Art, architectural, and cultural terms

What do all these art and architecture terms mean in Italy?

You will find a few terms in here that are neither artistic nor architectural, but that you will run across in Italian and might mistake for something related to the fine arts (just view tehse as bonus cultural lessons).

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | L | M | N | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | Z


  • Accademia - Usually short for Accademia della Belle Arti, an "Academy of Fine Arts," the novel idea initiated by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century of gathering together promising young pupils and students in a place to study the history and creation of fine art alongside accomplished artists (moving beyond the old master-apprentice model of learning). Several of the most noted in Italy have long since opened up their collections as public art museums, most famously the Accademia of Florence (home to Michelangelo's David) and the Accademia in Venice.
  • Affresco - Italian for fresco.
  • Acquarello - Italian for "watercolor."
  • Aisle - A corridor down the nave of a church; usually applied to the two side corridors seperated from the central, ususally larger corridor by rows of columns.
  • Alabaster - A milky-white, fine-grained stone that is translucent up to several inches, sometimes used for sculptures, column capitals, and pre-glass medeival windows. Popular for carving in Volterra.
  • Ambone - Italian for "pulpit," the raised platform—often partway down the nave—from which a priest or other prelate recites some portion of the Mass.
  • Ambulatory - Continuation of the side aisles to make a walkway around the chancel space behind the main altar of a church.
  • Amphora - A two-handled jar with a tapered neck used by the ancients to keep wine, oil, and other liquids.
  • Apse - The semi-circular space behind the main altar of a church.
  • Arcade - A series of arches supported by columns, piers, or pilasters.
  • Architrave - The long vertical element lying directly aross the tops of a series of columns (the lowest part of an entablature); or the moulding around a door or window.
  • Arriccio - The frist, rough layer of plaster laid down when applying the art of fresco to a wall. On this layer, the artist makes the rough sinopia sketches.
  • Art Nouveau - An ornamanetal decorative and architectural style, inflenced by the assymmetry of nature, popular from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. For some reason, every country has its own name for this movement (except English-speaking ones; we just use the French term). In Italy, it is usually referred to as "Liberty Style."
  • Atrium - An open courtyard, especially used in ancient Roman houses, or the first courtyard you come to past the entrance of a church or monastic complex.


  • Baldacchino - A stone canopy over a church altar.
  • Badia - Italian for "abbey."
  • Barocco - Italian for "baroque."
  • Baroque - A long era in Italian art and architecture (16th to 18th centuries) following the Renaissance that, while still inspired by Classicism, was increasingly ornate (to much current taste, overly decorative) and experimental, with lots of complex interplay of arches and curves in the architecture. The term supposedly derives from a word for an irregular pearl—though no one can quite satisfactorily explain what irregular pearls have to do with the baroque style. In painting, the baroque was often marked by a heightened realism, pastels, and a strong use of chiaroscuro (by the Caravaggiesque school). See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Basilica - A from of architecture first used for public halls and law courts in ancient Roman cities. Early Christians adopted the form—a huge, long, rectangular room, divided into a central nave with side aisles but no transept—to build their first large churches.
  • Bay - The space between two columns or piers.
  • Blind Arcade - An arcade of pilasters (i.e.: the arches are all filled in), a defining acrhitectural feature of the Romanesque style.
  • Borgo - A hamlet or suburb; these days often the name of a street leading out of town through a suburb that once was beyond the city walls but now is part of town.
  • Bottega - The workshop of an artist (on museum signs, the word means the work was created or carried out by apprentices or assistants in the stated master’s workshop).
  • Bozzetto - A small model for a larger sculpture (or sketch for a painting); in the later Renaissance and Baroque eras, it also came to mean the tiny statuettes turned out for their own sake to satisfy the growing demand among the rich for table art.
  • Bucchero - Etruscan black earthenware pottery; the black comes from a reducing atmosphere in the kiln that oxidizes the clay.
  • Byzantine - Medieval style of painting from the 5th to late 13th centuries heavily influenced by Eastern traditons; highly static and conservative, with severe cross-hatching of gold leaf on the red-and-blue clothing, long noses with a scoop at the top, and almond-shaped eyes. Also, this was the heyday of mosaics. See “Art and Architecture 101.”


