Definition and Development of the Term “Ornament”

The need of human beings to beautify their surroundings through ornamentation can be considered universal. Every culture has produced its own forms of embellishment. A countertrend in the 20th century, which condemned ornament as a “crime”, is to be seen as a reaction to the excessively ornate forms of embellishment in the late 19th century and thus as an exception.
The term “ornament” derives from the Latin verb ornare, “to adorn”. However, in art the term is often used to describe not only an adornment or embellishment but also a design in its entirety, that is, an artistic composition as a whole. It is important to distinguish between the term “ornament” and the terms “decoration” and “pattern”. “Ornament” refers to a single stylized image, which can be placed in any desired position.
In ancient Greek the word kosmos means adornment, decoration, or ornament but also the world or universe as a whole, especially in the sense of being well-ordered. It is modified in the word kosmema to mean specifically “ornament”, i.e., well-orderedness as a fundamental prerequisite of that which is beautiful. In Latin there is also the word ornamentum: apparatus, accoutrement, attire, insignia. Rhetorical or literary phrases used as embellishment in speech or in a written text as well as individual ornaments or decorative objects are subsumed under this term.
The most important sources for researching the semantic content and etymological development of the term “ornament” are the comments of art theorists from antiquity onward. These theoretical reflections provide insight into how the meaning of the term has changed over time and also furnish us with a history of ornamental styles.
Of primary importance are architectural treatises, because the most important ornaments of both antiquity and the modern era derive from or have been mainly used in architecture.
In his book “De architectura libri decem” (“Ten Books on Architecture”), written around 33 BC, the Augustan architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio used the word ornamentum to define accoutrements and ornaments on buildings such as volutes, flowers or cornices, but also theater props.

Bernd Evers, Rainald Franz


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