30. The Architecture of Renaissance Italy


As we’ve seen in our past lectures about how the revival of Greco-Roman art and philosophy manifested itself in the painting and sculpture of the Renaissance, these characteristics also made themselves felt in contemporary architecture. These new buildings in an entirely different key from the Romanesque or Gothic styles which had come before would transform the subsequent appearance of a variety of architectural forms of Western Europe thereafter: not only the church, but also the palaces of the most wealthy and powerful patrons in Italy and beyond reflected this shift in taste and built environments.


The singularly emblematic construction which spectacularly illustrated the shift between Medieval and Renaissance rose from the Gothic body of the Florence Cathedral. Originally a late-thirteenth century project of Arnolfo di Cambio and others, the nave had been built on a scale which defied the existing state of the architect’s technical skill; so vast an area had been left at the crossing, the meeting point between the two arms of the cruciform (cross-shaped) plan, that it had been left open for over a century to the elements. Simply put, no architect alive had been able to devise a way to cover that space with a dome. Various creative solutions were offered; one architect proposed building a mountain of dirt with gold florins hidden in it as a support for the dome, the idea being that workers would be motivated to remove the dirt quickly when it was finished.


The solution would come in the form of a stroke of ingenuity from Filippo Brunelleschi, the same brilliant mind which bequeathed the mathematical system of linear perspective to Renaissance art. Although we saw in our past lecture on Italian Renaissance sculpture that Brunelleschi lost out to Lorenzo Ghiberti for the commission of the Baptistry doors, his work as an architect would lead to his acknowledgement as no less than the “Father of the Renaissance.” By the early decades of the fifteenth century, Renaissance artists were already aspiring to recreating the greatest feats of architecture and engineering from the erstwhile Roman Empire; the dome of the Pantheon in Rome was a continual source of inspiration although ultimately also frustration, as the Romans’ method of building in concrete had been lost since antiquity. An entirely new construction technique was called for; for the Florence Cathedral, known simply as the Duomo, Brunelleschi conceived of not one but two domes nested and supporting the other. Creative bricklaying was also called for, and the dome pioneered a herringbone pattern, which allowed for the gradual diminution of the dome’s ceiling by employing bricks laid periodically on a diagonal. Recently uncovered sections of the dome during the course of restoration work allow us a glimpse of this innovative design. The two nested domes simultaneously supported the other and a system of primary and secondary ribs provided structural stability on their rise to a central oculus. The cupola placed at the apex of the dome essentially is the perfectly-calculated weight to balance the weighted tension between the dome’s two shells.


With a stroke, Florence was in possession of the largest architectural dome realized in Italy since the Pantheon at Rome. Brunelleschi’s dome was the symbol for Florence’s embrace of Classical Humanism, with its emphasis on the infinite capacity of man. Soaring from the Medieval city rose an incredible feat of man’s ingenuity and an enduring symbol for Florence’s special role as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Modern Era. Even today, the building code in Florence bars any construction that would rival the Duomo’s height.


Brunelleschi also revolutionized Florentine architecture on a level which was much more down to earth, though no less informed by the desire to reclaim the architectural forms of Greco-Roman antiquity. Although we have seen arched colonnades appearing as Classical notes in select Medieval Italian artworks- the groin-vaulted pavilion from eleventh-century Sant’Angelo in Formis at Capua or Willigelmo’s narrative reliefs from the twelfth century at Modena Cathedral are examples we have seen in past lectures- Medieval architects had not attempted any vaulted colonnades in the Classical taste. The reintroduction of measured and balanced arcaded colonnades either as porches, now called loggias in the Italian Renaissance context, as at the Ospedale degli Innocenti and later three sides of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata or as the basic unit in the first Renaissance churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito in Florence is also the accomplishment of Brunelleschi. The earliest loggia of Brunelleschi’s was built at the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a foundling hospital next to the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence. It consisted of the application of a steady rhythm of groin-vaulted arcades held up by Corinthian columns with minimal decorative elements to distract from the purity of the Classical forms. This austere palette of white plaster filling in the interstices between the gray pietra serena stone favored by Florentine builders insured that the architectural forms themselves were center stage. Although we have seen such arcaded colonnades as a framing element in Medieval art, especially those Romanesque examples which consciously were employing the language of Roman antiquity, these would not find any corollary in the built environment until Brunelleschi’s works in fifteenth-century Florence. Architects of subsequent centuries chose Brunelleschi’s loggia as the model for the façade of Santissima Annunziata and the third side of the piazza, creating an urban public space unified by its harmonious proportions, itself a major advancement in modern urban planning.