  • Caldarium - The hot tub or steam room of a Roman bath.
  • Campanile - A bell tower, usaully of a church but also those of public buildings; its often detached or flush against the church rather than sprouting directly from it.
  • Canopic vase - Etruscan funerary vase housing the entrails of the deceased (just like in ancient Egypt).
  • Cantoria - Small church singing gallery, ususally set into the wall above the congragation’s heads.
  • Capital - The top of a column. The classical “orders” or types are Doric (plain), Ionic (with scrolls, called volutes, at the corners), or Corinthian (leafy; for the exam: they’re acanthus leaves). There’s also Tuscan (even simpler than Doric; the column is never fluted, or grooved, and usually has no base), and composite (Corinthian superimposed with Ionic). In many paleochristian and Romanesque churches, the capital is carved with primitive animal and human heads or simple biblical scenes.
  • Cappella - Italian for chapel.
  • Cartoon - In Italian cartone, literally “big paper,” the full-sized preparatory sketch made during the art of fresco. This would be held against the fresh layer of arriccio and traced against the wall (either by pounding charcoal dust through small perforations along the lines, or by tracing the lines themselves to incise them into the plaster). Based on this faint outline, the master artist would then create his sinopia sketch.
  • Caryatid - A column carved to resemble a woman (see also: telamon).
  • Cattedrale - Cathedral (a.k.a. Duomo). A "cathedral" by definition must contain a cathedra, the official throne of a bishop—which is why some massive and/or gorgeously decorated church that were once cathedrals but no longer serve as a the seat of a bishopric are called something else, like a collegiata. (though the locals will probbly still refer to it as Il Duomo).
  • Cavea - The semicircle of seats in a classical theater.
  • Cella - The innermost, most sacred room of a Roman pagan temple. Where we get the word "cell" from.
  • Chancel - Space around the high altar of a church generally reserved for the clergy and the choir.
  • Chiaroscuro - Using patches of light and dark colors in painting to model figures and create the illusion of three dimensions (Caravaggio was a master at also using the technique to create mood and tension).
  • Chiesa - Italian for "church."
  • Chiostro - Italian for "cloister."
  • Choir - Architecturally, the space reserved for the choir to sing, often filled with stalls of seats for them, in most Italian churches now located in the chapel, sanctuary, or short transept end behind the high altar. (In many Gothic churches, it was once located in front of the high altar, in the nave, seperated from the congregation by a rood screen, and seperating the congregation itself from really seeing the Mass being performed at the altar. In the Baroque era, when religion became a little less mystified, most of these were removed from Italian churches.)
  • Ciborium - (1) Another word for baldacchino (altar canopy). (2) Box or tabernacle containing the Host (the symbolic body and blood of Christ taken during communion).
  • Cinerary urn - Vase or other vessel containing the ashes of the deaceased; Etruscan ones were often carved with a relief on the front and, on the lid, a half-reclining figure representing the deceased at a banquet.
  • Cloister - A roofed walkway open on one side and supported by columns, usaully used in the plural since often four of them faced each other to make the interior open-air courtyards, often centered around a small garden, found in monasteries and convents. The monks and nuns used it as a comtemplative setting in which to wander; and in “cloistered orders” this was the only part of the outside world with which they regularly had contact.
  • Coffered - Set with decorative dpressions or sunken panels (square or polygonal), usaully in a ceiling.
  • Collegiata - A collegiate church, having a chapter of canons and a dean or provost to rule over it but lacking the bishop’s seat that would make it a cathedral.
  • Colonnaded - Lined with columns.
  • Column - An architectural support, usually cylindrical.
  • Comune - A city or other community that operated under independant self-government in the middle ages (often oligarchies of local merchants). In modern Italy, it is the administrative district of a city or town, often incorporating a few surrounding villages or communities, called Loc(alità).
  • Conatraposto - Assymmetry, or freedom of movement, within a figure. Typically this is expresed as a twisted pose in which a figure's weight is thrown one way then counter-balanced by the figure's contortions.This is the ancient artistic equivalent of flexing one's muscles to show off definition. First used by the ancients, revived by Michelangelo, and an earmark of the Mannerist school.
  • Condottiere - A professional solider of fortune who led his own mercenary band in medieval and Renaissance Italy and was hired by city-states to fight their battles.
  • Convent - A religious community of men or women who follow the rules of an order and interact with one another on a daily basis; from the word convenire, to gather or assemble. This is opposed to a monastery, where the members of the religous order live semi-sequestered lives of meditation and may meet only for meals and church services; from monasterion, to live alone. Despite general American usage, the terms originally had little to do with the gender of the monks or nuns inside.
  • Corinthian - Describing a column capital featuring a deocrative profusion of acanthus leaves. (See: "Capital")
  • Cornice - Protruding section, usaully along the very top of a wall, facade, or entablature; a pediment is usually framed by a lower cornice and two sloping ones.
  • Cortile - Courtyard.
  • Corso - Major road in a town.
  • Cosmatesque - Generally used to describe the patterned inlay—almost mosaic—of colorful bits of marble, technically it refers only to the production of the Cosmati workshop active in Rome from the 12th to 13th centuries.
  • Crenellated - Topped by a regular series of protrusions and crevices; these battlements often ring medieval buildings or fortresses to aid in defense (you could hide behind the merlons, or stony protrusions, them and fire arrows through the crenels, or gaps).
  • Crypt - An underground burial vault, in churches usually found below the altar end and in Italy often the remnant of an older version of the church.
  • Cupola - Dome.
  • Cyclopian - Adjective describing an unmortered wall built of enormous stones by an unknown central Italian pre-Etruscan peoples. The sheer size led the ancients to think they were built by the Cyclopses.


