Romanesque Style (6th – 10th Century AD)

Romanesque architecture is an architectural style of medieval Europe characterized by semi-circular arches. There is no consensus for the beginning date of the Romanesque style.

Traditionally linked to Charlemagne, San Liberatore a Maiella is an abbey in Abruzzo, Italy that features the character in a fresco fragment in it. It was originally built in the 9th century but it was rebuilt in the 11th century by Desiderius to adopt a white façade with balanced volumes, a square plan tower with three floors, and mullioned windows. The façade of this abbey features the Lombard-Romanesque architectural style.
San Liberatore a Maiella, Abruzzo, Italy, built in 9th century, rebuilt in the 11th century by Desiderius, Lombard-Romanesque architectural style.

The history

Romanesque architecture was the first distinctive style to spread across Europe since the Roman Empire. After the decline of Rome, Roman building methods survived  in Western Europe: MerovingianCarolingian and Ottonian architects continued to build large stone buildings such as monastery churches and palaces.

Lisbon Cathedral, more popularly known as the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major, is the oldest church in the city of Lisbon and features a mix of different architectural styles. It was first built in 1147 but has undergone several reconstructions due to earthquakes. This cathedral has interesting sculptured capitals with Romanesque motifs and its nave is covered by barrel vaulting. It is also popular for its Romanesque iron gate.
Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major, first built in 1147, Lisbon, Portugal.

In the northern countries, Roman building styles and techniques had never been adopted except for official buildings, while in Scandinavia they were unknown. Although the round arch continued in use, the engineering skills required to vault large spaces and build large domes were lost. There was a loss of stylistic continuity.

Romanesque Architecture also developed simultaneously in the north of Italy, parts of France and in the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century. The style, sometimes called First Romanesque or Lombard Romanesque, is characterised by thick walls, lack of sculpture and the presence of rhythmic ornamental arches. 


Date1063 to 1350 timeline Building Type church complex Construction System bearing masonry, cut stone, white marble Climate mediterranean Context church complex and tower Style Romanesque Notes The cathedral complex includes the famous Leaning Tower. White marble with colonnaded facades.
Begun in 1093, Pisa Cathedral (Duomo di Pisa), Pisa, Tuscany, Italy.

Romanesque churches characteristically incorporated semicircular arches for windows, doors, and arcades; barrel or groin vaults to support the roof of the nave; massive piers and walls, with few windows, to contain the outward thrust of the vaults; side aisles with galleries above them; a large tower over the crossing of nave and transept; and smaller towers at the church’s western end.

French churches commonly expanded on the early Christian basilica plan, incorporating radiating chapels to accommodate more priests, ambulatories around the sanctuary apse for visiting pilgrims, and large transepts between the sanctuary and nave.

For the sake of fire resistance, masonry vaulting began to replace timber construction.


Church of San Vitale in Ravenna
Church of San Vitale in Ravenna
Plans of the church of St Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the 6th century, (left) and Charlemagne's palace at Aachen, constructed in the early 9th century, (right). The similarities between the architecture of the two buildings (not just the decoration) shows that the design of the later building consciously looked to the earlier building as a source of inspiration.
Plans of the church of St Vitale in Ravenna, dating from the 6th century, Italy.

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The characteristics of Romanesque Architecture can be defined as having the following features:

  • Stone was cut with precision.
  • Walls were initially solid but the walls and shell keeps designed in the Romanesque architecture style were hollow and distributed the weight of the stones.
  • The use of the Roman arch led to the stone being supported in the middle by the arch construction.
  • The stone used was extremely heavy. The weight of the ceilings would tend to buckle the walls outward and large piles of stone would be stacked along the wall in intervals to buttress (or support) the walls from pushing outward – these piles of stones became features of Romanesque Architecture and buttresses were introduced to the basic design and a major characteristic of Romanesque architecture.
  • The window openings of Romanesque Architecture castles had to be small to keep the strength of the walls strong.
  • The Vault: the most important structural developments and characteristics of Romanesque architecture was the vault. It was developed to enable the construction of stone roofs – wooden roofs were an obvious fire hazard.
  • Barrel or Tunnel Vaults: consisted of a continuous surface of semicircular or pointed sections resembling a barrel or tunnel which has been cut in half lengthwise.
  • Groin Vault: a vault produced by the intersection, at right angles of two barrel vaults. The arches of groin vaults were either pointed or round.
  • Ribbed Vault: essentially two barrel vaults meeting at a right angle. These ribs do an even better job of focusing the weight of the vaulting onto a few small places. With ribbed vaults, Romanesque architects could make their churches wider, taller, and even more impressive.

To solve the problem of heavy vaulting, architects alternated columns and piers.

Sculptural Decoration

One way in which Romanesque architects jazzed up their exteriors was with sculptural decoration, especially around the main entrance of the church. These round, highly decorated portals, known as tympanum, became increasingly popular in Romanesque architecture.


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