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The Italian Renaissance

( Originally Published 1912 )



OUR little party of architects climbed from the Adriatic to the heights of Urbino, traveled over the hills of Tuscany, and crossed the furrowed plains of Lombardy; together, also, we made a hurried visit to Rome. Thus we had opportunity to review the causes of the wonderful overturn of the old systems which we now call the Renaissance of architecture. We saw and studied the work done in those fruitful days by Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante, Peruzzi, and the other architects of that great epoch.

Though we are often told that Gothic art never took root in Italy, many a Gothic arch and crocket and gable show that it had for long a treatment of its own on Italian soil. True, if Gothic architecture be held to be a complete principle of construction, to which ornament is but an accessory, we must promptly agree that neither the Italians nor any other people except its French inventors ever thoroughly mastered its principles. But one can regard architectural detail as merely a decorative expression, and as an indication of the trend of thought of those who use it. This is all the substance there is to most of the historical "periods." Accepting this view, we must admit that in Italy of the Middle Ages pointed architecture was universal, and its detail imbued with native peculiarities. In mediaeval Florence the Gothic tower of the Palazzo Vecchio looked down on the stir and the strife, the pageants and the troubles of the city. Above the Florentine Duomo the bells rang notes of triumph or alarm, of joy or sadness, from amid the spiral shafts and pointed arches of Giotto's Gothic belfry. Siena even today remains a Gothic city. Its narrow streets are closed in with mediŠval palaces and the shadow of its slender clock-tower tells off the hours on the fronts of Gothic houses encircling its great piazza. Perhaps the spirit of the Middle Ages has clung more to San Gemignano than to any other Tuscan city. The Renaissance left little mark upon it, and there has been hardly a change since the days when Dante trod its streets. Pointed arch and cusp and trefoil abound there. Above steep street and grim palaces the city still "lifts to heaven her diadem of towers." These lofty eyries are so unchanged that in fancy we easily garrison them with the rioting factions of the Salvucci and Ardinghelli hurling rocks and blazing pitch from tower to tower. These abundant remains on all sides indicate that although Tuscany was the birthplace of the Renaissance, it for centuries had neglected its classic traditions and bore a thoroughly mediŠval character.

Not far away, however, from these mediŠval Gothic cities lies Montepulciano, one of those Tuscan towns where the Renaissance spirit had free play. It is remote from the railroad, and, like so many of its neighbors, clings, shaggy and gray, to the mountain top. For two hours we toil upwards. In the mists far below us are the green waters "of reedy Thrasymene," and the broad plain that beheld the triumph of Carthage stretches far to where, in the haze, lie Siena and the heights of Perugia and Arezzo. The main street of the town climbs steep between crowded buildings to the battlemented tower of the Palazzo Publico, which crowns the city. On the sides of the little square and down the narrow streets are Renaissance palaces. The church of San Biagio is a successful example of the Renaissance domed church with four short arms. If in San Gemignano we see a town that stopped building with the advent of the Renaissance, its neighbor, Montepulciano, indicates what happened to those. which prospered and built when classical forms began to meet with favor. Still more is this apparent in the little town of Pienza. Here was born AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who finally became Pope Pius II, and whose history forms the subject of Ghirlandaio's frescoes on the walls of the library at Siena. Before its prosperous son returned to it, as well as after he left it, the town must have been a very humble one, for there is nothing in it now of any interest to the traveler except the little square that is surrounded by the papal buildings. Here a Renaissance cathedral faces a public palace. The classic dwelling of the Pope is vis-Ó-vis to that of the Bishop. The whole group surrounding the piazza is interesting, as being the plaything of a church dignitary who lived in the full tide of the Renaissance, and, like his fellows, enjoyed the building arts.

These classic houses of Montepulciano, its church of San Biagio, and the piazza of Pienza, found in the midst of mediaeval Tuscany, illustrate how promptly and decidedly the Renaissance spirit appealed to the Italian mind of the fifteenth century; and

what seemed to us most remarkable, here and throughout Tuscany, was the sweeping manner in which all Gothic and mediaeval traditions appear to have been, not only forever, but at once overturned in these their strongholds. With ever-increasing surprise we recognized the strength and spontaneity with which the new spirit, almost full grown, took immediate possession of the world.

