Renaissance architecture is the European architecture of the period between the early 14th and early 17th centuries in different regions, demonstrating a conscious revival and development of certain elements of ancient Greek and Roman thought and material culture. Stylistically, Renaissance architecture followed Gothic architecture and was succeeded by Baroque architecture. Developed first in Florence, with Filippo Brunelleschi as one of its innovators, the Renaissance style quickly spread to other Italian cities. The style was carried to France, Germany, England, Russia and other parts of Europe at different dates and with varying degrees of impact.
Renaissance style places emphasis on symmetry, proportion, geometry and the regularity of parts, as they are demonstrated in the architecture of classical antiquity and in particular ancient Roman architecture, of which many examples remained. Orderly arrangements of columns, pilasters and lintels, as well as the use of semicircular arches, hemispherical domes, niches and aedicules replaced the more complex proportional systems and irregular profiles of medieval buildings.
The word “Renaissance” derived from the term “la rinascita”, which means rebirth, first appeared in Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori Italiani The Lives of the Artists, 1550–60.
Although the term Renaissance was used first by the French historian Jules Michelet, it was given its more lasting definition from the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, whose book, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien 1860, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860, English translation, by SGC Middlemore, in 2 vols., London, 1878) was influential in the development of the modern interpretation of the Italian Renaissance. The folio of measured drawings Édifices de Rome moderne; ou, Recueil des palais, maisons, églises, couvents et autres monuments (The Buildings of Modern Rome), first published in 1840 by Paul Letarouilly, also played an important part in the revival of interest in this period.Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, (New York: Harper and Row, 1960) The Renaissance style was recognized by contemporaries in the term “all’antica”, or “in the ancient manner” (of the Romans).
Development in Italy – influences
Italy of the 15th century, and the city of Florence in particular, was home to the Renaissance. It is in Florence that the new architectural style had its beginning, not slowly evolving in the way that Gothic grew out of Romanesque, but consciously brought to being by particular architects who sought to revive the order of a past “Golden Age”. The scholarly approach to the architecture of the ancient coincided with the general revival of learning. A number of factors were influential in bringing this about.
Italian architects had always preferred forms that were clearly defined and structural members that expressed their purpose. Many Tuscan Romanesque buildings demonstrate these characteristics, as seen in the Florence Baptistery and Pisa Cathedral.
Italy had never fully adopted the Gothic style of architecture. Apart from the Cathedral of Milan, (influenced by French Rayonnant Gothic), few Italian churches show the emphasis on vertical, the clustered shafts, ornate tracery and complex ribbed vaulting that characterise Gothic in other parts of Europe.
The presence, particularly in Rome, of ancient architectural remains showing the ordered Classical style provided an inspiration to artists at a time when philosophy was also turning towards the Classical.
In the 15th century, Florence, Venice and Naples extended their power through much of the area that surrounded them, making the movement of artists possible. This enabled Florence to have significant artistic influence in Milan, and through Milan, France.
In 1377, the return of the Pope from the Avignon Papacy and the re-establishment of the Papal court in Rome, brought wealth and importance to that city, as well as a renewal in the importance of the Pope in Italy, which was further strengthened by the Council of Constance in 1417. Successive Popes, especially Julius II, 1503–13, sought to extend the Pope’s temporal power throughout Italy.
In the early Renaissance, Venice controlled sea trade over goods from the East. The large towns of Northern Italy were prosperous through trade with the rest of Europe, Genoa providing a seaport for the goods of France and Spain; Milan and Turin being centers of overland trade, and maintaining substantial metalworking industries. Trade brought wool from England to Florence, ideally located on the river for the production of fine cloth, the industry on which its wealth was founded. By dominating Pisa, Florence gained a seaport, and also maintained dominance of Genoa. In this commercial climate, one family in particular turned their attention from trade to the lucrative business of money-lending. The Medici became the chief bankers to the princes of Europe, becoming virtually princes themselves as they did so, by reason of both wealth and influence. Along the trade routes, and thus offered some protection by commercial interest, moved not only goods but also artists, scientists and philosophers.
The return of the Pope Gregory XI from Avignon in September 1377 and the resultant new emphasis on Rome as the center of Christian spirituality, brought about a boom in the building of churches in Rome such as had not taken place for nearly a thousand years. This commenced in the mid 15th century and gained momentum in the 16th century, reaching its peak in the Baroque period. The construction of the Sistine Chapel with its uniquely important decorations and the entire rebuilding of St Peter’s, one of Christendom’s most significant churches, were part of this process.
