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Architecture - The Renaissance

( Originally Published 1915 )



We now come to one of the greatest periods of the world's history called the Renaissance. This period, beginning about the year 1500, produced a new style of architecture which gradually displaced the Gothic. It was called the Renaissance style, but before we inquire what it was like, we will try to see how it came about that a new style should appear.

On account of the great accumulation of wealth, men now had leisure to study, and their study led them to learn about the Greeks and Romans and the wonderful things they had done in literature, sculpture, and architecture. This study became a world-wide interest, making people of taste wish to imitate the old arts, and because they did so, and revived, and brought to life the classic beauties of an older time, the new style was called the Renaissance, or new-birth. For hundreds of years previous to this the people of Europe had not been much interested in these things. The Romans conquered the world; but Rome fell, and the barbarous races, that over-flowed Europe, had to live hundreds of years before they became as educated and cultured as the people they superseded. Although these are sometimes called the Dark Ages, real progress was being made all the time. New languages came into being, and, as the people became less warlike, they began to enjoy peace and to found homes and accumulate money. In this way they got ready for the new kind of life that was to come; and Italy, first of all, because she first became rich and prosperous and secure. Her cities were in a more civilized state and enjoyed comforts and luxuries unknown elsewhere.

The men of this time added much to the older civilization. Printing became an art, and gunpowder put an end to the old ideas of battle. The art of painting, with Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael, revealed a new life to the world, and sculpture almost breathed the breath of the antique work of Greece. As we go through Italy today we may see how every city and hamlet was being stored richly with countless beau-ties during this time. Architecture was revolutionized under the influence of Brunelleschi, Michaelangelo, Bramante, and a few others.

In these Renaissance days a few great minds came forward in each of the arts, renewed them, and made them great. Things had changed since the times when a certain type of building and a certain type of ornament were impressed by guilds upon all the workmen of the world, for now a single individual, having a great idea, might set the pace. Every new thing worth having be-gins as an idea in some one's mind, and this Renaissance was a period of freedom of thought where a few men's ideas could not be forced upon every one to the same extent as formerly. If men followed the great ideas of a Brunelleschi, or a Michaelangelo, it was through love of them, or appreciation and enthusiasm for their works. This spirit of freedom has been growing in the world ever since.

We may safely declare that the Renaissance brought a new world of thought, a new era of freedom, that it was a period of true advance in the world when men learned to value themselves, and that it put a new meaning into the individual lives of men. But, when we have said all that we can in favor of the Renaissance, let us also remember that there are many people who think there was never anything so beautiful in architecture as that of the ages that preceded it.

It is hardly possible to speak of the Renaissance with-out mentioning the great family of the Medici, the most powerful family of Florence, and probably the greatest in the annals of Italy. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, and art and letters grew and flourished very largely under the patronage of this rich family, whose sons became rulers of other states, or became Popes, and whose daughters married royalty.

The best known are Cosimo and his grandson, Lorenzo. These men, each in his time, held a great court, built beautiful palaces, and lived a life of great luxury. When they discovered a man of genius in the arts they would give him commissions, take him into the court, dine him at table with other men of intellect and power, and so they encouraged the arts, and must have had much to do with the' preeminence of Italy in the world of art.

Thus it is that so many of the greatest and most beautiful things in the world are named for them. We first read of Michaelangelo copying statues in the gardens of the Medici, and when we go to Florence we see his wonderful creations in the tombs of the Medici. We also visit the Uffizi gallery to see the Venus de Medici. In fact Medici is written large even in the Florence that remains today.

In a word, the characteristics of the Renaissance buildings are those of Greece and Rome applied to new and different kinds of buildings. Having studied the Greek and Roman buildings, we can best become acquainted with the Renaissance buildings by looking carefully to see where and how the Greek, or chiefly the Roman, characteristics were built into the palaces, villas, town-halls, and into the great churches with their lofty domes.

