The Ancient Roman Composite Column

Roman Order of Architecture

wooden sculpting with flat top, swirl volutes on each side, and leafy ornamentation on the surface
Composite Capital Pilaster c. 1887, Wooden, Spanish Naval Ship. The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

In architecture, the Composite column is a Roman-designed column style that combines characteristics of the ancient Greek-era Ionic and the Corinthian columns. Composite columns have highly decorated capitals (tops). Typical of the Corinthian capital, the floral ornamentation of the Composite capital is styled after the acanthus leaf. The leaf decoration elements of the Corinthian style combine with the scroll designs (volute) that characterize the Ionic style. The Composite is considered one of the five orders of classical architecture.

Fast Facts: Composite Columns

  • A composite is by definition a combination of elements.
  • Composite columns can describe column design or materials.
  • A Roman Composite column combines the designs of the Greek Ionic and Corinthian columns.
  • The capital top of a Roman Composite column has scrolls (volutes) and leaf decorations.
  • Since the Renaissance, Composite column designs have been used in decorative pilasters.
  • Composite columns were originally made of stone, but today a composite can be a mixture of synthetic materials.

Classical architecture, including columns, refers to what builders designed in ancient Greece and Roman. A column consists of a base, a shaft, and a capital at the top of a shaft. In ancient times, the capital and the entablature above it were paired with distinctive characteristics that make up what became known as the classical orders of architecture. Size and proportion of each column type was standardized, although today, most people identify column types solely by their capital design.

Documenting the types of ancient columns was advanced by Renaissance-era architects like Palladio and Vignloa. In fact, the word "composite" meaning a combination or compound of different elements was not generally used until the Renaissance in the 15th century.

In American English, pronounce "composite" with the accent on the second syllable — kum-POS-it. In British English, the first syllable is more often accented.

Detail of marble composite capitals on engaged composite columns, reconstructed on an ancient Roman triumphal arch
The Arch of Titus (Arco di Tito), c. 81 B.C. Andrea Jemolo Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images (cropped)

The Arch of Titus from the 1st century may be the first instance of the Roman composite column. Triumphal arches such as this one celebrated military victories and heroic conquerors — Titus and his Roman army returned to Rome after sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple in the year 70. World history is filled with military triumphs in one community that are sorrowful defeats in another — while the arch Titus marched beneath still stands in Rome, a more somber remembrance is observed in the Jewish religion on Tisha B'Av.

The Roman-type of columns can be found in the architecture of any of the regions influenced by the Roman Empire. Egyptian and Perian columns are often composites of Western and Eastern traditions. Composite columns can be found throughout the Middle East, most notably in Petra in Jordan.

detail of an ornate capital, the top part of a column
Bab el Siq Treasury (Al Khazneh), 1st Century, Petra, Jordan. Luca Mozzati Mondadori/Getty Images (cropped)

Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius died before he could document the style of what is known as the Composite column — perhaps he would have dismissed this Roman combo column. The European architects of the Renaissance, however, noticed the beauty and practicality of this Roman design and incorporated it in many of their buildings during the 16th century.

The well-known architect Andrea Palladio used Composite columns in many of his designs, including in the facade of the island Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy.

detail of the white facade of a church with columns leading up to a pediment
Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, 1610, Venice, Italy, Architect Andrea Palladio. Nicola De Pasquale/Getty Images (cropped)

The influential Italian Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola incorporated Composite designs in the pilasters that adorn his work, including the 16th century Palazzo dei Banchi in Bologna, Italy. Composite designs, being a later invention within the Classical Orders, were often more decorative than structural — pilasters and engaged columns (round columns protruding like a pilaster) provide the essence of Classical design without being full columns.

French Renaissance architect Pierre Lescot chose Composite pilasters in his designs for the Louvre in Paris and the 1550 Fontaine des Innocents. Lescot and sculptor Jean Goujon brought Renaissance Classicism to France.

four-sided open monument with six steps on each side leading up to where a fountain or bell would be
Fontaine des Innocents, 1550, Paris, France, Architect Pierre Lescot. Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

Because the combination (or composite) of the two Greek designs makes the Composite column more ornate than other columns, Composite columns are sometimes found in lavish 17th-century Baroque architecture.

Pilasters were often used to ornament interiors, a decoration that provided classic, regal decoration to a room — even aboard a ship. A 19th century carved wooden Composite capital was found in the cabin of a Spanish Navy vessel captured by the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War.

In contemporary architecture, the term composite column can be used to describe any style column molded from a man-made composite material such as fiberglass or a polymer resin, sometimes reinforced with metal.

Significance of the Composite Order

It's not the first type of column in Greek and Roman architecture, so what is the significance of the Composite Order? The earlier Ionic Order has an inherent design problem — how do you round the design of the rectangular volute capitals to elegantly fit on the top of a round shaft? The flowery asymmetrical Corinthian Order does the job. By combining both orders, the Composite column is visually more appealing while keeping the strength found in the Ionic Order. The significance of the Composite Order is that in its creation ancient architect-designers were modernizing architecture. Even today, architecture is an iterative process, that good ideas are brought together to form better ideas — or at least something new and different. Design is not pure in architecture. Design builds on itself by combination and elimination. It could be said that architecture itself is a composite.