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Renaissance Architecture In Europe

( Originally Published 1921 )


I. Geographical.—The Renaissance of Classic architecture, which started in Italy in the fifteenth century, spread westwards throughout all those countries of Europe which had formed the Western Roman Empire. This general survey of the geographical extent of the insidious new development indicates broadly the lines along which it travelled ; while the modifications it underwent, owing to geographical position, are explained in detail under each country. The Eastern Empire, with its capital at Byzantium, was gradually falling before the Turk, and therefore these districts did not come under the influence of the new movement. The countries of Italy (p. 551), France (p. 619), Germany (p. 649), Belgium and Holland (p. 661), Spain (p. 673), and England (p. 69o) were subject to special geographical influences which affected the character of the architecture.

II. Geological.—Geological formation varies so widely in different parts of Europe that its influence cannot here be taken into account with regard to the whole of Western Europe, but must be considered under each country. Geological conditions, however, are practically continuous in any given country, and they have already been described under the sections on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The countries of Italy (p. 552), France (p. 619), Germany (p. 649), Belgium and Holland (p. 661), Spain (p. 673), and England (p. 691) were subject to special geological influences which affected the character of the architecture.

II. Climatic.—The climate, which differs vastly over such an extensive area, is constant throughout the different periods, and has also been productive of widely different architectural treatment in each country to meet the weather conditions, as has been seen in the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The countries of Italy (p. 552), France (p. 619), Germany (p. 649), Belgium and Holland (p. 662), Spain (p. 674), and England (p. 691) were subject to special climatic influences which affected the character of the architecture.

IV. Religious.—The whole trend of religious activities in Europe was affected by the invention of printing, and the consequent spread of know-ledge engendered a spirit of inquiry and freedom of thought which, under Wycliffe (A.D. 1324–84) in England and Luther (A.D. 1483–1546) in Germany, had produced a certain desire to break away from Romish influence. This renewed vigour in intellectual life led to Reformation in religion, and Renaissance in literature and architecture, with a consequent outbreak of building activity. In England this took the form of domestic' architecture, which had also received a special impulse from the diffusion among laymen of the wealth and lands of monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII. In Italy, on the other hand, where the Reformation took no hold, and where, moreover, comparatively few churches were built during the Middle Ages, there was a revival of ecclesiastical as well as of domestic architecture, and Renaissance churches were erected on a great scale. France, Spain, and the Netherlands were all influenced in different degrees by the new movement, and, as we shall see, this was expressed architecturally in varying ways. The Jesuits, who headed the counter-Reformation, carried the later Renaissance style through all parts of Europe, while at the same time they gave a special character to the churches they erected (p. 546). The countries of Italy (p. 553), France (p. 619), Germany (p. 65o), Belgium and Holland (p. 662), Spain (p. 674), and England (p. 691) were subject to special religious influences which affected the character of the architecture.

V. Social.—The new intellectual movement manifested itself earlier in literature than in architecture, and thus had influenced public taste. Dante (A.D. 1265–1321), Petrarch (A.D. 1314–74), and Boccaccio (A.D. 1313–75), by their writings, aided the spread of the newly discovered Classic literature which prepared the ground for a revolt against Mediaeval art, in favour of a revival of ancient Roman architecture, while the capture of the old Classic city of Constantinople by the Turks (A.D. 1453) caused an influx of Greek scholars into Italy, and their learning further influenced an age already ripe for change. Amongst the Greek and Roman literature brought to light about this time was the " Treatise on Architecture " by Vitruvius, written in the time of Augustus, which, first issued in Latin at Rome (A.D. 1486), was translated into Italian in A.D. 1521. Erasmus (A.D. 1467–1536), one of the Greek scholars of the period, directed public attention to the original text of the New Testament and to the Greek Classics, as a corrective to the writings of mystical Mediaeval philosophers, whose authority had so long been in the ascendant. A return to Roman architectural style naturally came about first in Italy, where Mediaeval feudalism had never been firmly established, and where, moreover, city-states had developed municipal freedom and enterprise. The countries of Italy (p. 553), France (p. 620), Germany (p. 65o), Belgium and Holland (p. 662), Spain (p. 674), and England (p. 692) were subject to special social influences which affected the character of the architecture.