  • Diptych - A painting in two sections.
  • Doric - Describing a very plain type of column capital. (See: "Capital")
  • Duecento - Thirteenth century (literally "twohundred," by which they actually mean the 1200s).
  • Duomo - Cathedral (from domus, “house” of God), often used to refer to the main church in town even if it doesn’t have a cathedra, or bishop’s seat—the prerequsite for any chruch to be called a "cathedral."


  • Entablature - Section riding above a collonades, made up of the architrave (bottom), frieze (middle), and cornice (top; all three terms qv.)
  • Ex voto - A small plaque, statue, painting, or other momento left by a supplicant, signifying either their gratitude to a saint or special Madonna or imploring the saint’s help in some matter. Particulalry revered icons are often surrounded by them. If the divine help being sought is medical in nature, the ex-votos are often small silver, low relief replicas of the affilicted body part (an arm, leg, intenstinal track whatever). .


  • Foreshortening - Using angled or progressively exaggerated lines to suggest depth—an element of the painterly technique that would evolve into true perspective.
  • Forum - The main square in an ancinet Roman town, a public space used for assemblies, courts, speeches, and on which important temples and civic buildings were located.
  • Fresco - The multi-step art of creating a painting on fresh plaster (fresco means fresh). After laying down a rough arriccio (above), the master uses a cartoon (above) to guide him or freehand paints a sinopia (below) sketch of the scene, then covers small portions with a smooth intonatco layer of plaster. These small sections are called giornate, or “dailys,” because they are the amount the artist can paint in one day while the intonaco is drying (the lime in both the plaster and the paint’s water bonds and helps sink the colors beneath the surface of the plaster, creating a durable buon fresco, or “good fresco”). The more complicated the section to be painted, like a face, the smaller the giornata. Apprentices or assistants often took care of background, architetural details, and drapes on large giornate. When the fresco was done and dry, the artist could touch it up on the surface in the art of mal fresco, called “bad fresco” because the color would remain on the surface and often flake off of be otherwise subjected to the ravages of the outer world (candle smoke, damp, inept cleanings, etc.).
  • Frigidarium - Room for cold baths in a Roman bath.
  • Frieze - A decroative, horizontal band or series of panels, usually carved in relief and at the center of an entablature.


