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An intro course in Italian Architecture

Bel Paese

Bel Paese (the nickname for Italy meaning “beautiful country”) is loaded with incredible architecture and thousands of years of history. Cathedrals and Colosseums, from Venice to Verona, Italy has 58 UNESCO World Heritage Sites spread tip to toe — more than any other country in the world.

Keeping straight the different historical periods that these sites come from can be challenging. Materials used, structural choices, imagery represented — there is a lot going on. Here are some tricks to I.D. a building on tour and impress the other travellers in your group with all your Jeopardy-style knowledge.

Consider this your cheat sheet for recognizing the main architectural styles of Italy:


Built anytime between 332 BC and 395 AD, Greco-Roman architecture can be found most notably (and obviously) in Rome, but was spread as far as the Iberian Peninsula and Cyprus. It takes after three Greek styles popular in the same period: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

Described as “magnificence epitomized”,  large arches, columns, and domes characterize the architecture of this period, and many buildings were constructed in marble, limestone, and concrete. Building such large and heavy public works projects relied on importing engineering and mathametic techniques that were the most cutting edge innovations in Greece at the time. Think: the Colosseum.


Moving right along, the Byzantine era was from 527 to 565 AD, popularized by the style of Constantinople (now Istanbul, formerly ancient Byzantium) and spread to Italy through trade and conquest. It got its 15 minutes of fame thanks to Christian Orthodoxy under (you guessed it) the Roman Empire.

This architecture period was all about giant square buildings with huge domes on top to allow many to join Religious services underneath. That, and beautiful mosaics on vaults, gold touches and jewel tones. Think: St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.


Following centuries of Barbarian rule, Italy saw a revival of the cities that took place between the 10th and 13th centuries (the Middle ages). During this time Italians had one thing and one thing only on the mind: Christ. The style of the time was ripe with Christian symbolism, which was often painted onto frescoes or carved into relief sculptures.

Architecturally, they borrowed from the Roman Empire’s book on columns, arches, and cross vaults, but they also popularized towers and crypts. Commonly cities were often walled-in as military protection. Think: the Siena Cathedral.




Following the Middle Ages, Italy went through a “rebirth” marked by rapid development in culture, politics, the economy, and just about every other aspect of Italian life. The Renaissance was all about fusing art, engineering, and science, and the buildings of the 15th-17th Century reflect that.

They took the building blocks of Greco-Roman architecture and ran with them, focusing on symmetry, harmony, and aesthetics, with ornate facades, decorative domes, and even more columns. Think: Brunelleschi’s Dome.



A few other styles on display in Italy


8th century B.C. to the 1st century B.C.
Etruscan ruins, Tuscany

Classic Greek

5th century B.C. to the 4st century B.C.
Paestum Temples, Province of Salerno, Campania

Ancient Roman

1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.
Roman Forum, Rome


13th century A.D. to the 16th century A.D.
The Duomo of Milan, Milan


17th century A.D. to the 18th century A.D.
The Cathedral of Syracuse, Syracuse

Why read about it?
Check them out on tour!

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