Historic Sketch Of 15th Century Renaissance Architecture

BRUNELLESCO of Florence is universally quoted as the first great architect of the Renaissance (1377-1446). His greatest achievement was the dome of the Florence Cathedral.* The building itself was begun a century and a half earlier. The details specifying the dawning style of the new period are here confined to the lantern, or small crowning member, which he did not live to finish, and this dome is consequently rather significant for his engineering and constructive ability and his general architectural science than for points illustrative of the traits which we have so far discussed.

Let it be remembered now, therefore, that these traits are not in themselves the first claim of the early Renaissance architects to distinction. It was their talent in construction which made them great. The ornamental fashion of their time is a matter of interest, and the way in which they used it is a matter of interest, but the whole is greater than its parts, and these must be considered in their relation to the whole. Where the Renaissance details appear it is still by constructive appearance and by their relation to constructive appearance that the building must be judged.

The dome of the Florence Cathedral is especially memorable as having been the predecessor of St. Peter’s dome at Rome, and Michael Angelo himself attributed his ability to plan the construction of the latter to the lesson and methods of the Florentine dome, which was slightly larger than St. Peter’s, although not raised so high above the ground. It is significant for the difficulty of Brunellesco’s task that no architect had been found for a century and a half who was willing to attempt it.

In two churches of Florence, San Lorenzo and San Spirito, we are able more clearly to specify the Renaissance decorative element. As far as the illustrations carry us (Figs. 27, 28) this element will simply lie in the ” Corinthian” columns and capitals, the sections of classic architrave and frieze used as an impost above them, in the profiles and ornamental treatment of the lines of arches, in the wall pilasters and Ionic architrave of the aisles of San Lorenzo and in the classic columns, entablatures, and small door pediment seen at the farther end of this church. These are all imitations of Roman classic forms.

It will illustrate the constant departure of the Renaissance from its supposed models to observe here that such an impost imitating a section of architrave and frieze, as appears in these churches, is not once found in Roman art; but that it is here imitated from the projecting section of architrave and frieze visible on Roman triumphal arches, where it is always attached on the rear side to a wall surface. In the same way it may be noticed that the classic column always supports a straight lintel; never an arch, as here. This use of the column and arch continues that of the Italian church basilicas which had never been entirely abandoned.

We may also find in these church interiors, suggestive contrasts with interiors of the contemporary northern Gothic or preceding Italian Gothic.

The Italian Gothic had already broken with the lofty naves of the North in favor of what may be called calmer and more rational proportions. This tendency now asserts itself still more distinctly. A church interior of consider-ably later date (Fig. 29) may be used with these to illustrate some of the correspondences and contrasts of Renaissance churches with earlier ones.* The correspondences lie in general arrangements and general plans; the distinctions lie in proportion and ornamental details.

It appears from these views that the general plan of older churches was retained as regards nave and aisles, clerestory, and choir. They will also show that Renaissance churches frequently, though not constantly, returned to the basilica use of columns as distinct from piers, t and also that they frequently vaulted such churches when using columnar supports, which the medieval church basilicas never did. Flat timber ceilings were also used.

This is the case with the naves of the Florentine churches, San Lorenzo, and San Spirito, while the aisles are vaulted.

An immediate contrast by the reader, of San Lorenzo with St. Peter’s interior (Fig. 42) will probably be the best means of understanding how Renaissance style is de-fined by ornamental details, rather than by similarities of construction. In this latter church, we find a vaulted ceiling and heavy pier supports as distinct from the timber ceiling and the arch and column. But the pilasters and columns, capitals, entablatures, cornices, and ornamental details are classic in both cases, and in these it is that the Renaissance distinctive quality appears.

It is generally admitted that the churches of the early Renaissance are, comparatively speaking, less interesting monuments than its palaces, mansions, and villas. As contrasted with the mysterious, romantic, and picturesque cathedrals of the Middle Age, which were still being built at this time in northern Europe, they cannot claim an equal interest; although their sense of proportion and of system is a most interesting illustration of the modern spirit of fifteenth century Italy. Aside from Florence, the most usually quoted early churches of the period, in the matter of interiors, are some in Venice; while the Certosa of Pavia (church of the Carthusian Monastery) has the most celebrated façade. This dates from 1473.

