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Architecture of the Italian Renaissance by Duchess Nivin El-Gamal of Lamberton

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The Renaissance movement had its beginnings in Italy, and Renaissance architecture was characterized by a rejection of the complex and intricate gothic designs that came before, in favour of a more balanced, simplistic style inspired by the architectural ideals of the Classical era. With the rise of the Gothic architectural movement this style had been largely superseded, and yet Italian architecture always retained some residue of Classical feeling and influence. The Loggia de Lanzi for example, a Gothic building located in Florence, was characterized by a large round arch, in stark contrast to the pointed arch that was typical of Gothic architecture. It preserved the sense of simplicity and monumentality that defined the Classical period, while still being a distinctly Gothic building.

Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17the century, The Renaissance was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political, and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages. Some of the greatest thinkers, authors, statesmen, scientists, and artists in human history thrived during this era, while global exploration opened up new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance was in a sense the ideological bridge that enabled the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern era.

The precursor to the Renaissance was a 14th century cultural movement called Humanism, which was at the time gaining momentum in Italy. Among its many principles, humanism promoted the idea that man was the centre of his own universe, and people should embrace human achievements in education, classical arts, literature, and science.

In 1450, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press allowed for improved communication throughout Europe, and enabled ideas to propagate far more rapidly than before. As a result, little-known texts from early humanist authors such as those by Francisco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio, which promoted the renewal of traditional Greek and Roman culture and values, were printed and distributed to the masses. Additionally, many scholars believe advances in international finance and trade impacted culture in Europe and set the stage for the Renaissance.

The House of Medici

The Renaissance had its origins in the city of Florence, a city with a rich cultural history and, perhaps more importantly, political stability. Here wealthy citizens could afford to support budding artists, and the most famous and influential among these citizens were the members of the powerful Medici family, which ruled Florence for over sixty years.

The history of the Medicis dates back to roughly the 12th century. Family members from the Tuscan village of Cafaggiolo emigrated to Florence, and before long had embedded themselves into the city’s fledgling banking and commercial industries. Through their continued success in these areas, the Medicis rose to become one of the most important houses in Florence. By the late 14th century however, their influence had begun to fade, exemplified by the exile of Salvestro de Medici, who was then the Gonfaliere, or standard bearer, of Florence.

Another branch of the family, descended from Salvestro’s distant cousin Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici, would begin the great Medici dynasty. Giovanni’s elder son, Cosimo (1389-1464), rose to political power in 1434 and ruled Florence as monarch in all but name for the rest of his life. Known to history as Cosimo the Elder, he was a devoted patron of the humanities, supporting artists such as Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Fra Angelico. During Cosimo’s time, as well as that of his sons and in particular his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), Renaissance culture flourished, and Florence became the cultural centre of Europe.

Cosimo’s Descendants

Lorenzo was a poet himself, and supported the work of such Renaissance masters as Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Michelangelo in particular, considered to be among the greatest artists of the Renaissance, was commissioned to complete the Medici family tombs in Florence.

Lorenzo’s support and patronage of the arts was not without its detractors, and chief among them was Father Savonarola, a Dominican Friar who Lorenzo himself had brought to Florence. Described by some as a vital precursor of the Protestant Reformation, Savonarola preached against corruption of the clergy and the exploitation and abuse of the poor by those in power. He also had a strongly Puritanical outlook, and was strongly opposed to Lorenzo’s stance towards the arts, considering them frivolous, a waste of time that would be better spent on more evangelical pursuits. This philosophical dichotomy between the two persisted until Lorenzo’s death in 1492, though the two remained on good enough personal terms that Savonarola visited him on his deathbed and granted him absolution from sin.







Savonarola would go on to lead his followers in the destruction of thousands of books and works of art in a so-called “Bonfire of the Vanities” some five years after Lorenzo’s death. A year later he was hanged, the city having turned against him. For all of Savonarola’s efforts, Lorenzo’s contributions and support of art, science, and literature extended well beyond his death, even to the modern day.