First of all, the dome set on a pillared drum and crowned with a lantern, the whole surmounting a church edifice, was the one great original production of the Renaissance. We see this in the Duomo at Florence, and in St. Peter's and St. Paul's in the following pages. The wonderful palaces of Florence and Rome and later the chateaux of France show the old Greek and Roman forms applied in new and beautiful ways. The town-halls and guild-halls of the great European cities were, many of them, treated in this way and were called Renaissance. The Renaissance style applied to the fronts, or facades of buildings along the fine streets of the time created a street architecture of a noble sort which one may recognize and study in hundreds of cities.

We have emphasized the meaning of " structural " in architecture, but, aside from the dome, the Renaissance architects did not do much that was new in structure. In fact they rather ignored structure in their use of columns, which supported nothing, and of engaged columns used only for ornament. Rich ornamentation was one of the chief characteristics of the buildings of the time and the semi-circular arch copied from Roman architecture was everywhere employed. Interior decoration also became very splendid.

Symonds says that, what the architects did was, after familiarizing themselves with the remains of ancient Rome, and assimilating the spirit of Roman art, to clothe their own inventions with classic details. This is a good, brief definition.

The form and structure of their edifices was modern ; the parts were copied from antique models. A want of organic unity and structural sincerity is often the result of those necessities under which a secondary and adapted style must labor, and thus even the best Renaissance buildings display faults.

When the buildings of the new style began to appear, the then existing buildings had no hint of the Greco-Roman styles the churches were Gothic with high pointed arch and delicate tracery, the castles and keeps were stern towers, the home a plain building.

Then in a hundred years, or even less, we see a complete change. All the new buildings are in the new style, ornamented with columns, entablatures, and pediments. The dwelling houses are no longer poor and mean, but fine, often magnificent. The villa has appeared, the mansion and the university. Except for the great domes of the churches, the new architecture consisted largely in adapted Greek and Roman features, and as these features were mostly present as decorations on cornices, doorways, windows, and balconies, a study of these four features would acquaint us with the appearance of the Renaissance style.

The doorway usually had a border around it covering jamb. At either side were antique columns, or pilasters, while across the top were the architrave, frieze, and cornice, probably copied from some building of ancient Rome. The whole doorway was surmounted by a pediment or, perhaps by a curved and scrolled variation of it.

The windows were similarly treated. Sometimes the curved top, sometimes the triangular were used. Often the two would be alternated along a facade. One or both were present in endless variety.

We may think of the builders of these facades as of an artist painting a picture. The space that he had to fill we may imagine to have been at first a blank white canvas. The architect could apply his colors in the colors of his building stones or marbles; he could give texture by the roughness or smoothness of his materials. The chief things were the masses, and the lights and shades,which he could apply by means of his windows, doorways, cornices, and moldings, and by the projecting courses of masonry. He could arrange different colored stones and marbles so as to produce a pattern for the sake of decoration, as is so beautifully done on the front of the Doges' palace at Venice. Wherever stones were raised or brought forward, lights would appear, and receding parts would be veiled in shadow. All the rules that would rightly govern an artist in composing a picture would apply to the composition of the facade. Different treatment would be needed, as of course you see, and the architect would so plan as to have the result express the uses and meaning of the building.

It is a general truth that each style began in simplicity and gradually grew more complicated. It was so with the Renaissance, as we shall see while tracing its growth and decline.Its history is divided by Professor Hamlin into four periods, as follows :

The Early Renaissance or Formative Period, 1420-90, characterized by the grace and freedom of the decorative detail suggested by Roman art, and applied to compositions of great variety and originality; the High Renaissance of Classic Period, 1490-1550, during which classic details were copied with fidelity, the orders appearing in the Baroque ; Ornate Renaissance tomb in the Rococo, 1600 to 1700, a period marked by poverty of invention, and a predominance of sham and display in decoration, huge scrolls, florid stucco work, and general architectural impropriety.

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