In wealthy republican Florence, the impetus for church-building was more civic than spiritual. The unfinished state of the enormous cathedral dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary did no honour to the city under her patronage. However, as the technology and finance were found to complete it, the rising dome did credit not only to the Blessed Virgin, its architect and the Church but also the Signoria, the Guilds and the sectors of the city from which the manpower to construct it was drawn. The dome inspired further religious works in Florence.
The development of printed books, the rediscovery of ancient writings, the expanding of political and trade contacts and the exploration of the world all increased knowledge and the desire for education.
The reading of philosophies that were not based on Christian theology led to the development of Humanism through which it was clear that while God had established and maintained order in the Universe, it was the role of Man to establish and maintain order in Society.
Through Humanism, civic pride and the promotion of civil peace and order were seen as the marks of citizenship. This led to the building of structures such as Brunelleschi’s Hospital of the Innocents with its elegant colonnade forming a link between the charitable building and the public square, and the Laurentian Library where the collection of books established by the Medici family could be consulted by scholars.
Some major ecclesiastical building works were also commissioned, not by the church, but by guilds representing the wealth and power of the city. Brunelleschi’s dome at Florence Cathedral, more than any other building, belonged to the populace because the construction of each of the eight segments was achieved by a different sector of the city.
As in the Platonic academy of Athens, it was seen by those of Humanist understanding that those people who had the benefit of wealth and education ought to promote the pursuit of learning and the creation of that which was beautiful. To this end, wealthy families—the Medici of Florence, the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Farnese in Rome, the Sforzas in Milan—gathered around them people of learning and ability, promoting the skills and creating employment for the most talented artists and architects of their day.
During the Renaissance, architecture became not only a question of practice, but also a matter for theoretical discussion. Printing played a large role in the dissemination of ideas.
The first treatise on architecture was De re aedificatoria (“On the Subject of Building”) by Leon Battista Alberti in 1450. It was to some degree dependent on Vitruvius’s De architectura, a manuscript of which was discovered in 1414 in a library in Switzerland. De re aedificatoria in 1485 became the first printed book on architecture.
Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – c. 1554) produced the next important text, the first volume of which appeared in Venice in 1537; it was entitled Regole generali d’architettura (“General Rules of Architecture”). It is known as Serlio’s “Fourth Book” since it was the fourth in Serlio’s original plan of a treatise in seven books. In all, five books were published.
In 1570, Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) published I quattro libri dell’architettura (“The Four Books of Architecture”) in Venice. This book was widely printed and responsible to a great degree for spreading the ideas of the Renaissance through Europe. All these books were intended to be read and studied not only by architects, but also by patrons.
Historians often divide the Renaissance in Italy into three phases. Whereas art historians might talk of an “Early Renaissance” period, in which they include developments in 14th-century painting and sculpture, this is usually not the case in architectural history. The bleak economic conditions of the late 14th century did not produce buildings that are considered to be part of the Renaissance. As a result, the word “Renaissance” among architectural historians usually applies to the period 1400 to ca. 1525, or later in the case of non-Italian Renaissances.
Historians often use the following designations:
Renaissance (ca. 1400–1500); also known as the Quattrocento and sometimes Early Renaissance
High Renaissance (ca.1500–1525)
Mannerism (ca. 1520–1600)
In the Quattrocento, concepts of architectural order were explored and rules were formulated. (See- Characteristics of Renaissance Architecture, below.) The study of classical antiquity led in particular to the adoption of Classical detail and ornamentation.
Space, as an element of architecture, was utilised differently from the way it had been in the Middle Ages. Space was organised by proportional logic, its form and rhythm subject to geometry, rather than being created by intuition as in Medieval buildings. The prime example of this is the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446).
During the High Renaissance, concepts derived from classical antiquity were developed and used with greater surety. The most representative architect is Bramante (1444–1514) who expanded the applicability of classical architecture to contemporary buildings. His San Pietro in Montorio (1503) was directly inspired by circular Roman temples. He was, however, hardly a slave to the classical forms and it was his style that was to dominate Italian architecture in the 16th century.
During the Mannerist period, architects experimented with using architectural forms to emphasize solid and spatial relationships. The Renaissance ideal of harmony gave way to freer and more imaginative rhythms. The best known architect associated with the Mannerist style was Michelangelo (1475–1564), who frequently used the giant order in his architecture, a large pilaster that stretches from the bottom to the top of a façade. He used this in his design for the Campidoglio in Rome.