After his death at the relatively young age of 43, Lorenzo was succeeded by his eldest son Piero. His reign was short-lived however, as he soon infuriated the public by accepting an unfavourable peace treaty with France. After only two years in power, he was forced out of the city in 1494, and died in exile. His younger brother Giovanni however saw much more success. A Cardinal at the time of Lorenzo’s death, he would go on to be elected Pope under the name Pope Leo X, and his influence allowed the Medici family to return to Florence in 1512. The next few years marked the apex of Medici influence in Europe, and Leo X proved to be as much of a patron of the arts as his father. Piero’s son meanwhile, also named Lorenzo, regained power in Florence, and his daughter Catherine (1519-1589) would become Queen of France after marrying King Henry II.

At this point few direct descendants of Cosimo remained, and his line was supplanted by descendants of his brother Lorenzo the Elder. This branch of the Medici family came to power under another Cosimo, known as Cosimo I, who became duke of Florence in 1537 and then Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. His daughter Marie would also go on to marry into French royalty, becoming Queen of France with her marriage to Henry IV in 1600. Cosimo himself was succeeded by his son Francis, and Francis by his brother Ferdinand. In general, the Medicis following this older generation renounced the Republican sympathies of their ancestors in favour of more authoritarian rule, a shift which led to the region’s decline as a cultural hub.


The Important Architects of the Renaissance

The Renaissance’s architectural style was defined by the abandonment of the complex proportional systems and irregular profiles of Gothic structures, instead favouring the use of symmetry, proportion, geometry, and regularity of parts in alignment with the ideals of the Classical period, in particular classical Roman architecture. In the classical period, having proper proportions was considered the most determinant aspect of beauty; Renaissance architects found harmony in human proportions and architectural proportions, and this was reflected in their designs. This concern for proportion resulted in clear and easily comprehended space and mass, which distinguishes the Renaissance style from its more complex Gothic forbearer. Though the Renaissance produced numerous talented architects, we can focus on a few of the most important and influential ones and their most famous works:

Filippo Brunelleschi, - Dome of Florence Cathedral, 1420-1436, and facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (“Hospital of the Innocents”), 1419-1424 Brunelleschi is an interesting case study. Most of what we know of his life and career comes from a biography written in the 1480s by an admiring younger contemporary, Antonio di Tuccio Manetti. Initially a master goldsmith and sculptor of bronze, his interests eventually branched out to architecture and engineering. His first architectural commission was the aforementioned Ospedale degli Innocenti in 1419, but the dome of the Florence Cathedral was his most famous. Construction of the Cathedral itself had begun in 1296, roughly 81 years before Brunelleschi was born. Its base structure was completed in 1380, but it was left without a dome. The original basic design, created by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296, called for an octagonal dome larger and wider than had ever been built, without external buttresses to keep it from falling under its own weight. In 1367 an architectural competition was held to decide on a more finalized design, and this commitment to a structure without gothic-style buttresses was reaffirmed when Neri di Fioravanti’s buttressless design was chosen over its more traditional gothic-style competitors. This architectural choice is now considered one of the first events of the Italian Renaissance, marking a shift away from Medieval Gothic style and a return to classic Mediterranean style domes.

This finalized design posed problems however. To begin with its massive size prevented the traditional methods of construction. The sheer scope of the project for example meant that there was not enough timber in all of Tuscany to build the necessary amount of forms and scaffolding. The design also required an internal solution against the stress of the dome’s own weight pushing outwards, which is what external buttresses usually address, but no such internal solution yet existed. Could a dome even be built on an octagonal floor plan based on the existing walls, with eight pie-shaped wedges, without collapsing inwards as the masonry arched towards the apex? Nobody was sure.

In 1418 the Opera del Duomo announced a public competition for the construction of the dome with a handsome prize of 200 gold florins—and a shot at eternal fame—for the winner. Leading architects of the time flocked to Florence to present their ideas. After much uncertainty, the Opera del Duomo agreed to make Brunelleschi the superintendent of the cupola project and appointed Lorenzo Ghiberti, Brunelleschi’s fellow goldsmith, as a co-superintendent. The construction of the Dome began on 7 August 1420.

