Nu History Podcast – Episode 7: Classical Art and Architecture

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by special guest Analisa from Accessible Art History, as well as returning guest James, to talk about Greek and Roman art and architecture, focusing on a few particular themes and examples.

Find more from Analisa at Accessible Art History:

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

The Glory of Rome: Imperial Monumental Architecture

Right, I am back banging on about architecture. We left it on the Greeks last time, so it only makes sense to talk about the Romans a bit today! But today I am going to do something slightly different from last time. I will give you a run through the uses of Roman architecture and then I will talk about certain buildings which are renown and explain them from this architectural/historical point of view. Just to keep things interesting…!

So, the thing with Roman architecture is that it really evolves from its uses in Greek times, so these construction industry advancements are deployed in multitudes of ways. For the Romans a building had to comply with three principles: firmitas (how solid something is), utilitas (it must be functional) et venustas (but it also gotta be pretty). For this purpose, the individual architect gain more prestige in Romans, and this is also the time where the construction and decoration process of a building gets separated. For the purpose of decoration and statement-making, the Romans develop the idea of a main facade for a building: the face of the structure if you like. They also become obsessed with making huge things, not just buildings but sculptures as well. in this regards the borrowed a lot from the Egyptians Pharaohs who were up until this moment the key example of monumental and colossal art. And this is a tendency that we see from here on in nationalistic movements and revivals: think of all the nationalist, particularly fascist movements of the 19th and 20th century. I am sure you will notice they are inspired by Roman architecture a fair bit. From the point of view of structural and ornamental elements, we see both old and new things appearing. In terms of structure support we have walls, pillars and columns as well as midpoint arches. The style use in columns and capitals reflects new patterns: the still used the Greek orders, but they created new or altered these ones as we see in the Doric-Tuscan style and the composite which often involved the use of Ionic and Corinthian ornamental elements at combined.When creating roofs and ceiling, the Romans went further than the triangular and rectangular bases the Greeks were used to. It is thanks to them that we start seeing the development of more elaborate architraves and vaults, and on this they were particularly prolific as we see the creation of semi-spheferic, pointed quarter spheres, edged and barrel vaults.

The Romans did not keep their glorious architectural styles just for private building such as the domus and the insulae; they applied this to religious and political sites as well. Their temples imitate those of the Greeks but they move away from the rectangular shaped tier, and start creating completely circular colonnades. Their artistic aspirations are also visible in public buildings such as roads, bridges and aqueducts, baths, theatres and amphitheatres, but we also start seeing the triumphal arches and columns which again highlight these idea of imperialistic monumental ornamental commemorations.

Trajan's column
Trajan’s Column, Rome. I took this picture in 2008 in a trip of Italy that we did with school, so you know, a few years back. However, you get the sense of what i mean with monumental architecture for public uses – this is political propaganda.

Some of the best examples of these types of structures used throughout the Roman Empire you can find them, of course, in Rome. Just above we have Trajan’s column. This piece has traditionally been attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, who was a favourite of the emperor Trajan – he did a few works for him including, the column of course, Trajan’s bridge following his campaign in Dacia, and Trajan’s forum – (Good guy Trajan, giving us monumental architecture, roads, sewers, 3 months of gladiatorial games…devaluation of currency…the alimenta act for the welfare of the poor…Little knew the Dacians that their loss would bring such high stakes to the Empire, not just pretty buildings). In any case, this artefact is pretty impressive. Built in the high roman empire – completed in 113 AD – it manages to combine all of the arts in one. The column is made of 40 metres of solid marble, erected over a podium, decorated with a massive helical frieze (200 m ) going from its base to the capital; this was super innovative at the time. The frieze, of course, talks about the conquest of the Dacians, the glory of Rome and how cool Trajan was – if you gonna do it, go big: at the top, the pillar is crowned with a statue of the man and legend. I mean this is the ultimate example of firmitas, utilitas et venustas. This is also very noticeable in another structure seemingly erected during Trajan’s reign too, but much closer to his own homeland in Hispania. I am talking about the aqueduct that we have in Segovia, which is obviously a UNESCO heritage site.

