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What is a Portico?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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The word portico is Italian for porch. Porticos are covered, roofed walkways usually held up with columns. Porticos originated in Greece, but were used by the ancient Romans as well. Italy is well known for its porticos, but variations of the covered porch design also exist in countries such as the United States and England. Homeowners often add breezy porticos to the front or back of their homes to add outdoor living space.

London, England's University College features a front portico. The building was designed by William Wilkins and J.P. Gandy Deering in 1827 in the Corinthian style of Greek Revival architecture. Tall, detailed columns support the roofed walkway in front of University College. The steps leading up to the college's portico have life-size statues on random stairs.

Greek Revival architecture was used in mid 18th century England before becoming popular in about 1820 in the United States. The columns in Greek Revival porticos are large and of Doric, Corinthian or Ionic style. Doric columns are the least ornate, but thick in diameter. Corinthian columns are slender, but the most ornate. The Ionic style of column has a thinner ornate topper than the Corinthian type; a scroll design is often featured on both top edges.

Ancient Greek temples usually had porticos at the front and back entrances, whereas Roman porticos were often positioned only at the fronts of buildings. Prostyle is the architectural name for front only porticos, while amphiprostyle refers to a portico featured at both entrances of a building. Porticos help protect people as well as a building's exterior from sun and rain. In some parts of the world, porticos are built and used for outdoor markets to help protect fruits, vegetables and other foods from the heat of the sun.

Bologna, Italy, is known for its many porticos. Most Bolognese covered paths are elaborately arched and beautiful in their design. It's said that even a walk in the rain there is fairly dry since the porticos are so plentiful. The portico floors may be slippery in the rain though, since many of the walkways are made of marble. The Pantheon in Rome, Italy, is an ancient site that features granite Corinthian style columns in its porticos.

The East Portico of the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C., is famous for many presidential oath ceremonies. Abraham Lincoln took oath there in 1865; James Garfield and Woodrow Wilson were other American presidents involved in oath ceremonies at the East Portico in 1881 and 1913 respectively. Some American Greek Revival homes may feature both a back and front portico in keeping with Grecian amphiprostyle architecture.

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