Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Story in Your Staircase: The History of Wood Balusters

Whether they are called balusters, spindles, or wood columns - it doesn't change the fact that they are a wood product you frequently see but seldom think about. Today, columns, balusters, and spindles (all names for the same thing) can be metal, stone, or wood - but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on wood. Regardless of material, the variation available when it comes to manufacturing balusters speaks to their widespread appeal and utility.
While balusters are popular wood products today, their story goes much deeper than that. They are also a piece of history. From the present day to antiquity, balusters, spindles, and wood columns have been molded and turned into the sleek and uniform shafts used for decoration, stability, and support in everything from the parapets of ancient fortresses to the stairways and porches of your own home.
The shape and style of balusters is rooted in the etymology of the word, which comes from the Italian word balaustra, meaning 'wild pomegranate flower'. Balusters were named this because of their resemblance to the half-open pomegranate flower.
While the etymology of the word points to Italian origins where balusters were eventually popularized in the Renaissance, they actually date all the way back to the early Assyrian Palaces of ancient Mesopotamia. Here, they were used as window balustrades (a row of balusters). As time passed, even though balusters were generally overlooked by the Greeks and the Romans, they were brought into architectural prominence in the early Renaissance where they were used in balconies of palaces in Venice and Verona, where they can still be found to this day.
Architectural historians can't credibly pinpoint an inventor of the modern baluster or column. However, much of the credit for the baluster's prominence goes to Giuliano da Sangallo, the architect of the Medici Villa in Tuscany. Because of the baluster's connection to the Medici family, it also received a great deal of exposure in the works of Michelangelo, whom the family patronized for many years. With time, balusters also came to be referred to as columns and spindles.
For years, wood columns and balusters of all sizes and complexities have been used as porch posts, cabinet accents, newels, spindles, and railing supports. Today, Balusters continue to be used in these applications and more, in both homes and commercial buildings alike - proving the utility, appeal, and timeless aesthetic of balusters in general. So make a point to look around, you may notice the smooth flower-like shape of the baluster somewhere you never even realized, a piece of history in your daily life.

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