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Renaissance Architecture

( Originally Published 1910 )



IF you have had the patience to read thus far, you can now see in the mind's eye a strange and powerful sort of human tidal wave of trade and culture, religious awakening, national development and creative production rising in the Dardanelles and sweeping northwest-ward over Europe. It comes to an apex at Athens, crosses to Rome, then swings northward through France, culminating in the majestic upheaval of the French Gothic. After that the decadence begins, while in the countries left behind there is either aridity or a comparatively feeble back-water. Later we shall find that the main tide crossed the Channel to England with interesting results, though with reduced vitality.

For the present we must continue to watch the progress of Europe for signs of some new inspiration, some new force that will give the needed stimulus to creative progress. It is evident that in the florid beauties of the flamboyant the architects of the period have well-nigh exhausted their creative vitality so far as the Gothic style is concerned. The changes have been rung until there was naught but vain repetition, and what there was of novelty begins to show weakness of purpose, failing imagination, and uncertain ideals. A new inspiration was on the way. We have found so far but two broad and distinct types of buildings, the first the classic with its horizontal lines and the column as keynote, and the second the Gothic, the motif of which is the vertical line and pointed arch. The pure classic building and the Gothic church are the most strongly differentiated of finished architectural products, although the Gothic was, in a broad sense, an evolution from the classic. When, therefore, the Gothic inspiration was exhausted and we look in vain for those virile human conditions that alone make real creation possible, we wonder if now it is not to be a return to the long-unworked mine of the classic.

If France at this time had not gone to extremes in the enjoyment of her emancipation, and the new intellectual ideal had been vitally constructive and under the inspiration of a great leader without a break in its continuity, we can see possibilities of the Gothic continuing its development into realms still unimagined and remaining free from foreign taint for centuries, sufficient unto itself.

But this did not happen. On the contrary, we find evident exhaustion and a new discovery of the beauties of the classic. Whether we are to regard this discovery as a matter of chance, or as a Heaven-sent answer to a crying need, is of little importance. It was not, as a matter of fact, the result of any systematic or deliberate search for novelty.

The classic buildings of the Mediterranean had been standing at the doors of France through the centuries, and it had not occurred to France to copy or adopt any part of them. The reason is apparent. The Greeks were a joyous people, beauty - loving and intellectual. They showed much fondness for the exquisite forms of plants, the subtleties of delicate lines, the colors of nature. The Grecian decorations are full of fine gradations of line and subtle color harmonies, and the sculpture of the period shows an even more amazing delicacy of feeling for beauty. The Romans also had the pagan inclination to enjoy material existence, though they were of coarser fibre than the Greeks and showed an inclination to scepticism, while our Normans and Franks were more inclined to a harsher translation of idealism. A harsh climate and a constant fight against natural conditions are not likely to create a gentle idealism.

It is plain that the simple, stern, and ascetic early Christians, drilled as they were in abhorrence of any color of paganism, should both hate and fear the pagan traditions of classic architecture. In this age of intellectualism, however, the conditions have changed. The old fears and prejudices have gone, and all the dominant characteristics of the old Greeks and Romans have blossomed forth in the new French. If they had been contemporary, what an interchange of laws, ideas, craftsmen, and works of art there might have been. But the architecture of the earlier period remains, a perfect record of its creators. And here, for the first time in more than a thousand years, was a people equipped temperamentally and intellectually to appreciate it. We can imagine with what gusto the French builders seized on the new inspiration, finding it so strangely fitted to their needs.

There were differences of condition, however, between the Greece of the pagan period and the Europe of the sixteenth century, and some of these differences called for great ingenuity of adjustment. Classic architecture was born, for example, under brilliantly sunny skies, and was transplanted to a land of gray skies and rain and snow. The life and language of the South is gentle, and the language of the moldings and the parts of the architecture is also quiet and lined in gentle curves. The North, in translating these expressions, changed the curves and the gentleness of line in the details and smaller parts to conform to the more rigid natural condition and to their more strenuous nature. This also explains why the Latins of Italy could never accept the Northern translation of the Gothic moldings and composition, which were not at all in harmony with the gentleness of the Southern climate. There was a directness about the Latin and Greek classics that hardly harmonized with the overripe gallantry and lavishness of the French court. The classic found more congenial if not more eager soil in later days, but though marvels of beauty have been wrought under its inspiration it is perhaps true that no final adjustment and conclusion have been arrived at to this day.

The "Renaissance," or rebirth of the classic, began, like the development of the classic itself, in the East. The Turks were storming Constantinople, and the men of intellect, students, and craftsmen had been emigrating to Italy for safety and for greater opportunities. They passed by Athens, then controlled by the Turks, but they came to Rome steeped in the Greek traditions which had spread eastward as far as Constantinople to meet there the Western tide of Orientalism.

