Opus spicatum, the Roman legacy of bricklaying

Small Roman bricks (opus spicatum) floor in Trajan’s Market in Rome. By MM via Wikimedia Commons

Opus spicatum, which translates to “spiked work,” were small ceramic bricks the Romans laid in a herringbone pattern for pavement. Remains of such work can be found in many areas of the world even today. When aligned in this pattern, they are nearly impervious to foot traffic. According to Will Belcher, in Opus spicatum: A History of Herringbone, “when the chevrons are pointed in the direction of traffic the pattern becomes extremely strong under compression as the chevrons are able to spread the load over twice as many bricks. This inherent ability to absorb compression of movement makes it a remarkably resilient paving pattern.” Such technology was lost after Rome fell, though, and not rediscovered till much, much later in history. Belcher states that when opus spicatum was rediscovered,

the herringbone bond was taken from the horizontality of landscape and began to find its self in the motifs of architecture. The pattern became the fundamental backbone of Brunelleschi’s great Duomo in Florence. By incorporating the interlocking pattern into the structure of the dome, much like keystones in an arch, Brunelleschi disposed of the need for a central support system. The interlocking system gave the dome its unique shape and allowed it to defy the rule of quinto acuto, or ‘acute fifth,’ a mathematical concept that had previously been used to divine the curvature of architectural domes.

Because the opus spicatum is part of the dome’s infrastructure, the sections with the brickwork cannot be seen by the casual viewer. So, I’m very happy to have come across photos that show the masonry in the article “The Great Dome of Florence” in Counterlight’s Peculiars. Just scroll down the page till you reach it.

Eglise Savennières Opus Spicatum

Opus spicatum in the face of the church Savennières, in Loire Valley, France. By Kormin via Wikimedia Commons

I like the idea of creating something durable and decorative using this design. I want to see if we can pave an area outside using opus spicatum. At pavingexpert.com, I found precise information about creating herringbone patterns with bricks. Al McCormack & Son, the paving consultants who run the site, state that “all block paving for trafficked areas, such as driveways, should be laid in a fully interlocked pattern.” The site includes diagrams, photographs, and contact information. Another site, Houzz, has a photo gallery that has 5,530 photographs of brickwork patios! I felt like weeping just after seeing the first page because the patios are so beautiful and the areas so well-landscaped. Yet, I have to remind myself of the region in which I live, as unglazed brick does not fare well in our freezing thawing cycles during the cold season. Still, we could use concrete pavers that look like brick. I’ve seen it around. But could we find alternatives this small? Opus spicatum = small bricks. If we could find materials, the job would take much longer, but we would end up with something much more durable. To make such a solid pavement, we would also have to take great care with the preparation underneath…leveling, layering sand, etc. To my mind, to be able to walk on pavement with such a history would be well worth the effort….

Knightia alta 01

Knightia alta, an eocene fossil fish of the herring family (Clupeidae). ca. 56 Ma. Colorado USA.33 mm long. By Keith Edkins via Wikimedia Commons

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