When I was researching Tudor and early-Stuart gatehouses in the central southwest of England, one of the common features that occurred was the shell-headed niche. The niche whether empty or filled by a statue becomes a significant architectural device in England from the 16th century onwards: country houses, churches, cathedrals, public buildings, etc. This post is to look at identifying the architectural history of this form.


I will start in Gloucestershire. One of the first shell-headed niches I am aware of is that in the museum at Cirencester, likely dating from the 2nd or 3rd Century AD.

Shell-Headed Niche of Roman Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum)

Cirencester Museum Shell-headed Niche: 2nd or 3rd Century

The sign describing this object states:

‘Well-preserved depiction of the three Genii Cucullati standing to the left of a seated mother goddess. The cloaks and hoods of the spirits are still clear and it is possible to see that the two outer genii are wearing swords. It was found at the site of the Police Station in Cirencester.’[i]

This is an example of a Romano-Celtic hybrid cult. Often 3 figures were depicted, a sacred number to the Celts. It is a cult of the ‘mother goddess’ and popular in Britain, including Corinium (Cirencester), Hadrian’s Wall, London, etc.[ii]

As can be seen the niche articulates the scallop-type shell from the hinge with the ribs fanning out downwards. I do wonder if the niche design has Roman Imperial status, proclaiming the overall rule of Rome, but allowing local belief to fill the niche.


Arch of Janus, Rome

Arch of Janus – 4th Century

The Arch of Janus in the Forum Boarium in Rome is a marble structure 16 m high and 12 m wide and dates from the 4th century. It was probably erected by the emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-377). It may be an ‘Arch of the Deified Constantine’, presumably before his conversion to Christianity in 312. It was probably a boundary-marker rather than a monumental triumphal arch. It stands over the Cloaca Maxima or Great Drain which ran into the Tiber.[iii]

Detail of Arch of Janus

There are forty-eight empty niches there would have likely been statues. The shell is more like a clam shell and fans out from the hinge, downwards. In the medieval period the arch was a fortress.


FLORENTINE RENAISSANCE: Florence Cathedral (Duomo di Firenze)

Florence Cathedral

Florence Cathedral was built between 1296 and 1436. It took this long as an engineering solution was needed for its large dome without Gothic flying buttresses. This was eventually solved by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) after his expedition to Rome to measure, analyse and record ancient buildings such as the dome of the Pantheon.[iv]

High up on the cathedral are smaller domes (beneath the main one), which have shell-headed niches.

Florence Cathedral Shell-headed Niches

The hinge arrangement suggests a scallop shell. The shell radiates upwards from the hinge.

Scallops have a flat hinge. Below is a dish that was served to our table in Venice in March 2024 of scallops. In case anyone needs reminding of what a scallop shell looks like!

Venetian Scallops – they were delicious!

VENETIAN RENAISSANCE: Choir Stalls at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

In the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa de Frari in Venice is a remarkable set of Renaissance choir stalls. They are carved from wood and date to the 1460s. It was Marco di Giampietro Cozzi (1420-1485) who created the 124 stalls.[v]

Choir Stalls at Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa

Here Cozzi has created individual stalls, and the ‘hood’ is a shell.

I am reminded in Cozzi’s version of the shells, where there is a line halfway up the shell implying a double shell, of a doorcase I saw in Bristol. This doorcase of the Hotel du Vin in Bristol. The building was originally offices in an Edwardian-Baroque style, built in 1922.[vi]

Door Hood at Hotel du Vin, Bristol

ROMAN RENAISSANCE: Sistine Chapel Frescoes: Gallery of Popes

There is a gallery of popes as part of the fresco scheme of the Sistine Chapel incorporated on the side walls. They were painted between 1481 and 1483. The popes have been painted like statues in shell-headed niches.

Sistine Chapel Pope’s Gallery Detail

The scallop-type shell radiates its ribs upwards from the hinge.

NOTE: People are not allowed to take photographs in the Sistine Chapel. I was given permission to take photos standing back from the entrance door – so not in the Chapel, itself and had a narrow view.

ROMAN RENAISSANCE: Tempietto San Pietro in Montorio, Rome

Bramante’s Tempietto

In circa 1502 Donato Bramante (1444-1514) built a beautifully proportioned tempietto in a courtyard of San Pietro in Montario. It was commissioned by those energetic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (parents of Catherine of Aragon). It marks the spot where it is believed that St. Peter was crucified upside down. This building is a major influence for the neo-classical architecture that follows it.

Incorporated within in the structured is the shell-headed empty niche.

Here the scallop-type shell radiates downwards from the hinge and has a more stylised flourish on the edges. The niche itself has deliberately designed empty.

This building was illustrated by Sebastiano Serlio in his Il Terzo Libro of 1540, published in Venice on page 43.[vii]

Serlio had published other drawings of architectural elements and facades in his work of 1537, Regole Generali di Architettura. There are examples of shell-headed niches on page 105. The form is illustrated for the rustication storey, e.g. on page 29, although the shell radiation is in implied with rusticated blocks. There are some plain niches, without the shell head, e.g. on page 57.[viii]

In 1611 Robert Peake published and English version of Serlio.[ix]

VENETIAN RENAISSANCE: Church of San Zaccaria, Venice

Facade of San Zaccaria, Venice

The façade of San Zaccaria demonstrates two worlds colliding. The initial stage of the facade from the ground is of Gothic design. Above this the Renaissance has been articulated. The church was built between 1458 and 1515. Antonio Gambello, the initial architect started the building off in the Gothic style. This was followed by the architect Mauro Codussi (1440-1504) with his Renaissance design. There is a row of shell-headed niches, which are barely articulated as niches, being rather flat.[x]

Detail of facade of San Zaccaria



ROMAN BAROQUE: Façade of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, Rome

Facade of St Peter’s Basilica

The façade of St Peter’s Basilica, designed by the architect Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) and was completed in 1626. There are four empty niches on the façade. On the first storey they echo the windows. On the ground floor they have segmental pediments, echoing blind windows. The two bays that incorporate them do not have windows illuminating them.

