything curved or bent.
Figure 9. Echinus
ECHINUS (Figure 9): The echinus is the cushion-shaped molding just below the abacus. The actual purpose and material of the echinus in primitive wooden construction is speculative. It may originally have been a rounded stone to provide a stable connection between the wooden column shaft and the wood beam or architrave*. The term is the Latin word for a sea urchin because its shape resembles the urchin’s shell. Echinus is also the Latin word for a hedgehog, as its shape likewise resembles the curled figure of a sleeping hedgehog. The Greek word is ekhinos; the Greek root of the term is ekhis—a snake. This may relate to the shape of a coiled snake or the fact that hedgehogs fed on snakes. The elliptical profile of the typical Greek echinus more closely resembles the profile of the sea urchin shell than the quarter-round shape of the Roman echinus. In some Doric and Ionic orders, the echinus is enriched with an egg-and-dart molding.
Figure 10. Entablature
ENTABLATURE (Figure 10): As any classical architect knows, the entablature is the main horizontal element of a classical order, collectively consisting of the cornice*, frieze*, and architrave*. An entablature must include all three components to be a proper entablature. The word derives from the Italian tavola or table, and intavolare, which means to put on the table. The Latin root is tabula, a board.
Figure 11. Fascia
FASCIA (Figure 11): In the classical entablature*, the fascia is the flat strip (normally unornamented) below the cymatium* or crown molding. Fascia is also the term used to describe each of the different planes in an architrave*. Fascia is the Latin word for bandage or band. It is also Latin for a woman’s girdle (i.e., being bound up with a fascia wrapping). In modern English, we use fascia to describe various flat vertical surfaces. A derivative of the word is fasciation, which is the act of binding up. From fascia, we also get fasces, a bundle of rods held together with a band or bands, a Roman symbol of authority. In modern times, the fasces became of the symbol of the Fascist party. From fascia we also obtain the word fascination, a state of being emotionally bound.
Figure 12. Fillet
FILLET (Figure 12): A fillet is a narrow strip, thinner than a fascia* or a taenia*, and normally functions as a border for a larger molding in a column or an entablature*. The word stems from filum, the Latin word for a thread. From this, we get such words as filament and filaria (a thin parasitic worm). We find the architectural fillet most frequently topping the crown molding of a cornice. A fillet can also serve as a cap for an abacus*. In addition, the term pertains to the flat ridge between the flutes in a column shaft. Of course, we know the word best as a strip of boneless meat.
Figure 13. Frieze
FRIEZE (Figure 13): The frieze is the wide band between the cornice* and the architrave*, and may be plain or richly decorated. In the Doric order, the frieze contains the triglyphs and metopes. Except in some versions of the Roman Doric, the frieze is usually the same width as the architrave in both Roman and Greek orders. The word frieze derives from the Medieval Latin frisium or frigium from which we get the word fringe. We trace it further to Phrygium, meaning textile work from Phrygia, the area of central Anatolia that in ancient times was noted for bands of cloth embroidered with gold. The Latin phrygio is an embroider.
Figure 14. Necking
NECKING (Figure 14): We find the necking band in the Tuscan and Roman Doric capitals*. It is the short section of the column shaft between the echinus* and the astragal*. Sometimes the necking is decorated with rosettes or other details. The term is obvious: the neck supports the head (capital). The word neck is the derivative of the Old English hencca, from which we also get the word nape.
Figure 15. Soffit
SOFFIT (Figure 15): The soffit is the underside of the projection of the fascia*. Moreover, the word defines the underside of any structural member, such as the surface of the underside of an arch or doorway. Soffit comes from the Latin suffigo, the term for something fastened beneath. From it, we get the word suffix, which describes an attachment to the end of a word used to enhance or shift its meaning.
Figure 16. Taenia
TAENIA (Figure 16): The taenia is the narrow band separating the architrave* and the frieze*. The taenia is usually a flat band in the Tuscan and Doric orders but is often enriched with moldings and carvings in other orders. In ancient wooden construction, the taenia is believed to represent the edge of a board atop the architrave*. The word is the same in both Latin and Greek and means a narrow band or ribbon. It also can refer to the headband or sweatband seen on the forehead of some ancient sculptures of athletes. Moreover, is it the medical term for a tapeworm. The root of the word, ten, refers to stretch, from which we get numerous words such as tension, tense, and extend.
REFERENCESAmerican Heritage Dictionary of the English LanguageCassell’s New Latin DictionaryThe Classical Orders of Architecture (Robert Chitham)Oxford Latin MinidictionaryOxford Dictionary of Architecture (James Stevens Curl)Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape ArchitectureThe Free Dictionary by Farlex (an on-line thesaurus and dictionary)Wikipedia
Note: The author is fluent in neither Latin nor Greek. Corrections to any errors in the use of Latin or Greek words in this piece are welcome.
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