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The Romanesque period (c. 1050-1200) saw a revival of buildings whose size and structure resembled those of the Roman Empire. The origins of this style (which didn't get name until 1818) are complex but grew out of developments in German and Frankish territory. The collapse of the Roman Empire, the decimation of the population and heightened insecurity, combined with the rise of Christianity, had led religious orders to build robust, defensive monastery complexes. These contained churches, chapels, libraries, sleeping quarters, kitchens and cloisters. In these early monasteries the Romanesque style came to the fore. It was rooted in the Roman architecture but allowed diverse influences ranging form Byzantine to Islamic thinking

In simple terms, the style made a virtue of mass. Thick, plain walls culminated in barrel-vaulted roofs, the main decorative device was the semi-circle - used in doorways, windows and between arches. Apses (one or more) at the rear of the church were also semi-circular. The most common edifices were churches, the focal point of the community, but other public buildings, bridges and so on were also built. In Italy the earliest signs of Romanesque, and what is sometimes referred to as pre-Romanesque, came in northern Italy. especially in Lombardy. It spread across the country and with time these style became more diverse. Early Lombard construction tended to be simple and on a small scale, but its many reincarnations up and down down the peninsula, it became increasingly sophisticated.

In Lombard towns today some churches of the period survive (such as the curious Rotonda in Brescia and the Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo). Frequently, as churches were replaced or rebuilt in later styles, separate free-standing baptisteries were left in their Romanesque condition. A particularly Italian touch seems to have been the use of an octagonal base for them. From the baptistery of Cremona to the magnificent pink marble structure of the baptistery or Parma, the plan was repeated over and over.

In Tuscany, the use of different marbles led local builders to create stunning facades of surprising decorative verve. Examples abound, but he cathedral of Pisa (along with the Leaning Tower) and Lucca are masterpieces.

Romanesque entered its richest period around 1050 and lasted well into the 13th century. Even as innovative engineering was leading to the creation of grandiose Gothic structures, Romanesque continued to thrive in many areas. The Normans left behind fine examples of Romanesque churches in Apulia (at Bari, Molfetta, Trani, Barletta, Bitonto and Canosa).

In Sicily, and to a lesser extent in Venice, Romanesque design melded with Byzantine to create remarkable hybrids. Romanesque elements are clearly visible in Monreale cathedral outside Palermo and St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

While the use of mosaics flouished in certain part of Italy and penetrated  to areas well beyond the influence of Byzantium (such as Rome and Florence, the use of frescos to decorate the interior of churches also spread.  Although no easy alternative, the fresco was less fiddly than mosaic work. From the mid-12th century, painting on wooden panels also became increasingly important, particularly in Tuscany, as frescos were expensive to produce and tended to face over time As evidence that Byzantine-style mosaics continued to have their fans, the extraordinary mosaic series, dominated by an image of Christ Pantocrator, in the dome of Florence's Baptistery was carried out by Venetian specialists in the late 13th century!

In Rome in the 12th century, the Cosmati (originally a single family of artisans but eventually a name for a whole school) used fragments of coloured glass and marble from ancient ruins to create intricately patterned pavements, altars, paschal candlesticks and pulpits. Their work referred to as "comatesque" and can be found in churches all over Rome, as well as in other regions.

Romanesque painting and sculpture, with their seemingly infantile slender, two-dimensional portraiture and apparently lifeless execution, served a didactic purpose. Themes were always religious and generally aimed to remind people of the other-worldliness of the Holy Trinity the angles and the saints In more complex cases they served to communicate stories form the Bile or illustrate doctrine and matters of faith to an illiterate people.

Sculpture recovered much of it prestige with the spread of Romanesque building, beginning in the north, Church portals in Modena are decorated with intricate bas-reliefs by Wiligelmo and his pupil Nicolo Pisano (c.1220-84), who also carved, among others, the portals of cathedrals in Verona, Ferrara, Piacenza and Cremona, Nicolo' created an illusion of space by suing different levels of relief, and also carved out voluminous figures. His pulpits in the baptistery in Pisa and in Siena's cathedral have a creative expression not seen in sculpture since Roman times.


Chiesa di San Michele in Foro (Lucca)

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