The repetition of a proportionately-balanced combination of arch and column supporting a groin-vaulted bay is the key to the Renaissance’s contribution to what had already been a modular approach to church construction from the Middle Ages onwards. The division of the church plan into equal bays was not the innovation; we can observe that rational impulse even in the ninth century Plan of St. Gall. Rather, we are seeing that unit or module consists of a new refinement of codified proportions designed to achieve a perfect harmony; Brunelleschi had applied the same exacting and perceptive sensibility with which he had laid down the rules of a perfect linear perspective. In Brunelleschi’s Renaissance church, as we saw for the first time at the Ospedale degli Innocenti, each bay is a cubical unit with equal height, width, and depth; when analyzed as a perspective, their distances are calculated so as to achieve a harmonious progression of the eye as well. These units are arranged along the interior perimeter of the cruciform plan of both fifteenth-century Florentine churches.


A smaller-scale, although no less significant example of Brunelleschi’s revival of Greco-Roman architecture in Florence is the interior of the Pazzi Chapel within the cloister of Santa Croce. The Pazzi family, like many wealthy and pious Florentines, ploughed great sums into architectural and artistic commissions for religious communities; Brunelleschi’s chapel was simultaneously a Franciscan chapter house as well as the refuge of one of Florence’s most powerful families, at least until their banishment after their attempted assassination in 1478 during High Mass at the Duomo of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who survived, and his brother Giuliano, who did not. The basic form of the Pazzi Chapel recalls the characteristic Early Byzantine convention of placing a hemispherical dome on top of a square (or in this case rectangular) base; we find the same architectural vocabulary as applicable to Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as it is to the Pazzi Chapel in Florence; pendentives under the dome in the triangular interstices between the arches trimmed in pietra serena however are now occupied by the glazed terracotta roundels from the Della Robbia workshop, which we might also recognize from the façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti as well. Unlike any Byzantine predecessor however, Brunelleschi’s dome for the Pazzi Chapel is an essay on a diminished scale of the same nesting-principle employed to great effect at the Florence Cathedral.


Perhaps due to the less expensive nature of painting compared to architecture, we can see two-dimensional precursors to some of the most iconic Renaissance developments in church architecture. Masaccio’s Holy Trinity from the second decade of the fifteenth century achieves the illusion of depth in an architectural setting with no equivalent in any built structure for another half century. Leon Battista Alberti was to Renaissance architecture what Filippo Brunelleschi was to the science of mathematical perspective; Alberti’s comprehensive assimilation Roman building techniques and philosophies, originally put down in the first century B.C.E. by Vitruvius, into his fifteenth-century On the Art of Building enabled future generations of architects to know, to imitate, and ultimately to use historically-accurate Roman elements in new compositions for centuries to come. Alberti’s design for the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua combines a Roman triumphal arch, the barrel vault we see receding into space in Masaccio’s Trinity, within a modified Greek temple façade. There is no example from antiquity that combines these elements in quite the way that Alberti has; we are observing the characteristic Renaissance phenomenon of invenzione as it was applied to the revival of Classical architectural elements and principles. Concerning the latter, we are seeing Alberti’s fidelity to the idea of the harmony of equal proportions, a departure from the preference from the elongated verticals we have seen at its most extreme in the French Gothic and to a lesser extent in Medieval Italy. At Sant’Andrea however, this insistence upon equalized proportions between the façade’s vertical and horizontal dimensions resulted in its exterior being significantly shorter than the height of the central nave behind it. And thus, we are faced with the anomalous central arch above the Classical pediment. On the interior, we find the length of that central nave extended as a long, coffered barrel vault, another treatment of the surface grounded in the building methods of antiquity. In Roman construction, removing recessed panels from the surface area of a given barrel vault reduced the cumulative weight, and by extension bolstered the vault’s structural stability. In short time, these coffered ceilings would become fully integrated into Renaissance, Baroque, and later architectural lexicons in Western European edifices to come.


