Video: Defining the Cupola

Hi. This is Nathan Harrison for The first thing you want to know about this is how to pronounce it. It’s cue-pah-lah. Like cupid, as in Valentine’s Day cupid. Cupola.

When I set out to understand the history and the meaning of cupola, what I found was confusing and seemingly contradictory definitions. Let me give you some examples.

Cupola – a light structure on a dome or roof serving as a belfrey (that’s a bell tower); a lantern (which I’ll tell you about later) or a belvedere placed to see a particular view off in the distance.

The second definition of a cupola being a dome, especially covering a circular of polygonal area.

And then another definition being any of various dome-like structures.

Another cupola definition from a dictionary, the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, says it’s a dome, especially a dome on a circular or polygonal base, crowing a roof or turret.

Now, I had gone to investigate this because I’m interested in the cupola, and this is something very common here in America. But this definition doesn’t make any sense at all for practically all the cupolas I’m familiar with. What I’m familiar with is a small structure on the peak of a roof. So, it’s this jumble of facts without any real sense in them.

I spent most of today trying to understand it, and I believe I’ve got it packaged in a fairly tight package for you.

My first inclination was to look for the most plausible historical theory for how this would have originated. And here was my theory. This feature goes back to houses that need a lookout point. Now we know that this word cupola is of Italian origin.

What do we know about Italy? Well, if you read Machiavelli’s letter to the prince, who is unnamed in the letter, but this famous letter by Machiavelli, which was written around 1500, what you discover is that Italy had lived through centuries of incessant warfare and foreign occupation. So, it’s a militarized society to some degree, where security is a big issue.

If you think about the idea of houses needing a lookout, and contrast that with the idea of castles with stone towers, it leads you to the inference that a cupola may essentially be a budget lookout point for the common man or at least for someone who doesn’t have the money to build a stone tower.

And I think one other observation that lends credence to this view that this is how the cupola originated is that most architectural features have their roots in some kind of security arrangement.

In the medieval world from which most of our architecture arrives, they were fairly preoccupied with security. So, this was my original thought, that this concept comes from the idea of a lookout point, which is very practical. Everything else that grew up around it was the decorative and the migration of the idea to more and more expensive applications like domes on cathedrals.

But there’s a big problem with this theory. The word cupola is (kind of like it sounds like) is implying a cup. It’s a reference to the dome shape. In fact the most strict architectural definitions of cupola simply mean a dome.

So it couldn’t be that this concept got started as a budget lookout if people were using domes. A dome is a difficult structure to build. It’s showy; it’s not pragmatic.

So this is a clear indication that this concept began with cathedrals or some kind of large, decorative, showy structure. Support for this is we know domes were being built in Europe as early as the 11th century, and they were replicas, or seemed to be carried over from the Islamic world where they were build back nearly to the time of Christ. Of course, there was no Islam them, but the domes were build built in North Africa and the Middle East.

So, first the domes came, and I sort of speculate that to the dome was added a lookout place. It was probably just a decorative effect at first, but I think that someone picked up on this as a good element to add to a home to give it this lookout-ability. And from there the concept migrated toward more practical application or this idea of a cupola to the point that now it’s acceptable to include other shapes – square, rectangle, octagonal are what you mainly find now for cupolas.

So, unless you’re thinking of putting a dome on top of your house, you have to admit that what you’re going to put up could only loosely be called a cupola. And that’s OK. Words migrate over time. Though, how would we define a cupola today?

Well, it could be a louvered vent, or a window, which would both be consistent with this idea of a lookout.

If the cupola is designed in such a way where it can give light to the floor of the main structure below it, it would be considered a lantern.

Now, something similar to a cupola that I don’t think should be confused with it is a turret, which is a small tower which projects from the wall of a building. The key being here that a turret would be on the outside of the building whereas a cupola tends to be at the center either of the entire structure or a major portion of the structure.

I think we can clearly say that it’s different from a dormer, which projects from a slope of the roof.

I don’t think that we can definitively say that it’s different from a bell tower – even if the bell tower doesn’t have a dome on it.

And I don’t think that it would be fair to say that this is not a cupola because of its large size. Some definitions I’ve seen said that the structure should be small, but really the original cupolas were actually quite large, and if we’re going to let other square and rectangular cupolas into our definition, then I think we should allow something like this.