Prior to the 20th century, the term Mannerism had negative connotations, but it is now used to describe the historical period in more general non-judgemental terms.
From Renaissance to Baroque
As the new style of architecture spread out from Italy, most other European countries developed a sort of Proto-Renaissance style, before the construction of fully formulated Renaissance buildings. Each country in turn then grafted its own architectural traditions to the new style, so that Renaissance buildings across Europe are diversified by region.
Within Italy the evolution of Renaissance architecture into Mannerism, with widely diverging tendencies in the work of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano and Andrea Palladio, led to the Baroque style in which the same architectural vocabulary was used for very different rhetoric.
Outside Italy, Baroque architecture was more widespread and fully developed than the Renaissance style, with significant buildings as far afield as Mexico and the Philippines.
The obvious distinguishing features of Classical Roman architecture were adopted by Renaissance architects. However, the forms and purposes of buildings had changed over time, as had the structure of cities. Among the earliest buildings of the reborn Classicism were churches of a type that the Romans had never constructed. Neither were there models for the type of large city dwellings required by wealthy merchants of the 15th century. Conversely, there was no call for enormous sporting fixtures and public bath houses such as the Romans had built. The ancient orders were analysed and reconstructed to serve new purposes.
The plans of Renaissance buildings have a square, symmetrical appearance in which proportions are usually based on a module. Within a church, the module is often the width of an aisle. The need to integrate the design of the plan with the façade was introduced as an issue in the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, but he was never able to carry this aspect of his work into fruition. The first building to demonstrate this was St. Andrea in Mantua by Alberti. The development of the plan in secular architecture was to take place in the 16th century and culminated with the work of Palladio.
Façades are symmetrical around their vertical axis. Church façades are generally surmounted by a pediment and organised by a system of pilasters, arches and entablatures. The columns and windows show a progression towards the centre. One of the first true Renaissance façades was the Cathedral of Pienza (1459–62), which has been attributed to the Florentine architect Bernardo Gambarelli (known as Rossellino) with Alberti perhaps having some responsibility in its design as well.
Domestic buildings are often surmounted by a cornice. There is a regular repetition of openings on each floor, and the centrally placed door is marked by a feature such as a balcony, or rusticated surround. An early and much copied prototype was the façade for the Palazzo Rucellai (1446 and 1451) in Florence with its three registers of pilasters
Columns and pilasters
The Greek and Roman orders of columns are used:- Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. The orders can either be structural, supporting an arcade or architrave, or purely decorative, set against a wall in the form of pilasters. During the Renaissance, architects aimed to use columns, pilasters, and entablatures as an integrated system. One of the first buildings to use pilasters as an integrated system was in the Old Sacristy (1421–1440) by Brunelleschi.
Arches are semi-circular or (in the Mannerist style) segmental. Arches are often used in arcades, supported on piers or columns with capitals. There may be a section of entablature between the capital and the springing of the arch. Alberti was one of the first to use the arch on a monumental scale at the St. Andrea in Mantua.
Vaults do not have ribs. They are semi-circular or segmental and on a square plan, unlike the Gothic vault which is frequently rectangular. The barrel vault is returned to architectural vocabulary as at the St. Andrea in Mantua.
The dome is used frequently, both as a very large structural feature that is visible from the exterior, and also as a means of roofing smaller spaces where they are only visible internally. After the success of the dome in Brunelleschi’s design for the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and its use in Bramante’s plan for St. Peter’s Basilica (1506) in Rome, the dome became an indispensable element in church architecture and later even for secular architecture, such as Palladio’s Villa Rotonda.
Roofs are fitted with flat or coffered ceilings. They are not left open as in Medieval architecture. They are frequently painted or decorated.
Doors usually have square lintels. They may be set within an arch or surmounted by a triangular or segmental pediment. Openings that do not have doors are usually arched and frequently have a large or decorative keystone.
Windows may be paired and set within a semi-circular arch. They may have square lintels and triangular or segmental pediments, which are often used alternately. Emblematic in this respect is the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, begun in 1517.
In the Mannerist period the “Palladian” arch was employed, using a motif of a high semi-circular topped opening flanked with two lower square-topped openings. Windows are used to bring light into the building and in domestic architecture, to give views. Stained glass, although sometimes present, is not a feature.