I am sure you appreciate here the qualities that make this such a perfect example of the objective and purpose of Roman architecture. This structure is 818 metres long by 56 m high and it serve a public function: providing and transporting water for the city and the area. But the actual technique used is just as impressive as the sheer size of the thing itself: this is made out of square blocks of granite, without any mortar, and it is composed by 2 superposed  midpoint arch rows. For the Roman mind it is really the use of the space, and of this chunky material in such a graceful way and scale what makes it truly extraordinary. The perfect harmony obtained once away by the vertical and horizontal lines is something taken from the Greeks and their obsession with symmetry. But this building says more about Rome as a society that one might think. This is making a blatant statement of the power of Imperialism and the strength of the romanisation process in areas like Spain, it is telling us about Roman society being an urban community with high needs and demands – and of course, the thing those pieces of stone cannot talk to you about is all the slaves that worked in the construction of this building…

However, Rome starts struggling with one issue: religion. And it will be the rise of Christianity that will show us the new changes in architecture that start cropping up in Europe, but that, is another story…

Ancient Greek Architecture: Columns, Capitals, and “Orders”

For reasons beyond my understanding, it seems the subject of architecture has been slightly neglected. Now that I have picked on this, I have taken it as my duty to rectify this issue. Therefore, please ready yourselves for a series of posts where you will learn some basic stuff regarding historical architectural features highlighted by buildings which represent such characteristics. As with everything, perhaps we should start at the beginning…So how about digging into some Greek architecture with me, huh?

The Greeks excelled at the arts, and of course, they were the masters of architecture. Their constructions were made with quality and durable materials. I am sure many of you would be familiar with their use of marble for this purpose, but they also used limestone abundantly. Their style followed architrave and column positioning pattern which is best seeing in the Greek temples, and this is often complemented by walls made of out solid blocks of rectangular stone, without the use of any kind of mortar. But of course, the ancient and classical Greek culture expanded and developed through several centuries and different parts of the world, which had an impact into their stylistic composition. And this is perhaps best seen in the evolution of different type of columns and their capitals throughout the prehellenistic and Hellenistic periods. Interestingly the different types of pillars and their “order” could also be influenced by the use and function of the building they were incorporated into. The Greeks truly believe that building should be done in a harmonious way, with set rules and parameters based on proportion and symmetry. Due to this, the dimensions of certain structures such as temples, would have an impact in the diameter used for the columns. And this is how they rolled. So I will just give you a cheat-sheet on how to identify the different Greek “orders”:

Doric: This is the oldest of the styles and the most important as it sets the base for the ones that followed.

  • The columns lie flat on the floor without a base.
  • The actual column has a large diameter and this distinctive fluting: the vertical grooves.
  • The midlenght of the column has a higher diameter than the base or the top.
  • Their capitals are basic, with a rectangular shape on top of a convex shape. There are called abacus and ovolo.
  • The epitome of Doric architecture is, of course, the Parthenon, and you do not have to go all the way to Athens to get a look at it: just pop down to the British Museum to see some bits! The Parthenon dated from the 5th century BC, so what is traditionally considered as the classical greek period, and it would have originally stood in the acropolis. The architects that worked on Athena’s temple were Ictinus and Callicrates, with Phidias doing the design for the sculptures of the goddess that would have sat in the interior and exterior of the complex: Athena Parthenos and Promachos, the colossal effigy of the deity which is now lost to the ages. It is no coincidence that the greatest temple of Hellenistic Greece came at a time of victory success. This is an aspect of architectural design that has not been modified throughout time: commemoration and political propaganda. Because, of course, the erection of the Parthenon begins following the Battle of Marathon. Therefore, this structure was as much a commemoration of Athenian victory under the patronage of the goddess of war, but at the same time a way of reflecting Athenian society and identity: their political ideologies, the concept of ‘demos’ from which we get Demokratia was ingrained in these type of constructions.

Ionic: this style originates in the region of Ionia (modern-day Turkey) during the Archaic period, and spreads quickly to the Aegean islands as well as Attica where it was extensively used in the 5th century BC.

