300-600AD|Early Christian Italy- Byzantium


Rome after Constantine: The Last Classical Buildings

After Constantine, Christianity started to increase in Rome and the power of the Church increased in the city. During the fifth century, the city came up with a series of churches and these early Christian basilicas made up the final piece of the traditional ancient roman architecture.

The Visigoths entered Italy at the end of the fifth century in order to destroy the unity of the Romans. Their aim was damaging the city’s pride more than its buildings. Even though the city was looted and torched by those invaders, the barbarian leader forbade the destruction of the mass slaughter and ordered that the churches be left unharmed.

There was another invasion in the mid-century and between those two sacks, Rome faced a brief recovery under papal leadership. Popes took the place of the emperors and became the prime source of patronage. They financed a lot of new churches like Santa Sabina, Santa Maria Maggiore and Santo Stefano Rotondo. Those churches built with a refined classical style as a statement of Rome’s surviving ability.

For a little information about those three churches, Santa Sabina’s exterior was simple and reminding the Constantine’s basilica at Trier. In the interior of the Santa Sabina remained the use of arches and Corinthian columns. Santa Maria Maggiore used Ionic capital columns. The flat coffered ceilings and geometric patterns in interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore looks like Basilica Ulpia in Trajan’s Forum. And the last but the most original of these Roman churches, Santo Stefano Rotondo wanted to be like an imperial mausoleum with a central domed space. The designers thought to install four planted courts in the residual spaces between chapels. This church fortunately unbuilt completely.  The central dome of the Santo Stefano never completed.

Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore

Because of some disasters and invasions, the popes lost their powers and they turned some of the great imperial monuments of the city. Rome’s great dome earned respect as a sacred Christian shrine while the rest of the city kept secular.

Milan on the Eve of the Gothic Advance

Milan another word in antiquity Mediolanum was known as “the land in the middle” Because it had the most important crossroads it replaced as the capital city of the western empire. This political change led to change a lot of imperial and religious projects. Constantine stated that Christianity is the official religion of the state, but pagan beliefs was continued.  Only in 356 there was decree about closure of the pagan temples.

Religious conflicts continued to discuss and one such division occurred with Arius who said that Jesus should not be worshipped as God but instead venerated as a prophet. The barbarians who had converted to Christianity tended to support the Arian thesis.

When the barbarians began to leak Italy as settlers, bishops dominated the Italian cities. St. Ambrose became Milan’s bishop and he created a mixture of secular and religious authority during late fourth century. The citizens chose him to be bishop even though he wasn’t baptized. He financed the construction of three large churches which were Sant’Ambrogio, the Basilica Apostolorum and San Simpliciano. He programmed these churches as martyrs’ cemetery churches.

 Sant’Ambrogio now stands as a three-aisle basilica with colonnaded atrium. San Simpliciano, had tall blind arches built in brick resemble to Constantine’s basilica in Trier but with the addition of a broad transept.  The one’s that opponents to Ambrose created the most impressive early Christian church which is now called as San Lorenzo. The church has a double-shell structure that supports a dome. Three mausoleum chapels extended from its outer walls in four directions while the west of the church opening to a rectangular atrium.




Constantinople: The First Christian Capital

Constantine installed Christianity as the main religion of the Roman Empire and he affected the major types for its cult buildings. During his long hegemony he set up capitals and palaces and helped for new churches wherever he settled. Constantinople which is new capital, he set up models for three church types which are still in use; the aisled basilica, the central-plan memorial church and the pavilion like baptistery.

Constantinople was settled as a tongue to the ancient Greco-Roman city of Byzantium. The dominant urban structure of this peninsula was the Mese which is a grand, colonnaded central boulevard. As urban plan, every half-kilometer or so, the thoroughfare opened a public space. The urban order ends up at the Milion and the Augusteon Forum lined with colonnades on all sides.  In terms of its scale and function this space looks like Forum of Julius Caesar in Rome. The Senate House and the Chalke, which is a bronze arch for entering the Great Palace, stood on the east side of the Augusteon Forum. Great Palace had had dining halls, basilica meeting chambers and series of domestic courtyards and it overlooked a stadium, the Hippodrome like the Domus Flavia in Rome. As a continuous of Roman building types Constantine used churches but unlike those in Rome churches, his churches were crucial points of the new city. Another difference was the use of upper galleries which is reserving for women.