Brunnelleschi’s answers to the problems posed by the dome’s construction were ingenious. To address the question of how to construct the dome he looked back to ancient Rome, in particular the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome, which he had studied earlier in his life. To address the lack of timber, he invented a three-speed hoist with an intricate system of gears, pulleys, screws, and driveshafts powered by a single yoke of oxen turning a wooden tiller, as well as the castello, a 65-foot-tall crane with a series of counterweights and hand screws to move loads laterally once they’d been raised to the correct height.

The dome itself was designed to be light and slim in both form and substance. Built from brick, a lighter material compared to stone, Brunelleschi wove regular courses of herringbone brickwork, little known before his time, into the texture of the cupola, giving the entire structure additional solidity. Throughout the years of construction, Brunelleschi spent more and more time on the work site. He oversaw the production of bricks of various dimensions and attended to the supply choice of stone and marble from the quarries. He led an army of masons and stonecutters, carpenters, blacksmiths, lead beaters, barrel makers, water carriers, and other craftsmen.

Chief among the elements that make up the dome is its use of the golden proportion, which was in vogue at the time. In contemplating this masterpiece, you notice that its builders have made use of balance and harmony between each of its parts. Each architectural element contributes to the stability of the dome as it stands without supporting structures.

Another of these crucial elements is the lantern at the top of the dome, on top of which rests the bronze ball built by Verrochio in 1472. To position the ball they used machines invented by Brunelleschi, and a young Leonardo da Vinci was among the apprentices that helped in this difficult operation.

Brunelleschi, therefore, is seen as an artist still profoundly dependent on local forms of architecture and construction, but with a vision of art and science that was based on the humanistic concept of the ideal. This is borne out by his first major architectural commission, the Ospedale Degli Innocenti, which he began working on in 1419. Although the portico of the hospital is composed of many novel features, morphologically it still is related to traditions of Italian Romanesque and late gothic architecture. The truly revolutionary aspects of the building emanated from Brunelleschi’s intuitive sense of the formal principles of the classical art of antiquity. The Innocenti facade offered a new look in Florentine architecture and a marked contrast to the medieval characteristic of the middle age buildings that preceded it. Its lingering late-medieval echoes were subordinated to the new style that provided the facade with its antique air: a wall delicately articulated with classical detail (such as pilasters, tondi, and friezes), modular construction, geometric proportions, and symmetrical planning.

Michelozzo Di Bartolomeo - Plazzo Di Medici, 1444

The Palazzo Medici follows the tradition of the Tuscan late-medieval palazzo, but without the more eye-catching symbols of civic power. The Palazzo’s exterior is not articulated by Vitruvian orders, and the large arches of its ground floor are not aligned with the windows of the upper stories. Instead, Michelozzo focused on the contrast between surface textures, such as the contrast between “the natural rustication of the ground floor, the flat courses of the piano nobile, and the smooth masonry of the upper storey. The exterior also differs from the palazzo in Montepulviano in its size, its more urbane character, and its massive classicizing cornice.

Brunelleschi’s influence on Michelozzo is evident in the palazzo’s design, especially in the late-medieval bifora windows, the symmetry and the dominance of the entrance axis, and the combination of traditional and progressive elements. The arcades and the entablature of the palazzo’s courtyard also follow the model of the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, which is symptomatically Brunelleschi’s earliest and most strikingly un-Vitruvian building. One of Michelozzo’s most well-known architectural projects, the palace led to the development of a new architectural type: the Florentine Renaissance palace.



Among the many Michelozzo innovations on the facade, the most notable include the use of bugnato digradante (large unevenly-cut stones which grow lighter as they ascend on the upper stories), the classical columns and fluted capitals in the bifore windows, the great classical cornice crowning the building and the small ones dividing the stories, the massive rectangular proportions of the block of square, and the regularity of the disposition of the windows, which are asymmetrical in regard to the doors.

