Criticism Of Renaissance Architecture

THERE was undoubtedly in Italy at the time that this style was introduced, a wide development of villa and pal-ace construction with certain general arrangements peculiar to the country and the time, but these arrangements as regards detail would come within the province of the student of domestic economy or of social life rather than under the notice of the critic of art. Each country of Europe had likewise its own methods of arrangement and construction, and each adopted the one ornamental style from Italy, just as Italy had adopted the one ornamental style from the ruins of Rome. In France, for instance, one dominant type of building was a country seat evolved from the older feudal castle. In Germany, houses which are palpably continuations of the medieval fashions were veneered with Italian ornament.

It follows that when we face the historic monuments we have to deal rather with a period than a ” style,” at least so far as similarities of construction are concerned.

In order then to specify “Renaissance” traits one needs simply the ability to distinguish the “Orders” of the Greeks as they were used by the Romans ; the Tuscan Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian (with its bastard variant, the Composite). One needs to be familiar with the divisions of architrave, and frieze, and cornice, and the peculiar de-tails allotted to each member according to the Doric and Ionic methods respectively. One needs sufficient familiarity with ornamental patterns to know the stamp of a classic design. Otherwise a knowledge of the Italian Renaissance architecture is a knowledge of special historic buildings, of individual examples; above all a knowledge of the distinctions between better and worse, early and late, which are to the student of history the most interesting reflex of the general changes in historic life.

There is, however, one matter of especial importance to the criticism of Renaissance art, viz.: a knowledge of the general attitude of modern criticism to the Roman architecture which was copied.

It is a well established canon of criticism that the application made by the Romans of Greek elements of construction to purposes of ornament without reference to constructive meaning, was a departure from Greek ideals of art and from the theoretic ideal of art in general. According to these ideals the first mission of form is to express and convey its use.

A column, therefore, which was devised as a means of support, allowing of intervening open spaces, is not a thoroughly appropriate decorative member as applied to a solid wall, where intervening spaces are not desired. The significance of a capital is to emphasize by ornament the point of pressure, of a base, to emphasize by ornament the point of support, of a cornice, to emphasize by ornament the roof line. The significance of a division between “architrave” and “frieze” is the existence of an actual stone lintel supporting another lintel, both destined to sup-port the ceiling of a portico. When these various members are simply imitative carvings on a solid surface to which they bear no relation of ornamental emphasis, they have in so far lost their meaning.

For the Romans themselves, who in many other ways lacked the higher refinement of the earlier Greeks, we have a historic point of view which does not demand that they should have been more than they were. Moreover, we know that although they frequently overlooked the theoretic principle in question, they did not do so at the expense of general effects of construction. Their construction was solid, massive, powerful, and imposing, and their use of the Greek colonnades in surface ornament was not such as to impair these effects, and was in its way certainly decorative and picturesque. In other words they essentially, according to their own needs and character, built sensibly and artistically, without claiming or showing the higher refinement of the Greeks, whose forms they adopted and used.

For the architecture of the early Renaissance we are again obliged to make the concession due to common sense and to history, as regards the use of the ” engaged ” columns and entablatures. As for the Italians themselves, it must be remembered also that they were unacquainted with ancient Greek architecture, which first came into notice in the latter half of the eighteenth century. (At this late date men of learning in Rome were planning an exploration of southern Italy to study the Greek ruins supposed to be there, as remains of the old Greek colonies of south Italy. As late as the eighteenth century it was not known that the Greek ruins at Paestum were the only ones, and this shows how recently they had then attracted attention.) The virtues of early Renaissance buildings, like those of the Romans, are also superior to the theoretic objection to the ” engaged ” columns and entablatures based on the original use and meaning of the Greek colonnade. The delicacy and vigor of their ornament, the large effects of mass and surface, and the practical adherence to constructive appearance, are worthy of all praise in the early Renaissance.

It is in the decadence of the Renaissance that we find cause especially to regret the use of the ” engaged ” column, simulated entablature and pediment above all, when their influence on our own modern standards of taste is considered.

