On Roman Transennae (Latticework) and Its Potential For Our Time

S. Sabina

One of the more endearing features of classical architecture that has regrettably all too seldom survived is an architectural element which is known by various names. Sometimes it is referred to as simply as "transenna," other times "lattice" or latticework, and still other times trellis work.  Whatever the name you give it what it describes is a form of decorative ornament that characterized Roman (and thus also paleochristian) architecture. 

This latticework was arranged into geometrical, repeating designs.. 

The most prominent witness to this classical style of Roman window within ecclesiastical Rome surely has to be the fifth century minor basilica, Santa Sabina, though it must be noted that these windows are in fact modern, dating to the early decades of the twentieth century -- though they were based upon historical fragments that had been excavated. 

A similar approach was taken in San Giorgio in Velabro, executed in the 1920's:

As one final example, the same holds true for these lattice windows found above the main entrance of San Giovanni a Porta Latina:

While these are all modern in manufacture, to give our readers a better sense of the genuine historical artefact, here is a fragment of an ancient Roman transenna that can be found preserved in Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome:

This sort of Roman lattice work was not only used for windows though it is worth noting, they might also appear in the form of decorative railing or a balustrade. This was the case both in Roman and Christian times -- in the case of latter, frequently being used as part of the screen for the confessio or schola cantorum. While all the examples shown here are of stone, historically the materials could range from stone to metal or even wood. 

It strikes me that we have an under-utilized potential to be found here for modern church designs. While the gothic revivalists did a great job reviving stained glass and gothic window tracery, our own period sees much more happening in the way of Romanesque and classicist revivals. These projects, rather than simply using colonial or gothic window treatments could instead tap the potential of Roman latticework especially for their window treatments. This would be both a nod to our Roman and paleochristian roots and also add a noble decorative element for contemporary church architecture.

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