Cornice is a word that comes from ancient Greek. It refers to the upper moulding of the Entablature, which is the horizontal structural element (beam) that lies above the columns of Greek temples, circling the whole building and supports the roof and the pediment. The Entablature is made up in three parts: firstly supported by the columns is the architrave, which is a series of stone lintels that bridge the gap between each column.
The architrave supports the second element, which is the frieze and could be one of the most important decorative elements of the temple (many of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum were from friezes on the Parthenon in Athens). There are three principle orders of classical architecture the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian. The frieze in the Doric and Corinthian orders is a sculptured relief that runs in a continuous band around the building. In the Ionic order the frieze became broken up into ribbed vertical blocks called triglyphs.
Finally the third and top most element of the Entablature is the cornice. It can be both plain or decorated depending on the architectural order in which it was conceived and comes in an almost infinite number of varieties and combinations. Architectural terms from ancient buildings and temples were applied to the interior decoration of rooms during the 18th and 19th centuries. Cornice then becomes the uppermost moulding on a wall, between the wall and the ceiling.
The components of the The styles and variations of cornice, like egg and dart or dentil are still familiar to those looking for plaster cornice today. If you are trying to match an existing cornice you will see how your cornice is often made up of these different classical elements and if you are looking for a new cornice you can appreciate how all today's designs however modern looking they may be are also made up of profiles that date back to antiquity.
This is only the briefest overview of the origins of plaster coving and cornice design, in further posts we will be explaining origins of all the different elements, Dentil mouldings for example, come from the Ionic order and evolved into Modillions two thousand years ago. Acanthus leaves are from the capitals of Corinthian columns and the Acanthus plant itself is native to the Mediterranean.
The origins of the styles of plaster cornice which nowadays is often also known as plaster coving is a fascinating subject and one that we will explore further in this blog as we build up a library of styles.
Classic cornice from a classic Roman palace
Roman cornice of ionic order, from Imperial palace on the Palatine hill in Rome.