In this decadence the wall column and associated features became a mania, a tedious repetition, a mechanical and life-less formula. The influence of this decadence is shown in many of our American Renaissance buildings, which must be judged and condemned accordingly.

The one objectionable feature of the Renaissance style was that it tended to divorce the system of ornament from the system of construction; not only because one was ancient and the other was modern, but also because the Romans themselves had admitted the opening wedge in this direction. When this divorce had been finally effected there was no bound to the license of arbitrary forms and lines. The effect on modern taste of the later Renaissance decadence was to obliterate the perception that a general correspondence between form and use, a correspondence in which ornament is consequently used to emphasize or indicate construction, is the only standard admissible in the strict criticism of buildings, furniture, and utensils.

Generally speaking, the division of dates already fixed by the downfall of the Italian Free-states marks the time when the decadence first began (1530). It showed itself in the later part of the sixteenth century mainly by a colder and more mechanical execution of decorative details, by a more formal and rigid application of the “Orders” to wall surfaces. In the early Renaissance the ornamental scroll-work is more elastic and spirited, the carving of details is bolder and finer, the relief of the projected columns and entablatures is lower.

The higher the projection and relief of the “engaged” columns and pediments, the later the date. In late Renaissance the feeling of the architect was more fretful, more anxious for effect, less suggestive of reserve and power. For the higher and more numerous the projections of the ornament, the deeper and more numerous the shadows. These shadows again, when not determined by construction, detract from the effects of mass and the repose and power of the main lines and surfaces of the building.

In the seventeenth century there was an ever-increasing tendency to multiply the breaks of surface and of outline, often of so bold and so forceful design that it is difficult not to admire, even when we feel disposed to criticise or at least to withhold approval. On the whole, delicacy, refinement, and repose distinguish the early Renaissance (before 1530). On the whole, picturesque license, bold but arbitrary out-lines, and cold and mechanical details, distinguish the seventeenth century.

The eighteenth century continued in the same tendencies until the ” Greek Revival ” at its close reacted against them, and for a time displaced them by a more formal, more ” correct,” though colder, and perhaps equally mechanical, resurrection of the original Greek forms. The force of the above remarks regarding the relation of style to period will be considerably strengthened if the reader will immediately proceed to compare in bulk the illustrations for Chapter X. (fifteenth century) with those for Chapter XII. (seventeenth century). The illustrations for Chapter XI. (sixteenth century) will relate, as the case may be, and according to comparative dates, either to the fifteenth or seventeenth century as regards tendencies.

In spite of the above distinctions and gradations of Renaissance style, as between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries inclusive, we are also obliged to admit that as late as the eighteenth century bold and powerful composition was still generally practiced and that our own nineteenth century Renaissance has been, generally speaking, the weakest of all, both in composition and detail. The exceptions to this rule are mainly recent, and dating from the revival of architectural taste visible in the later nineteenth century.

The general course of evolution in Italian architecture which we have just sketched corresponds, it should be observed, to a similar evolution which can be verified for the Gothic, Roman and Greek styles. All began with simplicity, vigor, and power all tended to become more elaborate, ornamental, and picturesque all ended in complexity, relative weakness, over-elaboration, and straining for effect.

It should also be observed that the history of Italian painting and Italian sculpture illustrates a parallel and similar development, a parallel and similar decline.

( Originally Published 1894 )

Renaissance And Modern Art:The Renaissance PeriodContemporaneous HistoryPosition Of Art In The Italian RenaissanceHistory Of Italy Since The Renaissance And The Decline Of Italian ArtDivisions Of Renaissance Periods And StyleThe Traits Of Renaissance ArchitecturePhilosophy Of Renaissance ArchitectureRenaissance Architecture In Theory And In PracticeCriticism Of Renaissance ArchitectureHistoric Sketch Of 15th Century Renaissance ArchitectureRead More Articles About: Renaissance And Modern Art