Decadence Of Renaissance Architecture, 17th And 18th Centuries

IN THE latter part of the sixteenth century Italian architecture turned from the study and copy of the Roman buildings to the study and copy of its own earlier copies. The period of continuation and tradition set in, as against the period of original adaptation or of original creation mistaken for adaptation or disguised as adaptation.

In this period the method and the formula, that is to say the classic detail, became the main thing. The building was forgotten in its ornament. The whole became less important than its parts. The beautiful variety and real inventiveness of the early modern Italian art gradually disappeared, while the shell of its exterior and superficial appearance continued to subsist.

In illustrating the later course of this movement we shall find it interesting to choose a single motive and follow the course of its evolution. We will select the curvilinear pediment, which we first noticed at length over the door of Brunellesco (Fig. 30).

The examples of subsequent evolution are selected from the French Renaissance but will be typical for Italian counterparts and originals.

In the French doorway (Fig. 48) we notice, as compared with Brunelleso’s door, the higher projection and relief (designed to produce stronger shadows) both of the main design and of the ornamental carvings in detail; and the broken horizontals. This break in the horizontals is connected with the assumption of a double plane for the ornament, in which the central portion is thrown forward from the sides; the motive being to increase variety of surfaces, outlines, lights, and shadows.

A momentous step farther in the same direction is visible in our next French doorway (Fig. 49). Not only are the projections enormously exaggerated, but the entire pediment is broken into exterior wings with a recessed center.

This broken pediment line, also found in the triangular form of the same period, is to be seen in ruins of the Roman decadence, but it appears in Italian Renaissance art at a later date than does the unbroken form.

In our next doorway (Fig. 50), the central portion of the arc has disappeared entirely. The form can only be comprehended by reference to the preceding type.

Turn now to an entire cathedral facade of the late Spanish Renaissance and we have a type of the “baroque” Renaissance style as originally native to Italy of the seventeenth century (Fig. 51).

In this illustration the entire central front of the building is a built up travesty of our last motive. What had once been the framing of a door or window, and originally the ornament of a Roman niche for a statue, has become the entire front of a building. Meantime the original forms in their original place can be seen on windows and niches for statuary, of the same building.

The sway of this style in all parts of Europe is shown by the English example from St. Mary’s College at Oxford (Fig. 52), in which the twisted or spiral column appears, as an additional feature. Such columns must be understood as having been originally in bronze and made for the shrine of a church, as in the great shrine of St. Peter’s at Rome. In fact, the whole history of the later Renaissance may be understood as a transfer of designs for altars, shrines, and tablets to the exterior details, and, finally, to the entire composition of a building. What was more endurable in the way of broken surfaces and arbitrary lines in smaller and less pretentious objects, or in more tractable or ductile materials, like wood, plaster, or metal, became less endurable when transferred to entire buildings and to large masonry forms.

In our critical attitude toward the late Renaissance our point of view must be largely determined by the dimension and use of the given form, and by its relation to the entire building. Although a doorway like that of St. Mary’s College at Oxford must be admitted to be a corrupt and extravagant design, we cannot deny its picturesque quality and picturesque relation to the whole building. From the standpoint of history it even becomes a most interesting evolution.

In face of an entire building like the Spanish Cathedral of Murcia, where a similar design appears in the entire front, which is worried and fretted from top to bottom with meaningless break s and projections, our attitude of criticism becomes more severe, although the historic interest still preponderates.

In the French door-ways which have been quoted we must con-cede much picturesque beauty; given an otherwise mainly plain and unpretentious house surface, as would appear from the glimpses of the exteriors obtained in the views. As regards the element of dimension, where the form is the same, it is clear that the façade of St. Etienne du Mont at Paris (Fig. 53) has sacrificed all thoughts of a serious relation between appearance and construction by the size of its pediments. Were the same shapes limited in size to the older use as canopy for door or window, the building would be the gainer.

It would be erroneous to suppose that the later Renaissance was entirely given over to perversions and over-elaborations of its earlier designs. Much was done that was at least imposing and monumental, and much that was comparatively simple, although in all these cases the mechanical quality of the detail carvings in capitals and surface ornaments is to be observed. In other cases a somewhat cold and bare appearance, owing to the absence of ornament in detail, is often apparent.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (Sir Christopher Wren) may be instanced as a case fairly described by the general hints of the above paragraph. An instance of this cold but still monumental style may also be found in the Cathedral of Versailles, selected for a view because it offers an available photograph illustrative of this class of later Renaissance art (Fig. 25). The Poli Palace at Rome, with the façade fronting the Fountain of Trevi, is a fine illustration of the monumental qualities frequently found in late Renaissance style (Fig. 26).

On the other hand it would be difficult to find in church interiors any making pretensions to importance which are not disfigured by the arbitrary and broken lines and details of the shrines, tombs, and altars.

In its later days the Renaissance was at its best in localities where a simple taste and simple life forbade the effort at extravagant display or were, by virtue of the personal dignity and republican virtues of the population, superior to it. Such a locality was Holland, and we may find hints on this point in the views from Leyden (Figs. 55, 56).

One of these views reproduces a seventeenth century house of some fame on account of its historic associations with the life of the Puritan leader, John Robinson.

This house, built in 1683, stands on the site of the earlier one which he occupied. Its appearance will recall many of the Colonial houses of our own country and will remind us under what guise the Italian style of the Renaissance was familiar to our own immediate forefathers.

The Dutch Renaissance exercised decisive influence both on England and on America, and explains the superior simplicity of the so-called style of Queen Anne (English eighteenth century Renaissance) and of our own socalled “Colonial style” (early American Renaissance). The way and manner in which the Netherland influence affected both England and America has been best explained by a book already quoted Douglas Campbell’s ” The Puritan in Holland, England, and America.”

To return finally for a moment to the sixteenth century period of superior art, let us remember here, also, that at a given date the contemporary building of France or Germany may be superior to a given one in Italy; because as the style moved from south to north and northwest, it largely traveled from point to point by gradual geographical contact as well as by sudden transportation by means of an imported Italian architect, or through a native architect who had studied in Italy.

Hence, as the history of the Renaissance all over Europe is one of an early period of more spontaneous and vital energy as succeeded by another of more mechanical and colder art, and as the movement started from an Italian center, it follows that the North may reflect at a later time an earlier stage of the Italian inspiration. Throw a stone into the middle of a pool of water, and when the last ripples are reaching its circumference the center has become quiescent. This is an illustration of the course of historic influence. It is doubtful if Italy can offer a parallel for the given time to the sixteenth century castle façades of German Heidelberg, which it had inspired. Some of my most significant illustrations for the vigor and life of early Renaissance Italian art are borrowed from France (Figs. 10, 11, 14, 18, 21, 34).

France and Spain were, by blood and by sympathies of history and of Roman traditions, most nearly allied to Italy, and most susceptible of a native and original continuance of the Italian movement reviving the memory of Rome. But of these two countries, France was geographically nearer to Italy, and alone geographically in contact with it. Moreover, the French population had a lively, vivacious, and susceptible taste which most quickly responded to the Italian influence. The castles and country-seats of the French Renaissance are, taken in bulk, beyond any dispute the most interesting monuments of the style outside of Italy.

An account of the more recent history of modern architecture is reserved for a later chapter.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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