It’s been a while since we’ve talked about some architectural jargon, so that’s what we’re doing this morning!
So, balusters…. balustrades…. you’ve seen them, you’ve heard of them but really, what are they? Could you actually define them? Everything you’re about to read, will be on the test later. So pay attention!
A balustrade as defined by my handy-dandy “Guide to Vermont Architecture” says this:
“A row of vertical balusters or other elements topped by a handrail and used to edge stairways, porches, balconies, and roof lines.”[i]
While Architectural Digest writes this:
“A row of small columns topped by a rail.”[ii]
So, what exactly is a “baluster”?
It just so happens that a “baluster,” is one of number of terms that can be used to name a turned or rectangular upright support seen in the balustrade. Other names you may see include: “banister,” “column,’ “spindle,” or even “stair stick.”[iii] Personally, “stair stick” is my new favorite and will be the technical term I use going forth in any official building description I write ever again. That’s a joke, I’m like 90% sure no State Historic Preservation Office would be pleases to see balusters called “stair sticks.” The term, “baluster,” can also be used to described a type of metal candle stick, an upright furniture support, or event the stem of a brass chandelier.[iv]
Balusters and balustrades can be seen in a number of different forms and materials including wood, stone, metal, and plastic. In the history of baluster development, cast-stone balusters were first developed in Great Britain during the 18th century. While cast iron ones didn’t make an appearance until the 1840’s.[v]
The term, “baluster,” didn’t really come into use until the 17th century and originates from the Italian word, balaustro or balaustra, which in turn comes from the Latin word, balaustium. All of these words by the way means, “flower of the wild pomegranate.”[vi] We’ll come back to that interesting word in a moment.
Even though the word “baluster” and “balustrade” wasn’t in use until the 1600’s, the architectural element makes its first appearance in ancient Assyrian sculptural murals, also called “bas-reliefs,” which date all back to the 13th-7th century BC. In the murals, balusters and balustrades can be seen in palaces lining windows. This helps hone in on the function of a balustrade other than potentially being a decorative architectural feature, it helps reduce the possibility of a person falling. While balustrades make an appearance in ancient Assyrian art, we’re not sure exactly if there was a specific word used for the building element. Another interesting thing is that balusters and balustrades do not appear in ancient Greek or Roman ruins or art. The Romans did use a type of lattice structure though, crisscrossed panels called, transennae or clathii that could be constructed of wood, bronze, or even marble.[vii]
Balusters and balustrades as we know them did not reappear in the “modern” era until the Renaissance in Italy- not surprising because of the Italian origin of the word. The first known or maybe surviving first use of the balustrade in architecture is on the Pitti Palace in Florence constructed c. 1448. Another important, early example of the balustrade can be seen on the Drum of the Tempietti, which was designed by Donato Bramanti c. 1502. The Drum is at the Monastery of San Pietro in Montorio, which brings us back to the Italian and Latin root of “baluster.” Both origin words of “baluster” means the “blossoming flower of the pomegranate.” Most likely when you think of a single baluster, you think of a vase shaped mini column, which is actually what the blossoming pomegranate flower looks like! Some more trivia about balusters to impress your friends with include that the narrow section of the vase shape is known as the “sleeve,” while the wide section is called the “belly.” The balusters at the Drum of the Tempietti consist of two vase shapes connected at the “belly” end, which kind of looks like a candlestick and was probably inspired by Roman candlesticks. This type of baluster design is sometimes called the “double” baluster.[viii]
Last little tidbit on balusters and balustrades is that they can be found on staircases or porches, as well as along roof tops or roof lines, in a variety of different architectural styles including: Neoclassical, Colonial Revival, Federal, Georgian Revival, Beaux Arts, and Italian Renaissance Revival.
See below for a bunch of examples of balusters and balustrades I’ve photographed throughout the years!
Add a comment if you have any questions or thoughts about balusters and balustrades!
Thanks for reading!
[i] Curtis B. Johnson, editor and Elsa Gilbertson, Principal Author, The Historical Architecture of Vermont: Guide to Vermont Architecture (The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, 1996) 24.
[ii] “What Is a Balustrade?” Architectural Digest, July 31, 2015, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/ad-glossary-define-balustrade.
[iii] Buffalo Architecture and History, Illustrated Architecture Dictionary: Baluster. http://www.buffaloah.com/a/DCTNRY/b/baluster.html and Wikipedia’s page of Balusters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baluster
[vi] Calder Loth, “Balusters,” Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, June 1, 2011, https://www.classicist.org/articles/classical-comments-balusters/.