  • Ghibelline - A political alignment in medieval Italy; party members threw their allegience in with the German Emperor over the question of who shoudl rule Europe, the pope or the Emperor. Ghibellines tended to be artistocrats, who found power in the fuedal system the emperor represented.
  • Gonfalon - A banner, usually painted (sometimes by top artists), belonging to a medieval guild. Such painted banners were also often the prizes awarded to the wining team of whatever the local annual contest was that pitted a town's neighbrohoods against one another (like the famous Palio horse race in Siena).
  • Gothic - An era in art and architecture spanning the 13th and 14th centuries, influenced in part by the style of northern Europe. In art, the Gothic era showed increased emotionality, naturalism, and foreshortening; and epitomized in the sculpture of the Pisanos and the painting of Giotto and his school. In architecture, the Gothic style was promulgated by the preaching orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) and—unlike the more familiar decorative heights the Gothic reached north of the Alps, all flying buttresses and stone filagree—in Italy the Gothic remained a somewhat more blockish style overall, only with the characteristic pointed supporting arches and with pointed windows containing some fanciful stone work. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Graffiti - Incised decorative designs, usually repetative, on an outer wall made by painting the surface in two thin layers, one light the other dark, then scratching away the top layer to leave the designs in contrast.
  • Greek Cross - Building ground plan in the shape of a cross whose arms are of equal length.
  • Grotesques - Carved or painted faces, animals, and designs, often deliberately exaggerated or ugly, used to decorate surfaces and composite sculptures (such as fountains) by everyone from the Etruscans to the Baroque era.
  • Grotteschi - Italian for "grotesques"—a term derived from this ancient style's rediscovery by Renaissance artists painted on what appeared to be the walls of underground caves—grotto in Italian—but were actually just the painted rooms of ancient palaces that had long since been buried by the time Raphael and his ilk chopped holes in the ceilings and lowered themselves down on ropes.
  • Guelf - Rivals to the Ghibellines, the intreests of Guelf citizens—often merchants who favored free trade and guild control of local government—fell into the medieval party who supported the pope in his quest for temporal power in Europe. For more on the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict, see "Italian History 101."


  • Humanism - A 14th–16th century intellectual movement in philosophy, literature, art, and technology that emphasized a rediscovery of ancient (and Middle Eastern) wisdom, natural observation, and proto-scientific investigation and experimentation. This would evnetually flower into the Renaissance and the Enlightement.


  • Icon - A representation (often a painting) of a sacred Crhistian figure, usually a Madonna or a saint, often revered on in its own right for the magical properties it traditonally posseses to help supplicants in times of need.
  • Illuminated - Describing a manuscript or book, usually a choir book or bible, that has been decorated with colorful designs, miniatures, figures, scenes, and fancy letters, often produced by anonymous monks.
  • Intarsia - Inlaid wood, marble, precious stones, or metal.
  • Intonaco - Plaster in general; in art used to define the layer of fresh, smooth, lime-heavy plaster upon which the artist painted the colors during the art of making a fresco.
  • Ionic - Describing a column capital featuring scrolls, called volutes, at the corners. (See: "Capital")


  • Lapis lazuli - A semi-precious stone that was ground up and used to make paint in a bright, blue color, popular for Virgin Mary dresses and celestial skies. Since this stone was found only in Asia Minor (modern-day Afghanistan), and it had to be imported "over the sea," the color it made was called "ultramarine." (The stone is also found in Chile, but Europeans didn't know that in the pre-Colombian era.)
  • Latin Cross - Building ground plan in the shape of a Crucifix-style cross, where one arm is longer than the other three (this is the nave).
  • Liberty - Italian version of Art Nouveau, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Oddly enough, the Italian term "Liberty" comes from the name of a London department store that specailized in the style.)
  • Loggia - Roofed porch, balcony or gallery, open on one side.
  • Lozenge - A decorative, regularly-sided diamond (i.e.: square on its corner), either marble inlay or as a sunken depression, centered in the arcs of a blind arcade on Romaneque architecture.
  • Lunette - Semi-circular wall space created by various ceiling vaultings, or above a door or window; often it’s decorated with a painting, mosaic, or relief.