It was a veritable age of discovery. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks and the consequent closing of the Dardanelles had, you remember, sent adventurous explorers out to find new routes to the East. The discovery of America and the circumnavigation of Africa followed. New outlets for trade and new sources of wealth were being found, and Europe was forced to face squarely about toward the West, the custom-houses on the eastern borders were closed, and the ports of entry now faced the Atlantic.

This change had one interesting political result. ,The Eastern Franks, or Germans, were occupied for a long period holding the Turks and the wandering tribes of Mongolians from overrunning Europe, thereby offering the Western Franks, or French, comparative relief and an uninterrupted opportunity to develop nationally at the expense of her own national growth.

This explains somewhat why France was allowed to develop the Gothic and then the new type without serious interference from the East. And then Alexander VI., the Borgia pope, calmly apportioned the world among the nations and gave to Spain all the new Western world and a large part of the less valuable Atlantic Ocean, the dividing line being a meridian drawn one hundred leagues west of the Azores. As a result of the violent trade disputes that arose from this arbitrary exercise of power, Magellan was sent out to find independent trade routes, and to circumnavigate the globe in 1520. The result was a most extraordinary intellectual upheaval. The world, by papal preference, had remained flat up to this time, and now the old theory must go by the boards and with it half the pseude - scientific accumulation of the ages, including that well - nurtured and useful doctrine of papal infallibility.

It was about this same time that Luther and Calvin made their related discoveries of a new world of idealism in the Bible that lies beyond the doctrine and teachings of the official Church. Their discovery shook the institution to its foundation. The influence of these two men grew slowly, and while it never did reach Italy or Spain, many other forces, among them Savonarola, were at work disintegrating the temporal power of the pope, and in considerable degree his spiritual power also, as we have seen in France.

In Italy a most potent factor in this general ferment of progress was a period of intellectual discovery far in excess of that to the North. We have seen that this was stimulated by the immigration of scholars and artists from the East.

Out of Italy came the original Church with its impetuous and clarifying influence, and out of Italy was now to come this new intellectualism which was needed to re-place the dying force of the corrupt and political Church of these later days. Again the East supplied the coloring matter which was so sadly needed in the spiritual grayness of the time, and the civilized world began another climb toward the almost attainable. We are today still on that upward climb, struggling toward an altitude equal to that reached in France in the thirteenth century.

Italy at this time was divided, first, into three great zones of influence which, in turn, were subdivided by the numerous republics and their environments. In the north there was the Teutonic and the influence of the nearest neighbor on the west, the Romanesque south of France, the first province of old Rome. In the south was the Sicilian, now under Spanish domination, but with Greek Classic and Greek Byzantine tradition and the added insult of Saracenic and Norman invasions.

In the centre were Rome and the papal states—inflexible, undying Rome, molding others, but sufficient unto herself. Thus, while there was a sort of Gothic architecture in the south, and more of a mixed Gothic in the north, there was none in all the Roman area. It was rejected as barbaric and unfit.

Byzantine was used in the south because of trade and racial connections with the people of the East and along the shores of the Mediterranean. In the seaports this influence is apparent, but none of it touches the Imperial City. In the same manner approaching from the north we find odd and interesting traces and translations of the spirit which created Gothic, which here in Italy might more properly be called pointed Romanesque, but it stops absolutely at the gates of Rome. She is content with the Classic tradition, her basilican Romanesque, and later with her reborn and modernized early Classic.

Venice and Genoa, situated as they are at the ends of the water-routes to Europe from the East and a short distance only from the headwaters of the rivers flowing into the North Sea, were more or less under the thumb of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Teutonic people of the North. Venice had her added Saracenic touch, which came from constant trade, honest and otherwise, with the Orient. So she had the mysticism of the East side by side with the vigor of the West. And this is our Venice—that City of Dreams.

On account of the increasing complexity of life in these Italian centres there began at this time a period of research into the old Roman law. Precedents were needed and were found. The hunt for them stimulated other lines of research, and undoubtedly contributed very largely to the revival of classicism in the Fine Arts which had so important an effect on the later growth of architectural style.

These various cities or trading centres had not even that cohesion among them that was afforded by the feudal system of France, while the national idea did not culminate in Italy until our own time, though the intellectual Renaissance of the time we are discussing was effectively unifying. This lack of nationalism accounts for the lack of any broad and harmonious development of architectural styles even under the stimulus of the classic revival that we are now to examine. Instead of a great and virile growth that we might truly call Italian, there were local developments of great beauty, which are more properly and usually named for the cities in which they appeared—Venetian, Florentine, or Roman.

The results of this period of culture in Italy are among the world's choicest heritages, and it is not to be wondered at that when France caught the inspiration she, with a still unexhausted remnant of Norman virility, did great things with it.