Shell-headed niche in the façade of St Peter’s Basilica – completed 1626 – by architect Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). Here the scallop shell ribs rise upwards from the hinge with a semi-circular line, implying a double shell.


VENETIAN BAROQUE: Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute

View of Santa Maria della Salute from under the Academia Bridge

In the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, the shell-headed motif appears to have been translated into windows. The church was built following an outbreak of plague in the city in 1630-31. The Venetian Senate decided a church to the protector of the Republic, the Virgin Mary, was to be built. Following a competition for the design, the architect Baldassare Longhena (1598-1682), was selected. The church was completed the year before Longhena’s death in 1681.[xi]

Santa Maria della Salute Windows

VENETIAN BAROQUE: Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico: Windows & Doors

View of Ca’Rezzonico Entrance from the Grand Canal

This window and door design also occurs in other buildings in Venice. Baldassare Longhena also built the palace known as Ca’ Rezzonico and the Grand Canal. Although work stopped on the palace after Longhena’s death, followed by the owner, Filippo Bon, not having the finances to bring it to completion. It 1750, the Bon family sold the unfinished building to Giambattista Rezzonico. Rezzonico employed the fashionable architect Giorgio Massari (1687-1766) to create his palace. Massari generally followed Longhena’s original plan, updating them to accommodate the fashion at the time of the rococo. By 1756 it was completed.[xii]

The windows of the piano nobile and ground floor entrance door have the shell-head design.

The design lends itself, as it evolves, to fanlights that appear above doorways in England.

The Nog Inn, Wincanton, Somerset

Fanlight of the Nog Inn in Wincanton. Regency-style cast iron. Early 19th C. Whilst the shell head is not explicit there is an implication.[xiii]


Chiswick House, London

Chiswick House was built between 1726 and 1729 by Lord Burlington. Inspiration was taken from Palladio and Inigo Jones. The interior was decorated in part by Burlington’s protégé, William Kent. In the Blue Velvet Room, Kent’s hand can be seen in the wall decoration and furniture. Shells make their appearance from his hand. The shell is now adorning objects besides niches.[xiv]

Blue Room: William Kent Painting of Inigo Jones & elaborate frame – over a door pediment. The frame has a scallop shell on top & underneath.

Blue Room: William Kent Chair, topped with a scallop shell motif.

Palladio did execute niches but seems to have left them plain, i.e. with no decorative header.

ENGLISH BAROQUE: Cut Velvet Bed at Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall: ‘Cut Velvet Bed’ c. 1750.

Hardwick Hall: ‘Cut Velvet Bed’ Headboard.

The headboard of the ‘Cut Velvet Bed’ at Hardwick Hall, circa 1750. After a design by John Vardy (1718-1765) of 1749 and made by Cobb & Vile. First recorded at Chatsworth and probably brought to Hardwick in the 1820s.[xv]

This is a double scallop shell on the headboard with a ducal coronet. The material scheme of the canopy continues into the scallop and surrounding ornament.


Scallop shells appear throughout the centuries in niches and their design transitions into windows, door hoods, fanlights, picture frames, bed canopies, and furniture. In the next post I will be looking at the Tudor and early-Stuart application of the shell-headed niche in central southwest England.


[i] Sign at Corinium Museum: <https://coriniummuseum.org>

[ii] Sign at Corinium Museum: <https://coriniummuseum.org>

[iii] Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 2nd edn, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 291.

[iv] Jonathan Glancey, Eyewitness Companions: Architecture, (London: Dorling Kinderlsey, 2010), p. 280.

[v] ‘Cozzi, Marco di Giampietro’, Web Gallery of Art, < https://www.wga.hu/html_m/c/cozzi/stall.html> [accessed 7 April 2024].

[vi] ‘Walsall Conduits Site’, Historic England List Entry 1187263, (1988), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1187263?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 7 April 2024].

[vii] Sebastiano Serlio, Il Terzo Libro, (Internet Archive, 1540) <https://archive.org/details/ldpd_12223131_000/mode/2up> [accessed 7 April 2024].

[viii] Sebastiano Serlio, Regole Generali di Architettura (Internet Archive, 1544) <https://archive.org/details/ldpd_13527433_000/mode/2up?q=tempietto> [accessed 7 April 2024].

[ix] Simon Thurley, The Building of England (London: William Collins, 2013), p. 211.

[x] ‘San Zaccaria, Venice’, Wikipedia, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Zaccaria,_Venice> [accessed 6 April 2024].

[xi] ‘Santa Maria della Salute’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_della_Salute [accessed 6 April 2024].

[xii] Museum: Building and History’, Ca’ Rezzonico, <(https://carezzonico.visitmuve.it/en/il-museo/museum/building-and-history/> [accessed 1 April 2024].

[xiii] ‘The Nog Inn’, Historic England List Entry 1273910, (1985) <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1273910?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 7 April 2024].

[xiv] ‘History of Chiswick House and Gardens: The Villa’s Design’, English Heritage,<https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chiswick-house/history/> [accessed 1 April 2024].

[xv] ‘The so-called ‘Cut Velvet Bed’, National Trust Collections, <https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1127838>[accessed 8 April 2024].