  • Mannerist - A 16th-century off-shoot of the High Renaissance, an artistic movement that used increasingly garish colors (in painting), twisting poses (in painting and sculpture), and exaggerations on Classicism (in architecture) to stretch Michelangelo’s experiments and Renaissance ideals to their logical limits. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Matroneum - In some paleochristian and early Romanesque churches, the gallery (often on the second floor) reserved for women, who were kept separate from the men during mass.
  • Macchiaioli - A late 19th/early 20th-century school of painters based in Tuscany very similar to French Impressionists. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Madonna and Child - Given Italy’s penchant for Madonna cults, this is the single most popular image: Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap (he’s usually holding up two fingers in a traditional teaching gesture). When She’s sitting on a particularaly elaborate chair, often surrounded by angels, it’s usually called
  • Madonna Enthroned. Add a few saints around her, and you’ve got Madonna and Child with Saints (by the High Renaissance, particularly in the Umbrian school, when scenes like this were beginning to look less posed and more like a personal gathering of friends, the paintings came to be called Sacred Conversations). When the early Sienese school surrounded Mary, her Throne and Child with dozens of saints and holy worthies, they started calling it “Madonna in Majesty,” or Maestà.
  • Maestà - A "Madonna in Majesty" scene.
  • Majolica - Tin-glazed earthenware pottery usaully elaborately painted, a process pioneered and mastered in Italy in the 14th through 17th centuries.
  • Mannerist - A 16th-century off-shoot of the High Renaissance, an artistic movement that used increasingly garish colors (in painting), twisting poses (in painting and sculpture), and exaggerations on Classicism (in architecture) to stretch Michelangelo’s experiments and Renaissance ideals to their logical limits. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Marmo - Italian for "marble."
  • Medio evo - Italian for "medeival."
  • Monastery - See “Convent.”


  • Narthex - Interior vestibule of a church.
  • Nave - The longest section of a church, usually leading from the front door to the altar, where the worshippers sit; often divided into aisles.
  • Neoclassical - An even stronger return to an idealized version of the Classical ancient style than the Renaisance saw—lots of columns and perfect porportions and white. Popular in the 19th century and epitomozed in architecture by Andrea Palladio and his Palladian style (which was hugely influential around the world; think Jefferson's Monticello, or the goverment buildings and monuments of Washington, DC). See “Art and Architecture 101.”