Hagia Sophia took the northern flank of the Augusteon Forum and directly adjacent to the palace complex. Also, Constantine’s Hagia Sophia’s has common structural design wit Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Both were designed in the same years and the same designer team.


Holy Sepulchreayasofya muzesi

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia after Constantine

During the its first century, Constantinople grew into the largest city of the Mediterranean. Hagia Sophia destroyed by rioters in 404 and it happened again after its reconstruction. There are two works that were influential on Hagia Sophia. The first one is the church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. The designers recommended a double-shell structure, the square outer walls enclosing an inner octagonal figure that supported a shallow dome. SS. Sergius and Bacchus’ scale and design were quite different from Hagia Sophia, but it gave the idea of a domed central space nested inside a larger orthogonal figure. Also, the inner shape of the double shell did not help the stability of the structure.

The second one is Hagia Polyeuktos was also inspired Justinian which couldn’t survive till now. This church has a longitudinal basilica with massive square piers in the center supporting thick barrel-vault arches.

The rebuilt Hagia Sophia included a minimum of flammable materials with arches, vaults and a dome made of stone, bricks and lime. Reconstruction made by two designers that were better known as scientists rather than architects: Anthemius and Isıdorus. They designed the central dome with a shallow drum pierced with forty clerestory windows. Like the Pantheon in Rome these windows opened at the points where cracking could be witnessed.

Like most early churches Hagia Sophia had no real façade and it gave the first impression of a great swollen mass. During fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the Ottomans the for slender minarets added to its corners.

Hagia Sophia’s profile cannot be reduced to a simple figure made of proportional elements. The dome, cupped shapes and buttresses create complex form. And this make Hagia Sophia different from Mesopotamian Ziggurat and Greek Temple which combination of architectural parts led to a coherent whole.sergius

SS. Sergius and Bacchus

Ravenna: The Byzantine Satellite in Italy

Ravenna which was a small city on the Adriatic coast set a safe distance from Rome and Milan obtained luster as the Byzantine power base. With churches, baptisteries and mausoleums it underwent an architectural remake as the empire’s capital city in the west. At the beginning of the fifth century, the city expanded beyond its canals, and in order to accommodate palaces, a circus and numerous churches is size tripled.

Galla Placidia who was a female patron made crucial interventions in Ravenna. She built the large three-aisle Basilica of St. John the Evangelist and the church of Santa Croce. Santa Croce’s cruciform shape provided one of the first obvious example of a church plan referring to Christian emblem. She also sponsored Ravenna’s new cathedral and baptistery in the first half of the fifth century. The basilica had five aisles like the Lateran and a baptistery to one side. Also, marbles and mosaics were used.

Theodoric who was a faithful barbarian general tried to take control of Italy. He imitated the Roman religious and funerary architecture style. He also planned a monumental tomb for himself like Constantine did. The Mausoleum of Theodoric settled about a kilometer beyond the northeast gate of the city and built in stone. The most remarkable feature of the mausoleum is its monolithic dome. Its roof evoked dolmens and megalithic domes still used by Gothic Royalty.


The Mausoleum of Theodoric

In 526 during the year of Theodoric’s death, they began to shape two great churches in Ravenna: Sant’Apollinare in Classe and San Vitale. The new churches settled far from Theodoric’s palace, literally keeping their distance from barbarian king. Sant’Apollinare in Classe built near Ravenna’s port, it was a three-aisle basilica and close to designed similar to Santa Sabina in Rome. San Vitale followed a central plan as a martyrium. The church’s octagonal double-shell structure was similar with SS. Sergio and Bacchus in Constantinople.

Sant’Apollinare  and San Vitale


Richard Ingersoll-Spiro Kostof, World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History, p.197-215

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