This Renaissance of classic architecture began in Florence, under Brunelleschi and Alberti. Later, in the north, another school arose in Milan, under Bramante, and these two branches finally met and produced their highest results at Rome. We tried to trace these schools in their respective fields, and it was of course in Florence itself that we found the visible first fruits of the Renaissance, so far as architecture is concerned. At Pisa, it is true, we saw how Nicholas, the sculptor, had drawn inspiration from ancient Roman models for the figures on his pulpits; but the Gothic carvers of the fašades of Paris and Amiens had done as much a hundred years earlier, and the wonder is that artists and craftsmen should ever have ceased to cherish and assimilate the ancient work by which they were surrounded, and which was so far beyond their own powers. Apparently, however, for a hundred years after Nicholas of Pisa, men paid no heed to the architectural monuments of antiquity around them. The real awakening came almost simultaneously to collectors, who were eager for jewels, coins, and ivories from Greece and Rome; to scholars, who with avidity sought the classic manuscripts which until then had been buried in the monasteries; to painters and sculptors and architects, who suddenly saw beauty in the models of classical antiquity, and strove to graft the antique traditions on the civilization of their own time. What the French sculptors of the twelfth century strove to imitate; what Nicholas of Pisa faintly saw in the thirteenth century; what Petrarch at Padua, and Giotto, Orcagna, and Simone Memmi in Tuscany, found in the classics to delight them in the fourteenth century, all this finally took form with the quattro-centists, and was spread by many helping spirits over Tuscany and the world. As for architecture, this movement began in Florence, and the return to detail carefully studied upon the ancient Roman models was abrupt and without transition. Brunelleschi's was the guiding active mind, the Medici gave the opportunities, Donatello's refined genius inspired the decoration. The spirit of the Renaissance gradually became a patriotic fervor. Men thought they had reclaimed their inheritance from the Caesars, and wondered that they had ever fallen away from the wonderful models all around them.

The hill country of Tuscany had appeared to us a rude and savage nursery for the culture and refinement of modern civilization, but the same cannot be said of the Val d' Arno. On the contrary, it seemed but fitting that from such surroundings should come dignity and refinement. Its setting of hill and farm, of river and verdure, gives to the "City of the Lily " half of its charm. What walks and drives we take in these early spring days by the wooded banks of the Arno, where men are filling their long-prowed shallops with sand, and where, beneath the trees, across the wide stretches of river, we get glimpses of the city's domes and towers! We have to shut our eyes to the signs of modern progress in the close neighborhood of the city, but soon we find ourselves where boughs of flowering peach and almond hang over the walls that border the roads. Then we emerge among the green fruitful fields. The broad roofs and white walls of villa and farmhouse are backed by dark and slender cypresses, and beneath the vines that are festooned from tree to tree the ground is bright with anemone and poppy, with cowslip and prim-rose. We climb the hills above these fertile plains, through olive orchards and oak woods, to the heights of Fiesole, and look away over dark pine grove and rocky hillside, and across the hazy checkered plains, to purple mountains. Far beneath us, the silver thread of the Arno, winding swiftly by field and farm, divides the widespread city, where rise Arnolfo's palazzo and Giotto's campanile and the vast mass of Brunelleschi's dome.