External walls are generally constructed of brick, rendered, or faced with stone in highly finished ashlar masonry, laid in straight courses. The corners of buildings are often emphasised by rusticated quoins. Basements and ground floors were often rusticated, as at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (1444–1460) in Florence. Internal walls are smoothly plastered and surfaced with lime wash. For more formal spaces, internal surfaces are decorated with frescoes.
Courses, mouldings and all decorative details are carved with great precision. Studying and mastering the details of the ancient Romans was one of the important aspects of Renaissance theory. The different orders each required different sets of details. Some architects were stricter in their use of classical details than others, but there was also a good deal of innovation in solving problems, especially at corners. Mouldings stand out around doors and windows rather than being recessed, as in Gothic Architecture. Sculptured figures may be set in niches or placed on plinths. They are not integral to the building as in Medieval architecture.
Development in Italy – Early Renaissance
The leading architects of the Early Renaissance or Quattrocento were Brunelleschi, Michelozzo and Alberti.
The person generally credited with bringing about the Renaissance view of architecture is Filippo Brunelleschi, (1377–1446). The underlying feature of the work of Brunelleschi was “order”.
In the early 15th century, Brunelleschi began to look at the world to see what the rules were that governed one’s way of seeing. He observed that the way one sees regular structures such as the Baptistery of Florence and the tiled pavement surrounding it follows a mathematical order—linear perspective.
The buildings remaining among the ruins of ancient Rome appeared to respect a simple mathematical order in the way that Gothic buildings did not. One incontrovertible rule governed all Ancient Roman architecture—a semi-circular arch is exactly twice as wide as it is high. A fixed proportion with implications of such magnitude occurred nowhere in Gothic architecture. A Gothic pointed arch could be extended upwards or flattened to any proportion that suited the location. Arches of differing angles frequently occurred within the same structure. No set rules of proportion applied.
From the observation of the architecture of Rome came a desire for symmetry and careful proportion in which the form and composition of the building as a whole and all its subsidiary details have fixed relationships, each section in proportion to the next, and the architectural features serving to define exactly what those rules of proportion are. Brunelleschi gained the support of a number of wealthy Florentine patrons, including the Silk Guild and Cosimo de’ Medici.
Brunelleschi’s first major architectural commission was for the enormous brick dome which covers the central space of Florence’s cathedral, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 14th century but left unroofed. While often described as the first building of the Renaissance, Brunelleschi’s daring design utilizes the pointed Gothic arch and Gothic ribs that were apparently planned by Arnolfio. It seems certain, however, that while stylistically Gothic, in keeping with the building it surmounts, the dome is in fact structurally influenced by the great dome of Ancient Rome, which Brunelleschi could hardly have ignored in seeking a solution. This is the dome of the Pantheon, a circular temple, now a church.
Inside the Pantheon’s single-shell concrete dome is coffering which greatly decreases the weight. The vertical partitions of the coffering effectively serve as ribs, although this feature does not dominate visually. At the apex of the Pantheon’s dome is an opening, 8 meters across. Brunelleschi was aware that a dome of enormous proportion could in fact be engineered without a keystone. The dome in Florence is supported by the eight large ribs and sixteen more internal ones holding a brick shell, with the bricks arranged in a herringbone manner. Although the techniques employed are different, in practice both domes comprise a thick network of ribs supporting very much lighter and thinner infilling. And both have a large opening at the top.
The new architectural philosophy of the Renaissance is best demonstrated in the churches of San Lorenzo, and Santo Spirito in Florence. Designed by Brunelleschi in about 1425 and 1428 respectively, both have the shape of the Latin cross. Each has a modular plan, each portion being a multiple of the square bay of the aisle. This same formula controlled also the vertical dimensions. In the case of Santo Spirito, which is entirely regular in plan, transepts and chancel are identical, while the nave is an extended version of these. In 1434 Brunelleschi designed the first Renaissance centrally planned building, Santa Maria degli Angeli of Florence. It is composed of a central octagon surrounded by a circuit of eight smaller chapels. From this date onwards numerous churches were built in variations of these designs.
Michelozzo Michelozzi (1396–1472), was another architect under patronage of the Medici family, his most famous work being the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which he was commissioned to design for Cosimo de’ Medici in 1444. A decade later he built the Villa Medici at Fiesole. Among his other works for Cosimo are the library at the Convent of San Marco, Florence. He went into exile in Venice for a time with his patron. He was one of the first architects to work in the Renaissance style outside Italy, building a palace at Dubrovnik.
