CAPITAL, in architecture, the top number of a column, pier or pilaster, usually larger on the upper surface than the diameter of the shaft supporting it, thus not only furnishing a better bear ing for the superstructure, but also forming a decorative accent to cap the vertical line of the shaft. The capital had three parts: First, the abacus (q.v.) at the top, a block acting as the support ing surface; second, a bell, or echinus (q.v.) carrying the abacus and furnishing the richest portion of the decoration ; and third, some feature to mark the transition between shaft and capital. Bracketed capitals are also found, in which projecting brackets at the top of the column furnish a long support for beams or arches.
Primitive capitals, as shown in rock cut tombs of the I2th dynasty, at Beni Hassan, Egypt, consisted merely of a thin, square abacus block supported directly on the shaft. Other types were developed in Egypt, probably first in wood, as early as the 4th dynasty ; they appeared in highly organized forms from c. 2000 B.C. on. These are: First, the lotus bud type; second, the campaniform or bell type, painted with papyrus ; third, palm leaf forms, in which the bell is ornamented with lobes and palm leaves. From c. 500 B.C. on, convex types based upon the open lotus flower, complicated lobed types, decorated with water plants, and a square form, whose four sides carry the face of the goddess Hathor, are found. (See EGYPTIAN ARCHITECTURE.) Ancient capitals in western Asia are principally of the bracketed type. Contemporary reliefs show that Mesopotamian buildings had small columns with voluted capitals resembling the later Ionic. The capitals used by the Persians in the 5th and 6th centuries B.c. consist of a long, narrow block, either directly above the shaft, or supported by a scrolled and bell-shaped member. This block is carved with a bull or horse at each end, carrying the main beams ; a hollow between them gave space for a cross beam.
The Aegean civilization used a capital having a square abacus. with a heavy, simple convex echinus below. Examples are found in the palace at Cnossus, c. 1500 B.e., and the so-called treasury of Atreus in Mycenae, c. 1 200 B.C. in which the echinus is richly carved. The later Hellenic Greeks developed capitals that have been an inspiration to all subsequent Western art. The Aegean type grew into the Doric order, where the echinus curve was studied with great refinement. The scrolled, bracketed type, taken from earlier builders of western Asia, became the Ionic order, and the effort to decorate appropriately a simple bell produced the Corinthian order, with its scrolls and acanthus leaves. These types were developed by the Romans and the Renaissance archi tects in various ways. (See ORDER.) Three trends distinguish the evolution of the capital in Europe during the middle ages. One is of Byzantine origin. The capital surface is ornamented with small scale, deeply cut leafage. In early examples, classic forms persist, but a tendency toward sim plification led to the type called the basket capital. The second family results from the effort to make a simple geometrical tran sition from round shaft to square abacus, and is known as .the cushion capital. It is common in Lombard, German and Norman Romanesque. The third kind is a mediaeval development of the Roman Corinthian. In addition, during the Romanesque period, many grotesque capitals are found, decorated with birds, beasts and human figures, especially in Spain and France. Growing natu ralism, and the use of the bud form known as the crocket (q.v.), produced the varied Gothic capitals. In France, early conventional treatment gave place to vivid naturalism and a loss of structural significance in the late 13th century, but in the 15th a new period of extreme conventionalism occurred. In England, moulded cap itals, in which strong projections and deep hollows give the effect, were popular throughout the 13th century. Foliated capitals are more free than French examples. Frequently they display natural ism of an extremely vital and pictorial perfection. In late Eng lish Gothic, as in French, the capital is comparatively unimportant.
Renaissance capitals usually follow classic prototypes, although many exceptions are found in the early Renaissance and the Baroque. In "modernistic" work, on account of the theory that the capital is decoratively false, because often structurally un necessary, it has largely disappeared. Occasional forms, with classic influence, occur in Germany and Scandinavia.
The earliest Mohammedan capitals are based on Roman types, but the general objection of the Muslims to the representation of any objects soon led to the development of abstract forms. These consist either of a succession of geometrical faces or else of the little bracketed niches called stalactite ornament. In China and Japan, where beams usually run through columns, instead of being supported upon them, there is no real capital, although occa sionally the projecting beam ends give a similar decorative effect. Indian capitals, on the other hand, are varied and complex. At times they seem almost classic, at times, in their elaborately inter secting planes, they resemble Mohammedan types, and at times they consist merely of an intricate set of small mouldings.
The word capital is also applied to forms resembling any of those above, when used as the crowning feature of any vertical shaft, as of a stele (q.v.) or pinnacle.
See BYZANTINE AND ROMANESQUE ARCHITECTURE ; CHINESE ARCHITECTURE ; JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE ; EGYPTIAN ARCHITEC TURE; GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE; GREEK ARCHITECTURE; INDIAN ARCHITECTURE; MOHAMMEDAN ARCHITECTURE; ORDER; RENAIS SANCE ARCHITECTURE; ROMAN ARCHITECTURE. (T. F. H.)