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The Oxford Companion to Architecture
Anthony QuineyAnthony Quiney


A flat projection with the form of a column in relief, used to decorate and articulate a wall or pier, and, when lacking a base and capital, called a pilaster strip or lesene. Essentially non-structural, a pilaster has a small buttressing and supporting effect, particularly when acting as a respond opposite a column whose entablature carries over to it.

In classical architecture a pilaster is subject to the same rules as govern a column. The Greeks did not use pilasters, seeing columns as structural and so instead attaching half or three-quarter columns to walls when appropriate; but the Romans happily used them, realizing their potential for articulation. Consequently, rising above the attached half columns, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, of the Colosseum’s ( ad c.70–80) three main storeys, is a further storey articulated by a Composite order of pilasters. In the Temple of Rome and Augustus Caesar, which Palladio recorded at Pola, Istria, the Corinthian order of the portico continues as corner pilasters outside its cell, and the Pantheon’s Corinthian portico is continued as pilasters along the sides of the building, and also in the interior.

What was good enough for the Romans, the Renaissance gladly accepted. Alberti notably exploited the triumphal arch motif, using attached columns for his Tempio Malatestiana, Rimini (begun 1450), but pilasters for the façade and interior of S. Andrea, Mantua (1472). These are like a giant order in all but name, and the first undisputed giant order. Michelangelo’s giant order on the Capitoline also takes the form of Corinthian pilasters.

From the start, Baroque architects had a special use for pilasters when they came to model complex façades. This began when Carlo Maderno refronted S. Susanna, Rome (1597–1603), by employing detached Corinthian columns on each side of the central entrance for emphasis, and attaching three-quarter columns for the flanking bays and pilasters for the remaining bays, left and right. His façade for St Peter’s (1607–12) is similarly, but more grandly, arranged, continuing the giant Corinthian order of pilasters that Michelangelo had already used there. The idea then went from strength to strength, for example in Borromini’s façade for S. Agnese in Piazza Navona (1653–5). It became common practice to use columns for the ground storey and pilasters for the upper in church façades, and similarly in classical mansions, pilasters would articulate the wings using the same order of columns as was applied to the central portico—a common practice of Palladian architects in England. Mixing pilasters and columns of different orders and sizes, starting with Michelangelo’s precedent on the Capitoline, again became stock in trade, and a blessing to those architects whose skills were more meretricious than thorough-going classical. In freeing architects from classical usage, Michelangelo designed many variations on classical pilasters, for example the panelled strips that frame the tabernacles in the Medici Chapel, Florence (1521–4). That kind of freedom re-emerged in the stripped-down Classicism of some of Soane’s designs, notably the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (1811), where pilasters with notional capitals and bases articulate the main storey, and others with grooved shafts articulate the lantern above the mausoleum.

Anthony Quiney