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Italian Renaissance - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

The Renaissance in Italy may be divided broadly into three periods, viz.: Early (fifteenth century), Middle (sixteenth century), and Late (seventeenth and eighteenth century), and Modern Architecture is referred to on.


The Renaissance of the fifteenth century in Italy had its birth in Florence where, under unique conditions and influences, a type of palace-building was evolved, to which huge blocks of rusticated masonry give an unusually massive and rugged appearance. The typical palace was built round an internal court, similar to a Roman atrium (p. 184 A, C, D) or a Mediaeval cloister, surrounded by an arcade supporting the walls of the upper storeys (pp. 558 c, 562 D). There is a general absence of pilasters as decorative features in the facades, which are therefore called " astylar " ; while sparing use of detail, together with concentration on pronounced features, produces boldness and simplicity of style. The imposing appearance of these massive palaces fronting on narrow streets is emphasised by boldly projecting roof cornices, which crown the walls and are proportioned to the height of the buildings, as in the Palazzo Riccardi (p. 558 A, B). The columnar arcade is naturally a favourite feature, not only in courtyards, but also in streets, as in the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Loggia S. Paolo. Early Renaissance churches are conspicuous for refinement, in strong contrast to the rugged, fortress-like character of the palaces. The architectural character owes much of its interest to the individual fancy of sculptors and painters. Among others there were Luca della Robbia (A.D. 1400-82), famous for his coloured glazed reliefs in terra-cotta, Lorenzo Ghiberti (A.D. 1378-1455), who designed the Baptistery doors (p. 566), and also Donatello (A.D. 1386-1466), Mino da Fiesole (A.D. 1431-84), and Benedetto da Majano (A.D. 1442-97), renowned for their bas-reliefs, carvings, and statues. Thus, with this wealth of genius, it is natural that altars and monuments, fonts and pulpits should be richly decorated with sculptured ornament. Florentine craftsmanship, whether displayed in capitals, consoles, corbels, arabesques, fountains, niches, or torch brackets, shows highly developed artistic perception and technical skill (pp. 6o5, 6o6). Not only does ornament depend upon the personality of the artist, but architectural design also now becomes the product of the individual architect rather than of a school of craftsmen working on traditional lines. The examples which follow will therefore be classified and considered under the names of the different architects; but it is typical of those spacious days in art and of the new spirit of emulation that architect, sculptor, and painter should often have been one and the same person, and examples of this combination are found in the versatile Leonardo da Vinci, the mighty Michelangelo, and the gentle Raphael.

The Baroque, a later outbreak of the Renaissance style (p. 545), obtained little real foothold in Florence, the birth-city of the Renaissance ; for she was well stocked with grand churches and noble palaces in the style which was peculiarly her own. Inside Florence there are gardens, such as the Boboli, which are Baroque in style ; outside the City of the Lily, in the smiling Tuscan plains, there was more scope for the exercise of the architecture of the curved line. Florentines sought for freedom of living and for wider spaces outside their city of fortress-palaces, and so in the Tuscan villas we shall not fail to see the free Baroque spirit at work.

In Genoa the Baroque style is seen in those great portals along the street of palaces ; also internally in the daring treatment of the grand staircases, which are so ingeniously adapted to make imposing approaches to the " piano nobile " (principal floor) of the palaces which border the hill-side on which the. city stands.


The Renaissance style, when adopted in Rome, was marked by the traits common to it in Europe generally (p. 542), and had, in addition, its special Roman character. The Classic Orders were used in facades and cortili (pp. 567, 568, 570, 578), and conformity to ancient Roman architecture prevailed, while the size and simplicity of Roman palaces are alone sufficient to produce an effect of dignity (pp. 567 A, 578 B). The principle of unity animated architects of the later school, and this unity of design was achieved by including, as in the Capitoline facades, two or more storeys in one Order of pilasters, sometimes crowned by an attic storey. Arcuation was sparingly introduced, except in tiers of arcades, in imitation of the Colosseum. Roman Renaissance ornament displays great technical skill and fine craftsmanship, owing to the facility for studying the best examples of ancient Roman art, but more especially owing to the inherited capacity of Roman craftsmen (pp. 607, 6o8).