In this awakening Italy received from the Eastern refugees a new knowledge of ancient Greek art and literature. They brought with them manuscripts that stirred the scholars profoundly and started the ransacking of the monasteries and churches of Italy. In consequence we find men like Dante and Petrarch under the classic inspiration. Later (1447), the Vatican library was established for the collection and preservation of the mass of manuscripts.

In architecture, because of the occupation of Greece by the Turks, there was apparently no return to the Greek originals, Roman sources of inspiration being drawn upon entirely.

It must be realized that conditions of living had changed greatly since early Roman and Greek times. Second and third stories had been added to the palaces and larger residences, the Christian Church had taken a definite form considerably beyond that of the old basilicas, and construction had become substantially the same as in our own times; therefore, a revival of classic architecture could not mean a return to the single-story columned and arcaded temple, but merely the adaptation or application of the classic forms to the more modern building. Thus the column becomes a pilaster, applied to the walls with one of the classic forms of capital. The architrave is used, with all its classic purity of line and detail, and the pediment or gable appears intact, or its angular form is curved or broken and adapted to the crowning of windows and doors.

It is quite impossible and not part of our purpose to go into any long analysis of the multiple variations of Italian styles. It would help us very little in studying buildings here at home, or to understand the great main current of architectural progress that we have been following. It is enough to see, what we have already indicated, that in the South there was a sufficient Gothic infusion to produce a relatively unimportant hybrid called pointed Byzantine; in the North a similar infusion produced pointed Romanesque, the Teutonic influence giving a certain hardness and heaviness to this and the newly evolving styles, while in the central area the Gothic was rejected altogether.

Besides this we may examine briefly three of the chief Italian cities, in each of which the reborn classic developed distinctively and importantly. The three cities are Florence, Venice, and Rome.

Florence remained wholly classic through the Gothic period of France. It was a city of endless strife, and therefore of amazing vigor. Like the slow but resistless Arno at its feet, its men were men of seemingly resistless force; therefore, Guelf and Ghibelline, Church and State, the Papacy and the Free-thinkers were ever at one an-other's throats. And oddly married to this local warfare was an intense and burning local pride. To the Florentine of whatever party or creed all the rest of the world was wholly barbarian. Out of these conditions developed a group of creative men that was to make the world marvel. Living and working apart from the actual conflict of house, party, and creed, they were yet inevitably stimulated by the spirit of it, and painted, carved, and built with astonishing power. Of this group were such colossal figures as Michael Angelo, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Giotto, and Cellini, to mention only a few. These men designed and executed a silver chalice for the pope, or invented a great dome for the cathedral with equal sureness and success. Palaces, fortifications, sculpture, painting, and faience are accepted as the work of one man without incredulity.

Even the change of rule from the uncertain dukes to the stable Medicis, with all it represented, seems only to have intensified the creative spirit. What manner of men these were is told, for example, in the architecture of the Palace Riccardi. The strength of the walls, the size of each course of stone, the solidity of the arches, and the massive translation of the classic cornice all denote strength without grossness, the power of a splendid repose. The arches are round on the inside, but the centre stones are thickened so as to make the outer line in pointed arch form, which gives a suggestion of full support suggestive of the Greek trick of thickening the lintel to the same end.

The upper stories of the Florentine buildings were treated in a modified Roman manner; that is, with a plastered and pilastered secondary section. In many cases the cornice projected far out from the walls and was of wood, the timber-ends being carved in the form of brackets. This type frequently has open arcades with columns supporting the upper stories.

Venice, at the northern end of the Adriatic, has a remarkable life-story that is graphically told in its architecture. Dominating the trade of the Eastern seas and controlling the entrance to the overland routes northward, it took heavy toll during many centuries. The Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land and the traders returning westward with their treasures alike paid dearly for the privilege of passing through the port. With loot and toll of precious marbles and mosaics from the East, and money from the West, Venice built to her civic ideal magnificently. To her patron saint, Mark, she built her cathedral. And as she was the Byzantium of trade in these later days she built, oddly enough, in the style of the great Byzantine St. Sophia, in Constantinople, creating the second of the three notable Byzantine churches in existence.

As became a centre of world trade, Venice was cosmopolitan and fearless, and its architects used Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Gothic, and the new translation of the ancient classic for the glorification of its ideals. But so distinct was the identity of the city that out of each style it created a variety of its own, each subtly harmonizing with the others. Thus Venetian Gothic and Venetian Renaissance are almost distinct styles, and it is to be noted that in Venice alone, of all the cities of northern Italy, the Teutonic influence we have met was dominated by the city's own personality. The Byzantine alone. yields to no local influence and remains wholly of the East, though even it seems Venetian in Venice.