Perhaps the youthful Brunelleschi made his famous journey to Rome, in 1403, in hope of learning from ancient examples how to roof the great church that Arnolfo and Giotto had left unfinished. At all events, he and Donatello spent three years in Rome together, measuring and sketching, and returned full of an enthusiasm about all they had seen, which had far-reaching consequences. The huge dome with which Brunelleschi later crowned the church is always spoken of as the great work of the Early Renaissance. A great work it surely is, but possibly less a work of the highest art than a great engineering feat. His contemporaries were amazed at it as a work of construction. Alberti, for instance, generously praised it, but chiefly because such a wonder was built without the aid of wooden centring. Its barren grandeur certainly suggests little artistic excellence except such as it obtains from immense size. It was, without doubt, the first great dome of its kind, and the prototype of innumerable later and of some better designs; but whatever impressiveness it now has is due to its being a vast and capacious object. In Florence, Brunelleschi as a constructor and engineer was visible in this enormous barren dome, but to find Brunelleschi the artist, the original inspiring spirit of Renaissance architecture, we had to seek him in the churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito. In these pure and simple works, antique colonnades take the place of Gothic piers, and classic caissoned ceilings are the substitute for Gothic vaulted roofs. Every ornament not rigidly architectural is excluded, and what remains is chaste and simple and strictly after classic Roman models. The rugged walls of the Pitti Palace, also due to Brunelleschi, are broad and grandiose, though devoid of ornament; but in the Pazzi Chapel, which forms one side of the cloister of Santa Croce, we find him using dainty and elaborate classic ornament. His immediate predecessors, who were mainly decorators, had cared for infinite detail, no matter to what extent it might mask fundamental constructive form. We see such work in the incrustations of Giotto's campanile, and of the duomos at Orvieto and Siena. From these influences Brunelleschi's simple and clear methods led men's minds not only to the new fashion of ancient classic detail, but to more logical architectural methods.

During a brief period Florence abounded in designers who followed in the steps of Brunelleschi. The city is not so changed but that imagination readily peoples it with the rich and ardent life of these early days of the Renaissance. We can forget for the moment the fresh Italian regiments treading these old gray streets to the merry notes of their bugles, and see in their places the bright-garbed crowds that Benozzo Gozzoli, and Masaccio, and Masolino, and Fabriano depict; Poggio with manuscripts cunningly rifled from monastery libraries, Della Robbia dreaming of his blue-and-white Madonnas, Fra Angelico seeing brilliant angels in the golden sunsets down the Arno, Ghiberti designing his portals, Donatello modeling his statues, Mino da Fiesole carving tomb and pulpit and altar, Michelozzo and Sangallo directing the building of palace and of church. Alberti's generous letter, praising the work of his friends, Brunelleschi, Della Robbia, and Masaccio, suggests the enthusiasm which prevailed among this emulous band of artists. Their labors can be traced in all the towns about Florence. At Prato we find the classic elegance of Sangallo's work in the church of the Carceri. We see at Rimini and elsewhere the gracious and elegant work of that most picturesque personality, Alberti, Ś that canon of the church who embraced the Renaissance sentiment with such fervor that, far from being content with an inspiration gained from antiquity, he dreamed of a definite restoration of pagan life and a reŰstablishment of the ancient civilization. But, after all, the astonishing thing to note everywhere about the Tuscan Renaissance is the rapidity with which it reached maturity. When Brunelleschi and his comrades left the field to their successors, little remained to be done on the lines they had laid down. Broadly speaking, they anticipated the greater part of what was perfected during the next hundred years.

While the Florentine school had been pursuing the course mapped out by Brunelleschi, another school and another master had been at work in the north. In Milan and its neighborhood we can trace and study the early work of Bramante. There are many buildings in the flat Lombard country designed either by him, or by pupils so near to him that they are truly Bramantesque. In the main they are a little disappointing. The Bramante of this period is a shadowy sort of person, vaguely recognized as a power working for elegance, proportion, and daintiness. One gains the impression that he made sketches which were carried out more or less imperfectly by others. Perhaps the school reached its highest perfection in the Incoronata of Lodi, where to the delicate Bramantesque detail is added the charm of faded pale frescoes and golden-vaulted ceilings picked out with strong red and blue.

