Early Christian Italy & Byzantium


After Emperor Constantine promoted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Rome became Christian and Constantine started to build religious structures, churches. While constructing religious structures and churches the Roman methods were followed.

Constantine erected new city walls, one of the largest bath complexes, and an imperial palace with a basilica in the northern capital of Trier, in southwestern Germany. For the Basilica at Trier, the used material was brick and the roof was supported by wooden. Basilica had an axis, rectangular form and its side walls rose on tall arches similar to those of an aqueduct. Constantine built St. John’s in the Lateran, in 315 which has the feature of being the first imperially sponsored church. By the way, Lateran is the shared names of several architectural projects throughout the Rome and the layout of the Lateran followed a five-aisle longitudinal plan. Constantine, also, constructed a separate octagonal Lateran baptishery behind the apse (apse: state of the roofs being timber beams rather than vaults) as he commissioned, in 315. Additionally, in 326, he sponsored the most important church in Christendom, Old St. Peter’s.

In this period, Maxentius (r. 306-312), Constantine’s chief rival, built a basilica, Basilica of Maxentius, but with a quite different style in Rome, it was like one of the grandest vaulted concrete structures in the world. Maxentius restored the Senate house and the Temple of Venus and Rome which stood next to his new basilica and he built a new hippodrome attached to his palace. Maxentius, also, erected the Mausoleum of himself which is the copy of the Pantheon at half scale.

Before leaving Rome, Constantine completed the Basilica of Mexentius, which Maxentius begun to construction in 306. In 326, Constantine departured from Rome, the city’s power headed for the Churches. Around the 5th century, early Christian basilicas were the last examples of the classical ancient Roman architecture. After, the popes became the prime source of patronage, and they sponsored new churches with a particularly refined classical style.

Rome had great number of churches. In 5th century, the most prominent ones were, Santa Sabina; Santa Maria Maggiore with its flawless ionic columns which supporting well-proportioned flat entablatures; Santo Stefano Rotondo which remained unfinished. Throughout the 6th century, Italy’s devastation brought the chaos and the popes transformed some of the great imperial monuments of the city such as Senate house and the Pantheon, into shelters for the church and its institutions.

Milan: Barbarians passed through Italy as the new power of bishops and they dominated Italy cities. St. Ambrose, Milan’s bishop, built cathedral of Santa Tecla. In Milan, he sponsored the construction of three large churches: Sant’Ambrogio which stand as a three-aisle basilica with a colonnaded atrium now, the Basilica Apostolorum, San Simpliciano (Ambrose’s successor) which had tall blind arches built in brick. Under the management of Ambrose, the most impressive early Christian church called San Lorenzo Maggiore was created in Milan, in 380s. Its dome was supported by double-shell structure. It had central plan which is very specific itself. In plan, it resembles a quatrefoil such as the Water Court at Hadrian’s Villa had. Milan was successful as a Christian capital and its early Christian churches could survived unharmed thanks to the Barbarian’s respect for Christian monuments.


Constantine’s patronage in Trier, Rome, Jerusalem and later in his new capital Constantinople as new Roma, established three major church types: the aisled basilica, the central-plan memorial church, and the pavilion-like baptishery. Constantine had his palace, hippodrome, palatine church, triumphal plazas and imperial mausoleum in his new Rome in 330. The churches which had greek-cross plan as central-plan (equidistant on all axes from the crossing): San Lorenzo Maggiore, Milan, 380; Apostoleion, Constantinople, 330s; San Vitale, Ravenna, 526.

Imperial Rome had extroverted colonnaded spaces and early Christians had mysterious, inwardly oriented church halls. It shows how architectural attitude changed during Constantine’s rule.

Hagia Sophia: The Hagia Sophia were proposed as a double-shell structure, the square outer walls enclosing an inner octagonal figure that supported a shallow dome. The reconstruction of Hagia Sophia contained arches, vaults, and a dome made of stone, bricks, and lime. While constructing Hagi Sophia, aim of architects was creating a both funtional and dynamic interior space. The arches and the vaults made this real. So, in Hagia Sophia, the new Byzantium system, achieved a big success in structural, decorational and functional ways.

Ravenna: Around 5th and 6th centuries, there were a magnificent architecture representation with churches, baptisteries and mausoleums. Ravenna’s spreading was provided with its canals, palaces, a circus and numerous churches.

Reference: World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History by Richar Ingersoll.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s