In the matter of dates we shall do well to notice those of San Lorenzo (1425) and San Spirito (after 1446) as fixing the time of early beginnings of the style in general.

Before speaking of the palaces of this period we will still confine ourselves to the name of Brunellesco, as represented by a door of the cloister of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence (Fig. 30).

In this door we become more definitely aware of the ornamental features of the Renaissance. We have here the entire Renaissance system as far as one view may illustrate it the antique border of scroll work framing the door, the antique columns and entablature with its divisions of architrave, frieze, and cornice, the latter decorated with egg-and-dart mouldings, and the surmounting curvilinear Roman variant of the gable-shaped pediment.

All of these details were borrowed by Brunellesco from some ruin of Rome, in which city he is known to have zealously sketched and studied the ruins. The relief of the saint and cherubs, the cupids holding the crest, and the medallion portraits be-side it, are of course Renaissance additions, but the entire composition considered as a door is also quite unfamiliar to us as a copy of anything Roman. No similar Roman doorway can be quoted. Our nearest parallel in Roman art would be the framing of a niche for a statue, and it is most likely that the entablature, with the columns and the arc above them, were borrowed from separate buildings (neither of them from a door), and recombined according to a suggestion obtained from a niche.

This case will illustrate the whole system on which the Renaissance architects worked, and the very freedom and independence of these adaptations are their greatest charm.

The distinction which I have already emphasized in general between Roman architecture and Renaissance copies, is thus illustrated by a special example. An infinite number of such comparisons might be instituted.

We shall now turn for a moment to a window decoration of somewhat later date in Venice, in order to consider its typical relation to the doorway. The same elements of antique detail are in question, al-though we cannot specify any antique window similarly treated. A niche framing, or even the front of an entire Roman temple, may be considered as the original suggestion. At all events, we have in these two pediment forms (curvilinear and tri-angle) the motives which ultimately became a mania in the later Renaissance, and whose endless repetitions and variations ultimately became so tedious (Figs. 45-53, inclusive).

What I wish to point out now for the earlier Renaissance (at least down to 1520), is its reticence in the use of these pediments. Confined to interiors and courts, they are sparingly used even there. On the façades and exteriors of buildings they are unknown at this time. Their first appearance and widest use at this time are for the frame-work of decorative tablets, tomb-reliefs, shrines, and the like. For such uses, the curvilinear pediment was the ruling one.

The later introduction of these pediments into exterior architecture was gradual and tentative. The same point, though in a less emphatic degree, holds of the ” en-gaged” columns and entablatures, which appear in exteriors at an earlier date. It is, however, in tombs, tablets, shrines, and the like, that they are most constantly and universally found for the fifteenth century.

My best illustration (because clearest and largest) for the later decorative system of the Renaissance in exteriors of buildings is at this time the detail from the framing of a bas-relief by Mino da Fiesole in the Cathedral of Fiesole, near Florence (Fig. 22). The reader would do well to carefully note the correspondences and distinctions here, in comparison with types just quoted the same classic cornice, frieze, architrave, capital, and column. The decorative details as here enlarged should also be carefully studied the egg-and-dart moulding, bead moulding, leaf-and-dart moulding, and anthemions. On the other hand, the original and beautiful design of the capital would find no exact counterpart in ancient art, nor should we be able to point to any ancient anthemions of exactly similar design. A similar remark applies to our beautiful detail of a capital from Venice herewith.

It is in these capitals, decorative friezes and relief ornaments of that we find the most original and most beautiful examples of antique influence.

None of these decorative motives are slavish or mechanical copies, as our own nineteenth century designs are apt to be; yet they have all the virtues of the best antique designs ; the saine elastic and vital feeling, the same sense of balance and proportion. The more our modern ornament is studied, the more its dependence on these early Renaissance decorations, and also its general inferiority to them, is apparent. I have in the illustrations from armor, fowling-pieces, furniture, tombs, house interiors, metal work, etc. (Figs. 1–11, inclusive), given some indications of the all-powerful influence of this ornament on later history.