  •  These are perhaps the columns many of you would remember because of the volutes, which are seemingly of Persian origin.
  • These columns do have a base in 3 levels: krepis, stylobate and the normal base. these are usually escalated. And on top of the base, the shaft of the pillar stands on a small platform made of 3 rounded shapes – concave – convex – concave.
  • The shaft is considerably slimmer than Doric and the fluting pattern is more stylised.
  • One of the best examples of Ionic design can be found in the Erechtheion (Athen Akropolis), on its north side, the famously known porch of the Caryatids, where some of the Ionic columns were replaced by the karyatides: the standing maiden column-sculptures. One of them is also at the British Museum. It seems that the origin of these female standing figures as support mechanisms within buildings may trace back to Phoenician traditions and the archaic Greek sculptures of drapped figures. The fact that these columns were replaces is perhaps not so surprising, as Vitruvius considered the Ionic style to be female, as opposed to the Doric which due to its less graceful characteristics he thought to be male.

Corinthian: This style became predominant of the Late Classical period ( 430-323 BC), the earliest dated from 427 BC in Bassae. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the most renown of the three greek orders as it was heavily used and adapted by the Romans, following which became rather popular during the Renaissance and Neoclassical revivals centuries later. Its name suggests that the style originated in Corinth as a variation of the ornamentation of Ionic pillars.

  • This style is the most ornamented, luxurious and complex of them all.
  • The motif is characterised by the naturalistic and phytomorphic elements, such as the commonly known as acanthus leave and cauliculus.
  • One of the clearest examples of what Corinthian example was about is the Olympeion (Athens), the temple dedicated to the Olympian Zeus. The state of preservation of the actual structure is impressive, but so is its size. This was the monumental, colossal style that so attracted the Romans years later. In fact, the complex was so big, its construction continued well into the Roman period. This is also a good example of the use of limestone in Greek buildings.

And this is all for now. But I shall be back with more details on the history of architecture and its development.






Girona: Travel guide, Medieval past & Sightseeing



This post will talk about the small city of Girona in the Autonomous Community of Catalonia in Spain within the medieval period, paying particular attention to my recent visit to the city, the Cathedral and the history of Girona’s Jewish population. Girona is roughly 62 miles (22Km) north of its more famous neighbouring city, Barcelona. Before I go into more detail about my visit and medieval Jewish Girona, I will provide some important information regarding Girona’s formation and background history. Girona itself has a complex history in that it was claimed a number of times.

In Ancient times the city was named Gerunda. When the Romans claimed Hispania they adopted this name and they built a citadel in the city. After the Romans left Hispania, the Visigoths ruled Girona that was until the Moors from North Africa arrived in 715 to conquer the city. The Moors is a name that is attached to people of Muslim origin, commonly used when describing the medieval period. However, the name does not denote a particular ethnicity it largely encompasses people who were from the Arab world (this includes the Berbers from North Africa). In 785 however, Charlemagne conquered Girona from the Moors. Some years later in 793 the Moors reclaimed Girona. The Moors maintained their control over Girona and much of the Iberian Peninsula at this time. However in the year, 1015, the Moors were eventually driven out of Girona permanently. This however did not prevent the Moors from sacking Girona in years to come. The Moors sacked Girona in; 827, 842, 845, 935 and in 982. Girona was amalgamated into the County of Barcelona in 878. The County of Barcelona was originally under the rule of the Carolingian dynasty. The County of Barcelona in a sense formed the basis of what was to become Catalonia. Through marriage alliances other Catalan territories were acquired. The County Of Barcelona itself became amalgamated to the Crown of Aragon when Ramon IV of Barcelona married Petronilla of Aragon in the twelfth century. When their son Alfonso I became ruler of Aragon, he was styled as Alfonso I of Aragon. From this point monarchs from Aragon dropped the title of Count and Countess as this was to be included in the title, Aragon. In the eleventh century Girona was designated as a city.