In 1493 misfortune overtook Bramante's patron, and in 1499 Bramante left Milan for Rome. His successors in Lombardy paid less heed to that purity and simplicity of style which had distinguished him. The later work of this Milanese school is seen in the richly carved and incrusted fašades of the Certosa at Pavia. Bramante, however, at the age of fifty-five, infirm and unable to draw, now in Rome first saw the Pantheon, the Coliseum, the Baths of Diocletian. His spirit was ardent enough to be stirred by the genius of antiquity. Abandoning his Milanese past he changed his whole course and became imbued with the antique classic spirit to a degree attained before only by Brunelleschi. In Rome he built in stone, and not in brick and terra cotta. At the papal court his clients were both rich and cultivated. In that capital he spoke to the world. Under such influences, he as naturally arrived at being great as before he had been pleasing. So we find him at the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the Palazzo Giraud, and finally in the whole scheme of the Vatican courts and the church of St. Peter. His early training enabled him to add some thing of the variety and force and charm of northern and mediŠval work to the majesty of ancient building. To him it was given not only to see, but to found, one school in the freshness of the Early Renaissance in North Italy, and another in its zenith in Rome.

Although, as we have said, the Renaissance of architecture took its rise in the Florence of Brunelleschi and Alberti, and was nurtured in Milan by Bramante, most of its great masters sooner or later were attracted to the Eternal City. Peruzzi there added to the elegance of Bramante a richness and sumptuousness that the latter never permitted to himself. His work marks the highest standard of the Early Renaissance.

Almost directly after his day the sway of Michael Angelo began. Much of his architecture is certainly careless and unfinished; such, for instance, as that which we see at the Medici tombs, or as his meaningless staircase at the Laurentian Library. We cannot, however, forget that he designed the mighty cornice of the Farnese Palace, and that his hand "rounded Peter's dome." But his example had the strongest and most lasting influence through his use of the great orders. Many of us may regret that the Early Renaissance was turned aside into other paths before it had attained complete results. Most of us find delight in the fanciful and poetic phase of its history, when to the love of antique form were joined the consummate skill and graceful fancy which covered pilaster and panel, capital and architrave, church stall and marriage chest, with leaf, tendril, and flower, and a multitudinous world of real and imaginary animal forms. All these and the color that enlivened them passed away with the earlier school, but the close study of the orders which succeeded to it, and the rigid dependence upon them of the artists of the Late Renaissance, had its peculiar merit. It was certainly architecture pure and simple, depending in no way on other allied arts. Its effects were due wholly to proportion, harmony, and a nice study of architectural detail. In the hands of these masters such qualities were not arrived at by means as mechanical as Mr. Ruskin would have us think. The masters of the Renaissance never agreed among themselves on the proportion proper for an order. The ancients used every variety of proportion. In fact, good classic design with the orders requires even now individual judgment and offers liberty but not license. And so let us, not heeding Mr. Ruskin, reckon Scamozzi and Sansovino and Palladio and the other masters of the later Renaissance not as mechanical imitators but as great artists.

As the Renaissance was in its origin a modern movement, so it has remained the foundation for modern art. It quickly established a type for modern palatial architecture in the frowning strength of the Florentine palaces and in the dignity and elegance of those of Rome, while the later palaces of Venice, if 'somewhat vulgar in detail, are still models for modern palatial work.

In church architecture, however, the Early Renaissance never reached a final or consummate result. At the very outset Brunelleschi gave an elegant classic dress to the ancient Gothic forms, but the most enthusiastic could scarcely claim that he surpassed the mediaeval solution of the same problem. Perhaps he intended to have color adorn those rather chilly interiors; and, set off by gold and fresco, their elegant detail would have given richer results. During the entire Renaissance period the favorite scheme for a church was a domed building with short projecting arms. There are many dainty examples of this idea around Milan worked out under the influence of Bramante. Indeed, such was Bramante's design for St. Peter's; but one architect after another changed and marred the design of that mighty building. Now we can only guess what might have been the perfected result of Renaissance church building.

