Philosophy Of Renaissance Architecture

WE HAVE pointed out that the change from Gothic to Renaissance style was mainly an abrupt and sudden one in northern Europe, whereas the Italian Gothic had fore-shadowed, at least in a negative way, the dislike for medieval art forms which the Renaissance openly pro-claimed. It is also understood that the Renaissance style appeared in northern Europe at a relatively later date, and after the fashion was distinctly established in Italy.

As distinct from the more formal and abrupt introduction of this architectural style in the North, the growth of Renaissance style in Italy was gradual and tentative at first, and in the details of carved ornament of the Italian Gothic we can detect many anticipations of the classic influence which ultimately became a constant formula. We will not, however, just yet deal with the actual historic beginnings or tentative features of the early Renaissance. We will rather accept it in ultimate forms and fixed and definite character, in order to meet the question so far unanswered: ” What was the cause of its introduction ? Why did the first modern nation of Europe turn back to Roman antiquity for its ideas of art in architecture ? ”

Strangely enough the answer does not begin with architectural history. On the contrary it appeals to the history of literature. And the appeal to literature goes back to the elementary facts regarding the modern features of Renaissance civilization which I have already sketched; but in a somewhat roundabout and novel fashion.

Let us return to our starting point and elementary position that Italy, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, had reached a phenomenal degree of material prosperity, of comfort, of luxury, and of refinement. With this condition the Italian had to contrast ; first, the contemporary condition of northern medieval and feudal Europe; second, his own previous medieval condition. Both of these contrasts were to his thinking, to the disadvantage of the Germanic element in medieval history. The empire of Rome in western Europe had been overthrown by invasions of German tribes, and the Italian had since that time justly conceived of northern Europe as Germanic, or as he termed it, using the name of one German tribe for all—” Gothic.”

In our days the memory that medieval Spain dates from the invasions of Visigothic Germans, that medieval France dates from the invasion of Frankish and Burgundian Germans, is not so distinct, unless it be to the professional historian, as it was to the Italian of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He knew well that the desolation, barbarism, pillage, and downfall that had overwhelmed Roman Europe and his own country in the fifth century after Christ, were the work of the ” Goths,” as he termed them. Both the West-Goths (Visigoths) and East-Goths (Ostrogoths) had actually pillaged Italy, and although she had suffered more from the barbaric Lombard Germans who subsequently settled there, the word “Goth” kept alive the memory of all these injuries. The very word ” Gothic,” as still applied to northern architecture, was originally used by the Italians and used by them as a term of reproach and contempt, as we should say “barbarian.”

For Italian conception the Middle Age was ” Gothic,” that is to say Germanic, in origin and character. When the period of barbarism, or of depressed civilization, in Italy had been lived down; when refinement, culture, and prosperity had returned, two results were natural a revived interest in that national past, of the time of the Roman Empire, when refinement, culture, and prosperity had also prevailed; and a consciousness of national superiority to the ruder and rougher traits of contemporary northern Europe.

With wealth and leisure came the cultivation of literary tastes and habits; the language of the Italian was itself a modified Latin, and to him the study of the ancient Latin offered no great difficulties. The learning which had so far slumbered in the monasteries or which had been con-fined to superior prelates of the church, was opened to the laity and the nation at large.

Italian poets and authors like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, had already in the fourteenth century awakened a taste for reading, but they did not suffice to meet the popular demand. The Latin authors were now at hand to meet it. National patriotism, the revived memory of ancient glories when Rome and Italy had led the world, combined with that appreciation for the refinement, simplicity, and vigor of the ancient Latin literature which has always since been felt by the cultivated man of letters and which the Italian felt most warmly because he felt it first.

It is difficult, when the study of Latin has become the bugbear of the schoolboy, the ungrateful task of most college students, and the rapidly abandoned burden of the college graduate, to realize the enthusiasm of the time when people studied Latin because they liked it and not because they were forced to it. Notwithstanding, all our Latin studies, as pursued in modern colleges, are an inheritance from the Italian Renaissance.

To say that Roman history and literature were studied critically would be saying too much, but they were studied enthusiastically, which was something better. More than this, it must be remembered that the fund of actual science and actual information was a narrow and limited one in the fifteenth century as compared with ours. There were not then a multitude of school geometries borrowed from Euclid’s to take the place of Euclid. The astronomy and geography which led to the discovery of America were studied in Ptolemy. Pliny was, in the sixteenth century, a more important authority in natural history than he is to-day. As for the history of antiquity, that which we learn now from a hundred modern authors, was learned then at first hand from those ancient originals, which the later modern authors have worked over for our use, and which we can now more easily afford to ignore.

There were no Gibbons and Mommsens in the fifteenth century. The “knowledge of the ancients” was no empty phrase to an Italian of that time. Much or most that he knew himself, he was forced to learn from them. The Latin authors, therefore, were not studied then as they are now as matter of “literature ” and simply for literary style and literary training. What they contained was not only worth knowing, but it was more than the time itself otherwise knew.

These enthusiasms of the Renaissance were emphasized, exaggerated, and directed by the influence of the learned Byzantine Greeks, whose influx into Italy we have already mentioned as a consequence of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and the territories of the Byzantine Empire.

The stamp of the Renaissance was, therefore, a literary ” craze,” fully justified and explained by the history of the time, but curiously eccentric in many of its outward manifestations. The giving of Latin names to children, the Latinizing of one’s own name, were a constant occurrence. We are told by the greatest historian of the Renaissance, that a pope of the fifteenth century, who was engaged in war with the State of Naples, spared the town of Arpinum from sack because it had been the birthplace of Cicero. Another strange story concerns a conspiracy in Milan, where it appeared on the trial of the conspirators that they had carefully studied the Catiline of Sallust before laying their plans. Burckhardt also mentions the diplomatic controtroversy between the States of Florence and Naples, which was ultimately settled by the transfer from Florence to Naples of the finest copy of Virgil in the possession of the former state. We have also the well-known fact regarding the discovery of the Laocoon group of statuary now in the Vatican, that Pope Julius II. awarded the owner of the ground on which it was found an annuity not only payable for life but hereditary in the family. This extraordinary reward appears to have been mainly due to the fact that the group is mentioned by Pliny as having been considered the finest work of sculpture in ancient Rome.

Nor did this “craze” stop at literature or at eccentricities which have an obvious literary bearing. The re-awakened sense for form and elegance, the dawning distaste for the grotesque but imaginative art of the Middle Ages, did not stop with exalting Virgil at the expense of Chaucer, or with preferring Cicero and Plato to the medieval theologians. It applied its own studies in anatomy and in sculpture to the appreciation of the antique statues, which after 1500 were rapidly brought to light from the piles of rubbish and of ruined buildings which had covered them in Rome. At a still earlier date the few ancient statues which were known in Florence and in Padua were highly valued. Lorenzo Medici founded in Florence a studio garden for sculptors’ studies and the display of ancient statuary (later part of the fifteenth century) ; and the anatomists of the University of Padua had their due influence on the interest which Mantegna and Squarcione devoted to ancient art.

The influence of the Torso Belvedere of Hercules now in the Vatican, on the studies of Michael Angelo is well attested. It is said that in extreme old age, when eyesight failed him, he still caused himself to be led to this fragment that he might feel and touch it. In a similar way the fragments of ancient wall painting in the ruins of the Baths of Titus furnished the motives and suggestions which Raphael elaborated in the decoration of the Loggie of the Vatican.

Among all these instances of enthusiasm for the ancients, it was natural that architecture should have its place and share. Hence the architectural style of the Renaissance, as copy of the constructional forms and ornamental details of the Roman ruins.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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