St. Mark's records an enthusiasm little short of that which sent the thirteenth-century Gothic churches up into the northern skies, and it inspires enthusiasm accordingly. Here one finds complete the devotional story of the people, with the ancient Parvis or open square in front, the Narthex or Porch of the Penitents, and the body of the church in the form of a Greek cross, with its five golden domes mellowing the gloom of the gorgeous interior. Here there is colored marble in magnificent matched slabs climbing to the spring of the arch. In the domes the story of the world from Genesis to Christ is told in richest mosaic. The dome of the apse carries the great and solitary figure of the Christ in full manhood and majesty, a manly tribute of a manly generation which had not yet been taught the equal godhood of the Virgin Mother. .

The exterior shows round arches recessed and ornamented on the face of the arch stones, round arches in smaller arcades, and round arches again projecting above the main wall and forming an airy skyline, with the bulbous domes beyond. I wish I might go further into description of this gorgeous masterpiece, so unique in all the world. It is an amazingly joyful and complete offering to an ideal, though without slavish acceptance of the laws. I like to think of it as a pile of loot put together enthusiastically and fearlessly by those old Venetian sea rovers and traders who knew no law but the law of the storm.

Of the Venetian Gothic we have supreme examples in the Palace of the Doge (Fig. 69). Notice how its spirit of smoothness gives the effect of assurance of strength. The pointed arch is used in many ways, though not for vaulting, but this is almost the only Gothic characteristic, and I should prefer to call the style a developed Romanesque. Certainly it has not the essence of the great Gothic of the North. One of the characteristics of the Venetian style is the decoration of the inside of the arch with curved projections, or cusps, making the opening a three-leaved shape, and hence called trefoil. This form was also used in smaller form throughout the decoration.

Of the Venetian Renaissance, Palladio (1518–158o) was the moving spirit, and a powerful and influential one in this country to the present day. While he with the other architects used the classic columns and horizontal cornice with arched openings and arcades as was being done throughout Italy, they were truer to the classic tradition in the matter of making their supports really carry a load. In the Florentine, for instance, they were often merely plastered on the face of the walls. The Library by Sansovino is a characteristic example of this.

Following Palladio the Venetian Renaissance grew over-lavish and unstudied because of the city's rapid accumulation of wealth, and there is a distinct decadence to a variety that is called baroque (shell-like). This period of de-cadence interestingly parallels that of the time of Louis XV. in France, which we shall study in a subsequent chapter.

The influence of Rome is, it seems, everlasting. Just as it was the conserving and dominating force in architecture during the Renaissance, so it is for us to-day. All the great schools of art in Europe have their grand prix de Rome, and American art students, especially in architecture, go to the American Academy at Rome as to the school of final authority. This is largely because the conservatism of the Imperial City has kept the growth of classic architecture practically continuous and undefiled by intrusive influences. Roman Renaissance architecture is truer to its ancient prototype than any other, and is, nevertheless, so far as Italy is concerned, distinctly local. It had the reserve and delicacy which Florence and Venice lacked, and it therefore came nearer to filling the temperamental requirements of the French architects when they began to draw on the new Italian inspiration.

This difference is noticed in the palaces, for instance. The type is generally the same as that of Florence, but there is much more insistence on the proportions and fineness of classic tradition. The Farnese Palace is the typical example of Roman Renaissance. Its three stories are divided by belts or moldings, and the windows decorated with small columns and pediments, pointed or curved.

Michael Angelo used the pilaster and the horizontal en-tablature of the ancient Roman in the capitol which was designed by him in 1542; the decorated window opening of each bay or panel between the piers was designed in a curtain wall which is not a supporting wall.

Oddly enough a great deal of the building done in Rome at this time was by the Florentine artists we have mentioned, and the fact that they built in a distinctive style here is an added tribute to their versatility as well as to the strong local sentiment of the Imperial City.

To sum up, one might state Italian Renaissance characteristics thus. Common to practically all examples is the use of the classic columns for perpendicular sup-port and of horizontal lines above. The columns are, however, more widely spaced than in the classic, and between and behind them are either arches with smaller columns or posts supporting them independently of the main columns, or window and door openings with molded frames and pointed or round gables adopted from the classic pediment. These fundamental characteristics were modified locally according as the influence was Roman, Florentine, or Venetian.

Our cities and towns are full of the modern translation of this Italian revival. You will find Italian detail and motifs in our brownstone monstrosities, in our office buildings, and in many of our private houses; but such buildings as the New York Herald Building, and its Verona ancestor, the University Club, the Tiffany Building, and the small library in New York City are pure examples of the style. These buildings were designed by the greatest students of Italian Renaissance of modern times. The Pennsylvania station in New York is another example by these modern masters of Italian Renaissance.

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