Our party are all familiar with Rome, but we spend one wonderful Easter Day there. As we traverse its streets, the whole history of the Renaissance architecture we have been studying is passed in review. Here stand before us not only the highest results of that art, which, as we have seen, came to Rome from Florence and Milan, but also the ancient classic models which had inspired both Florentine and Milanese. It is a wonderful experience. True, it is not the Rome best known to the oldest of our party; the Rome of the Great Council, when the streets were full of the state coaches of dignitaries; when St. Peter's was brilliant with processions; when the Pope, borne aloft beneath the ostrich plumes, was followed by gray-bearded patriarchs and red-robed cardinals, by archbishops and bishops beyond numbering; when Papal Zouaves made the streets and cafÚs bright, and the Ghetto's narrow lanes swarmed with picturesque contadini; when the Tiber flowed between marshy banks, and death lay in wait for the "forestieri" who dared to breathe its pestilential miasma at sunset. Modern improvements have despoiled the city of its picturesque charm, but our duty to humanity compels us to look upon the walled river-banks, the wide streets, and the destruction of dirt and filth, if with regret, yet with a certain approval.

In crossing the city, our road lies by the great temples and the forums. Accustomed as we are to line-engravings of the orders, and to hearing ancient Roman architecture described as mechanical and inartistic by writers like Mr. Fergusson, it is invigorating to get a fresh look at the real thing, as we do in the Forum. Where can one find a richer, better carved, or more exuberant decoration of any period than that on the remains of such a building as the Temple of Concord? The freedom and juiciness of the Early Renaissance work is only an echo from the work of Classic days. One appreciates in Rome that it is often hard to distinguish between carvings of the two periods.

But our drive extends beyond the Forum, and at last we enter the mighty Coliseum. How humble and minute we feel before the tremendous mass of that immense structure ! How small and insignificant seems the work that engrosses us moderns ! One irreverent thought alone upholds us. It is a comfort to see that the giants who built it were unable to roof it. A paltry patch of velarium to keep the sun from the Emperor's eyes, a sad trouble in a gale, was the nearest they could come to our spider-web, wide-spanned roofs.

Later, and in humble mood, we continue back by the Forum and the Temples and the Palaces of the Caesars to the neighbor-hood of the Renaissance palaces. We pay homage to Bramante at the Cancelleria and the Giraud, to Peruzzi at the Massimi, to Sangallo and Michael Angelo at the overpowering Palazzo Farnese. The sun shines brightly as we reach the piazza before St. Peter's Church. The fountains on each side of the obelisk flash gayly. Men are ringing Easter peals with tremendous clangor on the tower bells as we join the crowds moving up to the doors. All this fairly intoxicates us. We have been living in Florence with such austere companions as Brunelleschi and Alberti and Sangallo, and have enjoyed a little lighter refreshment amid the picturesqueness of Siena and San Gemignano. What a contrast it is when we pass through St. Peter's door, and there bursts on our view the sumptuous beauty of those gold-and-white ceilings, the crowded nave, the piers decked with red hangings, the great choir singing the service, and the cardinal standing at the lighted altar. The breath catches ! Mr. Fergusson says that the great pilasters are unmeaning, offensive, useless, that the window details are in the worst and most obtrusive taste. Perhaps these or other flagrant defects exist, but our little party is satisfied to ignore them as we sit in a row on the base mouldings of those very pilasters, feeling modest and small, and thankful to be there.

The cleverness of modern writers has not yet made the study of the English of Shakespeare, of Milton, and of the Bible useless to one who would arrive at excellence in literary style. The modern architect, for the same reasons, studies the works of those who were not only the masters of modern architecture but its very inventors. Our pilgrimage among their buildings is now a memory, but we shall not forget the daintiness of the Roman villas or the grace and ornate beauty of the Roman palaces. We have learned respect for those who built the church of St. Peter and the Palazzo Farnese; and we have seen, too, with our own eyes, how closely they were the descendants and the rightful heirs of those earlier giants who covered the Campus Martius with temple and portico and circus, and adorned the Palatine with palaces; who built the forums, and vaulted the baths, and domed the Pantheon, and who raised on its mighty arches the mass of the Flavian Amphitheatre.



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