No Image

Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Italian Art and Architecture Glossary (Vocabulary List)

The following is a list of useful vocabulary terms (and definitions!) in English and Italian for students and lovers of Italian Renaissance art. If you are a professor and find this useful to distribute to your class, credit (or a link) to arttrav.com would be much appreciated.

Altarpiece [pala d’altare]: a painting of religious nature that sits upon an altar.
Apse [apside]: The semicircular or polygonal far end (usually East) of a church, at which the high altar is placed.
Arch [arco]: a structure that spans a space and supports weight. In gothic art, pointed arch; in Renaissance art, rounded arch.
Cathedral [Cattedrale]: Church that is the seat of the Bishop.
Capital [capitello]: the “head” of a column, has a decorative function.
Chapel [cappella]: a consecrated space containing an altar, freestanding or within a larger church
Chapter House [sala capitolare]: in monastic/conventual context, a meeting room. Usually a square room lined with benches, accessed off the cloister.
Chiaroscuro: An Italian word meaning “light-dark”, used to describe the dramatic contrast of light and dark in painting to create effects of three-dimensionality.
Cloister [chiostro]: a courtyard, usually in a monastic setting, with a covered collonade that goes around it. (Similar to a loggia, but square or rectangle, like 4 loggie combined.)
Coffer/ Coffering [a cassettone]: recessed panels, square or polygonal, that decorate a vault, ceiling or the underside of an arch. Example: Masaccio’s Trinity.
Column [colonna]: a round, freestanding architectural element that functions to support a structure above it. (see also pilaster)
Confraternity [confraternita]: Voluntary association of men who unite for religious and/or social purposes.
Contrapposto: Italian for “set against”. Bodily posture in which most of the weight is placed on the “engaged” leg, causing the upper body to turn and fall off axis. Makes representations of the body to look more natural and relaxed. Developed by Renaissance artists though deriving from Ancient art.
Crenellation [?]: Pattern of open notches built into the top parapets and battlements of fortified buildings. Characteristic of Medieval hilltop towers and urban defense structures. Example: Palazzo della Signoria (Florence).
Entablature [trabeazione]: horizontal element in architecture that sits above columns, composed of cornice, frieze, and architrave.
Fresco: A wall painting technique that involves applying colored pigments to wet plaster. Italian word literally means wet/fresh. Additional pigment applied on dry plaster is “a secco”.
Frieze [fregio]: The flat middle division of an entablature, often containing sculpture, or more generally a horizontal element in architecture.
Guild [arte]: Professional association of men with obligatory membership. Has role of protecting and promoting that profession.
Impost Block [?]: A decorative block placed between a capital and the entablature, often used in Romanesque art to add height to columns taken as spolia (re-used from other buildings). Used by Brunelleschi in the nave at San Lorenzo.
Loggia: Italian term for an architectural space, open on one side, with a series of arches on columns or piers. (Different from a cloister.)
Mathematical/ Scientific Perspective [prospettia]: Method of rendering a credible, deep three-dimensional space (reality) in two dimensions (painting), based on a scientific system in which lines converge at a vanishing point which lies on a horizon line. [Note: Can only be applied to two-dimensional arts (painting and drawing), not to architecture or sculpture!] Nave [navata]: The long central portion of a basilican-shaped church, before the transept.
Niche [nicchia]: A concave opening in a wall, often used to house statuary.
Mendicant Order [ordine mendicante]: a category of religious community of friars who (originally) follow apostolic example in poverty and teaching. Examples: Dominican, Franciscan.
Pendentive [pennacchio]: An inverted, concave, triangular area of wall that serves as transition from a square support to the circular base of a dome.
Pilaster [pilastro]: A decorative flattened column that projects slightly from the face of the wall, but is engaged, not freestanding. Has no supportive function.
Polyptych [polittico]: a painting (often religious) composed of multiple panels, either hinged together or united by a frame. Also: diptych (2 panels), triptych (2 panels).
Predella [predella]: A long platform upon which an altarpiece is set, usually painted or sculpted with small scenes related to the main scene.
Refectory [refettorio]: Dining room in monastic/conventual context. Usually a long rectangular room lined with tables in a U-shape on 3 walls, with a door on the other wall and hand-washing basins nearby.
Rilievo Schiacciato: very low relief sculpture technique invented by Donatello, that treats lines in the marble like drawing.
Rood Screen [?]: an architectural division placed in the nave of a church, serving to divide the space between lay and religious practitioners. Often the locus of art, like large crucifixes.
Roundel [rondella]: a circle in architecture, often placed in the empty space between columns or on pendentives. Sometimes contains sculpture or painting. (NB: different from a tondo!)
Sacra Conversazione: Italian term for “sacred conversation”, in painting when the Virgin and saints are depicted in the same space (invented by Fra Angelico).
Sacristy [sacrestia]: A room in a church (usually off the transept) that is used to store vestements and sacred vessels. A kind of priests’ changing room.
Tabernacle [tabernacolo]: (1) the container for the sacred host, central mystery of the Catholic faith; (2) [street ~ ] a niche, often on street corners or walled into buildings, containing a sacred image.
Tondo: a circular painting popularized in the mid quattrocento for domestic art.
Transept [transetto]: arms of a church that divide the nave from the apse
Usury [usuria]: A deadly sin for Catholics caused by charging interest on loans.

Subscribe to ArtTrav via Email

Enter your email address to conveniently receive new posts by email.

By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • John B.

    Do you know where I can find a similar glossary that gives both the English and Italian words for the terms that are not already in Italian? Thanks.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Dear John
    I looked it up and didn’t find one. As it’s a good idea, I have added translations for you in square brackets! I didn’t know a few of the words, which I have left with a ?, as a quick internet search didn’t turn up anything plausible. If you do find them will you let me know?
    May I ask how you will be using the list? If you do print it, please give credit.
    Best regards
    Alexandra