The Portico – An Ancient Architectural People Protector

Pantheon Portico

Magnificent Portico on the Pantheon at Paris

Without romantic enthusiasm being attached to a hunt for its hidden treasures the true value of our European architectural and cultural heritage, its intellectual and spiritual ideas, as well as its rich literary tradition would never have been re-discovered at all.

Know thyself’ are words originally inscribed in the pronaos, the interior of the portico of the ancient Greek God Apollo’s temple at Delphi, known to have existed seven centuries before the Christ event. Most people, who visit the Mediterranean region today are still entirely captivated by its archaeological remains and the perceived wisdom and fabulous material wealth of its ancient peoples and cultures.

Pronaos means forecourt, literally ‘placed before’, from which the English word ‘portico’ derives, describing a porch or a walkway placed in front of a building that is defined by columns supporting a roof. Usually open on three sides, it works practically as a great people protector.

Detail Pantheon Paris Portico

Porticos are named for the number of columns they have across the facade. Tetrastyle meant it had four supporting columns and Decastyle, ten columns, and there are various other formats in between.

Architect Jacques Germain Soufflot (1713-80) designed the French Pantheon at Paris, and its facade and portico has massive Corinthian columns modelled on that of the Pantheon at Rome.

When it was completed in 1789 it was hailed as a revolutionary building for France, expressing a new and more serious, not to say solemn attitude, toward antiquity.

It combined Roman regularity and monumentality with structural lightness in what is considered Soufflot’s masterpiece. He and other French writers, poets and scientists such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie are interred within its crypt.

La Rotunda, the Villa Capra by Andrea Palladio, Veneto Italy

It was the Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) who revived the use of a portico in the modern world.

He and his colleagues and those architects who came after him, took it up enthusiastically for centuries.

Villa Capra, 'La Rotunda' by Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto, Italy

Villa Capra, ‘La Rotunda’ by Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto, Italy

Andrea Palladio gave form once more to an architectural device, whose origins had been veiled by the mists of time following the decline of the Roman Empire in the west.

He was studying 1st century ancient Roman architect Vitruvius’s treatise, which had been ‘lost’ for centuries. It had remained stored away in a monastery library until re-discovered by Italian scholar, writer and humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) in 1410.

From the outset Vitruvius wanted readers of his treatise to understand that the ‘architecture of integrity, strength, function and beauty’ required an ability to balance the intellectual and manual, the theoretical with the practical.

Portico on the ancient Pantheon at Rome

Palladio also had the advantage of being able to observe the very grand portico in front of the only building to have survived virtually intact from antiquity, the Pantheon (derived from Gk meaning ‘every God’) at Rome.

It has been altered over the centuries and from a temple it became a church.

Pantheon PorticoIts pronaos is supported by grand Corinthian style columns made of grey granite quarried at Mons Claudianus in the eastern mountains of Egypt. Each is 39 feet (12 m) tall, five feet (1.5 m) in diameter, and 60 tons in weight.

They were dragged 100+ km from a quarry to the river on wooden sledges and floated by barge down the Nile when the water was high during the spring floods. ‘

Transferred to vessels to cross the Mediterranean Sea to the Roman port of Ostia they were loaded back onto barges and pulled up the Tiber River to Rome where they were moved by rollers to the site of the Pantheon 700 metres away an amazing architectural and engineering feat.

Porticos were already known in Minoan culture, which grew up on the island of Crete from around 2600 until around 1150 BCE when the city was wiped out by a tsunami caused by an earthquake nearby.

Surviving frescoes testify to the fact the Minoans were a civilisation parallel to contemporary Egypt and the Mesopotamians, who also employed post and lintel construction like the Minoans.

Amenities uncovered at the great Minoan palace complex at Knossos include staircases, corridors, ramps and porticos in the form of covered walkways, which were arranged around a central rectangular court.

This is similar to other ancient palace complexes around the world.

The idea of porticos on secular buildings was also carried forward through ancient Greece and Rome and into the Middle Ages in Europe where where ‘cloistered’ arcades connected the living quarters of monks in monasteries to the church.

They were a vital and important aspect of their community life.

Porticos are a wonderful and practical architectural addition at Bologna in northern Italy where they are much admired by tourists from all over the world.

From the 12th century, the people of Bologna negotiated many steep pathways, marked by small votive icons hanging from tree branches, as they enacted their pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca’.

Exterior Portico Bologna to San Luca

In Bologna many porticos were built of wood until 1567 when a city ordinance prescribed that ‘wooden pillars be replaced by brick or stone’.

Bologna was an important university city from the Middle Ages onward and this meant that the town provided dwellings for students on the upper floors of buildings while on the ground floor, the shops and services provided for their needs.

On some porticos the arches are decorated with university heraldic symbols, representing the Pope at Rome and the aristocratic senatorial aristocracy that once ruled the city.

Some of the 666 arches that make up the amazing Portico at Bologna that is 3.5 km long and leads to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca’.

Bologna also has the longest portico in the world, some 3.5 km long.

It starts in the city centre and ends at the ‘Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca’. It was built by contributions provided by all Bologna’s citizens.

With its 666 arches it stands today as a symbol to civic mindedness and the religious spirit of its people.

Bologna Portico 2A restoration and conservation program has ensured that the porticos of Bologna are kept in excellent condition.

Bologna Portico 1Tourists are often delightfully surprised when they encounter its some 45 kilometres of vaulted shelters, which enable its residents and tourists to traverse this delightful city in comfort, even on its wettest and windiest days.

