The Tempietto, Grandfather of Domes
Classical Comments by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council.
One of the most influential of all Italian Renaissance buildings is perhaps the most diminutive and discreetly located. On Rome’s Janiculum Hill, in the courtyard of the monastery of S. Pietro in Montorio, is a tiny domed structure, popularly known as the Tempietto.[i] Dating from ca. 1502, it was commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to mark the traditional site of St. Peter’s crucifixion. Its architect, Donato Bramante (1444-1514), provided what in essence is an architectural reliquary. His novel design consists of a dome supported on a two-tier drum, the bottom portion of which is encircled by a Doric peristyle topped by a balustrade.[ii] This composition, which may have been inspired by the ancient tholos form,[iii] has served as the prototype for countless monumental domes throughout the Western World. Limited space enables me to provide only a sampling of the famous domes that owe their form to Bramante’s creativity.
The Tempietto is also noteworthy as one of the few buildings of the Renaissance to achieve published approbation by contemporary architects. Sabastiano Serlio (1475-1554) considered the Tempietto important enough to include a plan, elevation, and section in his famous treatise L’Architettura, published in installments beginning in 1537. However, it was Andrea Palladio who recognized the true ingenuity of the design. In Book IV of Quattro Libri (1570), the section where Palladio presented his restoration drawings of ancient temples, we find a plan and elevation of the Tempietto. (Figure 2) Palladio justified this insertion by stating: “I thought it reasonable that his [Bramante’s] work should be placed amongst those of the ancients; accordingly I have included the following temple design by him on the Janiculan [sic] Hill.”[iv] Palladio’s conviction that the Tempietto should rank with the monuments of the Romans was high praise indeed. The Tempietto was the only contemporary work, other than his own, that Palladio included in Quattro Libri. Moreover, it was Serlio’s and to a greater extent Palladio’s published images that gave the design broad exposure and eventually made it the inspiration for many great domes well into the 20th century.
Michelangelo may have drawn ideas from the Tempietto for his great dome on St. Peter’s Basilica, but St. Peter’s drum has only one main tier, the upper tier being treated more as a parapet than an additional level. In addition, instead of a freestanding peristyle, St. Peter’s has attached projecting pairs of columns framing each window and serving as buttresses. Finally, the dome is absent the requisite balustrade. Jules Hardouin-Mansart likewise employed projecting pairs of columns on the lower tier of his splendidly Baroque dome for St. Louis des Invalides of 1675-1706. (Figure 3) However, he kept with the Tempietto scheme by having a full upper tier punctuated with windows, and cleverly worked in a balustrade above the columns. Recognizing the church’s military associations, Mansart enriched the panels between the dome’s ribs with resplendent gilded trophy clusters, a feature that was to inspire Cass Gilbert in the 1920s, as we shall see.
The grandest of all Tempietto-type domes is unquestionably Sir Christopher Wren’s dome on St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Figure 4) The evolution of its design is a complicated story. Wren actually provided designs for a dome over the crossing of the pre-fire Gothic cathedral, an addition that would make an already confusing building more confusing. Following the complete (if not fortuitous) destruction of St. Paul’s in the Great Fire of 1666, Wren offered a design for an innovative Greek cross scheme crowned by a huge dome encircled by windows framed with pilasters. The Greek cross design proved too avant-garde for the church commissioners and was rejected, whereupon Wren produced what can only be described as a joke design—a Gothic cathedral tricked out in classical detailing with a strange dome topped by a pagoda-like spire. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. The “Warrant Design” was dismissed, and the masterpiece we enjoy today was constructed. Its great Tempietto-type dome, a foremost symbol of the British nation, was competed in 1711. Wren gave a solidity and serenity to its Corinthian peristyle by placing in every fourth bay a solid pier decorated with a niche. The upper tier of the drum is somewhat compressed but is penetrated by small windows lighting the dome’s inner shell.
With his design for the Radcilffe Library at Oxford University, built 1737-47, James Gibbs produced one of few Tempietto adaptations independent of a larger structure. (Figure 5) Nicholas Hawksmore originally proposed a circular building for the library, but his death in 1736 enabled Gibbs to take on the project. Gibbs maintained the rotunda scheme, consisting of a domed two-tier composition set on a rusticated podium. Instead of a free-standing colonnade, Gibbs provided an implied one, defining its bays with pairs of engaged Corinthian columns. The use of paired columns was probably inspired by St. Peter’s dome, which Gibbs proclaimed occupied “first place. . . amongst the Modern Buildings in Rome.”[v] Nevertheless, if we aligned the walls of the lower tier with those of the upper, we would have a building with a definite resemblance to the Tempietto. Gibbs trained in Rome under architect Carlo Fontana from 1704 to 1709, and undoubtedly would have seen Bramante’s masterpiece.
Architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot provided Paris with a more faithful adaptation of the Tempietto with his dome for the church of Ste Genevieve, built 1755-90, complete with balustraded peristyle and two-tier drum. (Figure 6) Although originally intended as a church, the building was reordered in 1791 to become a burial place for French worthies. Nevertheless, it subsequently was twice reconverted to church use, but officially became the Pantheon in 1885 following Victor Hugo’s internment in the crypt. In The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson compared the Pantheon’s dome with St. Paul’s: “To my mind the narrower intercolumniations of the Pantheon and the elimination of the solid piers in every fourth bay, results in a loss of gravity: the Pantheon dome spins rather too airily over the rectangles of the cross-shaped structure below. Soufflot, no doubt, thought he was purifying Wren’s design...”[vi] Be that as it may, Soufflot’s design has likely influenced more domes than Wren’s.
The skyline of Berlin is punctuated with not one but two attenuated versions of Bramante’s design, both erected in 1780-85. In 1775 Frederick the Great ordered the expansion of the Gendarmenmarket into a grand plaza. To provide architectural accents for the space he commissioned Carl von Gontard to design matching domes with porticoed bases for two existing churches: the Deutscher Dom (German Church) and the Franzosischer Dom (French Church). (Figure 7) Though impressive, von Gontard’s domes are non-functional in that they have no interior connection to the buildings below. Nevertheless, they closely followed the Bramante precedent except that the dome crowns, instead of being semi-hemispherical, were stretched for extra height. The drums above the Corinthian colonnades likewise were heightened. Both churches sustained heavy damage from Allied bombing in World War II, requiring extensive restoration.
Figure 8. St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia (Loth)
A commanding interpretation of Bramante’s Tempietto crowns St. Petersburg’s famed Cathedral of St. Isaac of Dalmatia. (Figure 8) Encircling its drum are twenty-four monolithic red granite columns with bronze Corinthian capitals. Enlivening the profile are the twenty-four statues of angels perched on the balustrade. The dome itself is gilded, making it a gleaming landmark for arriving ships. St. Isaacs’s has a complex design history. The cathedral was preceded by two churches, the second one completed in 1802. Emperor Alexander I was not pleased with it and initiated a competition for a much grander church. The project was awarded to the French architect, Auguste Ricard de Montferrand, who had studied under Napoleon’s architect, Charles Percier. The massive structure took forty years to complete. Its dome consisted of a triple shell using a precedent-setting iron framework system. Montfrerrand framed the dome with belfrys that closely resembled the much maligned “donkey ear” cupolas added to Rome’s Pantheon in the 17th century and removed in 1883. Whether Montferrand’s dome was directly inspired by Bramante’s Tempietto or Soufflot’s Pantheon is difficult to say. Even so, except for the materials and statues, St. Isaac’s dome nearly replicates Soufflot’s dome, a work Monferrand would surely have known.
Thomas U. Walter gave us our national symbol with his design for the dome of the United States Capitol. (Figure 9) The dome was part of the Capitol’s expansion for which Walter’s design was approved in 1851. His first scheme included grand new wings for the House and Senate but kept Bulfinch’s somewhat awkward saucer dome of 1829. The proposal made it obvious Bulfinch’s dome was visually inadequate for a greatly extended building. Hence, Walter almost immediately began planning a new dome in scale with the palatial structure. Walter’s travels in Europe had familiarized him with the domes of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Soufflot’s Pantheon, and St. Peter’s Basilica. While he didn’t admire St. Paul’s overall design, he did concede merit in its dome. Indeed, his Capitol dome more closely recalls St. Paul’s than any of the European domes he visited. The Capitol dome, however, is far more lavishly detailed, a feat made practicable by the use of cast iron for the entire exterior, a remarkable demonstration of the material’s potentials. We might say that the Capitol dome is the Tempietto carried to its illogical conclusion, but wonderfully so. Walter gave extra dimension to the design by including a squeezed third tier articulated with compressed volutes.
Not all evocations of Bramante’s Tempietto were expressed as huge domes for grandiose buildings. Like the original, a few stayed firmly planted on the ground. Noteworthy among them is Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s 1787 Chartres Rotunda, one of his several Paris tollhouse designs. Closer to home, and similar looking, is the domed circular portico providing the entrance link between Yale University’s Commons and Woolsey Hall, the Yale concert hall. (Figure 10) Completed in 1908, this noble complex is the work of the renowned firm of Carrère & Hastings. Though it gives the impression of being freestanding, the domed structure is embedded in the reentrant angle of the two large halls, which splay from the portico at a nearly right angle. As with most of the buildings in this survey, the columns are in the Corinthian order rather than the Doric of Bramante’s work. Like von Gontard’s Berlin domes, the crown of Yale’s dome is slightly attenuated for extra height. The project is an excellent demonstration of the use of Bramante’s scheme to provide celebration at an awkward junction of two large halls.
