Columns developed as ornate, cylindrical posts that functioned as part of the post-and-lintel structural system. These pillars were originally modeled after trees or other forms of upright vegetation. A column is typically divided into three sections, with a base that supports a shaft, which is then topped by a capital. Columns are most often disengaged and support a roof, but columns may also be engaged to a wall, where they are more decorative than supportive. Engaged columns are often half-columns, but they may appear in different ratios as well. Columns rarely appear alone but rather form a colonnade that supports an exterior porch or portico or on the inside of a building holds up the ceiling.
   Columns first appear in Ancient Egypt, where they can be found engaged to the walls of the North Palace of the Old Kingdom Funerary Complex of Djoser at Saqqara, which dates from 2667 to 2648 BC. Here, the columns do not have bases, but the shafts are capped by capitals in the abstract shape of papyrus blossoms. By the New Kingdom, vast temple complexes featured courtyards and hypostyle halls filled with massive columns that supported heavy stone roofs. The Great Temple of Amun in Karnak, which dates around 1295 BC, has a hypostyle hall of 134 thick columns, closely spaced and made of disks individually carved and stacked one atop another, without mortar. The tops of the columns reveal lotus flowers in the center and lotus buds along the sides. In the Ancient Near East, tall slender columns were used to support the ceiling of the broad audience hall of the Persian Palace of Darius at Persepolis, built around 520—460 BC. Although the roof of the palace is now long gone, the columns remain standing today above the entry stairs. Running up the shaft of these columns are vertical ridges called fluting. Fluting helps to accentuate the verticality of the column and recalls the shape of a reed, such as the bamboo, or even wheat, which originated in this region of Iran.
   The Ancient Greeks are best known for their use of highly sculptural columns. The Greek orders consist of a column that supports an entablature, and thus conforms to the post-and-lintel structural system. All four sides of Ancient Greek temples very often feature a continuous colonnade that gives the effect of a free-standing sculptural monument. The Greeks originated the three main classical orders of columns, called the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Doric order, the earliest and most severe, is considered a masculine order and developed sometime before 600 BC. It features a fluted shaft, necking, and then a capital that looks like a simple curved impost block. The shaft rises up with a decreasing diameter, allowing the bottom of the shaft, called the drum, to assume the role of a structural foundation. The capital then acts as a transitional feature from the shaft to the entablature, which is articulated with an architrave topped by a register of triglyphs and metopes that support a gabled roof, called a pediment. The Parthenon, built by Kallikrates and Iktinos on the Acropolis in Athens from 447 to 438 BC, is the most famous example of a Doric temple. The Ionic order, named after Ionia, developed next; it certainly existed around 600 BC and consists of a base, a shaft, and a capital carved with a volute. This more sculptural capital is thinner; it supports an entablature that features an architrave divided into three horizontal registers and then a continuous frieze of narrative relief carvings. The roof pediment is equally ornate, with a carved cornice of dentil molding. The small Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, dated to c. 425 BC, epitomizes the Ionic order. Finally, the Corinthian order, the most ornate, began to appear around 450 BC in Ancient Greek interiors. Slightly thinner than the Ionic order, the Corinthian shaft is capped by an intricately carved capital of acanthus leaves, rosettes, and an embedded volute. Because columns were based on the ideal proportions of the human body, they were therefore codified into a rigid system of interdependent parts that could not be altered without repercussions to the entire order as defined by the Canon of Polykleitos of Argos (c. 450 BC). Therefore, as sculptures of the human body began to appear taller and thinner, so did the Greeks' corresponding architectural columns.
   This system was further codified by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his treatise Ten Books on Architecture, written in the first century BC. Picking up on Etruscan changes, which included the addition of a base to the Doric order, the Romans added the Tuscan order, a thinner, more elegant Doric column, and the Composite order, a variation on the Corinthian. Later stylistic variations of the column, as well as its more diverse building materials, continued to influence architecture through the Renaissance and Baroque era, and into the Neo-Classical era. Andrea Palladio placed a row of six Ionic columns across the front of each of the four porticoes on his Villa Rotonda, built in the Veneto in the 1560s. With a clear visual link to both Vitruvius and the Pantheon in Rome, Palladio sought to highlight the use of columns as an important structural and aesthetic element in his classicizing architecture. Baroque columns, seen in the vast oval Doric loggia in front of Saint Peter's Church designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 1650s, reveal the more theatrical and urban interests of the Baroque age. In the mid-18th century, Corinthian columns appear on the colossal façade of the Church of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot in the 1750s, while freestanding columns encircle the drum of its dome. By now, the use of columns had come to be seen as synonymous with classicism. Thus, when Benjamin Henry Latrobe built the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., in the early 1800s, his overt use of columns (in the form of pilasters, engaged and disengaged columns, and pairs of columns along the façade and in the dome of the building) was immediately understood to recall the original form of democracy as established in Ancient Greece.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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