Girona is a pleasant city to visit and it is relatively easy to get to from Barcelona as a day trip. I recommend using the AVE (High speed train) Barcelona Sants to Figueres route and get off at Girona. It is the most expensive option but it saves time, which means you have more time to explore Girona! This journey is approximately 45 minutes. Another alternative for budget wary travellers is to use the Rodalies (Catalonia train service) that provides access to Girona. The journey time takes longer, however it is less expensive than the AVE route. Travelling by bus is doable and can sometimes be cheaper than both AVE and the Rodalies. However, the distance between Barcelona and Girona by road is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. After arriving at Girona, whether it be via train or by bus the destination is the same because the trains and the buses terminate at the same place. The City centre is a 20 to 25 minute walk. I recommend walking along the river when you reach Carrer Nou. That way you can get beautiful views of the river and it leads you directly to the tourist office for further information about Girona and the surrounding area.

I only spent a day in Girona, however a day is doable providing you have idea of what you would like to see and have access to a map to avoid getting lost and time wasting! I wanted to visit Girona because I like to tick off as many Cathedrals as I can on my travels, seeing as Girona had a Cathedral this made me really happy! It may sound bizarre but I heard about Girona Cathedral because of Game of Thrones. Whether or not you are a fan of the show it has certainly made me aware of the beautiful filming locations and the real history behind it, Girona Cathedral was indeed one of them. Girona Cathedral was used to film the exterior of the Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing.

The Cathedral, full name, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona is a beautiful structure that dates back to the eleventh century and was completed in the eighteenth century. The style of the Cathedral contains many different architectural types. Firstly, when the Cathedral was consecrated in the eleventh century of how we see it today the style was built in the Romanesque fashion. Now only the bell tower and the cloisters remain as part of the Romanesque style. However in the thirteenth century the style was built in the Gothic fashion. Girona Cathedral has the longest Gothic nave in the world measuring at 22.98 metres. The last style the Cathedral has is a Baroque façade at the entrance which was completed in 1607. The interior is certainly worth a look inside, my favourite part was seeing the altarpiece. This altarpiece is from the fourteenth century and is silver gilded with gold. Included in the price of one ticket is an audio guide (English is available) and a visit to the Basilica of Sant Feliu. If you have the time it is worth seeing the Basilica. The Basilica is behind the Cathedral and similarly it contains three different styles; Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque.

The prices for the Cathedral are as follows-

Adults- 7€

Concessions (students and pensioners)- 5€

Children under the age of 7- Free.

*Please note- all pricing is correct at the date and time of submission. Please refer to the relevant websites in the future if this changes.



My personal favourite place in Girona was the old Jewish quarter. The Jewish quarter, otherwise known as “The Call” in Girona had its heyday in the thirteenth century as the Christians and Jews appeared to get along nicely. For instance, the Girona Synagogue was even situated next to the Cathedral. In addition, Girona had one of the largest Jewish settlements in Catalonia. Naturally the streets were narrow and winding, complete with cobbled streets. It almost felt like being in a giant maze. You could certainly use your imagination when walking down the tiny alleyways that this once bustling quarter was full of people selling and buying goods. However, this peaceful coexistence soon ceased. Later in the thirteenth century the Jewish population became scapegoats and were frequently targeted by racist abuse. Eventually the Jewish population were consigned to just the call and had no freedom to travel elsewhere in the city. In this sense, the quarter turned into a ghetto. Violence soon sprang upon the Jewish residents and in 1391 a local mob vandalised and attacked the Jewish quarter and people. Many Jewish people were injured and there was approximately 40 casualties. In spite of all these atrocities happening to the Jews, they were still under royal protection and as such were meant to be protected. The survivors of this massacre were sent to Galligants Tower, north of the Cathedral. This was regarded to be for the protection, nevertheless it did not stop non Jewish residents from ransacking their homes and looting their possessions. Many of the Jews converted to Christianity or left. In 1492 when the Kingdom of Spain was unified under King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the remaining Jews (all Sephardic Jews) were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.



Points of interest-

Museu d’Historia dels Jueus de Girona

Museu d’Historia de Girona

Sant Pere de Galligants, now houses the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia

Arya film scene in Game of Thrones where she passes through the old Jewish quarter and leaves her blood from her fingers on a wall in this quarter