Thomas U. Walter’s great dome on the National Capitol inspired the designs of a remarkable collection of state capitols erected as part of the American Renaissance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At least fourteen of the capitols display colonnaded domes following the Tempietto formula in varying degrees. Typical is that on George B. Post’s Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, erected 1906-17. (Figure 11) Faced with Bethel white granite supported on a steel superstructure, it is the largest granite dome on the world. The dome echoes the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral by having four of its peristyle bays filled with solid piers decorated with blind arches. These piers serve as backdrops for freestanding statues. A nod to the U.S. Capitol is the use of squat consoles serving as transition between the top of the upper drum and the crown of the dome.
The closest approximation to Bramante’s Tempietto in this survey is the Maine Statehouse dome. Indeed, it is the only one illustrated here that does not employ the Corinthian order. The noted Boston architect, Charles Bulfinch, provided the building’s original design, a scheme that was a simplified version of his Massachusetts Statehouse. An extensive expansion and remodeling in 1909-11 by G. Henri Desmond of the Boston firm of Desmond & Lord preserved Bulfinch’s porticoed facade but replaced his original low saucer dome with the more prominent Tempietto form. (Figure 12) Though much larger than its prototype, Desmond’s dome reflected the restraint of Bramante’s work with the use the Tuscan order for its colonnade and the unadorned metal-clad ribs in the crown. Desmond’s design, moreover, respected the simplicity of Bulfinch’s portico and the no-nonsense character of Maine’s citizens.
Following the precedent of the numerous American Renaissance capitols, the nation of Cuba undertook the construction of a palatial domed capitol in the 1920s. (Figure 13) Designed by the Cuban architects Raul Otero and Eugenio Raynieri, and completed in 1929, the monumental structure, known as El Capitolio, rivaled any of the state capitols to the north. Its Tempietto-type dome was closely modeled after Soufflot’s Pantheon dome, so closely in fact, that it is almost a copy. Like the Pantheon, it has an uninterrupted peristyle of Corinthian columns with an upper drum punctuated with arch-top windows set in shallow panels. The dome is supported on a steel frame manufactured in the United States. El Capitolio’s legislative use ceased following the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the establishment of the Communist régime. The building has since housed the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment.
Among the most beautiful of the fourteen state capitols crowned by a Tempietto-style dome is that of West Virginia, serenely placed beside the Kanawha River in Charleston. (Figure 14) Charleston became the state capital following the removal of the seat of government from Wheeling in 1877. The first capitol there burned in 1921, whereupon a commission was created to oversee the construction of a new capitol. The commission wisely selected Cass Gilbert, one of the most able architects of the period, whose reputation had been established with his Minnesota State Capitol and New York’s Woolworth Building. For his West Virginia scheme, Gilbert encircled the dome’s drum with a Corinthian colonnade following the precedent of Soufflot’s Pantheon. The dome itself is a close copy of Hardouin-Mansart’s Invalides dome, complete with gilded trophies. His lantern is more restrained, being placed straight on rather than diagonally. Completed in 1932, the capitol is a foremost monument of the American Renaissance.
The examples presented here are only a sampling of the many Tempietto domes throughout Europe and the Americas that grace religious as well as governmental and educational buildings. Some of the most impressive ones date as recently as the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century. We wonder whether the form has run its course. Will there be noteworthy versions of the Bramante’s masterpiece, either great or small, in the 21st century?
Elizabeth Mills Brown, New Haven, A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design (Yale University Press, 1976)
Gregory Butikov, St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Aurora Art Publishers, 1974)
Kerry Downs, Sir Christopher Wren, The Design of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Trefoil Publications, 1988)
James Stevens Curl, Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Terry Friedman, James Gibbs (Yale University Press, 1984)
Ranier Haubrich, Hans Wolfgang Hoffman, Philipp Meuser, Berlin, the Architecture Guide (Verlaghaus Braun, 2006)
Henry Russell Hitchcock and William Seale, Temples of Democracy (Harcourt, 1976)
Andrea Palladio, The Four Books on Architecture, Translated by Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield (MIT Press 2002)
Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (Penguin Books, Jubilee Edition, 1960)
Henry Hope Reed, The United States Capitol, Its Architecture and Decoration (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005)
Sebastiano Serlio, The Five Books of Architecture (1982 Dover Publications reprint of the English edition of 1611)
John Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (M.I.T. Press, 1963)