What Is an Ionic Column?

Look for the Scrolls on the Capital

Ionic Columns of the US Treasury Building in Washington, DC
Ionic Columns of the US Treasury Building in Washington, DC. Photo by Archive Photos/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

Ionic is one of three column styles builders used in ancient Greece. More slender and more ornate than the earlier Doric style, an Ionic column has scroll-shaped ornaments on the capital, at the top of the column shaft (view illustration).

The ancient Roman military architect Vitruvius (c. 70-15 BC) wrote that Ionic design is "an appropriate combination of the severity of the Doric and the delicacy of the Corinthian."

Characteristics of an Ionic Column:

  • Stands on a base of stacked disks
  • Shafts are usually fluted, but can be plain
  • Shafts can be flared at both the top and bottom
  • A defining pair of volutes (scroll-shaped ornaments) decorates the capital
  • Egg-and-Dart designs are often between the volutes
  • The Ionic Order is one of the Five Classical Orders of Architecture
  • Vitruvius tells us that "the height of the Ionic capital is only one third of the thickness of the column"

What is a Volute?

The volute is the distinctive spiral whorl design, like a spiral shell. It describes the design of the Ionic capital. The volute creates an inherit design problem for the Ionic column—how can a circular column accommodate a linear capital? Some Ionic columns end up being "two-sided" while others squeeze in four sides atop the shaft. Some Ionian architects considered this design preferable because of its symmetry.

Explaining Ionic Column Design:

Ionic columns are thought to be a feminine response to the more masculine Doric Column introduced by the Dorian Greeks.

The distinctive volutes have been described in many ways. Perhaps they are decorative scrolls, proclaiming an ability to communicate long distance through writing. Some have called the volutes like curly hair atop a slender shaft or the representation of a ram's horn. Others say that the capital design of an Ionic Column represents the feminine biology—the ovaries.

With egg-and-dart decoration between the volutes, this fertile explanation makes sense.

Architectural styles that use Ionic columns include Classical, of course, Renaissance architecture, and Neoclassical.

Ionic Column History:

The design originated in 6th century BC Ionia, an eastern region of Ancient Greece. This area is NOT what we call the Ionian Sea today but is part of the Aegean Sea, east of the mainland where the Dorians lived. Ionians migrated from the mainland in about 1200 BC.

The Ionic design originated around 565 BC by the Ionian Greeks, an ancient tribe who spoke the Ionian dialect and lived in cities around an area we now call Turkey.

Two early examples of Ionic columns are found in present-day Turkey—the Temple of Hera at Samos (c. 565 BC) and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (c. 325 BC). Pythagoras is one of the most famous people from Samos. These two cities are often destination points for Greece and Turkey Mediterranean Cruises.

Two hundred years later, Ionic columns were built on the mainland of Greece. The Propylaia (c. 435 BC), the Temple of Athena Nike (c. 425 BC), and the Erechtheum (c. 405 BC) are early examples of Ionic columns in Athens.

Examples of Buildings with Ionic Columns:

Western architecture is filled with examples of Ionic columns.

The Colosseum in Rome (80 AD) was built with Doric columns on the first level, Ionic columns on the second level, and Corinthian columns on the third level. The European Renaissance of the 1400s and 1500s was a period of Classical reawakening, so architecture such as the Basilica Palladiana can be seen with Ionic columns on the upper level and Doric columns below. In the United States, Neoclassic architecture in Washington, DC shows off Ionic columns most notably on the Jefferson Memorial, Longworth House Office Building, the US Department of the Treasury (view detail of capital volute), and Union Station. Grand mansions, such as Rosehill Manor in Texas, would express the grandeur of Classic architecture in a new way.

Architects of Ionia:

Priene is an important Ionian city of Ancient Greece, located on the western shores of what today we call Turkey.

It was home of the philosopher Bias and these two significant Ionian architects.

  • Pytheos (c. 350 BC)
    In De architectura (30 BC), Vitruvius called him "the celebrated builder of the temple of Minerva." Known today as a shrine to the original Greek god, the Temple of Athena Polias along with the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos were built by Pytheos in the Ionic Order.
  • Hermogenes (c. 200 BC)
    Like Pytheos before him, Hermogenes of Priene argued for the symmetry of the Ionic over the Doric. His most famous works include the Temple of Artemis in Magnesia on the Maeander—even more grand than the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus—and the Temple of Dionysos in the Ionian city of Teos.

Learn More:

Sources: "Orders, architectural," The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 23, Grove, ed. Jane Turner, 1996, pp. 477-494; The Ten Book on Architecture by Vitruvius, Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, Book I, Chapters 1-2; Book IV, Chapter 1; Illustration by ilbusca/E+ Collection/Getty Images; Photo of US Treasury Dept. detail by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images