Renaissance Architecture In Theory And In Practice

ACCORDING to the archaeologic and critical antiquarian views of our own day, an ancient building can only be said to be copied when it is imitated entire. But this anxious and literal point of view did not worry the architects of the Renaissance.

We have seen that civilization as a whole in Italy could not be, and was not, a revival of the ancient; however much it learned from it and admired it, however much the ideal of an actual revival might have been believed in by its enthusiasts. The actual prosperity, the actual industries, and the actual people were and remained Italian of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, not Roman of the first or second century.

In Renaissance architecture we are not dealing in any sense with a revival of Roman architecture. We are only dealing with an imitation of Roman forms applied to modern buildings. This distinction between Renaissance and Roman architecture is one of supreme importance, and for the very reason that Roman borrowed designs and forms were so exclusively used.

Rome had left ruins of temples, amphitheatres, public baths, basilicas, and triumphal arches. The Italians were building churches, villas, palaces, and mansions. The general modern use and modern appearance of these Italian buildings are perfectly obvious to us. No one could ever mistake them for Roman buildings. This was one of their merits, but it sometimes leaves a beginner in doubt as to what makes a building “Renaissance.” The only way out of this difficulty is a wide familiarity with the details of classic Roman architecture. The application of any such detail to any modern building is ” Renaissance” ; provided we are not dealing with the literal and exact imitations of the original Greek temples and temple forms which did not come in vogue until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Since that time Renaissance traits are often found in buildings which are also under the influence of this Greek revival; to be subsequently considered.

There was the widest variety of appearance and structure in the buildings of the time; it is only by their details, the fashion of their ornament, and the method of its application, that we are able to date and recognize them. Sometimes the cornice of the building, the arcades of its interior court, or the pediment of a door, or a window here and there, are the only indications. Certainly the only satisfactory study of the subject is that which makes clear what was done and what was not done before the Renaissance began. In other words, the best and only real basis for a knowledge of this subject is a fair acquaintance with the architecture of the Middle Ages, and the ability to know things by knowing what they are not.

It may be added, however, unfortunately, that the versatility and variety of early Renaissance buildings have not been perpetuated by the nineteenth century use of the same style, and the earmarks of the style in these later phases are tolerably easy to recognize.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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