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Classical Orders

Classical Orders

‘Individually, each order is constructed of a series of components standing in a clear, though not immutable, proportional relationship with one another, and peculiar to that order. At the same time the orders are closely related to one another by a further series of mathematical progressions and by the manner in which their component mouldings are developed from the simplest order to the most complex.’

Chitham, Robert, The classical orders of architecture, incorporating James Gibbs and the American classical tradition by Calder Loth, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Elsevier/Architectural Press, 2005), p. 18.



Composite image of Jacques Ozanam, Dictionnaire mathematique, ou, Idée generale des mathematiques : dans lequel l’on trouve, outre les termes de cette science, plusieurs termes des arts & des autres sciences; avec des raisonnemens qui conduisent peu à peu l’esprit à une connoissance universelle des mathematiques (Paris, 1691), plates 17 & 18.

Classical architecture refers to architecture derived from ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks used three architectural orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which were developed by the Romans, who also added the Tuscan and Composite orders. The essential elements of a classical stone-built columnar and trabeated structure comprises of a vertical free-standing column, with usually a base, shaft, and capital, and a horizontal entablature. The latter component consists of three divisions, namely a formalised lintel spanning between the columns called an architrave at the bottom, a band known as a frieze in the centre, and a cornice, which is a projecting moulded ledge, on top. A sculpted female figure called a caryatid or an equivalent male figure known as an atlantid were also used as columns in ancient Greece. Furthermore, the Romans adapted the use of orders to arcuated structural systems (erected using arches) such as amphitheatres for example.

Architectural theorists have, since the revival of interest in classical architecture during the Renaissance, interpreted and codified the rules of composition and proportions of the classical orders differently as each successive generation revisited the treatises of writers that preceded them and observed surviving Roman and Greek buildings first-hand, often composing ‘ideal’ versions of the orders. Theorists all agreed upon, however, that the proportions of the various elements of an order are derived in a series of fractions from the diameter of the column at its base. Diminution refers to the reduction in the diameter of the shaft of a column from its base to its head and is associated with the subtle convex curved swelling in a column-shaft called entasis.

The Greeks rarely superimposed orders, except in instances where it was structurally necessary, with the same order superimposed upon the order below. The Romans superimposed orders as decorative elements in an ascending hierarchical sequence with the heaviest order at ground level, Tuscan, followed by Doric and Ionic respectively, and the most slender order, Corinthian, on the uppermost storey. The dimensions of each ascending order were also reduced to avoid the upper ‘superior’ order dominating and overpowering the lower ‘inferior’ order to an undesirable extent.

The Giant order, also called Colossal order, refers to columns, engaged columns or pilasters that rise from ground or plinth level through more than one storey of a building. Engaged columns, also known as attached columns, are embedded in and project by half its diameter or more from a wall, and are therefore bolder in effect than pilasters that are attached to and project slightly from a wall. Engaged columns can serve a structural purpose in contrast to pilasters, which are purely ornamental.

The composite image at the top of this page is taken from a mathematical book entitled Dictionnaire mathematique ou idée generale des mathematiques … (Paris, 1691) written by the French mathematician Jacques Ozanam (1640-1718). It combines two illustrative plates showing architectural terms associated with the base and pedestal of a column on the left-hand side (plate 17), and the capital and entablature on the right-hand side (plate 18). The remaining illustrations used in this section of the online exhibition are taken from two publications; one of which was written by the French administrator, art historian and critic André Félibien (1619-1695), and the second by the French mathematician and designer of fortifications Samuel Marolois (c.1572-c.1627). André Félibien’s Des principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, et des autres arts qui en dependent … (Paris, 1690), first published in Paris in 1676, consists of separate treatises on the principles and practices of the three arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting, with the first section on architecture being by far the longest. The Edward Worth Library holds a copy of the second edition. The Latin edition of Samuel Marolois’ compilatory mathematical work, Mathematicvm opvs absolvtissimvm … (Amsterdam, 1633), is composed of treatises on geometry, fortifications, architecture and perspective theorems that were originally published separately. The illustrative plates depicted are taken from the fourth of five volumes.

The following brief descriptions outline some of the distinguishing terms and elements associated with each order.



André Félibien, Des principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, et des autres arts qui en dependent. Avec un dictionnaire des termes propres à chacun de ces arts (Paris, 1690), p. 13 (Tuscan order).

The Tuscan order is the least ornate of the classical orders and its name derives from its Etruscan origins. The column has a very plain base, consisting of a square plinth-block supporting a large projecting convex moulding of semi-circular profile known as a torus. The shaft of the column is unfluted, often with an entasis that is more pronounced than in the other orders. The capital and entablature are both without adornments. The exterior façade of the Roman amphitheatre at Verona was built with three superimposed storeys in the Tuscan order composed of engaged columns in the lower two arcades and pilasters on the uppermost storey.

Bomgardner, David Lee, The story of the Roman amphitheatre (London, 2000) 66-67.

Chitham, Robert, The classical orders of architecture, incorporating James Gibbs and the American classical tradition by Calder Loth, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2005).

Curl, James Stevens & Wilson, Susan, The Oxford dictionary of architecture, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 2016).

Jones, M. Wilson, et al., ‘Orders, architectural’ entry in Oxford Art Online.

Mallgrave, Harry Francis et al., The Mark J. Millard architectural collection. Volume III : northern European books, sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries (Washington, 1998) 20-21.

Savage, Nicholas, et al., Early printed books 1478-1840 : catalogue of the British Architectural Library Early Imprints Collection. Volume 2, E-L (London, 1995) 586.

Wiebenson, Dora & Baines, Claire, The Mark J. Millard architectural collection. Volume I : French books, sixteenth through nineteenth centuries (Washington, 1993) 180, 183-4.

Text: Antoine Mac Gaoithín, Library Assistant at the Edward Worth Library.