The History of Corinthian Columns

Detail of tops of corinthean columns
Photo by Marje/E+ Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The word "Corinthian" describes an ornate column style developed in ancient Greece and classified as one of the Classical Orders of Architecture. The Corinthian style is more complex and elaborate than the earlier Doric and Ionic Orders. The capital or top part of a Corinthian style column has lavish ornamentation carved to resemble leaves and flowers. Roman architect Vitruvius observed that the delicate Corinthian design "was produced out of the two other orders." He described the Corinthian column as "an imitation of the slenderness of a maiden; for the outlines and limbs of maidens, being more slender on account of their tender years, admit of prettier effects in the way of adornment."

Because of their opulence, Corinthian columns are rarely used as common porch columns for the ordinary home. The style is more suited for Greek Revival mansions and public architecture such as government buildings, especially courthouses. Characteristics of Corinthian columns include:

  • Fluted (grooved) shafts
  • Capitals (the tops of each shaft) decorated with acanthus leaves and flowers and sometimes small scrolls
  • Capital ornaments that flare outward like bells, suggesting a sense of height
  • Proportion; Vitruvius tells us that "the height of their capitals gives them proportionately a taller and more slender effect" than Ionic columns

Why Are They Called Corinthian Columns?

In the world's first architecture textbook, "De architectura" (30 B.C.), Vitruvius tells the story of a young girl from the city-state of Corinth. "A free-born maiden of Corinth, just of marriageable age, was attacked by an illness and passed away," writes Vitruvius. She was buried with a basket of her favorite things atop her tomb, near the root of an acanthus tree. That spring, leaves and stalks grew up through the basket, creating a delicate explosion of natural beauty. The effect caught the eye of a passing sculptor named Callimachus, who began to incorporate the intricate design onto column capitals. Because the sculptor found this design in Corinth, the columns that bear it became known as Corinthian columns.

West of Corinth in Greece is the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, thought to be the oldest surviving example of the Classical Corinthian column. This temple from about 425 B.C. is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Tholos (a round building) at Epidauros (c. 350 B.C.) is thought to be one of the first structures to use a colonnade of Corinthian columns. Archaeologists have determined the tholos to have 26 exterior Doric columns and 14 interior Corinthian columns. The Temple of Olympian Zeus (175 B.C.) in Athens is said to have had more than 100 Corinthian columns.

Are All Corinthian Capitals the Same?

No, not all Corinthian capitals are exactly alike, but they are characterized by their leafy flowers. The capitals of Corinthian columns are more ornamented and delicate than the tops of other column types. They can easily deteriorate over time, especially when they are used outdoors. Early Corinthian columns were used primarily for interiors spaces, and thus were protected from the elements. The Monument of Lysikrates (c. 335 B.C.) in Athens features some of the earliest examples of exterior Corinthian columns.

Replacing deteriorated Corinthian capitals must be done by master craftsmen. During the 1945 bombing of Berlin, the royal palace was heavily damaged, and it was later demolished in the 1950s. With the reunification of East and West Berlin, the palace was reinvented. Sculptors used old photographs to recreate the architectural details in the new facade, in clay and in plaster, noting that not all of the Corinthian capitals were the same.

Architectural Styles That Use Corinthian Columns

The Corinthian column and the Corinthian Order were created in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek and Roman architecture is collectively known as "Classical," and so Corinthian columns are found in Classical architecture. The Arch of Constantine (A.D. 315) in Rome and the Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus feature examples of Corinthian columns in Classical architecture.

Classical architecture was "reborn" during the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries. Later derivatives of Classical architecture include the Neoclassical, Greek Revival, and Neoclassical Revival architectures of the 19th century, and the Beaux Arts architecture of the American Gilded Age. Thomas Jefferson was influential in bringing the Neoclassical style to America, as seen in the Rotunda at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Corinthian-like designs can also be found in some Islamic architecture. The distinctive capital of the Corinthian column comes in many forms, but the acanthus leaf appears in most designs. Professor Talbot Hamlin suggests that Islamic architecture was influenced by the acanthus leaf design:

"Many mosques, like those at Kairouan and Cordova, used actual ancient Corinthian capitals; and later Moslem capitals were often based on the Corinthian scheme in general pattern, although the tendency toward abstraction gradually removed all remaining signs of realism from the carving of the leaves."

Famous Buildings With Corinthian Columns

In the United States, famous buildings with Corinthian columns include the U.S. Supreme Court Building, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Archives Building, all of which are in Washington, D.C. In New York City, buildings with these columns include the New York Stock Exchange Building on Broad Street in Lower Manhattan and the James A. Farley Building, which is across the street from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

In Rome, check out the Pantheon and the Colosseum, where Doric columns are on the first level, Ionic columns on the second, and Corinthian columns on the third. Great Renaissance cathedrals throughout Europe are apt to show off their Corinthian columns, including St. Paul's Cathedral and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.