As Egyptians, Greeks and Romans lived in warm climates, fireplaces were rare. Amongst the antiquities of Greece and Italy there are almost no remains of chimneypieces. According to the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, it’s very probable that there were no chimneys at that time as heating systems created smoke and required an opening in the roof to allow for its escape. Winkelmann, in describing his discoveries at Herculaneum, says: “Charcoal was found in some of the rooms in the city of Herculaneum, from which we may conclude that the inhabitants used only charcoal fires for warming themselves.”
A medieval chimneypiece at Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd, north-west Wales.
Rudimentary chimneys made their appearance with the latter Romanesque builders. Conisborough, Rochester, Newcastle - on - Tyne, Tonbridge, and Somerton Castles, Clifford’s Tower and Durham Abbey kitchen in England, and Cashel and Kilmâltock in Ireland, bear witness to this.
Conisbrough Castle,South Yorkshire, England, 12th c.-14thc.
The hearths are here of a primitive type, but are provided with astonishingly well developed frames and hoods, as well as with quite effective chimneys. This keep, which was built for William de Warren under license from William Rufus, and therefore dates back to the early years of the 12th century, is a tower rising from a spreading base, has immensely thick walls, and only one chamber on each floor. On the first floor is the principal chamber, and here is seen a large fireplace, the hearth against the wall, but not recessed, coming, indeed, well into the room. In order to secure draught and the escape of smoke, the wall behind the hearthstone slopes backwards from base upwards, where it is connected with a shaft. The jambs are in the form of wing walls of moderate projection just covering the hearth, and are ornamented in front with a cluster of three non - engaged columns. These columns stand on a single base, have plain shafts, with :ndiv;dual and slightly foliated capitals. Another interesting detail is that the chimney lintel or architrave, which is straight, is formed of large dressed stones.
Often the main room features a large fireplace, the hearth against the wall, but not recessed, coming, indeed, well into the room. In order to secure draught and the escape of smoke, the wall behind the hearthstone slopes backwards from base upwards, where it is connected with a shaft. The jambs are in the form of wing walls of moderate projection just covering the hearth, and are ornamented in front with a cluster of three non - engaged columns. These columns stand on a single base, have plain shafts, with individual and slightly foliated capitals. Another interesting detail is that the chimney lintel or architrave, which is straight, is formed of large dressed stones.
CHÂTEAUNEUF-EN-AUXOIS , 14th c.
Carved stone was the usual material for chimney pieces up to well in the 16th century. Such material as was locally at hand was commonly chosen. Bricks, however, were constantly utilised for backs and cheeks, possibly owing to their being cheaper, but also on account of their more or less refractory character as compared with many stones, and their capacity for storing and reflecting heat. Brick was also occasionally used for the decorative parts of the superstructure. Brick and stone were practically the only combination resorted to by builders at this period.
The Black Death killed between 75 million and 200 million people from 1348 to 1350. This major pandemic had many consequences, two of them being that the standard of living was subsequently raised and that social distinctions were sharpened. Many barriers that existed before disappeared allowing important changes in the society. Such were the roots of Renaissance. This time was to be a time of rebirth, a new expression of the love of life, a new freedom and a return to the ancient manners of the Greeks and the Romans.
In the chimneypieces of this time we can see an illustration of this societal transformation. In the mediaeval castle there was often only one chimneypiece in the common main room. In Chambord, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture, there were 365 chimneypieces. From the beginning of Renaissance chimneypieces came to be considered an important element of decoration.
Jacques Coeur Palace chimeypiece, 15th c, restored in the 1930's by Huignard
Renaissance chimneypiece, Château Meillant, France
Francis 1st chimneypiece, Blois.
The Francis 1st wing of the Blois Chateau may have been designed by the Italian architect Boccador (circa 1465-1549). One of the two panels above the lintel features a salamander with a royal crown on top. The salamander represents the symbol of the king's power.
The jambs are adorned with Corinthian columns, fluted, the indents filled with broken and counterchanged astragals. The carving of the lintel and cornices is very elaborate. The breast is carved straight up to the ceiling, and is provided with three decorated niches in front and two at the sides. The whole of the work here is of the very ornate Renaissance style in which the columns are generally fluted and have foliated capitals. Figures are used, but usually ornamentally, being placed in niches. The surface is generally covered with rich scrollwork and arabesques, often as a frame for heraldic or symbolic devices. The chimney breast is framed by two pilasters, highly carved; the space between these is filled with a graceful diaper of looped trellis, enclosing fleur de lys and the letter H placed alternately.