  • Pala - Altarpiece.
  • Palazzo - Traditionally a palace or other imporant building, in contemporary Italian it refers to any large structure, including office buildings (and has become the common way to refer to a “city block,” no matter how many separate structures form it).
  • Paleochristian - Early Christian, used generally to describe the era from the 5th to early 11th centuries. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Pediment - A wide gable at the top of a facade or above a doorway. Traditionally triangular, the Baroque era loved making them rounded, and later “breaking” the arcing line by setting the center half of the arc’s rim back and having the two lower sections on either side protrude.
  • Pendentives - The four curved triangles of wall that sprout from the tops of piers and expand to meet the bottom rim of a dome.
  • Pennello - Italian for "brush."
  • Perspective - The artistic use of angled lines, warped geometry, subtle shading, and sfumato color diffusion to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. (Think: A drawing of train tracks coming together as they recede into the distance. It's more complicated than that, but that's a start.)
  • Piano Nobile - The primary floor of a palace where the family would live, usaully the second (American), sometimes third floor. It tends to have higher ceilings, larger rooms, and be more highly decorated than the rest of the palazzo. The ground floor was usaully for storage or shops, and the attic for servants.
  • Pier - A rectangular vertical support (like a column).
  • Pietra dura - The art of inlaying semiprecious stones to form patterns and pictures, often called “Florentine mosaic” and increasingly popular from the late 15th-century on.
  • Pietra forte - A dark grey, ochre-tinged limestone mined near Florence. Harder than its cousin pietra serena (below), it was used more sparginly in Florentine architecture.
  • Pietra serena - A soft, light grey limestone mined in the Florentine hills around Fiesole and one of the major building blocks of Florence’s architecture—both for the ease with which it could be worked and its color, used to accent door jambs and window frames in houses and coulmns and chapels in churches, especially by Brunelleshi and his followers.
  • Pieve - A parish church; in the countryside, often primarily a baptismal site.
  • Pilaster - Often called pilaster strip, it is a column, either rounded of squared off, set into a wall rather than separate from it.
  • Pinacoteca - Painting gallery.
  • Pittore - Italian for "painter."
  • Podestà - A sort of mayor or governor from the middle ages, often hired from another town to rule over a comune for a set period of time (being a foreigner to the comune, he would be less likely to play favourites with the local powerful families vying for power). It is still the term used for the mayor of a modern city.
  • Polyptych - A panel painting having more than one section, hinged so it can be folded up (many were small and private so personal devcotional images could be carried in people’s saddlebags while traveling and set up on a table in the rooms where they stopped for the night). Two-panelled ones are called diptychs, three-panelled one triptychs. Any more panels uses the genral term.
  • Porphyry - Any igneous rock with visible shards of crystals supended in a matrix of fine particles.
  • Porta - Italian for door or city gate.
  • Portico - A porch.
  • Predella - Small panel or series of panels below the main part of an altarpiece, often used to tell a story of Christ’s Passion or a saint’s life comic strip–style.
  • Presepio - A Christmas chreches scenes showing the baby Jesus being adored by Mary and Jospeh... only usually much, much more elaborate than that. There is also usually at least some of the attendant stable animals, and often the Three Wise Men—and, in the biggets presepi, entire scenes clearly modelled after a 19th century Italian town, complete with shops and pizzerias.
  • Putti - Cherubs (sing. putto); chubby naked toddler boys sculpted or painted, often with wings, and a favorite decoration of the Baroque era.


  • Quadro - Painting in Italian.
  • Quattrocento - Fifteenth century (literally "fourhundred," by which they actually mean the 1400s).


  • Refectory - The dining room of a convent or monastery, which from the Renaissance on was often painted with a topical Last Supper to aid in religious contemplation at the dinner table.
  • Renaissance - French for “rebirth” (Italians call it the Rinascimento), it refers to the period that started in Florence in the 15th century when humanist philosphy and a study of classicla models led art to free itself from medieval static traditions and explore both the emotional (expressiveness) and scientific (naturalism, perspective) sides of art. The phenomenon of the Renaissance spread to literature and other arts and from Italy throughout all of Europe by the 17th century. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Rinascimento - Italian for "Reanaissance."
  • Rococo - The Baroque run amok, nightmarishly excessive and ridicuulously decorative, with garish, overdone, stuccoes dripping off ceilings and pastel putti populating paintings. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Romanesque - A style of architecture popular especially in northern Tuscany, originating in Pisa in the 12th century and lasting until the advent of the Gothic in the 13th cetury. It is marked by strong bands of colored marbles (white and green or black), blind arcades (often set with losenges), and facades made of stacks of colonnaded, open galleries. See “Art and Architecture 101.”


