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What is a Cornice in Architecture? - Definition & Styles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever looked up at a building and admired its decorative roof edge? Do you know what this part of the structure is called? In this lesson, learn about cornices in architecture and explore some different styles.

What is a Cornice?

Buildings are made of many parts, like windows, doors and chimneys. They also have specific architectural elements that add style and decoration.

A cornice is decorative trim located at the meeting point between walls and a roof or ceiling. Cornices are used on building exteriors and interiors. On the outside of structures, a cornice is located where the wall meets the roof. When you look up, it's the horizontal area that sticks out at the top of the wall, right below the roofline. Think of it like a crown.

In room interiors, the cornice is the decorative wood or plaster molding, a surface with raised designs (sometimes made of plaster, hence the name molding) that circles a room right below the ceiling.

Examples of interior and exterior cornice designs, ca. 1922
cornice diagram

In this lesson, we're going to focus on several styles of external cornices.

History

The idea of a cornice has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. In Classical Greek architecture, the cornice was the top element of the entablature, the horizontal section of a building exterior immediately above a series of columns and below the roof.

Cornices had a basic utilitarian purpose, because they directed rainwater away from the sides of a building, but they quickly became a decorative element as well. Greek architecture had three orders:

  1. Doric - with very simple and geometric lines
  2. Ionic - a little more decorative with scroll elements
  3. Corinithian - the most elaborate with leaves and other elements.

You can find examples of cornices that follow each order.

Through different time periods, cornices displayed different designs, sometimes simple and geometric with clean horizontal lines, like the box cornice (named because it looked like a long horizontal box). But cornices could also be elaborate and very three-dimensional. Let's look at a few different styles.

Cornice Styles

Cornice styles have changed through time. One early style is the cavetto cornice, a concave horizontal molding with an outward flaring top. It's a design influenced by Egyptian imagery and based on overhanging papyrus leaves on early structures.

Example of a cavetto cornice, Egyptian, 4th - 6th century
cavetto cornice

Another style is the bracketed cornice, a heavy decorative cornice with a series of repeating scrolls or elements that create a strong vertical emphasis. It developed around the time of the Italian Renaissance and you can see later examples of it in a Victorian architecture style called Italianate style.

Example of a bracketed cornice, American, 19th century
bracketed cornice

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