VI. Historical.—At the beginning of the sixteenth century in Europe the smaller states were gradually grouped into kingdoms under powerful rulers, who maintained authority by means of large standing armies. Three great inventions contributed to the general upheaval of these changing times. Gunpowder changed the method of warfare. The mariner's compass led to the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope by Diaz (A.D. 1486), and of America by Christopher Columbus (A.D. 1492), while Vasco da Gama sailed round the Cape to India (A.D. 1497) and made Goa the capital of the Portuguese territory there, and thus was started the foundation of colonies by European states. Printing, which appears to have been invented by Koster, of Haarlem (A.D. 1438), and John Fust at Mayence (A.D. 1442), promoted that spirit of inquiry which brought about reformation in religion and revival of learning. Copperplate engraving also came into use towards the end of the fifteenth century, and helped to spread a knowledge of architectural forms. Galileo (A.D. 1564—1642), by astronomical research, scientific discoveries, and expository discourses, changed the whole intellectual perspective of the times, especially by his startling discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but merely a small planet in the solar system. The countries of Italy (p. 559), France (p. 627), Germany (p. 65o), Belgium and Holland (p. 662), Spain (p. 674), and England (p. 697) were subject to special historical influences which affected the character of the architecture.


The Renaissance movement, which began in Italy early in the fifteenth century, created a break in the continuous evolution of European architecture which, springing from Roman and proceeding through Early Christian and Romanesque, had, during the Middle Ages, developed into Gothic in each country on national lines. Italy, which was still rich in her ancient Roman monuments, was naturally the pioneer in the Renaissance movement, especially as the Gothic style had never taken firm root in a country which had always clung to her old traditions. Though there was a ready reversion to Classic architectural forms, Gothic methods of construction often prevailed, because Roman methods of building in concrete had fallen into disuse during the Middle Ages. Thus did Classic style and forms triumph once again in spite of the prevalence for centuries of Gothic methods of construction, for which the Romans themselves had prepared the way. The two old systems were pressed into service to produce a style which, though it might be Gothic in construction, was outwardly Classic in character. The salient characteristic of this new departure was the employment of the Classic Roman " Orders " of architecture, which were now reintroduced after having been in abeyance for nearly 1,000 years. These " Orders "—Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite—which were standardised by Renaissance architects, such as Palladio, Vignola, Scamozzi, and Chambers (p. 757), were used, as by the Romans, both constructively and decoratively. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that mere copyism prevailed, for, although Roman precedent was followed, columns and entablatures appear in novel combinations for use in buildings designed to meet the requirements of the day. Thus was the style evolved which has formed the basis of most modern architecture. Renaissance architecture, instead of being the outcome of traditional methods, followed by the building crafts in general, now became rather the studied product of individual architects who with their pupils formed, as it were, schools of design. The biographies of architects, therefore, as given in the works of Quatremcre de Quincey, Vasari, and Milizia, are instructive as revealing the surroundings and incidents of their lives, the effect of which is reflected in the buildings. Italy was ripe, as we have seen, for this new phase ; for the arts were in the hands of skilled craftsmen, goldsmiths, and workers in metals, such as Benvenuto Cellini, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Brunelleschi, who looked on architecture as an art of form rather than of construction, and indeed were often, at the same time, painters and sculptors as well as architects. The various schools of painting likewise had their influence, so that buildings came to be treated very much as pictures, largely independent of structural necessity, which had been the controlling element in Mediaeval times. Thus, by a reversal of the Mediaeval process, architecture became an art of free expression, with beauty of design as the predominant idea. Renaissance architects consciously relied on a studied treatment of wall surface in massive, rusticated masonry as an architectural " motif " as seen in such buildings as the Riccardi (p. 558), the Strozzi (p. 561), and the Pesaro palaces. They also adopted the Byzantine treatment of domes over square compartments, and by increasing the height of the " drum " and decorating it (p. 544), not only with windows, but also with the now inevitable columns, they made the domes external dominating features (pp. 543 B, 577, 590). The pointed arch, which may be regarded as the sign-manual of Gothic architecture, was now ousted by the semicircular Roman arch. Gothic ribbed vaulting, too, which was such a striking feature of Mediaeval buildings, now gave place to the ancient Roman semicircular vaults and cross-vaults (p. 303 A). Cross-vaults of unequal span but equal height had the larger vault formed as an ellipse by means of " ordinates," so that the groins followed straight lines on plan (p. 303 D) instead of wavy lines as in the Romanesque period (p. 303 B). This vaulting, which was often formed of timber framing plastered and richly painted, was much used in the halls, corridors, and grand staircases of Renaissance buildings.

