Historic Sketch Of 16th Century Renaissance Architecture

AT THE opening of the sixteenth century the simplicity and reserve of the early Renaissance were still general but gradually gave way to more pronounced exterior deco-rations, to a wider use and greater projection of the surface ornament, and a more broken treatment of lines and surfaces. The name of Bramante, the friend and possibly relative of Raphael, is at this time the leading one. We shall do well now to notice once more a Chapel at Rome, illustrated in an earlier chapter, and designed by this famous architect (Fig. 17).

In Bramante’s Cancelleria Palace at Rome, a still noted building, we find the same low relief of the classic pilasters as seen on the Palace Rucellai, the same constructional emphasis on the lines of the stories illustrated by earlier Florentine palaces, the same artistic use of the blocks of masonry as in themselves noble and beautiful parts of the building (Fig. 40).

In his court of the Church of Santa Maria della Pace at Rome, we see once more the dignified, simple, and noble composition of the best period of the Renaissance (Fig. 41). By contrast with the Palace at Urbino (Fig. 35), where columns are used in construction, we have in the lower arcade the pier and arch construction of the Roman time, faced by flat pilasters. In the second story piers alternate with columns to support the straight lintel, showing another free departure from the Roman system which never used a pier with the lintel.

What the Church of St. Peter (begun 15o6) would have been if Bramante had finished or even partially completed it, we can only imagine. In its present shape it still dates from him as the first architect who worked on its plans, but has nothing either in plan or details to show for Bramante at present (Figs. 42, 43).

The Renaissance was soon destined to take on colder and more formal aspects, even in the hands of such great artists as Raphael and Michael Angelo. The former became the architect of St. Peter’s after the death of Bramante, although nothing of the later building came to completion in his lifetime, except the piers of the dome. Raphael also built several palaces in Rome and Florence. By the year 1546, when Michael Angelo assumed charge of the construction, the cold and mechanical period of the Renaissance had fairly set in.

To Michael Angelo, as already mentioned, is due the construction of the famous dome, which was finished according to his plans after his death. But continued changes in plan, all with the general purpose of increase in size, continued to be made and the most famous building of the Renaissance dates in its present façade and in the details of interior decoration from the seventeenth century only.

As regards prodigal luxury in details, enormous dimensions of area, and gigantic size of its members, St. Peter’s deserves all the fame it has won. The besetting sin of the period in which this church was finished was over-decoration the idea that expensive materials and lavish display are alone sufficient to satisfy the demands of high art. In this sense we are obliged to make certain reservations regarding St. Peter’s, and all buildings of the time of its completion, without wishing to deny its importance as the largest church of modern history; without wishing to forget the wonderful engineering science displayed in the construction of its dome and its imposing first place among the monumental jewels of Rome.

On the other hand, concession of the merit of St. Peter’s is not one to be made merely to bigness of dimensions for its own sake. In exteriors, mere size is certainly the least important of all things, if for no other reason, because we can least control it; but large and ample interior apartments will always claim first place in effect and power and the Italians of this age were noble designers in this regard. The galleries, corridors, and loggias (arcades) of the Vatican Palace are one instance out of many, and the vestibule of St. Peter’s offers a fine illustration in the same direction. Our illustrations for the Sistine Chapel, for the Vatican loggias, and for the Doge’s Palace at Venice should be consulted on this head, aside from the interior view of St. Peter’s.

The mention of St. Peter’s Church has carried us beyond the period of the early sixteenth century, of which I am now generally speaking. Meantime, in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, countless buildings of fine proportions and beautiful detail were in construction all over Italy. Among these I have selected the Palace Massimi in Rome as a typical building for the zenith of the Renaissance .

We have in Fig. 39 an illustration of the Tuscan Doric Order as revived from the Roman ruins.* It is still in general modern use as a tradition from this time. The Ionic is occasionally found on Renaissance buildings (Figs. 23, 46), but is far less frequent than the Corinthian (Figs. 26–32 inclusive, and many others). The Roman preference for this latter Order accented its use by the Italian Renaissance revival. In our own days the general dominance of the Corinthian Order continues as a result.