Bologna’s porticos are listed today as a UNESCO World Heritage site, of ‘outstanding universal value’ and symbolic of the spirit of a people who sought to connect with each other in community.

They appreciated the possibility of walking on the street sheltered from bad weather and of working ‘en plein air’.

The porticos were useful, enabling people to gather for in community and enjoy conversation, both contemplating and discussing their day.

Other European cities that retain porticos include Padua, Venice, Innsbruck in the old city and Berne and Madrid have one or two.

However it is clear that as society progressed and town planning and lighting began to have an impact on streets and buildings many were swept away in the name of progress, the people and their habits less important than commerce.

Today porticos can be found in many surprising places all over the world from Rome to New York, from London to Sydney on buildings great and small, in the cities and suburbs and heralding the entrance to both sacred and secular spaces.

The most famous portico in London would be that on the façade of the National gallery, which used to adorn George IV’s Carlton House, which was demolished, the portico famously being recycled.

Porticos had been an important aspect of people’s lives for centuries and demolishing them helped to break up the continuity and connection that had existed for a community’s involvement with its cities life.

This was a serious long-term effect that went on well into the second half of the twentieth century, leaving many cities as ghost towns on weekends and city retailers suffering as the suburbs took over as hubs of commerce.

Since the 70’s in many parts of the western world many cities of the world have tried to reverse the trend and bring people back to live in its precincts as in times gone by.

Apart from the shelter aspect it is the ‘connection’ that happens between people in their shelter that have always made porticos so useful.

A twentieth century equivalent were awnings placed on the side of buildings in cities, again allowing people to traverse the streets sheltered from the elements, but a great many glass and steel structures have swept those away too.

When we wonder why society has become disconnected, we only have to stand on busy streets in cities all around the world and watch people rushing by each other, without a protected place to pause, to reflect, to encounter, to engage and to communicate one on one with others.

Joining friends in café’s over a coffee is just not the same. On the whole they usually already know each other.

They do not build up that recognition, which born out of a daily ritual, when walking by each other regularly led to familiarity, then to breaking down barriers and begin a conversation and making connections that last.

There are many different types and styles of porticos employed today on many different styles of buildings all over the world.

Porticos grace homes in the suburbs; some are grand, some are rustic, some are tall, and some short, but what they all have in common is that they highlight an entrance so that people can easily see and know where shelter and security are at hand. In many instances they also suggest the status and importance of the building and its owners.

Thomas Jefferson added a grand portico to the entrance of his home Monticello in Virginia, which he designed. Its architecture was inspired by the work of 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, whose architectural achievements he had studied avidly in his vast library, along with the English and French 18th century neo-Palladian style when on a trip to Europe 1784 – 1789.

A leader in the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was deeply interested in science, invention, architecture, religion and philosophy, interests that led him to designing and founding the University of Virginia after his presidency.

There are a number of porticos employed on its impressive collection of campus buildings, however none more than at its centre on the beautiful Rotunda building, which originally housed the library.

Today its the most recognizable symbol of the university, its dimensions directly taken from the Pantheon at Rome, the primary inspiration for the building.

It’s half the height and width of the original and sports a magnificent portico accessed via a flight of stairs.

From his research Jefferson knew that stairs up to the portico used to exist on the original Pantheon building at Rome but had since been swept away by centuries of rebuilding in the ‘eternal’ city.

Flight Stairs up to Entrance NY Brownstone building with a ‘mock’ portico decorative device covering its entrance

English Palladian architects and its noble supporters such as Lord Burlington had used this device also, because it elevated the main area of the building as a ‘noble floor’ and for over a century in England, the most important rooms of a house were always on the first floor.

This flowed over into America on many grand buildings as well as the much humbler, but nevertheless ‘classically inspired’ brownstone buildings, which were also given the ‘noble’ treatment and nearly always accessed from the street by a flight of stairs.

In elevating or raising up a portico, a person or even a statue on a pedestal we give the impression of ‘ennobling’ them.

The original East Portico on the United States Capitol in Washington DC, the meeting place of the United States Congress was a grand affair.

When it was first built in the neoclassical style it was praised for its beauty and was intended to serve as the arrival point from dignitaries all over the world as well as its hundreds of visitors daily.

The columns that supported its original portico were quarried from sandstone near Aquia Creek in Virginia and were barged to Washington.

Like so many other great public buildings, the design changed dramatically during construction, added to by other architects as politicians and circumstances changed.

Andrew Jackson was the first president inaugurated on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, facing the Library of Congress and Supreme Court and in 1961 John F. Kennedy was the last president to wear the traditional stovetop hat to his inauguration on the East Portico as revealed in archival material from the Smithsonian Institute.

The latest addition a great change to the former ‘East Front’ was completed in 2008 and now its guests arrive in a massive underground complex in a world where trust between peoples and cultures is now a huge issue and where visitors can be screened for security and then contained and controlled.

The columns that once held up the grand portico of the East Front of The Capitol now surround a reflective pool in the Washington National Arboretum, which was put in place in 2008.

They are a reminder of the subject of a sculptural carving on the pediment of the East front Portico of the House of Representatives, which dates from 1857; the apotheosis of Democracy.

A Portico still stands today in countries all around the world as a visual link to the past and in memory of all those people from ancient times until today who have gathered and sheltered under its protective mantle.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014-2018

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