All About the Ionic Column

Ionic Columns of the US Treasury Building in Washington, DC
Ionic Columns of the US Treasury Building in Washington, DC.

Photo of US Treasury Dept. detail by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

Ionic is one of three column styles builders used in ancient Greece and the Ionic order is one of five classical orders of architecture. More slender and more ornate than the masculine Doric style, an Ionic column has scroll-shaped ornaments on the capital, which sits at the top of the column shaft.

Ionic columns are said to be a more feminine response to the earlier Doric order. The ancient Roman military architect Vitruvius (c. 70-15 BC) wrote that Ionic design was "an appropriate combination of the severity of the Doric and the delicacy of the Corinthian." Architectural styles that use Ionic columns include Classical, Renaissance, and Neoclassical.

Characteristics of an Ionic Column

Ionic columns are easy to recognize at first glance in part because of their volutes. A volute is the distinctive spiral whorl design, like a spiral shell, characteristic of the Ionic capital. This design feature, stately and ornate as it may be, presented plenty of problems for early architects.

The Volute

The curvy embellishments decorating an Ionic capital create an inherent structural problem—how can a circular column accommodate a linear capital? In response, some Ionic columns end up being "two-sided" with one very wide pair of volutes, while others squeeze in four sides or two narrower pairs atop the shaft. Some Ionian architects considered the latter design preferable for its symmetry.

But how did the volute come to be? Volutes and their origin have been described in many ways. Perhaps they are decorative scrolls meant to symbolize long-distance communication developments of ancient Greece. Some refer to volutes as curly hair atop a slender shaft or even a ram's horn, but these musings do little to explain where the ornaments come from. Others say that the capital design of an Ionic Column represents a key feature of feminine biology—the ovaries. With egg-and-dart decoration between the volutes, this fertile explanation shouldn't be quickly dismissed.

Other Features

Though Ionic columns are most easily recognizable for their volutes, they feature other unique characteristics that set them apart from Doric and Corinthian equivalents as well. These include:

  • A base of stacked disks
  • Shafts that are usually fluted
  • Shafts that can be flared at both the top and bottom
  • Egg-and-dart designs between the volutes
  • Relatively flat capitals. Vitruvius once said that "the height of the Ionic capital is only one-third of the thickness of the column"

Ionic Column History

Though the inspiration behind the Ionic style is unknown, its origins are well-recorded. The design originated in 6th century BC Ionia, an eastern region of Ancient Greece. This area is not referred to as 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 from the Ionian Greeks, an ancient tribe that spoke the Ionian dialect and lived in cities around an area now called Turkey. Two early examples of Ionic columns still stand in present-day Turkey: the Temple of Hera at Samos (c. 565 BC) and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (c. 325 BC). These two cities are often destination points for Greece and Turkey Mediterranean Cruises due to their architectural and cultural splendor.

Two hundred years after their isolated beginning, 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.

Architects of Ionia

There were a number of principal Ionian architects that contributed to the success of the Ionian style. Priene, an Ionian city of Ancient Greece located on the western shores of what is now Turkey, was home to the philosopher Bias and other significant Ionian designers, such as:

  • Pytheos (c. 350 BC): Vitruvius once called Pytheos "the celebrated builder of the temple of Minerva." Known today as a shrine to the Greek goddess Athena, the Temple of Athena Polias, along with the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, was built by Pytheos in the Ionic Order.
  • Hermogenes (c. 200 BC): Like Pytheos, 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 grander than the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus—and the Temple of Dionysos in the Ionian city of Teos.

Buildings with Ionic Columns

Western architecture is filled with examples of Ionic columns. This column style can be found in some of the most prestigious and historic buildings in the world, such as the following examples.

  • The Colosseum in Rome: The Colosseum highlights a blend of architectural styles. Built in 80 AD, this building features Doric columns on the first level, Ionic columns on the second level, and Corinthian columns on the third level.
  • Basilica Palladiana: The European Renaissance of the 1400s and 1500s was a period of Classical reawakening, which explains why architecture such as the Basilica Palladiana can be seen with Ionic columns on the upper level and Doric columns below.
  • Jefferson Memorial: In the United States, Neoclassic architecture in Washington, D.C. shows off Ionic columns most notably on the Jefferson Memorial.
  • U.S. Department of the Treasury: The U.S. Treasury Building, after its first two iterations being destroyed by separate fires, was rebuilt into the building that still stands in 1869. The facades of the North, South, and West wings feature 36-foot-tall Ionic columns.

Sources

  • “History of the Treasury Building.” U.S. Department of the Treasury, U.S. Government, 27 July 2011.
  • Pollio, Marcus Vitruvius. “Books I and IV.” The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Morris Hickey Morgan, Dover Publications, 1960.
  • Turner, Jane, editor. “Architectural Orders.” The Dictionary of Art, vol. 23, Grove, 1996, pp. 477–494.