Leon Battista Alberti - Pallazo Rucellai, 1452-1470

By 1450, the skyline of Florence was dominated by Brunelleschi’s dome. Although he had created a new model for church architecture based on the Renaissance’s pervasive philosophy of humanism, no equivalent existed for private dwellings.

In 1446, Leon Battista Alberti, whose texts “On Painting” and “On Architecture” established the guidelines for the creation of paintings and buildings that would be followed for centuries, designed a facade that was truly divorced from the medieval style, and could finally be considered quintessentially Renaissance: The Palazzo Rucellai. Alberti constructed the facade of the Palazoo over a period of five years, from 1446-1451; the home was just one of many important commissions that Alberti completed for the Rucellais, a wealthy merchant family.

The Palazzo Rucellai bears a strong resmblance to the Medici Plazzo, and its exterior design is even crowned by a similar projecting cornice, but there are a number of notable differences, in particular the Palazzo Rucellai having two entrances in contrast to the Plazzo’s single entrance, and all its floors are the same height. The largest point of similarity between the two palaces is the presence of windows surmounted by semi-circular arches, with each window having two shutters for lighting. Like traditional Florentine palazzi, the facade is divided into three tiers. But Alberti divided these with horizontal entablatures that run across the facade (an entablature is the horizontal space above columns or pilasters). The first tier grounds the building, giving it a sense of strength. This is achieved by the use of cross-hatched, or rusticated stone that runs across the very bottom of the building, as well as large stone blocks, square windows, and portals of post and lintel construction in place of arches.

The overall horizontality of this facade is called “trabeated” architecture, which Alberti thought was most fitting for the homes of nobility. On each tier, Alberti used smaller stones to give the feeling of lightness, which is enhanced by the rounded arches of the windows, a typically Roman feature. Both of these tiers also have pilasters, although on the second tier they are of the Ionic order, and on the third they are Corinthian. The building is also wrapped by benches that served, as they do now, to provide rest for weary visitors to Florence.

The Palazzo Rucellai actually had four floors: the first was where the family conducted their business; the second floor, or piano nobile, was where they received guests; the third floor contained the family’s private apartments; and a hidden floor, which had few windows and is invisible from the street, was where the servants lived.

In addition to the facade, Alberti may have also designed an adjacent loggia (a covered colonnaded space) where festivities were held. The Loggia may have been specifically built for an extravagant 1461 wedding that joined the Rucellai and Medici families. It repeats the motif of the pilasters and arches found on the top two tiers of the palazzo. The loggia joins the building at an irregularly placed, not central, courtyard, which was probably based on Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti.

In summary, the Renaissance style of architecture reflected the rebirth of Classical culture, originating in Florence in the early 15th century and supplanting the middle age Gothic style. There was a revival of ancient Roman forms in particular, including the column and round arch, the tunnel vault, and the dome. The basic design element was order. Knowledge of Classic architecture came from the ruins of ancient buildings, which were studied by contemporary architects. Indeed, an architect’s training in this period was not considered complete until he had made a trip to Rome to see and study ancient ruins for himself. As in the Classical period, proportion was emphasized as the most important factor of beauty, and this concern for proportion resulted in clear, easily comprehended space and mass. Filippo Brunelleschi is considered the first and perhaps the defining Renaissance architect, and Leon Battista Alberti’s Ten Books on Architecture, inspired by Vitruvius, became the bible of Renaissance architecture. From Florence the early Renaissance style spread throughout Italy, and before long throughout Europe.

Donato Bramante’s move to Rome ushered in the High Renaissance (c. 1500-1520). Mannerism, the style of the Late Renaissance (1520-1600), was characterized by sophistication, complexity, and novelty rather than the harmony, clarity, and repose of the High Renaissance, and was the predominant artistic style in Italy up to the beginnings of the Baroque style around 1590. The Mannerist style originated in Florence and Rome, spread to northern Italy and, ultimately, to much of central and northern Europe.


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