As an indication of the early date at which these motives began to make their way to the North, and as another illustration of their beauty, we call attention here to the tomb of the children of the French king, Charles VIII., at Tours. This king was one of those whose campaigns in Italy have been mentioned as an instance of the attractions which Italian civilization was beginning to have for the North.

The inventive and original qualities of the early Renaissance, as distinct from its dependence on antique originals, are also nowhere so easily illustrated as in its ornament in wood carving, stone carving, terra cotta modelling, metal work, ivory carving, textile fabrics, lace, velvets, etc.

The vigor and variety of these designs exhibit a rapid decline after 1530. After this time they are to be found in superior, or at least equal, excellence (for the given period) in France or Germany, for the remainder of the sixteenth century (Fig. 34).

The detail from the tomb of the French general, Gaston de Foix, who was killed at the battle of Ravenna in 1512, is illustrated as an easily dated work, typical for hundreds and thousands of distinct yet similar designs (Fig. 33).

We have also other earlier illustrations typical for the best Italian work and influence, although some are taken from the art of other countries (Figs. lo, 14, 19).

Keeping to our point, that tombs, relief panels, decorative details, and interiors offer the first numerous class of distinctly Renaissance designs subsequently typical for exterior architecture, we may turn to the early Renaissance palaces and find our point corroborated here by the fact that the interior court is generally the part of the building where we can distinctly point to the antique influence.

On the whole, the palace of the Dukes of Urbino, the birthplace of Raphael, has the most famous interior court of the fifteenth century (Fig. 35). The architect was a distinguished, though not largely quoted, man, Luciano da Laurana.

The photograph is typical for the general interior arrangement of contemporary Italian mansions and palaces, showing the open arcade of the lower story supported by classic columns. On the second story we distinguish the typical classic Roman wall pilaster, but as yet used in low relief and in modest fashion. No window pediments are seen.

The earliest façade which exhibits the classic wall pilaster is the Florentine Palace Rucellai (1446-1451), a wonderfully simple and imposing composition (Fig. 36). The architect, Leon Bat tista Alberti, was the most famous of his time, which was that of the generation after Brunellesco. His name is also a much quoted one for Italian literature and for classical studies, aside from his architectural capacity.

In this building we notice, aside from the harmonious distribution of the pilasters and entablatures, the extreme flatness of their relief, as contrasted with later Renaissance style, and the absence of window pediments (same contrast), also the fine effect of the distinction given to each block of stone by its projected setting.

Others of the most famous fifteenth century Florentine palaces do not show even the modest amount of exterior ornament which appears here. The most famous of all, and of all modern palaces, is the Palace Pitti (Fig. 37) dating from Brunellesco, though not finished by him. The massive power and simplicity of this building are beyond all praise. The method of leaving to the outer face of each block of stone a part or all of its natural roughness is a means to one of the finest effects in architecture, and was much employed by the greatest of American architects, H. H. Richardson, lately deceased. This method was known to the Italians as Rustica or rustic work.

The built-in window pediments of the lower story date from the following century, as does the pilastered decoration of the rear of the building.

In the front of the Pitti Palace we see what effects are obtainable from simple rough masonry; from its contrast with the plain door and window openings, with the sequence of arched openings and shadows, and from the structural emphasis given by the divisions of the stories as marked by the exterior galleries. To these effects must be added that of the larger wall surfaces and rougher masonry of the lower story. These contribute to an appearance of extra strength in the lower story, befitting its relation of support to the upper ones.

In the celebrated Florentine Strozzi Palace, by Benedetto da Majano, we have the same elements of power, the simply and firmly emphasized lines of the stories and the heavier masonry of the lower story. The massive cornice of the building, by Cronaca, is especially famous, and is the one exterior feature in which an antique model is apparent. The Riccardi Palace of Florence is of similar date and style.

These buildings are more refined developments from the older medieval buildings of Italy.* Since they are somewhat massive for modern taste in their fortress-like strength, it must be remembered that they actually were fortresses as well as palaces and correspond in appearance to their use and character. It must be added that average modern taste is not sufficiently alive to the element of reserve and power conveyed by large masses of plain masonry. Taste has been corrupted by the overloaded but mechanical ornament of nineteenth century Renaissance.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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