The Baroque (Fr., bizarre or fantastic) (p. 862) was a new phase of architectural development, which, in later Renaissance times, was revealed first in Rome and afterwards spread throughout Europe. It has such marked characteristics that we give a general sketch of its genesis and rise, while local characteristics are noticed under each country. It is sometimes called the Rococo style, and arose in the seventeenth century, when the true Renaissance had exhausted its energy and succumbed to the formal rules and monotonous regulations of schoolmen and Classicists, notably Palladio and Vignola, who, however, were themselves greater than the rules they formulated. The Baroque was perhaps chiefly the outcome of reaction against the blind worship of Vitruvius, the Roman architect of the Augustan age, who had laid down rules and whose latter-day sixteenth-century disciples handed out ,prescriptions for building which killed the vital spark of the true Renaissance spirit. Thus, when the spirit of art which giveth life had died down, schoolmen and Classicists sought to revive it and to bind it on the nation by insisting on the letter of the law which killeth. But the men of the free cities of Italy loved freedom and would not submit to the dead hand in art. The bookish formality in design had tended to reduce architecture to a lifeless product uninspiring in aspect, against which it is not surprising that the beauty-loving Italians should after a time have risen in revolt. They were weary of lifeless conventions, and they rose against the tyranny of stereotyped rules and standards of proportion. They demanded freedom—freedom in plan, in design, and in ornament. Thus, in the fullness of time the Renaissance style suffered a new change and passed into the Baroque, which at the beginning of the seventeenth century gave expression once again to the human side in architecture, for it was a spontaneous breaking away from orthodoxy in plan, design, and treatment. It is at its best an assertion of freedom, and at its worst a lapse into licence. This spirit of artistic independence was often expressed in sinuous frontages, over-burdened decoration, and apparent disregard of true constructive principles. There was often a straining after originality for its own sake which was apt to detract from the general unity of the design. Other features of the Baroque style consist of columns with twisted shafts, often placed in front of pilasters with cornices broken round them, and surmounted by clumsy curved pediments, huge wavy scrolls, and flying figures in dangerous-looking positions. Baroque interiors were often laden with exaggerated and unsuitable detail of carved ornament emphasised by gilding and accompanied by sculptured figures in contorted attitudes. The Baroque movement, in spite of its many and glaring defects, has perhaps been treated too harshly by critics, who have seized upon its faults without realising its genesis, as a breaking away from a type of architecture which had suppressed any efforts in novelty of design. Many a Baroque building, more especially in Italy, not only exhibits grandeur of general scheme, but also displays new possibilities in the use of ornament.

The Baroque treatment runs through the design and detail of the new villas and gardens of Italy which were built to meet the growing desire for freer life away from narrow streets and frowning prison palaces. The style itself is expressive of the joie de vivre, the spirit which inspired the desire for country life in the villas round Rome and in the pleasant Tuscan country. In designing these country residences the architects of the later Renaissance period could throw off the double restraint imposed by city sites and by city life, and the villas, summer-houses, fountains, and terraces bear testimony to the architectural revolt which was abroad in the country. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that this latest phase of Renaissance was a joyous outburst of art which was mundane in conception, often florid in execution, and always intolerant of restraint. In spite of these characteristics, it was largely adopted for church architecture at this period in Italy, when the church too was in joyous mood ; inasmuch as it had successfully resisted the Reformation movement, and its coffers were enriched from so many sources that it was able to spend large sums on building both churches and palaces. It is nothing short of paradoxical that the Baroque style should have been seized upon by the Jesuits for their own, to such an extent that- it became known as the Jesuit style of architecture ; yet there is nothing Jesuitical about it, except perhaps that as Jesuits embodied resistance to austerity in religion, so the Baroque style was a revolt against the same qualities in later pedantic Renaissance art. Why should an art of such a nature have been forced to do service for churches, convents, and the cloistered life ? The explanation is probably the usual one that applies to architectural style, and that is that it was the style of the time, and as such the Jesuits turned it to their own use and harnessed it vaingloriously to the triumphal car of their church which they had saved from Reformation attack. As in the Mediaeval period all buildings, ecclesiastical and secular, were in the Gothic style, so in this later time all sorts of buildings were Baroque ; also at that period most buildings, religious and secular, owed their origin to the Church, whether churches, convents, palaces, or villas.

The whole Renaissance period, which was conspicuous for the many-sided nature of artists and craftsmen, was by the same token preeminently the golden age of accessories, in which tombs and monuments, altars and portals, fonts and fountains, executed in marble or bronze, gold or silver, were designed in accordance with the whim and fancy of master craftsmen, to adorn, not only the new structures, but also those of previous periods.

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