What Is a Cupola? The Tub Atop Your Roof

A Doorway to the Sky

Cupola atop Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts c. 1973
Cupola atop Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts (view larger image). Photo by Spencer Grant/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

A cupola is a small structure, enclosed but with openings, placed on the top of a building's roof or dome. Originally, the cupola was functional.

Architectural historian G. E. Kidder Smith defines a cupola as a "domed accent on a roof with either round or polygonal base." Many others suggest that cupolas can be round, square, or multi-sided.

In some cases, the entire main roof of a tower or spire may be called a cupola.

More frequently, however, the cupola is a smaller structure that sets on top of the main roof. Architect John Milnes Baker describes a cupola as "a small turretlike structure projecting above a building's roof."

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Functional Uses of a Cupola:

Today a cupola is mostly an ornamental architectural detail, often with the singular function of holding a flag, religious symbol (e.g., cross), weather vane, or other finial.

Other Names for Cupola:

Sometimes you can reach the cupola by climbing a stairway inside the building. This type of cupola is often called a belvedere or a widow's walk. Some cupolas, called lanterns, have small windows that illuminate the areas below.

Lantern type cupolas often are found atop domed roofs.

How do you pronounce cupola?

KYOO-pa-la, with the accent on the first syllable

Word Origin:

The word cupola is an Italian word from the Renaissance, a time in architectural history when ornamentation, domes, and columns defined a rebirth of Greek and Roman building designs The word is from the Latin cupula, meaning a kind of cup or tub.

Examples of Cupolas:

Cupola in Space:

The International Space Station (ISS) has an observation module called Cupola. It is attached to but separate from the body of the Space Station. It's function is to provide astronauts unobstructed views of the Space Station, Earth, and the rest of the Universe.

Is a Cupola a Dome?

A cupola can have a dome and a dome can have a cupola, but neither is required. A dome is considered to be a roof and structural part of a building. A common conception of a cupola is that it's an architectural detail that can be moved, removed, or exchanged. For example, the cupola was centered on the roof of the 1742 Faneuil Hall, but moved to the end when the Hall was renovated in 1899—steel beams were added to the structure and the cupola was replaced with sheet steel.


Is a Cupola a Bell Tower?

A bell tower or campanile is usually its own structure. A cupola is a detail on a structure.

Is a cupola a steeple?

Although a cupola may hold a bell, it is not large enough to hold many bells. A cupola is not as lofty as a steeple, nor is it a structural part of a building.

Is a cupola a minaret?

A mosque's minaret, as well as the Persian badgir or windcatcher, may have inspired western architecture's cupola.

Learn More:

Sources: Source Book of American Architecture by G. E. Kidder Smith, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 644; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 170.