In the Palace Massimi it is still obviously the construction which attracts and interests us. In other buildings the preference for antique forms begins to develop without reference to the effects of the building itself. The door and window pediments, now transferred to the exterior façades, offered a ready means to inferior architects to satisfy the demand for antique designs without taxing their invention. It would be impossible to deny that there are countless fine and imposing buildings on which these gables appear; equally impossible to deny that they have found their final grave on the brownstone fronts of New York City (Fig. 13).

The Florentine Palace Bartolini, shown in Fig. 45, long passed as the earliest example of the door and window pediments on an exterior façade, but the Palace Pandolfini in Florence shows Raphael as predecessor (1516) in this regard, and they also appear in a drawing by Bramante, who died in 1514. The alternation of curvilinear and angular pediments on the Palace Bartolini is again alternated by changed arrangement on various stories.

The year 1520 is dangerously near the first decline of the Renaissance, and we cannot but find the appearance of the exterior pediments at this time significant. The first effect of a door or window is that of its entire shadow as against the adjacent surface. The broken lines and surfaces created by these projecting but still inefficient and useless canopies tend to destroy a finer series of contrasts than they themselves create, and the breaks of wall surface which they involve detract from effects of structural lines.

The sacrifice of the main lines and surfaces to elaboration of details rapidly asserted itself after 1530. We find an in-stance in the second story of the court of the Farnese Palace, at Rome, where the removal of the pediments would contribute to effects of proportion and contrast (Fig. 46).

In this view we also see the high projection of the ” engaged” columns, as contrasted with the flat pilasters of the Rucellai and Cancellaria Palaces (Figs. 36, 40).

In their ultimate use of the classic Roman wall column, the Italians strove to regain what they had sacrificed in the matter of surface effects, and of structural lines in the horizontal, by emphasis on the perpendiculars. This was obtained by applying the simulated columns in the proportion of the entire building (Fig. 26), but at the expense of any treatment emphasizing the stories, or other organic conditions of the building.

This disregard of organism is the almost necessary resort of any modern architect designing in Renaissance style and wishing to give imposing lines to his building. To the classic enthusiasms of the old Renaissance, which forced the use of these columns on every important structure, we can make almost any concessions, but there is no doubt that they have laid a very serious burden on the shoulders of later architects who have less interest in Virgil and Pliny, and the same reverence for Vitruvius.

The last great architect of the Renaissance was Palladio, 1518-1580. He was a native of Vicenza, and most of his important work was in north Italy, especially in Vicenza and in Venice. Two interesting views of his designs in and near Vicenza are subjoined; one of these is his most famous villa (Fig. 16).

The great merit of Palladio was his disposition of interior apartments and his arrangements of interior plans. In his use of the ” Orders” on exteriors he was distinguished by refinement, moderation, a sense of proportion and regard for organic appearance and effect. In his day the use of these “Orders” in exteriors was a matter-of-course formula for every architect, as a result of that literary enthusiasm for Roman antiquity whose peculiar causes I have endeavored to explain (pp. 54-60).

In these enthusiasms we understand the architects as sharers within the domain of their own peculiar art, so that Palladio, for instance, was a close student of the ancient Roman ruins; but it is important to know that the larger basis and groundwork of the architectural fashion was that general point of view of the entire Italian culture and education, in which the literary sentiment of the men of letters, the historic interest of the student of history, the debt of the man of science to ancient learning, and the patriotic interest of the average Italian in the former glories of his country were the essential explanation.

We must not forget to mention finally the name of Vignola (1507-1573) whose treatise on the Orders has not even yet entirely lost its influence on modern architecture. As a planner and composer of buildings he was not Palladio’s equal, but he long ranked as the leading theorist on the subject of Roman, i. e. Renaissance, details. The Italian theory that Roman art was an inspired canon for the imitation of all later history reached its climax in his treatise.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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