The Baroque style (p. 545) arose first in Rome when architects had become satiated with the old and purely Classic forms and hungered for something fresh and piquant. Classic and Renaissance architecture had' its chief expression in the straight line, with all the limitations this implied, and the Baroque style may be said to be the architecture of the curved line, with all the variety of possibilities to which this gives rise. A large number of churches of the later Renaissance period in the City of the Popes, if not flauntingly Baroque, have at any rate the seed of the new style in the freedom of plan and design. In Rome, the place of its birth, this new version seems more in harmony with its surroundings than in the less brilliant northern climates, and in gazing on the many fountains of the papal city who shall dare to say that the Baroque is wholly bad ? From Rome the style naturally travelled to Naples and many cities of southern Italy, such as the unique little town of Lecce, where it was often used in a discriminating way to produce pleasingly original effects.


The Renaissance style in Venice is distinguished from that of the rest of Europe by features peculiarly Venetian, and it is coloured by the history and unique character of the sea-city, with its own beautiful type of Gothic architecture, far from Rome and from her Classic traditions. Therefore, between Gothic and fully developed Renaissance, there was a period of transition during which Venetian buildings displayed combined Gothic and Renaissance features, as seen in the pointed arches of the Renaissance facade in the courtyard of the Doge's Palace (p. 591 B). The architecture of Venice is, in general, lighter and more graceful than that of Florence, and both columns and pilasters are freely used in design. A special Venetian feature is the central grouping of windows framed on either side by unbroken wall spaces of the comparatively flat palace facades which outline the water-ways (p. 592). The rustication of walls, as at Florence, is unusual, and there is generally an Order with its cornice to each storey, in contrast to the great crowning Florentine cornices. The frieze was sometimes of great depth with windows worked into it (pp. 592 c, 596 A) . Balconies (pp. 592 B, D, 611 B) are graceful and important features and their projection gives light and shade to the flat facades, which elsewhere is obtained by recessing portions of the structure. The regularity of a Venetian facade is described by Browning :

"Window just with window mating,
Door on door exactly waiting."

The Grand Canal, which forms the main highway of Venice, is made famous not only by its fine palace facades, but also by its incomparable Rialto Bridge, with its shops and fine architectural treatment (p. 611 E).

The later period of Venetian Renaissance is characterised by perfection of boldly designed detail which produced strong effects of light and shade, as in S. Mark's Library and in palaces by Sansovino (A.D. 14861570) ; while heavy rustication distinguished the basement from the upper part of the facades (p. 592 A, B, C). Venetian Renaissance ornament, whether in doorways, capitals, entablatures, panels, or candelabra, is characterised by refinement and freedom of line, with the natural additional introduction of seaweed forms amongst the carved foliage.

The Baroque style (p. 545) may be said to have been welcomed in Venice as yet another opportunity of giving expression to her own free and independent spirit. She had never been trammelled by any undue observance of hard-and-fast rules of style in the erection of the wonderful buildings on her ocean site. Now the moment was opportune for starting some new styles, for the sea-city was ready to erect churches as votive offerings to God for deliverance from the ravages of plague. The style of the curved line was not really suitable for palaces which rose sheer from the waters of the canals, because here the fact that they were reflected in the water may have unconsciously limited the design to the use of straight lines in facades ; but for churches, which were often set back on their stepped approaches, it was possible to get an allround treatment, more like that of the French country chateaux, which were to be seen, not only on a frontage but also on all sides. Thus S. Maria della Salute (p. 604 A), rising gloriously from her water-steps, crowned by her great dome upheld by scrolled buttresses, emphasised both by lateral pinnacles and by the choir dome and with all the free paraphernalia of sinuous lines and broken pediments, is typical of the free Venetian spirit. As we gaze upon this unique pile, gorgeous in its freedom of conception and execution, we cannot but feel that here is the apotheosis of the Baroque style ; and indeed we ask ourselves : what would Venice be without the Salute ?

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