  • Sacristy - The room in a church that houses the sacred vestments and vessels—and, for our purposes, often frescoed (in most Italian churches, it’s accessible through a door near the altar end of the church, but don’t barge in uninvited).
  • Sanctuary - Tecnhically the holiest part of a church, the term is used to refer to the area just around or behind the high altar.
  • Sarcofagus - A stone coffin or casket.
  • Schiacciato - Literally “flattened.” (1) A sculpture form pioneered by Donatello carving figures in extremely low relief that from straight on give the illusion of three-dimensionality and great depth, but from the side are oddly squashed. (2) Florentine dialect for foccacia bread.
  • Sfumato - Leonardo da Vinci’s patented technique of creating hazy backgrounds, blurring the outlines of figures, and otherwise infusing paintings with a filmy, limpid quality that had definite focal lengths and thus greatly heightened the realism.
  • Sgraffito - Variant spelling of "graffiti." Incised decorative designs, usually repetative, on an outer wall made by painting the surface in two thin layers, one light the other dark, then scratching away the top layer to leave the designs in contrast.
  • Sinopia - The preparatory sketch for a fresco done on the rough plaster underneath. Literally, it means a kind of cheap, brownish clay from Sinope, in Asia Minor. When mixed with water it made a crude paint used by fresco artists to brush a monotone sketch on the rough, arriccio layer of plaster during the fresco-making process. The artists either did it freehand (the earlier habit) or used the sinopia paint to trace—and often rework—the marks left by the cartoon image. Since the fresco itself was on a separate layer of plaster, in removing and restoring frescoes, the sinopia layer underneath is often revelaed, detached, and displayed on its own, offering insight into the artist’s creative process and showing his art at its freest and least self-conscious (it never entered the Renaissance mind that these sinopie would ever be seen by the public).
  • Spandrel - Triangular wall space created when two arches in an arcade curve away from each other (or from the end wall).
  • Spoglio - Architectural recycling; the practice of using pieces of an older building to help raise a new one (Roman temples were popular mines for both marble and columns to build early churches).
  • Sporti - Overhanging second story of a medieval or Renaissance building supported by wooden or stone brackets.
  • Stele - A headstone.
  • Stemma - Coat-of-arms.
  • Stoup - A holy-water basin.
  • Stucco - Plaster composed of sand, powdered marble, water, and lime, often molded into decorative relief (especially during the Braoque and Roccoco eras, but once used by the ancient Romans as well) or formed into statuary or applied in a thin layer to the exterior of a building.
  • Signoria - A semi-democratic ruling body of the medieval and Renaissance city-state, the memebers were usually drawn from among only the more powerful citizens groups—often members of guilds, and usually only the greater guilds.


  • Tela - Painting (literally "canvas").
  • Telamone - A column sculpted to look like a man (also see: caryatid).
  • Tempera - A fast-drying painting medium; in the Gothic era, the pigments were often fixed in an egg yolk base.
  • Tepidarium - The room for a warm bath in a Roman bath.
  • Terme - Roman baths, usually divided into the calidarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium.
  • Tondo - A round painting or sculpture.
  • Torre - Italian for "tower."
  • Transept - The lateral cross-arm of a cruciform church, perpendicular to the nave.
  • Travertine - A whitish or honey-colored form of porous volcanic tufa mined near Tivoli. The stone from which ancient Rome was built
  • Trecento - The 14th century (In Italian, literally “1300s”), often used to describe that era of art dominated by the styles of Giotto and the International Gothic. See “Art and Architecture 101.”
  • Tribune - The raised platform from which an orator speaks, used to describe the raised section of some churches around and behind the altar from which Mass is performed.
  • Triptych - A painting in three sections.
  • Trompe l’Oeil - French for “fool the eye,” it means using advanced techniques of perspective, lighting, near-photorealism, and other painterly techniques to create a highly believable illusion of three-dimensionality, of great space and depth, on a flat surface. Painting a fake dome on a flat ceiling, turning the walls of a room into open balustrades overlooking the coutryside, making a nave ceiling appear to be four stories of Classical architecture high and open to the skies, that sort of thing. The Baroque era got it down to a science.
  • Tufa - A pourous rock formed by calcium and silica deposited on lake and river beds. It cuts easily but hardens once exposed to the air for a while. Frequently used—especially in Central Italy where it is prevalent—by the Etruscans on for building material (and by the ancients for rough sculptures).
  • Tympanum - The triangular or semicircular space between the cornices of a pediment or between the lintel above a door and the arch above it.

Tips & links

Italian art tours
Useful links & resources

Share this page

Intrepid Travel 25% off


Useful links

Train tix

Shortcuts to popular planning sections:

Airfares, Cars, Trains, Tours, Packages, Cruises, Lodging, Itineraries, Info, Packing, Prep, Comm

Follow ReidsItaly
Follow ReidsItaly on Twitter  Join the ReidsItaly fan page  Follow Reids Italy Adventures blog