However Sant’Andrea was certainly not Alberti’s first integration of a Greek temple façade into a Renaissance church context; rather, it represents a more mature iteration of the architect’s vision we first perceive on the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. This was a commission with its own peculiar requirements; the Dominican church in Florence already possessed the lower register in the Gothic taste of alternating bands of white and green marbles around tombs on its lowest level. Alberti’s task was to finish the upper half of the façade in a way which would achieve harmony not only between bottom and top, but which would soften the disparities of height between the high central nave and the shorter side aisles. Alberti’s solution was the application of the same Gothic approach to form- the repetition of inlaid colored marble in simple geometric shapes- however to the realization of the Greek temple façade in a new kind of stylized outline. The closer bands of green marble indicate columns, while for the first time, an Italian church façade sports a triangular pediment indebted to Classical antiquity rather than any Gothic arch. The S-shaped scrolls which Alberti places like bookends to this temple-façade create a fluid line for the line to follow on its ascent from the height of the side aisles to that of the nave, lending an overall triangularity to the whole façade which echoes the temple-pediment’s form on the larger scale. These volutes would become repeated not only in Alberti’s subsequent works- like Sant’Agostino in Rome which was realized to his design by another architect after his death-, but by generations of architects and builders in Italy and beyond. By the time of Andrea Palladio’s career in the sixteenth-century in the Veneto region, we see the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore innovatively combining in effect two Greek temple facades of different heights, with the taller façade of the central nave appearing to lay on top of the shorter and distinct façade which corresponds to the side aisles. Not only are Renaissance architects taking apart and recombining elements of Classical architecture, now we are beginning to see further invenzioni in how these might be layered to create a receding depth which before was without exception treated as a single surface area.


The most significant commission of the Renaissance however was the complete reconstruction of St. Peter’s in Rome, the site of a fourth-century martyrium for the Apostle Peter’s remains. Pope Julius II however dreamed of an expansionist papal state, and the old church was demolished to make way for his more grandiose vision and the virtuosic feats of architecture which it demanded. One of the legacies of the revival of Classical architecture in the Renaissance and the desire for equal measures in all things led to a new estimation of the central plan, rather than the traditional basilica plan, for church architecture. Although Leonardo da Vinci had sketched out a plan for one, like much of the contents of his sketchbooks, this one never left the page in his lifetime. When it came time to plan the new St. Peter’s, we see the idea of a central plan church come into its own in both the plans of Bramante, who died before construction had gotten truly underway, and Michelangelo, who was the next (but not the last) architect to take on the most challenging project of the age. The modern-day appearance of St. Peters, with its extended porch, dates to the Baroque interventions of Carlo Maderno in the early seventeenth century.  


Domestic architecture, at least for those elites who could afford to build their palaces in the cutting-edge architectural language of Renaissance Humanism, evolved along similar lines which incorporated elements from Greco-Roman antiquity in entirely new compositions. Returning to Florence of the mid-fifteenth century, we see the commission of a palace for Cosimo de’ Medici (called the elder, and not to be confused with Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Duke of Tuscany in the sixteenth century) go to Michelozzo, rather than to the more grandiose design Brunelleschi had projected. In the fifteenth century, the Medici had consolidated their effective rule over the city, but it remained for the moment a republic; a discrete touch was desired for the family whose astronomical wealth and ties to the Vatican had cemented their power in a city which prided itself on its status as an independent city-state. So while the language of Classical antiquity was applied to the wrap-around façade of the building in its variation of form and treatment of stone in three distinct registers, it maintained what we might call a low profile by its conservative blending of these elements in what remained on the outside an imposing mass in the Florentine key established from the time of its medieval tower-palaces. At its base, the lowest and most expansive register was a layer of rusticated stone blocks- crudely cut- set between arches realized by weighty voussoirs. The two registers above this initial ground level, which continued in spirit the defensive quality of medieval Florentine palaces which were built as fortresses to withstand the turbulence between Guelph, Ghibelline, and other warring factions in the centuries prior, however contrast sharply from it. They are realized in smooth blocks of dressed masonry, and we see a gradual refinement from the middle to the upper register. We see two long windows set into an arch bifurcated by a slender column; on the middle register, these are still capped by voussoirs, but this element is lacking on the extraordinarily smooth surface area of the uppermost level. This variation of forms on ascending and differentiated architectural levels is a convention which Michelozzo had observed in Roman buildings. The Renaissance palace’s adoption of this Classical convention on its exterior façade belied an even more dramatic transformation which occurred on its interior. Inspired by Roman models, the Italian palaces in the fifteenth century onwards began to be constructed around a central courtyard, a convention which had not been seen since antiquity; the medieval tower-fortresses of Florence had been quite solid affairs. In imitation of the central Roman atrium, the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence was among the first to feature a central courtyard surrounded by the arcaded colonnade popularized by Brunelleschi. We see the same sense for measured, equal proportions as we do the preference for the minimalist palette of white and gray.


