History of the Ancient Roman Tuscan Column

Roman Order of Architecture

Detail of the four-row colonnade of simple masonry columns in a curve formation

Oli Scarff / Getty Images

The Tuscan column—plain, without carvings and ornaments—represents one of the five orders of classical architecture and is a defining detail of today's Neoclassical style building. Tuscan is one of the oldest and most simple architectural forms practiced in ancient Italy. In the United States, the column named after the Tuscany region of Italy is one of the most popular column types to hold up American front porches.

From the bottom up, any column consists of a base, a shaft, and a capital. The Tuscan column has a very simple base upon which sets a very simple shaft. The shaft is usually plain and not fluted or grooved. The shaft is slender, with proportions similar to a Greek Ionic column. At the top of the shaft is a very simple, round capital. The Tuscan column has no carvings or other ornamentation.

Fast Facts: Tuscan Column

  • Shaft is slender and smooth, without flutes or grooves
  • Base is simple
  • Capital is round with unornamented bands
  • Also known as Tuscany column, Roman Doric, and Carpenter Doric

Tuscan and Doric Columns Compared

A Roman Tuscan column resembles a Doric column from ancient Greece. Both column styles are simple, without carvings or ornaments. However, a Tuscan column is traditionally more slender than a Doric column. A Doric column is stocky and usually without a base. Also, the shaft of a Tuscan column is usually smooth, while a Doric column usually has flutes (grooves). Tuscan columns, also known as Tuscany columns, are sometimes called Roman Doric, or Carpenter Doric because of the similarities.

Origins of the Tuscan Order

Historians debate when the Tuscan Order emerged. Some say that Tuscan was a primitive style that came before the famous Greek Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. But other historians say that the Classical Greek Orders came first, and those Italian builders adapted Greek ideas to develop a Roman Doric style that evolved into the Tuscan Order.

Buildings With Tuscan Columns

symmetrical building with two-story portico with columns and pediment
Boone Hall Plantation, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. John Moore / Getty Images

Considered strong and masculine, Tuscan columns originally were often used for utilitarian and military buildings. In his Treatise on Architecture, the Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554) called the Tuscan order "suitable to fortified places, such as city gates, fortresses, castles, treasuries, or where artillery and ammunition are kept, prisons, seaports and other similar structures used in war."

In the United States, many antebellum plantation homes were adorned with Tuscan columns, as the Greek Revival style suited the authority demanded of the enslaver's house. Tuscan columns projected a no-nonsense strength of the enslaver. Examples include Boone Hall in South Carolina, the Rosalie Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, Houmas House plantation near New Orleans, Louisiana, and the 1861 Gaineswood plantation house in Demopolis, Alabama. The Long Branch Estate in Millwood, Virginia was built in the Federal style in 1813, but when porticos and columns were added around 1845, the house style became Classical (or Greek) Revival. Why? The columns, Tuscan in the North and Ionic columns in the South, are features of Classical architecture.

small white house with black shutters, large central portico with four columns and a pediment
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia. Bettmann / Getty Images

In the 20th century, builders in the United States adopted the uncomplicated Tuscan form for wood-framed Gothic Revival, Georgian Colonial Revival, Neoclassical, and Classical Revival homes. With simple, easy-to-construct columns, simple homes could become regal. Residential examples abound throughout the U.S. In 1932, the future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt built a home in Warm Springs, Georgia, hoping to find a cure for his polio by swimming in the warm waters of the south. FDR chose a classical approach to his Little White House, with a pediment being sustained by the strength of the Tuscan columns.

black family standing on the columned porch of their shingled house
Tuscan Columns on Shingled Cottage. Compassionate Eye Foundation / Getty Images

Adding a portico with columns, even simple columns, can add grandeur to a home and can affect the entire style. Even the informality of shingle siding can be transformed by a simple white column. The Tuscan column is seen throughout the world in residential architecture. Carpenters could easily shave and shape long wooden pieces to desired heights. Today, manufacturers produce all types of columns from all types of materials. If you live in a historic district, however, the type of column and how it's made is very important when repairs are necessary. Although the homeowner can achieve the Tuscan look with a polymer plastic column, historic preservationists encourage replacing rotted wooden columns with new wooden columns. It could be worse—remember that Tuscan columns used to be carved from marble stone, a replacement that no historic commission would enforce.

three-story wood apartment house with front porches and bay windows at each floor
Columned Porches in Salem, Massachusetts. Jackie Craven

Slender and unornamented, Tuscan columns are perfect to support the height of multi-story front porches. By painting them the same color as the molding, rails, and trim, the columns become integrated into the design of a New England home. Tuscan columns can be found on many front porches across the U.S.

A colonnade, or a series of columns, is often made up of Tuscan columns. The simplicity of its individual design creates a majesty when many columns are evenly spaced in rows. The colonnade at Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City is a well-known example of Tuscan columns. Likewise, sections of the colonnade walkways on the Lawn of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia also represent the Tuscan Order.

student walking on a college campus near Tuscan columns
Colonnade at the University of Virginia. Jay Paul / Getty Images

The Tuscan column may be Italian in origin, but Americans have embraced the architecture as their own—thanks in large part to America's gentleman architect, Thomas Jefferson.

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Craven, Jackie. "History of the Ancient Roman Tuscan Column." ThoughtCo, Jan. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-tuscan-column-177523. Craven, Jackie. (2021, January 3). History of the Ancient Roman Tuscan Column. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-tuscan-column-177523 Craven, Jackie. "History of the Ancient Roman Tuscan Column." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-tuscan-column-177523 (accessed June 5, 2023).