The Romanesque Style


The Romanesque period constituted an important chapter in the history of European art, emerging around the beginning of the 11th century and spreading through all the countries of Europe until it was replaced by the Gothic style at the beginning of the 13th century. The term ‘Romanesque’ was used for the first time in 1818 by the French archeologist Charles de Gerville, who linked this phase in the history of medieval art to the birth, in the same period, of the Romance languages derived from the Latin of ancient Rome, such as Italian and its dialects, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Provençal, and Catalan.
The references to the artistic achievements of the Romans during the Classical Age were particularly apt in the realm of architecture, where we can see the borrowing and reinterpretation on a monumental scale during the Romanesque period of various elements typical of the constructions of ancient Rome, some of which continued to be used in Byzantine and Carolingian art between the 5th and 9th centuries, such as the barrel vault and the cross or groin vault, the semicircular arch, and the use of columns and pilasters.

The Romanesque style developed during a period of economic recovery in many areas from agriculture to artisanal work. The relative prosperity created the conditions in Europe at the turn of the millennium for a period of architectural and artistic renewal that centered on the cities for the first time since the Classical Age. Churches, municipal buildings and private residences in the new style were built in city centers large and small, and complexes such as abbeys appeared in their outskirts.
The regions in which the Romanesque style reached its greatest heights both in artistic and technical terms were the Rhine valley in Germany, many regions of France, and in Italy the Po valley, Tuscany, and the coastal areas in the south. Fine examples of Romanesque architecture can be found in other parts of Europe, from Sweden to Spain and from England to Hungary. In each region the style developed its own idiom, often with its own specific characteristics.
The Romanesque style was characterized by colonnades supporting semicircular arches and sculpted bas-relief decoration above the portals and on elements such as the architraves and capitals. In churches important elements destined for liturgical uses, such as the ciborium behind the altar, the pulpit from which readings from the Bible and sermons were delivered, and the baptismal font were elaborately sculpted. The walls were often covered with mural paintings, and the walls and floors might be decorated with mosaics. The Romanesque style was also employed in civil engineering projects such as bridges, city gates, villas and castles.
This new art form was adopted throughout Europe and had a marked influence, spreading beyond the confines of sovereign states and physical barriers such as seas or mountain chains. It represented the first case of an architectural and artistic style that was embraced by individuals of different cultures, languages, and ethnic origins, whatever their political conditioning. For this reason the Romanesque style is one of the elements to be found in the roots of every Western culture.