Alberti’s take on the Renaissance palace, realized for the wealthy Rucellai family in Florence, is an evolution and departure from the prototype of Michelozzo. For the Palazzo Rucellai, we find a uniform dressing of the ashlar blocks throughout all three registers while the lower register has retained its austere and undecorated character we saw in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Nevertheless, the registers at first glance appear identical until we take a closer look we see the closest imitation of the differentiation of architectural registers by varying column orders. The Coliseum is one of the most well-known examples where we can see this impulse in antiquity; there, we see the Doric order of columns on the bottom register, Ionic in the middle, and Corinthian on the third tier. Furthermore, we see the columns flattened out in a stylized treatment of Classical components that not entirely dissimilar from how Alberti translated these forms into the pre-existing Gothic façade of Santa Maria Novella. Across the street from the palace stands the Loggia Rucellai, commissioned by the same patron and suspected (though disputed) to also be the work of Alberti. The Loggia itself is the extension of the Classically-derived module of Brunelleschi to a new kind of space dedicated to extravagant public display. This stone loggia with its high stone-masonry arches and Corinthian columns was the setting for 500 guests who attended a magnificent wedding feast for Bernardo Rucellai and Nannina de’ Medici, the older sister of Lorenzo the Magnificent.


By the time of Palladio in the Veneto, we are finding this concern for purely social display being channeled into the construction of a villa that is purely for recreational- rather than agricultural- purposes. The Villa Almerico-Capra-Valmarana, more commonly known as the “Villa Rotonda” for its dome’s resemblance to the Roman Pantheon (which had been christened Santa Maria Rotonda, a happy circumstance which had preserved it from demolition) is one of several villas in the Veneto which Palladio realized for wealthy patrons who wanted their domestic architecture to speak volumes not only about their wealth, but their education, culture, and refined lifestyles as well. The Villa Rotonda is a singular monument in the sense that it combines the square with the circular dome, as we have seen in Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, but it also features an identical raised Greco-Roman temple façade at its four sides. In older constructions, these faces might have been oriented to the cardinal points, but at the Villa Rotonda, Palladio has put them instear forty-five degrees off, which allowed for sunlight to reach all four sides. This villa was purely a showpiece of the architect’s skill and the patron’s taste, intended to be enjoyed in an entirely new conceptualization of what the rural life, or villeggiatura, could mean for the wealthiest of sixteenth-century Italy.


Renaissance architecture in Italy, whether as churches or palaces, resurrected many of the latent ideas which had begun to surface in two-dimensional artworks of the fifteenth century. The lag time might be attributed to the considerable differential in labor and expenses in order to realize the monumental counterparts to the artists’ dreams of a revived Classical cityscape. We see the Greco-Roman temple figuring prominently in the architecture of Christian churches for the first time, to varying degrees of fidelity to their original components and compositions. In elite domestic architecture, we see a return to selected conventions of antiquity- the central open courtyard and the variegated registers of the exterior façade- reinterpreted through the lens of Florence’s weighty tradition of stone masonry. In the countryside of the Veneto, we find instead the architectural language of the antique temple being used to elevate the idea of the villa to the rarefied stratosphere of the sublime. Not only the infusion of Classical elements but the Renaissance willingness to combine them in novel invenzioni resulted in the explosion of new architectural forms and theories which proliferate in the architectural history of Western Europe for centuries to come.



2 thoughts on “30. The Architecture of Renaissance Italy”

  1. Pingback: The Architecture of Renaissance Italy – RuDarts. Truths the system is hiding from you

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