The Palazzo Medici Riccardi is Classical in the details of its pedimented windows and recessed doors, but, unlike the works of Brunelleschi and Alberti, there are no orders of columns in evidence. Instead, Michelozzo has respected the Florentine liking for rusticated stone. He has seemingly created three orders out of the three defined rusticated levels, the whole being surmounted by an enormous Roman-style cornice which juts out over the street by 2.5 meters.
Leon Battista Alberti, born in Genoa (1402–1472), was an important Humanist theoretician and designer whose book on architecture De re Aedificatoria was to have lasting effect. An aspect of Humanism was an emphasis of the anatomy of nature, in particular the human form, a science first studied by the Ancient Greeks. Humanism made man the measure of things. Alberti perceived the architect as a person with great social responsibilities.
He designed a number of buildings, but unlike Brunelleschi, he did not see himself as a builder in a practical sense and so left the supervision of the work to others. Miraculously, one of his greatest designs, that of the Church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, was brought to completion with its character essentially intact. Not so the church of San Francesco in Rimini, a rebuilding of a Gothic structure, which, like Sant’Andrea, was to have a façade reminiscent of a Roman triumphal arch. This was left sadly incomplete.
Sant’Andrea is an extremely dynamic building both without and within. Its triumphal façade is marked by extreme contrasts. The projection of the order of pilasters that define the architectural elements, but are essentially non-functional, is very shallow. This contrasts with the gaping deeply recessed arch which makes a huge portico before the main door. The size of this arch is in direct contrast to the two low square-topped openings that frame it. The light and shade play dramatically over the surface of the building because of the shallowness of its mouldings and the depth of its porch. In the interior Alberti has dispensed with the traditional nave and aisles. Instead there is a slow and majestic progression of alternating tall arches and low square doorways, repeating the “triumphal arch” motif of the façade.
Two of Alberti’s best known buildings are in Florence, the Palazzo Rucellai and at Santa Maria Novella. For the palace, Alberti applied the classical orders of columns to the façade on the three levels, 1446–51. At Santa Maria Novella he was commissioned to finish the decoration of the façade. He completed the design in 1456 but the work was not finished until 1470.
The lower section of the building had Gothic niches and typical polychrome marble decoration. There was a large ocular window in the end of the nave which had to be taken into account. Alberti simply respected what was already in place, and the Florentine tradition for polychrome that was well established at the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the most revered building in the city. The decoration, being mainly polychrome marble, is mostly very flat in nature, but a sort of order is established by the regular compartments and the circular motifs which repeat the shape of the round window. For the first time, Alberti linked the lower roofs of the aisles to nave using two large scrolls. These were to become a standard Renaissance device for solving the problem of different roof heights and bridge the space between horizontal and vertical surfaces.
Spread of the Renaissance in Italy
In the 15th century the courts of certain other Italian states became centres for spreading of Renaissance philosophy, art and architecture.
In Mantua at the court of the Gonzaga, Alberti designed two churches, the Basilica of Sant’Andrea and San Sebastiano.
Urbino was an important centre with the ancient ducal palace being extended for Federico da Montefeltro in the mid 15th century. The duke employed Luciano Laurana from Dalmatia, renowned for his expertise at fortification. The design incorporates much of the earlier medieval building and includes an unusual turreted three-storeyed façade. Laurana was assisted by Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Later parts of the building are clearly Florentine in style, particularly the inner courtyard, but it is not known who the designer was.
Ferrara, under the Este, was expanded in the late fifteenth century, with several new palaces being built such as the Palazzo dei Diamanti and Palazzo Schifanoia for Borso d’Este. In Milan, under the Visconti, the Certosa di Pavia was completed, and then later under the Sforza, the Castello Sforzesco was built.
In Venice, San Zaccaria received its Renaissance façade at the hands of Antonio Gambello and Mauro Codussi, begun in the 1480s. Giovanni Maria Falconetto, the Veronese architect-sculptor, introduced Renaissance architecture to Padua with the Loggia Cornaro in the garden of Alvise Cornaro.
In southern Italy, Renaissance masters were called to Naples by Alfonso V of Aragon after his conquest of the Kingdom of Naples. The most notable examples of Renaissance architecture in that city are the Cappella Caracciolo, attributed to Bramante, and the Palazzo Orsini di Gravina, built by Gabriele d’Angelo between 1513 and 1549.
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